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Old 10th Dec 2005, 03:25
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Obituary from The Times
10 December 2005
Squadron Leader Ray Hanna
Leader of the Red Arrows whose skill and vision established it as the world's premier display team

Squadron Leader Ray Hanna, who established the Red Arrows as the world’s premier formation aerobatics team, was universally acknowledged as display pilot nonpareil for more than 40 years. It was no mean feat to remain at the peak of a young man’s pursuit while still display flying at the age of 77.

An outstanding fighter pilot with noted aerobatics talent and considerable experience in squadron formation teams, Hanna was an obvious choice when an official RAF aerobatics display team was formed in 1965. Within a year, Hanna was its leader.

His leadership brought a style and panache into displays which took the Red Arrows to new heights of excellence which earned worldwide acclaim. He created the first nine-ship precision formation team, and his “Diamond 9” remains the team’s signature formation.

Until that point the highlights of formation aerobatics displays, here and abroad, had been achieved at the expense of intervals of empty sky while the team repositioned. Hanna’s philosophy was that each manoeuvre should flow seamlessly into the next. As he told his team: “If the crowd have time to lick their ice-creams, we aren’t doing our job properly!”

The Red Arrows immediately became a star attraction across the world. Today’s displays still conform to the template Hanna developed, and subsequent leaders freely admit that the premier position the team still holds is largely due to the solid foundation he laid in the 1960s.

His radio instructions during thrilling displays were the quintessence of quiet authority. A pilot who flew under Hanna in those early days, and led the team himself a decade later, recalled: “Ray had an instinctive feel for display flying. His exceptional flying ability and air of calm confidence inspired us to follow him without question. We had complete trust in him.”

There was the occasional brush with higher authority who felt some manoeuvres were a little too punchy, but Hanna usually persuaded the air marshals that they were carefully designed to look exciting but were actually quite safe.

Hanna served a record four years as Red Leader. In recognition of his exceptional leadership of what quickly became the public face of the RAF, he was awarded a Bar to the Air Force Cross he had received seven years earlier for outstanding airmanship as a fighter pilot.

Raynham George Hanna was born at Takapuna, New Zealand, on the 28th August 1928. He learned to fly Tiger Moths after leaving Auckland Grammar School and, in 1949, worked his passage on a steamer to England in the hope of joining the RAF.

Earning his Wings before piston-engine fighters were superseded, he flew such types as the Tempest, Sea Fury and Beaufighter. He went on to fly virtually all the early British jet fighters, including the Meteor in the fighter-reconnaissance role from RAF Gütersloh in Germany, one of the most demanding for a single-seat pilot. He subsequently described it as: “Four years never above 100 feet.”

After leaving the Red Arrows in 1969, he was posted to a ground job. For a man born to fly, a desk job was unbearable, and he resigned.

In 1971 he began a new career in civil aviation. After seven years as a captain with Cathay Pacific, he became chief pilot of a diplomatic organisation with worldwide operations, remaining until retirement.

For three more decades, he continued to contribute his skills to the civilian airshow world. In the 1970s, he was invited to display MH434, the famous Mk IX Spitfire, which he later acquired.

In 1981 Hanna’s fighter pilot son Mark left the RAF to join him in founding the Old Flying Machine Company, restoring and operating Second World War combat aircraft at Duxford. Their performances on the international display circuit led to being in regular demand by film-makers. Breathtaking flying sequences in Empire of the Sun (1987) and Memphis Belle (1989) led to numerous film credits, and to Stephen Spielberg insisting that their services be engaged for his film Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Father and son enjoyed a mutual respect and pride. Mark’s tragic death in 1999, in a flying accident which Hanna witnessed, was a devastating blow. The courage and fortitude with which he coped with his private pain, and gradually returned to his flying form to continue the project they began, earned him widespread admiration.

Hanna’s ability to fly war machines exceptionally low with safety and precision invariably evoked rapturous applause during airshows. A few hours later, as the show drew to a close, the same spectators would watch in total silence, with tears in many an eye, as Hanna in his Spitfire performed the most graceful aerial ballet.

A famously approachable man of great modesty, Hanna was unfailingly helpful to less experienced pilots. An inspiration to others, he remained totally unaffected by the immense esteem in which he was held.

He is survived by his wife Eunice, whom he married in 1957, and their daughter Sarah.

Squadron Leader Ray Hanna, AFC and Bar, fighter and display pilot, was born on August 28, 1928. He died on December 1, 2005, aged 77.
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