The 1950's and 1960's were the heyday of Royal Air Force jet aerobatic display teams. By the mid-60's almost every Flying Training School, and several operational squadrons, had their own teams. So much time, effort and money was being expended on these non-established tasks that the Royal Air Force eventually decided to disband them all and form a single, full-time professional team. Thus, in 1964, the Red Pelicans flying six Jet Provost T Mk 4's became the first team to represent the Royal Air Force as a whole. In that same year a team of five yellow Folland Gnat jet trainers, known as the Yellowjacks, was formed at No. 4 Flying Training School at Royal Air Force Valley in North Wales, led by Flight Lieutenant Lee Jones. The following year Jones was posted to the Central Flying School (CFS) to form the Red Arrows. The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), the formal name of the Red Arrows, began life at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, then a satellite of CFS. Initially there were seven display pilots and ten Gnat jet trainers. The name 'Red Arrows' was chosen to combine the appeal and expertise of two earlier teams, the famous Black Arrows and the Red Pelicans.
The Gnat was very different in design, concept and performance from the aircraft previously used by the RAF flying training schools. It had originally been conceived as a single seat light fighter and was used in that capacity by the Indian and Finnish air forces. Through its role in the RAF was essentially advanced flying training, with only a secondary operational capability, the Gnat remained far more a two seat fighter than the conventional idea of a two seat trainer.
It is for example, genuinely transonic in performance, with a maximum speed of Mach 1.15 in a shallow dive and about Mach 0.95 in level flight.
The Gnat found fame with its participation in aerobatics - first with the Yellowjacks team who displayed during the 1964 season, and then with the Red Arrows, formed later that year and making their first public appearances in 1965. Ten aircraft were permanently assigned to the Reds - seven to fly with three spares (later to be increased to eight, then nine flyers with just the one spare). While initially based at RAF Little Rissington, they would soon move to RAF Fairford and then, in 1966, from there to RAF Kemble which would be their home for the next 13 years or so. The Gnat was considered to be an excellent aerobatic type by 'The Reds' and they soon became the RAF's premier display team and a firm favourite with the public.
In their first season, 1965, the Red Arrows flew 65 displays in Britain, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Germany, and the Team was awarded the Britannia Trophy by the Royal Aero Club in recognition of its outstanding contribution to British prestige in the field of aviation. When the Royal Air Force decided to retain the Team for 1966, two spare pilots were established but the Team continued to fly just seven aircraft in most displays. The first display with 9 pilots was in July 1966 for the benefit of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.