Royal International Air Tattoo 2009 Review
Saturday 18th July - Sunday 19th July
For many aviation enthusiasts the UK airshow season revolves around one show, the Royal International Air Tattoo, held at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. Billed as the largest military airshow in the world, the show is renowned for attracting fascinating and rare aircraft. 2008 was the first year in the shows thirty-eight year history that the organisers made the difficult decision to cancel due to poor weather in the lead-up to the show. Certainly there was some fear after last year's cancellation; would the insurance payouts cover the cost? Would this year's insurance cost skyrocket to financially unviable levels and compromise the show? To make matters worse, would the current worldwide economic recession badly affect participation, with talk of air arms slashing their airshow budgets? Luckily most of these concerns proved to be unfounded.
reports for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the author and the
An RAF Boeing C-17A Globemaster III from 99 Squadron based just down the road at RAF Brize Norton was planned to open the flying display on both days, with three flybys including a touch and go. Sadly it happened on neither. It is an unfortunate situation that 99 Squadron has been busy bringing back fallen British servicemen on repatriation flights – an insight into the tempo and dangerous operations that British forces are currently engaged in everyday throughout Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
As with almost every airshow, regrettably there were a number of other cancellations. Most prominently these included the USAF C-17A Globemaster III demo from the 732nd Airlift Squadron, a USAF E-8C JSTARS, a pair of French Navy Super Etendards, Asas de Portugal with their Alpha Jets and lastly the Royal Navy Historic Flight of which the entire fleet is currently unserviceable, with the exception of a Chipmunk – ironic given the 100th anniversary of naval aviation that was celebrated at the show.
On a more positive note a number of rare aircraft were in the static display. Most notable were a French Navy Lynx, French Air Force EC725 Caracal, a Brazilian Air Force C295M which went on to win the 'Best Livery' award at the show. The German Air Force sent a Eurofighter EF2000 to the show for the first time, a lovely Hellenic Air Force RF-4E Phantom II was also in attendance, as well as a Royal Air Force of Oman BAC 1-11 which was almost certainly the last chance to see before it is retired and an C-130H Hercules from the Algerian Air Force, the latter becoming the 51st nation to attend the Air Tattoo in it's history.
Additionally, the flying display also boasted a number of highlights, including a first flying appearance at the Tattoo by the French Air Force's Dassault Rafale B from EC 1.007. Flown by Capitaine Cedric Ruet, this is the Rafale's first display season with the French Air Force having replaced the excellent Mirage 2000C on the display circuit. The Rafale's superb energetic routine was recognised and won two awards at the show, 'The Sir Douglas Bader Trophy' for the Best Individual Flying Display and also the 'As the Crow Flies Trophy' gaining the most votes from FRIAT members.
There was plenty of other fast jets for afterburner junkies too, including 'Battle of the Hornets', with a Spanish Air Force EF-18A, Finnish Air Force F-18C and Swiss Air Force F/A-18C all flying. Each Hornet demo offered something different and was very impressive as you would expect from such a capable machine. The Swiss Hornet routine went on to win the 'The Paul Bowen Trophy' for the best jet demonstration.
Two Saab JAS-39C Gripens were also in the flying display, from the Swedish and Hungarian Air Forces respectively, the latter making its UK display debut. There has been some debate about the Hungarian Gripen display. On at least one occasion during Saturday's routine the aircraft appeared to perform a dump-and-burn, and then again twice during Sunday's display. This was not a known part of the display and it did not happen during the rehearsal on the Thursday morning. Such a party trick is allegedly forbidden by the CAA under display rules, but oddly on both days the aircraft was permitted to complete its full routine. It was certainly a most welcome sight!
Of course it wouldn't be RIAT without the ever colourful and impressively flown Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16AM demo, flown by Captain Ralph "Sheik" Aarts and the RAF Typhoon F.2 display flown by Squadron Leader Scott Loughran, who won the 'Steedman Display Sword' for the best flying demonstration by a UK participant, completing another impressive complement of fast jets at this years show.
Another splendid display came from the Boeing 757-200 of 40 Squadron Royal New Zealand Air Force. Previously this display had been seen at RIAT 2003. At RIAT 2009 it was flown by Squadron Leader Richard Beaton and co-pilot Flt Lt Tim Pevreal, the aircraft never fails to impress with a very aggressive and tight routine for such a large and heavy aircraft – including a remarkable low-level fast pass and zoom climb to around 8,000ft to conclude the display. It was very unlucky to leave the show devoid of any awards.
