With over 300 aircraft arriving at RAF Fairford to help celebrate the Royal Air Force’s centenary, AeroResource’s Jamie Ewan joined the masses descending on the airfield with one question on his mind – would the Royal Air Force and Douglas Bader House (DBH) pull out all the stops for what was their official ‘international’ celebration of RAF100 at the Royal International Air Tattoo 2018?
When the Royal Air Force came into being on April 1, 1918, little could anyone have known what its somewhat troubled and quizzed start would eventually lead to. A century later the aircraft may have changed, the missions may have changed and the people may have changed but the worlds first independent air forces aim of delivering world class air power hasn’t.
Having seen the United States Air Force celebrate their 70th Anniversary in a showcase of airpower at the 2017 Air Tattoo (Our report on that show – RIAT 2017), many in the aviation world couldn’t help but wonder what 2018 would hold for the Royal Air Force and their centenary celebrations. With that in mind, it was said that RIAT 2018 was to see by far the biggest public demonstration of their capabilities both on the ground and in the air as part of the RAF100 celebrations – a huge undertaking given the fact the service is currently engaged in some 15 operations, across 22 countries on 4 continents.
To begin with, it is fair to say that both DBH and the RAF were reading from the same page in the desire for RIAT 2018 to be one for the ‘history books’. Almost immediately it had become clear how eager both parties were in doing just that with the announcement that 2018 would see the Friday becoming a full show day instead of the now traditional half day and that each of the three days would see a different flying lineup due to the number of displays expected! A tantalising prospect for any enthusiast, particularly with an extra day of arrivals and rehearsals being opened in order to fit them all in. As can be imagined, with such a big event, a huge amount of plugging by RIAT soon led to a hype developing through the aviation world surrounding the show – a hype hasn’t been seen in many, many years. A somewhat dangerous game in the age of the internet when so many ‘rumours’ are lost in translation, often blown out of proportion and the saga of ‘I heard it from…’ rages. With the show being held in support of the hugely impactful Royal Air Force Charitable Trust, it is a superb chance to see not only the past, present and future of aviation both at home and abroad celebrated but people as well – in particular the encouragement of young people and the development of their interest in aviation and aerospace.
Selected by the Royal Air Force as the global celebration of RAF100, RIAT’s organisers brought together some 300 or so aircraft, 121 of them in the flying display alone, from 43 air arms representing 30 nations. As can be expected with such a high-profile celebration taking place, the eastern end of the airfield dedicated a huge portion to meeting RAF100’s passion of commemorating, celebrating and inspiring under the guise of the ‘RAF Experience’. With a return to larger RAF and Vintage Villages (also supporting the centenary theme), the ‘RAF Experience’ gave people the chance to see how the RAF has become the agile, adaptable, potent and capable force it is today. From veterans of the by-gone era to those serving today, the ground displays were supported by one of the biggest ‘shows of force’ from the RAF in recent years with no less than 26 aircraft on static. Headlining this contingent were RAF Waddington’s ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) platforms making rare appearances away from their home base in Lincolnshire. While the E-3D Sentry has been seen here and there on airshow duties over the years, as has the Sentinel R1s of V(AC) Squadron in recent years, 51 Squadron’s RC-135W Air Seekers have been seldom seen and was in fact making the types first static display since entering service. Although not a Shadow R1 as such, Waddington’s other ISTAR capability was represented by GAMA Aviation’s dedicated ‘Shadow Trainer’ in use with 14 Squadron. Not to be outdone by their ISTAR brethren, the Air Transport Fleet from nearby RAF Brize Norton were on hand with a Voyager KC2, C-130J Hercules and two A400M Atlas C.1s showing off the wide variety of roles and efforts they undertake around the globe. Sadly, the planned appearance from one of 99 Squadron C-17 Globemaster IIIs fell through with the aeroplane being re-tasked at the last minute. That said, those with a keen eye couldn’t have helped but notice the type coming and going from Brize during the show as they flew their vital support links. Admiration must go to the organisers for getting teams from the Air Mobility Wing, Aerial Delivery Wing and JADTEU (Joint Air Delivery Test and Evaluation Unit) on hand to talk about their roles with the transport assets on show. Having been showcased at last years show for the first time as a ‘set’, this year saw four of the five new types now in RAF being utilised to provide military training under the UK Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS) service – the Grob G120TP Prefect and Embraer 100 Phenom from Affinity Flying Training Services being joined by an example of the H135 Juno and H145 Jupiter helicopters from Airbus Helicopters. While the ‘new kids on the block’ showed the way forward (a IV Squadron Hawk T2 also joined the MFTS line-up) the current trainers were on show with examples of the Tutor and Tucano T.1, the latter allowing a welcome return of 72 Squadron’s camouflaged ‘special’ and more than likely making the last visit of the type in RAF colours. Although now replaced as the RAF’s advanced fast jet trainer, the RAF’s ‘Aggressors’ of 100 Squadron dropped by the show with an example of a Hawk T1 – the jet looking sinister in its all-over black scheme with the skull and crossbones of the ‘ton’ adorning it. While many heading to the show (the author included!) hoped that 230 Squadron would send their incredible looking Puma HC1 ‘special’ which was marked up to celebrate the centenary of the Squadron as well as the RAF, the honour fell to a regularly marked airframe – something not to be sniffed at these days given the rarity of the type in public.
