Royal International Air Tattoo 2006 Review
Saturday 15th July - Sunday 16th July
It remains the biggest and the best airshow in Europe, and once again tens of thousands of aviation enthusiasts decended on RAF Fairford to worship for a week at the altar of jet noise that is the Royal International Air Tattoo. Held between the 12th and 17th July, this year's show was one of the most eagerly anticipated in recent memory with a provisional participation list that was positively littered with gems.
reports from glorious Gloucestershire. Photography from the .
It's a rather obvious fact to state that the weather plays a huge part in the success or failure of an airshow, and this year's RIAT was blessed with conditions that 'out-scorched' even the 2005 event. From first arrival on Wednesday, through to last knockings on Monday, virtually every aircraft movement took place before a backdrop of stunning azure, cloudless skies. Attendance figures were accordingly up. It's reckoned 170,000 punters passed through the gates during the week, an increase of 5% on the previous year's show.
But it wasn't just the weather that packed them in this year. Undoubtedly helped by the following week's Farnborough show, RIAT 2006 featured some truly stunning aircraft. 'From Russia With Wow' came the MiG-29 OVT, the truly awe-inspiring thrust-vectoring variant of Mikoyan's monster fighter. Another RIAT debutant was the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor machine, while RIAT favourite Ricardo Traven returned after missing the 2005 show, performing another spellbinding demonstration in the F/A-18F Super Hornet.
Traven's display was excellent, but in many people's eyes was matched, or even surpassed by the simply sensational routine flown by the Swiss Air Force's 'bog-standard' F/A-18C. Flying early on the Saturday, this display set the tone for a truly memorable RIAT.
While several aircraft were making their first appearance at RIAT, one was making it's last, at least in RAF colours. Days before the types retirement after over 50 years of sterling service, RAF Marham's 39(1 PRU) squadron sent two examples of the English Electric Canberra PR.9, one of which, flown by the RAF's oldest display pilot, Terry Cairns, 61, took a full and energetic part in the flying programme. Sadly for the photographers, the Canberra started the show on the Saturday, flying just minutes before the early-morning cloud and haze and burned off, and on the Sunday she flew late in the day, by which time the sun had swung round to a less favourable position. In future years, maybe the RIAT organisers can consider putting the 'juiciest' items on in the 1pm-4pm window, during which the sun's position is far, far better for photography.
USAF displays have been, with some justification, panned by airshow-goers on this side of the Atlantic. There were no complaints this year, as the West Coast F-15C Demo Team put on what was hailed by many as the best Eagle display in the UK for many years. Plenty of power, burner and topside passes made this a performance to savour, and when the F-15 teamed up with Ed Shipley in The Fighter Collection's P-51D 'Twilight Tear' for the 'Heritage Flight' display, the camera shutters became even louder - so much so that the traditional cheesy USAF commentary, and awful schmaltzy music was almost, but not entirely, drowned out.
The race for the display awards was tipped to be a straight fight between East and West - the MiG-29 OVT versus the Super Hornet. On both days they flew back-to-back in the display programme, giving spectators a real chance to compare both. As it was, the stunning MiG edged it, and came away with the coveted 'As The Crow Flies' trophy, but the competition was certainly stiff, with the Super Hornet, Swiss F/A-18C and F-15C all legitimately in the running. Compared to these displays, the normally jaw-dropping Dutch F-16 display seemed a little less spectacular than usual, though he did delight the crowds by firing flares in Saturday's show.
Rotary wing participation came from the RAF's two heavyweight teams - Merlin and Chinook (though due to operational commitments, the Chinook only flew on Sunday), the Royal Navy's Black Cats, the Army's Blue Eagles and a Czech Air Force Mil Mi-24V Hind. It was great to see a Hind in the display, it's a type which is all too rare at British airshows.
The MiG and Hind weren't the only Eastern European participants at RIAT 2006 - the Slovenian Air Force sent a Pilatus PC-9M, which flew a fine display, as did the Czech Air Force's Aero Vodochody L-159A. Everyone loves to see machines from Eastern air arms, and RIAT 2006 was a bumper year for this. Let's hope the 2007 show follows a similar vein.
The complement of foreign display teams this year included the RAF's peerless Red Arrows, who on Sunday, formated with the specially-marked 40th Anniversary VC-10 tanker, making for a wonderful photo opportunity. The 'Reds' were joined in the display by the Patrouille Suisse in their F-5 Tigers, the Spanish Patrulla Aguila's CASA Aviojets (which on Sunday flew in formation with a Spanish Typhoon), and RIAT stalwarts The Royal Jordanian Falcons.
Joining the Falcons as RIAT regulars in the unofficial 'Lazy Lunch' section was the ubiquitous SOCATA TBM700 of the French Army, along with the British Army's Historic Flight. Alan Wade gave his familiar polished display in the Slingsby T-67 Firefly, and the new Pilatus PC-21 flew most impressively, including a formation flypast with the Patrouille Suisse, where the turbprop trainer had no problems at all keeping pace with the jets.
In line with RIAT tradition, there was plenty of fast jet action. From Sweden there was a welcome return to RIAT from the Saab JAS39A Gripen, the French Air Force supplied a Mirage 2000B display, and the RAF provided the Tornado GR.4, which had suffered a succession of engine problems during the week, and despite the loss of an example en route to RIAT, there was an RAF Harrier GR.9 demonstration, though it was flown in a Royal Navy machine.
The USAF 'Heavies' are a trademark of RIAT, as is the brevity of their 'displays' - this year the B-52H managed two passes on the Saturday, before going tech on the Sunday, while the B-1B's display was just a single pass on the Saturday, and two on the Sunday, despite being airborne for well over an hour on both days! We love to see the 'Buff' and 'Bone' - but we'd love to see a bit more of them.
Warbird participation came from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Lancaster, Hurricane IIc and Spitfire XIX, while Rolls-Royce provided a spirited solo display from their 'Spit' XIX too.
While RIAT 2006 will be remembered for it's wonderful flying display, the static park was much less impressive. There were undoubtedly some star items - a pair of Greek A-7 Corsairs, including one in all-over tiger livery, a duo of Turkish Phantoms, and a specially-marked Pakistani Hercules commemorating the international relief effort to help the earthquake victims last year. In coming to RIAT, the Pakistanis became the 50th nation to participate in the Royal International Air Tattoo.
RAF aircraft seemed very down in number this year. There were as many German Tornados in the static than there were home-grown ones. Of course the global situation means the RAF's already depleted number is especially stretched at the moment, but certainly the lack of RAF machines was very noticeable. As was the number of civilian aircraft creeping, Waddington-style, into the static. There were four Jet Provosts/Strikemasters and even a gaggle of Cessna and Piper 'spamcans', which would have been unthinkable at RIAT even a few years ago.
But with the quality and variety of the flying display so high, to quibble about a thin year in the static is a fairly minor gripe. Organisation of the show seemed to be spot-on this year. Queues in and out on the show days seemed fast moving, security checks were polite and speedy, there were plenty of fresh water bowsers, and there were no major stories of horror on the roads.
As usual the Friends of the Royal International Air Tattoo enclosure continues to be the best way to enjoy the week-long extravaganza, though there were plenty of complaints this year about the quality and pricing of the catering therein. The FRIAT members are the most loyal supporters of RIAT, and surely deserve better than to be charged exhorbitant prices or pretty mediocre food.
RIAT 2006 came and went in what seemed like no time. A superb, safe flying display, some interesting static items and truly glorious weather. Of course the modern Tattoo can not, and will never, compare to the shows of 15-20 years ago, but this show remains The Best A Man Can Get.