Royal International Air Tattoo Report
Friday 11th July - Sunday 13th July 2014
Widely regarded as one of the (if not the) worst Fairford shows of the past decade, the 2013 Royal International Air Tattoo left a bitter taste for many enthusiasts. With further changes to the show format planned for 2014 onwards, including the trial of a third public day and with this being Tim Prince's final show in charge before retiring, it was important that this year's show was more successful. The build-up to the show has been a roller coaster ride of excitement and controversy surrounding several participants, so was the show a success and did they listen to the many concerns raised following RIAT 2013?
spent six days of fun and games in the FRIAT enclosure to report from the Royal International Air Tattoo 2014. Photography by the UK Airshow Review team.
Occupying a slot between what could possibly have been the last RAF Waddington International and Farnborough International, this year RIAT unfortunately clashed with Duxford's Flying Legends and therefore it was important that the organisers played to the strengths that are associated with a Farnborough year to attract enthusiasts away from a very strong looking Duxford line-up, and this they did. Working with Farnborough, Lockheed Martin, the DoD and MoD, it had been arranged for the F-35B - in both RAF and USMC guises - to make their International debut at RIAT before going on to appear at Farnborough. This was perhaps the biggest scoop possible, short of attracting the PAK-FA which in the current political landscape would have been impossible. Quite rightly, RIAT marketed this appearance almost exclusively (in addition to the Red Arrows) in its literature, creating for many the key reason to purchase tickets and unknowingly setting themselves up for a fall.
Shortly before the show, an F-35A suffered a catastrophic engine failure and fire at Eglin AFB, resulting in the entire F-35 fleet being grounded and thus preventing the Atlantic crossing. All the parties involved worked until the last possible moment to try and save the appearance but when it was clear all hope had been exhausted, an announcement was made that the scheduled RIAT appearance had been cancelled, albeit still with hope that Farnborough might still be on. Sadly, there are those out there that saw this as RIAT's fault. Clearly it wasn't and no one should blame them for the grounding or be demanding refunds. Aircraft go 'tech' all the time, there are never any guarantees that what is booked will attend. Perhaps if anything, the lesson that could be learnt from this for RIAT is to attempt to avoid advertising just a single item above all else in the future.
This was not the only controversy in the run up to the show and no review of RIAT 2014 would be complete without mentioning "Vulcangate", or more accurately the almost childish - and very public - disagreement that appeared to occur between Vulcan to the Sky Trust and RIAT. Due to the large amount of military flying acts in this year's show, especially for the Reds 50th celebrations, there was no space in the schedule (this was prior to the F-35 problems) available to book a supplementary civilian act. Indeed, the only civilian flying acts at RIAT 2014 were the Breitling Jet Team and Wingwalkers, who both attended as part of the Reds 50th Theme. As a result, the VTTS were only offered a space in the static display which they duly turned down, citing safety fears for the safety of their volunteer staff who would be left facing hoardes of angry customers upset that XH558 would not flying. The resultant backlash aimed at RIAT from individuals that purchased tickets expecting to see the Vulcan was unprecedented, with some people demanding refunds and others going even further, calling them traitors! In my opinion, RIAT made the right call to drop the Vulcan. The Air Tattoo is a military show and therefore military acts and themes must take priority. No act is bigger than any airshow and it is concerning that the almost obsessive followers of the Vulcan acted in such a way. It also strikes as pure madness to book tickets on the basis that an act will appear without any advertisement that it would.
Controversy aside, the biggest change to the show format this year came from the addition of a Friday public day. This year this saw a half-day's flying display as a trial run for a full three-day format from 2015 onwards, made necessary by new MAA rules. Dubbed the "Pit Day", the Friday show was used to celebrate the 50th display season of the Red Arrows which allowed access to the Reds and other display teams in a 'pit area' during the morning prior to a short afternoon flying display. During the Friday, park and view opened at 07:30, FRIAT at 08:00 and access to half of the show ground was allowed from 10:00. Whether this experimental third public day was a success is questionable at best.
