Return to Fairford
Gary Parsons reviews a 21st century Tattoo experience
How was it for you?
So after two years away we were back in Gloucestershire - the pre-show publicity said this was a good thing, and a bonanza of 450 aircraft plus could be expected. Lessons had been learnt at Cottesmore, especially concerning parking, so the plan was to implement off-base parking at Fairford too, which had the additional benefit of easing the American-imposed security checks. Post 9/11 it was to be expected, just as much as the winter speculation of "will it, won't it happen" because of the USAF lodger units.
Security was the topic on everyone's lips - searches on the way in for everyone posed a logistical headache that was never really eased over the six days. Drafted in British Army personnel ensured everything was done by the book, but of course there are never enough personnel or scanners. Long queues built rapidly on the two showdays, many taking nearly two hours to make it from the car to the gate - this after spending many hours in the queues that had materialised on the red and blue routes. Having off-base car parking should have meant an easier exit, but again tales of hours spent stationary abounded. The ease of the Cottesmore experience never happened for Fairford - is it topography, or was it poor planning? The organisers have vowed to investigate what went wrong for 2003, but if security checks are needed again many may be put off after this year.
Bigger, but better?
Bigger for certain was the airfield - over $100 million dollars had been spent in resurfacing the runway and enlarging the taxiways. Vast acres of concrete had been laid, primarily on the southern loops, ready for the armada of B-1s, B-2s and B-52s for the USA to project its Global Reach policy. Of course work had been well underway by 11 September last year, but no sooner had the dust settled in New York the rumours of work being hurried at Fairford surfaced, so the bombers could be brought in. As we know this wasn't necessary, but it helped fuel the fires of the winter 'RIAT cancelled?' rumours.
Having more concrete to play with enabled some subtle changes to the traditional Fairford layout. Gone was the parking apron between the hangars on the northside, so extra flightline space was required and found on the south-eastern taxiway where the display teams were based. Such is the width of the taxiway that four rows of jets could be accommodated one behind the other - Patrouille Swiss, Patrulla Aguila, Red Arrows and the Frecce Tricolori provided a colourful and active apron, giving many the opportunity to get close to 'live' aircraft - definitely a plus point.
Most of the static park was arranged around the massive southern loop that extends back almost to Kempsford village. It allowed some almost creative parking arrangements, the American lot being almost photogenic (for Fairford). The flipside was that the western loop near Marston Meysey wasn't used at all, which was always the preferred end for serious photographers with its high vantage point and open vistas. In fact the static line ended about halfway down the taxiway, the C-5B and C-141 almost stranded in open countryside.
A numbers game
Which brings us to the content - 400 aircraft had been the pre-show number, but reality made it a little over 300. Fairford's extra space made the smaller static even more dispersed, and it was evident that many nations were missing as were many aircraft types. Fighters were sparse compared to previous years - no F-18s, F-104s, A-7s, or Gripens, for example. A quick estimate produced 135 static aircraft, of which 81 were non-RAF, which is actually down on what was present at both Cottesmore shows. 1999, the last show at Fairford, had 197 in the static, of which 148 were foreign.
So where were all the goodies over the RIAT weekend? Mostly sitting at Farnborough - two Super Hornets, Typhoon, a USN S3, E2 and C2. Once again the back-to-back RIAT/SBAC fortnight played against the Tattoo. Sitting at Kleine Brogel on the Thursday prior to RIAT weekend were all the great special-markings fighters assembled for the 'Lion Meet'. Sitting at Waddington - dozens of F-18s and Mirage 2000s, including the Spanish and Swiss Hornet display pilots. As for the multitude of other nations that have been RIAT participants in the recent past - where were they? Something was missing with the invitation process, unheard of in previous Tattoos.
This lack of quality, to be brutal, extended into the flying programme. Six display teams were present, but most were UK airshow regulars and didn't have that uniqueness of, say, the Ukrainian Falcons, excepting the Chilean 'Los Halcones' with their Extra 300s. Items from the Ukraine had been invited and it was hoped to see the return of the Tu-22M Backfire, but cancellation came a couple of weeks before the show, along with the Russian Tu-95. So, one must congratulate the Americans for appearing in strength (see sidebar), for without their attendance it would have been a very average show indeed. This is not meant as any disrespect to the pilots of the RAF display teams or their civilian counterparts - it's just that RIAT has for so long provided the unique and unusual, continually setting the standards for other airshows to aspire. That it fell short this year cannot be denied, for whatever reasons - 9/11, world-wide cutbacks in military spending, or simply not inviting in sufficient numbers. RIAT was a victim of its own past successes, and succumbed to mediocrity - more F3000 than F1, more Manchester City than United. No doubt the team will bounce back in 2003.
Sustainability - keyword for the future
Given the security issues, the parking problems and the traffic management, one has to ask if Fairford is a sustainable venue for RIAT to grow and prosper, as it needs to with ever-increasing costs. American foreign policy will cast a dark shadow over the event for as long as USAFE remains - given the recent investment, this will be for a considerable time yet. Every year will see the "will-it, won't-it" rumours circulate, creating uncertainty that is not good for long-term health. History may review the 2001 show at Cottesmore as a halcyon time for RIAT - great venue, no queues, great weather, good aircraft, but most importantly a big and happy crowd.
We would like to see a benign venue found, one that does not have any military ties and could be developed as a permanent airshow home with the opportunity to expand other ventures for the other eleven months of the year. A vacated airbase such as Alconbury or Upper Heyford would be ideal - the MoD could bequeath the site to the RAFBF in perpetuity for little cost to the taxpayer. With a stable platform on which to develop proper parking and facilities, RIAT could become the world's showcase for aviation, instead of being the lodger at the call of the landlord.
Part two : The actual airshow!