The Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), held annually at RAF Fairford, has gained itself a reputation like no other airshow in the United Kingdom. Its rich history has provided enthusiasts from all over the world a chance to enjoy a wide variety of exotic aeroplanes and indeed, though the so-called “glory days” may be a ghost of RIAT’s past, the Air Tattoo still attracts impressive aircraft participation that makes the airshow one of Europe’s best. Kieran Lear was on hand to review the 2015 edition.
Driving around the familiar Cotswolds countryside early Friday morning, the names of Lechlade, Whelford, Kempsford and Fairford flash by on the road signs; it must be RIAT week. It’s impressive to think an event that’s spent almost half a century catering to the aviation enthusiast can still provide exciting, unique displays of military might that keep people coming back for more year on year. It’s the aviation version of Glastonbury, for sure. Rumours of headline acts start to flood aviation forums months in advance; some with an ounce of validity, others so far-fetched that former German AF MiG-29 pilots would be laughing well into next year. People of many nationalities flood to Gloucestershire from across the globe to invade a normally sleepy United States Air Force base once a year and turn it into an aviation mecca. You’d imagine the atmosphere to be electric and that was exactly how it was. RIAT’s like an old friend. Having been fortunate to attend these airshows since childhood, I always smile as I drive down the A417 through Fairford’s picturesque countryside.
2015 would be quite an important year for RIAT; the first year for new Chief Executive Andy Armstrong, who succeeded Tim Prince, the co-founder of the airshow back in 1971. It would also be an important year due to the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and with prominent military budget cuts and more aeroplanes becoming dormant by the year, the pressure was on Mr. Armstrong to deliver a programme that could appeal to everyone from the youngster only interested in the Red Arrows to the Air Tattoo stalwart, desperate to catch those F-5 Freedom Fighters in sunshine. Did RIAT 2015 deliver? Yes, I think it bloody well did!
It’s almost too easy to criticise modern military airshows, none more so than RIAT, given the event’s illustrious history and mid-1990s peak. Yes, the quantity of aeroplanes that once attended the Air Tattoo will never be repeated but the quality can still be found. 2015 was no exception with an abundance of rare highlights both in the flying and static displays. Star of the flying programme was undoubtedly the debut by both nation and aircraft in a UK flying display; that being the quite funky Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft, which only entered Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) service in 2009. Whilst the aerial display was quite short, the P-1’s routine was all the more impressive due to the spirited take-off and vigorous manoeuvring whilst re-positioning. An example could also be found on the ground, parked next to its United States rival, the P-8A Poseidon. Whilst the P-8A retains the clean lines of the Boeing 737, the P-1 is almost a lovechild between P-3 Orion and Douglas DC-8 with lumps and bumps pointing every which way but loose.
To some enthusiasts, the involvement of the JMSDF proved RIAT still “had it”, and equally demonstrated the high regard the airshow still holds with foreign air arms. RIAT also had the honour of hosting the first visit of a Japanese aircraft at a UK airshow when in 2012, a Boeing KC-767 attended in the static display. A repeat in 2014 and the debut of the P-1 from the JMSDF has only strengthened RIAT’s relationship with the Japanese, and long may this relationship blossom.
However, it isn’t just the latest in cutting technology that RIAT triumphed with in 2015. Indeed, whilst aeroplanes from the Cold War were as frequent attendees during the event’s golden years as Fairford stalwart Bruno Stocker now is, Douglas Bader House has done well to continue to attract these charismatic aeroplanes despite their dwindling numbers. Whilst 2014 saw the participation of the superb A-7 Corsair for the final time courtesy of the Hellenic Air Force, as well as the show-stopping pairs routine of the Polish AF SU-22M4 role demonstration, 2015 welcomed several Cold War brutes to its static display, courtesy of the Spanish Air Force, United States Air Force and Polish Air Force respectively.
