Royal International Air Tattoo Report

Saturday 20th July - Sunday 21st July 2013

Well, the world didn't end. Tickets were sold in their thousands, and most seemed to have a good time. The 200+ pages of pre-show discussion on our forums would attest to this being the most anxious, controversial, PR-error-strewn build-up to a Royal International Air Tattoo in memory, but after all the talk the 2013 show came and went and appeared, for the most part, to be a successful event. But was it one which justified the ever-spiralling admission cost?

Dan Butcher reports on the Saturday running of this year's Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford. Photography from the UKAR staff team.

Normally RIAT attendance is a given for a UKAR Staff member, especially as we reckoned in our 2012 report that last year's show was as close to perfect as it was possible to get in the current climate. Deciding whether to go to Fairford should be as natural as breathing, as regular as a heartbeat, but not this year. For reasons I'm not even quite sure of myself, I turned down the chance to attend RAF Waddington, which had managed to pull off the participation coup of the season in securing the Swedish historics and with wall-to-wall sunshine to boot, instead placing my faith blindly in RIAT to deliver a better overall spectacle. It's no secret that I'm something of a fair-weather enthusiast, and in keeping with the current heatwave, a weather forecast of unbroken sunshine and high temperatures looked to be on the cards, which persuaded me to buy a ticket despite the fact that very few items were added in the fortnight between Waddington and RIAT.

Gone however was the flexibility of the "either day" ticket that I've had for the last four years, and with rumours of an impending sell out forcing me to make the call earlier than I'd have liked to, I was led by the met man's predictions to book a Saturday ticket and incur the £5 premium compared to Sunday entry. The e-ticket policy is a sticking point though. I'm still scratching my head as to how printing off your e-ticket with your own paper, ink and electricity costs RIAT a £4 "administration fee"? I'd genuinely like to hear their justification for it. Such cynical, greedy charges serve only to antagonise your customers. Old Warden operate a successful e-ticket system, without feeling the need to hammer people with extortionate additional fees - on the contrary, they offer you a £5 discount!

Much of the pre-show negativity stemmed from a catalogue of dubious PR exercises and promotions, and this is an area which demands attention from those in positions of power at Douglas Bader House (DBH). Talk of a "less aviation-centric" show, the embarrassing "Easter Eggstravaganza" to announce commonplace RAF acts, the shamefully toe-curling "Moley" video on YouTube... You could argue too that the timing of Chief Executive Tim Prince's announcement that he is to stand down after the 2014 show was hardly ideal, coming at a point in the pre-show build-up where togetherness was needed more than ever.

Seasoned UKARians know to adhere to the airshow mantra of "arrive early, leave late" to beat the traffic, but unfortunately our usual 0800 arrival wasn't enough to beat the jams this year. Having cleared Lechlade on the red route, traffic was flowing freely until we were within a few hundred metres of the airbase. From there on, it took an hour to get parked on base, as the two lanes of traffic were merged into one and then directed to the back of the car park, almost as far round as the blue entrance. With no pedestrian route to the entrance laid out, those who had already been parked were then flooding back towards the security checks, against the flow of traffic trying to park, slowing proceedings even further. Last year, parking was a breeze. Every time it seems like they have the ingress sorted, they tinker with it again.

Greeting us on arrival this year were the new additions of the "Air Tattoo Crew" - effectively the London Olympics "Games Makers" idea, borrowed for RIAT. This worked extremely well. They were very visible in bright blue shirts, and with Vulcan-shaped foam hands. A smiling face really does have an effect - especially when you're tired and grouchy from a 0400 start and have sat in a traffic jam for 60 minutes. We hope the Crew become permanent fixtures at future Tattoos.

It was once inside the showground that the enthusiasts fears were realised. Early risers reported from 0700 onwards (erm, why? No-one was inside until 0730!) that the Caterham cars tyres were splitting ear-drums in, and well beyond the Adrenalin Zone. They were audible for the whole day, even sat on the crowdline much, much further down. A needless irritation - all the more so when you looked behind the Caterham track and saw the showground's prime tree-lined static area had been given over to a public car park.

My fellow UKAR-staffers who had arrived at the show from the opposite direction reported that the walk from the Green car park towards show centre was a most depressing one. Not only were there huge gaps between what few aircraft there were, but the types on static display painted a most miserable picture. PA-28s, Jet Provosts, the Red Star Rebels. Aircraft which would pass by unnoticed at a small airshow, here used shamelessly to bulk out the thinnest static in RIAT history. The lack of large types meant huge expanses of tarmac were left empty. Were there really only two C-130 Hercules examples? And did we really have to wait for the final participation update before Europe's most numerous fighter type - the F-16, was confirmed for the static park? General aviation, micro and ultralight types have their place at RIAT given the connections to the charitable enterprises that RIAT benefits, but here they accounted for around 20% of the aircraft on the ground.

