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The White Helmets display team have been entertaining kids at military tattoos for over 90 years. But in this day of psycho freestylers aren’t they just relics, a total anachronism?

It’s customary during a display to have all the bikes start at exactly the same time. Like the conductor of a dirty mechanical orchestra the team (or perhaps like Toecutter out of Mad Max), Sgt Butterick waves his arms above his head and all the bikes boom into life. It sounds melodramatic but when you see it in the flesh it looks and sounds very impressive, the sight, sound and smell of the bikes grabbing hold of your senses and demanding your full attention. Watching them ride it was easy to spot who was new to riding; the newbies ride around with the same tensed-up style that new road-riders have, only instead of being told to negotiate a tricky roundabout they have been taught and told to ride backwards, or to do a handstand on the pillion seat while someone else takes the controls. They just get on with it with the same discipline they would use to do any other military activity.

Discipline and an implicit trust in your superiors are how the British Army operate. It’s worked pretty well for them for 300 years and it’s key to how the White Helmets function. Over time the riders build up an implicit trust in their peers. They might not like each other in some cases, but that doesn’t matter. The instructors won’t make you do anything that hasn’t been done before and if you do exactly as they say you everything will be okay. Cheesy as it sounds that ‘anything’ could be polishing your boots, clearing enemy positions or as displayed perfectly to me: juggling balls while steering a bike from the top of a ladder.  Weird, eh?

I found it absolutely bizarre that some of the members of the White Helmets have no bike licence, and no real interest in motorbikes. For some, this is just a job to them. One member of the team can ride a bike backwards while juggling, can do stand-up wheelies all day long and jumps 40ft through fire, but has failed his bike test twice because of a lack of confidence! And this isn’t a rare case, apparently.

Captain Ted Tedby is the OC (Officer Commanding) of the White Helmets. He is the man on the microphone during the display. Ted has the kind of boundless enthusiasm that only young officers display, contagious bordering on slightly annoying.  Even though he’s in charge he has yet to jump through the fire and earn his White Helmet. Unlike most of the lads here Ted rides on the road, although he’s only had a bike licence for a year as he tells me about his Suzuki SV650 and how his missus won’t let him have a new bike. We wander into the middle of the showground and watch as all kinds of two wheeled carnage unfolds. I shudder every time the bikes perform the crossover manoeuvre. The Triumphs are inches from each other when they pass, sometimes riding normally, sometimes riding backwards. When I was a child I didn’t have the perspective of a rider and some of what they were doing looked fairly easy, but you would not get me doing the crossovers, not a  bloody chance. Despite myself, I’m impressed.

The ramp for the fire jump is dragged into place. It might be too windy to light the flames but it doesn’t stop them doing a dry run. The first guy lands in the exact style he should, with the front wheel sky-high and his balls in line with the handlebars. I gasp in amazement as the next guy has crashed before he’s even landed, the bike is cranked over and backwards in the air and it just looks wrong. He simply hangs on as he’s been told, holding his position perfectly and refusing to accept he has crashed until he is picking mud and grass from his teeth and kicking the handlebars straight. After he rolls to a messy stop almost at our feet he quickly jumps up, sees his boss standing over him and musters an unflustered “sorry, sir” before dragging the bike out of everyone’s way.  

With the first practice run timed at exactly 32 minutes the team gather round for a debrief. There’s this transition from a bunch of smiling, performing individuals, who in Ted’s words are “complete camera whores” one minute, to a group of soldiers waiting for their next orders. I can’t imagine the X-Games punks sitting in a line listening intently to the boss telling them that their back flips need working on. With time for another run-through before lunch they take on board what they’ve been told and crack straight into another practice.   

We are told that we’ll enjoy watching Fozi doing his thing, one of the most experienced riders in the team. When Fozi settles the bike in a straight line with the non-return throttle at about ¾ of max revs in first gear, and then turns around and runs up the ladder like a fireman I can’t help but laugh out loud. You can see why he’s regarded as one of the best riders in the team, and so can everyone else as the other members of the team stop what they’re doing and watch him perform. While he steers his way round the showground I start to get an idea as to why the White Helmets are still so popular. Every time they do one of their timeless tricks spectators stop being grown-ups and feel like a kid again. It takes us back to a simpler time when we were nippers, and after speaking to members of the team their first experience of the White Helmets was similair to mine. If you take what the White Helmets do too seriously you’re missing the point. What they do is directed primarily at kids, yes (the Helmets exist to promote the Army, of course, and hopefully inspire the youth to sign up on their 16th birthday) but adults still have a highly impressionable side and just getting people into the Army is a big problem at the moment. As a recruiting tool the White Helmets are held in very high reguard. The team are booked for 48 display days this year and Ted expects around 600,000 people to see their performances. If just 5% of that number decide to join up then they’ve more than done their job.

Click here for White Helmets page three.

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