For many an enthusiast, the Royal International Air Tattoo is the unrivalled highlight of the airshow season. Shaun Schofield joined thousands of others in making the week-long pilgrimage to the Cotswolds.
As weeks go, the previous one has been rather special. With one of the most promising flying displays for years on the cards, and some rare gems earmarked for the static display, RIAT 2014 had the potential to be a modern classic, and for me at least, delivered in spades.
In the build-up to the show, organisers had come under fire on social media and the like, firstly for not booking the Vulcan, and then for announcing the disappointing, but wholly understandable, cancellation of the international début of the F-35.
Come show weekend, however, I’m not sure many present missed them at all, such was the quality of aircraft on show.
In a revised format, this year’s show included an additional day of flying on the Friday.
As the main theme for the show, the 50th anniversary of the Red Arrows provided the focus for this extra day, the ‘Pit Day’ offering a chance for the public to get up close and personal with the aircraft and aircrew of the Reds and the other teams who were joining in the celebrations.
In the afternoon, a four-hour flying programme took place, featuring a handful of solo acts in addition to the Patrouille de France and Red Arrows displays. The highlight of the afternoon’s flying came from a unique series of flypasts which saw the nine Hawks of the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team joined by the team leaders of the Patrouille de France, Breitling Jet Team, Patrouille Suisse and Frecce Tricolori, to celebrate a landmark 50 display seasons of the Reds.
This additional day of flying had a knock-on effect on the arrivals, condensing the Wednesday and Thursday into much busier days than they might have otherwise been. This was good news for those gathered in the park and view enclosures, offering two bumper days to catch the stars of the static arriving, of which there were many, and, while overall numbers were down on the glory days of old, there’s no doubt that it was a case of quality over quantity.
Attractive tiger schemes were on show courtesy of a Norwegian F-16AM, Spanish EF-18B and German Tornado ECR, the latter in a particularly stunning livery. Lithuania attended with a C-27J for the first time, the Portuguese provided a C-295 MPA, which made a fantastic low fly-by on arrival, there were C-130s aplenty, including exotic examples from Oman and Algeria, and the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force made a welcome return to the show with an example of the KC-767J.
It was also great to see the USAF return to the show with an F-15E and KC-135 after last year’s sequestration-enforced hiatus.
The undoubted stars of the static, however, came courtesy of the Hellenic Air Force, which provided two stunning examples of the venerable A-7 Corsair II. Time is short for these old workhorses, with their retirement due in October, so this was a great coup for RIAT, offering one last chance for an audience outside of Greece to see the type.
Whilst the two seater was in a standard, albeit new glossy, retro version of the camouflage scheme, the single seater was adorned in a superb black and silver ‘Olympus’ special scheme, with an ‘Air Tattoo ’14’ addition, fully deserving of the Best Paint Scheme award at the show.
A long running frustration for many during arrivals is the relative lack of action for those in the Western Park and View. On several occasions, arriving aircraft would vacate the runway early, rather than take to the loop taxiway, denying paying punters a chance to see the aircraft up-close.
This seems a little unfair when they pay the same money as those in the Eastern Park and View, who get far better value for money, and it doesn’t seem outside the realms of possibility for air traffic to direct more aircraft down that way.
The weekend showdays saw a packed eight-hour flying display, full of killer, with very little filler.
Whilst the likes of the Royal Jordanian Falcons and the Jet Team and Wingwalkers of Breitling may not be everyone’s cup of tea, they are certainly deserving of their place at the show, not least due to the relationships between the show and the team, the Jordanians especially, who have been terrific supporters of the show for decades now.
That said, the real attraction to the flying display is of course the military might on show.
Featuring five national display teams, a host of helicopter and transport types, and no less than 13 fast jet displays, the organisers had pulled together an eclectic and varied array of types not seen at a UK show for many years. No mean feat in these difficult times.
Of course, the UK services were out in force, with the RAF contributing its whole range of display teams, excluding the Tutor. Typhoon, Tucano, Chinook, a full complement from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the Red Arrows were all put through their paces in what turned out to be a productive, award-winning weekend.
As a birthday surprise, the Reds received the Steadman Display Sword for the best flying display by a UK participant, whilst Flt Lt Noel Rees bagged the Paul Bowen Trophy for the best fast jet solo, a great result against such stiff competition.
Not to be outdone, the Army Air Corps provided its Apache role demonstration, complete with pyros which made a suitable mess of the airfield in the process, whilst the Lynx AH7 performed its typically-excellent aerobatic sequence, earning the crew the King Hussein Memorial Sword for the best overall flying demonstration.
