Review – Royal International Air Tattoo

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The Royal International Air Tattoo is seen by many enthusiasts as THE greatest military air show in the world but this year’s show left a sinking feeling in my stomach. Slightly sceptical about the show, I headed to the Gloucestershire countryside on 20th July to see what the organisers had to offer.

The 2011 show was a total disaster on the ground – a plethora of stalls totally unrelated to aviation, a concert stage that meant the commentary feed was inaudible and far too much money was spent on acts to display on that stage which ultimately led to a poorer display in the air as a result. It’s fair to say that the enthusiast community was thoroughly unimpressed with the outcome and many a meeting was held by those in charge to address the many complaints generated from unhappy customers. A few months passed and it was announced that 2012 would be a classic year for the Air Tattoo – a stripped back show trying to get back to its aviation roots without any of the cumbersome additions that plagued the ground just 12 months previously.

Last year’s show was absolutely fantastic. As promised the concert stage had all but vanished and the stalls selling double glazing, garden swings and ornaments had also disappeared. The focus was clearly on getting star items for both the flying and static displays…and it showed! The team at RIAT had turned over a new leaf and for the first time in many years it felt as though all was on track to get back to the glory days of aviation. The aviation community praised the efforts put in by all involved and were genuinely excited for this year’s show…that was until the plans for this year were revealed.

Much of the fun about the Air Tattoo is in finding out what will be attending in the months running up to the show. This year though, the excitement turned into frustration and disappointment when ‘star’ items turned out to be RAF displays that were always guaranteed to be there anyway. The lack of US hardware both on the ground and in the air was compensated with civilian flown warbirds which many would argue, do not belong at the world’s biggest military air show. As if that wasn’t enough, the press day consisted of an RAF Typhoon landing, a BMX stunt display and a comment that will probably be remembered as the beginning of the end – a comment stating that RIAT’s biggest competitor was a theme park and that’s the sort of atmosphere they wanted to create.

Two weeks of brilliantly blue skies and soaring temperatures meant that Saturday’s show was sold out before the gates had even opened and as I set up on the flight line at 8am, I was soon glad that I’d decided to settle down early rather than look round the static. Even though the build up to the show had been full of let downs and missed opportunities (not even approaching the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight), there was still plenty of interesting items to be seen in the air – the first of which were the routines from the Dutch Air Force.

The Dutch Air Force display teams are becoming regulars on the UK display circuit and they have to be admired for their commitment to us. Dressed in a fantastic scheme to celebrate the Dutch Air Force centenary, the Apache kicked off the weekend with a superb display of rotary agility. The Apache and F-16 completed a fly past together before the ‘Orange Lion’ kicked in the re-heat and tore up the sky. We’ve come to expect a fantastic routine from the Dutch F-16 pilots and this year’s display was no different – another superb performance in one of my favourite fighters of all time.

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The next display that was of particular interest was the Finnish Army’s new NH90 which was making it’s UK debut. I’d seen the company’s display of the NH90 back at Farnborough last year and was rather impressed with it’s routine. Unfortunately I felt a little let down by the Finnish routine because it was very much focused on crowd centre, so if you were either end of the runway you barely got a look in apart from a few turns.

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Another aircraft making its UK flying debut was the brand new Boeing KC-767A from the Italian Air Force which flew in formation with two Typhoons (one from the RAF and one from the RSV). Although a very short display with just one fly past, it was nice to see the aircraft in a refuelling formation and even more impressive were the performance takeoffs of all three aircraft.

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One aircraft that has really grown on me in the last twelve months is the Saab Gripen and to my delight there were two present at RIAT – the first of which was a routine from the Swedish Air Force. In previous years I’ve found the Swedish routine to be fairly sedate but this year it was brilliant and in my opinion was far superior to that of the Hungarian Air Force that displayed later in the afternoon. The Swedish display felt much closer to the crowd line where I was and I thought the routine flowed much more naturally. Overall though I thought they were both very good and should both be commended for their displays.

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Making a very welcome return to RAF Fairford was the Polish Air Force MiG-29. Staying low on take off and pulling into a high G turn to begin it’s display, the Polish Air Force did their absolute best to show off the power of this Eastern block fighter. A lot of afterburner and plenty of that infamous black smoke made this one of the stand out displays of the weekend. Always a pleasure to see Russian built hardware at UK shows.

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Although I said earlier that warbirds didn’t really belong at RIAT, for me there were two exceptions to that rule. The Flying Bulls have displayed here several times in the last couple of years but never at Fairford. Red Bull’s original plan was to send their P-38 Lightning and Corsair but the Lightning sadly had engine issues – as a replacement, they happily sent their chrome-finish B-25J Mitchell. I was almost glad that it had clouded over a little more when the aircraft got airborne, had it have been really sunny then the chrome finish would have been a nightmare to shoot! A lovely formation display by both aircraft before splitting and carrying out their solo routines. It was a display I’d not seen before and I look forward to seeing more from the Flying Bulls in the coming years.

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As well as their shiny new tanker, the Italian Air Force also sent their RSV Typhoon and C-27 Spartan for the flying displays. I had heard many good things about the RSV Typhoon display in previous years so was rather excited to see it announced for the flying display a few months back. As the Eurofighter multi-role aircraft left the runway, it’s smokewinders kicked in and off it went into the circuit to begin it’s routine. Although the smoke added an extra dimension to the display, I felt that the RAF Typhoon was much superior – the Italian routine lacked both power and noise. Putting the Typhoon aside, the C-27 Spartan routine was absolutely phenomenal and no matter how many times I see the transport aircraft roll and loop, it still defies physics in my eyes. A tightly flown display by the Italians – it’s incredible to see what can be done with just two of the C-130J’s turboprop engines.

