Royal International Air Tattoo

Friday 15th July - Sunday 17th July 2022

Two long years of pandemic-induced Air Tattoo drought and a highly changed team behind the scenes resulted in an enormous amount of anticipation and expectation for the show's big comeback, the first edition since 2019 - a well-attended but poorly-executed show which received much criticism from us at the time. A much improved marketing effort, an absolutely stellar aircraft lineup and a dose of perhaps-too-good weather made for a bouncing rejuvenation that may be considered one of the all-time great Air Tattoos, but the show was not without its stumbles, some of which may leave a sour taste in the mouth going into 2023.

Sam Wise breathes the fresh air of Fairford once more and reports for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the Staff Team.

As we left the concrete of RAF Fairford in 2019, not a single one of us thought it would be another three horrible, exhausting, heartbreaking years before we would return to this airshow. The heart of the British - and wider - aviation enthusiast world, our biggest social event of the year, the biggest military airshow in the world. We missed it and we felt its absence dearly. The last two years have been dreadful, and everyone understands why we've gone without, nor is the world in a happy place still, but being back at an event that many consider the centre of their calendar was a moment to be savoured.

Of course, even with the pandemic supposedly on its way out and life just about beginning to return to normality, it shouldn't have been a surprise that we'd have a scare or two beforehand. Countries recovering from the pandemic were imagined to be too struggling to send aircraft to the UK for a mere airshow. Russia's heinous invasion of Ukraine led many to fear that not only would air arms be too overworked or unwilling to send aircraft to the show but, perhaps slightly less realistically, the airbase would become a war centre and the show cancelled. Fortunately, this not only didn't come to pass but in fact the strengthened resolve of NATO and upheaval of the global order led to an even stronger show than anticipated with many nations around the world keen to put their flag on the table and have a presence at Fairford.

DBH's vastly-improved marketing output did its work and as the star items were smashed out week after week like Jonny Bairstow getting test centuries it looked more and more like RIAT 2022 was going to be one for the ages. Barely a Thursday went by without some rare and highlighted aircraft being announced, with the return of informative updates explaining the process and ongoing work. One of the earliest announcements that gave some hint that this might be a special year was the announcement of the full Austrian Air Force QRA demo formed of two Typhoons and a Hercules - a star act to travel to its own country for, and rarely performed overseas. People might say it's just because we were desperate for the return of RIAT, but compared with the build-up to the last show the communication was a massive improvement with far less focus on the 'trivial' aspects of the show and a healthy balance of day-out advertising and focus on the aircraft themselves.

Gone were the nebulous show themes like “space” and “air power” and in their place were tangible frameworks like the very successful and identifiable “Training” theme. While it's possible that such a theme may have been incredibly well timed, with the war in Ukraine tying up other, more strategic assets, this clear and well-defined topic worked very well, drawing in such rare items as the pair of Portuguese Air Force TB30 Epsilons and Italian Air Force FT-339A in the static display. On the civilian side, the unique and historical Trago Mills SAH-1 trainer aircraft came all the way down from Inverness to take part in the show, demonstrating a small part of British aviation history - a real enthusiast's gem whose owners did a great job of showing the aircraft off to the public. Most astonishing of all, though, were the three classic machines from the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight - that's right, they finally came to an Air Tattoo! Fantastically, it was their training model examples of their Lansen, Draken and Viggen (in the most stunning splinter camo) they sent, relevant to the Training theme and parked next to the operational twin-stick Gripen D to present a chronological line-up of Saab jet trainers.

The theme was complemented by a host of relevant flying display acts too, including Captain Eemeli Vähäsöyrinki's superbly flown Finnish Air Force Hawk Solo Display with its dramatic smokewinders trailing a course through the sky that demonstrated the performance of the BAE Systems Hawk and perhaps reminded us what we missed of the RAF's late solo demo. Another exceptional contribution to this theme surely came in the form of Denmark's national aerobatic display team, Baby Blue. 2022 sees the team flying a six-ship display for the first time, and the addition of the two extra T-17s adds a good bit more presence to it - and while it may have been flown a tad too high and far away to match Fairford's immense crowdline, it was a display routine exactly as graceful and flowing as Boris Johnson's resignation speech wasn't and was a perfect example of how to show off a basic trainer.

