Air Tattoo 50th Anniversary

Monday 31st May 2021

It has been half a century since a certain brand new airshow appeared on the scene and, unlike many that have come and gone since, it is still here. We're of course talking about the Royal International Air Tattoo. In its 50th year the Air Tattoo faces some of the toughest challenges it ever has thanks to the global pandemic but that hasn't prevented those involved from marking the occasion and ambitiously looking forwards whilst honouring the past.

Andy Evans looks back at why so many love RIAT and reports on the 50th anniversary celebrations. Photography by the UKAR team.

Only a select few airshows have existed long enough to have been enjoyed by at least seven consecutive generations. The Royal International Air Tattoo is one such event and since 1971 it has represented the gold standard in military airshows within Europe, if not the world. Founded by a team of volunteers including Tim Prince OBE FRAeS, the late Paul Bowen and Air Marshal Sir Denis Crowley-Milling, the show was first hosted at North Weald on 31st May 1971 and since then has been held at a number of airfields around the UK, finding its permanent home at RAF Fairford in 1985. Even fifty years later, the Air Tattoo is still vastly important to those that founded it and their families. Although Tim may have stood down as the Chief Executive of the show's parent company, the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises, in 2014 he is still heavily involved in the event, as is Paul's son Guy Bowen, a British Airways Boeing 787 pilot, who not only can be found at the show escorting VIP/Celebrity guests but is a Trustee of the Flying Scholarships for Disabled People charity, formed by the Air Tattoo's management team in the 1980s.

Whilst the North Weald shows were well attended, especially for a new event, with the likes of Austria, Denmark and Norway taking part, the show really took off in 1974 when it moved to RAF Greenham Common where a strong relationship with the USAF blossomed, a relationship that remains to this day with the 420th Air Base Squadron being great hosts to the Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford. Today, RIAT is the only airshow in the UK where you can be certain (except for 2013 due to sequestration) that the USAF will attend in some form, often in the flying display. Of course, except for a two-year stint at RAF Cottesmore, since 1985 the show has become synonymous with RAF Fairford and has grown to a point that the local economy has come to heavily rely on the influx of volunteers and enthusiasts that the show brings each year.

The airshow is now world famous for attracting rare and unique aircraft that you just don't see anywhere else often, if ever. The shows at Greenham Common attracted gems such as six US Army AH-1 Cobras and a Venezuelan Air Force Canberra at the 1979 show or a Royal Jordanian Air Force F-5E in 1981 or the mass gathering of 27 F-4 Phantoms on static for the type's 25th anniversary in 1983, to name but a few. However, it will be the rarities, debuts and spectacles that have occurred at RAF Fairford that most will remember. Be it the mass rows of static fast jets and transports such as the gathering of 36 C-130 Hercules' for the type's 40th anniversary in 1994 or debut flying displays from nations never seen in Western Europe let alone the UK, the International Air Tattoo and now the Royal International Air Tattoo is a legend in its own right.

If any period cemented this legendary status, it was the early to mid-1990s when Russia and the former Eastern Bloc nations made their debuts at the show. These were the halcyon years of the Air Tattoo. When the lumbering Tu-95 “Bear" first appeared on the approach in 1993 no-one just a few short years before would have dreamed such a spectacle to be possible. But the team behind the Air Tattoo did it, not once but for two consecutive years peaking with an example also appearing in the flying display during the 1994 show. In addition to regular MiG and Sukhoi visitors, this wasn't to be the last time we would get to see rare Russian or Ukrainian heavy exotica appearing at Fairford either, and over the next ten years crowds would be treated to the likes of the A-40 “Mermaid", Il-38 “May", and the Tu-22M3 “Backfire-C".

There have also been the special guests that almost made it but tragically didn't. In 1994, IAT was due to play host to the recently restored ex South African Air Force Avro Shackleton MR.3 following a long-range warbird transit only recently rivalled by the 2014 UK tour of the Canadian Lancaster. Unfortunately, 'Pelican 16' suffered a double engine failure enroute and ditched in a contested area of the Sahara Desert where the airframe still rests today. In more recent times, during 2001 the Romanian Air Force were scheduled to perform a flying display at RIAT (then at RAF Cottesmore) with the Harbin H-5, the Chinese licence-build of the Il-28 'Beagle' bomber. The 'Beagle' was destined to be one of the truly unique show stars, however, sadly the display aircraft resplendent in a special paint scheme was written off just two days before it was due to depart for RAF Fairford.

The sheer size of the Air Tattoo peaked in 2003 when celebrating 100 years of powered flight, taking advantage of historic museum static exhibits being shipped in and the show even entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest airshow of all time with no less than 535 aircraft attending. The shows of the past decade may have not been at the same scale of the 1990s and early 2000s for a variety of reasons but this hasn't stopped RIAT from pulling out a show stopper or two including Romanian MiG-21s, multiple B-2 appearances, unique flypasts plus the airshow debuts of the F-35A and B.

