Michael Freer reports from 2007’s highly successful Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford. Additional photography by Stuart Freer.

“When I recommended ‘Agile and Adaptable’ as the operational theme for RIAT 2007, I felt confident it would reflect the current strategic thinking of many of my colleagues around the globe.

Together, we face an unpredictable and complex security environment that requires flexibility in order for us to react quickly and decisively to new and emerging challenges wherever – and whenever – they arise”

These were the words of Air Chief Marshall Sir Glenn Torpy , RAF Chief of the Air Staff. Sir Glenn was one of the guests of honour at this year’s highly successful Royal International Air Tattoo staged over the weekend of July 14th and 15th. Early indications were that the crowd attendance figure over the two days was up by about 5 per cent on the 160,000 for the previous year.

The weather threatened to ruin this year’s event with heavy rain forecast for Sunday, but fortunately the heaviest of the rain passed to the North of the airfield. However, because of this impending bad weather a large percentage of the weekend crowd attended the show on Saturday to avoid getting a soaking.

The United States Air Force celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and what better place to host Europe’s tribute to this achievement than RAF Fairford, home of the USAF’s 420th Air Base Group. Among the special guests was Chief of the US Air Force, General T Michael Moseley.

Air Tattoo Director Tim Prince said he was particularly pleased to be marking the anniversary of an air force that has been instrumental in the success of the airshow.

He said: “It’s quite simple. Without the help and encouragement we have received from the US Air Force during the past 30 years there would be no Air Tattoo. Not only does it send us an incredible range of aircraft year after year but also it makes available its bases and provides logistical support. We hope our tribute will reflect the huge sense of gratitude we feel”.

Gone are the days of long lines of KC-135 tankers and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft; commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen to that. Though the number of aircraft was down on what the aviation enthusiast would have liked to see, there was still a very significant USAF contribution to the show.

The United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) was well represented with a pair of A-10As from the 52nd Fighter Wing; a C-130E from the 86th Air Wing; a C-21A from the 86th Air Wing; F-15Es from the 48th Fighter Wing and a trio of F-16Cs from the 31st Fighter Wing.

Air Combat Command (ACC) provided a pair of B-52Hs, one each from the 5th Bomb Wing and 917th Wing along with a pair of B-1Bs from the 7th Bomb Wing. The B-1B in the flying display was particularly impressive with low runs and top side passes to please all the photographers.

Air Education & Training Command (AETC) provided a T-43A of the 12th Flying Training Wing along with a T-1A from the same unit – a “first” for a RIAT event.

More ‘heavy metal’ was in the shape of a C-130J of the 41st Air Squadron, a C-17A of the 60th Air Mobility Wing and a KC-10A of the 305th Air Mobility Wing – all provided by Air Mobility Command (AMC), while Special Operations Command sent along a MC-130H Combat Talon of the 7th Special Operations Squadron and a MC-130P Combat Shadow of the 67th Special Operations Squadron – both from RAF Mildenhall. Probably the last appearance of a MH-53M Pave low of the 21st Special Operations Squadron was made as the type is due to be retired from RAF Mildenhall as we go to press. A special and very hair- raising departure was made on the Monday for the benefit of the photographers in the Western park and view enclosure.

The Air National Guard (ANG) was very thin on the ground, probably due to overseas commitments and only provided a KC-135R of the 128th Air Refuelling Wing. Finally, the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) sent along C-130H-2 of the 934th Air Wing; C-5B of the 439th Air Wing and a HC-130P of the 920th Rescue Wing.

In addition to all this hardware on static display was the pair of F-117A Nighthawks of the 49th Fighter Wing on the flightline for the airdisplay. This type is in the process of being withdrawn from service and was making its last ever RIAT appearance.

No doubt about it (from the aviation enthusiast viewpoint), love them or hate them, the ‘Thunderbirds’ demonstration team stole the show. To the strains of heavy rock music emanating from, what must be the worlds largest mobile sound system, the team was simply breath taking. Cavorting over the Gloucestershire countryside to a medley of high powered rock numbers by the likes of AC/DC and Limp Biscuit just seemed to typify the close connection that Rock music seems to have with the USAF.

Formed in 1953, the Thunderbirds are based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and are unusual in having two female pilots, namely, Major Nicole Malachowski (Right wing position) and Captain Samantha Weeks (Opposing Solo position). The prestigious number 1 slot is flown by the team Commander Lt Col Kevin Robbins. The team took up the whole of one ramp area and security was very tight. On our media tour of the ramp, we had to keep a safe distance from the jets. Of interest was one of the support C-17A Globemaster aircraft which wore its own team number ‘14′ to the right hand side of the crew entrance.

The other large theme of the flying display was the Royal Air Force Tactical demonstration which was very impressive with low level attacks and scary pyrotechnics. The scenario is based around UK support for a EU-led peace mission.

As part of the mission, UK forces have been tasked with re-activating a disused airfield located in enemy territory. The whole demonstration lasted for about 30 minutes and as Squadron Leader Andy Pawsey explained to the author, highlighted how the Royal Air Force would operate as an integrated package. Andy had been heavily involved with the planning of the demonstration and said that it was evolving all the time.

The demonstration involved Tornado F3 fighters flying Combat Air Patrols (CAP) under the guidance of the ever watchful Sentry AEW.1 circling overhead and also Close Air Support (CAS) missions using the internal 27mm cannon. Target identification and co-ordinates being provided by ground based Forward Air Controllers (FAC).

Low runs were conducted by Tornado GR4 aircraft in the battlefield reconnaissance, CAS and strike roles; all the time trying to out manoeuvre ‘enemy’ Hawk T.1 aircraft trying to defend the target area.

