2011 marked the 40th Anniversary of the world famous Royal International Air Tattoo, over the last 40 years the show has made history, and inspired thousands, Michael Buckle was present at the celebratory event.

In 1971 in aid of the Royal Air Forces Association, North Weald hosted the first Air Tattoo. The show had a total attendance of just over 100 aircraft and the organisers could have never envisioned that the event would go on to become the largest military air show in the world.

From 1971 onwards, the show (initially a biennial event) went from strength to strength, moving onto Greenham Common, and eventually ending up at what is now considered to be the home of the Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford. The huge airbase features a 10,000ft runway and is today operated by USAF as a standby base for their operations.

Forward to 2011 and in what is becoming an unwelcome tradition for RIAT, there were many worrying forecasts leading up to the event with heavy rain showers being prominent. Arrivals (Wednesday 13th-Friday 15th July) were mostly blessed with blue skies, high temperatures and sunshine – however the weekend was not as lucky. Saturday morning begun with extremely heavy rainfall and the downpour continued until mid day, when the cloudbase slowly began to lift.

Team Aguila were the first to announce their inability to fly, shortly followed by the Belgian Air Force F-16 and Team Viper, although Cdt. Mitch Beulen kindly taxied his beautifully painted F-16 up the runway, lifting the spirits of the sodden crowd.

One of the most disappointing weather cancellations on Saturday, for both the organisers and the enthusiasts was the ‘Solo Turk’ F-16 from the Turkish Air Force, which was making its RIAT debut this year. Despite the increasingly improving conditions, Murat had never flown their ‘low’ display in such challenging conditions, and with a 700ft cloud base it was deemed best not perform. It was a similar situation for the Saudi Hawks with the conditions not improving quick enough for their display slot.

Sunday had a comparable start, Team Aguila unfortunately were once again unable to start the display but thankfully the weather dispersed much quicker than it had done the previous day, although not to the same extent, with the weather remaining unsettled throughout the day, and the cloud base lifted in time for the Austrian Saab 105OE to start the display.

The Austrian kicked off his display with a low takeoff making full use of RIAT’s extensive crowd line, before pulling up into a neat and tidy display. His routine shows the agility of the Saab manufactured aircraft wonderfully, as well as the beautiful ‘Tiger’ scheme it’s wearing. The jet is painted in the popular tiger colou; The Tiger meet, a tradition started in 1961 by the US 79thTFS, 74.Sqn RAF and EC1/12 of the Armée de l’air, comprises squadrons from around the world who feature a tiger in their emblem collaborating together – July 2011 marks the 50th Anniversary of the meets. A collection of Tiger painted aircraft were also present in the static park, and pleasantly for the photographers, parked against a clean background free of clutter – thanks to the organisers for this!

2011 turned out to be the battle of the Vipers, with a total of 4 nations bringing their F-16s to perform (teams representing Denmark, Belgium, Turkey and Holland were in attendance, whilst the USAFE also had two F-16CJs from Spangdahlem on static). Out of the four teams, the star attraction was always going to be the ‘Solo Turk’. The team was established this year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Air Force, the display consists of three possible pilots, each taking it in turn to present the jet at different air shows.

RIAT had the pleasure of Major Murat Keles performing their display, showing off the beautiful black, gold and silver F-16C from 141st Sqn at Akinci Air Base. For a demonstration only in its first year, Murat’s display is very well put together, with fluidity and plenty of afterburner, much deserving of the King Hussein Memorial Sword (for the best overall flying demonstration) that the team took away. Somewhat disappointing was the fact that the aircraft was unable to fire its flares due to RIAT’s limitations, normally a very rewarding part of many F-16 displays for the photographers.

The popular ‘Team Viper’ made their RIAT debut in their four stunning Hunters, (unfortunately their Boscombe Down Evaluation Raspberry Ripple Hunter, XE601, was still unavailable after a maintenance issue at Waddington) which still maintains it’s wonderful blue note, a noise that will please any enthusiast.

The Swiss ‘Tiger’ Hunter wearing arguably one of the best hunter paint schemes to date and Miss Demeanour joined the quadruple of jets to form a rare formation fly past of six Hunters in celebration of 60 years of the type – Unique formations such as these are something RIAT regularly enjoy creating.

