Royal International Air Tattoo
Friday 14th July - Sunday 16th July 2023
RIAT 2023 will be talked about more than most. Whilst it had all the hallmarks of a classic insofar as participation was concerned, some felt like it was just missing "one last cherry", and then there's the weather - some of the most extreme we've seen for some time at the Cotswolds event.
attempts to pull together all the talking points of one of the most anticipated shows in Europe. Photography from the UKAR staff team.
There's a certain amount of trepidation in reviewing an event as large as RIAT. It has been said before that it's the aviation enthusiast's Mecca. Notwithstanding Flying Legends' bizarre choice to organise its airshow on the same weekend, it's fair to say that RIAT is "the big one" in the UK and European calendar. It's the show everyone else is at, and it's daunting to draft a review of a show that almost everyone in the community will have their own thoughts and opinions on. There is one theme that is prevalent amongst the noise, though, and that's something that no one can quite put their finger on. There must be a German word for it, and that's that the show did not feel like it quite amounted to the sum of its great many parts.
The weather, obviously, played a huge part in this. Last year's scorcher is all but a distant memory. The Friday show day at RIAT was positively biblical in terms of unending rain, accompanied by a stiff breeze. This obviously put paid to some of the anticipated flying items, but it was strange to see throughout the day a really commendable "can do" spirit emerge. When everything you're wearing is wet and heavy and cold, days out can become exhausting, yet the Friday crowds weren't as fatigued as one would have expected. Even at the end of the day the crowdline looked relatively full, and the static area (in lieu of trying to photograph the displays) never felt quiet or unbusy. This spirit was matched in spades in the air, too. Incredibly, of the 17 or so flying displays pencilled for the Friday flying display that weren't already written off (such as the RSV C-27J or RAF BBMF), a decent chunk of them made it into the air in one form or other. It's a shame that the Armee de l'Air C-135FR was in attendance on Friday only. The French tanker seems cursed to bring inclement weather with it, particularly as its set of flypasts included a lovely topside pass, as well as some energetic wing-rocking. That said, sometimes perspective goes a long way; it would have been easy for the crew to have called it a day, and they must be commended in sticking it out.
RIAT has had bad weather days before. In fact it might be slightly more unlucky than many other single day or weekend shows in the UK. The difference with RIAT is that there are often other days to make up for it. Yet the Saturday forecast was similarly dreadful, or so it seemed, with strong wind that kept a few items on the ground. This was compounded by other problems that day, such as the loss of the mighty B-52 Stratofortress. The hulking great bomber regularly sits near the top of most attendees' wish lists, and finally this year, a pair managed to attend - one for static, and one to take part in the flying display. As it was, had crowds not just had a rubbish Friday to put things into perspective, one might have written Saturday off as a bit "meh" weather-wise; the show still faced its fair share of showers, but this time the strong winds blew them across the airfield, so they seldom stayed around for too long.
That left Sunday, and, somehow, the effects of the weather really showed themselves. By the time Sunday rolled around, most of us were exhausted. Luckily the wind had died down, and it was by far the most clement of the three public days, but still not a blinder. Sun was in and out of cloud, and there was even at one point the threat of thunderstorms in the area to contend with, one of which put paid to the much-anticipated Luftwaffe's A400M air-to-air refuelling demo with a pair of Tornados. Crowds on Sunday missed the opportunity to see the "buddy-buddy" element of the demo, as the weather delay restricted the trio to only one pass.
In the context of what seemed at the time like an endless heatwave in June, the weather at RIAT this year was as spiteful at the event than we've known for a while. Even in 2008, the oft-said irony is that the weather during the show days was quite genial. It must be exhausting to run, prepare, put hard work into a show, sell it to sponsors, sell it to the public, and at times work around the clock, all for the weather to refuse to play ball across much of the public show days.
