Inside the ‘toxic culture’ scandal engulfing the Red Arrows

Allegations of bullying, assault and harassment have left the Royal Air Force team ‘in freefall’

Red Arrows
The Red Arrows at the Farnborough Airshow in 2018
(Image credit: Matt Cardy/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

A long-running inquiry into the culture of the Red Arrows, the Royal Air Force aerobatics display team, has revealed allegations of bullying, misogyny, assault, sexual harassment, intimidation and drunkenness involving its members.

A total of 40 personnel, including young female recruits, have provided 250 hours of evidence as part of an internal, non-statutory investigation launched by Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston in December.

The Times said the allegations laid out in the inquiry have triggered the “biggest scandal” in the RAF team’s 60-year history.

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What are the allegations?

Back in May, the Daily Mail reported that the RAF was investigating the Red Arrows over allegations of a drinking culture. An insider told the paper that a “huge under-the-table inquiry” was going on, “to do with alcohol and suspected inappropriate behaviour”.

But The Times has now reported that at least 13 other alleged behaviours have been documented by the inquiry, including misogyny, harassment, sexual harassment, assault, “misunderstanding of consent”, sexual assault, victimisation, bullying, intimidation, isolation and indecent exposure.

A source who testified as part of the investigation described a culture in which female recruits were considered “fresh meat”. Members of the 130-strong squadron would allegedly start “pestering” young recruits as soon as they joined and would “bombard” them with WhatsApp messages, the source said.

“It’s a toxic environment,” the insider told the paper. “It’s all men in senior positions. It is run by misogynistic white male blokes.”

At least two Red Arrows personnel are under investigation and face “administrative action” following allegations of “inappropriate behaviours”, said the source.

Such action could include being thrown out of the display team, which the Daily Mail described as “the pride of the Royal Air Force – and the public face of the service”.

How has the RAF responded?

Alleged victims said they were warned that they would be sent home or kicked out of the air force if they spoke out, with senior leaders sweeping “complaints under the carpet”. The Red Arrows leaders are said to have focused on protecting the reputations of people considered “untouchable”, rather than the wellbeing of those negatively impacted.

One source accused the RAF and the Ministry of Defence of “delay and obfuscation”, and said the issues raised about the squadron were “merely the tip of the iceberg”.

Diane Allen, a veteran who campaigns for better treatment for servicewomen, said that the RAF leadership had been urged for six months to “deal fairly and swiftly with these allegations”, adding: “They have not.”

An RAF spokesperson insisted that the force “has a zero-tolerance approach to unacceptable behaviour and takes action wherever wrongdoing is proven”.

They added: “Following allegations of unacceptable behaviour within the Red Arrows, the RAF commissioned a thorough and far-reaching investigation. We will not be commenting further on the individual circumstances of specific personnel moves, which have been made without prejudice and are the result of both personal and professional reasons.”

It is not known when the findings of the investigation – which was supposed to have concluded three months ago but has been repeatedly delayed – will be released, said The Telegraph.

What is the impact on the force?

Recent reports have painted a picture of a force in turmoil. The “rude arrows” are in “freefall,” reported The Sun last week, after a pilot was sacked over an alleged affair, while a second “resigned in disgust” at the team’s toxic culture. The paper added that members of the RAF team are said to “hate each other”.

A lack of trained pilots has meant that commanders have had to axe some of the Red Arrows’ best-known formations, such as the Diamond Nine, days before an airshow earlier this year. And emergency reserves were said to be “drafted in for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee flypast in June – reportedly leaving it too late to train pilots for stunts at more than 60 shows in Britain, Denmark, France and Bahrain”, said The Metro.

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.