2010 Articles

DEC 28 2010
Airshow Archive Part 1: IAT 95 - The Victory Airshow

It was all just perfect, really. Two days of largely excellent summer weather, a colourful, varied and intriguing array of military aircraft drawn from all parts of the globe and a flying display containing a truly enterprising and emotive set-piece. This was the International Air Tattoo 95 - The Victory Airshow, an event with a particular atmosphere that, in this writer's opinion, the Tattoo has never equalled.

1995 was a year of change for IAT. The reduced attendance in 1994, the recession then gripping the country and a growing awareness of the competition for the public pound provided by other events and attractions, led to IAT deciding to tweak its flying display format. There was a real "danger of IAT simply being a procession of fast jets with full 'burner and lots of noise", according to the post-event IAT95 pictorial record book.

Thus was born the 'Theatre of the Air', with the flying display split into sections based on the year's themes and similar aircraft being grouped together. This arrangement, while mainly trying to avoid the pitfall of a long, meandering flying display, would enable people to take in the huge static park if there was a particular section of the display that was of less interest to them.

That IAT had been designated by the government as the 'Victory Airshow', effectively the nation's official aviation commemoration ranking alongside the VE and VJ Day events held in central London in May and August that year, would allow IAT the opportunity to create something incredibly special. More of this later.

IAT had been growing significantly for years, but 1995 was the biggest yet. There were over 400 aircraft from 28 countries at Fairford. The show's operational theme was SkyTanker, most visible in the static display with a line of no fewer than sixteen Boeing KC-135/707 tanker variants from the US Air Force, Australia, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia (with a KE-3A), Canada, Brazil and South Africa (whose Air Force, with a Boeing 707, was making its UK debut). The Saudis also brought a KC-130H.

In the air, pairs of RAF 1 Squadron Harrier GR.7s trailed a VC10 K.3 and VC10 K.4, a TriStar C.2 led a VC10 C.1K and five C-130 Hercules from all five squadrons then operating at RAF Lyneham flew past, the fourth Hercules trailing a refuelling probe.

Aerobatic teams have been a big feature of the Tattoo since the event's earliest days. IAT95 was a record year. Besides the Red Arrows, Blue Eagles and the Royal Navy Sharks Gazelles (reformed as a four-ship for just three events in 1995 having been formally disbanded in 1992), there was the Patrouille de France, Patrouille Suisse (their first UK display as a six-ship following the Hunter's replacement by the F-5E Tiger II the previous autumn), Frecce Tricolori, Patrulla Aguila, Royal Moroccan Air Force La Marche Verte (who performed an inventive display that began with their CAP231s flying with their wingtips tied together - a nod to the days of the Hendon Air Pageant, another theme at the show), Royal Netherlands Air Force Grasshoppers (a last UK appearance shortly before their disbandment), Slovak Air Force Biele Albatrosy and the Royal Jordanian Falcons. There were also three teams from Eastern Europe - the Polish Air Force Team Iskry (or 'Sparks') with nine TS11s and, from the Czech Air Force, the prosaically named Hind Display Team of three Mil Mi-24Vs, and the rather more elaborately named Team Duha (or 'Rainbow') of five Su-22M4 Fitters.

The Polish and Czech teams were all visiting the UK for the first time. The Polish Air Force, indeed, was making its debut at a British show. Duha would never return to the UK again, the Hind team would only make one return visit at RIAT96, while Iskry have only been seen once here since at RIAT 2001. Duha's performance lives long in the memory. Five Su-22s performing close formation, opposition and solo manoeuvres, supported by the use of flares was certainly a fine spectacle - and sound. The Hinds, trailing red, white and blue smoke and also dropping flares, were equally impressive and won the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy, one of the main flying display prizes.

