Interview & Photography: Robert Griffiths
[editor's note: Beginning with his first airshow at RAF St. Athan, our own Robert Griffiths has been enamoured with the RAF Red Arrows display team in their Hawks. He credits the team for drawing him deep into his love affair with aviation, and he would try to meet and collect autographs from the team at every chance. Little did he know that 20 years after meeting and collecting an autograph from one of the Red Arrow pilots he was so fond of, he would have the coincidental chance to assist this same pilot through his work.
Dicky Patounas, former Royal Air Force Red Arrows Leader (also known as "Red One") and former Typhoon commander, gracefully accepted an interview request from Robert, and the two sat down and had a chat. Dicky's dynamic and varied career includes combat time in two different eras of aviation, whilst at the same time intertwining with a few of the coolest airframes on the planet. Hearing the poise with which he tells stories of what must've been harrowing drama is truly remarkable; likely showing us a small glimpse of his cool head in a task-saturated cockpit in a wartime environment. Full Disc Aviation would like to sincerely thank Dicky for his service and his time. -np]
FDA: Dicky, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your past and how you got into flying?
DP: I have liked aviation ever since I can remember since a young age. After my first goal of becoming goalkeeper for England didn’t work, I joined [the RAF] at age 18. I then went on to fly SEPECAT Jaguars, then I was onto the Red Arrows before finishing as a Typhoon commander.
Can I ask if there was anyone specific that influenced you joining the RAF?
No, there wasn’t. There was one guy who helped me greatly; my grandfather was a World War II navigator but he died when I was three, so, I didn’t really know him. I just had my own interest in aviation. My father was Greek and he came to the United Kingdom aged 19... there’s no link there, but like you, I like [aircraft] and find them interesting. I expressed wanting to be a pilot throughout school, so there was a teacher, Mr. Tucker, and I believe he was an ex-RAF navigator... in hindsight he approached the local careers office saying, ‘there’s a guy who wants to be a pilot’. This was about when I was 15 years old. From that, all I saw was a letter stating if I wanted to become a pilot, why don’t I come in for an interview with the local careers office and he [Mr. Tucker] had stimulated that. So, I went along to the interview and the rest is history.
I’m glad it was. Can I ask how many hours you accumulated over your career?
I’ve got 4500 hours flying in the RAF. It started off with the [De Havilland] Chipmunk, I then went onto the Jet Provost, Mark III then Mark V, then the Hawk TI before going onto Jaguars and then Typhoons. I have a little [over one] thousand hours on Jags, a couple of thousand on the Hawk, and 500 or so on the Typhoon.
I guess the Typhoon and Jag were very different from each other, then?
Yeah, it was great actually, they were completely different aircraft, but it was good to see how things had moved on. As an example, in the mid-90s I was flying Jaguars out of a base called Gioia del Colle Air Base in Southern Italy. I was taking operations over Bosnia, former Yugoslavia after all the hostilities in the early 90's. So, we take off from Gioia and head north, we go into the airspace and do what we had to do, which was a bit of air policing and talk to some Forward Air Controllers on the ground. We would do that with one bomb; there would be two Jaguars, and the other would have what was called TIALD Pod [Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator] and that was pretty much all you could carry. Your awareness was what you could hear on the radio only and you’d struggle around at maybe eighteen thousand feet just because the aircraft is out of power.
Then, 20 years later, I’m flying Typhoons out of again Gioia Del Colle, but this time I would turn right and head south not north, and I was going into Libya, but the difference was night and day. You’d get airborne in dry power with four 1000lb bombs plus your own designator pod, plus AMRAAM and ASRAAM missiles, and as you travelled over the Mediterranean, you get the recognised air picture from your mission information and distribution system and that gave you a global say on what was going on, disposition of the maritime fleet, the various land targets, where drones were, you could see if your tanker was airborne. You could interrogate the tracks and see who has what fuel, what load out they were carrying, by the time you arrive to where you are going to do your work you have complete awareness of what is going on. Cruising at 40,000 feet you can do your task at 0.9 [Mach] with the throttle right back and you’re only going that low and slow because the bombs can’t go higher or faster but the aircraft wants to. After you have finished, you can pop up to your mid-50,000 feet and you come back supersonic and you have air to air radar as well. Same air base, same hotel, twenty years apart, I went north with the Jaguar, the old way if you will, and we’re not carrying a lot with not much awareness and then the modern way with a decent load out and completely self-sufficient. It’s good how technology has moved on.
It is, it sounds like you had far greater awareness. So, you said your first flight was in a Chipmunk, was that your first experience of flight?
Not quite, that was my first proper flight with the RAF, that was in 1989, but in 1987, I did a flying scholarship. As part of joining the Airforce, they gave me thirty hours flying Cessna’s. So, my lower 6th, I did that.