In theory, the idea of giving the public access to the Reds is a good idea and was broadly successful. It was also good to see a number of popular static items that arrived during the day being parked in such a way that they could still be photographed by the public, despite the western end of the showground remaining off limits for the duration. However the experience was marred by issues with the public gaining access to the airfield, owing to a lack of available busses to shuttle them to park and view prior to the 10:00 gate opening for the Blue and Green car parks. This in-turn left FRIAT members in a difficult situation, having to by-pass a large queue of impatient general admission customers to gain access to their enclosure at Blue Gate. Disheartening too was the apparent lack of enthusiasm for the Friday concept in the pit itself, with both the Frecce Tricolori and Patrouille Suisse leaving their aircraft 'tagged and bagged' under their covers.
The centrepiece of the Reds 50th flying display was a special formation consisting of the Red Arrows and the leaders of the Patrouille Suisse, Patrouille de France, Frecce Tricolori and the Breitling Jet Team. This unique flypast was good to see but unfortunately rather underwhelming, thanks to the overseas team-leader element of the formation falling behind in the second (topside) pass, resulting in the aircraft being obscured by the Red's smoke. This should have been the most photogenic of the two formation passes and was sadly ruined. Many were heard to remark "was that it?", and this is perhaps a phrase that succinctly encapsulates the feeling towards the "Pit Day" in general. Comparing this celebration to that of say, the Frecce Tricolori, really does strike of a "that'll do" mentality being applied to the celebrations. It just didn't seem to work and felt very disjointed with little to no commentary during the morning rehearsals and only a broken commentary in the afternoon display. The Super Hornet is another good example of how badly this whole day fell flat - advertised to display, it instead turned up to perform a recce of the airfield and then landed for no apparent reason, having failed to deliver what was promised. There was an opportunity to make this celebration day for the Reds very special, unfortunately that opportunity was largely missed. It must be pointed out, however, that at least the Reds 50th season was marked and that this year's Friday event was a trial for the future third show day. Hopefully RIAT learnt a lot from this trial, we'll just have to wait 12 months to see how this improves.
The 2014 airshow was always going to be a show of two halves, the experimental new Friday event followed by the Air Tattoo proper come the weekend. It is the weekend airshow where I am pleased to report that it was clear that RIAT listened to the many concerns UKAR and the enthusiast community had about the 2013 show and had tried to improve matters. Gone were the noisy Caterhams of the 'Adrenalin Zone', allowing those camped in Kempsford a good night's kip. The most significant improvements were seen with the flying display itself. Considering the new MAA rules, it was surprising and welcoming to see that the runway was bought back into use for missed approaches, this immediately bought back part of the RIAT magic that was sorely missing in 2013. Staying with the flying, in 2013 the display line was moved back by 20 metres (to comply with rules) however most displays appeared to display well over 100 metres further back. This year that didn't happen and the vast majority of displays complied more strictly with the new guideline. There have still been comments regarding the distance of the displays, however rules are rules and there is nothing RIAT can really do about it. One other big improvement noted was the commentary during the weekend. This year's team consisted of Ben Dunnell, George Bacon and making his debut, Group Captain Mark Manwaring. Last year's team didn't work well and George was especially irritating. However this year, things seemed more toned down and combined with Mark's expert knowledge, this team had a better balance and was a marked improvement from its nadir in 2013.
Usually at this point in a review I would highlight one or two of the most popular acts to enter into more detail, but this article would be the longest in history if I were to do that here. Thanks to the myriad of military acts making a strong supporting cast, it could even be said that RIAT didn't particularly suffer for the absence of the debuting F-35, despite the pre-show advertising perhaps over-relying on the troubled Joint Strike Fighter. There were a number of fast jet displays present, including three F-16 displays from Turkey, the Netherlands and Belgium respectively, together with the usual RAF Typhoon display, the return of the Estonian L-39, Swedish Gripen and Swiss F/A-18C Hornet. The best support for RIAT 2014 certainly came from the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (Experimental Flight Department) of the Italian Air Force, and their displays were of exceptional quality too. Making the trek from the Mediterranean were a C-27J, AMX, Tornado and Typhoon, the latter giving the RAF an object lesson in how to properly display the Eurofighter. To the enthusiast however, all other fast jets were overshadowed by the UK debut of Poland's Su-22 Fitter duo demonstration. Although some would argue that the display is quite slow and boring, the Polish display was rightly awarded the 'As The Crow Flies Trophy' at the show, as voted for by FRIAT members - two Cold War beasts tearing up the airfield was a piece of Air Tattoo gold, and will surely be the lasting memory from 2014.