Another former Eastern Bloc air arm in attendance, the Slovak Air Force, was another award winner. Major Ivan Hulek won the Superkings Trophy for Best Solo Fast Jet Display for a punchy routine in a MiG-29. On the ground the Slovaks displayed a tiger-striped MiG-29UB, An-12 and L-39, while the Czechs displayed another 'Hind', an An-26 and An-30, with the Poles showing an An-26 (supporting the Iskry) and an An-30. A Czech Tu-154 was also in and out of Fairford pre and post-show, although it wasn't part of the static.

In all, including spares and charter visitors, there were no fewer than 37 eastern European aircraft at Fairford that weekend. For me personally, as a young aviation enthusiast becoming more aware of recent world events, it was somewhat otherworldly being confronted with erstwhile enemy aircraft in the static park, or watching the 'Fitters' and the 'Fulcrum' ink smudgy smoke trails across the Gloucestershire sky.

The familiar line up of British, European and American aircraft - fighters, bombers, tankers, transports, trainers and helicopters - was as fulsome as ever on the ground, and included a line of Hawks to mark the type's 21st anniversary. More unusual was a USAF 9th Reconnaissance Wing U-2 on detachment at Fairford from Beale AFB (the latter's first appearance at the Tattoo for some years), and a Royal Saudi Air Force Tornado IDS which was present en-route back to British Aerospace Warton for maintenance.

Heavy metal in the flying display included all the RAF solos, brutish Swedish Air Force SF37 Viggen and Marinefleiger Tornado IDS, metronomic fly-by-wire from the Royal Netherlands Air Force's patriotic F-16 and French Air Force Mirage 2000C, and thunderous USAF B-1B. There was an Italian contingent comprising the barrel-rolling G-222 and neat AMX aerobatics (the latter a personal favourite of mine, if only because I'd met its pilot at Woodford a month earlier) and an Army A129 Mangusta. The AMI also had a Tornado F3 in the static park, this aircraft having recently gone on loan to them from the RAF.

Foreshadowing the future was British Aerospace test pilot John Turner bringing the UK prototype Eurofighter 2000 (as it simply was then) down from Warton for a quick first public appearance. Other civilian participation included a British Airways Concorde (take-offs and landings taking passengers on supersonic pleasure flights over the Bay of Biscay) and the Royal Jordanian Air Force Historic Flight, consisting of a Hunter T.7 and two Vampires, operated from Bournemouth by Jet Heritage Ltd.

Warbird-wise there was BBMF, the Sabena Old Timers' Lysander and a pairing of the Aircraft Restoration Company's Blenheim and the BAe Mosquito and the Sabena Old Timers' Lysander. Colourful contrasts were the amazing Rover Aerobatic Team of two Extra 300s, the Crunchie Flying Circus and, from the same AeroSuperBatics stable at Rendcomb, the recently-imported Antonov An-2 sponsored by Utterly Butterly.

But IAT in 1995 was not, as in previous years, simply a procession. The 'Theatre of the Air' concept presented some unique displays that made the show more than the sum of its already considerable parts. The 75th Anniversary of the Hendon Air Pageants was recalled not just by the tied-together Moroccans but with a 'fort bombing' sequence - a regular Hendon feature - involving a gamut of Shuttleworth Collection biplanes (Gloster Gladiator, Avro 504K, Hind, Tutor and SE5A) and the late John Fairey's Flycatcher attacking a large canvas fort erected on the north side of the airfield. Accompanied by some judicious pyros, this made for an effective display. The same fort was later 'bombed' again by the four aforementioned 1 Sqn Harriers, which streaked in to demonstrate their close air support role.

But the 'Theatre of the Air' really came into its own with the show's centrepiece, the Victory Salute, the finale on both days marking the half-century since the end of the World War Two - and, more specifically, the fallen airmen of all sides during that conflict and the reconciliation and co-operation that emerged in subsequent years.