A fitting send off in what is probably the last year the Army will be displaying the type and well done to Warrant Officer One Mick Kildea (aircraft captain and flying pilot) and Captain Neill Posthumus (co-pilot) of 671 Sqn Army Air Corps.
The senior service also got in on the act, eventually! After suffering serviceability problems with the Merlin HM2 throughout Friday and Saturday, they were able to display on the Sunday, offering a late chance to see the impressive helicopter put through its paces.
Italy is a notoriously strong supporter of RIAT, but this year they really pushed the boat out, providing no less than five items in the flying display. Naturally, the Frecce Tricolori were present to join in the Reds’ celebrations, and were given the honour of closing the show on the Sunday with a typically flamboyant routine, earning themselves the Lockheed Martin Cannestra Trophy for best flying display by an overseas participant in the process.
Returning from 2013 were the Typhoon and the ever-popular C-27J Spartan. In a much-improved display from last year, the former put on a rip-roaring, dynamic routine, seemingly flown at a million miles an hour, whilst the latter flew its familiar, but no-less-impressive routine, full of loops, rolls, quarter clovers and knife edge passes.
Seeing a transport aircraft thrown around like that never gets boring and hopefully the Spartan will be back in 2015.
Tornado displays are becoming a rare sight these days, sadly, so it was a real treat to see an Italian example thrown around with plenty of gusto and verve, laced with lashings of afterburner and sheer noise, everything that typifies what is great about the aircraft.
It’s a great shame that we have to rely on the Italian to provide a Tornado display these days, following the withdrawal of the hugely popular and much missed RAF Tornado GR4 Role Demo. Fingers crossed that might return next season.
Even rarer than that, however, is an AMX display. It’s been more than decade since one was last seen in a UK flying display, and as such represents a real coup for the team at Douglas Bader House. Very much an aircraft type for the enthusiasts, the AMX was demonstrated with pin-point precision, offering plenty of views of the little jet in various configurations to please spectator and photographer alike.
It’s a shame it didn’t receive an award, because it was fully deserving of one.
Switzerland also provided plenty of support to the show. Like the Frecce, the Patrouille Suisse came over to join in the Red Arrows’ party, in what it also their own 50th Anniversary year.
The team always performs a flawless display, but it was refreshing to see some new manoeuvres introduced into the 2014 routine.
Further rotary action was provided by the Swiss Air Force Super Puma, another type seldom seen in the UK.
The routine demonstrated the aircraft’s power and relative agility, including several interesting manoeuvres, most notably the backwards 360-degree turn and the vertical roll as the aircraft descended. Impressive stuff, and a display we will hopefully see more of in the future.
Bringing the noise from Switzerland was the hugely impressive F/A-18C Hornet display. Pilot Julien ‘Teddy’ Meister received plenty of plaudits for his display at Waddington the previous weekend, and reaped similar accolades at RIAT with another powerful display highlighting the Hornet’s supreme agility.
Saturday’s high show enabled Teddy to perform no less than three of the incredible pirouette manoeuvres unique to the Swiss demo, whilst Sunday’s low show enabled the aircraft to squeeze every last bit of moisture out of the air as vapour poured off it in the damp conditions. A simply superb demonstration of fast jet display flying.
The Swiss wasn’t the only Hornet operator on show, with the US Navy sending one of its F/A-18F Super Hornets on behalf of Boeing, as is customary in a Farnborough year. There’s no denying that the Super Hornet is a huge step up in capability from its older relative, and this was evident from the ridiculous ease with which the aircraft manoeuvres, particularly at low-speed, high angles of attack.
It’s an immense display, but was sadly let down by the height at which it was flown, making it much too distant from the crowd. Further disappointment came when the aircraft departed Fairford for Farnborough on the Sunday morning and didn’t return. As a result, the bragging rights must go to the Swiss and the legacy Hornet.
Speaking of bragging rights, there’s always a healthy dose of friendly competition amongst the F-16 operators.
We’ve regularly seen duels between the Dutch and Belgians at RIATs past, but this year, the Turks decided to get in on the act as well, with their Solo Turk returning for the first time since it’s 2011 début. Particularly fitting given the show’s secondary theme celebrating the type’s 40th anniversary.
Each display was very different from the next, with Solo Turk bringing the flair (and an excitable commentator!), whilst the Dutch routine focused on speed and power. It was the Belgian routine that proved the pick of the bunch – a beautiful, flowing display of precision manoeuvres, a vast improvement from last year’s routine.
It seems pilot Renaud ‘Grat’ Thys is going out on a high in what is his final season as display pilot, a sentiment clearly shared by the judging panel as Grat was awarded the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for best individual display.
