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Andy Wyatt
An exclusive 360 interview

 

“At no point did I find myself thinking, "This is it." It was more a case of, "right, there’s a problem, how can I sort it out?" That's the difference that thorough knowledge and a cool head can make in a tight spot”. - Andy Wyatt 

Every so often, life will put you on the path of an extraordinary soul whose journey is at once remarkable & extraordinary - a reflection of human endeavour and abounding spirit. Captain Andy Wyatt is one such individual - a man whose career trajectory reads like a script from an action-packed blockbuster, yet carries the depth and wisdom only real-life experience can bestow. 

A true gentleman in every sense, Andy commands respect not just for his unparalleled skills as a pilot, but for the dignity, grace, and composure with which he navigates both the skies and the challenges of life. 

In hearing him speak, I couldn’t help but be captivated by his narratives, each word echoing the depth of experience that many could only dream of. It is a rare privilege to speak with someone of his calibre in such a candid conversation — one that could effortlessly have lasted  hours, rich with insights and inspirations. 

It is my honour to welcome Andy to 360 and to bring you a window into the remarkable journey of an extraordinary man. 

Stay inspired. Stay curious. 

 

Tracey

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Andy - a huge welcome to you! Let's open our chat with a look back over your professional journey.

 

I have had a burning desire to fly since I was about nine years old. As a young boy, I was always looking up to the skies and I joined the Air Cadets at age 13 which was a game-changer for me, as it kept my dreams alive through those awkward teenage years. University was on the cards for sure, but it was more of a backup plan really. I was interested in doing geography and geology, but they never had my heart the way that flying did.

When the time came, I cast my net far and wide – applications to British Airways, the Royal Navy and the RAF, but deep down, it was always the RAF that I wanted. And, would you believe it - they took me on at age 18! Looking back, that's incredibly young, isn't it? Basic training on the Jet Provost was nothing short of rigorous. We started with a group of 21 student pilots, all wide-eyed and raring to go, but only 7 of us made it through to the next stage of training.

RAF Valley in Anglesey was where things really moved up a notch with the fast-jet training course and the award of our pilots wings. We then moved on to RAF Chivenor for the real ‘Top Gun’ experience at the Tactical Weapons Unit, where I became interested in the idea of flying the English Electric Lightning. I had always leaned towards the idea of flying single-seat jets - either the Harrier, Jaguar or the Lightning – those were the big names, but my forte seemed to be more for air combat than for low-level navigation, which of course set me up nicely for a posting to the Lightning.

And what a machine it was! Designed and built in the '50s, this supersonic interceptor was a marvel of its time. It was all about  a rapid take off, intercepting intruding aircraft, and getting back to base as soon as possible. The Lightning was always short of fuel, but what it lacked in range, it made up for in sheer performance – capable of flying at heights well above 50,000ft and at speeds matching those of Concorde. Flying the Lightning was a real privilege, especially towards the end of its service life. It's an aircraft that people still talk about, you know? "You flew the Lightning? That's amazing". And it was. It truly was.


Was it your experience flying the Lightning that paved the way for your transition into flying instruction?

 

Yes. I found myself back at RAF Valley, but this time on the other side of the fence as a Qualified Flying Instructor, teaching the ropes to green fast-jet students. At age 25, fresh from the Lightning, teaching felt a bit like being thrown in at the deep end. Those early days of instructing were a bit of a shock to the system, going from ‘doing’ to ‘teaching’, but I really enjoyed it.

I won't lie; leaving the Lightning behind wasn't easy. I was having the time of my life, and then suddenly, it was time for a change.  But teaching the fast-jet students was far more rewarding than I'd ever imagined. It was really good for me on a personal level and taught me a lot of self discipline. It was all about passing on what I'd learned, making sure the student pilots could carry the torch and, along the way, I picked up a few new skills, such as low level aerobatics, which was a whole new discipline.

In 1988, I was selected as the Solo Hawk Display Pilot, flying at airshows all over the UK and Europe - it was a whole different kind of adrenaline.  It was at these air shows that I got to know the Red Arrows pilots. Seeing them in action, I knew that I had to be a part of it if I possibly could. So, I threw my hat in the ring, and before I knew it, I was wearing that iconic red suit, flying as one of the nine. My three years with the Red Arrows were nothing short of magic.

After the Red Arrows, life took on a welcome, if slightly slower pace down in North Devon at RAF Chivenor and the Tactical Weapons Unit, although becoming the Boss of 92 Squadron was a hefty responsibility, juggling 20 instructors, 80 engineers, and a continual stream of student courses. It was all about guiding those young pilots through the course, figuring out where they fitted into the grand scheme of things and helping them decide on their future. Sometimes, it meant having to have tough conversations, telling someone that they've reached their limit. It was never easy, but it was a necessary part of the job. 


