...were the talking points for many from this year's Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, held over 14-15 July. Andrew Bates reviews the event, with additional material by Gary Parsons. Pictures by Gary Parsons, Jack Parsons, Mike Kerr and Bob Archer
With the UK enduring one of the most disappointing summers in recent memory, including the wettest June since records began, the omens were not good in the days leading up to RIAT 2007, especially as this trend had continued into July. With previous shows having enjoyed two consecutive years of endless blues skies and scorching temperatures, it was perhaps inevitable that the odds dictated a change in meteorological fortunes. However, despite some initially gloomy predictions, thankfully the potential deluge originally on offer didn't actually materialise, and whilst the weather on the Sunday was not exactly ideal, at least the Saturday was destined to develop into a very pleasant day, including a (currently) rare opportunity to bask in some very welcome sunshine.
Traffic was the big topic of Saturday - with the forecast somewhat dire for Sunday, two-thirds of the total weekend audience descended on Gloucestershire on the day, with traffic jams forming by 08:00. Five-hour delays in getting in were common, and many ticket-holders simply gave up. It once again questioned Fairford's suitability for such a mammoth event, and has forced the RAFCTE to consider changes to next year's ticket arrangements - expect day-specific ones next year. This may be a risky strategy, putting off the less committed airshow goer, possibly leading to more ticket sales on the gate with attendant delays in getting in. Saturday's problems were unfortunate, as with every year the off-base parking gets slicker, entry to the airshow on Sunday being a breeze.
Once in, to the casual observer there were two main themes to this year's event, one of which was the 60th Anniversary of the United States Air Force - whilst perhaps a little low-key in comparison to the 50th Anniversary celebrations held in 1997, this nevertheless provided a fascinating mix of old and new technology in one area of the static display dedicated to the aircraft of the USAF and its predecessor, the USAAF. This saw old timers such as the P-39Q Airacobra, P-40M Kittyhawk, P-51D Mustang and C-47A Skytrain line up alongside the A-10A Thunderbolt II, F-16C Fighting Falcon and F-15E Strike Eagle, with the sinister shape of the F-117A Nighthawk providing a backdrop. And, of course, there were many other familiar RIAT attendees on show contributing to the anniversary theme, such as the B-1B Lancer, B-52H Stratofortress, KC-10A Extender, C-5B Galaxy, and C-17A Globemaster III, to name but a few.
Up in the air, the USAF theme continued with displays from old Fairford favourites such as the B-1B and F-117A as well as the popular heritage flight demo of P-51D and F-15E. The B-52H was also scheduled to perform both days but unfortunately went 'tech' on the Saturday. Especially appropriate in this anniversary year was the RIAT debut of the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, visiting all the way from Nellis Air Force Base and taking in Fairford as part of their brief 2007 European tour. Last seen performing in the UK at Waddington in the year 2000, it was good to see the guys and galls (the team currently has two female pilots) again and entertaining the audience with a typically slick and polished demonstration of formation flying. No doubt everyone has their personal preference when it comes to display teams but the different styles successively offered during the day by the T'Birds, Red Arrows, Patrulla Aquila (Sunday only) and Frecce Tricolori all complemented each other nicely.
The second theme for RIAT 2007 was 'Agile, Adaptable & Capable.' This covered gliders and elementary trainers to rotary and advanced fixed-wing training, with the Air Tattoo organisers inviting operators of military training aircraft from around the world to attend. Whilst this broad spectrum effectively encompassed a variety of types already familiar to enthusiasts such as the Belgian SF260D and NATO 707TCA, it had at least attracted a number of rarer types not commonly seen at RIAT, or indeed at any other UK venue - especially welcome was the Canadian Forces CT-142 from 402 'City of Winnipeg' Squadron in a very smart midnight blue colour scheme, whilst equally immaculate was the 99th FTS T-1A Jayhawk from the 12th FTW at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas (left). A rare sight outside the US, the Jayhawk had been accompanied by a T-43A from the co-located 562nd FTS, both aircraft effectively qualifying as representative airframes for either of the two commemorative themes for RIAT 2007.
