Royal International Air Tattoo
Friday 19th July - Sunday 21st July 2019
RIAT 2018 was always going to be a hard act to follow. Despite not quite living up to expectations on the weekend, the RAF Centenary show nevertheless set a high bar for participation, numbers and organisation that would require hard work and smart thinking to produce a natural scaling down the following year while still keeping enthusiasm high. Hard it was, and somehow the team at Douglas Bader House managed to misstep at seemingly every opportunity in the lead up to the show and by the time the week rolled around it felt that hype and anticipation for the show were at a low not seen since the Alexandra Burke affair.
reports from a moist and sticky RAF Fairford for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the Staff Team.
They say there's no such thing as bad publicity. RIAT 2019 proved this to be wrong. RIAT, for everyone in the enthusiast world, begins a long time before the Park and View enclosure gates open on the Wednesday morning. It's those first few rumours that come out of the show before - who was seen wandering around the showground? Who said they want to come back next year with more? It's the first threads going up on forums, eagerly anticipating the next round. It's booking that accommodation, putting in those leave requests. It's the event of the year, and everything that comes out surrounding it is lapped up. Maybe we were just fatigued after last year's extra-length onslaught of airshow, but nothing did so much to kill the enthusiast excitement for this year's show as the bafflingly off-note PR output that the public were subjected to in the months before.
It started off badly. Perhaps we should've had a sense of things to come when the tickets went on sale extraordinarily early in September, before any announcements could be made. To be fair, with days being sold out astonishingly far in advance in the last few years, it's clear that the show's name alone can sell without the particular strength of any acts or participation, so it's not totally beyond measure that DBH could look to begin that process earlier than normal. Perhaps we really should've taken note that tickets for Friday's now familiar half-day format would be sold at the same price as the weekend tickets. Half a day's flying and two thirds of a showground accessible for the cost of a full day's show... In the business world, it's hard to bring prices down once they've gone up and last year's three-day format, with the Friday (ostensibly) featuring some unique aspects across a full, regular show day that made it worth the full charge, was justifiable but to so egregiously devalue the product while maintaining the cost? It's all very well saying that the show is for charity, as we're so frequently reminded when costs are questioned, but charity is no excuse for ripping people off. To put it simply, there is no justification other than greed and exploitation for Friday's ticket price to have been so high, for a day that, as commonly expressed on our forums, has never really been necessary in the first place.
And from there it just, well, it just went downhill. Appalling spelling and grammatical errors in emails and social media posts that should never have been allowed to go out were bad enough, but somewhat forgivable. Mislabelled images or misidentified aircraft in posts were just as bad, and somewhat less forgivable. But it wore on. Articles apparently, we have to assume, written for children (and seemingly by them as well - 8 things you didn't know about the P-8A Poseidon, number 2, the P-8A is pretty fast!) being sent out to everyone without being labelled as kids' pieces. No really, that particular article was frankly insulting. Announcements about star attractions (the so-called "Fairford Eye" ferris wheel getting a baffling amount of attention and fanfare) with erroneous and contradictory information that would later need to be corrected. And come the week of the show, the social media accounts were putting out extremely low quality arrivals photos that did nothing to flatter or sell the event.
Even the participation announcements were worse, somehow. Two years ago, we commented that the surprise announcements coming on non-Thursdays really helped build the excitement and build hype, but the reason they worked was that they were out of the blue in between very well supplied regular, weekly updates. They worked because what was expected was, itself, great - if there was a shock release, you knew there must be something pretty good coming up by the time Thursday rolled round. In 2019 we had the weird situation where significant, star acts were being announced on off-days to be followed by a pauce and flat Thursday noontime that left the expectant community deflated. If DBH knew, and they surely must have, that an upcoming update was mediocre or lacking a punch, the obvious course should have been to keep these surprise announcements for the regular update.