With a pair of Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s from II(AC) Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth, including one in full squadron markings, in the static, it was the two jets sitting alongside them that drew the most attention from those in the know, the godlike Tornado GR4. I say those in the know… I mean, who didn’t know it was to be the last ever RIAT appearance by the ‘The Mighty Fin’ in RAF Service? More on that later….
Given the fact that aviation is headed towards the realms of remotely-piloted aircraft, it is no surprise that the expected ‘backbone’ of the future Royal Air Force will be just that – RPAS or Aircrew Remotely Piloted Aircraft System. Arriving late on the Wednesday, an example of just that made history by touching down at Fairford following a truly historic 24-hour first transatlantic flight from North Dakota – the MQ-9B SkyGuardian currently under development by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. Registered N190TC the airframe, designated the YBCO1, is the prototype of the SkyGuardian of which the Royal Air Force is the launch customer and undertook the first transatlantic crossing to be performed by a medium-altitude RPAS and the very first to be exclusively controlled in British airspace by the ways of satellite communications. Although not officially an RAF asset the Protector RG1 (as it will be known in RAF service) is expected to be operational by the early 2020’s and is considered to have ‘one hundred years of experience being applied to make it a world-leading capability’. In what seems like a very well-choreographed move, Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier announced that first unit to operate the type was to be 31 Squadron as the SkyGuardian undertook its historic flight. With a long and distinguished history in providing the first look at new types, debutant displays and celebrating key anniversaries in the aviation world Andy Armstrong, Air Tattoo Chief Executive said: “Air Tattoo has a proud history of featuring aviation firsts. It’s appropriate that on the RAF’s centenary – we present not only aircraft from the RAF’s illustrious past and present but also offer a rare glimpse of its future”. With that in mind, and in another well thought out move, the ‘game-changer’ gained 31 Squadron markings including their iconic ‘Goldstar’ and and Royal Air Force titles. A superb effort by all involved!
As well modern-day hardware, the RAF100 theme saw a collection of aeroplanes operated by the RAF over the past century gather on the airfield. Notable attendees included the quite stunning Bianchi Sopwith Camel F.1 reproduction, a trio of aeroplanes from the wonderful Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden including their recently returned to the air clipped-wing Spitfire Vc, the world’s sole airworthy Westland Whirlwind, a Gnat T.1 of the Gnat Display Team, Martin-Baker’s gloss black Gloster Meteor T7 (MOD) which recently carried out first UK ejection test in eight years at the Company’s Chalgrove test facility and two Hawker Hunters of Hawker Hunter Aviation (HHA). Another sole airworthy type joining the line-up came in the form of the Flying Bull’s truly astounding Bristol 171 Sycamore with its Maplewood rotor blades and delightful blue and white Air Support Command scheme. Of the ‘classics’ on show it was HHA’s Hunter F58a wearing a newly applied white, grey and black multi-scale camouflage scheme and carrying a drill AIM-9L Sidewinder that caused many a person to ‘double take’ – the scheme having been applied by the company in the weeks leading up to the show as they continue their bid to provide the type as an ASDOT (Air Support Defence Operational Training) platform. Like HHA, QinetiQ have been reliable supporters of the show with examples of various machines of the Empire Test Pilot’s School gracing Fairford’s tarmac over the years. Having undergone a reshuffle, RIAT 2018 saw the organisation’s trio of new machines – the Airbus H125, Grob G120PT and brand new Pilatus PC-21 – together in public for the first time wearing their attractive red, white and blue schemes, a salute to the ‘Raspberry Ripple’ years if you will!
The question has to be asked why the vintage-RAF element of the static couldn’t have been bolstered by the various ‘road-runners’ that have been travelling the width and breadth of the country in support of RAF100 – namely those that had made their journeys to RAF Cosford for their show the month before. It worked for the Centenary of Flight show in 2003, why not this year for an equally important anniversary?
Having seen one of the largest static displays in recent times during last years show, it is fair to say that this year was almost akin to those of the nineties and noughties – aeroplanes stretching as far as the eye can see. That said, with fewer types being operated by the air arms of today, there is always a chance of the static being full of ‘the same aeroplanes but just different colours’. Yet despite this, 2018 saw a rich smorgasbord of types on show with a lot of quality over the quantity – in fact, 2018 was one of the finest static displays in recent years.