With the enemy ground defences suppressed, in came the C-130J Hercules to demonstrate its tactical transport role. After demonstrating a very short landing, it disgorged several troops along with their vehicles and equipment who quickly went onto the offensive. The sound of explosions and gunfire was added to by the un-mistakable sound of a Chinook helicopter that appeared over the battle field, landed and inserted further troops to the melee. All very exiting and enough to make any young lad want to join her majesty’s Armed Forces.

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and this provided a wonderful opportunity for them to fly in formation with the Red Arrows aerobatic team.

The Royal Air Force contribution to the static aircraft display this year was very small in comparison to previous years. However, it was good to see the latest addition to front line service in the form of a Sentinel R.1 of 5 Squadron.

To illustrate the history of the United States Air Force during its 60th year, were a number of second world war aircraft. Of particular note was P-51D Mustang NX251RJ ‘Miss Velma’ flown by Ed Shipley who delighted the crowd with some very low level flying.

The Fleet Air Arm was out in strength once again this year with their ‘Black Sea Hawk’ team of four Hawk T.1 aircraft; the ‘Black Cats’ ( a pair of 702 Naval Air Squadron Lynx helicopters) and four Jetstream T.2 aircraft from 750 Naval Air Squadron. The Navy was also represented by examples of the Harrier GR.9, Merlin HM.1 and Lynx HAS.3 in the static display.

Other UK participation came from the Army Air Corps with their ‘Blue Eagles’ display team and QinetiQ with an Alphajet and surely the last public appearance of the venerable Jaguar strike aircraft. British Aerospace showed off the new Nimrod MR.4 during the flying display and though this did not land, it gave a powerful demonstration.

European Air Arms were probably less well represented this year than in previous years, but none the less were out in force. The Sea King Mk.48 of 40 Squadron of the Belgium Air Component gave a very impressive flying display as did the 1 Squadron F-16A mlu. Other highlights from the author’s point of view included the Danish Air Force CL-604 Challenger of Eskadrille 721 and the pair of Aeronavale Super Etendards of 11 Flotille, fast becoming an endangered species. The German Air Force provided a good cross section of their current equipment with examples of the C-160 Transall from Ltg.61, a pair of F-4F Phantoms from Jg.74, Tornados from Jbg.32 and Akg.51 and a UH-ID from LTG.63.

It’s always a pleasure to see the Italian Air Force (AMI) at Fairford and this year they turned up with some really stunning aircraft. The first Alenia C-27J for AMI made a very welcome appearance as did the very rarely seen pair of HH-3Fs of 15 Stormo. One of these helicopters wore a special ‘Pelican’ colour scheme which the author failed to photograph due to the way it was parked in the static display. Because of where it was parked, I assumed it would either taxi or fly past me on the departure day. Much to my disgust, it departed in the opposite direction. A pair of Tornado IDS aircraft made up their contribution to this year’s show including one in a stunning colour scheme to celebrate 60,000 flying hours of 156 Gruppo.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force (KLU) provided a pair of F-16AM fighters from 322 Squadron along with a AH-64D Apache helicopter from 301 Squadron and a Fokker 50 transport plane from 334 Squadron. The Spanish Air Force provided a Eurofighter Typhoon in the air display along with their aerobatic team ‘Patrulla Aquila’. To round off the highlights was the L 410UVP-E of the Slovenian Armed Forces along with a Pilatus PC-9M.

There was much to see at this years show and in addition to the sample selection noted above there was representation from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland , North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Switzerland.

I suppose nominating the ‘stars’ of this year’s Royal International Air Tattoo is a rather subjective issue, but I think that most aviation enthusiast would agree with my views.

The Brazilian Air Force (FAB) certainly had a long way to travel with their C-130E Hercules and the eagerly awaited R-99A (surely, the rarest aircraft on view). It wasn’t long before there was a party going in and around the Hercules with the sound of samba music attracting crowds in the static aircraft park.
Another rarely seen aircraft on this side of the Atlantic was the Canadian Forces CT-142 of 402 Squadron.

The one thing about the Royal International Air Tattoo is that it attracts former enemies to come together – maybe grudgingly – but, none the less, they turn up. So it was very heartening to see the Hellenic Air Force and the Turkish Air Force sharing the same airfield together.

The Hellenic Air Force was represented by a C-130H Hercules resplendent in a very attractive special colour scheme and a pair of A-7E/TA-7C Corsair aircraft. In the eyes of most aviation enthusiasts and photographers I spoke to at RIAT, the ultimate accolade as “stars of the show” went to the Turkish Air Force pair of Northrop NF-5B aircraft of 133 Filo, which will probably go down as the most photographed aircraft in the history of the airshow.

So that’s it. Another RIAT over and done with. I had a wonderful time and met many old friends and the overall atmosphere at RAF Fairford makes it, beyond doubt, the greatest military airshow in the world.

I think ‘Del Boy’ summed it up very nicely. Britain’s best loved comic actor, Sir David Jason (who plays Del Boy in the long running TV series ‘Only Fools and Horses’) was another guest of honour at this year’s show and arrived in his Yellow R-44 helicopter emblazoned with the immortal words ‘ Trotters Independent Trading Co. New York – Paris – Peckham’ on its side.

Sir David, who is a Vice Patron of the Air Tattoo said: “ Just like Only Fools and Horses, the Royal International Air Tattoo is great family entertainment. Not only is it a great spectacle but it benefits the Forces through the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust. With a deal like that, only ‘Wallies’ and ‘Plonkers’ would be dissatisfied”. What more can you say ?

The author would like to thank all those in the Media centre for their kind hospitality (even though Stuart tried his best to wreck the tent). Special thanks to Bill and Sue Bushell, Lindsey Peacock, Chris Lofting and Kevin Wills.