But there were symbolic rays of sunshine through the gloom as well as physical ones. Considering the forecast it really is amazing to consider what flew over the weekend. Other than the RAF BBMF fighters, and the AMI C-27J, almost everything pencilled for the flying managed to get itself into the air one way or another, and a great many of the planned set-pieces worked out, and they deserve their own mentions. One of the most regrettable losses was the unexplained cancelation of the Martin Baker Meteor, due to fly with the Me262 replica - itself surely the true star participant of the flying display at this year's airshow.
RIAT has often (sometimes a little unfairly) been compared to European shows, and people have noted that RIAT occasionally lacks the uniqueness of a "home team" airshow. The Danes are happy to fire off F-16s in an airfield assault, the Dutch (used to) hold an impressive "airpower demo", the Bulgarians, the Austrians, the Spanish, the Swiss… a great many European airshows put something unique into the air that isn't seen anywhere else. The criticism goes that RIATs can fall into a stale run of display teams, solos or pairs displays that can be seen at almost any other big European airshow. It's slightly unfair because there is no "home team" at RAF Fairford per se that could do that sort of thing.
However, RIAT managed to pull more than one rabbit from the hat this year, which really made the event unique. The principle theme this year was "SkyTanker", which had plenty of scope, but is also sufficiently defined. We all know what that theme means, rather than corporate guff along the lines of "Future Space" or "STEM" or "Air Excellence". The C-135FR was just a glimpse of what the show had planned. One of the most hotly anticipated items was the Luftwaffe A400M and Tornado trio. It's incredibly rare to see Luftwaffe flying displays anywhere, and the UK has a huge affinity with the venerable swing-wing "Fin". To have the Tornados flying with the A400M, refuelling drogues out, and then to have the Tornados perform a very rare "buddy-buddy" series of passes using the Tornado's Cobham buddy refuelling pod, was excellent and unique. To have them all chucking in topsides, and for multiple passes of each (including a wing-swept fast pass from the Tornados) really harkened back to the "theatre of the air" element of RIATs of old.
There were other unique performances, too. Whilst it never seemed to quite get over the line, the RAF's A330 Voyager performed alternating "welcome to NATO" flypasts with a Swedish JAS-39C Gripen, and a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet on the different days. A shame that the trio couldn't manage to do it together, but the thought and the planning was there for all to see. RIAT started out as a gathering of NATO aviators, so it was such a simple yet effective thing to do, and something unlikely to be seen at other shows on the continent.
Likewise, the MC-130J and CV-22B Osprey, both from RAF Mildenhall, performed an AAR flypast with hoses dragging. When one thinks about it; it's so simple, and yet it's never been seen before at RIAT. These simple and effective elements of the flying display really lift RIAT from a "standard" show to something a little more unique, and standout amongst others on the continent. It's also exactly what "themes" should be. They're not supposed to be overbearing, nor are they supposed to be so vague as to be completely forgettable. When done properly, a show's theme should be peppered throughout the event, a golden thread, so that when one is in the car on the way home, a very clear imprint is left. And by that measure, SkyTanker was successfully done.
One of the main set pieces, though, was the RAF's and the Spanish Armada's willingness to put an F-35B Lightning and an EAV-8B Matador II into the same patch of sky. In a nod to the evolution of STOVL/VTOL operations the formation topside, as well as joint-hovering was exceptionally well received. And rightly so - imagine how many opportunities the "that'll do" RAF would have had to turn that idea down, and to reject it out of hand. And yet they didn't. For once, that wouldn't do, and airshow crowds (and, daresay, a few old RAF and Royal Navy hands) got to see almost a globally-unique formation - something so simple, and yet to our knowledge the US Marines hadn't thought to do it, and the Italians only did it a few weeks before (and less effectively). Where else in Europe, or even the world, could an enthusiast have got a topside photo of a Harrier and an F-35 in formation together? Stale my arse.