From the east, the scene was a little better and most of the gems of the static were parked towards that end of the airfield. Breitling's Super Constellation, MidAir's awe-inspiring Canberra PR9 restoration. Estonia's anachronistic An-2, those beautiful German Tornados, and the soon-to-be-gone RAF VC-10 and French Mirage F1s. These items do at least show that RIAT still knows what we enthusiasts want. All we ask is that Tom Gibbons and his team never, ever, forget this, and fight their corner against the "modernisers" and dumbers-down who continue in their relentless quest to "familyfy" the Royal International AIR Tattoo into an indistinguishable muddle of country fair showground "attractions", at the expense of what the event has always stood for - a shamelessly high-brow celebration of aviation. The revelation that Europe's current must-see display item, the SAAB Viggen, was not even approached by the organisers must be seen as a colossal error.

And so, to the flying display. Compared to most displays in Europe this year, RIAT's was probably as strong as they could have hoped for. Of course American sequestration had dealt the team a mighty blow in static terms, but at best it was likely to have cost us just a couple of flying display items so the effect was far less evident here. As a result, the flying display looked by far the strongest element of RIAT 2013 and comprised some fantastic crowd-and-enthusiast pleasing items. Chief among these were the Polish Air Force Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum display, the Belgian and Dutch F-16 demonstrations, the always-sensational Dassault Rafale from France, as well as the physics-defying C-27J Spartan from the Italian Air Force's Flight Test Centre, although the flat display on Saturday wasn't nearly as impressive as I remember from its last appearance in 2011.

Sequestration meant a reliance, perhaps understandably, on warbirds and private classics in 2013. The show's Chief Executive himself admitted to UKAR at the press launch that the inclusion of American-marked warbirds such as B-17G "Sally B" and Plane Sailing's Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina "Miss Pick Up" were, in his words, a "sympathy vote", just so that there'd be some stars-and-bars seen on aeroplanes at the show. Warbirds, flown as singletons, have always found it tough to make an impact at RIAT, and certainly in the case of both the 'Cat and Fortress on the Saturday, this rang true again. More impressive were the Flying Bulls pair of B-25 Mitchell and Chance-Vought F-4U Corsair who flew several excellent passes as a two-ship, but as neutered warbirds in corporate liveries, they really weren't the star items that this show badly needed.

It is at this point, while discussing the impact of the flying displays that we must mention the ever-increasing distance the aircraft were flying from the crowd. New Military Aviation Authority (MAA) rules appear to have been brought in which now push the display line back even further, meaning many aircraft, especially the fast jet acts, appear as little more than dots in a viewfinder - let alone with the naked eye. While rules are rules, this is another needless concession in the name of "safety". Let's remind ourselves again just how safe you are at a British airshow. No spectator has died as a result of a crash since 1952. That's sixty-one years. All these new rules seemed to serve to do was to endanger further the "naughty fields" to which enterprising farmers charge an admission fee, while making those fields a far more attractive proposition for photography to those who'd paid the thick end of £50 to get in. It seems absolutely absurd that the runway is deemed safe for both take off and landings, yet a 'simulated' landing and take off requires the aircraft to be at minimum display height over the 230 metre display line before powering off again. It was never this way before - the Rafale overshoot from last year a particularly good example of exactly what these new rules deny us.

Much has been said about "filler" items in the static, but the most blatant example of this in the flying display came from a mind-numbing set-piece funded and provided by Eurocopter, which consisted of emergency service examples of three of their helicopters apparently performing some sort of role demo. I was positioned to the left of the FRIAT enclosure, so not too far from "show centre" and apart from a hovering police helicopter (one of which I can see over my home town most days), and a noisy siren, I've very little idea what else this ten minute slot contained. Little wonder, when this 'display' occupied about 500 yards of the approximately 2 mile runway length. This sort of corporate nonsense is fine to inflict on a trade crowd at Farnborough, but on the public paying £50 for a ticket? To add insult to injury this farrago was then followed on the Saturday by the Royal Jordanian Falcons, meaning a 45-minute spell in the display of little interest to enthusiasts. Looking around the area of fenceline I was occupying, with people snoozing in chairs, checking their mobile phones, or gassing with friends, it wasn't of much interest to anyone else, either.

The Vulcan display was another source of disappointment on Saturday. It was my first sighting of the aircraft this year, and Fairford is usually the only display each summer where I get to see the spectacle of a take off and landing. The relative merits of each of the sequences flown by VTST's three display pilots has been much discussed on UKAR's forum of late, and it's very clear that Kev Rumens is the pilot that wrings the most from the Vulcan, drawing on his experience as a pilot on the RAF's Vulcan Display Flight, but the disparity between the displays depending on who is at the controls is alarming. In an aircraft as powerful and as imposing as the Vulcan, it simply shouldn't be possible to be underwhelmed, but right from the start this was a tame and distant display. At most venues over the last five years, "Vulcan" has been given a star billing. The reality is though, that whether or not it goes down as a star or a footnote on any given day depends on whether Kev Rumens is at the controls. The fact that RIAT themselves re-tweeted our messages of discontent on Saturday would suggest that someone at DBH agrees, so bringing up the noise and panache with which it is flown to 'Kev Rumens standards' is probably something VTST should look at.

