Review – The Royal International Air Tattoo 2014

The Royal International Air Tattoo prides itself on being the world’s largest military airshow but over the last couple of years many have begun to doubt that. With much to improve on from 2013, the team pulled out all the stops to put on one hell of a show.

Every July, aviation enthusiasts descend on a usually quiet and picturesque village in the Cotswolds and set up, on the most part, for a full six days of intense aviation action. RAF Fairford is operated by the USAFE and each year hand over control to the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises based out of Douglas Bader House. In recent years the team have had a lot to answer for in terms of some of the decisions that have been made about the show but it would appear that 2014 will go down in history as a ‘classic year’.

In the current economic climate it’s increasingly difficult to secure the ‘rare’ items that many enthusiasts want to see and as a result we’ve had to adjust our expectations accordingly. One of the unique features of RIAT (Royal International Air Tattoo) is the long build-up and how the team attempt to excite it’s longstanding customer base with weekly participation updates. By mid June last year, many were saying that the best years had been and gone and that the participation list was anything but exhilarating. In contrast, by mid June this year the impressive and unexpected updates just kept on coming. 2014 saw the return of the USAF (albeit with just a couple aircraft), the Estonians (which given the size of their force is impressive), the Hellenic Air Force and the Japanese as well as many other regular attendees.

For many in the hobby it’s increasingly obvious that aircraft rarity is more important than abundant displays by common types. It would appear that given the feedback from last year, the team at RIAT listened to this request and boy did they deliver.

The Star Of The Show

Fitter. That’s all that needs to be said really – a cold war relic that somehow manages to keep going in a world of fifth-generation, multi-role aircraft. RIAT managed to secure the Polish Air Force Su-22 role demo display which consists of not one, but two of the Russian built fighters. It would be fair to say that the display – which was a combination of formation passes and missed approaches – was not the most dynamic of routines and didn’t fully demonstrate the capabilities of the aircraft but when you’ve got an act like this that’s rarely seen outside of mainland Europe, who cares? The display was loud, dirty and at times fast – tick, tick and tick. Job done. It’s a shame that an aircraft couldn’t be supplied for the static park but that’s just me being greedy!

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Italians In Force

For me the Su-22’s main challenger(s) were everything that the Italians could offer to the show. The Italian Air Force provided a C-27J Spartan, Panavia Tornado, Eurofighter Typhoon and an AMX International AMX (plus the Frecce Tricolori).

The Spartan display has always been an epic show and this year it continued in that manner and delivered a brilliant display that really demonstrated the capability of the transport aircraft. It’s amazing to see an aircraft of that size looping and rolling – I’m still not sure I understand how it’s all possible.

Both the Typhoon and Tornado have been present at the show before but this was the first time seeing the Tornado for me. The RAF’s Tornado Role Demo has now been absent from the UK circuit for two years so to see the aircraft in the air again, albeit with another Air Force, was an absolute delight. The two fast jet displays may not have been the most photographically friendly of the day but they definitely delivered on the ‘fast’ front. The routines seemed to be flown at close to maximum (allowed) speed almost the entire duration of the displays and when you’ve got a Tornado streaming past you fully swept, what more can you ask for?

The AMX was at the Air Tattoo  in 2010 but I’d not seen it before. Although I started to look around the static park by the time it began it’s display, it appeared to be a very dynamic routine which made plenty of noise.

The Italian Air Force has to be applauded for it’s contribution to the 2014 flying programme.

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A Trio Of Fighters

Specifically in this case, the relentless Lockheed Martin F-16. Displays for the type were provided by the Royal Netherlands Air Force, Belgian Air Component and the Turkish Air Force. Three very different displays from three different nations.

For the last few years (in my opinion anyway) the Dutch have ruled the F-16 display world. Their routines have always been fast, dynamic, with plenty of noise and in true patriotic fashion, flown in a bright orange aircraft. Sadly due to budget cuts the ‘Orange Lion’ is no more and for 2014 at least, the display is flown in a standard all-over grey F-16 with a team logo on the tail. The colour is most certainly missing from the display but the skill and excitement is still there.

On the mainstream European circuit, the Belgians have been their closest competition but the routine this year just didn’t seem to cut it for me. It appeared uncharacteristically high in places and extremely distant from the display line which meant that as a whole, the routine was a little underwhelming.

