The Royal International Air Tattoo, better known as RIAT, has set its place as the pinnacle of the British airshow scene, especially given its long history of providing first looks at new types, debut displays by new operators and large set pieces to commemorate key aviation anniversaries. The 2015 edition of RIAT was to be no different and included at least one of each of these. Ben Montgomery and Michael Lovering provide this report from a generally hot and sunny Fairford.
Perhaps the highlight of the show for many was the Royal International Air Tattoo’s tribute to the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, with an impressive formation flypast of Supermarine Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes and, more notably, a Messerschmitt Bf109 alongside its Buchon Bf109 stablemate and the debut appearance of the recently restored Bristol Blenheim. For those used to the large “Balbo” formations at The Fighter Collection’s Flying Legends airshow at Duxford, this display may have been somewhat underwhelming. It should of course be noted that the Duxford Balbo is merely a conglomeration of the majority of the flying aircraft from that show, whilst the RIAT flypast was in tribute to the servicemen and women – on both sides – who fought in the Battle of Britain. For the majority of the audience, many of which would probably not have attended both Flying Legends and RIAT, this would more than likely have been a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ chance to see such a grand collection of warbirds together – notably the five Hawker Hurricanes secured for the tribute, a rare feat that RIAT should be commended for.
The 2015 show was lucky enough to have two RAF Typhoon displays – both the solo offering from 29(R) Squadron and the Battle of Britain 75th Synchro pair. Whilst Flight Lieutenant Johnny Dowen displayed the Typhoon with its usual combination of brute power and elegance, the more impressive of the two displays was the Synchro 75 pair. Finally using an appropriate combination of the camouflaged Typhoon (marked as a Hurricane of 249 Squadron) and Spitfire Mk.IIa P7350, the two aircraft certainly looked the part under the skies of Gloucestershire. Although warbird solos are not normally suited to RIAT due to the size of the venue, pairing the Spitfire with the Typhoon overcame these limitations and provided an extremely fitting and evocative tribute to the struggles that Great Britain overcame in the summer of 1940 – and rounded off the RIAT commemorations perfectly.
Other fast jet demonstrations came from the Finnish Air Force, returning with their F-18C demonstration, and the Hellenic Air Force – making the debut of their “Zeus” F-16C solo display. The former went on to win the trophy for the best overall flying display, but unfortunately the latter – whilst deservedly winning the trophy for the best paint scheme with the new ‘Zeus III’ scheme making its first public appearance at the show – could not compete. The display was reminiscent of US style demonstrations, with reasonably lengthy repositions between each pass which, when compared to the Belgian Air Force F-16AM also on display, was noticeable. This was not to say that it was a poor display – it is all too easy to make comparisons which, at this calibre of flying, could unfairly make a particular act out to be sub-par.
RIAT 2015 saw the return of a now unfortunately rare display aircraft in the form of the Panavia Tornado to the flying display, to celebrate 35 years of the Trinational Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE). One RAF Tornado GR.4 was joined by an example of the Tornado IDS from both Italy and Germany for a series of flypasts whilst in the static park three more aircraft were to be found. In a novel move for RIAT, these static Tornados were marked up on arrival to Fairford with an extremely fetching tail design – credit to the artist who created these, as the small differences for each nation’s aircraft really made the design something special. Normally alongside the Typhoon display at RIAT is either (or both) of its European competitors – the SAAB Gripen or Dassault Rafale and 2015 was notable by the absence of both types, although Gripen participation from both the Hungarian and Czech Republic Air Forces had been planned and sadly later cancelled.
Whilst the Rafale – currently in exclusive use by France, but with airframes for Egypt having now flown – was not at RIAT, the Armee de l’air was not lax in their participation. Making their RIAT debut were the formidable Dassault Mirage 2000N pair of Ramex Delta, from EC02.004. The display is everything that it was ‘hyped’ up to be showing off the prowess of the Mirage 2000 design with a series of dynamic manoeuvres from the pair. Perhaps even more impressive was the ability of the team to continue displaying after one aircraft had to land with a Flight Control System failure shortly after launching for for their slot on the Sunday. Although only a singleton of a display pair, the remaining half of Ramex Delta could easily have contended as a fast jet solo in its own right, and the team should be applauded for still providing a display when they could have just as easily cancelled.
The other fast jet duo to attend the show were the RAF’s newest display act – the BAe Systems Hawk T.2 Role Demonstration provided by 4(R) Squadron from RAF Valley. Flown by Flight Lieutenants Ben Polwin and Toby Keeley the display was a very innovative method of showing the importance of the training role, and the variety of education imparted during fast jet training in the Royal Air Force. The use of two aircraft and pyrotechnics made what could be a potentially dull topic (in the context of airshow flying) a somewhat interesting and engaging presentation. There were some areas of the display in which improvement might suffice, but given that, this was the debut of the demonstration that is to be somewhat expected in various way. With the hope that the team should return in 2016, it is to be imagined that, as with other Royal Air Force demonstrations, the duo’s calibre will continue to improve.