The wry observer would also note that the show could probably be called a roaring success for Swiss manufacturer Pilatus. Their range of highly successful training aircraft, among others on offer, were plentiful in both display tables with examples from multiple countries (including Ireland's centenary-celebrating Silver Swallows team, returning to the Air Tattoo for the first time in 25 years on PC-9M mounts with a special schemed PC-12 in the static from the Irish Air Corps also) giving a huge boost to the Training theme across the board. Possibly their best advertisement came from the Slovenian PC-9M Hudornik display which, once again, proved itself to be one of the best fixed wing solo displays in Europe, a fast jet demo flown by a turbotrainer.

The aforementioned Swedish trio/quartet is a great example of the intelligence that seemed to go into the show this year. The usual caveats Douglas Bader House give out every year about the requesting and booking process apply but there was a genuine quality of interestingness on the participant list this year. Aeroplanes like the Omani C-295M Persuader and Kuwaiti Typhoon, direct from the factory at Caselle, are not new or exotic types in themselves but they're certainly less seen airframes that catch the enthusiast's eye. For the whole visiting crowd, getting something like the Airbus BelugaXL in the flying display was a stroke of genius - it's an eye-catching aircraft with an enormous presence in the sky, an iconic design with a rich heritage behind it, and the smiling whale paint-scheme is just an absolute delight to see. Refreshingly, it was a solo appearance rather than the usual Red Arrows formation job - better for the photographer and allowed the pilot, Anthony Flynn of previous A400M displays fame, to throw it around just a little bit between passes for greater entertainment. Perhaps future shows could benefit from the same approach - we've often said that not everything needs to do a formation with the Reds. At least it wasn't the Blades.

That same intelligence surely solved one of our biggest complaints in our review of the 2019 show - the positioning of the static aircraft for photography. This year was vastly improved, in part thanks to the construction on the north side of Fairford meaning that nearly all the flying aircraft had to be parked on the south. This appears to have been the reason why the area formerly used for the Green car park was opened up for almost all of the stars of the static display, with the most photogenic backgrounds you could get on the showground. It was a photographer's delight, with highlights such as the Top Aces A-4 Skyhawk (enjoy your champagne, Pete), Portuguese Epsilons, retro-schemed Canadian CC-150 Polaris and JASDF C-2 being prime photographic subjects. It was quite warming to see the RAF's static Hercules placed down that end among the star items, although you did have to feel sorry for the crew of the same service's Poseidon MRA1, newly delivered and making its show debut, shoved into the furthest possible corner of the airfield there was. At least they had one in the flying display on Friday as well. It was slightly more difficult down the eastern end of the showground with the same problems as before such as rows of toilets in the background and the Fairford Eye returning once again, which never really appeared to be more than half full at most. On the other hand, the central corporate zone felt much pared down on the previous show, one of our bigger issues coming out of it - it felt unintrusive and far less unwelcoming this time round.

Another pleasing trick the static park pulled was to arrange the modern USAF fighters celebrating the air arm's 75th anniversary in alternating order with historic examples of the service's aircraft, including the USAAF-marked Spitfire G-PBIX and the absolutely divine CL-13 Sabre from Mistral Warbirds. In other areas, however, it must be said that the USAF support for the show, with their anniversary as a central theme, was lacking in quantity perhaps, certainly when compared with the effort made in 2017 for the 70th, with just two tankers in the static for any heavy contribution (well, plus something else, but more on that later) and a sole Osprey in the flying display (which, to be fair, remains a consistently brilliant act).

One area where the aforementioned creativity didn't seem to be applied was the flying programmes across the weekend which were, in short, virtually identical on both days bar the Red Arrows formation flypasts. This is, obviously, not at all a bad thing in and of itself and isn't a detriment to the show but does offer less variety and opportunity to the weekend or week-long visitor who may look for different light on the displays or such. On the other hand, managing to keep the same displays over both days is credible considering how wildly off-kilter 2019's timetables were.

The RAF's participation this year might well be described as average. It was a fairly well-attended static participation that saw most types in service at the show, albeit not in great numbers, and without touching, again, on the Reds' total lack of impact this year, the flying displays were back to business with the Chinook display being as good as it's ever been again. However, with the central Training theme it was disappointing to see not a single representative of the RAF's training inventory in the flying display where it might have had the best impact. But then again, the thought of a Military Flying Training System asset being used to display to the public is unconscionable, no doubt.

