A thoroughly modern RIAT
Gary Parsons reports on Fairford's hottest weekend in years
A week of heat, sun and action can sum up the RIAT 2006 experience. Blisteringly hot over the event's six days of aircraft movements and airshows, blue skies abounded over the parched fields of Fairford. RIAT is very much the curate's egg, in that it can never be perfect - it is different things to all men, with each visitor having his own particular needs and interests that can never be fully satisfied for each and every person. That 167,000 visited over the two show days, an increase of about four percent on last year, is a sure sign that things are relatively healthy, and that RIAT is satisfying a good proportion of its visitors in these cost-conscious modern times of dwindling military forces.
Yes, aircraft numbers were considerably down once again, reducing on last year's total by a significant margin. The yawning gap in the centre of the showground was testament to the difficulty of securing military participation, the area filled with new attractions designed to interest and occupy the less aviation-interested members of the audience. That RIAT has to diversify, there is no doubt - it is deliberately intending to become a more mainstream event, rather than one solely focussed on the aviation enthusiast. The hope is that a greater desire for aviation can be engendered in those on the periphery of interest, by enticing them along to an event that will keep the whole family entertained while enabling them to get close to the aircraft and action.
The reduction in aircraft numbers is, of course, a serious issue of concern for the hardcore enthusiast, especially those that take advantage of the Friends of RIAT (FRIAT) packages over the entire six days. In the past the arrival days would be almost non-stop action from Wednesday morning through to late Friday, with Monday departures being a constant roar of afterburners from the departing jets. This year experienced the full reality of dwindling numbers - a slow Wednesday, bolstered by a solid Thursday, saw little action on Friday except for a few validation displays. Fortunately the weather enticed the many photographers to take it easy and soak up the sun and atmosphere, but less glorious weather would have tried the patience of many. It may be time to reappraise the week's programme - drop the Wednesday, and arrange the arrivals over Thursday/Friday to make a more intensive package for the paying punters. It would reduce revenue from the Wednesday park and view, but would provide a better experience and logically increase visitor numbers over the remaining two days - as it is, in future many may decide there's not enough action to justify three paying days on the approach, and stay at home. This year's airshow was about the size of a good Mildenhall Air Fete from the late eighties, most of the arrivals for which would arrive the two days before the airshow. In total around three hundred aircraft participated in RIAT 2006 from around the world, numbering some twenty-four countries - the crew from the Royal Australian Air Force 707 travelled the furthest, from Richmond, New South Wales.
Last year RIAT acknowledged the drop in aircraft participation and stated it would concentrate on quality, rather than quantity. Its ambition was realised to some extent, with many exotic aircraft on display that wouldn't normally be seen in the UK. Aided considerably by liaising with Farnborough for two star items, namely the MiG-29 OVT and MV-22 Osprey, the flying programme was one of the strongest yet seen in the 21st Century. As the flying programme is what draws most enthusiasts, it is right that RIAT should concentrate its efforts in this direction - the static park is no more than a supporting act to the main event for most, something to do before the action starts at ten o'clock and maybe while the TBM-700 is flying (sorry, but it has to be one of the least interesting displays and seems to be set in stone in the programme). Again though, this maybe won't please everyone - there'll be those that will want to get up close to the aircraft, count the rivets or peer up the tailpipe of something, oblivious to the best efforts of the pilots a few hundred feet away. These rivet counters will no doubt be starting to wonder if £35 is value for money when there's only fifteen aircraft from the Royal Air Force on show, a good majority of them gliders.
So is it overstretch, or lack of interest from our leaders that the RAF was largely absent? One of the airshow's main themes was 'Rapid Global Effect', with all the posters and flyers depicting a RAF C-17A, yet not one was present on the airfield. During the flying displays 99 Squadron could be seen departing and returning to nearby Brize Norton, so they were clearly busy - certainly operational commitments must take precedent over airshows, but it indicates the pressures the air force is under when it struggled to sent front-line aircraft to the country's premier aviation showcase to the public. Just one Tornado F3 was on display - but at least there was one, unlike Waddington. No TriStar was present either, showing that the Air Transport fleet has little fat to cut. The unfortunate loss of the Harrier GR9 near Oxford en route to RIAT on Thursday, thankfully with no injuries to pilot or public, added to the thin 'home' presence. Rather than attempt flawed concepts such as Abingdon's 'Spirit of Adventure' event in August, the MoD would be better advised to pour its resources into supporting RIAT and its two other main events, Waddington and Leuchars, as a way of promoting recruitment and the various trades in the Air Force.
