2011 UK Airshows

JUL 21 2011
Airshows >> UK: Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) 2011 - Review

While RIAT does indeed remain the world's biggest military airshow and even though the event was celebrating its 40th birthday last weekend, sadly that doesn't make it immune from the many factors affecting airshows the world over.

Dwindling defence budgets, fewer aircraft (in type and overall numbers) and operational commitments were the backdrop to RIAT's birthday party, yet the show managed to retain its prestige and loyal following of supporters. For many, RIAT remains THE jewel in the crown of the airshow season and it will always hold a special place in the heart of many of the personnel and air forces which continue to support it.

The themes of this year's show were STAR 11 (STrike, Attack and Reconnaissance), Tiger 50 and of course the birthday celebration itself. The STAR theme was chosen due to the ongoing combat operations in theatres around the world, to which many of the countries that have so loyally attended RIAT over the years are playing a part.

Tiger 50 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the NATO Tiger Association which was officially formed in 1961, an association conceived to enhance co-operation between NATO members, many of which have brought their suitably adorned tiger schemed aircraft to the show over the years.

RIAT's 40th birthday meanwhile would, in an ideal world, have brought back a number of stars from previous Tattoos. Of course, this would never prove an especially easy task as many of those participants from shows-gone-by have either retired or are so few in number that the chances of them participating would range from impossible to extremely unlikely.

We would all love RIAT to recreate those lengthy lines of KC-135s, Phantoms and F-16s in the static park, or to see an F-104 howling around the skies. Circumstances dictate this is no longer possible though, but the event does continue to reach out and try to retain that key ingredient, namely aviation exotica, that has always been its hallmark.

It's unfortunate that in some quarters people still look at what we haven't got instead of what we have; preferring to concentrate on the cancellations rather than what is on the ground. Yes, of course it's disappointing when items drop off the list of announced participants, but imagine how it feels for those who have spent a huge amount of time and effort in getting those aircraft and their personnel to the stage where they commit to come to RIAT in the first place. Months of endeavour and planning go towards organising the displays on the ground and in the air, with things changing by the hour quite often; that's the nature of the airshow business.

I'd even go as far as to say that maybe we've come to take RIAT for granted somewhat. We've come to expect the very best from the show in terms of aircraft participation and we expect that to be achieved year on year, without fail, not withstanding what might be going in the world operationally and financially. If this is a show on the decline as some suggest, then it intrigued me greatly to see so many visitors from far flung destinations in the FRIAT enclosure. These people will have spent large sums of money to get there and therefore the show's reputation still apparently commands respect around the world given the multi-national flavour of its audience.

Whilst the overall quantity of aircraft of years gone by are a thing of the past, the quality of this year's line-up should be commended. Certainly I have not experienced a more colourful rendition of the event in recent years, both on the ground and in the air.

Credit must go to those air forces still able to devote the time and money to giving their aircraft such attractive colour schemes for us all to enjoy. If you looked closely enough, there were plenty of 'gems' at Fairford to enjoy, whatever your palette in terms of aviation.

Whilst prices continue to increase, as they do for many shows, I hasten to add, I for one still believe that RIAT offers excellent value for money in terms of a full day's entertainment. I think the comparison to a football match or concert is actually very relevant in terms of the short timescale of both of those events, compared to the hours of entertainment on offer at Fairford. You can't choose to ignore the cost of staging something like RIAT either; the rising cost of fuel, policing and insurance, all of which have been on the up and up in recent years, and those are costs that do have to be passed on by the organisers, as much as they may not wish to do so. It's a fact of life and you pay your money and take your choice, though the vast majority would still seem happy to come to RAF Fairford in July, given the 138,000 who attended over the show weekend.

One possible change I would like to examine with regard to the format of the show would be to condense the arrivals and get things going on the Thursday before show weekend, rather than the Wednesday. I feel the quantity of aircraft simply does not require this element to be spread out over such a period these days, with the Wednesday often becoming a rather slow, drawn out affair in recent years. Whether this is possible due to operational commitments, or in terms of arranging the static park, would have to be investigated.

