General

The White Helmets motorcycle display team

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 April 1988. Aswad are number one in the charts, everybody wants a Peugeot 205, Davide Tardozzi has just won some race called World Superbikes and a litre of unleaded costs 37 pence. Being just eight years-old I had different priorities, like Streethawk, doing skids on my BMX and seeing how fast my new trainers made me run. A typical family day out back then was the Rhine Army Summer Show, a Military Tattoo for forces families living in Germany. Every year we would traipse round the stands and stalls looking at tat while Dad got steadily stocious on German beer. Two things stick in my mind as memorable from those days out: watching the Red Arrows scream past and gawping through a fence at the White Helmets performing mind-bending tricks on their motorbikes.

20 years have since passed and I’m stood on the side of a windswept runway in Cornwall, watching the Royal Signals White Helmets display team running through a routine. I shouldn’t be impressed, I’ve stood in dinner queues for longer than some of them have been in the Army and my life is saturated with two-wheeled sustenance, but I can’t help it. I stand open mouthed in absolute, childish amazement as 10 blokes wobble past, hanging from one bike like a human Xmas tree. It’s a trick that hasn’t changed in over four decades, but it’s still remarkably impressive to watch in a Blue Peter kinda way. But what exactly is the continuing appeal of the White Helmets? I mean, why do they still exist today (with a completely full calendar for 2008) when your average eight year-old can do back-flips on his bike when he’s not doing back-flips on his PSP?

To get a greater understanding of the White Helmets you need to know a little about their history. Trust me, I’ll keep this brief. They formed in 1927 and have only ever used British bikes in their displays and have performed all over the world. On that basis alone they are clearly the oldest open showground stunt display team in the world. By comparison, the fabled Crusty Demons are merely a bunch of teething children. There’s a well-refined process that sees any White Helmets rider metamorphosising from a humble soldier into a death-defying stunt rider. Like most things in the Army there’s a selection process that you have to apply for and then pass. To be a White Helmet perhaps the most important part of selection is to prove during the two-week course that you have the aptitude to pick a 200kg bike up after your first or 40th crash crash of the day, with a smile, and then crack on with the routine regardless of how much pain you might be in.

Early days are spent on XR250 Hondas riding around training areas in Dorset. The instructors prefer candidates not to have ridden in the past as the Army thinking is that there’s no room for bad habits and road-riding styles when you’re putting yourself, your colleagues and the general public at risk every time you ride. If you thought  Health & Safety was overkilled where you work, try being in the Forces. After being taught the basics of machine control riders then progress to learning a couple of simple stunts, such as wheelies and slides. To finish the course riders take part in a small demonstration of their new-found abilities, but even after that it isn’t a given that they will have a place on the team. Personal aptitude counts for a lot.

During the selection phase instructors gauge if candidates have the right attributes to their character. Teamwork, self-discipline and respect of rank structure are key. Evel Knievel wouldn’t have been a White Helmet, that’s for sure. When you take a place in the troop you undertake the kind of rider training most bikers can only dream about: compulsory wheelie training from 08:30 until 13:00, then backwards riding ‘til knock off isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Imagine that! New members of the team have to wear a black helmet, until they have jumped through the fire during a show the White Helmet eludes them. This is the motorcycling equivalent of getting your green beret or Kepi Blanc, and just like in the special forces while many people apply, only a handful get through.

I caught up with the troop after five weeks of intensive training at RAF St Mawgan in Newquay. Although it’s windy, the base is quiet, has lots of open grassy space and most importantly for the lads is within walking distance of the town centre should they feel the need to go out on the lash after a hard day’s wheelie practice. The troop were just sorting themselves out as I arrived, there was lots of smoking and finishing of brews going on before team Sergeant Andy Butterick called them in for a brief.

This was the first sign I got of the traditional feel of the team. Freestyle MX nutters such as Nate Adams or Mike Metzger carry a tricklist stuck to the handlebars of the bike during their display so they can refer to it and see what they need to prepare for next. In proper Army fashion the White Helmets have a huge board with all the tricks written on cards and a soldier who shouts them out very loudly. Each trick is talked through, people are yelled at, have the piss taken out of them or are told to just keep doing what they are doing. The conversation is all one-way, nobody talks back until they are told to. The military grounding means that everybody in the team understands when to talk and when to just sit down, shut up and pin their ears back. With the briefing over fags are crushed into the ground by Army-issue boots and they get stuck in.

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.

