Photo gallery: Original Red Arrows pilot tells of surprise as the team celebrates 50 years

With a Red Arrows painting are (from left) Henry Prince, Norfolk artist Michael Rondot, Roger Topp,

With a Red Arrows painting are (from left) Henry Prince, Norfolk artist Michael Rondot, Roger Topp, Henry Lloyd and Tony Aldridge. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

They are known around the world for their death-defying stunts, roaring engines and coloured smoke - but one of the Red Arrows founding pilots has said he didn't think they would still be around today.

Former Red Arrows pilot Henry Prince pictured here, left, back row. Picture: Ian Burt

Former Red Arrows pilot Henry Prince pictured here, left, back row. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

This year marks the 50th display season of the Royal Air Forces Aerobatic Team.

Sqn Ldr Henry Prince, who lives near Watton, was part of the team put together by leader Lee Jones first as the Yellowjacks and later as the Red Arrows.

He said: 'We certainly didn't think it was going to last 50 years.

'All the previous aerobatics teams lasted about two years.

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'Our leader Lee Jones always wanted a national aerobatics team, not one that was attached to a particular squadron.

'We were all instructors on the Gnat aircraft and we had to show that the plane was fit for teaching.'

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The pilots took to training in their spare time and at the end of operational flights to test out what they could do.

Sqn Ldr Prince said: 'Officially you were not supposed to do aerobatics, the powers that be were not too keen on it, but we would just do it occasionally.

'When we became official people would come over to the airfield and watch us. They were able to tell us where we were going wrong.'

While the Red Arrows are now recognised around the world in Sqn Ldr Prince's day they mainly performed in Europe.

He said: 'The Red Arrows has come in to the public consciousness, it is always something people remember.

'One of the good things we did was fly for King Hussein of Jordan, which was rather nice.

'That was as far east as I got and Norway was the most northern place I flew.

'We flew all over Europe mainly, Germany, France and Italy.

'Today the team has performed all over the world, it is partly because the Gnats we flew couldn't get as far.'

Sqn Ldr Prince's dog Dusty joined him in the team becoming first the Yellowjacks and then the Red Arrows mascot.

He was unfortunately killed in an accident shortly before the Red Arrows first performed for the public.

To celebrate the 50th display season of the Red Arrows the Royal Air Force Association commissioned a painting by Dereham-based aviation artist Michael Rondot, himself a former RAF pilot, with the aim to raise £50,000 for the organisation.

Mr Rondot invited Sqn Ldr Prince and other Norfolk-based former aerobatics pilots for a print signing in North Elmham.

Sqn Ldr Prince, now in his 80s, was joined at the King's Head Hotel by Air Commodore Roger Topp, who founded the Black Arrows aerobatics team, Terry Lloyd, who led the Red Pelicans aerobatics team and Tony Aldridge, who flew with the Black Arrows and Blue Diamonds teams.

Mr Rondot said: 'The Red Arrows are a difficult subject to paint and something I have put off for a while.

'Everyone expects to see them in the Diamond Nine formation which doesn't make a very interesting picture from a painting point of view.'

Air Commodore Topp, who was awarded the Air Force Cross and two bars during his 40 year career, founded the Black Arrows after seeing American group Sky Blazers.

He said: 'I thought why should the Americans be the best to do this in British skies so I started our own aerobatics team.

'We would practice in our spare time and the odd 30 minutes at the end of an operational flight.

'I started with four but soon realised that we could match the Americans but we couldn't do anything they couldn't do as we had the same number of planes, so I added another pilot.'

Air Commodore Topp and the Black Arrows have held the world record for the most planes to perform a loop, 22, since the 1958 Farnborough Air Show.

At the same show they set the record for the most planes to perform a barrel roll, 16, which has been matched but never beaten.

Air Commodore Topp managed to gain the support of his superiors to enlist pilots and plane from across the country.

Have you got memories of the Red Arrows in Norfolk? Write (giving your full contact details) to

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