Flying the mighty journey to the UK was the Saudi Arabian national display team the ‘Saudi Hawks‘, whose arrival marked their debut on the UK air show circuit. Rumors of the team participating in the UK had been circulating for many years, but 2011 was when the rubber hit the tarmac and it could be believed. Even then, RIAT was only one of three European displays by the team, the others being Zeltweg in Austria, and Koksijde in Belgium.

Also operating the BAe Hawk (in this case, the Mk.65), comparisons to the RAF Red Arrows were inevitable, and the display sequence is very similar, being split into two parts; the first half of the show consists of tight formation flying and the second containing high speed solo and duo passes. It may have been due to  unfamiliarity with the weather conditions, but the display did seem slightly ‘messy’,. Regardless, it is always great to see a rare team in our skies.

Surprisingly winning no awards was the A-10C Thunderbolt II display performed by the USAF West Coast Demonstration Team. Bad luck was very much on Captain Joe ‘Rifle’ Shetterly’s side, with a technical hitch delaying their Friday practice, and unfortunately returning during the start of their Saturday display ultimately causing them to cancel.

The jet, which was being provided by 52ndFW, Spangdahlem AB, was duly swapped for the spare airframe, allowing the Sunday attempt to go seamlessly and show the crowd the remarkable ability of the ‘Tank Buster’. It’s certainly an aircraft you’d fear to see circling above you at high (or low!) altitude in a combat theatre.

As well as outstanding aerial displays, RIAT also puts on a great static line up of aircraft, making it possible for the public to get up close and personal with aircraft ranging from historic trainers to state of the art fighters. The show certainly lacked American participation this year – however the static park attention was quickly stolen by the Ukrainian Air Force with their Sukhoi Su-27UB and IL-76 Candid transporter. The ‘Flanker’ fighter was making a return to the Air Tattoo after a twelve year absence (although Indian Su-30MKIs did appear in 2007), and caused controversy on departure by carrying out a roll, with his colleagues in their IL-76 accidently burst tyres with what seemed to be a premature gear retraction.

BAe Systems Chief Test Pilot Mark Bowman was presented the The Steedman Display Sword for his incredible BAe Systems Typhoon display. His aircraft, the FGR.4 variant, carries a ‘dummy’ load of weapons, balanced to the same specification as the live equivalents.  Starting off with a hard right bank away from the crowd, creating the perfect opportunity for an afterburner photo, the routine shows the full ability of the Typhoon, much more so than the RAF Typhoon demo which one can only assume has tighter restrictions placed on the pilots, the display includes an amazing unrestricted climb, demonstrating the remarkable climb rate that the Typhoon possesses, even with a full weapon load. All in all, a well deserved reward.

Another familiar participant was the C-27J Spartan, this time displayed by the Italian Air Force Test Unit, Reparto Sperimentale Volo. The first rehearsal caused quite a stir, as the aircraft performed rolls, loops and a vicious knife-edge pass, all of which had previously been banned by the CAA. Another unfortunate weather cancellation on Saturday, the C-27 was able to display on Sunday, and walked away with a well deserved two awards.

As well as the many out-lined highlights/debuts, the usual suspects returned to please the crowd, the only air worthy Vulcan (G-VLCN/XH558) was flown in by Kev Rumens (displayed by Kev on Saturday, and then by Black Buck pilot Martin Withers on Sunday), the world famous RAF Red Arrows dazzled the crowd and the beautiful girls from The Breitling Wing Walkers were a strong family favourite in their their Boeing Stearman’s. To mark the 40th Anniversary of RIAT, the Breitling Jet Team performed a flypast with the Wing Walkers, not an easy feat given the speed difference between the two aircraft!

Some more fast jet participation was provided by the French Air Force and their stunning Rafale display and not to forget the RAF’s participation with the Tutor, Tucano, Tornados, Hawk and Chinook displays.

All things considered, RIAT 2011 shaped up to be a fantastic year, despite the troubling weather. Let’s hope the weather curse lifts in time for RIAT 2012. The author wishes to thank the RIAT Media Team, with special thanks to Tony Osborne and Mark Rouse.