We're used to the routine of the Thursday update. It's one of the best parts of the modern RIAT - the week now becomes Thursday to Thursday, we all find a spare moment to load the page at noon, be it on our computers or sneaking away from the desk to check our phone, then hurried discussion with mates as to what we made of it. For all the ruffled feathers when it was first introduced, it's now a firm feature of the Air Tattoo. So commit to it, or announce everything as and when it arrives rather than putting half the list out piecemeal and leaving the remainder flat and uninteresting as a result.
The deeper problem, the rotten apple that all these issues revealed and what wasn't at all forgivable, was that it just kept going. Every time a mistake was made, it was flagged, raised publicly and commented on, and they kept on happening. It felt like there was no process for ensuring things weren't repeated. The marketing was, to put no finer point on it, borderline amateurish. Simultaneously unplanned in appearance and designed by committee.
So having been ground down by the pre-show circus we went into the show already apprehensive, already seeing it through a negative eyepiece, and when that happens every downer gets magnified. You can't help but focus on what isn't being done right rather than what is, although this year it really didn't feel like much really was being done right as far as the public enthusiast was concerned. This year felt far, far more corporate-oriented than previous years with a very large section in the centre of the showground dedicated to the chalets, clubs, pavilions and manufacturer aircraft on display (packed behind metal barriers and plastic trees). The presentation of these areas - barriers rather than cones, "by invitation only" signs by the aircraft, a general lack of interest in you if you didn't have a VIP pass dangling round your neck - lent itself to the feeling that they really weren't for the public to interact with, solely for the many "suits" in attendance. A separate part of the show that we weren't really welcome to be in.
Sadly, the rest of the static didn't inspire much. Last year, and indeed years before that, saw a good use of Fairford's enormous size with a fairly well-spaced and well-positioned static park, aircraft placed with at least some thought as to what they were and what the enthusiast wanted to see - star items given their own space as to where they would be best photographed, multiple aircraft of the same type being placed together for greater impact etc. This year saw very little of that. Where there weren't huge gaps in the static line, the aircraft that were there were parked incredibly close to one another. The undoubted kings of the static display, the Turkish Phantoms resplendent with two special tails, were wedged between a Dutch F-16 and USAF KC-135R, head-on to the barrier line. Likewise the stunning German special schemes, the Norwegian camo F-16 and the magnificent Danish Dannebrog Viper special, some of the best liveries for years all brought into one airfield, were squeezed together, perpendicular to the taxiway, a whopping great simulator truck at one end and an ice-cream van at the other. Worse still, for the latter section there was a seemingly unending line of portaloos gracing the background of every aircraft and huge white trade stands in front, with such bizarre offerings as windows and bungalows. Besides, any angle you could find of them had a hugely prominent ferris wheel in the background anyway.
Obviously toilets are necessary and obviously the airshow needs trade stalls - where else are you meant to buy your sofas or gold bars? But all of this seems to be getting more and more prominence, encroaching on the space reserved for the aircraft, forcing them into tight pens and generally making them less and less the centre of attention. Easy wins are just being missed - angle the aircraft, so that side shots of the paintwork are easier to achieve. Move the stalls further back so that the aircraft can be positioned wider. Hell, as route one as it might be, run a roll of camo netting in front of the toilets so they don't ruin the backgrounds. Without wanting to sound snobbish, the general placement of aircraft is not relevant to the majority of public attending, but for a show that proudly offers a tailor-made enthusiast package and strives to attract the rarest items, you expect thought to be given to what the photographer and enthusiast are keen to see. This year that element seemed to have been taken as an afterthought, if at all. The RAF, true to their recent poor form once again, had a single fighter on static. It was put in the corporate zone, behind metal barriers...
