Those magnificent men in their flying machines

The Blades display team have begun their winter training programme under the guidance of a new team leader, Mark Cutmore.

Features editor Joni Ager find out more about the UK’s only full-time civilian aerobatic team.

It may be lashing down with rain and blowing a gale at Sywell Aerodrome, but The Blades are still preparing to fly.

There is a pre-flight briefing, where team leader Mark Cutmore describes the manoeuvres they will practice using a seemingly foreign language.

Then Blade 1 Mark and Blade 4 Andy Andy Evans, who performs a solo display as part of their show, head out to the airfield.

The team began their winter training programme last month and this year there is more to learn than ever. Mark is new to the role of team leader, having previously flown as Blade 4, so both he and Andy are learning to fly in new positions in the formation.

Mark said: “This is a whole different type of flying. As team leader you are thinking about more than just being in the right position, you have to make sure whatever you do is safe for the team.

“You have to have absolute trust in each other and know they are not going to suddenly do something silly in the middle of a manoeuvre.”

Mark and Andy practice just a selection of the 26 manoeuvres that make up their display, but the tricks I get to see are incredible.

There is one move in which they fly towards the spectator area from where I’m watching and at the last minute cross paths, coming so close to each other I fear they’re going to crash. It is a ‘hold your breath’ moment and leaves me stunned.

In another manoeuvre Andy flies above Blade 1 upside down, again seemingly too close for comfort, before separating and flying off at different angles.

The skill they display is amazing. All former RAF pilots and Red Arrows, it’s safe to say the team know what they are doing.

Mark, who served in the RAF for 21 years, spending time in The Balkans and Saudi Arabia before joining The Blades in 2008, said: “People think Top Gun and that we’re making it up as we go along but the display is a series of well orchestrated moves. As soon as you’ve finished one you’re straight into the next.

“The pleasure really comes when you land back safely and you consider it a job well done.

“There is no room for flair, you can’t afford to approach it in that way.

“One of the most daring manoeuvres we do is where I go upside down and Andy (Blade 4) goes underneath me in a mirror. We both push up to vertical and then go into a stall turn which is where we spin away on our tails.

“The Blades is the most challenging flying I have ever done. It is a simple aeroplane but the flying is certainly the most demanding I have ever done. You can put the plane completely out of control but you can put it back very quickly.

“It is a great job and we are very lucky to do it.”

The planes they fly are two-seater Extra EA-300 LPs, which weigh just 685kg and are specially designed for aerobatics. They can take up to 10G, which makes even Alton Towers’s fastest rollercoaster seem tame.

They have a wing span of 22ft and the planes come as close as 12ft to each other during the routine and just 30ft above the ground.

The only conditions that make it impossible for them to fly is snow – which makes it difficult to land and take-off – fog and low cloud.

Formed in 2006, The Blades are the UK’s only full-time civilian aerobatic team and during their training months they fly three times a day, Monday to Friday, to get ready for the summer season.

From May they take part in around 60 shows a year, including high-profile air shows such as Sunderland, Waddington and Bournemouth.

They’ve also flown at the Bahrain Grand Prix and The Queen’s birthday party at Balmoral.

The Blades are dubbed the world’s only aerobatic airline because they flew around 500 passengers a year on corporate days and team-building experiences.