Has anyone ever said you need to lower the sights of your ambitions? A career adviser once said that to Toby Keeley. But rather than let it burst his bubble it spurred the young man on and, quite literally, helped drive him to reach for the sky.
The young Toby Keeley, who grew up in and around Eastbourne and was educated at Ringmer Community College, had told his adviser he wanted to fly fast jets. In fact, he had done so ever since seeing the Red Arrows at Eastbourne’s annual air show in 1992. He was told maybe he needed to be a bit more realistic.
But when the Red Arrows visited Eastbourne for Airborne last summer, it was Toby who had the last laugh. Instead of gazing up in admiration as the world-renowned acrobatic team carried out their heart-stopping high-flying manoeuvres, Toby was at the controls of Red2. His dream had come true. Flight Lieutenant Toby Keeley was a Red Arrows pilot.
And this summer, now as Red7, he will be back to wow the crowds and inspire anyone who has ever thought their dreams were not worth pursuing.
Speaking to Your East Sussex, Toby, 34, said: “Last summer was definitely one of the proudest moments of my career, a really extra special moment. In fact the hair was standing up on the back of my neck and it was hard not to be distracted by the feelings. Eastbourne is definitely the most exciting display and looking down on all of those people was amazing.”
The 18 minute display demands supreme concentration, which Toby describes as “the most demanding flying I have ever done”. But there was one point in the flight over Eastbourne when he was able to reflect on the East Sussex crowd below. “As Red2 I spent most of the display staring at the boss’ wing but at the end when we do the infinity manoeuvre everyone forms on me so I was able to look down and see the crowds. Knowing there were so many friends and family there to support me was a truly special moment.”
After leaving Ringmer Community College Toby went on to study at what is now Sussex Downs College in Eastbourne. His love of all things aeronautical began while he was a member of the Hailsham Air Training Corps. After A-levels, he studied Business Management at Solent University and completed Elementary Flying Training as a member of Southampton University Air Squadron.
One of the best
To apply to join the Red Arrows, Royal Air Force pilots need to have at least 1,500 fast-jet flying hours. They also must have completed a frontline tour and be assessed as above average in their flying role. If accepted they then go on a three-year tour with the team. The squadron, which first displayed to the public in 1965, is renowned as one of the world’s premier aerobatic teams. It has performed more than 4,800 times in 57 countries.
Toby joined the Royal Air Force in 2003 and has flown both Hawk jets (like those in the Red Arrows) and the Tornado. During his front line tour he completed two operational tours of duty in Afghanistan and took part in various major exercises in Europe and North America. In 2012 he became a qualified flying instructor on the Hawk.
Married to Hilary and father of two children Toby is now in his second year with the Red Arrows. He said: “When I was at school I told my careers advisor I wanted to fly fast jets. I still remember how he looked at me and said `I think we need to be a bit more realistic’. I would like to meet him again now!”
When he’s not travelling the world as part of the most famous and celebrated fast jet display team, home for Toby is now Lincoln where the Red Arrows are based. But East Sussex, more specifically Hailsham, is where he grew up and still considers home. He talks fondly of cycle rides on the Cuckoo Trail, playing golf at Seaford, walking along Eastbourne seafront and watching his team, Brighton & Hove Albion, at the Amex Stadium.
For the 2018 display season Toby changes roles and will be Red7 – one of the two pilots who roar towards each other at a closing speed of 800mph and appear to only narrowly avoid each other. He’ll also be one of the pilots performing the famous “heart” manoeuvre. But for someone who spends so much of his time travelling at several hundred miles an hour high in the clouds, you couldn’t wish to meet a more down to earth guy.
And he had some words of advice for any young person considering a career as an officer in the RAF. “You need to be determined and you need to learn not to accept ‘[no’ as an answer. I only got into the RAF at the second attempt, and I applied to the Red Arrows six times. If I can do it, anyone can.”
For more information about this year’s Airbourne event visit: Eastbourne Airbourne