The Italian Air Force sent their C-27J Spartan for the first time. This provided a particular sprightly display, as impressive as their infamous G.222 demos of yesteryear. Sadly, the crew were not permitted to perform a barrel roll that has been seen at other shows across Europe.
Another major attraction, certainly the highlight of the show for many people, was the appearance of the majestic Avro Vulcan B.2, serial XH558, now operated by The Vulcan Operating Company. This was the Vulcan's first appearance at the Air Tattoo since 1991. While the Vulcan's long restoration in civilian hands has been a truly rollercoaster ride, where mistakes have been made, there is no doubt about just how mesmerising the aircraft is, the "Vulcan effect" seems to stop everyone in their tracks to admire a wonderful piece of British engineering. Seeing it in the air again makes it all worthwhile.
The Vulcan was crewed by veterans from the aircraft's time in RAF Service, such as Martin Withers (DFC) the pilot of the first ever Vulcan combat sortie - "Black Buck One" during the Falklands War and Kevin Rumens who's previously displayed '558 with the Vulcan Display Team in the 1980s.
Although the aircraft is flown gracefully yet far more sedately, than she was in RAF hands, this is simply to conserve the airframe fatigue and in particular the engine life, with only a small number of zero-houred Olympus engines available to TVOC. It is hoped the aircraft can continue to fly at airshows for around another decade.
Saturday's display saw Martin Withers pilot the aircraft, with Kevin Rumens in the co-pilot seat, with both pilots swapping seats for Sunday's display. On both days the takeoff was very impressive with the distinct and wonderful Vulcan "howl" as the engines spooled up to full power. The routine included a number of circuits, including a bomb bay open pass and a full power spiral climb. Sunday's display seemed a lot livelier and certainly noisier than Saturday's, the aggressive wing-over after takeoff was almost as if someone had turned back the clocks twenty years and left many people picking their jaws up off the ground!
The organisers should be applauded for some creative thinking on the Sunday, as the Vulcan held on the Runway, the USAF B-52H from the 20th Bomb Squadron, based at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, flew over the top, giving a unique photo opportunity of two Cold War warriors. The Buff had been airborne since around 09:00 on the Sunday to do a flyby at a show in Spain and gave no fewer than four passes on its return to Fairford, including some rare bomb bay open passes. It has been a long time since we last got to see that much from the Buff, credit to the crew for that.
After both the Vulcan and B-52H had landed at Fairford, the Vulcan led the B-52 back down the Runway for another unique photo opportunity. Unfortunately this happened during one of the heaviest downpours of the day, regardless it was still a great sight and the next best thing to having them formate in the air.
Dr Robert Pleming Chief Executive of TVOC was overheard as saying that Sunday had been a "wonderful, wonderful day" to a volunteer in the Vulcan Village Tent after the show – with any luck this means the donations have been flooding in. Hopefully many of the troubles will be behind the project and a much-needed corporate sponsor will be forthcoming to sustain the aircraft on the display circuit for many years to come.
Display teams were once again out in force at RIAT. With the RAF Red Arrows, Italian Air Force Frecce Tricolori, the Army Air Corp Blue Eagles, Swiss Air Force PC-7 team, Royal Jordanian Falcons and the Breitling Jet Team.
As previously mentioned, the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation was being celebrated at the show. The highlight of this was the Royal Navy's Balbo of rotary and fixed wing Fleet Air Arm aircraft through the ages. The flypast included some Merlin HM.1s, Lynxes, an array of different Sea King variants, Squirrels, Jetstream T.2s, Harrier GR.9s, the Black Sea Hawks, Falcon 20s, Tutors, RNHF Chipmunk, T67 Fireflies and the very welcome sight of Sea Vixen FAW.2 G-CVIX. The flyby was perfectly timed for the fixed wing aircraft to pass over the display centre at the same time as the first lower flying helicopters did. The rotary element returned shortly after to hover over the runway saluting the crowd as the Harriers did a final fast pass over the top, signalling the end of a superb set piece from the Fleet Air Arm and a worthy tribute to 100 years of Naval Aviation. Displays from the Royal Navy Black Cats and Black Sea Hawks with their FRA Falcon 20s followed. The Balbo went on to win the top award at RIAT, the King Hussein Memorial Sword - for the Best Overall Flying Demonstration.
