What makes the aerial acrobatics team of the Red Arrows the best in the world?

Next week the Red Arrows will perform in the skies over Edinburgh for the first time in 20 years as part of the build-up to UK Armed Forces Day. Our reporter went to meet the magnificent men and woman

• The Red Arrows leave a trail of colour in their wake

FLIGHT Lieutenant Sean Cunningham's favourite food is steak, his favourite car is a Porsche 911 (which he drives) and while he can't quite name his favourite movie he does laugh when I mention Top Gun. "I think every one of us has seen it," says the Red Arrow pilot, minutes after touching down after the teams' latest hair-raising display. "Any pilot who says they haven't seen it is probably lying. As cheesy as it sounds we probably know all the words. I was pretty young when it came out but I loved it."

Yet when it comes to the world's top aerial acrobatics team there is no room for a Tom Cruise "Maverick", not when you have nine jets pulling complex synchronised manoeuvres mere inches apart and all at over 500 miles per hour. However, they all do appear to be versions of Val Kilmer's cool, collected pilot, "Ice Man", and that includes Ft Lt Kirsty Moore, who two years ago became the first female pilot to fly in the world-famous red jumpsuit.

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Asked if he's ever been frightened and Cunningham laughs again and says: "No – I have never been frightened at all, because we do it so often, sometimes three times a day and although there is always going to be situations where things are not quite right, it's all about learning from what happens. I have never been frightened because you are concentrating so hard on getting it right all the time."

Cunningham is 34, originally from South Africa, and spent eight years at RAF Lossiemouth flying Tornados. He doesn't consider his day job to be particularly dangerous, even when they launch into the Vixen Break a manoeuvre that puts him under 7gs, seven times the force of gravity. The structural limit of his Hawk T1A is 8gs. "There is an element of risk in everything, but the rules and regulations are very strict and we try and mitigate the risk. I don't really worry about it to be honest."

Next week he and his eight colleagues will be demonstrating their considerable skill in the twilight sky above Leith Harbour as they perform a full display for the first time in 20 years to Edinburgh, as part of the build-up to UK Armed Forces Day. The Red Arrows were last in Edinburgh in 1999 when they flew over Edinburgh and Glasgow with Concorde as part of the celebrations for the opening of the Scottish Parliament. But next Friday's display is different, as it involves full aerial acrobatics.

For 24 exhilarating minutes, the Red Arrows will perform a range of manoeuvres, all designed to make the most of the scenic landmarks. The man responsible for mapping out the display is Flt Lt David Montenegro, 34, who was previously based in Scotland.

He says: "When I was posted up in Leuchars I spent quite a bit of time in Edinburgh and to go back is great. One of my tasks is to plan the display maps so I have looked into where we are going to position ourselves over Leith – it will be a very interesting show – we don't do many harbour shows and its going to be an evening show and we find those the most enjoyable shows. In the twilight it all looks very romantic."

Like many pilots, Montenegro's life-long love affair with aeroplanes was fostered in at an early age. He was born in Bogota, Colombia, where his mother was teaching English and where she met his father, and remembers his first flight at the age of five. Later he joined the Air Cadets and had his first flight in a Chipmunk at 14. "I was absolutely hooked and realised that was what I wanted to do."

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After joining the RAF, training as a Tornado pilot and completing tours in the Middle East and the Falklands, Montenegro had the necessary flying hours (1,500) and the rating to apply to become one of the Red Arrows.

Each year over 40 pilots apply for the three places available in the team, whose tour lasts for three years, so that each year there are three first-year pilots, three second-year pilots and three final- year pilots.

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Out of the 40 applications, only nine will be invited to spend a week at the Red Arrows training base in Cyprus, where the warm weather and blue skies provide the optimum opportunities to fly. Each candidate undertakes a flying test, a formal interview and a media interview, to see how they respond in their role as ambassadors for not only the RAF but Britain. During the week they also fly in the rear seat of the jet three times a day as the team rehearses new moves.

Montenegro, who is also 34 and, like Cunningham, single, recalls: "You get a real feel for what the process is. Some people like it, some people don't." Yet it is the other activities: the barbecue, bowling nights and annual golf day that can determine if a candidate is deemed to be suitable. "The most interesting thing was the golf day. The team are terrible at golf and I had never played but you spend six hours getting to know potential team-mates and I think they learn more about you in that day than in the rest of the week."

The existing nine-strong team make the final decision. "The only people who make the decision are the nine pilots," says Montenegro. "Red 1 (the squadron leader) will let your squadron leader know and then you are taken into an office three days after you leave Cyprus and told if you are successful or not."

Cunningham got the thumbs-up on his third attempt. Afterwards the new pilots spend six months, from October to March, training in Cyprus, during which time the rookies wear green jumpsuits, only graduating to red after they have successfully completed their training. While formation flying is part of their RAF training, the moves which the Red Arrows perform require a difference in style.

"We take a building block approach," said Cunningham. "We all flew in formation in our previous career, but now all the manoeuvres are called so you react to a voice and not what you see. We start with loops and barrels and then we add more and more aircraft. We start with four jets, then seven jets and then the final nine."

Accidents do happen. Last year during a training session in which the Red Arrows were crossing each others' flight paths, the tailfin of Montenegro's jet accidentally shattered the windscreen of his colleague Flt Lt Mike Ling's jet, forcing Ling to eject just 1,000 ft (300m) off the ground. The 5 million aircraft was destroyed and Ling suffered a dislocated shoulder and wrenched ligaments. Montenegro was able to land safely.

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But, Montenegro says: "It is really, really rare for something to happen. We talk all the time about what-ifs and what might happen when procedures don't go right so you are always prepared but unfortunately that was a little bit closer. We entered a move called an 'op-barrel' and that was where the incident happened and everything else has been recorded in the board of enquiry.

What does it feels like when something goes wrong, does the adrenaline kick in? "There is always adrenaline in flying anyway, especially the flying we do, but I must admit it felt quite calm. I knew that I had to land my aircraft and that was all I was focused on at the time. We had a safety pilot on the ground and he is in contact with the team and the call came through very quickly that Mike was OK. The RAF ethos when something does not go according to plan is to break down everything than happens and learn from it. They brought an ex-Red Arrow back to fly with me for the rest of the year."

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At a time when the defence budget is being squeezed like never before, it is still unlikely that the Red Arrows, whose annual running costs are around 6 million – for the team and "The Blues", its 85-strong ground crew of engineers and support staff – will be cut. Each year it performs almost 100 displays around Britain and Europe.

Montenegro says: "The big thing that I have learned in the team is what the team does promote is unquantifiable. The impact is phenomenal. When you meet the younger-generation who watch the team – yesterday there were kids sat out in the dreadful rain watching the display and you see what it means to them, hopefully inspiring them not just to join the RAF but some aspect of the Forces. That is an enormous part of it and the other side is the promotion of all sorts of British industry, which we do when we perform our shows abroad. This season we have done 14 shows around Europe promoting British interests – you can't put that down on a spreadsheet, but the impact it has is huge. It is great to be part of that."