Report and photography by Wayne Bennett
The Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, is the worlds biggest military air show and this years event was the biggest yet, incorporating as it did, the centenary celebrations of the Royal Air Force, which formed on 1 April 1918 at the height of the First World War. The show aimed to cover as much of those 100 years as it practically possible and they did a fantastic job.
First established in 1971 at North Weald, the Air Tattoo went ‘international’ in 1976 during the period it was held at Greenham Common. Having moved to Fairford in 1985, the event was then granted its present title by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1996.
This years event was staged from 13-15 July 2018, although many visitors made a weeks holiday out of it, thanks to the extensive camping facilities nearby. The 2018 show featured 302 aircraft from 43 air arms and 30 nations. This was by far the greatest participation level the show has seen and so, not only were there three full days of flying for the first time ever, but each day’s display was slightly different, in order to accommodate everyone wishing to take part, a ‘real first world problem” as the commentator humorously remarked.
Airshow UK attended the Sunday display only, so among the items we didn’t get to see this year were the display by the Polish F-16, the appearance of the USAF Northrop B-2 (which had appeared Sunday-only the year before – I hope nobody missed it twice!) and a larger formation flown by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. A planned large RAF 100 flypast for Friday-only had to be cancelled due to weather conditions, but the smaller versions of this planned for the other two days went ahead as intended.
It almost seems unfair to pick out highlights from the vast array of aircraft on show in the static park, but there were quite a few that are worth mentioning. It is 50 years since the RAF put the C-130 Hercules into service (half its entire history!) and the static park welcomed C-130’s from several other operators too. Among them were the air forces of Poland, Pakistan, Austria, Jordan and the United States, some of which had special artwork applied for the event. Noteworthy among these was the Pakistan Air Force Hercules which had a very elaborate and striking paint job, with banners celebrating 75years of the PAF and 100 years of the RAF hung over either side of the fuselage.
Another static aircraft, and one of huge significance, was the General Atomics Protector RG1 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Known as the MQ-9B in the US, the Protector will replace the Reaper UAV in RAF service and will also be able to operate with other platforms such as the forthcoming Boeing Poseidon MR1 (USN P-8A, one of which was also present) and the RAF’s various ISTAR types. The Protector had flown into Fairford a few days earlier and the flight from North Dakota to Gloucestershire had taken over 20 hours. This was the first ever flight across the Atlantic by a Medium Altitude RPAS and the first time one has entered UK airspace under beyond line-of-sight communication control, giving us a huge pointer towards how the Royal Air Force will operate in the future. For the display the aircraft wore the markings of 31 Sqn, who will operate the Protector from RAF Coningsby, this squadron currently operates the Tornado GR4, which will go out of service in 2019. The Protecor was displayed alongside many past and present RAF aircraft types.
Also highly significant was the visit of the Japanese Kawasaki C-2 transport. Resembling a smaller, twin engined C-17, the C-2 was developed alongside the P-1 anti submarine aircraft that appeared at RIAT in 2015, although despite earlier intentions, the two have little in common. The C-2 entered service in 2016 with the JASDF and this visit to RIAT was the type’s first ever appearance in the UK. Also in this area was a significant presence of helicopters from the UK and other NATO countries.
Within the static display you could effectively trace the whole 100 years of RAF history, with aircraft ranging from the very first types operated, such as the Sopwith Camel and BE2c, through to modern aircraft like the Typhoon and Tornado, as well as the future Protector UAV already mentioned, all on display for public viewing.
The flying itself was opened by two fast jet displays from the perennial favourite, ‘Solo Turk’ and his F-16, followed immediately by the Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon, both aircraft providing a noisy, energetic, adrenaline pumping, start to the day.
Fighter aircraft were very well represented in the display with Belgium’s Dark Falcon F-16, Greece’s ‘Team Zeus’ F-16 and the RAF’s own Eurofighter Typhoon displays, competing with F-18’s from Finland and Canada, SAAB Gripens from the Czech Republic and Sweden, three Rafales and a pair of Mirage 2000’s from France, all ensuring that your ears were beautifully assaulted throughout the day. Daddy of the lot though were the USAF F-35A and RAF Lightning JSF models for the sheer volume produced by their 43,000lb thrust Pratt and Whitney F135 engines. The STOVL Lightning also demonstrated its Rolls Royce lift fan system with a rock steady hover on the crowd line. The RAF Lightning is equivalent to the USMC F-35B model, the F-35A that was demonstrated by the USAF is quite different in having a conventional jet nozzle, no lift fan or STOVL capability, but a larger weapon bay.
