Part one: Tripping the light fantastic
Gary Parsons was at Fairford for its sunniest and warmest weekend for many a year. Pictures by the author, Damien Burke and David Eade
A glorious week in Gloucestershire - sunny skies, warm breezes and plenty of factor 8 ensured this was an airshow to savour. From Wednesday right through to Monday morning the weather did its best to ensure RIAT 2005 was a success, building on the foundations of the past two years since that disastrous 2002 event. Even the shadow of the London bombings the week before failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the public for the show, nor bring security pressures to such that they impinged on the proceedings - sure, security was evident, but measures in place ensured they didn't detract from the occasion. In the aftermath of the bombs, and several years of heightened tension, an acceptance that security checks of bags and belongings is beginning to ingrain itself into the national consciousness.
So, a fabulous weekend - but one can't help thinking that if the weather hadn't been so good, we wouldn't be quite so upbeat. Eight hours of flying each day was scheduled as ever, but it was the most pedestrian programme yet offered at an International Air Tattoo, offering little that couldn't be seen at most other airshows across the UK this year. We expect RIAT to provide the unexpected, the unusual and the rare, and consistently through the eighties and nineties it delivered, marking it as the event for the enthusiast. But recent years have been more mundane, culminating this year with a programme that was very similar in content to Waddington just two weeks earlier, with the addition of US participation. Airshow acts are much more difficult to acquire these days of course, and attracting overseas air forces to commit in times of cutbacks becomes ever more trying, but one gets the feeling that RIAT is heading towards a more general entertainment event for the wider audience, hence inclusion of 'barnstorming' acts and civilian airliners. In an age of dwindling airshow events, this may be a sound policy, but RIAT is in danger of losing its unique appeal as a showcase for the armed forces of the world.
There were some good things in the air - the Red Arrows' unique flypast with three Spitfires and the Royal Navy's formation of Hawks and Falcons being top of the list. Dicky Patounas, team leader for the Red Arrows, is Godfather to Rolls-Royce test pilot Phill O'Dell's son (they were both Jaguar pilots a few years ago) which led to the formation being discussed. The three Spitfires - Rolls-Royce's PS853, the BBMF's PM631 and Peter Teichmann's PL965, all in photo-reconnaissance blue, made for a marvellous sight tucked in behind the nine Hawks in arrow formation - it was one of those sights only RIAT can seem to conjure up. Similarly, the two FRA Falcons seen at Waddington for the first time teamed up with the FRADU Sea Hawks four-ship to provide another rare and exciting display formation before the two elements split for individual displays. Later four C-130 Hercules, one from each of the RAF Lyneham squadrons, flew a moving missing man formation in honour of their comrades who died when their Hercules crashed in Iraq earlier this year, highlighting the human cost often paid by the air forces of the world. Among those watching the tribute were a number of Tattoo volunteers based at RAF Lyneham - including the Station Commander Group Captain Paul Oborn - all of whom found it particularly poignant.
Maybe fortunate on Sunday was aerobatics display pilot Will Curtis, who performed an inverted ribbon-cut as he had on Saturday, but dramatically dipped towards the runway at the end of the pass before recovering with feet to spare. Set against the safety standards normally insisted by the CAA, this seemed a remarkable lapse of judgement by the safety committee in allowing such a stunt to be performed - the margin between success and failure was small, at best. Will had previously set a new aircraft 'limbo' world record, flying his Sukhoi SU-26 beneath twelve ribbons held aloft between poles by lines of trusting volunteers standing either side of the runway, but did that the right way up - surely that was as far as it needed to go?
Elsewhere it was mainly the RAF circus of display aircraft, headed by Typhoon, arguably the highlight of the show if pre-show publicity was anything to go by - this highlighted the lack of international 'star', as although Typhoon is a mighty airshow performer, it is now part of the 'establishment' and is expected at most big airshows across the country. Its only real competition for attention in the fast jet stakes were the French Air Force Mirage 2000D, Finnish Air Force F/A-18C and a brace of F-16s from the Netherlands and the US Air Force East Coast demonstration team. With little new to promote, the airshow committee took the bold step of including for the first time in Europe a pilotless aircraft, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).