It costs £2,000 to have the Helmets turn up at your function, so they’re not cheap by any means.  “We don’t look to compete with the freestyle motocross boys,” admits Ted. “What they do is very, very good. But we have a lot of history behind us and a fantastic reputation with the public. To be honest the children only want to know who does the wheelies and who jumps through the fire, but a lot of the adults come to see us for a bit of military precision, a smart uniform and some marching. It goes a long way.” I jokingly ask about groupies and Ted tells me that indeed there are some, but they are mostly old men that either used to be in the Army or are classic bike fans - not the hot totty variety. “One old boy in particular drives all over the country to see us, he’s always immaculately dressed and stands to attention when we have finished.” Old-fashioned respect.

As well as the Triumphs the team use two HondaTRX450 quads and two CRF450 ‘crossers, but they play a tiny part in the show and are only used to hold the public’s attention while a ramp is dragged into place. With all the bikes ticking over the Triumphs, to be honest, are a bit scary. Everything on them vibrates and I mean everything. The tyres look like they are vibrating off their highly polished rims and the leather on the seat looks like it would shake itself off if it wasn’t stapled on. I grabbed the clutch on one of the bikes and it was disgusting. Easily the hardest clutch I have ever pulled, so I tried another, and then another. They were all as immovable as each other. Nobody seemed to mind as most of the team have absolutely zero experience of riding anything else.

And then it was time for me to be guest of honour in a White Helmets display. I jumped on one of the Triumphs and vibrated off down the field to get a feel for it. The handlebars were crooked, but the horrible clutch worked well and there was a surprising amount of power. The biggest thing I noticed was how balanced the bike felt. Apparently the balance is so good that the bikes regularly bounce back up one their own after a spill and carry on going. “Funny on the side of a hill near Newquay, not so fuckin’ funny on a tarmac parade square when the bike is heading towards the public,” said Sgt Butterick.  “What do you want to do first?” he asked. I replied that I’d like to try riding backwards so he shouted across the field “Oi! You, get over here and teach this man how to ride backwards.” I was still hosing myself laughing while they hoiked me onto some handlebars and I was instructed by Cpl Alex Pears. Within five minutes I was trundling round a field backwards quite happily. I spent the next hour being shown how to ride on two wheels on a quad, had to lay on the floor while half the team jumped over me and to finish was propped at the top of a ladder with nine Helmets underneath me. After a shrieked order we wobbled a bit then straightened out and rode the length of the field 10-up. When I was offered the chance to play a part in a demo run-through I realised an ambition that any child of the Jim’ll Fix It generation would have lusted after.

Who cares if I was only allowed to hold the ramp for one of the bikes to jump a car, for 32 minutes  on that wind-swept airfield I was a White Helmet, part of the team. Every single member from the youngest mechanic to the oldest rider has served in Iraq or Afghanistan, Bosnia or all three. And you know what? It really meant something to be there. I had to do my part right or I may have been hurt or, worse still, by my actions hurt someone else. The impact as the bike hit the ramp and leapt past me wasn’t half as bad as I was expecting it to be, but in that moment it struck me that the White Helmets are a very important part of our biking heritage. From drinking warm beer to singing ‘God Save the Queen’ at a football match, they are quintessentially British and all the better for it. Here’s to another 90 years. 

THE BIKES

The bikes are British Millenium Triumph T140 based 750cc machines, producing 46bhp and weighing just under 200Kg. The bikes are built brand new under licence by Les Harris in Newton Abbot. The team have two types of bikes, the show bikes like the one above which have twin shock suspension, five speed gearboxes and spring return throttles. The black bikes you can see in the other pictures have hard tails, four speed boxes and non-return throttles for the hands-free stunts. The team are always willing to try new bikes for their displays but after 90 years, nothing’s bettered the Triumphs yet

THE VETERAN

NAME: Corporal Jason ‘Gyppo’ Hooper

AGE: 39

“...This is my 18th year with the White Helmets. Generally you should go back to the field Army after a three year tour but I wanted to stay and they gave me the chance, so I did. That was 10 years ago. I joined after I came back from the first Gulf war in ‘91, I was looking for a fresh challenge and thought this would be perfect. It was, and who wouldn’t want to stay? I get to spend all of my time riding bikes and travelling. I have never ridden any other kind of bike than the one I’m sat on, and I can ride that better backwards than forwards. The X-Games riders are very good but they have foam pits, the poofs...”

Huge thanks to the royal signals for the invitation to join them. you can see the white helmets perform throughout the year. www.army.mod.uk/royalsignals/whelmets/

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