Winging it

Ahead of three days of stunning aerial displays at Dubai Airshow’s Skyview, we find out what life in the cockpit is like from a top stunt pilot and look at where you can get airborne in the UAE.

Red 1 Squadron Leader Jim Turner
Red 1 Squadron Leader Jim Turner

Back on the calendar for the first time since 2011, the predominantly trade Dubai Airshow will this year feature a dedicated area for the public to watch jaw-dropping aerobatic displays from some of the world’s best pilots. Located at Dubai’s newest airport, Dubai World Central (with free shuttle buses from the metro station) Skyview will not only provide a safe place for spectators to watch and learn about the different military and commercial aircraft in the skies, but plenty of ground-level entertainment, too.

Among the many organisations taking part is the British Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows, an aerobatics display team known for its trademark diamond nine formation, with nine pilots flying BAE Hawk aircraft. Squadron Leader Jim Turner, Red 1, is coming to the end of his second year with the Red Arrows (pilots on the team do a three-year tour of duty, with three pilots changed every year). ‘I did three years on the team as a wingman in 2005, 6 and 7, and then I left for four years. I went and taught the Saudi Arabian display team for three years, and then came back to the Red Arrows in 2012,’ the Brit, 38, explains.

Turner first joined the RAF in 1991 at the age of 18, the start of a long road to making the grade for the elite display team, which is still today considered a major part of the Air Force’s public relations and recruitment efforts. ‘All the pilots who come to the Red Arrows have got to the point in their careers where they’re considered extremely experienced, and they’re all volunteers who have had to get through a very tough process to get on the team,’ he says.

Turner explains that pilots need to have been flying frontline aircraft such as Tornado, Typhoon, Jaguar or Harrier for anything between eight to 12 years to get the required hours. ‘They have to have 1,500 flying hours as a minimum, and to put that into context, your average frontline time would be about 200 hours a year.’ Pilots also need to have an assessment level of above average, which Turner notes is ‘quite a difficult thing to do’. Even then, they’re only eligible to join – and with around 25 applicants for three places every year, there’s no guarantee of a place.

Though there are only nine pilots on the team, Red 1 to 9, and a tenth who flies the reserve aircraft and provides commentary (Red 10), Turner points out that it takes many more people to make each display happen. ‘We have in the region of 100 engineers, support staff, planning officers, public relations; it’s a big unit, and you have to work together to make it all come together, it’s a big team effort.’

And despite the fact that Turner talks about getting into the cockpit of an aircraft that flies at an average speed of 400mph with a pull of up to 7g (a rollercoaster doing a loop will pull around 2-2.5g) with such cool that you would think he was simply popping to the shops in a Toyota Yaris, he does admit there’s a lot of pressure in the job. ‘Clearly what we do is challenging, but it’s repetition – we’re doing the same thing two or three times a day, so the guys actually very quickly become competent and safe at formation aerobatics.’

Shortly before they take to the skies over the crowds in Dubai (flying no closer than the minimum 230m distance away), Turner will disappear to have 15 minutes alone, running through the sequence, which he often does while listening to music – ‘Maybe a bit of Muse, to get me in the mood’. Once they’re up in the air, there’s no danger of any of the pilots throwing up while looping-the-loop – Turner explains that few pilots get airsick, but those who do quickly have it drilled out of them during their very early training, courtesy of a special course by the RAF.

As the Arrows perform their Dubai display, there will be three pilots on the team who are just completing their first year. They will also be bringing three brand new pilots along on the trip, who will have the chance to do some training out in the desert while they’re in the UAE (the Arrows are staying on for the Al Ain Airshow a few days after Dubai).

‘It’s the best place in the world to do training, to be honest. It’s almost guaranteed good weather, there are no real obstructions around the desert sites or desert airfields – it’s perfect,’ he reveals. Might some lucky desert campers be getting a free and quite unexpected air show of their own then? ‘They might do! That’s what we’re planning.’ Next year will mark the end of Turner’s tour as Squadron Leader with the Red Arrows, but he is already eyeing a return to the Middle East. ‘I’m planning to go back out to Saudi Arabia and teach the Saudi display team again. I love life in the Middle East, so that’s what I’m hoping for.’
Dhs60 (adults) Dhs30 (kids under 12). Monday November 18-Thursday November 21, noon-6pm. Dubai World Central, Jebel Ali,

Reach for the sky

Hot air balloon trips
Head out over the desert at sunrise in a group trip or hire a balloon and basket for your own private charter trip with Balloon Adventures Emirates.
Dhs995 adult, Dhs850 kids five-12 years, from Dhs11,450 private charter for up to eight people. Take off from Skydive Dubai desert campus, Balloon Adventures Emirates, (04 285 4949).

Gyrocopter flights

Fly over the beaches and desert of Ras Al Khaimah in one of these small, two-man aircraft. While you’re over the water, you might even be lucky enough to spot turtles or sharks.
From Dhs220 for 20 minutes. Jazira Aviation Club, Ras Al Khaimah, (07 244 6416).

Seaplane tours
Take off from either Jebel Ali or Dubai Creek and enjoy a scenic tour of the city’s most impressive landmarks. If money is no object, a charter service is available.
From Dhs1,395 per person. Seawings, (800 7329 4647).

Helicopter rides
Choose from heritage, explorer and night lights tour packages, taking in the city from a HeliDubai VIP helicopter, with all tours starting at Dubai Festival City.
From Dhs595 per person. HeliDubai, (04 208 1455).

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