The only thing that felt a bit off in terms of participation was, to be fair, the Americans. Since returning from the pandemic, RIAT has felt like a thorn in the USAF's side, rather than an honour for them to be involved as it used to be. True, we've seen some sensational participation - the WC-130J was an outright star participant at this year's event, as was the flying B-52H, and last year the E-4B was almost dreamlike. And yet, somehow the USAF just don't quite have the energy towards the event as they used to. RIAT has suffered a social media problem this year with people routinely asking for one of the Air Combat Command demos - led in no small part by the fact that the Air Combat Command placed RIAT on its early schedule before self-cancelling. Is it really that difficult for the USAF to send their F-35 demo, to use an RAF Lakenheath jet? Likewise, their contribution to the static park was nothing above par (WC-130J notwithstanding). Was there really no KC-10 that could have appeared on static for possibly the type's last time? Boeing's KC-46 dropped off the list close to the show and, likewise, their only real contribution to "SkyTanker" was an RAF Mildenhall-based KC-135 on static, and the one in the air which was advertised as a "flypast with USAF assets", which must have been the B-52, had a few minutes' gap between the two. The USAF seems not to be firing on all cylinders post-pandemic. Everything from them feels like effort, compared to European elements.
Is this selfish? After all, we're not in the USA, and our taxes don't go to the USAF's operation. Well, yes and no. "Yes", because we've had some excellent participation in the last two years, but it feels like that's in spite of the USAF present attitude, rather than because of it. Aircrews shouldn’t have to game the system to attend, and a great many want to attend. "No" because we're on a USAF air base, which they operate in our country. And it's not the only one: many Suffolk (and Welsh, and Lakes) residents are graceful enough to put up with the USAF's full time operations in the UK - is that not what airshows are about? To show the public what they put up with? To show off to potential enemies, and to comfort allies? How many times have we seen the US perform “global power” demonstrations and massive exercises in Europe to flex muscles in front of potential adversaries? Is the largest airshow in Europe not an extension of that? On that logic, the USAF have more cause than all but the RAF to support the show fully. If the USAF wants to swing its proverbial around, acting like it's the most powerful and well-funded military on the planet, then that street goes two-ways. If the Air Combat Command demo teams do not appear at RIAT because of the (rumoured) financial element, then it's not really in line with their public presence they like to talk up. None of this is a criticism of RIAT - all they can do is make the application, as we're sure they do (given that the ACC self-confirmed RIAT), but like a reunion missing that one old friend, RIAT really isn't the same without a USAF frontline demo. Whatever the issues are, one hopes that they will be overcome in the near future.
Insofar as what did attend, the showground itself was also really well-thought and unique in places. A sub-theme of this year's airshow was the Aeronautica Militare's 100th anniversary - and the static park was full to the brim with gems from the Italian air arm. The usual-fare of C-27J, EF2000, PA-200/Tornados were accompanied by rarer items; last year we convinced ourselves that we had seen our last AMX, yet a pair turned up this year. Even better than that, an "operational" twin-seat, and a specially-marked single seat. RIAT also saw the show-debuts of a P-72A and a wonderfully lumpy and bumpy G550AEW. These were accompanied by incredibly-rare U-208s, alongside a KC-130H, a KC-767A, and HH-101A, as well as a smattering of classics in amongst them. It's just such a shame that the recently re-flown G.91 was unable to gain the right permits to fly to the UK.
It wasn't just the AMI who attended the show this year. The Italian Army attended with a Do228 and AW169M in the static park, the latter a UK debut, and a ridiculously rare flying display from its A129D "Mangusta". The very rarely-seen European gunship is due for replacement in the coming years, and it was excellent to see the charismatic little machine flitting itself around Fairford's expansive showground (probably too extensive, in honestly, given that the majority of the display seemed to take place in front of FRIAT).