Sadly, there was a touch of the famous RAF apathy in the static park from the 12sqn outfit. 12sqn, being the joint UK-Qatari Typhoon workup unit, were probably the most interesting RAF appearance in the static for the enthusiast, and the squadron's Typhoon was smartly flanked by a pair for Qatar Emiri Air Force Hawk Mk.167s. However, the Typhoon had all its blanks and a massive canopy cover left on all weekend, making photographs unworkable. When asked if the cover could be taken off like it was on all the other Typhoons in the static, the 12sqn member by the aircraft explained, marginally paraphrased, “Well, we've got a gucci cover for ours and it was pretty difficult to put on so I'm not taking it off again until we leave on Monday”. Superb PR for the service at the biggest aviation event in Europe, for sure, especially when trying to sell a fairly distasteful defence relationship with a country like Qatar to the public.

Where the RAF let themselves down a bit, from abroad it was superb to see so much classic Soviet-designed machinery from Eastern Europe again. Czechia provided their renowned Mi-171Sh and Mi-24V pair demo, with the former representing, astonishingly, the Hip's debut in the flying display at an Air Tattoo, while more history was made with the Hungarian Air Force's own Mi-24P Hind, as this was not only the first time since 1996 that the flying display has featured more than one Hind but the first time ever that an Air Tattoo has had two Hinds from two separate operators display! A remarkable record to set in 2022, especially since the Czech types will most likely not be seen at a UK airshow again with their retirement just round the corner. The Hungarian demo was especially good, with Lieutenant Colonels Attila Suszter and Sándor Makai throwing the helicopter up and down the crowdline with gusto, using the aircraft's immense presence to its fullest.

Hungary's flying example was accompanied by a Mi-24P in the static park as well, but easily the coolest “Beast from the East” at the show was the Romanian Air Force's An-30 Clank, an Open Skies airframe that has been barely modernised since delivery in 1976. The visibly proud Romanian crew were keen to point out the analogue nature of the aircraft, with all the controls being entirely mechanically linked and the photographic equipment straight out of the 70s - surprisingly, the service's C-130B Hercules' are still the oldest machines in their inventory.

There was one large Soviet-designed gap left empty, however. Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko, nicknamed the 'Grey Wolf', who flew the Ukrainian Air Force's Su-27P Flanker display at RIAT in 2017 and 18 before retiring from service, was killed in action on the 25th of February defending his country from the invading Russian forces, having come back from retirement to fight for Ukraine. The show's engineering team produced an appropriate and touching tribute to Oksanchenko in the static park, a set of three chocks behind a Ukrainian flag and memorial plaque. A service was held for the pilot before the weekend.

During the 2019 show it was observed that members of the Republic of Korea's national display team the Black Eagles were seen walking around the showground. This led many, naturally, to speculate that the team would be returning to the Air Tattoo in the near future. Of course, with a two year gap, no one had any idea where that was going to go but the rumours abounded, with the news finally breaking from Korea in May that the team was actually scheduled to come to Europe again and ten years on from their UK and indeed own overseas debut the Black Eagles returned to RIAT.

Boy, are they as good as they were in 2012, taking both the Best Flying Display and As the Crow Flies awards for their efforts. The crews were fantastic ambassadors for their country, visiting the showground and enclosures throughout the weekend, and the display was a crowd favourite as they drew the Taegeuk in the sky to peals of applause. All that can be said is they were fantastic and it was a joy to have them back.

But if the Black Eagles were the stars of the flying display, then there was one aircraft that was the absolute star of the whole show. One would have felt that the likes of the Luftwaffe A340 would have been hard to beat, as unlikely as it was expected to be to actually make it, but it was with genuine and open-mouthed shock that we saw the addition of a US Air Force E-4B 'Nightwatch', the USAF's 'Doomsday Plane', to the participation list two Thursdays before the show. This truly was the unthinkable. It's the type of aeroplane that absolutely no one would ever have considered to attend a UK airshow, and yet, attend it did, and not only did it attend but it was very much an honest part of the airshow - not tucked away far from the public, ready to go at a minute's notice like we had surmised, but parked up in the showground, metal barriers not insanely close, security measures not ludicrously over the top. It was just there, being an E-4 at RIAT, with the crew hanging around chatting to the public.

