The Royal International Air Tattoo is often the highlight of the UK’s Aviation calendar and attracts an interesting array of aircraft, new and old, from around the world. Anticipation for the show is even higher in Farnborough years when global aircraft manufacturers descend on the UK to try and secure vital sales for their latest products, often resulting in type or variant debuts. So the question lies – Did RIAT 2016 meet the historically high standards of the long running show? Michael Lovering and Ben Montgomery attended over the weekend for AeroResource.

For many, the Royal International Air Tattoo (or RIAT as it is more often referred) is the premier airshow in the world to see military fast jet aeroplanes. There has been an argument that in recent years this has been declining, with frequent complaints from enthusiasts of more ‘filler’ acts during the eight hour flying display. This was certainly not the case in 2016, which featured enough ‘burner action for even the most dedicated of military aviation fans! The undeniable highlights, and first arrivals for the show, were the three Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning IIs form Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort that arrived at Fairford a week before the show (Ed Note: Have a look at our coverage here – and joined later in the week by a further trio of F-35As from Luke Air Force Base (AFB) and pair of F-22 Raptors from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB. The sight of so many fifth-generation aircraft on the ground at Fairford was something to behold, and the variety and volume of displays over the weekend was much appreciated by the sell out crowd.

Joining the exotica from the United States Air Force on display was a smorgasbord of fourth-generation fighters, many of which are pushing for expanded export sales in various forms and guises. UK Airshow goers are very familiar with the F-16 – often refered to by its unofficial ‘Viper’ nickname – with the Belgian and Dutch air forces being regular performers at shows across the country in recent years. Whilst the latter is no longer on the display circuit, a new age of F-16 displays is emerging from the Eastern European air arms replacing their Cold War era Soviet aircraft with more modern Western types. Joining the Belgian Air Component F-16A MLU Display which is provided by the 10 Wing at Kleine Brogel were Block 52 F-16C displays from both the Polish and Greek Air Forces. Both of these display jets were fitted with conformal fuel tanks providing some nice photographic variety when compared to the standard, sleeker looking jets. This was also helped by the special paint schemes that they wore: The Polish Viper, from 31. BLT ‘Tiger’ squadron based at Poznan Krzesiny sported very smart low visibility tiger stripe markings, whilst the Greek ‘Zeus’ Viper, from 340/343 Mira at Souda Bay, was presented in its now familiar blue and white mythological themed scheme. Unfortunately, the demo jet was not available on the Saturday, but that did give enthusiasts in the crowd a chance to see and photograph a standard jet in a well-worn paint scheme. However, cream of the F-16 crop for this year was the now legendary Solotürk provided by 141 Filo. Over the weekend, Captain Erhan Günar amazed spectators with the capabilities of the Turkish built F-16C with a display that saw constant G being piled on. Whilst Solotürk was grounded on the Sunday due to low cloud in the morning, the jet taxiing up and down the runway was greatly appreciated.

If four F-16 displays weren’t enough, RIAT 2016 also featured four Eurofighter Typhoon displays provided by BAE Systems, the Italian Air Force and Spanish Air Force as well as the ‘home team’ – the standout display from this selection coming from Nat Makepeace in the BAE jet. Nat, who is a BAE Systems test pilot, excellently displayed the offensive capability of the Tranche 3 Typhoon while carrying a Phase 3 Enhancements (P3E) weapons fit featuring four Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAMs), six Brimstone 2 low collateral precision strike weapons, two Paveway IV laser guided bombs (LGBs) and two MBDA Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAMs). The fact that a fully loaded Typhoon could be thrown about in the same way as a clean aircraft was mightily impressive and was recognised with the award of the Steedman Display Sword for best flying demonstration by a UK participant. The standard of all the Typhoon displays was very high in 2016: Flt Lt Mark Long has added yet more improvements to the 2015 offering, bringing plenty of power and noise to what was already a very good display, and the Italian Reparto Sperimentale Volo once again brought a polished routine complemented with a pair of smoke winders – a rarity when it comes to Typhoon displays. It was also very encouraging to see the return of a Spanish Air Force solo fast jet to the RIAT flying display, although the display was sadly hampered by less than ideal weather conditions on both the Saturday and Sunday.