Bit of a difference between a Cessna to a Typhoon, I bet?
Yes, that was the difference between 20-30 years.
How did you feel about your first solo?
I was excited. So, my first solo in a Jet Provost, I declared an emergency. The Cessna solo felt less significant than that of the Chipmunk as it was the first RAF aircraft. And then my first jet solo was in the Jet Provost, I was 19 and I declared an emergency on that one because I thought there was something wrong with the engine, it wasn’t climbing... but that was because it was so underpowered. I don’t know why but I worried myself even though it was fine. And then, my first Hawk solo I remember, because you get airborne at Anglesey and you go around the island and get up to 450 knots and you haven’t gone that quickly before, I was still 20. My first Jaguar solo I remember because it was my first single seat solo, [in a] proper aircraft, as opposed to having an empty back seat whereas the Jaguar you’ve just got your systems. That was great because you would just go off and fly low level around Scotland for an hour. Then your first Typhoon solo is great because you can do a reheat take off in a proper aircraft and up it goes.
Going back to your time on the Hawk, with the Red Arrows, what was it like going back to that from Jaguars? Was it quite easy?
Yeah, it was, but you were doing something completely different with the aircraft. You’re flying it as opposed to operating it. With front line aircraft it's all about delivering and effect, so you have sensors on the aircraft, you’re trying to get somewhere and survive while delivering something whether it's air to air or air to ground whereas with a training aircraft you haven’t really got that ability even though you train a little bit with small weapons. The Red Arrows role is a flying one obviously, so, it’s right back to basics and the Hawk is a lovely aeroplane, very easy to fly. Nimble, agile, it has no real vices, it was great to go back and just start doing aerobatics in it.
What was the most challenging thing about flying the Hawk with eight other aircraft?
For me it would be...I can remember it was my first year, I really felt it in my first year of leading the team, it was upside down at the top of the loop every single morning. You were flying at nine o’clock sharp and typically by 9:05 you were inverted and you had to make your gate heights and make sure I came out the other side and I felt the responsibility of eight other lives every single time, it was a real deep responsibility that never left me. And that surprised me at how powerful that feeling was because if you have done that wrong, they are following you in because they trust you and I found that a real...I wouldn’t say burden...but a real responsibility. That is something that really sticks out as a memory very early on.
Did you ever get over that or did that stick with you all the time?
I got used to it, but every single time it stuck with me. It’s all about gate heights because you were responsible for other people’s lives as well as your own.
I can only imagine that. So, how many seasons did you do with the Red Arrows?
I did five: three as a wingman, 1998, 1999 and 2000, and then I came back as a leader in 2005 and 2006.
What was your most memorable destination with the team?
(small laugh) I’ve got many. The standout for me was on my 30th birthday, I had breakfast in India, Lunch in Pakistan, and then had dinner in Oman, transiting the Hawks back. Standout venue was in Switzerland, there’s a table top mountain that overlooks Lake Lucerne which is surrounded by 14,000-foot mountains and we were displaying to a hotel that was on the side of that mountain. So, we would be over the ground and over the mountain at 100 feet but as you came away from the mountain and passed the hotel there was a 3000-foot drop to the lake and then going back up the valley was a 14,000 feet mountain. So, you were in this V shaped valley with a nine-ship displaying at 3000 feet, amongst 14,000 feet mountains but at 100 feet over the hotel and then you could dive off the end and disappear and, you know, it was just sensational.
That sounds like a highly complicated display as well. I also read somewhere that you managed to overfly the Acropolis in Greece as well?
Yes, that’s another stand out. As the team leader... I’m half Greek as well, and the authorities knew about it, so we did a special display in Athens and they greeted us with open arms. They allowed us to fly in the prohibited airspace that surrounds the Acropolis, and if I stayed down wind and didn’t get any diesel smoke on the ruins, I was [alright]. I do have a couple of photos of me leading the team over the Acropolis, which was a real privilege.
That sounds like quite an honour...being half-Greek as well. Is there anything you would say is the most rewarding or meaningful thing flying with the Reds?
Being able to give back, to see all the happy faces. There’s something we do every Christmas, which is to visit Great Ormond Street Hospital, and you go around the wards, handing presents out to the children. To see those youngsters with their various ailments all battling on as if it’s normal is a real sobering experience and being able to do something quite simple like giving them a poster or a baseball cap and see them smile was just really rewarding.
That’s really good. Are you still in contact with the Red Arrow community?
Yeah, very much. So, I see them very regularly, every year there are various reunions or dinners and the like. But there is a standout event for ex leaders when they get together, usually March time and often we fly with the team as well, if we are fit enough to. Some of us are getting on. So, I still fly with the team, back seat only.
Have you met some of the older team leaders? Like Ray Hanna?