Making by far the most welcome of returns to the static park was the Japan Air Self-Defense Force with the European debut of their Kawasaki C-2 – the 403nd Tactical Airlift Squadron of the 3rd Tactical Airlift Group from Miho Air Base providing a look at this C-17-esque strategic airlifter. Looking somewhat like the C-2, Embraer’s sole flying KC-390 made its RIAT debut with the aeroplane stopping by RIAT before heading off to Farnborough on another sales pitch. Sadly, it did seem the team with the aircraft had started touting at RIAT with one of the stars of the show being somewhat obstructed by various ‘pitch’ related items. The same has to be said for the early departure on the Sunday for Farnborough. While it’s easy to understand that it had to reposition, could it not have departed part way through the day or even after the flying had finished as previous types have done in a FIA year and allow those there on the Sunday only a chance at a close look at one of the show’s true gems? Seemingly, the type was the only aeroplane under the so-called ‘Farnborough effect!’ – a very limited effect compared to normal years.
Another first came in the form of one of NATO’s Hungarian based C-17s that make up the multinational initiative NATO Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) at Pápa Air Base. Operated by the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW), the C-17 was joined by two further examples of the type from the United States Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Although both were fantastic additions, it was the ‘cargo’ that many wanted to spy and helped the Canadians scoop the Chief Executive Trophy for their ‘outstanding contribution’ to the 2018 edition – something that was shown in part to getting their heavy lifter to the show.
Designated the CC-177 in Canadian service, its participation looked dubious following a fleetwide grounding that led to a special flight dispensation being gained. Arriving on the Thursday, the aeroplane soon unloaded one of the untold stars of the show, a Bell CH-146 Griffon. Operated by 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron based at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier, the machine in question wore a rather smart ‘special’ scheme in salute to the units 75th Anniversary – a somewhat evocative ‘homecoming’ for the squadron having formed in the United Kingdom. Although many thought the Griffon deserved the prize for the best livery, that award was given to another Canadian – the CF-18 Hornet Demo Team and their ‘NORAD60’ display jet, but more on that later. As well as the CC-117, the RCAF’s other ‘heavy’, the venerable CC-130J Hercules was also on show, the aircraft and crew supporting the CF-18 Hornet Demo Team’s short UK tour. With two awards winging their way back across the Atlantic, Captain Jenn Howell, the CF-18 Demo Team’s public affairs officer said, “There are so many other amazing displays, and it’s incredible to be here. Certainly, it’s an extreme honour to take home some hardware.”
Given the special relationship between the RAF And United States Air Force, it was no surprise that a number of US assets were present. With RAF Lakenheath’s HH-60G’s now calling Aviano Air Base in Italy home, many must have thought the appearance by a Pavehawk at RIAT was a sure thing of the past. But alas, with an empty C-17 heading across the Atlantic and the question asked, it was decided to load up an airframe from the 943rd Rescue Group to join the conglomeration of aircraft. In fact, the helicopter took the award for the best overall static display. Of note was the airframe itself, 90–26227, the very helicopter used to recover US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell of ‘lone survivor’ fame in 2005. Joining the helicopter, was another CONUS (Continental United States) based aircraft in the form of a USAF Reserve Command HC-130P Combat King. Sat with the Pavehawk, the two CONUS based rescue machines were joined by their European counterparts – a CV-22B Osprey and MC-130J Commando II from RAF Mildenhall’s 352nd Special Operations Wing. Devotees of RIAT, the ‘The Bloody Hundredth’ sent KC-135R Stratotanker ‘Miss Irish’ while the 493rd and 494th Fighter Squadrons at RAF Lakenheath provided a single F-15C Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle respectively. Having made a welcome return to the static last year, the 34th Bomb Squadron known as the ‘Thunderbirds’ again provided a Rockwell B-1B Lancer – the aeroplane looking battle weary arriving into the show from operations ‘downrange’ and with a SNIPER Pod hardpoint still in place, albeit no pod. In a time where it is pretty much expected that any ‘support’ aeroplane heads off once done with and later returning to do it again, it was superb to see the KC-10A Extender that ‘dragged’ the Heritage Flight F-35As across joining and subsequently towering over the static!