Given the 2016 line up contained an incredible eight displays from just two different aircraft types, there were some complaining about the lack of variety. Whilst this is unavoidable given the popularity of the F-16 and Typhoon in Europe along with a global trend of consolidation on fewer types, other fast jets were still well represented. As per usual in a Farnborough year, Boeing sponsored the appearance of an almost brand new US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet which, whilst impressive carrying a full complement of air-to-air missiles, was often distant and lacked impact. This could not be said of the Swedish Air Force Saab JAS-39C Gripen or French Air Force Dassault Rafale C, both of which were flown aggressively and tightly to show the incredible capabilities of each aircraft to the audience. The impressive nature of these displays was rewarded during the Sunday night hangar party, with the Paul Bowen Trophy for best solo jet demonstration going back to BA113 Saint-Dizier with the Rafale Display Team, and The Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for the best individual flying demonstration going to the F7 Skaraborg Air Force Wing at Såtenäs for their Gripen demo. In amongst the polished display jets that are still being marketed for sale around the world was a welcome return of a Soviet cold war classic in the form of the Polish Air Force’s Mikoyan MiG-29A Fulcrum. Now a regular at RIAT, having recently attended in 2012, 2013 and 2015, the MiG-29 from the 1st Tactical Squadron is always popular with the UK crowd. Unfortunately, this year’s display seemed tamer than previous demonstrations, with more technical aerobatic figures and less earth-shaking afterburner goodness! The good news is that the Fulcrum is still going strong in Poland, providing a vital contribution to the Baltic Air Policing effort, and is expected to remain in service for at least another ten years.

In sharp contrast to the ageing soviet-bloc lines of the MiG-29 were the two fifth generation fighters on display. 2016 saw the welcome return of the USAF F-22A Raptor which amazed as ever with its physics-defying vectored thrust manoeuvres. This superb aerial ballet was enough to earn the F-22A Demonstration Team the FRIAT ‘As the Crow Flies’ Trophy. Unfortunately, on the Sunday the display aircraft suffered a technical problem shortly after the start of its display forcing Major Dan ‘Rock’ Dickinson to make a precautionary landing. As compensation for the shortened Raptor display, the USAF gave the audience more of a chance to see its newest combat aircraft: the F-35A Lightning II. The F-35A is not currently on the solo display circuit, and was at Fairford to participate in a daily Heritage Flight. Pleasingly, to fill the time gap left by the curtailed F-22 display, Major Will ‘D-Rail’ Andreotta flew a number of circuits before joining up for the Heritage Flypast. The USAF did not have too much luck with their flypast intentions over the whole weekend. Originally billed as a formation of F-22A, F-35A and P-51D, the complete formation was not seen on any of the three show days as a result of strong winds preventing the Mustang travelling from Duxford on Friday and Saturday followed by the F-22 technical issue on the Sunday. As with all US Air Force display items the overly patriotic commentary detracted from otherwise impressive demonstrations – the Heritage Flypast performing to the wonderfully emotive ‘We Remember’ by Dwayne O’brian. Unlike European teams like the Frecce Tricolori or Patrouille Suisse which provided some of the most entertaining commentary of the weekend, one gets the impression that the USAF commentators rely rigidly on a script and cannot improvise for unusual situations.

Fortunately, the USAF weren’t the only air arm showing off their latest fifth-generation toys and the headline act of RIAT 2016 was always going to be the first international demonstration of the F-35B. Of the three aircraft that made the transatlantic crossing, one was a fully marked RAF development aircraft (ZM137 better known as BK-3) while the remaining two were US Marine Corps (USMC) examples operated by VMFAT-501 ‘Warlords’. When compared to the the Harrier displays of yesteryear that UK airshow goers were once familiar with the solo display is nowhere near as fully developed, consisting only of a number of fast passes and a minimum radius turn. However, when demonstrating its hovering party trick, the innovative multi-role aircraft did not disappoint. Prior to the event, the Royal Engineers and USMC had constructed a heat resistant landing pad allowing the F-35B to finish its display with a vertical landing in front of the crowd. RAF Display pilot Squadron Leader Hugh Nichols brought the aircraft into a remarkably stable hover, especially considering the gusty crosswind blowing throughout the weekend, and gently descended on to the pad using an abundance of thrust from the primary nozzle and forward lift fan. The aircraft was surprisingly well received considering the extent of negative press associated with the program, and many people went away as F-35 converts as a result of the display. A UMSC F-35B also participated in an air-to-air refuelling demonstration with a USMC KC-130J Hercules on the Friday, and was the centrepiece of the now traditional ‘showstopper’ formation with the Red Arrows on each day of the show, flanked by a pair of Eurofighter Typhoons from RAF Lossiemouth based 1(F) Sqn (albeit a single Typhoon on the Saturday). It is great to see this tradition of unique Red Arrows formations continuing, although it would have been nice to have seen more than a single pass from the assembled aircraft.