A single SU-22 made a welcome return to the RIAT static display – a thoroughly well-received participant due to the nation’s links with the Battle of Britain – more on which later, whilst the USAF made a solid contribution to the static display which included a pair of A-10C Thunderbolt IIs. The venerable ‘Warthogs’ are currently on detachment from their base in the USA to RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk. Perhaps the undoubted stars of the static for the enthusiast were the pair of Northrop SF-5M Freedom Fighters from the Spanish Air Force. For as long as one can recall, SF-5s have sat at the very top of the RIAT bucket-list, and 2015 was finally the year to catch these incredibly rare jets in the UK. Whilst the weather did its best to spoil the arrival of the pair on Thursday, the RIAT team’s terrific coup cannot be overlooked.
The Spanish also contributed to the flying display, with the national team Patrulla Acrobatica Aguila making a return to RAF Fairford after a four-year hiatus. Whilst not the most dynamic aerobatic team in Europe, some manoeuvres like the solo negative-G loop and formation landing are unique to the team and it is fantastic to see the Spanish supporting the UK the way they have done. Unfortunately the team succumbed to the worst weather on each of the main airshow days, so were largely restricted to a flat routine throughout. I say “worst”; whilst it was marginally sunny during their routine on Saturday, the cloud base was still relatively low which forced a restricted routine from the team.
Other national display teams included the Swiss PC-7 Team, Royal Jordanian Falcons, La Patrouille de France and, as ever, the Red Arrows. The Jordanians should be commended for their continued support of the Air Tattoo, and despite the criticism they receive online, the flying programme just wouldn’t feel right without the familiar sound of the four Extra EA-300Ls in action over Fairford!
The PC-7 Team continue to impress and the inclusion of a smoke system, introduced in their 25th display season in 2014, adds to the spectacle. The Swiss Air Force demonstration teams have always had excellent precision in their routines and the PC-7 Team is no exception. Displaying with the team and making a welcome return to the flying display was the Swiss Air Force AS532 Super Puma, itself a highly popular demo aircraft at any airshow it attends.
La Patrouille de France are another RIAT regular, and they continue to impress me every time I see them; if there’s one display team which manages to maintain the continuous flow and pace of manouvres whilst keeping the crowd enthralled, it’s La Patrouille. Their routine is quite simply aerial art. For years, I’ve said La Patrouille are one of, if not the best, aerobatic team for introducing innovative new manoeuvres each year to keep their routine fresh and exciting.
Continuing with the French theme, RIAT 2015 gave Ramex Delta their UK airshow debut and, by GOD, they didn’t disappoint. These guys really are a big deal; their routine is everything you want from a role demonstration. For those wanting repeats of the popular “Voltage Victor” and “Raffin Mike” close formation duos from years gone by, that isn’t what Ramex are all about – though the pair stick together like glue throughout the majority of their routine. It was just two beautiful looking jets beating the holy hell out of the place, and long may they continue to do so! Whilst not trophy winners, Ramex Delta are without doubt worthy of a gong in future years; they’re just another act in the long list of French displays that continue to wow spectators and enthusiasts alike.
It should also be mentioned that due to technical difficulties shortly after take-off on Sunday, No.2 Mirage 2000N had to land, but this allowed a solo 2000N to perform the same routine, and whilst not having the same impact as the two-ship did, who’s really going to complain at seeing a solo Mirage 2000 in the RIAT flying display once more? Commendable too, as normally the display would have ended completely, but kudos to Ramex Delta for continuing their routine with reduced numbers.
The Red Arrows led a superb contingent of aircraft from the UK Armed Forces, both in the flying and static displays. In the static display alone, I believe the omission of RAF C-17 and RAF Sentinel R1 scuppered the tantalising thought of having all RAF air assets in one place at one time. It was pleasing to see the return to the static park of RAF E-3D Sentry AEW1 and C-130J Hercules, both rare participants for the RIAT. Also making its RIAT debut in the static park was an A400M Atlas coming from 70 Squadron based just down the road at RAF Brize Norton. Airbus Demonstrators’ A400M once again returned to the flying programme and it’s a display that continues to seriously impress; worthy, no doubt, of a trophy.