The team from Turkey blew the other two nations out of the water. This was the first time I’d seen the ‘Solo Turk’ F-16 and I seriously hope that it isn’t the last. A truly mesmerising display meant that I actually forgot to take photos for most of the display. A fantastic black and gold paint scheme helps the aircraft stand out in a sea of grey/blue, add smoke winders and plenty of noise to that and you’ve got the ingredients for a stand-out performance. Solo Turk, take a bow.

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Reds 50

‘Reds rolling now…’ – a phrase that’s been heard countless times over the last five decades by people all over the world.

The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team may be a national treasure to us but the Red Arrows are also an international icon. They are the display team that all others strive to be, they are the pilots that every young boy/girl want to be, they are British and they are most definitely the best.

2014 marks the 50th display season for the Reds and the Royal International Air Tattoo was keen to mark this milestone in style. For the first time ever, the Friday of RIAT was turned into a public day and sold as a ‘Red Arrows All-Access’ event. Display teams from all over were invited to attend and celebrate; The Patrouille Suisse, The Patrouille De France, The Breitling Jet Team and The Polish Air Force Orliks.

Display teams aren’t for everyone but with the Red Arrows, I never get tired of seeing them. The sight of nine red BAE Hawks in diamond formation never fails to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and with the patriotic red, white and blue smoke, you can’t help but feel extremely proud to be British.

The Reds may have been going for 50 years but they just keep getting better – the 2014 team are flying the routine exceptionally tight and in all honesty, it’s one of the best I’ve seen in recent years. Happy Birthday and keep up the incredible work!

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Empty Space

As well as an extensive flying display programme, RIAT also boasts on having the largest and most diverse static aircraft display in the world.

2013 was empty on the ground – aircraft were sparse and big gaps lurked where USAF heavies usually parked up. US sequestration put an unfortunately grim spin on the static park last year and although the list was bolstered somewhat this year, it was still a fairly quiet place to be.

Even with several C-130s parked up, numerous F-16s and a USAF KC-135, the park still felt a little empty. There were still lots of large gaps that used to be filled but maybe that’s something that we’re going to have to get used to. The world is an ever changing place and I think we’re probably going to have to suck it up and be happy with what we get.

The Reds 50 theme seemed to help out the static park a little. To the far east of the airfield was a cordoned off area where the Red Arrows were parked up (with other display teams at times) and this offered the chance to get a little closer than normal to the team. This area was opened up on the Friday and gave people a chance to have a look around.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, the Hellenic Air Force brought over two of their aging A-7 Corsairs, another rarity that the enthusiast community welcomed open armed. The Greek Corsairs are the last in the world and are due to be retired in the near future. A type that most likely won’t ever be seen at an airshow again – RIAT have to be applauded once again for their persistence in acquiring the two aircraft.

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A Classic Year

2014 signalled a year of improvements but most importantly a year of change. Tim Prince, one of the founders of the Royal International Air Tattoo and CEO of the RAFCTE, steps down this year and hands the reigns over to a fresh-faced, passionate and dedicated organising team. Tim will be remembered by many as the face of RIAT and with his departure, many will see this as the end of an era and quite rightly so.

The flying display was spot on this year with plenty of variety and rarity. If the team can match that in years to come, then words such as ‘classic’ and ‘vintage’ may in fact becomes terms (ironically) of the past.

It’s also worth noting that vast improvements have been made to the showground itself. The ‘service stations’ that were implemented last year were bigger and better – more toilets and a larger selection of food outlets convinced me that this is the way forwards for RIAT.

As well as that, extra teams of security were employed to police the queues that build-up before the gates open. Queue jumpers were removed and forced to join the back (at least at the blue gate where I was situated), a concept that amazingly has taken this long to implement. Please, please, please bring this back next year – if you don’t get up early enough then you join the back of the queue. Deal with it.

One thing that the team definitely need to improve on in my opinion is the souvenir programme. Priced at £12, the advert filled magazine is an absolute rip-off. No other show charges this much for a programme and I find it difficult to understand what makes it so expensive – yes it’s a little glossy and places and yes it has a lot of pages but it really is no more than a padded magazine. The average aviation magazine is £5 and display programmes can be as cheap as £4 so why charge so much?! This was the first year I’ve not bought one and I honestly can’t say that I missed it. With the presence of social networking getting stronger by the day, it’s increasingly easy to find out what’s displaying and when. Unless the price is drastically reduced, I certainly won’t be purchasing it again.

RIAT, see you next year!

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