Alongside the Red Arrows, a number of high profile international display teams brought their 2016 offerings to RIAT. It was fantastic to see the Patrouille Suisse back in the air only weeks after the mid-air collision that resulted in the loss of an airframe, although on Sunday their impressive display was limited to a taxi run down the runway as a result of the low cloud base  and the Saturday display restricted to just four aircraft due to pilot illness. Further jet display team action came in the form of the Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori. Always immensely popular in the UK, the Italian team are in what might be their final season flying their faithful straight winged Aermacchi MB339PAN. Unfortunately the Italians were limited to a flat display on Saturday which meant that they could not perform some of their most impressive figures however, the crowd were in for a treat on Sunday evening when the cloud cleared and the sound of Luciano Pavarotti spread out across the sunny airfield. The Frecce still fly one of the most impressive aerobatic manoeuvres in the world in the form of the nine aircraft crossover that fills the sky with aircraft and has a real wall of noise effect on the crowdline. Also flying some unique aerobatic manoeuvres were the Croatian Air Force’s ‘Krila Oluje’ or Wings of Storm. The recently reformed display team had never previously performed in the UK flying their attractively painted Pilatus PC-9M trainers. Of note was the leader’s PC-9 which is affectionately known as ‘Zubonja’ (which translates to ‘Toothy’) given the addition of a sharks mouth and specials marks celebrating the countries first 50,000 hours on the type. The team are one of the most innovative in Europe when it comes to aerobatic figures, with the display including formation tail slides and very close formation aerobatics. As a new set of pilots, some of the more complex parts of the old routine seen across mainland Europe are no longer performed, but the highlight six aircraft mirror pass was still executed to perfection and the superb skill of the Croatian pilots was rewarded with the King Hussein Memorial Sword for best overall flying demonstration. Also flying the turboprop flag were the Polish Air Force’s Team Orlik, making a welcome return to Fairford in their PZL 130TC-II Turbo Orlik training aircraft. The Polish built aircraft have an aggressive look, especially in their regular grey and dayglo orange colour schemes, and the display was well presented with white smoke. Show regulars the Royal Jordanian Falcons were also present along with the Breitling Wing Walkers who, for this year, displayed as an unusual three ship formation and lacked some of the more dynamic manoeuvres that are normally seen and staying with formation passes for the majority of the display before handing over to another Breitling pilot, Aude Lemordant, for a solo aerobatics display in her Extra 330SC.

Whilst RIAT 2016 saw a number of UK Debuts, it also saw the final public display of one of Europe’s most popular display teams – Ramex Delta. Flying a pair of Dassault Mirage 2000N Nuclear strike aircraft, the display is a tactical demonstration of the manoeuvres that would be used to carry out the aircraft’s role. It featured plenty of transonic passes, close formation work and lashings of afterburner combined with strafing and bombing runs with dirty passes thrown in. Following their Sunday display, the two aircraft were met by the Fairford fire service for a water cannon salute to mark their final public demonstration. It was fitting that this should occur in the 100th anniversary year of the formation of the famous Escadrille La Fayette; the predecessor of the modern day Escadron de Chasse 2/4 from which the team originates. To mark this anniversary, one of the display aircraft was painted in a stunning special scheme, which was suitably rewarded with the Best Paint Scheme Award at the after party. The rewards did not stop there, as the display also received the RAFCTE (Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises) Trophy for best flying demonstration by an overseas participant. It is hoped that it may well be au revoir to Ramex rather than goodbye, and that the legendary display may return in the future on a new platform such as the Dassault Rafale.

Whilst being well represented in the static, larger aircraft were rather left out of the flying display to make way for the fast jets. Flying the transport aircraft flag was the A400M demo provided by Airbus in one of their company development aircraft. The sheer manoeuvrability of such a large aircraft always bewilders, and the display was littered with ludicrous wingovers and angles of attack. Further demonstration of heavy lift capability was provided by the rotary world with the now familiar RAF Chinook display defying physics with its stomach churning display of agility. Like the A400M, it’s a display that always guarantees to leave you wondering how on earth something that big can by so nimble. Making the jump between rotary and fixed wing was the USAF Bell-Boeing CV-22B Osprey demonstration from the 7th Special Operations Squadron based at RAF Mildenhall. With the imminent closure of Mildenhall and planned relocation of these unique aircraft to mainland Europe, their appearance at RIAT is always appreciated and the display was a good balance between helicopter and fixed wing flight including a number of pleasing topsides in amongst the low, fast passes. Further rotary action came from the Royal Netherlands Air Force Apache which spent a good proportion of its display in attitudes that helicopters shouldn’t be able to attain, and the diminutive German Army Bölkow Bo-105P1, making what was most probably its final display at RIAT prior to the retirement of the type from the German forces. The Royal Navy were also present with the Black Cats display team and their pair of Wildcat’s, one of the aircraft sporting a winch fixed to the starboard side.