2015 sees the UK armed forces provide two Role Demonstration teams, with the second being the Army Air Corps Attack Helicopter Display team. The inclusion of a second aircraft for the 2015 season has been widely agreed to be a significant step up in the prowess and spectacle of the demonstration – which coupled with a full array of pyrotechnic assistance at RIAT did not fail to capture the attention of the public.
If someone had of told most enthusiasts that a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) asset would be making not only a debut appearance, but also a debut display at RIAT, they would undoubtedly have been laughed out of the house! That is, until several weeks before the show when Douglas Bader House made the announcement that a pair of Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft were to attend the 2015 edition of the show – one in the flying and one in the static display. The P-1 is an indigenous maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) designed from a clean-sheet (designed from scratch for the role) and provided by VX-51 of the JMSDF based at Atsugi. With the Ministry of Defence widely expected to announce the requirement for a new UK MPA asset in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, or SDSR, its appearance in the UK is timely to say the least!
Although aircraft arriving at the show before the park and view enclosures open, – which is normally on the Wednesday prior to the show – is usually met with displeasure by enthusiasts, given the length of the journey the Japanese had to undertake few could blame them for arriving on the Tuesday. As well as a first for the service and the aircraft, history was also made when both P-1s (5504 and 5507) touched down on UK soil, becoming the first Japanese Naval assets to be flown in UK airspace since 1927.
The display from the P-1 was somewhat underwhelming – with a spirited takeoff followed by two straight and level passes, the first with the weapons bay and ISR turret extended. However, it must be remembered that these aircraft are still undergoing technical evaluation by the JMSDF (their visit to RIAT was followed by a trip to Djibouti for hot weather trials) – and anyone who was paying attention to the aggressiveness of the turns back onto the display axis would have seen a hint of the true performance of the aircraft.
Joining the P-1 in the static park was a return visitor, and rival in the MPA sales arena, the Boeing P-8A which was parked next to the P-1 for the weekend. With a permanent armed guard and steel fencing replacing the standard green cones, it was obvious the Americans didn’t want anyone near one of their latest aircraft. Whilst this pair may have attracted the most attention, parked opposite were three other MPA examples in the form of a German Navy P-3C Orion, Irish Air Corps Casa C-235 and Danish Cl-604 Challenger.
Other aircraft also making a debut display were two visitors – a C-130J Hercules of the Qatar Emiri Air Force, and two Northrop SF-5Ms of the Spanish Air Force. Sadly the SF-5Ms were sandwiched in a very tight static line alongside two A-10C Thunderbolt IIs (deployed to Europe as part of the Theatre Support Packages of Operation Atlantic Resolve – and in their own right star participants). It has very much been a sign of recent RIATs that the parking arrangements of static participants continue to be poor – with the uncluttered backdrops of previous years having been lost to the green car park. Parking the P-1 in front of the toilets was a particularly poor move, as was shoehorning the IX(B) and XI(F) Squadron Tornado and Typhoon centenary paint scheme aircraft together within the BAe Systems enclosure.
However having said this, it was not all gloom in the static park. One particularly nice display was the collection of US military rotary and special operations assets. It is pleasing to see the gradual return of military participation from the US after the effects of sequestration in 2013. This year not only brought attendance from UK based assets from RAF Mildenhall and Lakenheath but also more notably from aircraft based in mainland Europe in the form of a AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Blackhawk from the United States Army, based in Germany. The introduction of the fast jet display aircraft ‘live’ area at the western end of the airfield was a stellar move by the RIAT operations team and allowed the public to get up close to the flying fast jets of the show including the RAF Typhoons, Greek F-16s, French Mirage 2000s and Polish MiG-29s. Judging by the number of people around the fence at this area it was extremely popular and hopefully will make a well-deserved return for 2016.
An area at the west end of the showground was also utilised for a number of static display rotary assets including a number represented by British forces. Signs of both old and new were easily visible with the outgoing Westland Sea King HC4 ‘Junglie’ making an appearance alongside its replacement AgustaWestland Merlin – the first appearance of the ex-RAF variant now carrying Royal Navy markings. Another Czech Mi-24 Hind had arrived with the flying display example but this one in a special scheme commemorating the countries involvement with the RAFs Coastal Commands squadrons.
