Unlike the lead up to most Royal International Air Tattoo’s the weather wasn’t the hot topic during the weeks prior to RIAT 2014. With the star attendee, the F-35, being involved in a fire incident a matter of weeks prior to the airshow whether the aircraft would be given flight approval in time for the event was on the tip of everyones tongues. Michael Buckle reports from RAF Fairford.

The success of the RIAT 2014 was always going to be a difficult prediction to make. With the US military budget sequestration causing lack of United States Air Force (USAF) participation during 2013 which hit the static park quite hard only to be saved by key items such as the Super Constellation and Hellenic EMB145H, what 2014 could bring to the table was up in the air.

It quickly became apparent that there would be a continual lack of serious participation from the USAF. But as RIAT 2014 coincides with the Farnborough International Airshow (FIA), a predominantly trade show that’s hosted biennially, it was able to secure the European debut of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Otherwise known as ‘Dave’ within the aviation community, like most projects the F-35 has had its fair share of problems but a matter of weeks prior their departure to the UK a fire was reported on board a F-35A at Eglin AFB, Florida causing the grounding of the entire fleet. The internet forums were rife with rumour and speculation, but ultimately the US Department of Defence were unable to lift the grounding of the aircraft until the show was over. When the grounding was eventually lifted a restriction was placed on the aircraft than an engine inspection must undertaken after 3 hours of flight time, making a transatlantic crossing impossible. The restriction therefore stopped the aircraft from participating in FIA also. Although their lack of attendance did disappoint many enthusiasts, safety and also the projects reputation is paramount.

The F-35 unfortunately wasn’t the only cancellation of the event, the Swiss Hawker Hunter F58 from the Swiss Hunter Team was unable to depart St Gallen Airport due to poor weather conditions en-route (which impacted a number of the arrivals during Wednesday and Thursday) during which the aircraft would be flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). The beautifully painted jet was due to join the Patrouille Suisse to carry out a flypast with to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the team – a sight I’m sure many were looking forward to. Rolls Royce had a technical issues with their Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX (G-RRGN) which was therefore also unable to make it to the event. Technical issues with both airframes available to the event also stopped the Royal Navy Merlin HM2 from performing it’s display on Friday and Saturday but hard work from the crews allowed the RNAS Culdrose based helicopter to perform as the penultimate item on Sunday.

As an advanced ticket only event, Saturday sold out two weeks before the first aircraft touched down at RAF Fairford and Sunday become close to a sell out. To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Royal Air Force Red Arrows a ‘Pit Day’ was hosted on Friday adding an extra day to the usual two-day event. Priced slightly cheaper than a Saturday/Sunday ticket the ‘pit day’ provided controlled access to the RAF Red Arrows and other display teams in addition to the Park and View East facility for the mornings arrivals. The afternoon provided a three hour flying display, starting at 13:00 and displays included the Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16AM, two Eurofighter Typhoon displays provided by the RAF and Italian Air Force, and rotary displays by the Lynx AH7 and Apache AH1 of the Army Air Corps. Many enthusiasts came away disappointed by the event, with the access to the Red Arrows not being much more than that provided on the main show days and engine and cockpit covers being left on many other display aircraft spoiling photographs.

RIAT likes to pride itself on bringing together unique formations of aircraft for the enthusiasts to enjoy, especially when they can involve the Red Arrows. From 2003 when the crowds admired a F-117A and Red Arrows flying through Fairford’s airspace to 10 years later when the Red’s joined the Airbus A400M for a special flypast of the RAF’s future. With the team celebrating their 50th Anniversary, the display organisers at Douglas Bader House went to work on bringing the leaders from four different display teams together to perform a special display flypaston the Friday afternoon. The lead aircraft from the Patrouille de France, Frecce Tricolori, Patrouille Suisse and Breitling Jet Team all came together with the nine BAe Hawk T1 aircraft from the Red Arrows to perform the special anniversary flypast before performing their full display.

The sell out crowd on Saturday were blessed with beautiful sunshine from sunrise through to sunset, with rain rolling in over night leaving Sunday to start overcast with drizzle. Thankfully sunny spells moved in during mid-afternoon but the initial low cloud base caused flat displays from many of the display items.

The static display once again appeared a little sparse with a lack of ‘large’ RAF and USAF participation. The US did at short notice provide a KC-135R and F-15E from their UK stations – RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath. The United States Navy (USN) returned to the UK with their Boeing P-8A Poseidon marking its debut visit to RIAT. The aircraft, which is a relatively new addition to the USN fleet, made it’s first visit to the UK in 2012 to participate in Exercise Joint Warrior at RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland. Operationally, the aircraft will replace the P-3 Orion and is designed to carry out long-range reconnaissance, intelligence and anti-submarine warfare missions.

A return visitor after making its RIAT debut in 2012 was the Japanese Air Self Defence Force Boeing 767J from 404 Hikotai making the long flight from Komaki AB – a participant welcomed by the enthusiasts and a great filler to the static park. An aircraft type which is unlikely to be seen within the UK again was provided by the Hellenic Air Force with two of their A-7 Corsair II attack aircraft. As the only remaining operator of the Corsair, the visit is likely to be the final overseas deployment of the type prior to their retirement in late 2014. To mark the special occasion two special scheme aircraft were provided to the show; A black ‘Fly Low, Hit Hard’ scheme and wrap around camouflage, with the former sporting ‘RIAT 2014’ markings and being presented with the “Best Paint Scheme” award on Sunday evening.