More welcome returns to the static came from the US Navy who provided an E-6B Mercury and P-8A Poseidon. While the latter, a machine from VP-10 out of NAS Jacksonville, allowed the chance for the crowds to see yet another future RAF platform, the Mercury of VQ-4 ‘Shadows’ hasn’t been seen at RIAT since 2012. Like the Boeing 707 forming the basis of numerous aeroplanes with military applications, including four types in the static including the Mercury, Boeing’s 737 has in some ways has taken over that role with various sub types appearing from it, the P-8A included. Another known variation of the type made a welcome return following its debut last year in the form of an E-7A Wedgetail from the of the Royal Australian Air Force – by far the furthest to attend. With the types attendance hanging in the balance following a technical issue prevented it from leaving Hawaii, the crew managed to solve the issue and head for Fairford – the jet arriving after the show on Friday. In a salute to the host nation, the ‘Aussies’ formed a ‘100’ using their own roundel and being joined by the RAF’s.
Hercules examples were in abundance elsewhere on the showground with the air forces of Austria, Denmark, Jordan, Poland, Pakistan and Oman each sending a single example of Lockheed’s workhorse. As they did in 2016 and 2017, the Pakistani Air Force marked up their airframe with a salute to the both theirs and the RAF’s ‘Journey to Excellence’. Compared to the unbearably corporate ‘RAF100’ attempt, it put it to shame – as did a number of the small gestures made by those visiting the show. Of note with regards to the gathered C-130s was the Austrian Air Force’s example sporting an allover light grey scheme that has been applied to their fleet of three machines following overhaul.
With a pair of C-27J Spartans on display, including a first time visit by a Slovakian example joining one from Lithuania, one wonders if the appearance of a C-160D Transall from the German Air Force – provided by LTG-61 – may have been a last for them at RIAT. Following a short stay of execution whilst issues with their A400MS continue to be ironed out (an example of which was also on static), just a small handful of the type are currently operating on flying missions that require their self-protection suite. Given the pace in which the A400’s development and acceptance continues, the days of the venerable Transall are sadly numbered. Joining the transports were examples of the countries frontliners – two Tornado IDS of TLG33 and a lone Typhoon of TLG7 with the latter making an appearance despite the state of play with the serviceability of Germanys EF2000’s.
The Belgian, Danish, Dutch and Norwegian Air Force’s all provided examples of the F-16 allowing the western loop static area to look like a scene many had wished for in recent years by making use of the most scenic backdrop on the airfield. A lone Swedish Gripen and two Italian F-2000As also added to the fast jet line up at the Western extremity of the showground. In a time where financial constraints and operational needs are at the forefront of every air arm around the world, and understandably so, it is inevitable that types will come and go when least expected. One such case is the Belgian Air Force’s ERJ135 and, with the countries entire VIP transport fleet currently up for sale, the appearance of 21 Squadron’s slick looking 70th Anniversary machine was very welcome. In some ways, the same could be said for air arms using types considered less ‘potent’ as their frontline platform – both the Irish Air Corps and Slovenian Air Force sending examples of their PC-9Ms.
With the Ukrainian Air Force making another return to Fairford following their show-stealing efforts last year, a two-seater SU-27UB Flanker from the 831st Guards Tactical Aviation Brigade, based at Myrhorod Air Base in central Ukraine found its way into the static – the aircraft being joined by an Ilyushin Il-76MD acting as support for both it and the single seat variant that was part of the flying display. One does have to wonder about the Flanker’s positioning though – with space for it to have a tree-lined background, it seemed odd to have it sat at a somewhat ‘dodgy’ angle and the clutter of the show as a backdrop. While one understands that there is probably a reason it was sat where it was, it has to be remembered that RIAT is considered as an enthusiast’s show when compared to most other. An odd decision.
Despite being the obvious principal stars of the show, it was another ‘Eastern Bloc’ type that many feel took that honour – the Estonian Air Force An-2 Colt. When you mention that the An-2 was a star some people almost ‘tut’ in disgust yet when you look at it, it really was. One of only two in service, it represented a huge effort by the tiny air arm above all when you consider the flight to the UK was over 2,000km at a top speed of about 190knts! The aeroplane based with the Composite Flight Wing’s 1 Eskadrill at Ämari Air Base was more than likely making its last visit to both RIAT and the UK as an Estonian asset with two M-28 Skytrucks set to replace them later this year.
It has to be said that given the huge effort that went into RIAT 2018, some two years in the planning and evident by the immense static display, the flying display side of things didn’t seem as ‘special’ as it ought to have. Yes, whilst there were some ‘stars’ and yes, there was some high-end cancellations way out of the control of the organisers, it did seem that the majority of the flying display could have been ‘copy and pasted’ from a so-called standard year, sadly.
