This assembly looks at the history of the Red Arrows, Kirsty’s historic achievement, and, briefly, the changing role of women in the military

In May this year, Kirsty Moore was selected to become the first female pilot in the famous Red Arrows, the RAF’s aerobatic team.


Today we’re going to be talking about aeroplanes. Does anybody know when the first aeroplane flew? [Take suggestions]

It’s recorded that the Wright brothers from America flew the first aeroplane in 1903, so aeroplane flight hasn’t been around for much more than 100 years. Although for centuries people have tried to think of ways they could copy the birds.

People first wondered if kites could be made big enough to carry a person – they can be, but being held by a piece of string wouldn’t allow you to travel very far! Hot air balloons are still popular for special treats or as a hobby for some people, but the problem with balloons is that you have to travel in the direction the wind is blowing.

Air ships were huge balloons with motors on the back that could carry people – but they are very slow.

Aeroplanes are, so far, the only form of airborne transport that can carry a lot of people long distances very quickly.

As with many forms of technology, aeroplanes were first used in wars in their earliest days of development.

In Britain the Royal Flying Corps was formed in 1912. It was renamed the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1918 during the First World War.

During the Second World War, women pilots helped to deliver planes to airfields in Britain and America, but they weren’t fighter pilots. In Russia (USSR), however, things were different, and there were several female fighter pilots; Katya Budanova and Lydia Litvyak being the best known. Eight hundred thousand women served in the USSR’s military from 1939-1945. (1)

In Britain, 9% of the military are women (1) but until this year there was one area of the British military that women hadn’t yet managed to enter – the Red Arrows aerobatic team.

The story of the Red Arrows
The Red Arrows are the aerobatics squadron for the RAF. They were formed in 1965 to help show the public how skilled RAF pilots needed to be – and what British aircraft could do.

[Show video clip]

To be a Red Arrows pilot, you have to be the best of the best. The tremendous stunts they do would be dangerous for someone who wasn’t highly trained.

There are nine Red Arrows pilots at a time, so competition for places is fierce. Not only do you have to be an excellent pilot, you also have to have a lot of experience of flying fast fighter planes. And the pilots are not just stunt pilots − they have to have flown at least one tour of active service, for example serving in the military as a pilot in somewhere like Iraq or Afghanistan.

It then takes another six months of training once a pilot has joined the Red Arrows to learn the formations – a bit like learning a dance – except your ‘partner’ is a four tonne Hawk jet fighter only four metres away from you, flying at 400 miles per hour*!

Kirsty’s story

So how did Kirsty, 31, become the first woman to join the Red Arrows – and why?

Well, her dad was a navigator in the RAF. A navigator is someone who flies as a passanger in the plane and helps the pilot to find their way. Remember, if you’re flying through clouds, there are no roads or landmarks to tell you where you are – and this was in the days before SatNavs were widely available.

Being a navigator is a highly responsible job.

During the first Gulf war, Kirsty’s dad and his pilot were shot down. He saved his pilot’s life by pressing the ejector button, that launched them clear of the plane that crashed seconds later. For several days Kirsty and her mum didn’t know if he was dead or alive.

‘I was 13 and it was a very difficult time, particularly for Mum. There was the relief of finding out he was still alive, but he was a prisoner. When he came home we talked about it a lot. Dad had suffered quite badly and he ended up asking me if I was sure I wouldn’t really prefer to be a doctor…

‘I did some soul-searching, but I thought he’d done a tremendous job and that perhaps I could do it too. That experience confirmed in my mind the idea of making a career in the RAF. Both my parents have been amazingly supportive.’

During her school holidays, whilst her mum was at work, Kirsty used to hang around her dad’s squadron and soak up the atmosphere of the RAF.

She studied hard at school and went on to a degree at university, followed by a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.

She then joined the RAF at age 22, with the intention of becoming a pilot.

She quickly achieved her ambition and has flown two tours of duty in Iraq.

As she stands next to her red Hawk jet, her strawberry-blonde hair clashes slightly with her plane. That doesn’t bother Kirsty – some of her co-team are have hardly any hair at all!

Kirsty hopes that her achievement will encourage more girls to be interested in becoming pilots.

‘My dad taught me to aim high and go for what I wanted, and I’ll be delighted if my joining the Red Arrows has that effect. A lot of people don’t realise how many girls there are in the RAF, and the services generally. I hope they will see this and think that they could be part of it too. They should go for it.’

Kirsty will fly with the Red Arrows for three years and then allow another pilot to experience flying with the team. Her final display will be at the London Olympics in 2012.

Kirsty learned that there are no bars to achievement if you’re prepared to work hard. She also emphasises the importance of teamwork. After all, each of the nine pilots in the Red Arrows depends on their team-mates during their flying, and when they’re off duty too.

PrayerDear Father,

Thank you for the gift of hope – for the belief that we can achieve our dreams if we try hard enough. Amen.

Wanting to be a pilot wasn’t enough – Kirsty had to work incredibly hard to make her dream come true.

Further information

Famous women pilots

1784 – Elisabeth Thible becomes the first woman to fly – in a hot air balloon

1910 – Baroness Raymonde de la Roche becomes the first woman in the world to earn her pilot’s license

1921 – Bessie Coleman becomes the first African American, male or female, to earn a pilot’s license

1929 – Florence Lowe Barnes – Pancho Barnes – becomes the first woman stunt pilot in motion pictures (in ‘Hell’s Angels’)

1930 – May 5-24 – Amy Johnson becomes the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia

1932 – May 20-21 – Amelia Earhart is the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic

1941 – Marina Raskova appointed by Soviet Union high command to organize regiments of women pilots


This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009

About the author: Jane A. C. West