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I think possibly the highlight of RIAT 2013 for me was the formation fly pasts from the RAF Red Arrows and British Airways’ brand new Airbus A380. It was one of those moments that will forever stand out in my mind and I can honestly say that it made me feel incredibly patriotic – The Red Arrows trailing red, white and blue smoke while the A380 is leading the display with BA’s trademark colours. A truly fantastic fly past and if that alone wasn’t enough, the A380 then broke off and performed a missed approach – my jaw hit the ground as the Airbus giant slammed on the thrust to pull into a climb. A very British display and one that I’ll never forget.

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The Airbus A400M was also present at the show and like the A380, it also made a fly past on the Sunday with the Red Arrows. The first time I saw the Atlas display, I remember thinking how majestic it was in the air and the show at RIAT certainly didn’t disappoint. It was fascinating to see how the Hercules’ replacement can be thrown about the sky and it’s easy to see that it will excel in an operational environment. The most impressive feature of it’s entire display was the steep approach to full stop landing using just a minute part of the available runway. I’m looking forward to these coming into service, that’s for sure.

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A first for the Air Tattoo was the participation from the Estonian Air Force who sent half of their fleet – one Antonov An-2 and an L-39 Albatross. The L-39 was for the flying display and was painted up in a scheme inspired by the Baltic Bees. The pilot gave a spirited display of the small jet trainer but at times the aircraft was just a little too far from the display line and the routine felt disjointed. At several points in the display, the commentators called the wrong parts of the display – I can only assume that they had a very basic routine script to talk about. It was lovely to see Estonia contributing so much (compared to the size of their air force) to the flying programme and hopefully as their air power grows, we’ll see more from them in the future.

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Finally for the flying displays – it would be rude not to mention another award-winning performance from the RAF Chinook display team, well done on the hat-trick!

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It’s fair to say that the static display at RIAT this year was empty compared to previous years – it would appear that Fairford just can’t cope on the ground without US participation. There were plenty of big gaps where US tankers and transporters would usually see and it all looked a bit sorry for itself – I don’t understand why they didn’t shrink the display line a little too compact everything up a little more. There were also plenty of civilian types that just wouldn’t have been seen in previous years and these simply don’t belong at a military air show.

There were really only three aircraft on the ground this year that I really wanted to see; the Breitling Super Constellation, French Mirage’s and Canberra XH134. The latter only got approval to fly in late Friday afternoon so very well done to all involved and it was great to see her back at the Air Tattoo after her final display there in 2006.

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The Super Constellation was due to attend last year but due to engine troubles, it had to cancel. Fortunately it was available this year but only for static display – nevertheless it was a chance to see a beautiful airliner from a bygone era and I really hope to see her in the air in the near future.

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The star item(s) of the static display for me were the two Mirage F1s from the French Air Force – two stunning aircraft that I’ve not seen before so it was a pleasure to shoot them up close. Sadly I didn’t see them in the air at any point but I understand that those in the Mach Loop on the Monday got a welcome treat when they took the long way home!

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As I mentioned earlier 2013 is the first in a three-year plan to change things at RIAT and this year saw the addition of ‘service stations’, a larger fayre ground and the ‘adrenaline zone’. The service stations were actually a really good idea – a choice of different food, free public WiFi and toilets all in one location and there were three of these stations (one for each coloured zone). Unfortunately the standard of the food available was still dire and the prices still unreasonable – the service stations are a great idea but really need refining.

Now the parts I wasn’t too sure on.

The adrenaline zone consisted of a Caterham driving experience where you paid £10 to go doughnutting and an extreme sports show hosted by Animal and…WD-40. On the Saturday I saw these two things from a pure aviation enthusiast perspective and thought ‘What the hell are these doing here? They’ve nothing to do with aircraft’. However on Sunday when I was walking around the showground, the Caterham experience queue was at least 30 people long all day and the stunt show was crowded and drawing more attention by the minute. The same with the fayre ground too, all day there were families queuing to go on the rides.

As much as I disagree with these things being at an air show, I guess as long as people are showing an interest in them then they’ll continue to pay for them to be there.

RIAT 2013 was strange. A fantastic flying display that overall stayed true to what the Air Tattoo is all about – securing top displays from the world’s air forces but a static display that was almost verging on being a total disaster.

If July’s show was anything to go by then this year was a turning point for the Royal International Air Tattoo.

It is absolutely crucial for the team to remember where the Air Tattoo all started and not to forget it’s pure aviation roots. After all, ‘the world’s largest military air show’ needs to remain exactly that. The show used to be something that you could be proud of but now, if it’s to carry on in this direction then I’m not so sure. There’s a lot to be learnt from 2013 and only time will tell as to whether the organisers choose to listen to the feedback or not. I know many people that are seriously considering not paying for a Mach pass next year – many who have attended the show for longer than I’ve been alive.

Sadly, due to a sell out show on both days, RIAT 2013 will be seen as a huge success but underneath those ticket sales are many things that need addressing.

RIAT…it’s over to you.

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