Following less than a week from the July 10th RAF100 spectacle held in London, the Friday of the show was to be the main day of celebrations at Fairford with a mass flypast of more than 50 aircraft following on from a Royal Review and a parade by the Queen’s Colour Squadron. Billed to be one of the apexes of the show, if not the apex, the flypast sadly wasn’t to be. How likely is it that the first rain to hit the UK in many, many weeks chooses not only the very time the flypast was due over Fairford but also the very areas the various elements were forming up? Well that is exactly what happened! With immensely dark clouds and rumbles of thunder skirting the airfield, it did look like the mercurial phenomena of Mother Nature was going to be kind to those on the airfield and the crews attempting to form up, but alas all flying was suspended as a monumental weather front hit the airfield. Given the fact the weather system seemed to stretch the entirety of the route – from the hold over Shropshire to the dispersal point over Wiltshire – the decision was made to cancel the flypast. I don’t think it needs explaining the sheer complexity of getting 50 aircraft of different types and thus speeds together 40 miles away from where they are to be seen with storms along the planned route!
Thankfully, despite the loss of what could have been a contender for the highlight of the airshow season, the RAF were on hand with a number of other highlights on the other days, the Saturday and Sunday seeing the delightful sight of a ‘Diamond 9’ from the RAF’s Typhoon Force out of RAF Coningsby. With a lot of focus in the weeks leading up to the show about the long-expected arrival of the first quartet of F-35B Lightning IIs (Read our article on the arrival of the F-35s at RAF Marham) and the re-emergence of 617 Squadron, it was a truly wondrous sight to see a flypast from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s (BBMF) Lancaster being flanked by a Tornado GR4 and Lightning II – the actual standout moment of RIAT 2018. Returning as a pair, the two jets looked almost to be passing the baton of service – one scratching off its final months while the other scratches them off on the first page still. Returning to crowd centre, the F-35 showed off its ‘party trick’ with a hover – oh how the sight of a jet standing on its invisible pillars of power has been missed!
However, for many, if not all, it was the Tornado Gr4’s single swept wing pass and ‘zoom climb’ that took the award. Having mentioned that the GR4 in RAF hands was making its final RIAT appearance, to have one in the skies was sincerely a great piece of work by all involved. That final pass and climb out on the Sunday would be for a majority, the final time they saw a Tornado in the sky… a quite heart-breaking thought. It does however bode one thing, should there have been more insistence in celebrating the RAF’s prodigious ‘Fin’? Another strange decision! Although the type was present in both the flying and static, one feels that the words uttered to the crews heading home on departure to Marham from Fairford Tower just wasn’t enough… “For the final time, Tornados; clear take-off Runway 27…”
The BBMF, as they were last year, were on hand with one of the finest efforts seen from the team in many years. Having flown their unique ‘Thompson Formation’ at the 2017 show, the team upped their game and offered 2018 ‘Trenchard Formation’. Made up of the Lancaster, Dakota, and two fighters, the Saturday of the show saw the team open up their ‘toybox’ and take to the skies with the truly incredible sight of five fighters joining the heavies for a simply out of this world one-off showing of ‘Trenchard Plus’. Having been pipped at the post last year by the RAF Typhoon Display Team for the ‘Steedman Display Sword’, the team took the ‘King Hussein Memorial Sword’ this year for the best overall flying demonstration and rightly so! With the guys who flew the formation heading off on task and back to their day jobs, Flt Lt Paul ‘Ernie’ Wise who collected the award on their behalf said, “It’s absolutely fantastic. I’ve just had the absolute privilege of phoning them to tell them that we did win the award, and you can imagine how many phone calls I’ve now had! It is a massive team effort, and we’re extremely proud. The support was immense for it, and long may we keep doing this. In this RAF centenary year, the theme is, ‘Commemorate, Celebrate, Inspire’. We do commemorate the fallen, we certainly celebrate our achievements. We’re now looking to inspire the next generation.”
Both the Tutor and Chinook took to the skies over the weekend with their usual high standards of flying although it does have to be said that the Tutor looked somewhat diminutive at times given the sheer size of the display line, it was flown through a wonderfully choreographed display of height and energy management by Flt Lt Andy Sell.
Headlining the four national aerobatic display teams taking to the air, the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team Red Arrows took the ‘Steedman Display Sword’ for best flying demonstration by a UK participant, with their usual display of precession and elegance. Having always been on hand with a formation name, an adaption or ‘new’ manoeuvre to commemorate types, anniversaries and events this year saw the team fly their awe-inspiring clever ‘Centenary Pass’ on all three days. Red One, Sqn Ldr Martin Pert, “It’s an incredible achievement for both myself and the whole team to win the award this year. We’ve had a pretty dramatic and quite tough year in places, and at one stage it looked like we weren’t going to be displaying at all. To win the sword at RIAT is quite emotional.” One does wonder how many of the future Royal Air Force will attribute seeing that final pass to one of the reasons for becoming the next generation.
Sadly, the tradition of a ‘unique’ Red Arrows formation during the show didn’t continue for 2018, a missed opportunity for sure given some of the formations that have been seen over the years involving the team. With so many operational squadrons and aeroplanes either linked to their history and even carrying their marks and the relationships stemmed through a century of existence there was a definite lack of anything to really make it something ‘special’ in terms of RAF100. Another odd decision that got many scratching their heads given the magnitude of the centenary and the ‘international’ element of the celebration.