Despite the ever-increasing gap between punters and participants, there was some excellent flying to take in. This year's display prizes were duly dished out at Sunday's hangar party with the coveted As The Crow Flies trophy, voted by enthusiasts in the FRIAT enclosure, going to the Italian Spartan display. The Swiss PC-7 Team carried off the King Hussein Sword for best overall display, with the RAF Typhoon and Tucano also picking up prizes for best solo fast jet (Paul Bowen Trophy), and best display by a UK participant (Steedman Display Sword) respectively. The Artic Tiger painted Tornado from Germany carried off the prize for best paint scheme.

The signature moments for which RIAT 2013 will be remembered were the formation flypasts that saw the Red Arrows joined by British Airways new Airbus A380 on Saturday, and on Sunday the Airbus Military A400M. Sadly, the conditions on Saturday were just about at their worst during this display, but it was a hugely impressive sight regardless, and the A380, one of very few items which did overshoot on the runway, provided a terrific "moment" that will live long in the memory.

One of the most contentious issues was the change of commentary team, or at least a major re-working of it after four apparently successful years. Replaced was UKAR's Dan O'Hagan, as well as the informative tones of ex-99 Squadron "Boss" Cameron 'Spiv' Gair. Replacing them were Major George Bacon and Flt Lt Jon Bond, who 12 months earlier was flying at the show in his role as the RAF's 2012 Tucano display pilot. The one constant was the excellent Ben Dunnell, but gone was the "Top Gear" three-men-with-a-mic feel. This year's broadcast sounded like three individuals rather than three men working together. Dunnell's job was to commentate on the displays, Bacon's appeared to be to relentlessly plug, to the point of irritation, everything but the flying, with the odd quasi-sexist quip about the Breitling Wingwalkers thrown in for good measure. His style of "ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls" commentary is much better suited to a seaside venue, not an establishment as prestigious as the Air Tattoo. Meanwhile, Bond would go for whole hours at a time without saying anything. This gave the commentary a very lop-sided feel. Luckily Dunnell, surely now the UK's premier airshow commentator, was good enough to carry the show on his own shoulders, but it must be said that with such a heavy reliance on one man for eight hours, it did become a little trying at times; with so much time to fill, the well-researched facts for which Ben's commentaries are known became bogged down in minutiae.

Saturday's show was a sell out, and Sunday's extremely busy. Does this mean Douglas Bader House got the formula right in 2013? Don't believe a bit of it. Family audiences will attend outdoor events on the strength of one thing - good weather. Given RIAT 2013 lucked out in having two of the hottest weeks in living memory preceding it, ticket sales were always going to be strong in the days leading up to the show. This must not - and we can't stress this highly enough - be allowed to cloud what was an average (by RIAT standards) flying display, and unacceptably sparse and poor static park.

As a family "event" RIAT 2013 was all things, to all men, which perhaps is what they want to be, but the fact that FRIAT did not sell out of Mach 3 passes, and many recognisable and vocal enthusiasts were noticeable by their absence tells its own story. Any business neglects its most loyal supporters at great risk. When the rain comes they're the ones who'll still support an airshow by buying tickets and merchandise. Ignore them and what they want to see, and the show is on a slippery slope.

It would be simplistic to say that RIAT 2013 was saved by the good weather in July. Indeed, Saturday's weather was much worse than forecast, so even that couldn't paper over the cracks. Some of the flying was of an exceptional standard (excruciating Eurocopter "Role Demo" excepted), but for the most-part it was distant and for long spells on Saturday the show seemed to lose it's energy. It became apparent in the build-up to RIAT that 2013 was going to be a difficult year, but it looked on paper as if there was enough there. I didn't get that feeling at the end of the day, and it is quite comfortably the least enjoyment I've ever had from attending an airshow at RAF Fairford.

It's perhaps worth quantifying that, as a day tripper, the experience out in the public lawns is vastly different to those who spend any amount of time in the FRIAT enclosure, as the majority of the UKAR team do, but you can only speak as you find and having paid a premium to be there on Saturday, under cloudy skies, watching flat displays in what were at times quite cold conditions, it wasn't the most pleasurable airshow experience I've had. Of course, nobody at DBH is to blame for the weather, but it leads me back to the reduced flexibility this year of having no option to buy a ticket valid for either day.

On the evidence of RIAT 2013 - from the troubled build up to the show experience on Saturday - I'd have to think long and hard before I'm prepared to commit another £49 for a day-specific ticket next July. With a number of significant anniversaries and the retirement of Tim Prince to be commemorated, there's reason for optimism. Let's just hope 2013 was a blip.