The scandal-hit Red Arrows featured in a conference on trust despite concern it might upset victims of alleged inappropriate behaviour, sources have claimed.
The event is held annually by the head of the Royal Air Force.
One RAF officer said the decision to invite the Red Arrows to speak while it is still embroiled in a controversy about a “toxic culture” within the squadron called into question the judgement of Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston.
The theme of his leadership conference was “the power of trust”.
“There were more allegations that were surfacing,” the source said. “People were absolutely disgusted… It is almost like a slap in the face for the victims.”
The RAF confirmed this week that Wing Commander David Montenegro, the commander of the Red Arrows, who spoke at the conference on 21 September, has been suspended pending an investigation into historic allegations made against him.
It was the latest blow for the elite squadron.
Last Friday, the air force announced that an inquiry by the RAF Police – which was launched last December by Air Chief Marshal Wigston – had revealed a “broad range of unacceptable behaviours” within the Red Arrows.
No criminal activity was uncovered but it said that “several personnel” have been investigated, resulting in “a range of outcomes up to and including dismissal from the RAF”.
A good case study of a unit that has faced challenges
A senior RAF source said on Wednesday that the leadership conference took place before any allegations relating to Wing Commander Montenegro were known and that the first time the Chief of the Air Staff was made aware of them was 17 November.
The source confirmed that a discussion had taken place internally about who should be part of the conference, though the source denied that Air Chief Marshal Wigston was “warned” about the involvement of the Red Arrows nor did he make any final call on participation.
Ultimately, the source signalled that involving the squadron, also known as the RAF Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), was seen as a good case study of a unit that has faced challenges and was tackling them.
“The RAF is committed to addressing all instances of unacceptable behaviour and we are taking action to resolve as and when it is identified,” the source said.
“RAFAT participation in the conference was viewed as the RAF not sweeping any failings under the carpet and endeavouring to show how we have addressed the issues. The participation of the Red Arrows was particularly useful for this.”
‘Nothing is swept under the carpet’
Wing Commander Montenegro was filmed at the event fielding questions about how his squadron was rebuilding trust and whether there can be confidence in the RAF’s disciplinary process, according to a copy of a video of the event shared with Sky News.
“[In] the organisation we live in, nothing is swept under the carpet,” he said.
His appearance won praise from Air Chief Marshal Wigston, who spoke later on.
“His wonderful candour about the events of this year, at its heart – and you heard it from Monty himself – that was about the RAF identifying toxic behaviours in an organisation and being determined to do something about them,” the head of the RAF said.
“To my mind, while it was again really a story that none of us wanted to read in the media, at its heart it was a really positive story.”
Issues facing RAF
The Red Arrows’ woes are among a series of problems affecting the RAF.
Sky News revealed in August that the head of RAF recruitment had resigned in protest at an allegedly illegal order to hire ethnic minority and female candidates over white men in pursuit of “impossible” diversity targets.
Sky News also exposed the scale of a crisis inside the military’s flying training system, with recruits stuck on hold for years waiting for a training slot.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, had made fixing flying training Air Chief Marshal Wigston’s only priority two and a half years earlier.
In a comment on Wing Commander Montenegro’s suspension, an RAF spokesperson said: “All RAF personnel are expected to maintain the highest standards of behaviour.
“The RAF is aware of historic allegations from 2017 that have been made against the current Officer Commanding the RAF Aerobatic Team (The Red Arrows), which will be thoroughly investigated. Pending that investigation and without prejudice, the individual has been removed from post. We will not be commenting further while the investigation is ongoing.”