Unfortunately, he is no longer with us, I think he died in 2004 or 05. But yes, before then I had met him at one of the reunions. The only one I haven’t met was the very first team leader, before Ray Hanna, was Lee Jones, and his first season was during the transition from the Yellow Jacks to the Red Arrows. The [Folland] Gnats of the Yellow Jacks, they got painted Red the following year and the Red Pelicans were disbanded which culminated in the Red Arrows. I think I may have met Lee Jones once and then in 66 was Ray Hanna and all of the guys that are still around get together often.
So, we’ve spoken of your RAF career, but have there been any other aircraft you have flown outside of this?
Only now actually, so I left in 2015 and joined a company called DEA Aviation Limited, and we fly any aircraft that is most fit for the task. So, we do lots of surveillance work at the moment, and that means staying airborne for a long time, so that is anything fuel efficient which is good for the customer. We are currently flying the DA42 and DA62 with sensors on but we will get bigger aircraft when it is required but pre that, it was Air Force. I’ve got my Personal Pilots License (PPL) so I could fly my mom when I was 23 and then never used it again.
So, technically it was fast jets for you or nothing then?
Yup, now it’s frustrating. You get airborne and half an hour later you look over your shoulder and you can still see where [you] took off from which is pretty rubbish.
Has there been any aircraft which has been your absolute stand out favourite?
Typhoon. It’s properly powerful, agile and its got all the sensors onboard and it's just a really capable aircraft. To be able to go on operations with it and see what it’s capable of is just really brilliant.
Is there any aircraft you wish you could fly? Either past or present?
There are lots. Probably the Sopwith Camel as the first kind of multi role aircraft with doing air to air and air to ground. It had a machine gun for the air to air and you could lob things over the side for the air to ground. And then obviously the Hurricane and Spitfire as they’re iconic. Now, I would be interested to see what the F-22 is like with its vectored thrust but that is about [it] there.
That’s an interesting selection. So, I take it you did some combat tours as we discussed earlier, are there any missions that particularly stand out to you?
One which was very frustrating, which was when I learned about politics and rules of engagement. It was in Bosnia with a T-52 on a hill and our guys were being harassed by the tank. They were in a Spartan, I think, and their machine gun fire was going... I was in the overhead with a bomb and asked about engaging, and in theory I could... but I was told I couldn’t, not sure of the reason why. The next day that tank destroyed that Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) along with the six guys in it and that really got to me. And I could have done something about it, so that stood out for the wrong reasons. There are other times when it sticks out for the right reasons; if you see bad guys doing bad things and you can stop them, then that’s good.
Did you do any combat tours with the Typhoon?
Yes, again out of Gioia del Colle over Libya and I think I did 30 missions commanding all of the Typhoon Force for 3 months. Whilst it wasn’t enjoyable, it was good to go and do it for real and it was good that everyone got home, with the only injuries [being] a few broken bones from guys dropping things.
Going over the conditions that you have in a combat area, I guess it’s quite an intense situation. Are there any hairy situations that you were ever in?
Yeah, it’s always the little things and about timing. So, it’s normally around fuel... one not so good one over Libya; which although fine in the end, was worrying. It turned out the microphone in my mask had stopped working. And I found out when I tried making a gate call to my wingman who was in the Tornado as we were a mixed pair. I told him I needed a tanker, but he couldn’t hear me because my microphone had failed, everything is working except they can’t hear me. So, I had to leave him because I needed fuel... which I shouldn’t do, but I had no choice. There was an old radio code that we used to practice regularly way back in the Air Force which was four blips repeated. Thankfully, the guy in the back seat was also old and he recognised this, and so transmitted "is there an aircraft out there with no comms" and to respond one for yes, twice for no. I did that, he worked out that was me, and from a series of messages, he then met me at the tanker. After some time, I managed to get it working through fiddling with a few connections, it was a nonevent really.
Is there anything from flying at airshows that you particularly love doing?
It was doing the best you could with the team, to see all the smiling faces, everyone was looking at you. It was the little things that occur that you never thought of before. So, my first year as part of the Synchro Pair which was 1999, I had never displayed to the public before. My first cross and as we crossed there was an explosion of light from the crowd side which was basically 50,000 flashes going off at the same time, because they all try and get the photo and it was [a remarkable thing] which I had never seen or expected. And then you see everyone smiling and happy to see you and when you taxi back, they’re all waving, it’s nice.
Is there any one thing that sticks out in your flying career?
Probably leading the team down the Mall, just here [London]. Flying down it and seeing the Queen on the balcony.
She seems to really enjoy those fly overs.
Yes, it’s that Best of British moment type thing, but you can’t miss anything on that, especially for the Queen’s fly past.
Is there one place that you enjoyed performing at time and again?