From the Friends of the Royal International Air Tattoo (FRIAT) package point of view this could also offer a potential saving in terms of accommodation, which can be an expensive proposition these days.

For me, what lifted the show from that of recent years was the return of Russian hardware onto Fairford's expansive aprons in the shape of the Ukrainian Air Force and its Ilyushin Il-76 supporting the stunningly painted Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker. This was a return to the IATs of old, something special that you won't see anywhere else in the UK this year, and when they arrived there was a definite buzz around the venue.

The Flanker's buoyant departure on the Monday was proof that they had enjoyed themselves too! This gave the static a real boost this year, it was truly something that you wanted to go and see, rather than feeling you had to do as part of the show experience.

Other static stars included the exotically painted tiger section towards the western end of the showground, with French, Belgian and German aircraft all very much to the fore of the Tiger 50 celebrations.

Whilst many frowned at the seemingly dwindling presence of the USAF at the show, it's probably worth noting that there aren't many shows at which you would see a B-52, RC-135, E-6B and P-3C on the ground this year in the UK - none actually!

The public also got its first close up view of the RAF's new tanker aircraft, the A330 'Voyager' which made a particularly impressive departure on the Monday of the show, following its official naming ceremony on the Friday. Also making a debut at Fairford was the CASA C-295 AEW demonstrator which had only flown for the first time on June 7th this year.

The weather was a real mixture over the six days of the event and, considering some of the forecasts for the actual show weekend, it was really very fortunate that we got to see as much flying as we did overall. Certainly the hardy souls who braved the gates early on the Saturday could not have possibly imagined that they would require application of sun cream for most of that afternoon!

With such inclement conditions around, it's never an easy task for aircrews, the flying display director and team to manage the situation, but the weekend's flying was pretty fluid throughout; testament to the hard work of those involved.

Despite this there are still some who choose to complain about the decision to delay the start, especially on the Saturday, which I find very hard to understand, given that anyone could see how low the cloudbase really was.

In terms of the flying programme, most would agree that a trio of participants really caught the eye. The Italian C-27 Spartan took up the mantle set by its predecessors in the G-222 from IATs of old and took it to a new level with a stunning routine of looping and rolling manoeuvres.

Deservedly, the routine captured two awards at the Sunday night hangar party, the 'Sir Douglas Bader Trophy' for the best individual flying display and the 'As the Crow Flies Trophy', voted for by the FRIAT membership.

How the USAF A-10C West Coast Demonstration Team walked away without an award is a mystery to me, I have to say. Friday's routine was simply brilliant and whilst the technical issues that affected Saturday's display were disappointing for everyone, the team was right back on the money on Sunday.

Having been absent from the show since 2003, this was a display that held your attention from the word go, flown with gusto and always in front of the crowd; it felt like it was constantly in your face. Quite superb work from the West Coast Demonstration Team from the 355th Wg based at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, and headed up by demo pilot Captain Joe Shetterly.

The French Dassault Rafale was another much talked about show stopper and a lot of that talk focused on the competition between it and the BAE Systems flown Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4. Whilst the two are definite rivals in the market for fighter aircraft sales, the comparison for me was not really a fair one, in that the Rafale was clearly much more unrestricted in its 'clean' configuration.

In some ways I actually preferred the Typhoon display, it was much more convincing with its armed profile and that gave it a greater presence in the air. However, the Rafale probably just about deserved to receive the The Paul Bowen Trophy for the best Solo Jet Demonstration, presented to its pilot, Captain Michael 'Mikael' Brocard.

Obviously the dwindling number of different types of aircraft being flown today mean that, at a show the size of RIAT, there is always the potential for a number of countries to display the same aircraft. With no less than four F-16 demonstrations on the Sunday of the show, there was plenty of conjecture regarding the best performance out of the Dutch, Danish, Belgian and debuting Turkish demonstrations.