With the showmanship of the Freece Tricolori, joining the gentle formation work of Spain’s Patrulla Águila and the sheer precision of the Swiss PC-7 Team, it was the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Royal Jordanian Falcons that took the award the best flying demonstration by an overseas participant, the RAFCTE Trophy. Unfaltering supporters of the show, the team undertook their first RIAT with their new Extra EA330LX’s in a very smart scheme. Great friends of the Air Tattoo, the team’s director of operations, Col Ghazi Sadoun, echoed, “We are always honoured to participate, let alone to be received by such great crowds. To be given an award is an even greater honour.” With five teams taking to the air of different types and ethos, it is always interesting to see the ‘slating’ nearly all the teams get from those taking to the internet for a keyboard bashing! Every Team is different and have their positives and negatives – at the end of the day, they do what they can with what they have.
Per the likes of the Typhoon, F-16 and Gripen making up most European Air Forces, it was no surprise to see numerous examples of the types in the air, the Italian Typhoon joining the RAF example, the Belgians, Polish, Turkish and Greeks providing their solo Vipers (the Belgians with Dark Falcon, the Polish with their Tiger Demo, the Turkish with Solotürk and the Greeks with Team Zeus) while the Swedish and Czech Republic provided their Gripen displays – the latter two flying some two of the tightest and aggressive routines of the weekend. Other fast jets came from the Hornet solos of the Swiss, Finnish Air Forces and Canadian air forces, Couteau Delta with their Mirage 2000Ds, the French Air Force Solo Rafale C, a pair of Rafale M’s from the French Navy while the ‘star’ appearance came yet again from the Ukrainian’s ‘Beast from the East’, the Su-27 Flanker.
However, unlike 2016 which saw eight displays from just two different aircraft types, this year saw those same types spread across the three days which gave some variation to the schedule. Now that all four of the F-16s are regulars at RIAT, it is a great opportunity to see what the pilots can come up with to give their routine the edge. While the Belgian and Turkish efforts seemed far more relaxed and free-flowing, the Polish and Greeks seemed to take on the feel and look of an American-esque style display with far less flow. The same can be said for the Hornet displays – while the Swiss and the Finnish show off the sheer power and ferocity of the Legacy ‘C’ variant during their aggressively flown routines, the Canadian display seems far shorter, despite some pretty long gaps between each pass or figure, and less flowing. Flown by Capt Stefan ‘Porcelain’ Porteous, the advantage of this is the chance for a very patriotic and well thought out commentary especially compared to some of the commentaries out there that appear to be read of a cue card and in a monotonic panache – surely just as an important recruiting tool! Of the Hornets on show, it was the Finnish jet in the hands of Capt Lauri Mäkinen that took the nod and won the ‘Sir Douglas Bader Trophy’ for the best individual flying demonstration. The pilot of Fighter Squadron 31 commented, “Of course, it means a lot, I’m very honoured to get this trophy because I’ve seen a lot of great performances during this week. I just want to say thank you to the RIAT 2018 organisation, because it’s such a great event. Thanks for the hospitality – we’ve had a great time.”
Another comparison between solos came from the RAF and Italian Typhoon or F-2000 – the latter coming from the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (RSV) who also provided their C-27J Spartan and T-346A Master. Sadly, compared to previous years the Italian Typhoon seemed somewhat disjointed and distant, almost akin to last year’s RAF Typhoon. Flt Lt Jim Peterson on the other hand with this year’s RAF Typhoon display flew one of the best fast jet displays of the year by far, that definitive edge that was missing last year is certainly back with an abundance of ‘burner! Also provided by the RSV was the nimble and futuristic looking T-346A Master with a display that, like their Typhoon, seemed distant and high, not a great combination when you have a diminutive jet, a display line the size of Fairford to contend with and particularly when vied to its punchy debut in 2017. Conceivably it was the C-27J Spartan that was by far a surprising display – and not in a good way! Having wowed the crowds with justly jaw-dropping routine that included loops, rolls, knife-edge passes the length of the airfield and even a number of Derry-Turns, it was a surprise to see a far more sedate routine that was underwhelming to say the least – the crew taking the decision to remove their party tricks themselves and a decision said to have been reversible if they wished. Thankfully, Airbus were on hand with their A400M, which it has done since its debut in 2010, with a typically impressive display that defies its size. The aircraft, which is set to become the RAF’s last expected airframe after being used by the manufacturer for trials work, was adorned with ‘that’ RAF100 tail art. In an astounding display of agility and speed, the behemoth was quite literally chucked around the sky by the all-British crew. With the type now very much settled into UK service, one must wonder if we will see an RAF demo with the type soon, albeit unlikely to be displayed with such gusto.