Last of the big three air arms in Italy, the Marina Militare, attended the show with two Harriers (the second proving to be a lovely surprise on arrivals day). The very rare twin seat TAV-8B was accompanied the "Wolves" squadron single seat which sported a special tail, and both were placed at the photogenic western end loop, along with other enthusiast favourites such as the Hellenic F-4 Phantom, and Polish Su-22 "Fitter".
The western loop itself was an odd one this year - it just never felt very busy, which was a huge shame, given the quality of aircraft on offer down there. One can understand why some crews feel a bit aggrieved at being down there, when, for example, the Finnish PC-12, Polish C295 looked like they had hardly any visitors. Bizarrely, a firm enthusiast favourite, an operational Belgian Air Component SF260, as well as a Royal Navy FOST Dauphin (its first time at an airshow for a number of years) were sort of plonked at the far Western end of the showground almost as an afterthought. Many people will have attended the entire weekend's show and not realised that those items had attended at all. Likewise, one of the most well-thought static pieces was the new MMF A330 MRTT with Luftwaffe EF2000s (one in a scheme which, in a travesty to my eyes, won the FRIAT vote for the best colour scheme ahead of the gorgeous Swedish Sk.60/Saab 105 in its heritage scheme) and Belgian F-16 set up in a typical AAR formation pose. Another simple, yet effective idea for the SkyTanker theme.
Loathe as one is to say it, something needs to be added to the Western area - perhaps some public stands or stalls, or even the odd food truck or fairground ride, which needs to be placed on the grass near the built-up area. This would avoid compromising the photogenic backgrounds, but also draw more people up there beyond their trek to and from the green showground entrance. As things stand, the western loop feels like unused real estate, and much more could be done with it.
Security is something else that needs to be discussed - the new policy of "all bags searched" needs work. In short, a policy like that needs bodies. It needs people. The "hand luggage", "hold luggage", "no luggage" signs were an interesting idea, but quickly became a waste of time. There were numerous reports of extensive queues during the weekend, all of which were avoidable. The whys and wherefores of the policy are not strictly relevant. If risk is judged to a certain level, then that's fine - but policy must accommodate that. The increased security checks this year were a byproduct of trying to absorb a policy change with not enough change on the ground, and it didn't work at times. And then on Sunday, it seemed as though it was reduced to a one-in-three policy, making the entire exercise pointless anyway. If this policy is to continue next year, then quite simply the entrance gates have to be increased in size, and more people have to be ready to search bags. All the social media posts and dedicated lanes in the world won't change that.
So, how on earth can one conclude a fair and honest review of a show that everyone has been to? Well, it's almost impossible to do. RIAT 2023 will be one that everyone has their own opinions over. Some will have had no issues with security, but nightmares on shuttle buses. Some would have only attended Friday and have very little to show for sticking it out in the rain. Some will have seen a Su-22, AMXs, Harriers, and an F-4 on the ground, Tornados, an EAV-8B, a B-52, and a beautifully-flown Sk.60 in the air, and nothing else will have mattered.
The start of this review said that RIAT 2023 didn't quite amount to the sum of its parts. That's not strictly fair - RIAT 2023 was a classic, classic airshow, and a bloody good RIAT, though perhaps not a vintage one. They got so much right. Their pre-show hype and communications was excellent, the participation is more than we would have dared dream for seven years ago, and the static and flying had some truly unique elements that will leave fond memories for years to come. Yet the weather, the security, and some odd static elements left the show with a "nearly-but-not-quite" vibe.
Here's the thing about RIAT that a fellow staffer so aptly elucidated - RIAT usually comes to you. But this year, it felt like hard work. But here's the other thing about RIAT; for all the reasons discussed here and more, it's hands down routinely and consistently the airshow in Europe to attend. Nothing else comes close. In a crowded field, most of us would pick RIAT any day of the week, and twice on a Sunday. And when we've long-forgotten the adverse weather and other niggles, I suspect that we'll look back on what was another really solid airshow, and in my mind, the organisers, volunteers, and all others involved can't ask for more than that.