Covering the fast jet element of military training was another Fairford debutante, a recently delivered Hungarian Air Force JAS-39D Gripen from Kecskemét (right), whilst in a similar vein was the very welcome sight of two Turkish Air Force NF-5B-2000 Freedom Fighters from 133 Filo at Konya, where these newly upgraded jets are utilised for combat readiness training for new graduates selected to fly the F-16C Fighting Falcon. It's exotica such as this that has always been the attraction of RIAT for many enthusiasts and once again the organising committee had done a grand job in securing the attendance of a number of rare and unusual participants.
Arguably the rarest attendees on show were the pair of Indian Air Force Su-30MKI Flankers and accompanying Il-78MKI Midas. Okay, perhaps not that rare if you happened to have visited Waddington during the preceding fortnight, but it was still a very welcome and thoughtful gesture for them to take the time to drop in before their return journey back to India. This gesture was ultimately rewarded with Wing Commander Bharti and Squadron Leader Kgarg accepting the BAE Systems 'Spirit of the Meet' Trophy on behalf of 30 Squadron. A third Flanker was also present to give an all too brief flying display on Saturday, whilst BAE Systems were to add their own contribution in the shape of an Indian Air Force Hawk Mk132 prior to delivery (left).
There were a number of other highlights to be found within the static, including the first showing of a Brazilian Air Force Embraer R-99A with accompanying C-130E Hercules, whilst the Hellenic Air Force once again sent a pair of 335 Mira Corsair IIs, always a popular choice with many enthusiasts. Obviously the Tiger schemed A-7E had been seen before at last year's show but after going to all that trouble with such a fabulous paint job, you could hardly blame them for wanting to show it off again and at least they ensured the other A-7 was a different airframe to last year, this time being a twin seat TA-7C variant. The Greeks were also represented by a C-130H Hercules from 356 Mira which was sporting some unusual tail artwork with a distinctly Greek theme. It obviously caught the imagination of the Fairford judges as Major Dimitri Lazopoulos and crew were subsequently awarded a RIAT 2007 Trophy for 'Best Livery'.
As always a number of aircraft in the static looked to be in immaculate condition, the crews obviously lavishing a little TLC on their respective mounts in anticipation of one of the coveted RIAT Concours d'Elegance awards. Despite the best attentions of a number of crews from around the globe, all three awards on offer ended up being presented to three very different UK-based aircraft. The EADS Trophy for the first runner-up of the Concours d'Elegance was awarded to Flt Lt Newton and CGI Mellor for their Vigilant T1 from 612 VGS, from nearby Abingdon, whilst the Lockheed Martin Trophy for the second runner-up was awarded to Flt Lt Sandberg and Captain Wiese for their Tornado GR4 from RAF Marham. The overall winner was pilot Jim Wesson, who was presented with the Page Aerospace Trophy for his privately owned Auster 6A. The guys from Marham were perhaps a little unlucky not to be awarded the first prize for the superbly finished II(AC) Squadron 95th Anniversary paint scheme on their Tornado but to be fair, Jim's Auster was immaculately turned out, so he probably just pipped them to the post. As for the Vigilant, well, um, to be honest, it just looked like a normal Vigilant, but obviously it must have caught the imagination of the judges somehow. Anyway, congratulations to all the pilots and crew for making a sweep of the board on behalf of the UK.
Up in the air there were a number of potential contenders vying for one or more of the flying trophies up for grabs; the two F-16 displays, with the Belgian one flown by Major Mickey Artiges against Captain Ralph 'Sheik' Aarst in the Dutch example; the Spanish Typhoon handled by Major Jose Luis Sastre, and Captain Jifi Rezac in the Czech L-159 ALCA amongst others, all competing with some of the display teams for the judges' attention. Walking off with the 'King Hussain Memorial Sword' for best overall flying demo were the pilots and crew of the two-ship FR Aviation Falcon 20 and four-ship FRADU Hawk combination flypast, led by ex-Red Arrows boss Spike Jepson.