Other notable RAF participation was provided by a single flyby from a 216 Squadron Tristar from RAF Brize Norton, the wonderful Chinook HC.2 display, Hawk T.1 solo as well as the King Air display. On Saturday there was also a mini-display from the Nimrod MRA.4A that had flown down from BAE Woodford, apparently this had a full RAF crew onboard.
For the first time in many years, RIAT did not get a Boeing B-1B Lancer in the flying display, a single example from the 9th BS at Dyess AFB, Texas was in the static. This was missed, but with budget cuts and the B-1 fleet supporting coalition ground forces on a daily basis over Afghanistan, it's not desperately surprising. It was also disappointing that RIAT only got the B-52 in the air this year and not one of the USAF demo teams either.
RIAT 2009 also had a new commentary team after long term commentator, the legendary Sean Maffet, had decided to hang up his RIAT microphone after 2007. UKAR's very own Dan O'Hagan was the new senior commentator, supported by Ben Dunnell, editor of Aircraft magazine and Wing Commander 'Spiv' Gair, formerly OC of RAF 99 Squadron. The new team proved worthy of replacing Sean Maffet, with all three complementing each other perfectly, particularly impressive considering this was their first ever airshow commentary. The offer of pink wafers to visitors to the commentary box clearly went down well. Hopefully the commentary team will return again in 2010!
A number of display act commentators, proved to be quite amusing with Dutch F-16 Commentator Captain Bram "Bitch" Versteeg opening axiom being - "Ladies and gentlemen. Come out of your tents, put your pints down." Perhaps that was only bettered by Swiss PC-7 commentator who kindly informed the crowd that "there is a propeller at the front of the aircraft, that can really hurt if it hits you!" Rob Dixon from the Royal Navy Black Cats also deserves a mention for an amusing commentary with some inter-service rivalry, Top Gear references and his ability to wolf down a large amount of pink wafers.
After 2008s washout, the one thing we didn't want was rain. Saturday's show was dry with mostly decent weather; sadly Sunday's was rather changeable with a number of heavy downpours. At times the visibility and heavy rain was bad enough to prematurely curtail the Blue Eagles Apache and Lynx, the Breitling Jet Team display team, as well as the Finnish F-18C Hornet routine.
While there were some fantastic varied display acts at this years show, it is fair to say that the show probably did lack a real star item. In recent years we've seen the likes of the F/A-18F Super Hornet, MV-22B Osprey, MiG-29OVT and F-22A Raptor (the latter being a victim of 2008s cancellation) all of which have been deemed star items. This year's show has also come in for some criticism from certain quarters for a thin and more spread out static line-up compared to previous years, while this may well be true, it is worth remembering air arms budgets are probably as tight as they have ever been and their operational commitments are their priorities.
So what will the 2010 Royal International Air Tattoo bring? With Farnborough International commencing the week after RIAT, there is a chance that a number of never before seen aircraft, could make their RIAT debuts – both shows have been able to support each other in the past. Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II is well into its flight test programme. Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems are also corporate sponsors of RIAT and with the UK's vested interests in the programme and the aerospace giant looking at even more export customers for the F-35, there is a possibility one of the test examples could be seen – however 2010, may come a bit too soon for the aircraft. Airbus Military long-awaited A400M Airlifter should hopefully be well into its flight test schedule by next summer and Boeing's much delayed 787 should also be in a similar situation. Hence, there is a relative chance we could see some new aircraft next year. Additionally, hopefully we'll see the return of the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
A post RIAT 2009 press release suggested that the show had attracted a sell-out crowd of more than 160,000 people over the two show days and that 269 aircraft attended the show from twenty-two different nations.
This years Royal International Air Tattoo may not have been considered a vintage year by some hardened RIAT veterans but the show did have something for everyone with some varied and brilliant flying. Given the current worldwide difficulties, the organisers still put on a remarkable show that continues to be superior to its contemporaries even on a global scale. RIAT has bounced back, roll on 2010!
The 2010 Royal International Air Tattoo will be taking place over the weekend of Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th July 2010 at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire.