“Made in Heaven, tattooed on Earth”
During the third weekend of July, the gates of the RAF base in Fairford opened once again for the lucky visitors of this year’s Royal International Air Tattoo. 160.000 people were gathered to witness one of the best aviation feasts in Europe. Let the show begin…
A series of spectacular flypasts and jaw-dropping displays ensured the success of this year’s RIAT. In fact, it was considered by many, one of the best RIATs of the recent years. The airshow, which took place from July 14 till 16, attracted a record crowd of 160,000 people who met 246 aircraft from 32 air arms representing 26 nations. On the other hand, the typical English weather, with the low level clouds and the rain showers was again the only disadvantage of the show.
This year’s main theme was the 70th anniversary of USAF. Back in 1947, the aerial warfare service branch of the United States Army became a separate branch of the military. For this celebration, the organizers of RIAT, had prepared many surprises for the visitors of this year’s feast. The attendance of US military aircraft was catholic. After an absence of three years from the European airshows, mainly due to cutbacks, the US military aircraft were back again in Fairford. This time for good! Up in the air but also on the ground, the aircraft honored, with their own way, this big celebration.
At the very early stages, during winter, the famous aerobatic team, Thunderbirds, announced their participation at RIAT, which was also the only European visit of their schedule. Thunderbirds had visited RIAT in the past in 2007 and this one was their second visit.
The second surprise was the announcement of the extraordinary, in terms of capabilities, solo demo team of the F-22 Raptor. This unique fighter had made its first appearance in 2010 and was reintroduced last year along with the F-35 which was appearing over the English skies for the first time. Unfortunately the aircraft was not able to display on Saturday because of the low level clouds, but on Sunday it did perform its long waited display. The Raptor performed a powerful and superbly executed demonstration winning the “Paul Bowen” trophy for the best jet demonstration.
The aircraft, after its display, made a few flypasts with a P-51D warbird for the “USAF Heritage Flight Display” theme. The P-51 warbird flew across the Atlantic only for this reason. There were some rumours that the F-35 would also reappear at this year’s RIAT, but the DoD decided to send it to Paris Airshow instead.
Joining these two aerial assets to celebrate the USAF anniversary was also a special flypast of five of the main aircraft types currently operated by US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) from bases in the UK and Germany. These aircraft performed an aerial parade on all three days of the show at RIAT. These were:
A KC-135R Stratotanker from the 100th Air Refueling Wing/351st Air Refueling Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk. A C-130J-30 Hercules from the 86th Airlift Wing/37th Airlift Squadron stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Two F-15C Eagles and one F-15E Strike Eagle. These fighters were from the 48th Fighter Wing/493rd Fighter Squadron from RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk. Two F-16CM Fighting Falcons, flown by the 52nd Fighter Wing/480th Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.
But the highlight of all the aerial assets for this big celebration was the unexpected visit, on the last day of the show, of the rare bomber B-2A Spirit. The aircraft, taking part in an epic 23-hour transatlantic “Global Power” training flight from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, performed two flypasts over the show with an escort of two F-15Cs before returning back to its base.
On the ground the presence of the USAF was also huge. The visitors had the chance to see and admire up close a variety of bombers, fighters, tankers, helicopters such as B-1B, B-52H, MC-130J, C-17A, KC-135R, F-16CM, F-15C/E, CV-22B, HH-60G. But the main attraction was another rare example, the U-2S Dragon Lady, another legendary example of an old design which still exists in the modern theater of warfare.
Apart from the Thunderbirds, other flying display highlights included the newly founded French Air Force’s Couteau Delta team flying two Mirage 2000D fighter aircraft; the Midnight Hawks, Finland’s aerobatic display team who last performed at the Air Tattoo back in 2004.
On the static display others notable attractions were the E-7A, a Boeing 737 Airborne Early Warning aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force. The Royal Canadian Air Force Boeing CH-147F Chinook Helicopter which had been airlifted over in the back of a giant Boeing CC-177 Globemaster airlifter. The Greek Phantoms made their second consecutive appearance at the RIAT. This time, the other Squadron, 338 “Aris” of 117 Combat Wing, brought two examples (01508 and 01619). The 01508 was carrying two special painted external fuel tanks and it had a very nice livery on its vertical stabilizer.
But the most “exotic” visit was the reappearance of two Eastern-built Su-27 Flankers (a single seat and a two seat) of the Ukrainian Air Force escorted by an Il-76 Candid. This participation was announced in the beginning of the final week before the show. The single seat Sukhoi Su-27P1M amazed everyone with its unique capabilities and won the “As The Crow Flies” trophy for the best overall flying demonstration as judged by members of the Friends of the RIAT. These Ukrainian fighters had made their first appearance at RIAT back in 1996, while their last flying was held in 1999.
The greatest disappointment was the cancellation of the rare visit of an A-4N Skyhawk from a fleet operated by Discovery Air Defence, based at Wittmund. These A-4s are contracted to provide services ranging from threat simulation, target towing to flight test support. The aircraft were originally Israeli Air Force airframes before being purchased, stripped and modified by Discovery Air Services. This participation was cancelled literally at the very last minute, one day before the show. The last time an A-4 visited the Air Tattoo was 1977, when a small number of A-4Gs visited Greenham Common from 805 Squadron, Royal Australian Navy.
Next year’s RIAT is going to celebrate the centenary anniversary of RAF. So it is expected that next year’s show will break every record of attendance. For those who want to visit RIAT 2018, you should start planning your journey early. From our side, we will make sure we’ll be there. Cause after all, life is a RIAT!
See you there!