For the remainder of the trophies it was honours even between two very dynamic jets, the Typhoon and the Hornet. Firstly, Flt Lt Jim Walls had the distinction of being awarded no less than two trophies for a sizzling performance in his 29(R) Squadron Typhoon F2 - not only did he take the 'Sir Douglas Bader Trophy' for the Best Individual Flying Demonstration, but he was also awarded the 'As The Crow Flies Trophy' for the Friends of RIAT Best Overall Flying Demonstration - congratulations Jim! This left two trophies to be snapped up by the Hornet, always a popular choice with regular airshow audiences. Swiss Air Force Captain Thomas 'Pipo' Peier from Flieger Staffel 18 was awarded the 'Paul Bowen Solo Jet Trophy' for his performance in his F/A-18C, whilst his Finnish Air Force counterpart, Captain Tommi Heikkala from HävLLv 11, flying in his F-18C, was awarded the 'Lockheed Martin Cannestra Trophy' for the Best Overseas Flying Demonstration. From a personal point of view, it was difficult to say which Hornet demo was the better of the two, but the Finnish display was especially welcome, having been absent during the 2006 show.
Also making a welcome return this year was the Italian contingent - having been loyal supporters to RIAT over the years, the Italians excelled themselves during the 2005 show with a significant number of airframes from a number of their military air arms. However, that all changed during RIAT 2006 as they were entirely conspicuous by their absence, therefore it was good to see them return for 2007 with the aforementioned Frecce Tricolori in the flying as well as a selection of front-line types in the static. Apart from a C-27J, there were a pair of Tornados from 36º Stormo and a pair of HH-3F Pelicans from 15º Stormo. One of the 'Tonkas' wore a very attractive all-black colour scheme complete with leaping cougar artwork on the front fuselage, whilst one of the Pelicans wore a striking 30th Anniversary colour scheme (on the port side only) depicting a very large cartoon Pelican (what else!), which kept many of the keen photographers busy during the day.
While there was certainly a good selection of the rare and exotic in the static display, the one area of concern for a number of enthusiasts is the seemingly ever dwindling selection of Royal Air Force types on show. It was not too long ago that the left hand column of the aircraft checklist was always dominated by a long list of RAF aircraft. Naturally it's accepted by many that the services are now extremely busy with continued operations overseas to fulfil operational commitments in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq and as a consequence there are less aircraft to spare during the airshow season. Then again, it was quite a shock to the system to see that there were a mere sixteen RAF airframes in the static. If you then discount all the gliders and training aircraft, this reduced the number of frontline types on show to a paltry quantity of eight and, surprisingly, three of those were Pumas. As the main beneficiary of RIAT is the RAF Charitable Trust, it just seems a shame that the RAF contribution to another successful event appears to be slowly diminishing. Obviously there was further RAF participation in the flying programme, but the opportunity to parade some of the other anniversary jets such as the 4 Squadron Harrier GR9 and 111 Squadron Tornado F3 was missed, much to the chagrin and disappointment of many.
Of course, one of the perennial gripes from enthusiasts is the overall reduction in aircraft participation each year and it's fair to say that we will no longer enjoy the sight of massed ranks of KC-135s, Hercs, or F-16s as we once did, as air forces the world over continue to feel the pinch from budget cuts. But, credit where credit is due - not only were we treated to a quality selection of aircraft, but numbers were actually up on the 2006 show. If you've still got your 2006 checklist to hand, a quick comparison with the 2007 checklist will reveal an increase of twenty in the static and six on the flight line, which roughly equates to a twelve percent increase overall, so well done to the organising committee for bucking the trend.