A new type which did manage make it to the event, as part of a combined visit to both RIAT and FIA, was the Textron AirLand Scorpion. The fast jet has been marketed as an ‘affordable’ strike and reconnaissance airframe which has the ability to carry precision strike munitions plus a selection of reconnaissance sensors within it’s internal payload bay. The aircraft can also sport a retractable Forward Looking Inferred Camera (FLIR), providing the ability to lower the sensor when required, reducing drag when the sensor is not in use. The aircraft departed the static park mid-afternoon on Sunday to take it’s position at FIA, where the manufacture hopes to raise purchase interest in the type.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16 the Belgian, Netherlands, Danish and Norwegian air forces provided a total of seven F-16s which lined up throughout the red static park. Unfortunately no F-16s were provided by the USAF due to their on-going budget cuts. Also disappointing was the lack of the ‘Orange Lion’ Dutch F-16 which everyone had become accustomed to, the schemed aircraft having been removed from the display circuit for 2014 and returned to an operational grey scheme. This year Flt Lt Jeroen “Slick” Dickens from Leeuwarden Air Base, Netherlands is piloting a ‘plain’ operational F-16, rather than a dedicated display jet in a vibrant display scheme. Other Air Forces representing the F-16 in the flying display were the Belgain Air Force and SoloTurk from the Turkish Air Force.

The Polish Air Force contributed two SU-22 Fitters to the flying display, breaking a 19 year absence from the UK of the type. Although not the most photo friendly nor the most routined of displays, it was great for the enthusiast to sit back and enjoy the roar from the AL-21F-3 turbojet engine as the two cold war aircraft performed several low run and breaks over the airfield.

In addition to the Fitters, the Polish Air Force also sent one of their two national display teams, the Orlik Aerobatic Team, flying their PZL-130 Orlik aircraft. The team hasn’t attended RIAT for 15 years after their attendance in the 1999 airshow at Fairford, only a year after the team were formed and the 50th Anniversary of the Red Arrows provided the perfect opportunity for the team to return to the show.

With Breitling being a key corporate sponsor for the Air Tattoo, both of their sponsored display teams were back  at the show. The Breitling Jet Team and Breitling Wing Walkers both performed in front of the sponsors tent at crowd center during the event. The Jet Team are the worlds largest civilian jet aerobatic display team flying seven L-39 Albatros aircraft in close formation. Their colleagues in the Wingwalker team are based at near-by Rendcomb airfield in Cirencester and carried out their display using a full complement of four Boeing Stearmans with glamorous girls strapped to a harness on the top wing.

The RAF provided their Tucano T1, Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 and Chinook HC2 displays. The Tucano display often struggles to make an impact on such a large display line, with its lack of presence which displays like the Typhoon and F-16 can provide using their performance. However, the topside photo pass to begin and complete the display is always a welcome addition for the photographers amongst the crowd. The Chinook was unable to perform on Friday due to technical issues, but the on site ground crew resolved the issues in time for the performance on Saturday.

A future RAF asset once again returned to the flying display in 2014, the Airbus A400M. The strategic tactical airlifter has now been delivered to both the French Air Force and Turkish Air Force, with deliveries to the RAF expected in September 2014. The ‘Atlas’  performed a very versatile and dynamic display and is expected to enter operational service in March 2015 at RAF Brize Norton, the RAF’s main transport hub.

Bringing a fantastic operational feel to the display was the Army Air Corps Apache AH1 role demo. In the past we’ve often seen pyro technics and  pre-recorded communications used to great effect in demos such as the RAF Tornado Role Demo and the AAC Apache demo certainly provides the same feel. With simulated enemy contact towards a ground unit the Apache was called by the units Forward Air Controller, call sign “Hammer”, the Apache carried out multiple simulated combat strikes towards the enemy with large pyrotechnics simulating the impact. The display allows for great photographs and is no doubt a valuable way of gaining recruitment interest.

Fast jet displays included the Italian Air Force AMX A-11 and Tornado IDS, Austrian Air Force Saab J-105 and two F/A-18 displays; one provided by the Swiss Air Force using a ‘C’ variant and a ‘F’ Super Hornet variant provided by Boeing, which unfortunately departed for Farnborough prior to the Sunday display – a real disappointment for many expecting to see it perform.

2014 also marked the end of an era for the Air Tattoo, as a new Chief Executive takes over the role from Tim Price who has chaired the position since 1972. His successor, Andy  Armstrong was appointed in the role in March 2014 and spoke of his excitement to take control:

“I am genuinely excited and feel very privileged to be taking over the controls of such a unique organisation. I’m enjoying meeting the extraordinary volunteers, about whom I have heard so much”.

Tim Prince spoke after being awarded the RIAT Sword of Merit for his great work and commitment in the past 45 years:

“Can I just say a big thank you: I’ve had a great time running this event with a lot of good people – Paul Bowen and everybody that’s been on the team. Many have passed on now but together we’ve all believed in achieving the impossible and over the years we’ve done some outstanding things.”

With the disappointment of the F-35 cancellation being dampened by great weather throughout the event and a few star attractions, RIAT 2014 will certainly be memorable. We’ll have wait in suspense to see what RIAT 2015, under its new leadership, can provide.