I trained with The Royal Signals’ White Helmets motorcycle display team learning the stunts being performed ahead of an annual event at London’s Earls Court.
As I watch one of the stunt riders of the White Helmets crash on the very first lap of my training exercise I’m not sure I’m ready to be put through my paces by the Royal Signal Corpsmen volunteers.
For a man who’s never ridden a motorcycle before this was already going to be a challenge.
For a man who’s not good with heights and can’t juggle the Court Jester routine seems impossible.
Fifteen minutes into my training with the Royal Signal Corpsman, I find myself sat on a ladder attached to a vintage British motorcycle, while juggling balls in the air. This routine’s one of many the guys are perfecting ahead of the British Military Tournament in a few weeks.
Many involve the riders sitting backwards, reading magazines and steering with no hands thanks to the, “sticky throttle” on the modified bikes.
Embarrassingly, I drop the juggling balls almost instantly I can now only sit on the attached ladder with my arms outstretched as we pull away. This isn’t easy as we approach the same corner the previous biker took a nasty tumble on just a few minutes earlier.
With one stunt complete, and my heart beating faster than the 250cc Kawasaki KLX I’ve just climbed off, I’m given a quick demo of the next trick – a human pyramid formation of which I’m to be the, “top man” Cpl Shea Dawson tells me.
Expressing my concern for the stunt is something I think twice about doing, I can’t seem like a wimp in front of the soldiers, all of whom have served in Afghanistan. For them, being able to perform as a White Helmet is an honour and reward for their hard work.
Captain Rich Carr, 29, explained how troops are queuing up to be part of the death-defying group: “We’ve got twenty six soldiers and me in the Helmets at the moment.
“We have to turn people down because we can’t accommodate them all. After three or four years we invite young solders to try out for the White Helmets. They are all selected from operational units and have served beforehand, many in Afghanistan.
“We don’t have any trained mechanics, they are all serving solders that have their own particular trade that we think will make a good mechanic. We then train them in house to be mechanics and hopefully by the end of it they all have their HMD Level One qualification in mechanical motorcycle maintenance.”
The lucky few that are chosen to be in the group stay for a maximum of three years before being posted elsewhere, meaning tricks and stunts have to be constantly rehearsed before the annual show at Earls Court.
Training beings in spring at their Blandford Camp in Dorset before the polished routines are shown off in front of crowds all around the country, with the pinnacle of the tour being the British Military Tournament show in London.
The tournament is the largest fundraising event in aid of the three national charities of the British Armed Forces.
After a quick debrief with Cpl Shea Dawson I’m hanging on for dear life at the top of a speeding human triangle. When the command of, “Out” comes from the head rider my life is literally in the hands of the lads below.
I’m still trying to catch my breath while the guys show off a few other crowd pleasing stunts they’ll be performing in front of Prince William.
So far, my legs haven’t been straight enough, my posture isn’t good enough and my arms haven’t been outstretched enough. The pressure of being a White Helmet has dawned on me. Even when training with no crowd standards in the group are extremely high. Hardly surprising given the high risks manoeuvres they undertake.
All the soldiers are novice stunt riders when they arrive but very able riders when they leave.
Crashing and damaging the bikes is a big no-no in the White Helmets, not only for the protection of the rider but also because each solider is responsible for the upkeep of their own motorcycles.
The bikes are modified with solid rear suspension to cope with the weight of up to ten people. Keeping with the tradition, dating back to their formation in 1927, the Helmets like to keep everything British. Making old parts harder to come by and more expensive to replace. Sticking to British tradition also meant turning down the offer of a brand new fleet of Kawasaki motorcycles.
Founded only by sponsors and ticket sales, donning a White Helmet is a privilege bestowed on the lucky chosen few. They don’t make money from performing or being in the group, all the income goes on maintenance and keeping the tradition alive.
Lance Corporal Liam Glover, 24, tells me: “I joined fully aware of the White Helmets but I didn’t ever think I’d be in it because I’m not a bike man. I don’t even have a bike license. It was a spur of the moment things.
“It’s been one of the most special times of my life. Being out on the road and being in front of the public gives you a real sense of achievement”.
Not only is being in the White Helmets a lot of fun for the soldiers, they’re also able to pick up new skills and can leave as qualified mechanics.
The honesty and integrity of the guys in the Helmets means my access to them is very open.
Although the soldiers aren’t camera shy, many of them are happy to stand furthest from the camera to hide the early signs of their upper lip hair in aid of Movember.
The White Helmets have attracted fans from all over the world, with one fan in particular leaving a lasting impression on the young men. “David Beckham remembered the names of the tricks he saw as a young boy in the tournament”, Captain Carr tells me.
“Belstaff jackets have David as their front man and they invited us down to do a three bike fan in the dead of night. It was fantastic that all the lads got the chance to meet him and for him to be a genuine fan of the White Helmets is something the guys can cherish forever”.