Always a bone of contention with the photographers, this year it was mixed fortunes for the static layout. Aircraft parked over at the western side of the airfield were generally well spaced out and quite reasonably situated for decent photography. Okay, we've still got the irritation of those blue cones to contend with, but overall it was a thumbs-up, with even the B-52H sited in a good position. However, it was the layout of the eastern static park that gave cause for concern - with the odd exception, the aircraft were more tightly parked and seemed even more swamped with the usual showground detritus of stalls, marquees and other obstacles to photography. Your scribe actually had the pleasure of bumping into many, many friends and acquaintances during the day and they all had the same story to tell. Absolutely delighted with the quality of the aircraft in attendance but absolutely horrified with the seemingly ever-increasing erosion of ramp space.
The frustrating thing is, with less aircraft in attendance there should in theory be more space to accommodate them and thus enable them to be better presented. As someone remarked, "It's like a circus fairground with aircraft thrown in as an added attraction." Certainly aircraft such as the 11 Squadron Typhoon on display were swamped to the point of claustrophobia, which was a great shame as it may have been the first real sighting for many since the squadron reformed, but sadly a decent photo was completely out of the question. It's widely accepted that the show is not just for enthusiasts and that other attractions are a necessity for all the younger family members. Indeed, a new feature for this year, Tri@RIAT, with a host of interactive activities for youngsters proved to be extremely popular. But with all the other activities and associated stalls, it was sometimes difficult to determine that you were at an airshow. The Air Tattoo is, after all, a celebration of flight, and it's important that we don't lose sight of the primary raison d'etre of the entire event. Your scribe overheard one exasperated father as he summed it up perfectly; "Toby, could you please, please finish that now, we've actually come here to look at the aeroplanes!" It might sound ridiculous, but perhaps now is the time to consider splitting the showground into two distinct halves - clearly there will always be the non-aviation related attractions, so perhaps they could be all sited in one half of the airfield, leaving the other half (preferably the western end) clear for all the static aircraft, free from any clutter to present a completely undiluted presentation of aviation, much as was achieved with the 'Centenary park' in 2003.
At the risk of sounding negative (too late!), another gripe from many enthusiasts again related to the cones - no, not the blue ones, we've grudgingly accepted they're not going away, unfortunately (anyway, after plenty of practice, it is actually possible with the right photographic angle to sometimes keep them out of the viewfinder). No, it's the red ones this time - they have a number on them which relates to a number on the checklist so that each aircraft can then be identified. Trouble is, the red cone then gets placed under the nose of said aircraft, thus spoiling a perfectly good shot. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I would imagine that enthusiasts account for ninety-nine percent of all checklist sales, and naturally, us enthusiasts generally don't need to be told which aircraft is which! So, the red cones are for whose benefit exactly? Many will argue that 'Joe Public' would like to know which aircraft is which, but how many of them will actually pay for a checklist? Not wishing to sound cruel, but the general public are probably none the wiser for knowing the name of a particular aircraft, and are probably not that fussed having come along just for the whole spectacle of the show. Besides, there are always plenty of crew members on hand to answer questions. The red cones are clearly superfluous to proceedings, so can we dispense with them for next year please? Fortunately, some of the bolder amongst us managed to bribe and cajole some of the pilots to move these cones out of the way - well done guys!
So, that was RIAT over for another year. Plenty of thrills and spills in the air, with highlights a plenty - the Thunderbirds dazzled, the F-117A cast its sinister shape over the Fairford crowds for probably the last time, the Reds once more cast their spell over an adoring public and the B-1B assaulted everyone's eardrums. Over in the static a veritable feast of the rare and exotic lay in wait for the hardened enthusiasts. Everyone had their favourite; the Indians perhaps, or maybe the Turks, what about the Brazilians or the Greeks? Whichever, the debate would inevitably continue for days afterwards.
For some it was over all too quickly; for some it was just too long, or perhaps too expensive, or maybe even good value; then again, difficult to get in, but easy to park, but too much walking, but an excellent day out. Everyone has their own RIAT story to tell, some good, some not so good, but whatever your thoughts, you'd certainly not want to miss Europe's biggest military show. We might grumble about certain aspects but we would most definitely miss out if we didn't go. We're already looking forward to next year's show, to be held over the weekend of 12-13 July - we hope you are too, see you there!