One item which will not be making a return for 2016 will cause anguish for many, as RIAT 2015 is to be the last appearance of Avro Vulcan XH558 at the show. The aircraft will be grounded at the end of the 2015 season due to the withdrawal of support from the three technical authorities – BAe Systems, Rolls Royce and Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group. The move has been lambasted by many, but given that the aircraft is now well beyond the flying life of any Vulcan, it is a move that is being made for the correct reasons even if that does not seem to fit in the opinion of Sean Maffet, whose commentary seemed to brand the technical authorities as the “bad guys”. If RIAT 2015 was to be the final display by the Mighty Delta, both Kev Rumens and Bill Ramsay made sure that it was one not to be forgotten! The Saturday display has already been compared to Vulcan solos of old, with an incredibly impressive tight bank after takeoff, a 150-degree wingover and incredible climb out being notable highlights. Sadly, someone seemed to have “had words” and the Sunday display (in the hands of Bill Ramsay) was considerably less powerful – something that had been noted in the display commentary earlier that day with word that the aircraft’s last display at RIAT would be less exuberant.
Vulcan enthusiasts were in for another treat over both days of the show with a formation flypast by the Vulcan and the Red Arrows – a fitting salute by the Royal Air Force. Despite differing opinions over the jets operation in civilian hands, the aircraft has shown a power to captivate the public that few other acts have ever been able to boast – who knows if we will ever see that ‘Vulcan Effect’ style following again on the airshow scene. Perhaps the only other large aircraft thrown around with as much abandon as the Vulcan (at least during its Saturday display!) was the Airbus A400M Atlas display which has become a regular attendee since its 2010 debut. Interestingly, RIAT 2015 also marked the first occasion that the Royal Air Force was able to display one of their own examples of the A400M (known as the Atlas C.1 in RAF service) on static and it was right that this aircraft was open for the public to walk through. The Airbus display of the A400M at the show was considered important this year – especially after the tragic crash of an A400M in Seville during flight testing. The inclusion of the display at RIAT and the Paris Airshow the month prior indicates Airbus’ commitment and belief in the safety of the type.
The probability of the attendance of the Polish Air Force MiG-29A Fulcrum was also in doubt before the show after having cancelled for the RAF Cosford Airshow due to fleetwide engine issues but it was great to see two examples at the show. The Polish Air Force Fulcrums are some of the last Soviet era fighters in service with NATO and it is always a pleasure to see them at RIAT with their characteristic smoke trails indicating the incomplete catalysation of the fuel through the two Kilmov RD-33 engines.
Other debut flying displays at RIAT 2015 included a short appearance by the United States Air Force’s CV-22B Osprey, based out of RAF Mildenhall with the 7th Special Operations Squadron. Whilst this elusive tilt rotor has been seen around the UK frequently since arriving on these shores in 2013, it marked the first UK flying appearance of the type (not to be confused with the USMC MV-22B displays, which RIAT has previously seen). As the USAF do not provide a formal CV-22B demonstration, the display by the 7th SOS included an aggressive bow to the crowd and a low level transition from vertical flight mode to forward flight mode – both of which made this short demonstration one of the highlights of the show.
Slightly irksome was the apparent lack of interest by RIAT at the imminent withdrawal from service of the Royal Air Force Search and Rescue Sea King HAR.3s – which are always to be seen on standby on the north side of the field in case of an incident. Whilst it was great to see an example on static display one final time, more could – and should – have been done to commemorate this workhorse (as per the SAR Zone at the Cosford Airshow in June). Attempting to summarise RIAT is always a hard task, as to describe every participant in the detail they deserve would be a tome of information. RIAT 2015 is an especially hard task – with a veritable quantity of acts worthy of inclusion in this review.
To mention but a few of those not so far included, credit must be given to the usual stellar performances from the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (the Red Arrows), the Swiss Air Force PC-7 Team and Super Puma Solo display (whose individual contributions are both greatly valued as was their formation flypast was a great addition to the display), the Slovenian Air Force PC-9M display which won the Lockheed Martin Cannestra Trophy for the Best Flying Demonstration by an Overseas Participant, the Czech Air Force L-159 ALCA display (notably performing an aggressive negative bunt on takeoff) and the welcome return of the Mi-24 Hind to the flying display, also provided by the Czech Air Force.
The full experience of the Royal International Air Tattoo cannot be gained by reading a review of the event (although we hope this article goes some way towards providing that for you) – and can only be garnered by attending the show. The 2015 event was one of the better ones in recent years, and shows that in an economic and political climate which proves to be continually fragile, great spectacles such as this can still be accomplished. AeroResource will certainly be returning to Fairford on Friday, Saturday and Sunday the 8-10th July 2016, and would encourage anyone who has not yet done so to make the effort to attend. The chances are, you will not be disappointed!