What it entailed was something that RIAT director Tim Prince has since admitted (in a 2009 Aircraft Illustrated article) "was probably bigger than we realised". Fast jets from the RAF, USAF, Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Norway (with F-5As, including a distinctive tiger-striped one), the Czech Republic, Poland (some of the Iskry jets) and Slovakia (the Biele Albatrosy) taxied onto the runway to face the crowd. Behind them, in a long line, hovered a range of NATO and ex-Warsaw Pact helicopters. In the centre, at display datum, were the five helicopters of the Blue Eagles staggered into a 'V' for 'Victory', the pairs of Gazelles either side of the Lynx. These aircraft were all facing a stand in which sat many veterans from World War Two.

With the voice of BBC Radio Four chief announcer Peter Donaldson reading a specially prepared (by Sean Maffett) narration over the PA, there appeared from the east a number of special formations of historic warbirds and modern jets. First, a dozen Tiger Moths ambled through, each carrying a veteran from the twelve RAF wartime Commands. They were followed by quartets of British warbirds (the BBMF Lancaster leading the Mosquito and BBMF Spitfire and Hurricane) and American warbirds (B-17 'Sally B' leading The Fighter Collection's P-38J Lightning, P-51D and P-47), with the Spitfire and P-51D pulling up into 'missing man' salutes as they passed along the crowdline. After them quartets of RAF Hawks and Luftwaffe Tornados passed through to represent the modern day and, again, one of the wingmen pulled up to recall the fallen.

Next came the lump-in-the-throat moment. At low level in front of display datum appeared the Red Arrows Synchro pair. They split and pulled up trailing red smoke to describe a huge 'V' in the sky. Seconds later, from crowd rear swept the BBMF Spitfire flanked by the TFC P-51D and the Imperial War Museum's Bf109 'Black Six'. As they crossed above the Blue Eagles 'V' and flew into the Red Arrows 'V', the warbirds broke away from each other, disappearing into the skies beyond. Cue a brief moment of silence - save for the cacophony of jet and rotary engine noise - followed by fireworks filling the sky. Another brief pause, before the USAF B-1B thundered past to conclude the Salute and the show.

Tim Prince has said since that "it was probably more than we should have got away with, but we did and it really hit the spot". This is an understatement. The Victory Salute was spectacular, emotive and memorable. The combination of ceremony, presentation, participation and weather just worked. Admittedly the jet and engine noise swamped the commentary somewhat, and if you weren't near crowd centre you wouldn't have got the emotional hit of the warbirds flying through the 'V'. But still, this was unprecedented and unique. I personally remember it less as a feature of a flying display, and rather more a national ceremonial tribute.

While also retaining the segmented flying display ('Lazy Lunch' to group the quieter participants, for example), the Tattoo, now with Royal approval, subsequently ran other historical pageants. There were commemorations to mark the USAF and RAF 50th and 80th anniversaries, in 1997 and 1998 respectively, and 1999's Runway Salute to mark the half-century of NATO was similar to 1995 in having fast jets and helicopters massed in front of the crowd and flypasts above. But these never quite worked in the way they did in 1995. Why the Victory Salute was and remains special is not merely because of the sheer extravagance of it all, or even the participants, but just that that year's anniversaries made the Salute simply feel as if it was the right thing at the right time. It's perhaps inevitable that anything similar IAT subsequently attempted was always going to have an 'after the Lord Mayor's Show' feeling about it. '

More than this though, I've often thought this was the moment at which IAT truly did live up to its name as a Tattoo. The term 'military tattoo' is generally referred to as a catch-all for any sort of military display or performance. But originally, some would say properly, 'military tattoo' also has a ceremonial meaning. At events and festivals today this ceremony is a set-piece, a central focus crystallising the event. The finale of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo with the massed ranks of acts lined up in front of the assembled crowds is the perfect example.

And the Victory Salute at IAT95 provided this ceremony, this pomp and circumstance, this single iconic moment, which elevated the event from simply being a very large air show to something more. There were larger Tattoos in the years following 1995 and many more special, rare appearances and exciting displays.

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