Yes, Dartmouth, which I don’t think you can display at anymore. Particularly Dartmouth, which is a little valley off the South Coast [of England], which has the Naval Officer training College. It is a valley that went out to sea and you display within the valley which forks at one end, so the net result for Synchro was really fun trying to get into the valley to do your passes… one maneuver you come in from the sea. One time I flew toward the valley from the sea, inverted, with people formatting on me, so that’s [at] 150 feet, down a valley, upside down, and the valley forks... so with your rudder you’re then flying it down, rather than using your ailerons, and then you’re pushing up over the hill but that was just so much fun.
Is there anything you wish you knew about flying when you were still learning?
It would have been easier if I could wake up one day and not have to read all the books. There’s a lot of studying, but there’s a lot of "you don’t know what you don’t know". There’s a lot of risk out there and unfortunately, I have lost a lot of colleagues along the way, some through no fault of their own, some it was, and you know it’s just the luck of the draw...I’ve had my fair share of near misses. I think how I progressed, it was ideal in how I was prepared by the training, but cautious, because I didn’t know and was still learning at the time.
So, you said you had near misses, do you mind if I ask if there are any that stick out?
There’s a few. All sorts, minor ones like engine failures, but you shut that down, you come back, and everything is fine. I’ve caught fire; luckily that was on the ground, so, I just shut down on that, got out bravely and ran away before getting burned. [I got] Struck by lightning that went through the cockpit but again no harm was done; it doubled me over and I headbutted my knees as my muscles contracted and that made an almighty bang, like flying into something at 400mph, you can imagine how loud that is.
Probably my most concerning one was a double hydraulics failure in the Jaguar. You’ve got two hydraulic systems and if you lose both, it’s bad. Basically, all my fluid that goes through a union, the union had split and everything from both sides came out and I only had one litre left apparently. It was a fluke really, and no one in the UK had landed a Jaguar in that state before; it had happened a few times and everyone had ejected. At the time, and I think I still am, the only guy to have landed safely having had that occur. That is because I had a piece of paper in my G suit that some boffin had thought up a way, that if this had ever occurred, and I don’t know why I had this piece of paper on me... You basically turn off the aircraft electrically, which resets some solenoids, which moves the valves as they reset and that diverts the hydraulic fluid from where it is looking after the flying controls to the undercarriage where you can put the gear down, but you risk losing control of the aircraft.
And it was my last go, we had no fuel left, I had a student in the front who I was teaching to fly Jags, he only had six hours and he was brilliant, a Kiwi guy. He spotted that we had lost hydraulics, the gauges were in the front, he spotted that the service was zero, showing no pressure. I had to look over his shoulder to see into the front, I didn’t believe him initially and we were at the end of the mission. We started with very little gas and we tried everything on emergency and nothing worked and it wasn’t going to, [we] realised what happened, got this drill out and ran through it which took about 15 minutes to run through it. We had to pull out circuit breakers and all of these were in the front with him, none of them were with me, so had to talk him through it then you have to set the circuit breakers up in the right place and then you have to turn the battery off and the aircraft is pretty much dead.
The engines are electronically controlled so they’re at a fixed power; head up display, instruments, everything just goes and then you wait for 30 seconds and then turn the aircraft back on. That’s when we got the three greens, we could feel the rumbling throughout the aircraft, and we had a wing man with us and I could see him cheering us as the wheels came down. But now, I may have my wheels down, but I’ve got no flaps, no brakes. I think the no flaps landing speed is 225 knots and the tyre limiting speed is 205, that meant that as I touched down, my tyres were going to explode. There was a 15-knot crosswind at the time, which helps. I could see beyond the pilot at the front, because it’s very nose up without the flaps, and because of the crosswind, I could see over the student’s shoulder...In theory I couldn’t use the drag chute. I had no nose wheel steering because I had no steering, and without that, you cannot use the chute as it will candle into the wind... but I had to, because I had no brakes, and coming in at 200 mph, I would be going off the end of the runway. So, in theory, I was going to touch down, my tyres were going to explode, I was going to put the drag chute out, which is then going to take me off the runway, so I was hoping to ditch the chute and straighten up, have lost enough speed to drop the hook and take the cable to stop before I went off the end of the runway; and all of that happened, except the tyres didn’t pop. I ditched the chute and stayed on the runway, took the cable and stopped and it was all fine. After which we went to the pub and had a well-deserved beer.
Wow, that is quite a hairy story. Ok, so what is next for you?
Yeah, DEA are a small company that’s growing, and we would like to continue to do that. We hope to do more and more services in the various business lines we do. Some three years in to a second career if you like, which has been as enjoyable as my first. I was very lucky in my first and I was able to achieve what I wanted, I flew what I wanted to and what I was able to. Now, as [one of the directors on the board] of the company, if we can grow and make that successful, then I will retire a very happy man.
Dicky that is all we have for you today, but I would like to thank you from Full Disc Aviation.
Thank you, I’m sorry it’s so boring.
Far from it!