It was also superb to see so many special-schemed RAF aircraft in the static park, with an abundance of Typhoon and Tornado aircraft dotted around RAF Fairford. The latter in particular is an Air Tattoo favourite and 2015 saw a feature on the 35th anniversary of Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) both in the flying and static displays. In the static, three examples of the Tornado from Great Britain, Italy and Germany lined up next to each other, each with unique vinyl tail art depicting the anniversary, whilst in the flying programme, a three-ship joined together for a series of flypasts, harking back to the old Cottesmore days in the 1990s. Whilst the idea on paper was superb, the outcome was rather subdued with three flypasts from the same direction straight and level counting as the “TTTE reunion”, with lengthy gaps between each pass. Nevertheless, the sight of three Tornados together once again was a nice inclusion in a rammed flying programme, and it’s hard to complain too much given how little we see the type flying at UK airshows.
Further RAF participation in the flying display included the always impressive Chinook HC4 display and the excellent Typhoon FGR4 solo display. In my opinion, the Typhoon was one of the best solo jets at this year’s RIAT and it seems 29 Sqn are comfortable exploring just what Typhoon can really do during the demo. Another example was also used in a hugely emotional duo display with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IIa P7350. Just like the 70th anniversary in 2010, the RAF have amalgamated Spitfire and Typhoon to demonstrate the enormous heritage of our air force and offer a poignant reminder of the brave men and women who defended our skies in 1940.
It’s a simple routine but my word is it impressive. There’s something so haunting about a Spitfire leading the latest in modern military technology; like it can still do its job securing our skies. And the cruel irony is we all look today at the “baby” Spits as being the most majestic and beautiful, yet the truth is so many lives were lost flying those aeroplanes in the name of freedom.
The Spitfire and Typhoon together is also a symbolic reminder of our proud Air Force’s historical exploits. One of, if not the most famous fighter in the world coupled with a state-of-the-art machine that continues to draw youngsters into the Careers Office – I’d challenge anyone not to get emotional listening to the beautiful symphony of Rolls-Royce Merlin and Eurojet EJ-200. Simply wonderful stuff, and a reminder that despite the controversial state the RAF’s inventory is in at present, no-one can ever take away the RAF’s heritage.
Another aircraft which is closely linked to the RAF’s heritage is the Avro Vulcan – the infamous delta-winged lady that’s been so close to many people’s hearts since that legendary mid-October day back in 2007, when the aircraft returned to flight after a lengthy period of restoration. 2015 is its final year flying, after which it will be grounded at Doncaster Sheffield Airport and continue to be maintained to inspire future aerospace engineers and such-like.
Given the depth and quality in RIAT 2015’s flying programme, it’s fair to say no one would have expected the Vulcan to be considered one of the best displays of the weekend. But that’s exactly what happened on the Saturday, and in a magic section of the flying programme, it turned out to be one of *those* displays which, like the two Lancasters, like the 16-ship Spitfire set-piece at Duxford, you can say “I was there.” It was a display that really showed what the Vulcan is all about; noise and manoeuvrability. Trademark howls and tight wingovers, with the angle of the last wingover forcing many to pick their bottom jaws from the ground. It was a phenomenal moment. Men and women whooping and hollering in amazement at the Vulcan firstly climbing almost vertically into the clear blue skies before rolling well beyond the knife-edge. It really was a tremendous occasion that showed the level of affection the crowds have for this airshow queen.
Whilst Sunday’s routine was not quite as vigorous as Saturday’s, plenty of XH558’s trademark’s were much in evidence and contrary to much of what has been written online, the displays were far from dissimilar, in my view. A most pleasing sight to see was XH558 in formation with the Red Arrows – a combination that may not be seen again. No matter what people say about the organisation or the aeroplane, the Avro Vulcan will be missed. It’s incredible to think a 60 year-old classic jet took away the “As the Crow Flies” trophy for Best Display, voted for by the hard-to-please FRIAT enthusiasts.