The French Air Force, like 2017, were on hand with two of the finest fast jet displays seen in recent years – the Rafale C solo and Couteau Delta. The latter, providing their usual faultless Tactical Display. earnt the team the ;As The Crow Flies Trophy’ for the best display as judged by the members of the Friends of the Royal International Air Tattoo (FRIAT) and quite rightly so. One of the teams Weapons Systems Operators, Capitaine ‘Pastif’ said during the awards, “It’s a huge experience for us. We are here for the second year, and it’s a great pleasure to have this prize. It’s only our second year of existence, and we always try to do better; to do more on the social [media] networks and with the Friends of RIAT. For us it’s fantastic to win the World Cup and for us to get this award on the same night!”
The French Navy made a welcome return to the display programme with a pair of Rafale Ms and what would have been a stand-out for the flying display, a Breguet ATL2. Sadly, the ATL2’s hex came with it too! Having made it to a UK show instead of being pulled before wheels down (a treat in itself), the aeroplane managed to squeeze in a rehearsal before being called back home on task – a massive loss but understandable. Flying the F-8 Crusader when they last appeared in the flying display some two-decades ago, 12F were on hand with a sensory battering of the ears and eyes showing off the Rafale M’s capabilities. In a somewhat similar way to Couteau the pair flew a superbly coordinated and choreographed demonstration with numerous seamless re-joins, while giving the public a look at carrier ops. Yes, at times it did seem somewhat distant and a couple of times saw some lengthy repositioning, but it should be remembered that the guys in the cockpits are operational pilots and not a dedicated team. It’s easy to say the French just ‘get it’ when it comes to displays! While any fast jet solo display is something to be savoured, they can slowly become a bit ‘samey’ as can a succession of them one after the other, whereas a 1-plus aircraft tactical demonstration, the theatre of the skies if you will, can open your eyes to what it is the aircraft and crews you are seeing actually do in a more operational setting, within reason of course.
As can be imagined, with an abundance of solo fast jets, there was many a contender for the ‘Paul Bowen Trophy’ awarded to the best solo jet demonstration, this year the award found its way home by the way of a Turkish KC-135 on behalf of Solotürk. Flown on the Friday and Sunday with two different pilots, Capt Serdar Doğan, who flew his RIAT debut on the Sunday, said, “This is a very special award for us. This is the second biggest award we’ve won: the first is the ‘King Hussein Memorial Sword’ that we took home from RIAT in 2011. We’re really happy to be here – this is the best-organised and most exciting airshow that we’ve ever attended in Solotürk’s life. We’re looking forward in the next few years to being at RIAT again and flying for the whole of the United Kingdom”. His colleague Capt Erhan Günar added, “On behalf of my team, a big thank you to RIAT for everything. This award is for all of us.”
The Slovenian Air Force again provided their sprightly Pilatus PC-9M Hudournik from the 152nd Fixed-Wing Squadron at Cerkjle ob Krki Air Base south-east of the Balkan country. The aeroplane, a former prize winner at RIAT, flew a precise and technically challenging display that is up there with the best of the best.
Two civilian participants joined the weekends roster – the simply fanciful Great War Display Team (GWDT) with their fully ‘pyro’ show and the equally wonderful Vampire pair of the Norwegian Airforce Historical Squadron. Given what they represent, it was superb to see two key milestones of the RAF’s history being honoured – the GWDT representing the very first pages of the RAF’s existence while the Vampires, this year marked up in the colours of 4 and 72 Squadrons instead of their usual Norwegian markings, representing the first jets used by an RAF aerobatic team. Kudos to the organisers for getting them there, however one feels more could have been done with both elements to help celebrate the theme.
Rotary displays came from the warrior-like Finnish Army NH90TTH, a very distant and repetitive Belgian Air Force A109BA, the venerable Royal Air Force Chinook and a CV-22B Osprey of the USAF – the latter having to cancel its display on the Saturday following a ‘realignment’ of the schedule to get the Red Arrows out of Fairford on slot for another display and not able to bring forward their departure. As a result the Osprey, which was visible in the hold, was last seen heading for home with the words “disappointing” being heard over the airwaves. Provided by the 7th Special Operations Squadron, the unit flies just one display a year, RIAT and have done for several years now – a blow to all the guys who managed to get it worked up and to the show.