Of course, RIAT doesn't always get it right. The less said about Alexandra Burke and RAF100 the better, however, thankfully the off years are the exception to the rule. Only once has the weather stopped play completely, and who can blame the show for cancelling after the biblical rain witnessed in 2008 when much of the grass on the showground disappeared under lakes - deep enough for the Air Cadets to Kayak on! Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, by the time the 2022 show comes along it will have been three long years since any of us made our annual pilgrimage to RAF Fairford but this might be a good thing. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and, just perhaps, we will appreciate what we have when the show returns and many will stop comparing the modern show with the highs of 1990s.

RIAT for now has been robbed of the 50th anniversary event it deserved as it was forced to cancel the 2021 show earlier this year. However, for many months the team at Douglas Bader House had been working on a COVID compliant format for the show as Head of Air Operations Peter Reoch explains “Even allowing 10m² per person for social distancing, the size of the airfield allows for a decent capacity crowd, so we could still run a full sized RIAT". Some therefore may question with events such as Wimbledon going ahead, why couldn't RIAT 2021 go ahead? RAFCTE Chief Executive Paul Atherton explained to us that the risks to the future of the company which was already financially exposed from the 2020 cancellation were just too great.

“The big game changer was that there was no cancellation insurance available anywhere in the world against communicable diseases and COVID in particular. We could see a financial hole about to open up in front of us as we started to contract more of our suppliers for the showground who we would be obliged to pay in the event of cancellation, with no insurance to cover these costs. Having cancelled RIAT 2020 we had lost our sole source of income and we could not have survived the financial implications of a second cancellation at a late stage". PA

Paul's words re-enforce what we at UKAR have witnessed unfold with utter disbelief in this country. The entire events sector has been financially exposed to this huge risk of late cancellations. Why have the Government not stepped in to assist and provide an insurance scheme? The entire sector has been abandoned to its fate by sheer blinkered planning and a leadership that is more intent on slogans than action. It is a situation that no organisation should have found themselves in and any self-respecting competent government would have tried to mitigate.

Far be it from RIAT to not at least mark such a momentous anniversary in some shape or form. Without an airshow and with COVID regulations limiting gatherings, any celebration was going to be an intimate affair. Therefore, on Monday 31st May - the anniversary of the 1971 show - a small group of veteran and key individuals including Tim Prince and the longest serving volunteer, Peter March, gathered at North Weald for a short photocall, cake cutting ceremony and media interviews, all bathed in glorious sunshine. Also attending the event was planned to be three aircraft which appeared at the 1971 Air Tattoo including the BBMF's Spitfire XIX PM631, Jodel D.140C Mousquetaire III G-ATKX and Druine D.62B Condor G-AXGS. Unfortunately, the BBMF fighter fleet were suffering technical issues and the Druine had to turn around due to bad weather in the South West but, much to the delight of Tim Prince who was taken for an impromptu flight, the Jodel did make an appearance.

The team at Douglas Bader House have not rested on their laurels and following the success of the Virtual Air Tattoo in 2020 the event will return again on Saturday 17th July 2021 with a brilliant mix of interviews, archive footage and flight simulator demonstrations, with all the content being brand new this year. Hosted by Ben Dunnell and Group Captain Mark Manwaring, the virtual event raises much needed funds for the RAF Charitable Trust whilst also providing us with a little fix of what we crave whilst we wait for the 2022 event. Looking forward to RIAT 2022, Paul and Peter were keen to emphasise that they intend to return to hosting a full scale show that holds true to the best traditions of the Air Tattoo, as Paul commented “we forget our roots at our peril".

"We are going to be slightly more cautious but that gives us an opportunity, you often need a catalyst for change and we've been given one hell of a catalyst… Nobody has done anything wrong, we haven't failed, there has been no mismanagement, nothing that's happened could have been avoided. We have got to make sure that we've got the right checks, balances, controls and we seize the opportunities that successive cancellations present and if that means we do things slightly differently, then we do. However, the whole ethos remains the same, we are an airshow for the public, we want to see as many aircraft participating as possible and we really grateful of the support we receive from the public, from Air Arms and from the aerospace industry." PA

"The history of the event prides itself on getting rare aeroplanes and I think bouncing back after two years of cancellations, we are going to be working really hard to get as many rare aeroplanes from around the world as we can. Of course, the Achilles heel could be that certain countries are still on red lists for travel.etc but I think by that stage we shouldn't be in that situation. The primary mission of the Air Operations Department is to deliver a safe RIAT, and ensuring maximum numbers of exciting aircraft is a close second. For RIAT 2022 we want as much aircraft variety as possible, and I'd like to reassure the enthusiast community that the aircraft which appear on your 'wish lists'" on forums such as UKAR, 90% of them mirror what we have internally on our invitation lists!" PR

It's fair to say that this article could be ten times longer than it is as there have been so many high points over the past fifty years that it would take forever to cover them. Indeed, we're sure some reading this would query why we haven't mentioned X, Y or Z. The truth is, an excellent book has been published by the RAFCTE that does just that, written by Ben Dunnell. If you want a real nostalgic walk down memory lane then please buy a copy, the Charitable Trust will thank you. It couldn't be clearer that whilst we need RIAT, now more than ever, RIAT needs us to return in our droves too. As we all count down the days to RIAT 2022 and the prospect of seeing our friends that we may not see anywhere else, there is only one last thing to say. Happy birthday, RIAT!