Making welcome returns to the RIAT flying programme and bolstering an impressive selection of modern military aircraft were the Slovenian PC-9M Swift and Finnish F-18C Hornet, each trophy winners. The Slovenians have long been supportive of UK airshows since the PC-9 display debuted at Mildenhall Air Fete in 2000, and the sequence is particularly punchy. Similarly, the Finns have taken the F-18C demonstration into a league of its own and it’s a most impressive routine, further proving the tremendous capability of the Hornet family.
RIAT wouldn’t be the same without an F-16 or two and in 2015, the honours went to Greece and Belgium; the former providing a UK debut for their hit F-16 display, Zeus. Whilst the Belgian F-16 display is a regular on the RIAT flying programme, as mentioned the Hellenic F-16 was a first for the Air Tattoo. It’s a demonstration rather than a display and whilst Zeus remained quite flat throughout the routine, it offered the crowds a chance to see what an F-16 can do as both a pretty, angular jet and agile, robust brute. One must also be thankful for the Greek contribution to the programme, given the country’s economic instability at the time of the Tattoo.
The Air Tattoo isn’t just about fast jet demonstrations, however. Whilst there are inevitably those who crave their afterburner fix, there’s a lot more to a RIAT than a procession of F-16s and Typhoons. In the flying display, two different demonstrations of the Westland Apache were showcased, coming from the Royal Netherlands Air Force and UK Army Air Corps. The Dutch continue to show how nimble their attack helicopter can be, whilst the AAC offered a chance to show ‘Joe Public’ the operational profile of the Apache. The addition of an extra Apache AH1 added extra ‘oomph’ to the routine and the sight of two of these menacing beasts prowling the RIAT display line was most excellent.
The United States Air Force also contributed a flying display participant for the first time since the excellent A-10C Thunderbolt solo display in 2011. This came courtesy of 7 SOS based at RAF Mildenhall in the form of a CV-22B Osprey role demonstration. Whilst the Osprey is no stranger to RIAT – Bell/Boeing demonstrators brought four machines to the UK in 2006 and 2012 – this would be the UK debut of a USAF CV-22B routine, and mightily impressive it was too.
One example could also be spotted in the showground, resting next to its Mildenhall stablemate in the form of MC-130J Commando Solo II. Further United States contributions to the static park came from a KC-135R Stratotanker, a pair of F-15C/Ds, and an excellent pairing of US Army AH-64 and UH-60 Blackhawk, as well as the aforementioned pair of A-10Cs and P-8A Poseidon.
So healthy it was to see a static display inundated with aeroplanes and one of these, which was also making a RIAT debut, was the Qatari Air Force, who brought an immaculate C-130J Hercules. Further Herc’ examples were brought over courtesy of the Belgians and Dutch – the latter also brought along a lovely KDC-10 and CH-47F Chinook. Unfortunately, the sight of seeing the Otto Smik schemed Spitfire Mk.XVI TE184 parked next to the Smik painted L-39 Albatros of the Slovak Air Force will have to wait for another RIAT, as the Slovaks disappointingly cancelled their RIAT commitments at the eleventh hour. A great shame, given the Battle of Britain connections. With 2015 being the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a large portion of the flying programme was dedicated to a tribute saluting the conflict. Whilst not linked with the main tribute, several European solo displays which performed over the weekend came from countries that have enormous links with the Battle; Poland and the Czech Republic.