Poland has been a welcome supporter of the show in recent years and once again returned in force, providing two flying items. Having made their international début at RIAT in 1998, it was good to see the Team Orlik return once again.
Flying a seven ship of the indigenous PZL-130 Turbo Orlik aircraft, the display includes a series of graceful formations and dynamic breaks in a quaint, but none-the-less enjoyable display given their mount. A stark contrast to Poland’s second contribution.
When the announcement was made that the Su-22 Fitter role demonstration had been added to the flying display, a wave of excitement and anticipation ripped through internet message boards and fora.
Russian hardware has become something of the Holy Grail amongst enthusiasts, so the chance to see these two Cold War warriors in a UK flying display for the first time would surely provide one of the season’s highlights.
In truth, the display was far from the most dynamic – understandable given the aircraft’s vintage and performance, but then it didn’t need to be. What it did offer was the chance to see these powerful and imposing aircraft at close range, high, low, fast and slow and in a range of configurations, in what is essentially a role demonstration.
The excitement and anticipation in the build-up to the show became almost tangible as the aircraft taxied onto the runway each day, reaching its peak at the end of the display when the aircraft performed a series of missed approaches, turning away at crowd centre and unleashing a thunderous noise as their mighty afterburners engaged with their tell-tale explosion, the smell of unburned kerosene filling the air.
For many, me included, they provided the real star turn for the show. This is exactly the sort of display act that separates RIAT from the other shows, with the clear intention of satisfying the enthusiast. This was evident as the team, Maj Bartlomiej Mejka and Capt Radosław Leszczyk of Polish Air Force 21st Air Base, won the As The Crow Flies Trophy for best demonstration as voted for by FRIAT. Incredibly, this is the first award the team has ever won!; let’s just hope they come back to defend their trophy next year!
More fast jet action came courtesy of the Swedish Air Force and its superb Saab Gripen display. The Swedes really set the bar last year with a new and improved routine and have continued where they left off this year, with the additions of smoke-winders to further enhance the display. A real rip-roaring display, full of tight turns and rapid rolls; the Gripen really punches above its weight.
Two training types completed the fast jet line up. Austria has been a supporter of the show ever since the first event at North Weald in 1971, and continued its affiliation with a solo display by the distinctive tiger-schemed Saab J105 in a punchy routine, full of impressive vertical manoeuvres and plenty of noise that belies the jet’s diminutive size.
Another returnee from 2013 was the Estonian Air Force, once again bringing its L-39 solo. In fairness, it’s difficult for a jet like the Albatross to make much of an impact at a venue like Fairford, but nevertheless, it’s great to see a nation like Estonia make what for them must be a sizeable commitment to display at RIAT, given their limited resources; the one L-39 in attendance reportedly represented 50% of the fleet! Kudos must also go to the pilot, who volunteered to fill the gap left by the F-35’s no show.
With Bastille Day celebrations taking place immediately after the show, French participation was sadly down on what would normally be expected. It was left to the Patrouille de France to display their typically smooth, polished routine on the Friday and Saturday as part of the Red Arrows celebrations. With the team departing for home early Sunday morning, visitors were treated to a departure from their support C-160, complete with a friendly wing waggle.
By far the largest aircraft in the flying display was the ever-impressive A400M, provided by Airbus. The crew, headed by Brit Ed Strongman, flew the socks of the aircraft in a display full of huge wingovers and impressive steep climbs, whilst the added moisture in the air on Sunday saw the aircraft producing fighter-esque levels of vapour. Splufftastic!
The A400M was one of a large contingent of aircraft that were combining RIAT with appearances at Farnborough. This provided Sunday’s audience with the opportunity to see these participants move from the static display and depart for Farnborough, including Beechcraft’s pair of Texans and RUAG’s Super Puma.
The highlight of these departures though was surely the intriguing Textron Airland Scorpion, which was making its international début at the show. Unfortunately, the P-8 Poseidon that had pride of place in the static park didn’t depart until after the show; a great shame for those of us who didn’t get to see the aircraft arrive.
There can be no doubting that RIAT 2014 was an undoubted success. A flying display full of quality as well as quantity and a static park featuring some real gems, the team at DBH put together a fantastic show at a time where securing rare and exotic military participation is as difficult as it’s ever been.
Sure, we’d all love to see rows and rows of aircraft adorning the static park, but the reality is those days are long gone. For the team to secure in excess of 200 aircraft from 27 countries is an impressive achievement, for which they should be applauded. After setting such a high standard in 2014, let’s hope they can continue the momentum and produce another bumper show in 2015. I’ll see you there!