More than Meets the Eye.
By Owen Zupp
The Roulettes thrill thousands of spectators every year. Their formation aerobatics and smoke trails beckon every eye to be cast skyward as ‘Roulette 7’ adds commentary over the loudspeakers. Yet beyond the celebrity, the crowds and the cameras is a team of hard-working professionals, putting in long hours and a tremendous level of dedication. From our vantage point in the stands we can see just the tip, while the ice berg beneath the surface goes virtually unnoticed.
The Making of a Roulette.
For so many children, the Roulettes represent a source of inspiration. And the current members of the team are a case in point. Each described how they saw the Roulettes as a youngster, and while the sight of the tight formation crisscrossing the sky was a great motivator, none actually conceived of becoming a Roulette. That realisation came much later.
While some of the team attended ADFA, the journey began for all Roulettes with Pilot’s Course and then an operational tour with a squadron. For the current team, this meant flying types such as the C-130 Hercules, AP-3C Orions and even the Boeing 707, as well as overseas deployments. From there, a course at the Central Flying School (CFS) at RAAF East Sale saw the members become Qualified Flying Instructors (QFI) before being posted to either of the RAAF Flying Training Schools as instructors.
It was on their return from their instructional posting that the possibility of becoming a Roulette began to surface. Flight Lieutenant Andrew Robinson, the current ‘Roulette 5’ and the Deputy Leader of the team, recalled, “Qualified as an instructor and accumulating hours on the PC-9 is when I first thought that becoming a Roulette was a possibility.” Still, there were a few more steps in the process.
Every Roulette is a serving QFI at RAAF East Sale where the next crop of instructors is trained. As such, each had to undertake a course to ‘train the trainers’, where they not only instructed the trainee QFIs in instructional technique, but role play as a typical BFTS/2FTS student. This included simulating the errors that the student would make. The team are all dual-qualified on both the CT4 and PC9 and as CFS instructors they are also are the ‘checkers’ for all the ADF Flying
It was during that time that the team members concurrently pursue additional qualifications that will make them eligible to become a Roulette. The qualifications include formation aerobatics, low-level aerobatics and leading multi-ship formation aerobatics. Once fully qualified, there is now the need for a spot on the team to become available.
At any time, a maximum of two new members can transition into the six-ship formation. This ensures that the team carries forward a level of experience in which the new pilots can be trained and mentored. For the two candidates, the first stage involves ‘shadowing’ the team and they can be readily identified by their standard green flying suits rather than the distinctive blue suits of the team.
Shadowing involves every aspect of the Roulette responsibilities, both on the ground and in the air. Interestingly, when the candidates ‘back seat’ a display routine, it calls for additional finesse and awareness by the flying pilot due to the increased weight and slightly differing Centre of Gravity. Such is the precision of flying formation aerobatics.
Flight Lieutenant Robinson and Flight Lieutenant Des Hales, ‘Roulette 3’, agreed that the process is substantial, but fundamentally fair. As Flight Lieutenant Hales adds, “If you complete the qualifications and deemed to have right aptitude and ability, you usually get a shot to join the team.” From there it is up to the individual to make the standard and while the path may be fair, it is worth noting that on average thirteen years has elapsed since joining the RAAF to becoming fully qualified as a Roulette.
A Change of Seasons.
The team consists of seven members of which six are display pilots and one is a support pilot. Roulette 7 is Flight Lieutenant Ashley Kissock, who having served as a C-17 Globemaster captain is now responsible for flying the spare aircraft, providing display commentary and assisting Roulette 1 with the organisation and planning for each display.
Of the six positions, Roulette 1 is logically the leader. Squadron Leader Dan Kehoe is the current Roulette Leader and began flying when he was just 15 years old at his local Aero Club in Maryborough QLD. It was while attending the Kingaroy airshow in the mid 90’s as an Air Force cadet that Dan first saw the Roulettes and was instantly in awe of the teams ability, deciding it was his mission to become a RAAF pilot on the spot. He joined the RAAF in 1998 completing a Bachelor of Science in both mathematics and physics. Dan flew the C130H Hercules having been involved with operations ranging from the 2004 tsunami humanitarian assistance, East Timor and six deployments to the Middle East. He is also the current Chief Flying Instructor at CFS with over 5,000 military hours and is in his seventh season with the Roulettes and his third and last season as the leader.
New pilots join the team in positions, 2,3 and 4, although the current ‘Roulette 2’, Flight Lieutenant John Morgan is in his sixth season and Flight Lieutenant Hales ‘3’ and Flight Lieutenant Allister Berryman ‘4’ are in their second seasons. The logic behind these positions for new members is that in formation they sit ‘one out’ in echelon from another aircraft, whereas positions 5 and 6 sit ‘two out’.
The current Roulettes 5 and 6 are Flight Lieutenant Andrew Robinson and Flight Lieutenant Charles Manning and both are in their fifth season. These two pilots also combine to form the ‘Synchro Pair’, which leave the formation during the display to perform a separate routine.
A typical air show season lasts for four months and occurs twice a year, with the Roulettes performing on average, every second weekend. Yet, before that first display is a dedicated preseason ‘work up’ over six weeks. In that time, the team will fly twice each day and around 45 hours in order to hone the display and integrate the new members.
Only when the work up is complete and the display is to standard are they ready to perform. The final stage in the process is to demonstrate the new season’s routine in front of a senior officer who signs off on the team’s display, clearing it to go on show for the public.
When the air show season arrives, the display also has to consider contingency planning. Weather is one variable, while an unserviceable aircraft or a pilot rendered unfit to fly with a cold is another. The spare aircraft flown by Roulette 7 is on hand should an aircraft be the issue, while a modified routine can deal with a limiting cloud base. In the absence of a team member, a 4 or 5-aircraft display can be flown, although if the Roulette Leader falls ill, the display must unfortunately be cancelled. As with every aspect of the Roulettes’, safety, preparation and planning are paramount.
Above and Beyond.
The Roulette displays consist of multiple and sometimes complicated manoeuvres flown in various formations at low level. However, the team emphasises that the formation aerobatics, low level flying and airmanship are an extension of the skills that all RAAF pilots are trained in and develop throughout their career.
Often overlooked is the fact that the Roulettes perform their duties in addition to serving as instructors at CFS. Famed teams such as the Red Arrows and Blue Angels are solely dedicated to the air show team with dedicated support teams, while the Roulettes undertake their role in addition to their routine task as QFIs while conducting the planning and co-ordination themselves. This gives a hint at the level of dedication exhibited by members of the Roulettes. In spite of this, they still get asked whether they are in the RAAF by occasional members of the crowd.
Beyond the time spent in flight, there is public relations and media responsibilities that accompany air shows. And underlying all of these duties is the Roulettes’ strength in inspiring young people to become pilots and perhaps join the RAAF, just as the current members have. It is a responsibility that they take to the fullest extent.
The current team have made a point of calling ahead to small country towns where they will be landing to refuel enroute to a display. Chatting to radio stations, they encourage folks to come and say, ‘hello’. It’s an initiative of the team that have seen thousands of children, parents, aero club members and Australian Air Force cadets alike, flock to country airports to inspect the scarlet PC-9s and chat with the pilots. Aside from being popular, it strikes a chord with many of the Roulettes who themselves hail from country hamlets. Away from publicity, the team often visits children’s hospitals to meet families, such as a trip to Ronald MacDonald House during the Melbourne F1 weekend.
Without exception, the team members exude enthusiasm for their role. It is a credit to them that they are able to maintain the balance of routine duties and their specialised role that the team calls for and still tend to an interested spectator with a genuine, personal consideration.
The Roulettes followed in the footsteps of the RAAF’s earlier aerobatics teams, such as the Meteorites, the Red Sales and the Telstars. As the Roulettes, they debuted at RAAF Point Cook in December 1970, flying the Macchi MB-326. In 1989, the Roulettes switched to the Pilatus PC-9/A aircraft which replaced the Macchi as the air force’s pilot training aircraft.
Now the Roulettes are on the dawn of a new aircraft, the PC-21. The plan is to transition the team to the new aircraft in 2019. Other aerobatic teams overseas currently fly the PC-21 and when asked whether the increased performance of the aircraft will have any effect on the Roulettes’ display, Squadron Leader Kehoe replied that, “…it appears as though there will be additional sequences that could be flown. However, no PC-21 Roulette sequences have been considered at this stage, given that the focus is primarily on the Pilot’s Course introduction and safely transitioning a PC-9 aerobatic team safely onto the PC21,” adding that, “from there an enhanced sequence may occur once the team are set and become knowledgeable with the aircraft in the display role.”
Regardless of the aircraft being flown, the Roulettes have established a reputation that draws the crowds to air shows around the country. And while it may well be the drama of the tight formation weaving across the sky that catches the eye on first glance, one cannot help but not only admire the years of dedication required to become a Roulette, but the personable and professional manner in which they deal with the many associated tasks. They are not only a credit to the RAAF, but an inspiration to the eight-year-old boy pointing to the sky.