Simon de Burton
Reminders of the fact that I am officially old seem to crop-up ever more regularly with each passing birthday. In the course of writing this piece about watch brand Breitling furthering its long-standing relationship with the RAF’s Red Arrows, for example, my increasingly feeble memory was jogged into recalling that the world renowned aerobatic display team was formed in 1964 – the year, (depressingly) in which I was born.
As with many people of my generation, the Red Arrows are a symbol of British excellence that has been a constant in my life.
I was just five years old when my father, a former captain with the Royal Artillery and a veteran of the Second World War’s Burma Campaign, took me to a military tattoo at which I first encountered both the Royal Signals Motorcycle Display team (known as ‘The White Helmets’) and the nine crimson-painted Folland Gnats that were then used by the Red Arrows.
Watching them loop-the-loop, barrel roll, fly head-on towards one another at closing speeds of more than 800mph and draw shapes in the sky with red, white and blue smoke made me dream of doing the same – although, as it became apparent that my grasp of mathematics was never going to advance beyond the arithmetic stage, it seemed inevitable that the RAF would have to manage without me.
But my admiration for the team has never diminished, so seeing the Hawk fast jets they use today flying in the famous ‘Diamond Nine’ formation still brings a lump to my throat and watching their precision manoeuvres seems no less awe-inspiring now than it was 50 years ago.
And it’s all about split-second timing, which almost makes it a given that the Red Arrows would be invited to form a partnership with a luxury watch brand, and it was Breitling that got the gig way back in the 1990s.
At the time, Breitling was recognised in the UK by serious horophiles but could by no means have been described as a mainstream brand. Those in the know were well aware of its long-standing position as a leading supplier of wristwatches to amateur and professional pilots around the world.
Indeed, its ‘Department 8’ instruments division is said to have furnished the RAF with on-board flight chronographs as far back as the 1930s, and Breitling took its first private commissions to produce limited editions for several RAF squadrons soon after Willy Breitling (grandson of the founder) sold the family firm to pilot, watch manufacturer and microelectronics specialist Ernest Schneider in 1979.
In 2018, meanwhile, it marked its role as the ‘official watch partner’ of the RAF’s Centenary with a series of RAF-themed limited editions aimed at raising funds for the RAF 100 charity appeal – 100 each of its Avenger GMT II, Aerospace and Colt Skyracer models, plus 25 Navitimers.
And this year, it’s the turn of the Red Arrows to receive a dedicated new model.
Breitling is the only luxury watch brand permitted to feature the team’s distinctive emblem – which shows the ‘diamond nine’ formation above the word ‘eclat’ for ‘brilliance’ – and, over the decades, it has appeared on more than a dozen Breitling references including the ‘Emergency’ transmitter models and gold versions of the Chronomat Evolution.
The new Breitling Avenger Automatic GMT 45 Red Arrows Limited Edition is not a chronograph but a GMT watch combining a robust, 45mm stainless steel case and bracelet with a rich, blue dial and vivid ‘Red Arrows red’ highlights.
The Avenger’s special, grip-pattern bezel and extra large, knurled winding crown are designed to be used while wearing gloves, the in-house ‘Breitling 32’ chronometer-certified, self-winding movement offers a decent 42 hours of power reserve – and, in the event of a ‘ditching’, the watch has guaranteed water resistance to 1,000 feet/300 metres.
But if you want one, you’ll have to scramble. Just 220 are available worldwide, each costing £3,950; breitling.com
MAKING A DISPLAY OF THEMSELVES
1. The first RAF aerobatic display took place at Hendon in 1920.
2. During the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, display teams performed using red-painted Sopwith Snipes – and fired blank ammunition into the stadium.
3. Jets first appeared in RAF displays in 1947 when three de Havilland Vampires were supplied from Odiham Fighter Wing.
4. The Red Arrows was named the official RAF display team in late 1964 and performed its first display the following year.
5. The name is an amalgamation of those of two earlier RAF display teams, the Black Arrows and the Red Pelicans.
6. The BAE Hawk has been the chosen jet of the red Arrows since 1979.
7. The current team comprises 11 pilots and 100 technicians and support crew.
8. Each pilot has operational experience flying Tornado, Typhoon or Harrier jets.
9. By the end of 2020, the team will have completed around 5,000 displays in 57 countries.
10. The team leader is known as ‘Red One’, a role currently filled by Typhoon pilot Squadron Leader Martin Pert.