Some NATO partners were conspicuous by their absence - Italy diverted all its resources to supporting Farnborough, and even the German content was much reduced, only two Tornados contrasting with the virtual squadrons sent to previous events. But the Americans were just as enthusiastic as ever, although we had no F-117A or B-2A to admire. Best of all was the West Coast F-15 Display Team, pilot Captain Tony 'Baron' Bierenkoven using one of the UK-based 48th Fighter Wing's F-15Cs for the event. Just as entertaining was the commentary, as jingoistic and patriotic as only the Americans can deliver! Disappointing as ever were the two displays by the B-1B and B-52H - straight and level, 1,000 feet - we say this every year, but it's just so unimpressive and disappointing. A couple of touch-and-goes would be much better, enabling the B-1B especially to use that power to the full.
But it was the MV-22 Osprey that we had all come to see. A first-time appearance in the UK for this ungainly beast, despite it being in development since Father Time was a lad. A demonstration rather than a display, just to see this strange contraption haul itself into the air vertically and transform into a proper aeroplane was interesting enough. VMX-22 is the test and development squadron, officially called 'Marine Tiltrotor Test and Evaluation Squadron 22', being activated on 28 August 2003 at MCAS New River, North Carolina. The decision by the Marine Corps to acquire the V-22 Osprey is based upon the consideration that it is the right platform for the 21st century, although the need for it was seen way back in 1980 in what was tagged the 'Desert One Debacle' - US military helicopters, with their short legs and slow speed, were a contributing factor that led to tragedy during a failed American hostage rescue attempt in the Iranian desert. The V-22 tiltrotor is considered the answer - it is fast, refuelable and can assume the medium assault role assigned to the aging fleet of Marine CH-46 helicopters. The acceleration and deceleration aspects of the flight regime are remarkable. It can go rapidly to 250 knots, and operate at a ceiling of 25,000 feet, well above that of the CH-46 and '47.
Marines will be the primary users of the tiltrotor aircraft - the Corps expects to have a fleet of three hundred and sixty Ospreys, followed by the Air Force Special Operations Command with fifty, and the Navy's forty-eight.
And so to the MiG-29 OVT. We'll look at the aircraft in more detail in our Farnborough report, but suffice to say it performed the seemingly impossible - back flips in a jet aircraft? You would be amazed! Amazing too was Captain Peter Reiner's display in the Swiss Air Force F-18C, the legacy Hornet benefiting from a Flight Control Software upgrade to the F/A-18F standard, enabling a much more aggressive routine and one that surpassed even Ricardo Traven's in the USN Super Hornet. Less impressive was the Spanish Air Force Typhoon, a rather scrappy routine not displaying the jet to its best advantage - however, it was good to see and more airshow appearances should see a more polished display in future years.
Mixed formations were a strong theme - we saw the Red Arrows formate with 101 Squadron's anniversary VC10 on Sunday, the PC-21 with the Patrouille Suisse on both days and the Spanish Typhoon with the Patrulla Aguila on Sunday. The USAF flew its Heritage Flight, comprising a P-51D Mustang alongside the demonstration F-15C Eagle, Ed Shipley at the controls of the Fighter Collection's 'Twilight Tear'. Flares were also back in fashion, the Dutch F-16AM firing a double salvo on Saturday to complement the Patrouille Suisse's traditional finale.
Making its last ever public display appearance was a Canberra operated by the RAF, Squadron Leader Terry Cairns again at the controls of PR9 XH134. Two of the three Canberras were at Fairford and available for viewing to potential purchasers - at the time of writing it is understood that all three were successfully sold, there is a chance that we may see one on the airshow circuit in the future in civilian hands.
So a strong flying line-up, but at eight hours long it takes some stamina on the part of the audience, especially the photographers. An hour shorter, missing some of the lesser acts that can get lost in Fairford's vast amphitheatre (apologies to the Utterly Butterly team and the Army Air Corps Historic Flight) would make for a more relaxing day without compromising the content of the airshow.
Visitor numbers up, fantastic weather, good flying and slick organisation ensured that RIAT 2006 was a resounding success, and should enable the team to prepare for 2007 with confidence. Despite the problems of getting aircraft, RIAT remains a viable format and has the support of the majority of enthusiasts to continue in a similar way. One small niggling doubt remains though, and that is the same as we had for Waddington - did the fabulous sunshine mask a downturn in enthusiast numbers, something that poor weather would have exposed? 2007 may be the acid test, especially as there will be no Farnborough to help attract the exotic display aircraft - a tough task then, but one that the RIAT team of three thousand volunteers and forty-four permanent staff will, no doubt, meet head-on. Oh, and please RIAT, open the gates at 06:30, not 07:30…