It seems unfair to judge the show based on what isn't there, but there comes a point where you look at the list of what is there and what is absent and start to wonder. We've always been told that the show absolutely prioritises military participation over civilian (aside from manufacturer attendance). Whenever the question of Swedish Historics or the like has come up, the reply has always been that, as civilian outfits, they wouldn't be booked in lieu of any potential military attendees for many reasons political and monetary. So when, early on in the annual cycle, it was announced that the civilian Extra 300 team The Blades would be making their Air Tattoo debut with considerably more fanfare than most would think was warranted, eyebrows went up. When the (certainly not unwelcome) Wesham-based Huey and Loach were added to the list and the soon-to-be-ex-Breitling Jet Team were booked, questions were asked. The show could afford the surprisingly expensive Blades team (if that was indeed the arrangement) but not, apparently, the hottest and newest addition to Europe's classic helicopter scene, the Historic Helicopters Wessex, a type that would have lit up the display, flying or static, and brought a very iconic shape back to Fairford. Perhaps the Swedes should have been brought in, even just as static as they were at the RAFCTE-ran Scampton Airshow, as the money for such civilian acts evidently was available in 2019.
Certainly a collection of thunderous Scandinavian heavy-metal is far more appropriate for the Air Tattoo than a second Extra aerobatics team. For all the running jokes about them, the Royal Jordanian Falcons - making fantastic use of their new mounts - made mincemeat of the Blades to the point of embarrassment. The nadir of this debacle was the insultingly vapid A400M and Blades flypast on the Sunday, a single pass apparently commemorating the 50th anniversary of Airbus (in which only 20% of the aircraft taking part were Airbus products) while Arthur Williams exploded with joy over the commentary at what he claimed was the best flypast you'll see in Europe this year.
Evidently he hadn't witnessed the three flypasts that took place the day before. In fact, the difference between Saturday's and Sunday's displays was stark this year. We know that there will occasionally be disparity between days at the Air Tattoo through operator requirements or any number of other reasons, but this year had a massive gulf both in terms of regular acts simply not down for Sunday sans any replacements and in set-pieces only scheduled for Saturday. This was apparent long before the weekend itself, but Saturday-goers also benefited from the Friday show being washed out by weather as it resulted in one or two acts that had only been down for that day being pushed on to Saturday instead, most fantastically the Concorde tribute by the Red Arrows and Patrouille de France. Unannounced as it had been in advance for the Friday already, it was really only confirmed by the PdF commentator on Saturday just a few hours before it happened. Those who got see it were treated to the brilliant sight of two of the world's premier display teams in one formation, each doing their own take on the Concorde formation. Two passes, accompanied by the British and French national anthems respectively, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first flight of Concorde, a rare and gratifying occasion of Anglo-French cooperation marking another.
But really it was everything. Another unannounced piece for Saturday was the opening by a trio of Belgian special-schemed F-16s in a tribute to the D-Day anniversary, all three of which left in the evening not to take part on Sunday. The NATO 70th flypast, which admittedly wasn't really all that when it did actually happen, had Dutch and Norwegian F-16s added to it by Saturday morning (the sight of all four original European F-16 operators in one formation somewhat funnily providing a better Viper tribute than the show achieved in 2014). The British Airways 100th Anniversary flypast, which saw their beautiful BOAC-schemed 747 give a couple of passes in formation with the Red Arrows, was a delight to see and will be long remembered as yet another excellent edition of the many BA contributions the show has seen over the decades. Among other things, the PdF and Belgian F-16 display had other commitments on Sunday and as if to rub salt in the wounds the (staggeringly dull) US Viper Demo team broke shortly after take off on Sunday morning with resultant delays. The aforementioned A400M and Blades flypast was obviously just a weak bone thrown to the Sunday-goers - one that, in all honesty, would have gone down better had it just been the A400M alone, or just not done at all. DBH marketing had stated that "something" was in the works for a Sunday flypast many months beforehand, but this clearly wasn't it - it was so obviously last minute that it didn't even appear in the souvenir programme! All told, regardless of content, the Sunday show was over an hour shorter than Saturday's. Short-changed and inexplicable.
