For one week a year, air forces from all over the world gather in the Cotswolds to participate the world’s largest military air show – The Royal International Air Tattoo.
With 2008’s show cancelled last minute due to waterlogged car parks and a disappointing show in 2011, the team behind RIAT were under real pressure to organise a show that would impress the aviation community as well as the general public. 2011’s show was plagued by mistakes and complaints; the commentary couldn’t be heard over the noise from the fun fair and concert stage, the static aircraft were poorly laid out, the organisers were spending too much money on B-list singers instead of focusing on the aircraft taking part – I could go on and on. These feelings were felt all over the enthusiast community and RIAT had to listen and react.
In the months running up to the show it was clear that the team were really trying hard to correct the mistakes that had been made in the previous year with a growing participation list of ‘star items’. All was looking great and then just weeks before the event the organisers announced one final item (albeit static only) that would no doubt please the majority of the enthusiast community – a B2 stealth bomber of the USAF – last seen at the Air Tattoo in 1999.
The week leading up to the show saw an awful lot of rain in much of the country and fears that the show would be cancelled as it was in 2008 were certainly clear. RIAT assured us that the show would go ahead and that lessons had been learnt from the 2008 cancellation. So, with waterproof gear packed it was time to set off on the Saturday morning and head for RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.
Traffic didn’t seem as bad as it had been in previous years and I was in the airfield by about 8am, that meant that there was just a couple of hours to kill before the show began. The forecast for Saturday was light rain almost all day but I’m glad to say that it turned out to just be a few showers here and there with some very grey skies.
The flying display started at just gone 10am with the RAF King Air display but the first item I was really interested in was the Yak-130 – the latest jet trainer to come out of Russia and the aircraft that will supposedly equip both Russian display teams in the near future. The pilot gave a nice display but with it being such a small aircraft, even 300mm wasn’t enough to do it justice.
The first fast jet display of the day was the Belgian F-16 but sadly not in the display aircraft as this had gone unusable earlier in the week and stayed at home. A superb display as always by the Belgians with some great tight manoeuvres and fast passes. The F-16 is still a favourite of mine and just has the looks of a pure fighter aircraft.
The fast jet action didn’t stop there, soon after the Belgian F-16 had landed, the Saab Gripen took to the air to give a brilliant display which really showed off the capabilities of the multi-role aircraft. Both the F-16 ad Gripen used smoke winders in their displays and it really adds another dimensions to an already interesting display – RAF take note!
Flying the F-5E Tiger II, the Swiss display team were up next. I always look forward to seeing the Patrouille Suisse perform – they fly a very tight formation section and then split up for the second half of their display. The attractive white and red paint scheme really helps them stand out in the dull grey sky.
One of the highlights of the flying display for me was the Polish MiG-29 Fulcrum – I saw it for the first time last year at Air Day and it was fantastic so I was pleased to see it on the flying programme for this year at Fairford. Possibly one of the best fast jet displays I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing – its take off alone is enough to leave your hairs standing on end. A much tighter display than last year meant that this was the solo display of the day for me. Nothing quite like the sight of the Fulcrum going full throttle and filling the air with a trail of black smoke.
It was good to see XH558 arrive and go straight into its display – due to the problems that the team has faced this year they haven’t had a chance to work up a new routine so the team are flying their 2011 display. I’m not a huge fan of the way that the VTTS is run but I can’t disagree with the ‘Vulcan Affect’ – as soon as she’s spotted in the sky, all eyes go skywards and the anticipation of Olympus howl is electric. The silence of the crowd is enough to make you feel cold.
Making their first public aerobatic display in November last year, the United Arab Emirates display team – Al Fursan – made their début European display at the Air Tattoo on Saturday. ‘The Knights’ (translated) fly the Aermacchi MB-339A jet trainer and were taught under the guidance of the Frecce Tricolori at Rivolto Air Base in Italy. They flew a very nice display but unfortunately it’s very much the same as the Frecce’s which I guess is to be expected for such a young team. Saying that though, there is huge potential for the team to develop into something very different.
Once the Dutch F-16 had landed and after a short break it was time for the DHL 767 to display. I always enjoy seeing airliners thrown about in the air, it just looks so unnatural and its easy to forget what these aircraft are capable of. Flying in from East Midlands Airport, the DHL pilot gave a couple of fly-pasts and tight turns in a rather dark sky. It certainly made a difference from seeing them fly over head at circa 40,000ft.
Another highlight for me was the Armee de l’Air Rafale solo display. A stunning fast jet display flown full throttle for what seems its entire performance and with some topside passes and slow manoeuvres it makes for a very photographic display.
Shortly before the Rafale had displayed, the A400M had got air borne to take part in the RAF ‘heavies’ flypast which consisted of a VC10, Tristar, Hercules, C-17, Voyager as well as the newly named Atlas (A400M). The aircraft gathered in the distance over RAF Brize Norton and flew in from the left one by one. With just the one flypast, the whole thing felt a bit lack-lustre but nevertheless it was nice to see these aircraft which are rarely seen in the air at air shows these days.
After a few more acts including the BBMF, the Red Arrows and the Osprey it was time for the Koreans to take to the stage. Eight T-50s lined up on the runway and took off. After about ten minutes of repositioning and checking the cloud base, the Black Eagles ran in over crowd centre to start their display. This was only their second European display after participating at RAF Waddington a week earlier. The display itself was again another tightly flown display with formation aerobatics in the first half of the show and a combination of different aspects in the second half. The T-50 seems like a very agile aircraft and in formation aerobatics it looked right at home. Pulling high G turns and low fast passes, the T-50 is definitely a great contender for any country’s advanced jet trainer position. The Black Eagles were by far the best aerobatic display team present at RIAT and I have to admit that it’s the first time I’ve really thought that the Reds have had any competition. They were absolutely incredible.
The light soon started to disappear late afternoon and ISO400 didn’t seem quite enough at times. I managed to get only a few decent photos of the F-18 and Typhoon display. Both put on decent displays with plenty of afterburner to light up the dark grey skies.
All in all RIAT 2012 seemed infinitely better than last year with a superior display and a much better static line up. Still struggled to get the entire line up done at the end as my feet were starting to hurt. Didn’t even manage to get up to the B2 but there we go!
Well done to all involved at RIAT 2012 – you have done yourselves proud!