RIAT Press Launch

Tuesday 18th June 2013

There's no escaping the fact that RIAT 2013 has had a troubled build-up. Rumours of a less aviation-centric, entertainment-oriented show, and a participation list that, by RIAT standards, is wafer-thin have left this year's show looking like perhaps the least-anticipated Fairford show of all-time. With this in mind, UKAR set off for Gloucestershire's hallowed tarmac for the Tattoo's press launch, where the show's chief executive Tim Prince would be available for interview, to, hopefully lay to rest some of the fears of our members.

Stuart Norris and Andy Evans were on hand to report for UK Airshow Review. Photography as credited.

So, have reports of the demise of the Royal International Air Tattoo been exaggerated? RIAT 2013 will have, no doubt, some rare aircraft and "juicy items". Already confirmed for the static park are two South American aircraft - a Colombian KC-767 tanker, and a Brazilian Embraer R-99. The Hellenic Air Force, despite their noted financial problems, are also set to support the show with an R-99 of their own. Our own Royal Air Force plan to send a Typhoon from every squadron currently operating the type for static display, which promises to be a rare sight. Among the themes this year are the 70th anniversaries of both the Dambusters Raid, and the Empire Test Pilots School.

But the cloud on RIAT's horizon refuses to go away. The talk of a dumbed-down and less enthusiast-targeted show was certainly not helped with Prince's opening address describing how RIAT is in competition with Alton Towers for customers. The commentary team too is changed this year, with UKAR's own Dan O'Hagan dispensed with, and the former "Boss" of 99 Squadron "Spiv" Gair standing down from his role. The excellent Ben Dunnell remains in-situ, promoted to lead commentator, with Major George Bacon working alongside him. Prince's reasoning is that after four years "it was time to look forward and move on". Time will tell if this decision will improve the quality of the broadcast for the enthusiast.

Prince's party line appeared to be "giving the public a better experience". This, we at UKAR feel, must not come at the expense of the loyal hard core. He was keen to promote the new "Techno Zone", rocket car replica, "Adrenalin Zone" and Caterham Driving Experience, but do people really buy tickets for an airshow on the strength of these sideshow acts?

BBC Formula One presenter Suzi Perry was on hand as a special celebrity guest at the media launch, arriving in the back seat of the Typhoon that was joined on the ground by the RAF's rather fetching display Tucano, an Augusta 109 from the Empire Test Pilot School and a Piper PA-28 Cherokee. The Hawker Hunter that was also due succumbed to the typical British summer weather and was unable to attend.

The Cherokee was flown by Sean Allerton, a former RAF Regiment Gunner who was involved in a motorcycle crash which left him paralysed. Sean was awarded a flying scholarship by the Flying Scholarships for Disabled People (FSDP) in 2011 and has learnt to fly solo. FSDP was inaugurated in 1983 by Paul Bowen and Tim Prince in honour of Sir Douglas Bader, the famous disabled World War 2 ace who died in 1982. One of the themes of this year's RIAT is the 70th anniversary of the Empire Test Pilot School, hence their presence at the press launch.

Another change for 2013 is the move to a different pricing structure across the two days. Accordingly the flying display has certain acts "exclusive" to each day. The chief executive's reasoning is simple: "Historically, more people have attended the show on Saturday than the Sunday. We need more people to attend the show on the Sunday, and the pricing this year reflects that".

In the air this year, Sequestration in the US means that Stateside visiting military participation will, for the first time, be non-existent. The booking of American warbirds is indeed intended to fill the gap. Prince says: "We are very sympathetic to the current situation of the United States military, and RIAT has historically enjoyed excellent support from the United States. The USAF continues to allow RIAT the use of RAF Fairford and we are grateful for that. The booking of warbirds such as the P-38 and F4U-4 (Corsair) from the Flying Bulls, Sally B and the Catalina were designed to get some US types to the show".

So, some US types, but no Swedish Air Force Historic Flight representation. The RAF shows at Waddington and Leuchars have stolen a march in booking the much-vaunted Viggen, despite rumours that RIAT would be showcasing the mighty Scandinavian warrior also: "They were never confirmed by us and didn't appear on the RIAT website. The fact that Fairford isn't a fully-operational airfield means we are at a disadvantage when compared to Waddington, Volkel and Yeovilton - all of which are fully-operational bases. Things like insurance and policing costs are not cheap and we have a limited budget".

Speaking of costs, the price of FRIAT membership only ever goes one way, so given this year's worries, we asked Tim how ticket sales were doing and if the cost still be justified? "Yes, and there will be more improvements for FRIAT members this year including a trackway to the enclosure which will help should the conditions be muddy. There are other improvements, but these have not been announced yet. In terms of sales, FRIAT numbers are slightly down on the 2012 figure but general ticket sales are up over last year and on-budget".

Given the comparisons that have been drawn to 2011, there was hope from some that the press day might lift the lid on a "star item", as happened two years ago when the participation of the Ukrainian Su-27 and IL-76 was formally announced. Tim was unable to confirm anything, telling us "I'm not a liberty to say yet but work is continuing. There is a possibility that two new countries will attend."

Although few would consider it a "star", we did later receive confirmation that the Italian Air Force's strong presence this year would be bolstered even further with the addition of one of their new KC-767 tankers taking part in the flying display.

And the burning question for many cholesterol-craving enthusiasts is "Will the USAF barbecue be back?" Apparently they are yet to confirm.

Last year's event, unusually for any airshow, got near unanimous praise from UKAR. A real back-to-basics show which ticked every box for the enthusiast. So, having apparently gotten everything right in 2012, why does 2013 appear to signal a return to the dark days of 2011, Alexandra Burke et al? "We did get it right last year," said Prince, "and we have continued with that formula. Last year we were incredibly fortunate with aircraft participation. Some of those aircraft, such as the Colombian C-130 and Japanese KC-767 attended due to the years of hard work the RIAT team put in, not because of Farnborough. Based on feedback from the show last year, we are unveiling a package of initiatives to make the show more enjoyable, including the new "Vintage Village" and "Techno Zone". Visitors will also be invited to try out three new "service stations". These will include food courts, free Wi-Fi hubs, information booths, toilets, street entertainment, seating and a shaded area providing cover. We think we have the right balance to keep the general public, and the hardened enthusiast happy".

We really hope so.