For me, the Danish example seemed to be distant compared to the others, whilst the Dutch routine didn't compare to that of recent seasons. The Turkish display just about won it on the Sunday, in my mind anyway; its stunning paint scheme was also a factor, and indeed its display was enough to scoop the King Hussein Memorial Sword for the Best Overall Flying Demonstration. Let's hope for further Turkish participation in years to come.

In the rotary battle, the Dutch and UK Army Air Corps Apache helicopters went head to head. It has to be said the Dutch display loses much from its routine without the flares, which were in evidence at the RNAS Yeovilton Air Day the previous week. Having said that, I'd have still said that the UK AAC display was better, being closer and in front of the crowd for more of the time. The Dutch team does have a superbly painted machine it has to be said, and the friendly distribution of team souvenirs amongst the crowd must also be commended.

The Dutch display was obviously impressive enough for some, however, claiming the Lockheed Martin Cannestra Trophy for the Best Flying Demonstration by an overseas participant.

Whilst on the subject of rotary contributions, there was a welcome return for the full RAF Chinook display after a number of role demonstrations at last year's airshows, and very impressive it is too!

The display team front was, as ever, very well provided for at Fairford with a notable first offering from the Royal Saudi Air Force with its six-ship of Hawk Mk.65s going by the name of the Saudi Hawks. It was pleasing that they got to display on the Sunday of the show and that the team's Fairford debut was not spent purely on the ground. Let us hope that this first visit results in a return with perhaps other offerings from that nation's impressive air force inventory in the years ahead.

While one has to feel sorry for Spain's Patrulla Aguila, which failed to get airborne at all over the weekend, for me personally, the Frecce Tricolori won the top prize with a typically entertaining and patriotic routine. Also notable was the first public four-ship display by the Breitling Wingwalkers which displayed with the Breitling Jet team to close the show on both days.

The RIAT 40th theme saw a number of aircraft and air forces participating that had been a part of that very first show at North Weald in 1971 and probably most poignant among them was the Old Flying Machine Company Spitfire MH434 which flew a lovely paired routine with stablemate P-51D Mustang 'Ferocious Frankie'.

The Austrian Air Force also attended that first show forty years ago with an S-65OE - the designation that air arm gave to the CH-53. The Austrian offering to the flying display four decades later was an attractive tiger schemed Saab 105OE, which got things going on the Sunday of the show with a fluid aerobatic routine.

Again, circumstances around the world probably put paid to something even more elaborate to mark the show's own impressive birthday milestone, whilst it may also be a case of not wishing to be seen to over indulge too much in these difficult times.

Perhaps one of the most talked about aspects of the show amongst enthusiasts had nothing to do with jet noise at all, but rather the appearance of X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke on stage during the show. For many this represents the diversification of the show away from its military / aviation focus and sums up a trend towards the family day out which the air tattoo has become.

Personally I don't have a major issue with it, as airshows have always been a family day out and not merely for the hardened aviation enthusiast. It is no different to a fun fair at Waddington in terms of something different, a break away from the aircraft noise for those who wish to seek it.

Perhaps this diversification has become more apparent in recent years, hand in hand with an increasingly corporate focus, but I don't feel this has left the hardened Fairford devotee especially worse off as the aircraft participation is a completely separate issue.

Of course, RIAT has set the bar very high over the 40 years of its existence and has not been afraid to promote itself as the biggest and best airshow in the world. But that title is a very subjective thing, particularly amongst the aviation enthusiast community.

The same issues seem to recur year on year, whether a certain aircraft should be at the show, that there are too many display teams, that the flying display being too long etc, the list goes on and will no doubt be prevalent once again ahead of the 2012 event. But you have to congratulate the people who have made this show what it is, particularly the sterling work of its volunteers who are true unsung heroes, often under the public radar when they walk through those gates over the show weekend.

RIAT has changed and will keep on changing, and whether the public stays with the show or chooses to move on will only be seen in the years to come. Personally, I hope to enjoy many more weekends in the lovely Cotswolds.

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