You mentioned that you served three years with the Red Arrows. Is that the standard tenure for a pilot in the team and, is so, what's the reasoning behind it?

 

Yes, three years is the standard tour for a Red Arrows pilot. It's an interesting setup, really. Every year, we swap three pilots out of the nine - a third of the team, which, when you think about it, is quite the shake-up, isn't it? Imagine reshuffling a third of any team annually, whether in business or otherwise, and then attempting to get everyone up to speed and to the level of precision and expertise that we're known for.

As to the why, well it's not cut and dried, but a couple of reasons come to mind. Firstly, it keeps things fresh and gives new blood a chance to step up. Perhaps, more crucially, it's about keeping complacency at bay. If you get too comfortable, that's when mistakes creep in. It's like any work-pattern really – after a while, you reckon you could do it in your sleep, but that's exactly when you need to be wide awake, especially in a discipline with such high-stakes as flying formation aerobatics close to the ground!

And it's not just the Red Arrows that have an average 3 year tenure; this rhythm of change is pretty common across the board. Whether you're zipping around in a Lightning or any other front-line aircraft, every 3 or 4 years, you're moving on, tackling new challenges. It keeps you on your toes and stops you from getting too comfortable in your role. Steering clear of complacency is absolutely key, not just for pilots but for all of us, whatever line of business we’re in.


 

Could you share with us, your approach to unlocking the full potential in your students or team members, particularly when you see untapped talent or room for improvement? How do you inspire them to exceed their own expectations?

 

I always go back to my own training days for this one. There was a time when I was really struggling with low level navigation; a bit ironic given what I ended up flying, but there you go. I had a number of flying instructors, who'd been in the thick of it on the front line but hadn't been taught how to teach. Their approach was a bit, "I can do it, so why can't you?" Not much use when you're struggling, is it?

So, I made a note to myself back then, "If I ever become an instructor, I'll do it differently." Fast forward, and here I am, telling my students, "I've been exactly where you are and I’ve struggled just like you." It's a bit of an eye-opener for them because all they see is the stripes and the Red Arrows background, and they think that it was all plane sailing for me, but no, it was hard work all the way.

Now, you do get the odd student who is giving it their absolute all, but you can tell that their heart is outpacing their head. It’s a tough part of the job, having the chat where you have to say, "it might be time to consider a different path." But it's usually for the best, and saves them a world of hurt in the long run and for some, it’s a visible relief.

But for the ones with that spark, I share my own wobbles and show them that it's not a dead end. I even had this one student, who’s confidence was a bit shaky but I could see that he had it in him to succeed. I had a quiet word with him, gave him a gentle nudge and said, "You've got this," and off he went. Years down the line, he ended up as my boss at British Airways! Always brings a smile to my face that does, and goes to show that a bit of faith can go a long way.

 

How significant is the role of intuition alongside skill? Are critical decisions ever influenced by instinct, or do you rely solely on your training and expertise?

 

Oh, it's a bit of both, really. You've got your set of skills, which come from a mixture of genetics and what you're taught during flying training. With the Red Arrows, they're not just picking anyone; they're looking for that spark, something you can't just teach, and often it’s the best team member who is picked rather than the best pilot.

Then there's natural instinct which is a huge part of flying. When you’re piloting a fast jet, especially flying with the Red Arrows, a lot of what you're doing is pure reaction, feeling the moment. It's a case of knowing your aircraft inside out trying to feel part of it, but also letting those gut feelings guide you. You're flying by the seat of your pants, but it's never reckless; it's a controlled instinct, if there is such a thing. So, yes, I'd say it's a blend of a natural flying ability and an instinct that kicks in when you're in the thick of it.

 

Translating that to business, how can professionals cultivate and harness intuition effectively? What strategies can be employed to refine this instinctual skill, crucial in decision-making across various industries?

 

In the cockpit or the boardroom, knowledge is what gives you the edge. Knowing every inch of my aircraft, its strengths and weaknesses and how far I can push it gives me confidence. In business, or in sport it's no different - it's that deep dive into your domain, understanding the ins and outs of your operation, that gives you confidence. When I'm preparing to give a talk on the Red Arrows, there's always a flutter of nerves beforehand, but the knowledge that I've got a firmer grasp on the subject than anyone else in the room steadies me. 

We're all human at the end of the day, and so we’re all prone to making mistakes. I always make a real point about this when I talk to businesses, especially drawing from the Red Arrows' debrief culture. It's about chasing that flawless performance, but knowing that perfection is more of an ideal than a reality. We all drop the ball now and then and mistakes will be made. I remember that our team leader used to kick off our debriefs by owning up to his mistakes, setting the stage for an open and honest dialogue. It wasn't just about owning up; it was about demonstrating that errors are normal and that admitting them is OK. We can then use our mistakes and errors as stepping stones towards a better performance. "Own it, and then let's figure out the next move," I'd say. That mindset, acknowledging and learning from mistakes, is absolutely crucial. It's about continuous improvement, using each hiccup as a lesson to refine and evolve.