The latter sent over several aircraft; an L-159 ALCA and Mi-35 Hind for the flying display, whilst another Mi-35, with some lovely special scheme Coastal Command B-24 Liberator artwork applied (more on which soon on GAR), and a CASA C295M graced the static park. The Polish, as well as exhibiting the aforementioned SU-22, also sent a C295M, M-28 Bryza and Mi-14 for static display, as well as the MiG-29 solo display. The MiG-29 display is, in one word, outstanding. It’s very rare for a 1970-era classic to be at the very pinnacle of the fast-jet display rankings, especially when the likes of Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon seem to dominate, but the Poles have really nailed it. It all starts with a quite absurd, snappy take-off and ends with a succession of four aileron rolls into the downwind, with everything from knife-edge passes to tailslides in between. Never have I seen a MiG-29 displayed with so much punch and manoeuvrability!
For the 75th anniversary commemorations, the main set-piece was appropriately left to the warbirds and an impressive 18 aircraft lined up on Fairford’s runway to take centre stage mid-afternoon. Leading the ‘Balbo’ flypast was Battle of Britain veteran Spitfire Mk.IIa P7350, closely flanked by a further Battle of Britain veteran, Hurricane Mk.I R4118. As the fighters lifted into the air to fly a wide circle to the South, Volker Bau kept the crowd’s attention as he displayed the EADS Messerschmitt Bf-109G-4. Whilst we were shamefully deprived of seeing ‘Red 7’ do anything beyond being part of a similar formation back in 2010, it was truly excellent to see this beast performing a solo routine and indeed, the aircraft flew two separate solos on Saturday.
In fact, this whole segment of the commemorations was, in my mind, absolutely spot on. Following the Bf-109 were multiple flypasts from the fighter formation (flying in tactical ‘vic’ and ‘finger four’ formations) before those elements broke to land. John Romain also gave an excellent account of the Bristol Blenheim Mk.IF, a largely forgotten aeroplane which fought with tremendous valour during the Battle, whilst the main formation repositioned. The other ‘joker’ displays came from Spitfire Mk.XVIIIe SM845 and HA-1112-M1L Buchon, flown by Ian Smith and Steve Jones respectively. Commentary for the tribute, and for the whole weekend came courtesy of Ben Dunnell and Mark Mainwaring, both of whom did a thoroughly excellent job. Ben’s passion for aviation is always evident, particularly when delivered pre-prepared material during significant anniversary commemorations, where he meshes historical context with air displays perfectly.
The weekend also enjoyed some lovely weather; something RIAT hasn’t had the most fortune with in recent years. With the exception of Sunday morning being overcast and rather cold, the rest of the weekend was blessed with some gorgeous conditions that certainly made up for the cloud and clag that blighted the arrivals days. It’s amazing how much the weather has an effect on an event. Once the sun broke through the Sunday, the atmosphere in the showground was electric, with an abundance of things to see and do and look at for all ages. With the flying programme producing some of the best content I’ve seen at RIAT since the mid 2000s, it was quite difficult to complete a thorough look-around the showground. It also made choosing food and drink breaks difficult, but when I eventually drew myself away from the crowdline, I found that to place my order and be back in my spot watching the flying took a matter of minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever had the option of eating a Beef & Ale pie during a flying display before; it just proves soggy burgers and dodgy chips can be a thing of the past!
Never have I been so impressed with the services provided by an airshow. It just shows how valuable these “service stations” have become, as not once did I see a lengthy queue for any amenities. They’re a credit to the RIAT organisation and something which the team has nailed. Other areas such as the Vintage Village and Techno Zone also proved popular for spectators; it just proves RIAT can balance non-aviation attractions with a superb enthusiast-friendly programme. Traffic was of no bother, either. Of course, when you’re attending the biggest airshow in the UK, you’re always going to experience queues in some form and after a little delay on the Sunday morning, we were parked up and walking into showground within minutes. The major problems getting out were experienced on the motorways whilst heading for home, and were no fault of RIAT’s!
RIAT is still at the top of its game. Though many people refuse to remove those rose-tinted spectacles and continue to compare RIATs of the 21st centry to Air Tattoos of old, the airshow still provides top quality entertainment and a stellar flying display. Coupled with beautiful weather and some excellent flying displays, RIAT 2015 will go down as one of the best in recent years.