The Chinook Display Team were on hand once more this year with another solid display, however controversy seemed to surround their display on the Saturday with a decision that, again, got people riled up on social media. Those attending on Saturday were met with the announcement that a ‘surprise’ addition would arrive mid-afternoon. As it is currently, the web and fence line were awash with the rumours of a B-2A Spirit heading across the Atlantic as part of an epic 23-hour transatlantic Global Power Mission in the hands of a crew from the 509th Bomb Wing. Flying just a single pass with its traditional F-15 escort, the jet, The Spirit of New York, was soon on its way home, a mere 11-hour trip. But therein lies the issue that must have been as visible to the organisers as the jet was in the hold to the north east. Holding for 20-odd minutes punching holes in the skies, many took to their keyboards with discern that the aeroplane could have flown more than one pass if it had been allowed to run in before the Chinook display. One feels that given the treat RIAT got last year with the B-2 flying two quite incredible passes, some expected the same again this year and the lone pass at height wasn’t good enough. Nevertheless, given the complexity of getting the jet to Fairford, it would have been unlikely that the team hadn’t been made aware of it being a single pass, on balance last year was a massive event for the USAF! Let’s face it though, the organisers have for two years in a row had a B-2 in the show – long may the jets RIAT re-emergence continue!
Planned to have been showcased on all three-show days, the United States Air Force Heritage Flight was jinxed yet again with the Friday seeing the F-35A of the 56th Fighter Squadron flying a warbird-less display. Although not an actual display as such, it did open the eyes of most to what the F-35 can do from its brief spurts of super-manoeuvrability in the hands of Capt Andrew ‘Dojo’ Olson. While some complained it was disjointed and distant, it should be remembered it is a demo and would have made sense with the missing warbirds taking part. Saturday and Sunday nevertheless saw history made with a Spitfire joining the fifth-generation jet and the usual P-51D Mustang (‘Hun Hunter / Texas’ being used) for the first time, a fine salute from our trans-Atlantic friends for RAF100. Flown by warbird maestros Dan Friedkin and Steve Hinton, the two warbirds from the Comanche Fighters stable were making their UK display debuts in their current forms having been shipped across from the US earlier this year. It should be said that if it wasn’t for the commentary on the Saturday most, will have missed their initial pass over the top of the airfield – while many assumed they were repositioning to begin after exiting the hold it would seem it was, in fact, their first pass! Flying numerous other passes, the trio were again left to the sound of Dwayne O’Brien’s wonderfully emotive We Remember as they cavorted through the skies before breaking into solo passes.
Of course, it was the Ukrainians that everyone wanted to see! Flown once more by Colonel Oleksander Oksanchenko, this year saw a far less ‘restricted’ display compared to his 2017 appearance that was hindered by the weather. Again, when equated to displays flown by the much smaller fast jets, the Su-27’s display was nothing special but the jet did salute the Su-27 displays of the past with numerous ‘Tail slides’ as the sheer size and raw power was shown off – notwithstanding a anxious moment during the Friday of the show that saw the jet end up somewhat lower than I think most expected, social media going into overdrive almost immediately! Who knows, maybe next time we will see the likes of the ‘Kvochur Bell’ or ‘Cobra’ return.
While the organisation of the show was to its incredibly high standard, as we have come to expect from the experienced team behind it, one has to question an issue that crops up year after, year – the closing of the showground so soon after the final display. 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 at future shows – next year maybe?
So that was RIAT 2018. However you look at it, RIAT delivered what they could, and for the first time in many, many years fell short of the mark in some areas. Was it the hype created by ourselves that left many walking away from the pilgrimage we all make over and over despite the complaints we make with the feeling the show missed out? If it was just another ordinary year then it would have been one of the best shows in recent times and we would have shouted about it for years to come. But given the significance of the year and the acclaim of being the international celebration of RAF100, then it was somewhat of an anti-climax – especially when you look at what other air-arms have done for their anniversaries. But let’s face it, there was genuine standout displays both on the ground and in the air that were indicative of what RAF100 is but if it was not for those, you could quite clearly have forgotten that it was indeed the international RAF100 celebration, expressly on the Friday with the cancellation of the flypast, another subject that got the ‘keyboard experts’ riled up! Given the attitude that seems to surround the RAF when it comes to things like this, were the organisers fighting a losing battle from the onset of the planning stages? While it should be noted that nigh on all the associated countries pivotal in the RAF’s first centenary were invited, the organisers cannot be accused of lack of vision, effort nor can they control which nations accept or decline their invitations, something understandable given the times we live in and the mistress that is aviation.
In all honesty, the totality of RAF100 has been questioned, but is it fair to place the blame (for want of a better word!) on one organisation or entity. The massive effort from the Air Tattoo team, both volunteers and permanent staff, who were behind the show should take a bow, it might not have been the spectacle many wished for but it happened that way for a reason. The worlds biggest Airshow easily retained its title as the worlds biggest airshow. The RAF hierarchy answer to numerous higher powers and penny pinchers. But maybe it is their ‘that’ll do attitude’ and obsession to create a corporate image that has killed RAF100…