Highlights of RIAT 2016 were not only to be found in the flying display and while the days of a static park being packed to the rafters may be gone, there was some notable rarities in the shows offering. For many enthusiasts the number one request every year is Phantoms, and lots of them! Many were therefore pleased when the Hellenic Air Force brought two of their F-4E Phantom IIs from Andravida Air Base operated by 339 Mira. Other stars of the static were heavies from around the world including the Royal Australian Air Force bringing a KC-30A operated by 33 Sqn and making its UK show debut. The last participation at RIAT from the RAAF was 10 years previous when the same unit brought a slightly older Boeing 707. Joining their antipodean neighbours were the Royal New Zealand Air Force who attended in a Boeing 757-22QC, and completing the line-up of larger stars was a Japanese Air Self Defence Force Boeing KC-767J that had arrived all the way from Komaki Air Force Base. It was pleasing to see the strong relationship with the Japanese Self Defence Forces continuing following the international debut of their Kawasaki P1 at RIAT 2015 and previous visits from the KC-767. As has also become standard over recent years, a number of CASA twin engined transports appeared on static representing the types adoption by a growing number of nations, the highlight of which being the Royal Air Force of Oman’s C-295M which was parked opposite a pair of C-295M from Poland and a CN-235MPA from Ireland. For those attending the arrivals days, the popularity of these aircraft could not have been missed with an even greater number operating in support of flying display assets. Of course, a stalwart within the static displays when it comes to transports has always been the venerable Hercules and, whilst there may not be the variety on display as there once were, examples from the Royal Jordanian Air Force (C-130H), RAF (Special schemed C-130J) and USAF (MC-130J) were on static along with the standout example from Pakistan. Returning to the show after a 10 year hiatus, the aircraft had been adorned in a special scheme for the show and took a single person 4 weeks to apply. The crew should also get a mention for being some of the friendliest on the airfield and more than happy to show anyone around their aircraft.

In terms of static fast jets, the variety of Typhoons reflected the extensive lineup of the type within the flying programme with no less than seven examples on display from a combination of UK, German, Spanish and Italian air forces with the Germans sending a pair of special scheme aircraft. Also wearing a special scheme and making its first real public appearance was a Tornado GR4 from 31 Sqn at RAF Marham that celebrates the centenary of the Norfolk base with types operated over the years represented on the tail. It should also be mentioned that, over the last couple of years, one of the most welcome additions to the static park is the east end ‘pit’ area and the movement of some of the fast jet flying displays to an area at the west end. During the show days this gives a unique opportunity for the public to get a close up look of the preparation and crewing in procedures that these displays go through and attracts a lot of attention, especially from photographers looking for something a little different. This also gives a chance for some of the north side display jets to be towed across after their slot, such the F-35s were during the show day so that a closer look can be had. It really is an engaging addition and hopefully this can continue on as it has done for the last few years.

When it comes to rotary assets, it was a case of quality over quantity when compared with previous years and that was demonstrated perfectly by the Croatian Air Force Mil Mi-171. Alongside was another German Bo-105 example with a German Navy EC-135 next to it and an Army Air Corps Apache AH1 completing the short lineup. It was interesting to watch the interaction over the weekend between the Apache crews and public with an almost constant crowd gathering around the aircraft as they described the numerous weapons systems on display. There was also a welcome return to the Dutch CH-47F and USAF CV-22 Osprey for 2016 with both types also attracting much attention. Somewhat surprisingly, certainly compared to previous years, was the apparent lack of any UK rotary assets aside the previously mentioned Apache and a single Squirrel – something that has been seen at other shows as well during 2016 and hopefully only a short term situation.

The organisation of RIAT 2016 was as slick and well managed as we have come to expect from the experienced Royal Air Force Charitable Trust team. Whilst traffic was heavy on the two weekend days, as is to be expected for such a large sell-out event, it was well managed with regular updates on the Airshow radio station. The closure of the Rhymes viewing field meant those on the crowd line were treated to clutter-free backdrops of aircraft on the runway, and the general attitude of the crowd around where the author was located was polite, courteous and good natured. Of particular note is the success of the Friday as a public day. The relaxed, shortened, flying display and smaller crowds gave those who attended a more laid back RIAT experience and time to enjoy the open parts of the static to its full extent. On this note, it has been widely suggested that the showground should remain open later to allow people to have a better look at the static and to reduce the traffic rush at the end of the flying display. One hopes that the organisers can find a way to make this possible for 2017.

In conclusion, RIAT 2016 did live up to the Hype. Even without the F-35 and F-22, the sheer number of fast jets made the show one to remember, but adding the international F-35B debut and heritage formations took the show to another level. RIAT 2016 will be hard to top, but we at AeroResource are sincerely looking forward to what 2017 brings!