After 2012 restored faith in RIAT for many enthusiasts, it was always going to be a difficult year to follow. With the recent hard-hitting budget cuts for the US military, participation was the topic on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Michael Buckle reports from RAF Fairford on a hot year for RIAT 2013.
With the US military budget sequestration beginning to become apparent in December 2012 concerns were immediately raised over how this would affect airshows not only in the US, but also around the world. The majority of US airshows were cancelled with immediate effect and training hours were slashed throughout the US military squadrons, including any attendance to worldwide airshows.
Thankfully despite the lack of US participation that is usually so important to the spirit of Fairford, RIAT did manage to secure a great line up. The static display although appearing very thin in places was home to some rare items. It was obvious that the lack of US attendance had hit though, as the USAF normally provides the larger aircraft type that dominate the static park. RIAT are to be commended for securing a Royal Netherlands Air Force KDC-10 and Royal Air Force C-17A Globemaster III for the static park, which did help to provide a solid backbone to the static display line.
Based in Switzerland the Breitling Super Constellation is one of only two airworthy aircraft of its type. Designed by one of the greatest aerospace innovators Kelly Johnson, the Constellation made its name as a luxury commercial airliner and later a military transport aircraft during World War II. The sound of its four piston engines taxiing off the runway was a wonderful noise for the enthusiasts, who were awaiting its arrival. Taking a very prominent position within the center of the static display the ‘Star of Switzerland’ attracted plenty of public attention and was a wonderful sight under the beautiful blue skies that made an appearance throughout the weekend. Unfortunately Breitling were unwilling to fly the Super Constellation (or “Connie”) at the show, but as they paid the bill to bring the aircraft over – which is reportedly in the region of £25,000 – that is an understandable decision.
An RAF 1950s bomber turned photo-reconnaissance asset was a last minute addition to the static display. With rumors circulating the week before the show of the Canberra PR9’s attendance there was only the small matter of the first test flights from near-by Cotswold Airport stopping its appearance. The aircraft had been under an intense restoration process for two years at the former Kemble airfield site and was scheduled to complete two check flights the same day it was due to arrive for the airshow. Thankfully both flights were successful and its third flight was the short hop to RAF Fairford that took place late Friday evening. XH134 (G-OMHD) is now to be operated by ‘Midair Squadron’ and hopes to be operated as a display team alongside the two Hawker Hunters, which are also owned by Mike Davis. The team is currently looking for corporate sponsors to assist in pushing the venture forward. Interestingly, XH134 displayed at RIAT just prior to the retirement of the Canberra PR.9 from service with 39(PRU) Squadron back in July 2006, and she retains the special retirement markings painted for the event.
Making what’s likely to be its final appearance at the Air Tattoo was one of the RAF’s true workhorses, the Vickers VC-10. The aircraft started life as a civilian long-range airliner but was quickly acquired in 1961 by the Royal Air Force as a transport aircraft, with an interesting seat configuration with all passenger seats facing the rear of the plane. As well as passenger transportation, variants of the VC-10 were capable of transporting cargo via it’s forward freight door and in the late 1970’s BAE Systems started to convert former BOAC VC-10’s to the K.2/K.3 ‘Air to Air Refuelling’ variant by installing additional fuel tanks in the former passenger cabin. The remaining operational VC-10s are due to be retired by September 2013, making the end to an era, many world-wide enthusiast will miss the roar and smoke produced by the quadruple Rolls Royce Conway engines.
Next to the VC-10 on static display was what will soon become the VC-10’s fulltime replacement, the A330MRTT ‘Voyager’. Under the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) project the civilian company Air Tanker Limited will provide the Voyager aircraft to the RAF for passenger and cargo transportation and air-to-air refueling, with a contract in place to provide operational capability for 27 years. In May 2013 the first air-to-air refueling sortie was completed between a 10 Squadron A330 Voyager and RAF Tornado aircraft.
Another type that is likely to be attending their last RIAT was the French Air Force Mirage F.1CR. Two jets from ER02.033 based at Reims AFB arrived on Wednesday, with the pilots keen to show of their aircraft on its last visit. It is expected that the type will be retired by the Air Force in 2014.
Bolstering the static lineups were two rare examples of Embraer’s highly successful EMB145. The UK, and RIAT in particular are used to seeing Belgian Air Force examples of the Embraer family as support to other display acts, but two modified special mission examples from the Hellenic and Brazilian Air Forces were a superb addition. The Hellenic EMB145H AEW&C Erieye was equipped with the SAAB Microwave Systems Erieye radar, mounted distinctly above the fuselage. 4 of these aircraft are in operation in Greece – and it was extremely welcome to see this aircraft, especially in light of Greece’s economic problems. The Brazilian example was expected to be in the same configuration as the Greek (and known as an E-99), but turned out to be an R-99 or EMB145 MULTI INTEL. This aircraft is equipped with a wide ranging mission system used for remote scanning.