RIAT 2014 also saw five helicopter displays including the Swiss Super Puma, the Royal Navy Merlin HM1, the popular Chinook and the final RIAT appearance of the Lynx AH7. All were overshadowed by the Army Air Corps Apache display however, who, armed with pyrotechnics, gave a dynamic and noisy combat demonstration. The remainder of the displays were provided by visiting teams as part of the Red Arrows celebrations with what may turn out to be the final appearance of the at risk Patrouille Suisse and a very rare appearance from the Polish Team Orlik.
That isn't to say that all the flying acts were superb this year though. A regular visitor to RIAT on even-numbered Farnborough years is the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet. This is usually a highly anticipated display and therefore it was a big surprise to many to witness what happened. The 'SuperBug' was scheduled to display on all three public days this year, and if Friday's display mentioned earlier was a source of puzzlement, the weekend appearances were frankly a shambles. Saturday's display was not only distant, but performed at a display minimum altitude of circa 1500ft, thanks to Boeing's failure to validate a display for RIAT, forcing upon us their only UK-approved routine which was to Farnborough's strict flying regulations. The result was a display by an F-18 shaped dot very far away from, and very high above the less than enthralled crowd. Sunday's efforts were even worse, the Super Hornet saga coming to an early conclusion when the aircraft departed in the morning never to return, cancelling the display RIAT had planned to close the show. We'd have to question whether there was any point allocating this aircraft a display slot at all based on its dreadful showing in Gloucestershire - it was anything but super!
Extensive static displays are one of the trademarks of an Air Tattoo, and as ever they were a key focus of the pre-show discussion on UKAR's forums. As with the flying programme, this year's static display did have a number of gems including the world debut of the Textron Air Land Scorpion, making its landmark Atlantic crossing just months after the type's first flight (in the process completing a feat a fighter that already numbers over 100 production examples seemingly cannot do), the welcome return of the US military to the static with the appearance of a P-8A Poseidon, KC-135R and F-15E together with the return of the JASDF with their KC-767J. It's important to remember that this was only their third-ever airshow appearance outside of their homeland, and significantly, the second time at RIAT in the space of three years. The undoubted stars on the ground were a pair of Hellenic Air Force A-7 Corsairs however. Both of the venerable 'SLUFFs' were adorned in special schemes, and the crews bought with them a number of unique items of memorabilia to mark their final appearance outside of Greece before their eventual retirement from service in October.
This is where the positive discussion about the static appears to end on our forums, which on reflection is understandable. As Tim Prince stated himself in his UKAR interview earlier this year, gone are the days of hundreds of military aircraft - ever-shrinking defence budgets and fleet sizes around the globe preventing this. Looking at the trends, the overall total of static aircraft has been in steady decline over the past ten years, but this year's tally does appear to be very close to the total number of aircraft on the ground as in 2012, meaning that much-maligned show of 2013 remains the all-time low for static bulk at an Air Tattoo. Whilst this was not the worst static in pure numbers then, it wasn't great, and there seem to be two prevailing gripes surrounding the 2014 static park:
First and foremost, just where were the Royal Air Force? From an RAF point of view, this was the most poorly supported RIAT in living memory, with just a handful of assets on the ground and not a single large aircraft from the tanker and transport fleets present. The second, and perhaps more significant grumble pertains to just how RIAT utilised the aircraft that were present, because there were large gaps in the static, which only added to the perception that there just weren't very many aircraft on the airfield. They didn't help themselves in this regard, with a very poor static parking plan - did many people realise there were six C-130s on static, and that they were all crammed into a single dispersal at the Western end? Placing them (and the medium transports crammed together in the centre of the showground) in a well spaced row (much like the celebrated 2012 show) on the taxi way would have been a quick and simple way of bulking the static out whilst simultaneously re-kindling those memories of the bygone era when rows of KC-135s and C-130s would dominate the showground. Likewise, every one of the seven F-16s present to mark the type's 40th Anniversary (a key theme for RIAT 2014) was parked not only very close to one another, but with the worst of all backgrounds - the fun fair - scuppering any chance of a decent photo. This was a problem surrounding the entire static park; aircraft were just too bunched up, which has the double effect of not only making photos of individual aircraft difficult, but also leaving masses of empty space. If there's an upside to an ever dwindling volume of static aircraft, it must be that the resultant space is put to better use, and RIAT still needs to do more in this area.