 

I often hear that the debrief is just as critical as the mission itself. Could you delve deeper into the significance of this process in your experience?

 

When I'm out there sharing insights from my flying days, I'm always surprised by how few teams or businesses debrief or review their recent performances. How do you expect to work out what's gone wrong, or improve on what's worked well, without sitting down and hashing it out on a regular basis? In the Red Arrows, our flights were normally 20 to 30 minutes long, but the debriefs? They were where the real work happened, often stretching out to nearly an hour. We'd be there, poring over video footage of our displays, freezing frames to pinpoint exactly who was where. No hiding when everything's on camera, right? It's all about laying it bare – who nailed their references and who wasn't where they were supposed to be. Who put the smoke on at the right time and who was slightly late?

And that's the crux of it – not just in flying but in any field, really. You've got to go back, dig deep into your wins and your losses - it’s the only way to keep pushing the envelope. I always tell my clients, "If there's one thing you're going to take away from what I'm about to say today, make it this: Debrief. Regularly. Get to the heart of what went wrong and why, and just as importantly what went well, because we need to do that again and again." That's your roadmap to improvement and to elevating your game, because in the thick of it, whether you're in the air, grounded in a boardroom or on a rugby pitch, improvement is all about clarity – seeing where you stand, and more importantly, where you need to be standing next time around.


 

Touching on those hair-raising moments, do you have any tales where things got a tad too tight for comfort, a situation that really tested your mettle?

 

Ah, there was one occasion flying back from the Isle of Man to RAF Wattisham with the Red Arrows after displaying during TT week. We'd usually transit from A to B at about 1000 ft if the weather was OK – just loose formation, enjoying the view. On this particular day, the weather wasn’t great so we had to fly above the cloud layer at around 10,000ft. I was chatting away to my engineer in my back seat, Corporal Jones, when out of nowhere, an oil warning light illuminated, accompanied by an ominous, graunching noise. Not what you want to hear when you only have one engine, I can tell you.

So I tried to keep my cool, telling Corporal Jones not to panic, and calmly informed the Team leader that I had a problem. I put out a MAYDAY call and asked for a diversion to the nearest airfield. Air Traffic Control suggested RAF Mildenhall, but it was a good 80 miles away. The engine lost power completely so I was now in a very expensive red glider with nowhere to go. Air Traffic Control then told me that RAF Waddington wasn’t open as such but it was only 10 miles away - could I make it? We dived through the clouds and, much to my relief, there was Waddington's runway, looking like the promised land.

I managed to get the aircraft down in one piece, much to Corporal Jones's relief. While I was sorting things out,  my wingman, Red 9, landed right behind me. I hopped into his back seat leaving my stricken aircraft with the 2 engineers and we zipped over to RAF Wattisham, where I jumped into the spare jet, and took off for the display on time as if nothing were amiss. 

 

And there was never a moment of panic? 

 

In the back of my mind I always knew that as a last resort, we had an ejection seat. But it never really crossed my mind to use it.  I knew what I had to do to get the aircraft on the ground. It wasn't really about braving it out; it was simply a calm assurance that we could make it, I had trained for this moment and it wasn’t going to be a drama.

And panic? No never. It was all about keeping a level head, focusing on the task – getting us down in one piece. That's where all those hours, all that training, really pays off. You know the ins and outs of your machine, what she can do, and what her limits are. At that moment, it's just you and the aircraft, working together to sort it out.

At no point did I find myself thinking, "This is it." It was more a case of, "Right, what's the next step to sort this out safely?" That's the difference that thorough knowledge and a cool head can make in a tight spot.

 

Could you share with us the significance of representing both the Royal Air Force and the United Kingdom on an international platform as a Red Arrow Pilot? What was the personal and professional impact of carrying such prestigious emblems into arenas around the world?

 

Wearing the red suit was an immense source of pride for me, truly. There's something profoundly moving about being chosen to serve in such a capacity, proving to myself, and indeed to others, that I was up to the task. But beyond the personal achievement, it was about what I represented: my own journey, my family's support, Royal Air Force, and the wider United Kingdom. It was a responsibility that I bore with great pride, especially knowing that, in many respects, we had an edge over our counterparts, a friendly, spirited competition that always spurred us on.

And for those stepping into my shoes, my counsel was always simple but heartfelt: savour every moment. Such opportunities are fleeting, and before you know it, you'll be looking back, wondering how it all whizzed by so quickly. So yes, it was an immense privilege and an honour, but also a reminder to cherish every second of such unique experiences.

 

Andy, thank you so much for your time and your insights into an extraordinary career. It has been an absolute pleasure to chat with you and I very much look forward to seeing your journey with 360, unfold.

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