The Red Arrows have some competition but not in the sky, their rivals are virtual.
The Virtual Red Arrows are dedicated fans of the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team whose passion is for flying not high in the sky but on the ground using Virtual Reality headsets.
The team, which consists of volunteers located in the UK, Sweden, Norway and Israel, is made up exactly like The Red Arrows with nine pilots and three non-flyers who take on the roles of narrator, cameraman and RAF liaison officer.
Just like the Red Arrows, each member of the virtual team refers to themselves as Red 1, 2 or 3 etc and has a unique ‘call-sign’.
Darren Scales joined the team as Red 12 in January 2020 as the RAF Liaison Officer, building a bridge between the virtual and real-life Red Arrows. The former RAF Personnel Support Officer and virtual reality pilot spoke to BFBS Radio’s Jess Bracey and explained just how similar both teams are. He said:
“The virtual Red Arrows is, in almost every case, just like the real Red Arrows.
“They replicate the displays the Red Arrows do in virtual reality so that would mean sitting at a PC and using a virtual reality headset, joystick and throttle and then they practise the routines.”
To soar into the virtual sky, the team use a Digital Combat Simulator (DCS), HOTAS Warthog and TPR pendular rudder pedals. The majority of the team use Virtual Reality headsets to immerse themselves as fully as possible into the display. Their mission is to pay respect to the Red Arrows by spending months practicing in order to replicate the real life displays as closely as possible and to the highest standard.
In a video posted before the Virtual Air Tattoo in July 2020, real-life Red Arrows Red 1, Squadron Leader Martin Pert, previewed what the team had planned and was incredibly complimentary. He said:
“It’s a huge honour for us to see you recreating what we do and doing it with the same level of precision.
“Well done, you’ve obviously learnt almost all of our secrets. I don’t think there’s anything left that we’ve got hidden away.”
The Virtual Red Arrows met their real-life counterparts in 2019 when they travelled to RAF Scampton to meet the whole team and proudly show off their precision virtual flying. They even invited the real-life Red Arrows to have a go themselves, which Darren said was hilarious to start with, but added:
“They soon got the hang of it.”
The real-life Red Arrows were impressed by how similar the virtual cockpit was. They soon realised this wasn’t a casual hobby for amateurs and that virtual reality is more than just gamers playing on consoles. He said:
“Once they were sat in the cockpits of the Hawk which, you know, it’s point for point identical to the Red Arrows cockpit … so it was home from home for them.”
The team displays a year behind the Red Arrows so for the Virtual Air Tattoo in July they performed the 2019 Red Arrows display. Darren explained that it is not as simple as playing a preprogrammed game on a console. The team does plenty of research by watching air displays in person (before the COVID-19 pandemic) and online.
Thanks to Darren’s connection to the Red Arrows from his time working with them now and again during his RAF career, the virtual team are able to replicate displays more accurately. Darren said:
“It’s not just about whether they can do the same manouvres, it’s how long it takes to do the manouvres and are they in the right position.
“All the criteria that the Red Arrows use, is the same for the Virtual Red Arrows, including all the voice comms and intercom and all the announcements by Red 1.”
The public's response to virtual reality flying has been positive. Flight simulators aren’t a new phenomenon. People have been able to experience virtual flight since the launch of the ZX81 in the 1980s.
However, Darren said there has been a gear change in the game since the internet became as powerful as it is now. He said:
“The concept of virtual reality and the interconnectivity that you have via collaboration on the internet has really raised the game and people are just so impressed with what the guys are doing and how hard they’re working.
“There are lots of virtual pilots already and flying around is hard enough but flying in formation is really difficult.”