Not since the days of the Bears and Backfires of the early nineties has there been a more improbable participant at an Air Tattoo. What's more, this marked the first time a 'Nightwatch', a rare enough aircraft in its own country, has taken part in an airshow outside the US. Only RIAT could pull something like this off, and it is genuinely still hard to believe that we had one attend a UK airshow. Its arrival on the Friday evening, after the flying display had concluded, coming in with a gear-up flypast along the length of the runway before landing, will be remembered as one of the all time great Air Tattoo moments.

So lands the unhappy task of mentioning the negatives of this year's show, but they are few. There was a shocking lack of network coverage compared with previous years, with anyone not on the EE provider essentially incommunicado the whole time they were on the base. This might not come across as the end of the world, but coupled with a failure of the Wi-Fi system in the service stations it meant that any systems such as the one to enable parents to reunite with any lost children couldn't work, obviously presenting a potential worry for those with their kids at the show. Similarly, on a weekend falling under a European heatwave with temperatures in the high thirties, it was worrying to hear that there were water bowsers missing or running out in some areas of the showground, with reports of people fainting while queueing to fill their bottles as it was so scarce. That's obviously a big concern, and neither should have happened, but they're also both eminently fixable for next year.

And that's, sort of, it for the bad points of the show. Our 2019 review ended with a look forward to a new era of the show under Paul Atherton and Peter Reoch. They had big boots to fill and big expectations on their shoulders, with a lot to improve. We never knew it would be three years before they got their crack at it and maybe attitudes have softened over that time but they've absolutely smashed out of the gates on their first go. This was a RIAT for the ages. Every other aircraft there felt like a highlight, a star in its own right and one that would probably absolutely make most other shows around. By and large the whole thing was run very well, even in the months beforehand, with some hiccoughs forgivable after 2 years off. The worry now, you suppose, is that next year may be a bit of a comedown if expectations have been set too high - but there's masses of goodwill regained going into it and it seems from the outside that the show is thankfully still in safe hands.

However, perhaps it's appropriate to end the review with the same bitter feeling that DBH left the core enthusiast base of the show, the loyal 'friends' of RIAT, two Thursdays before the event weekend. After one of the most sensational weekly announcements in history, let alone this year, everyone's high was brought crashing down to earth with a simple email about FRIAT price changes.

It can be inappropriate to focus on the FRIAT experience in our reviews, though a good proportion of our readers will no doubt be passholders of that scheme. FRIAT is (should be) a means to an end to experience the show which gets reviewed. However, we review the enthusiast's approach to airshows and when a massive price hike on the cost of a FRIAT ticket is not only dropped out of nowhere, but dropped without any justification or explanation as to why the prices are what they are - well above inflation, with options limited from before and no mention of general admission prices to compare to - and even given with the tone that it is what we asked for - it can't be passed over. Contrary to any such feedback from before that had ever been made available, DBH have elected to remove all 2- and 4-day FRIAT packages and hike the prices up regardless of how long people want to attend for.

If you had a Mach 3 pass this year with a seat on the top row, you will still be paying considerably more for your ticket next year even if you elect for the cheapest package on offer, somewhere near the bottom of the grandstand (but not the bottom row? Seriously, the new pricing structure is a bit all over the place). New FRIATers who want the best seats in the house will have to fork out 375 pounds for it. In the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, the show's most devoted and loyal customers were given just fourteen days to ask the necessary questions and decide if they could return next year, without any attempt to explain if they had to pay the cost upfront or if instalments were available, or any information at all, and to boot were told it was what they wanted. It was a shambolic announcement that couldn't have been handled more poorly or more insultingly, with a milquetoast FAQs email a few days later that failed to address all but a few questions people had about the new scheme.

Last year it was questioned how long enthusiasts would continue to find value in the FRIAT system after small but many problems that left some dissatisfied. Adding to the above the construction at show-centre which significantly diminished photography options from the FRIAT grandstand this year (through no fault of the RAFCTE, mind) and the return of last show's issue of ATC sending many rotary-wing stars off anywhere but in front of the grandstand on departures day, it won't be surprising if many more ask themselves that question in the light of these price changes and reduced options going forward - assuming they're able to afford to attend full stop. How long will the show be in “recovery mode”? Can DBH commit to lowering these prices once they are out of “recovery mode”? So far they have, despite being asked, failed to address that.