Obviously there were highlights in the regular flying acts as well as on the ground. RIAT will always attract the stand-out acts, and this year saw some of the most sought after acts on the continent. Aside from the twice-returned Ukrainian Su-27 display, this time flown by a new display pilot who really wrung a lot more out of the airframe in quite a brutish display, the flying programme was headlined by another piece of Soviet goodness in the form of the Romanian MiG-21 LanceR that had had to cancel its appearance last year following a fatal crash. It was probably as good a routine as you could get from the small fighter, Sunday's display being a particularly joyous affair where the jet seemed more like a rocketship in the speed it zoomed about the sky. As the MiG-21's numbers in Europe, and in Romania in particular, dwindle, the sight of this iconic cold war fighter blasting over Fairford once more is enough to please alone, but it came with a fantastic routine to boot. Gratifyingly, the spare aircraft was towed over to the parking area fence and acted as a static entry as well, and the crews allowed people round to get close to the machine and make the most of their appearance at the show.
But there's no doubt what the star of the show was. It's been nine years since a Harrier flew at RIAT when the UK prematurely retired its most iconic of jets - nearly a decade that's since seen the retirement of the type in India and the introduction (and airshow appearance) of the F-35B as well. Few aircraft can produce as striking a display as the "Jump Jet", and it was the Spanish Navy that brought the Harrier back to Gloucestershire skies with a pairs routine that drew everyone's attention. The sight and sound of their two EAV-8Bs hovering in front of the crowdline was tremendous, seeming to remain stationary in the sky for ages. The crowd's appreciation for a British favourite was enormous, and there will have been next to nobody on the airfield whose eyes weren't locked on the jets as they conducted their display. God, it was good to see Harriers again, and they didn't disappoint.
Static-wise, mention should go, surprisingly, to the Coastguard contingent. Formed of an S-92, AW189 and even a Reims-Cessna F406 Caravan II pollution control aircraft, it was the Coastguard's biggest ever contribution to an airshow and very much to their credit, they were highly interactive with show-goers throughout. Though a returning item, the ancient and stunningly painted Pakistani C-130B Hercules was a fantastic display piece, featuring a gallery of aviation artwork in the back covering the extraordinary history of the Pakistani Air Force, its crew customarily out talking to people and handing out goodies too.
The spirit of RIAT shone through elsewhere, especially on Friday of all days. You had quite a few acts fighting the weather to provide something, anything, for the crowd - Vador Force, the Belgian F-16 demo, opened the show with a fast taxi. The RAF Typhoon put on a max-performance takeoff before coming straight back in to land, and even the NATO E-3, which was unserviceable for the flypast on Saturday, took off and ran in for a gear-down pass when the rest of the formation had to scrub its form up as a result of the low cloud. The surprise Concorde formation, which was prevented on Friday, was put out on Saturday when it seems likely it was never planned to be and that proved to be one of the best moments of the weekend.
DBH can't do anything about the weather, and Friday's total drenching was a shame that couldn't be helped. But nearly everything else they do have control over and there were too many mistakes this year, too many lessons unlearnt, focuses seeming to slip. Car park issues reappearing, entry taking excruciatingly long, constant vacuous announcements during the commentary, even little things like the BAE Systems sign and day-glo display datum not being removed from opposite the FRIAT stand on Monday for the benefit of photographers, as they have been in previous years. P&V West barriers being moved even further back than they were in 2017 after the issues of last year - which were entirely DBH's fault, but the enthusiast is the one that got punished for it. Helicopters being told to depart on Monday away from the FRIAT stand. Sadly, the enthusiast is getting less and less out of the show and there will come a point where people begin to question whether they're finding the show rewarding or not.
One infuriating case in point was the arrival of the MiGs on Thursday. There's been a trend in recent years of 'Follow Me' cars arriving at the western loop so that the volunteers on board can get photos of the highlights when they arrive and its had some impact on those at Park and View West, but this year saw the most aggravating occurrence so far. When the LanceRs arrived, it seemed like every car on the airfield swarmed down to the loop to get their shots, at times literally getting between the photographers and the jets and otherwise providing an ugly, cluttered and unusable background for those there. Some people weren't able to get any uncluttered shots of the jets at all, and might well have missed their only chance at those shots of MiG-21s they'll see in their lives. Perks are essential for any volunteer, they're what keep people coming back and providing their time, but when that starts coming at the expense of paying customers? It's unacceptable and RIAT ATC must address this problem.