Formation display teams are generally a strong feature of RIAT and this year there were seven of them, from six different countries and all flying very different aircraft which enabled them to give individual and unique displays. The first team to display was Patrille Aguila of the Spanish Air Force. Their display is performed with seven CASA C101 jet trainers which, as their commentator was very proud to tell us all, is an original, all Spanish design and it is the Spanish Air Force’s standard basic trainer. “RATATATA!!” (you had to be there!)
Another team flying the flag with a home grown design is Italy’s Frecce Tricolori. They are one of the largest and most impressive display teams around with no fewer than ten Aermacchi MB339 trainers.
The RAF Red Arrows are similar with their nine Bae Hawk aircraft, although, like all of the above teams, they mix up their displays with full formations, and set pieces with individual aircraft or smaller groups. It would be unfair to try and use adjectives like ‘polished’ or ‘precise’ or any other superlative with any one of the formation teams as they apply to them all, they are truly excellent.
It wasn’t only the jet powered teams that were out to impress. The Swiss Air Force Pilatus PC-9 display team flies the Swiss-designed and built PC-9 turboprop trainer in a nine-ship formation and the Royal Jordanian Falcons operate their diminutive Extra 300 aerobatic competition aircraft to good effect also.
The Breitling Great War Display team is a very different kind of team from the usual. It is made up of a (changing) group of owner-operated and built replica aircraft, any combination of which may be available for various air shows. At RIAT we were treated to three SE5a’s, a BE2c, two Fokker Dr.1 Triplanes and a Junkers CL.1. Other replica WW1 aircraft are available. The team combines smoke trails with pyrotechnics to give an impression of the air fighting over the Western Front around the time the RAF was first created and so their display is very pertinent to the theme of this years UK air shows. Things looked a little too realistic at one point however, when a flash-bang, representing anti-aircraft flak, went off right in front of one of the SE5a’s which then flew right through it. Was a change of underpants required on landing, perhaps?
Another historic themed display were the pair of Norwegian DH Vampires, consisting of a T,11 trainer and an FB.6 fighter, both ex- Swiss Air force aircraft, they were especially adorned with historic RAF markings for this centenary year.
The French Air Force Couteau Delta team, in contrast, flies only two aircraft, but they are one of the only role demo teams flying current front line aircraft around these days. Their two-seat Mirage 2000D aircraft are mach 2, twin seat multi role fighters and ground attack aircraft and this team gives an exhilarating display of fast tactical flying.
Along similar lines are the Rafale M’s of Chasse Embarquée (French Naval Aviation) who perform a similar role, but are not dedicated display pilots. They practice their routines alongside normal operational flying which makes their display all the more impressive. The Rafale’s at RIAT came from Flotille 12F, one of two units providing display aircraft this year, Chasse Embarquée’s first flying display at RIAT for 15 years.
The set piece displays once more provided some of the highlights and this year there were more than usual of these too. The USAF memorial flight has appeared before, but this year the F-35A and P-51 that we are familiar with were joined by a Spitfire wearing RAF desert camouflage, the first non-US aircraft to appear in this set piece as far as i am aware.
The RAF also provided a couple of unique formations of its own. Nine Typhoon’s from Coningsby and Lossiemouth flew over in the most perfectly precise ‘diamond nine’ formation, before both the re-formation and the 75th anniversary of 617 Squadron, the famous ‘Dambusters’, were celebrated with a flypast representing the squadrons history and future. For this display the BBMF Lancaster PA474 was joined by a Tornado GR4, and Lightning ZM145. The Tornado was the previous type operated by the unit, from 1982 to 2016 and this example had an appropriate ‘100’ painted subtly on the fin. The Lightning is one of the first four Lockheed Lightnings to take up residency at the squadron’s current RAF Marham base, which was recently heavily remodelled to accommodate the new aircraft, with the Lightnings themselves having only arrived at RAF Marham on 6th June this year. The UK will eventually operate 138 of these aircraft, shared between the RAF and Royal Navy. Indeed the navy’s 809 NAS (Naval Air Squadron) will be the next unit to form at Marham after 617.
The BBMF (Battle of Britain Memorial Flight) had, prior to this, given its own fine display, containing the Lancaster, Dakota and (Sunday) two Spitfires operating in what is called ‘Trenchard Formation’ in honour of the RAF’s founding father Lord Hugh Trenchard.
Among the other aircraft shown, we witnessed the demonstration of an Airbus-owned A400M Atlas demonstrator, which is now virtually a staple feature of the show. The difference this time was that the aircraft used, EC-400, also wore an RAF 100 tail graphic and is destined, later this year, to become the RAF’s last new Atlas to be delivered when it will wear the registration ZM421.
As you can see, RIAT 18, even just on one of its days, was absolutely packed with attractions and the aircraft not already covered above can be seen in the extensive gallery others will appear in the gallery. Next year’s theme is the 70th anniversary of NATO. They can’t pull it off again, can they?