Thankfully the RIAT flying display wasn’t too hard hit by events in the United States; in previous years US air arms have provided only one or two displays (2011 saw the A-10C Thunderbolt II demonstration, and 2012 the MV-22B Osprey flying display). Whilst Ospreys are now resident in the UK, they were unable to return for RIAT. One 2012 favourite that did return for RIAT 2013 was the Polish Air Force Mig-29 from 1. Elt, who last year walked away with the Best Flying Demonstration award. Sadly in 2013 the team were not so lucky (the display seemed more distant and passive on the Saturday in 2013, but more aggressive on the Sunday), but were certainly a star of show for many spectators.
Based in Salzburg Airport Austria, a North American B-25J Mitchell replaced the expected P-38 from The Flying Bulls. Its attendance was a UK display début for the type, and coupled with the Bulls’ F4U-4 Corsair the pair looked fantastic, especially in their blue skies slot on Sunday. Having supported Duxford’s Flying Legends airshow for the last few years, it was good to see the B-25J at RIAT – and the display to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack from Pearl Harbor was a well thought out composition.
Other rarities included special flypasts by the RAF Red Arrows and two aircraft which people within the UK will soon be accustomed to. Saturday saw the UK airshow debut of the newest addition to British Airways’ fleet – the Airbus A380. The double-deck airliner is currently at Manston Airport for BA crew training and despite the terrible weather conditions pleased the photographers with a topside pass in formation with the British display team. It then proceeded to carry out a second pass before a low (read: very low!) approach and go-around, much more than anyone expected. The first aircraft, G-XLEA, will eventually be complimented by an additional 11 A380s and 42 Boeing 787 Dreamliners (the first of which have also arrived with the carrier), as British Airways updates its fleet.
Sundays treat from France was the Royal Air Force’s future transport aircraft – the Airbus A400M (which replaced the A380 for a formation flypast with the Red Arrows). Following its very impressive display which incorporated some extremely versatile maneuvers the A400M was awarded the Best Flying Demonstration by an overseas participant. The ‘Atlas’ is expected to be delivered to near-by RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire in 2014 and will replace the C-130K variant whilst accompanying the C-17A and C-130J fleet which is already in operation.
RIAT also bagged a hat trick (as usual) of all three current European delta combat aircraft – the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and SAAB Gripen. The Typhoon was flown this year by 29(R) Squadron RAF – having taken back the display role from 6 Squadron in 2013. The Rafale was once again displayed by the French Air Force (having won multiple awards during both RIAT 2011 and RIAT 2012), whilst the Gripen marked a welcome return from the Hungarian Air Force, with their solo display from the 59th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kecskemet Air Force Base.
Another debut for RIAT was the participation of the Finnish Army NH Industries NH90TTH, of which 15 are in service. 2 examples were sent for the show, one on static display and one in the flying display. Whilst not the most outstanding display from a rotary asset that has been seen at RIAT, the rarity of the type and operator made for it to be one of the highlights of the flying display.
However, despite the positives of some rare and interesting aircraft additions, the show did have some more concerning aspects. It’s worthy of note before reading on that these views are those of the aviation enthusiast, and as such represent only a portion of the attendees at the event. New for 2013 were the themed “zones” around the airfield, allowing visitors to indulge themselves in non-aviation activities. Most frustrating for the enthusiast and photographer was the “adrenalin zone” – which was mapped out prior to the show as filling the parking loop at the western end of the static line. Traditionally this is the best photographic area for static exhibits, being reasonably clutter free. It was even more disappointing to find on the weekend that most of the area was not used for additional “entertainment”, but was in fact for parking (although having said this, with the small number of static aircraft on the ground and the complete sellout of the event, perhaps car parking was more useful!). The much lauded Caterham Experience track was extremely small – as was the “Skyfall” zipline. It was also a shame that this year’s commentary team made more efforts to extol the virtues of these areas than those of the static display.
RIAT was also in the unfortunate position of having aircraft confirm their own participation prior to RIAT announcing an update – meaning that each of RIAT’s updates were bringing nothing “new”. Bumper updates such as that over Easter, with new additions being announced each day were also galling as the only participants announced during them were the RAF display acts. Whilst it is always pleasing to watch our home team perform – they were not exactly unexpected updates!
So RIAT 2013 was brought to a close, with fantastic weather bringing in large crowds over the weekend, and fortunate star participation keeping the enthusiast happy, what 2014 will bring is an unknown. Join us on 11th-13th July 2014 to find out.