So much this year felt low effort. The public side of the show felt under-cooked despite the highlights. The NATO 70th theme was broadly successful, centred around a flypast which itself was somewhat high and suffered from two heavies not taking part on the day for serviceability and operational reasons, but did feature an unbelievably rare appearance of a French KC-135R and an otherwise great multinational spectacle. But that's a very tangible, achievable theme that is relevant to a military airshow. Can we honestly say a single aircraft there was genuinely relevant to the show's main theme of, well, "Space"? The truth is that if we hadn't had it constantly brought up in the commentary all through the weekend you'd never, ever have known there was a space theme at the show this year. Apparently Tim Peake, Britain's first astronaut, was there. Apparently a satellite took pictures of the airfield. Apparently there was a genuine Mars Rover in the "Techno Zone". But none of that was obvious when you were on the showground nor did it feature in anyone's day when they visited the show - you just heard about it over the Tannoy. It was yet another slide into the corporate vagueness that the show is becoming, empty themes with business deals that don't mean anything to the punter on the ground seemingly being a selling point.
People will say "But! There were Sukhois, and MiGs, and Harriers! What more do you want?" Well, here's the thing: it's very, very easy to forget that the Spanish Navy sent a Harrier display to two Farnborough shows before they came to Yeovilton and RIAT in 2019. The reason nobody talks about those appearances is that nobody cares about Farnborough anymore. For many enthusiasts not even a Harrier, probably the single most missed type in this country, was able to tempt people to visit that show, so bad has it become. FIA is dying - has died - a slow death, and it's worrying to see RIAT gently, sneakily sliding towards becoming the next Farnborough at the same time. If the show stops becoming enjoyable and begins featuring guff like the Blades on the regular, if the showground turns into a business park, if the static display becomes second to company exhibitions, then people will stop wanting to go to RIAT. Just having the stars and the rarities isn't enough, it never will be.
So much of the above, taken in isolation, sounds petty and entitled; a grumpy enthusiast who didn't get his nice photos of his planes. But you put it all together and it becomes a death by a thousand cuts. RIAT is huge, and it attracts dedicated crews flying superb aircraft from all over the world, and this tends to produce a sort of pendulum effect whereby things naturally try and swing back round to balance in a way that no other show really can. This pendulum has the strength to force itself past one or two large spanners in the works, but when you throw a hundred tiny spanners in, it's too much to get through. 2019 is never going to be remembered as a vintage year but the high points, and they were definitely there as they are at every single RIAT, are a case of quality over quantity and a single day out on Saturday will have been a decent airshow. Taken as a whole, though, and RIAT was lacking the soul that the show should have, too many corporate-driven lines and meaningless aspects taking precedence over producing a quality public airshow.
To compare it to the other major military show remaining in the UK, Yeovilton Air Day (or the Royal Navy International Air Day as it now is) has managed to scale up over the last few years, attracting true and unique star acts without sacrificing its soul or feel in the slightest. The corporate zones are sidelined to the hangars, visit-able but not intrusive. The themes are militarily-relevant, the communications are great and the public feels like the focus of the show. The state of the two shows this year was seen in microcosm about a month before the Air Tattoo. Yeovilton sent an email out announcing the UK debut of an RCAF CC-130J Hercules Tac Demo, a huge coup that set the enthusiast community alight. An hour later, RIAT sent out an email announcing, with considerably more fanfare than the Navy had, the attendance of a ferris wheel...
It's sad to write about Andy Armstrong's final show like this. His tenure, which was preceded by much worry and concern that has since turned out to be more or less unfounded, has seen some corking shows that are still talked about fondly. There's been some inconsistency but the show always went on. So now we look forward to Paul Atherton's new place at the helm with some concern as to the future of the show, but with the same optimism we go into every year. Hopefully, he'll read our concerns here and take note. The worry is that the parent organisation will look at the constant sell-outs, the huge profits going to charity and say "nothing needs to change". This year, that couldn't have been further from the truth.