Nothing is perfect but there were a few things this year that really need to be looked at in addition to the static layout. Apart from the Red Arrows there were two other themes this year, namely the 40th Anniversaries of both the F-16 and Hawk. Whilst there were plenty of Fighting Falcons in the flying and in the static (even if you couldn't photograph them properly), you would have been forgiven for thinking the Hawk theme had been forgotten. There were no Hawks in the air, apart from the Red Arrows mounts, and the ones that were on static were all RAF examples, dotted randomly around the airfield. The sole example of the newer of the RAF's Hawks, the T2, was hidden away in a corporate area. Overall this was a poorly-supported theme with no cohesive structure. More emphasis does need to be made of themes if this format is going to continue, it isn't right just to pay lip service to them.
The £12 asking price for the official programme is nothing short of a rip-off, offering no more content than any other large airshow, like RAF Waddington's, but at twice the price. This urgently needs to be addressed. On the note of value for money, the point is rapidly approaching that what aircraft are on offer does not justify the annual increases in ticket prices. RIAT either need to find a way to attract more aircraft in these difficult times or lower costs so that ticket price increases stop. Something has to give. The same can be said of FRIAT. There is nothing inherently wrong with the package itself - it remains the best way to enjoy the Air Tattoo, both socially and photographically, and is an experience unrivalled by any other airshow in the UK. However, the increasing cost combined with the extortionate fees levied by many local hotels is fast making it financially unviable for many, especially those opting for the full, six day Mach3 package who are now looking at a total outlay in excess of £1000. Either more needs to be added to the package to increase value for money or the local chamber of commerce needs to be made to understand that they are pricing enthusiasts out of the area, cutting their own throats.
Gazing into a crystal ball, the Royal International Air Tattoo 2015 is going to be a year of massive opportunity and significant risk which could potentially shape the future of the entire UK airshow industry. The show is moving to a full three day show format which means that arrivals will now be limited to two days. This should hopefully make things busier on arrivals days, attracting more visitors and adding value to those on a FRIAT package - there were long periods of very little action this year. The show on the Friday should not be identical to that of the weekend however, or there is likely to be no incentive to attend the new day, particularly on the back of this year's teething troubles. With no event at RAF Waddington, there is a key opportunity here to, for one year at least, significantly increase the number of international and RAF participants. A number of the big European shows are on hiatus, or at least will not clash with RIAT, so there's yet more potential for the staff at Douglas Bader House to capitalise upon.
Rumours coming from our forum membership suggest that pilots of the Brazilian Esquadrilha da Fumaça were present at this year's show and have stated an intention to return in 2015 with their new Super Tucanos, and a public perception that Lockheed Martin will "owe" RIAT for the deemed F-35 disaster may mean we'll see what we missed this year, although realistically it's quite likely that may have to wait until Farnborough returns in 2016. Whilst in 2014, RIAT got the flying right, they have got the static very wrong and there is a risk that the downward trend will continue especially as RIAT is now competing with arguably bigger and better shows a short hop away on the continent. Finally and most concerning is the news that broke during arrivals - the Royal Air Force are to review all airshow commitments both domestic and foreign, in a review that may end the British airshow as we know it. If a decision is made to no longer support international air displays, the repercussions could be a significant reduction in international participants at UK airshows and RIAT will be hit the hardest in that regard.
So, in summary, the Royal International Air Tattoo of 2014 was not a classic, but it wasn't a failure either. Visitors to the airshow were treated to a significantly better show when compared to the 2013 flop, and all things considered it was a good, successful airshow, albeit with plenty of room for improvement. Perhaps, those that compare the current show to those of old need to recognise, as Tim alluded to in his interview, that the world has changed and the spectacle of hundreds of aircraft on the ground at RIAT has been consigned to the history books. There is still no other show in the UK attracting Su-22s, A-7s or Japanese military assets, so a reality check is indeed needed, but equally RIAT now needs to make the most of such items if they are to continue to engage the enthusiast.
I look forward to RIAT 2015 and to discovering what the new Chief Executive Andy Armstrong has planned for the future of one of the most important events in the UK, our annual pilgrimage. I only hope that he follows in Tim's footsteps and listens to the major aviation communities and forums when looking for feedback.
All that is left to say is to wish a very happy retirement from everyone here at UK Airshow Review to Tim Prince and to wish Andy Armstrong good luck as the new Chief Executive.