One of a growing band of state-of-the-art Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAV), the ScanEagle, developed and built by Boeing and Insitu Group, is capable of flying up to fifteen hours at a time on less than two gallons of fuel, gathering information over a variety of terrain both day and night. The aircraft, which is four feet long and has a ten-foot wingspan, is among the latest technology being employed by the US military to send real-time video images from remote areas. It is so sophisticated that it can relay real-time, detailed optical and infra-red imagery and can transmit exact, pin-point locations that allows for instant decisions to be made.
Boeing and Insitu Group teamed up with Air Tattoo organisers and hoped to illustrate ScanEagle's capabilities by beaming down images from the airshow onto large screens. Rigorous procedures had to be met in order to obtain clearance from the Civil Aviation Authority, the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Aviation Safety Centre for ScanEagle to fly in public, which ultimately led to the venture being a complete waste of time. ScanEagle does not take off in the conventional way but gets airborne by being 'catapulted' into the sky - similarly it is retrieved using a 'Skyhook' system in which the UAV catches a rope hanging from a fifty-foot high pole. This was the first mistake - the skyhook was positioned on the far side of the airfield, in a position that most people wouldn't have noticed it. Once launched the ScanEagle was kept a long way from the display line, flying some very leisurely and flat circuits of the countryside between the airfield and Fairford village. Imagine, if you can, trying to see a four-foot model aircraft from nearly a mile away - it was never going to hold anyone's attention. For ten minutes people scanned the sky, trying to locate the diminutive orange-coloured piece of buzzing firewood. Most couldn't see the large display screen, but then why would they particularly want to see bits of the Gloucestershire countryside from five hundred feet? As an airshow act it sucked, and proved UAVs have no place in the future of the airshow industry - hence we won't grace it with a picture. Please, never again! UAV - unwanted airshow vehicle?
Although the flying programme was largely uninspiring, the static park certainly made up with a fine array of exotic paint schemes and rare aircraft. Numbers were down on previous years, with just over 315 aircraft on the airfield, but as Tim Prince said it was a case of "Quality, not quantity". Once again a mini-Tiger Meet brought some spectacular colour to the normally grey ranks of military hardware and choice pieces such as Italian Navy AV-8Bs, French Air Force C-160 Gabriel and the USAF's Lockheed U-2. A minor grumble was the spread-out nature of the aircraft, dispersed across Fairford's vast acres of concrete, making it an expedition of epic proportions in the searing heat of Sunday. Free shuttle buses were available, but somehow you always ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time - with nearly two miles from end-to-end some detailed planning of your day is essential! Ironically the smaller number of aircraft would now ideally fit into Cottesmore, the venue for RIAT during 2000/01, a much more pleasant location in our opinion - it would also remove the USAF's concern on security, something that will surely increase with recent terrorist incidents in the UK.
Despite the large number of people who attended on the two days, there were no reports of any major traffic problems. Admissions co-ordinator Peter Williams said: "Everyone who came in by road over the two days has had nothing but praise for the event's traffic management operation. Obviously we had queues but they were moving queues. We did not have long lines of stationary traffic." Early indications are that the attendance figure at RAF Fairford for the two days was approximately 160,000, an increase of around seven per cent on 2004.
This year, the Air Tattoo was held for the first time in support of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust and delighted Tattoo director and co-founder Tim Prince. "It is most heartening that in our first year under the new Trust, the team has put on a fantastic airshow. I believe it has been a success for our many stakeholders, including the various international air arms, the many aircrew, our hardworking volunteers, the Royal Air Force and, of course, the people who matter the most - the public.
"There were many highlights over the weekend but if I had to choose one, it would be the wonderful joint flypast by the Red Arrows and the Spitfires - the combined sound of the jet aircraft with the propeller-driven Spitfires was music in the air. The airshow has been a wonderful advert not only for the Royal Air Force but also for the Charitable Trust." Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight, chairman of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust, thanked everyone involved for an exciting and safe airshow.
"This was one of the best shows we have ever done and you must say to any doubters that it was exciting, very professional and will have people flocking back in huge numbers each year. It brings money in for important charities and it is without question, the finest airshow in the world", he said. One would agree to a point, but effort needs to be made with the flying content to ensure it doesn't become just another copycat show on the UK calendar.
With thanks to the RIAT media team for their tireless efforts...