The Royal International Air Tattoo 2017
RAF Fairford, UK
July 2017 saw The Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) take place at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire over the weekend of 14 – 16th. The world renowned airshow opened its gates as it does annually to thousands of people from across the globe to witness the biggest military show in the world. For 2017, the central theme celebrated over the weekend was the 70th anniversary of the United States Air Force (USAF), a theme that was well represented both in the air and on the ground. AIA attended RAF Fairford for all arrivals and build up, the show days and as aircraft departed for home:
With each day of the show sold out and the local community benefitting from upwards of 160,000 visitors, RIAT 2017 certainly shaped up to be one of the biggest and best of recent years welcoming a number of thrilling flying demonstrations by some of the world's leading pilots. In total, 246 aircraft took part from 32 air arms representing 26 nations. However, the build up to RIAT begins months before when participants are announced weekly from roughly February through to the week leading up to the show. Kicking off the announcements a lot earlier than usual, and also getting the ball rolling towards the USAF’s 70th anniversary theme, was the news that the US Air Force Thunderbirds would be making a rare trip across the Atlantic to display on all three days.
RIAT’s tribute to the USAF 70th
It was fairly clear from an early stage that the United States Air Force were very much committed to honouring the show’s 70th Anniversary theme. With the Thunderbirds already confirmed, the months to follow would see a number of aircraft from the various different branches of the USAF confirm their attendance. Not only did this celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the USAF, but it also bolstered long standing ties between the Air Tattoo and the US Air Force stretching back more than 40 years. Not to mention that RAF Fairford is a US Air Force base that annually hosts this great event.
With the Thunderbirds arriving on July 7th, a full week before the show to allow a recovery period after the transit from the states; they took the opportunity to utilise the extra time with flypasts staged at Mildenhall and Lakenheath in Suffolk to show their presence and solidarity to US Air Force Europe deployed personnel. During these pleasure flights, the Thunderbirds conducted sightseeing and photographic flights which included Scotland’s famous Loch Ness and Wiltshire’s Stonehenge. The team had one further commitment outside of the Air Tattoo that coincided with the Friday show, this being participation in and celebration of Bastille Day in France. The Thunderbirds departed early from Fairford headed to France which saw them flying over Paris among other aircraft before heading back to RAF Fairford. Upon their return saw one of the unique and stand out moments of the Friday show, the chance to form up with the Royal Air Force Red Arrows for a joint flypast above the Fairford showground. This was a fantastic and rare photographic opportunity for the crowds, not to mention a huge privilege for the pilots who flew together as a large formation of aircraft celebrating the USAF 70th Anniversary and a show of solidarity between two very close allies.
The Thunderbirds went on to display on both the Saturday and Sunday of the show, with the odd technical issue thrown in to test their resolve. The display itself was comprised of multiple tight formations partnered with basic solo aerobatics and synchro opposition passes. The display routine had to be adapted to suit UK military regulations which were resolved during rehearsals in a professional manner as you’d expect, but the routine certainly doesn’t mirror that of a display you’d witness on their home soil. That said, the routine was much improved since their last visit to the UK, showcasing the capabilities of the F-16 whilst impressing the on looking crowds. It would also be prudent to mention the support team the Thunderbirds have with them, including the commentary team who are incredibly enthusiastic, excited, proud and patriotic of their Air Force and country alike.
In addition to the Thunderbirds, Air Combat Command (ACC) also contributed the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor display to RIAT, surprisingly for the second year running. The F-22A Raptor is a single seat fifth-generation tactical fighter aircraft with stealth technology developed solely for the United States Air Force. It has seen operational deployments against Islamic State and the Taliban multiple times in the Middle East proving its strike capabilities against modern day threats. Returning to RAF Fairford to display the jet was Maj. Dan 'Rock' Dickinson who showcased the immense capability of the Raptor with buckets of raw power twinned with impressive agility being able to turn on knife edge. For 2017, Maj. Dickinson scooped the prestigious Paul Bowen Trophy for the best jet demonstration, an honour the display quite rightly merits. Air Tattoo judges said the Raptor's performance was a "consistently accurate, powerful and superbly executed solo jet demonstration’’.
With the USAF 70th Anniversary the main theme of the show, the United States Air Force Europe (USAFE) were very keen to make their own contribution marking the occasion with assets based here in Europe. As a result, a flypast was performed on each of the three show days featuring a single Lockheed C-130J Hercules from 37th Airlift Squadron based at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, a Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from the 100th Air Refuelling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, a single McDonnel Douglas F-15C Eagle and two McDonnel Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle’s operated by the 48th Fighter Wing from RAF Lakenheath and finally two Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon’s from the 480th Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. The flypast presented five diverse aircraft types currently operated by the USAFE highlighting that the US Air Force is able to strike anywhere, any place, anytime. The final USAFE asset to be seen in the air display was that of the Bell Boeing CV-22B Osprey from the 352nd Special Operations Wing (SOW) at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. This unique tilt rotor aircraft has the ability to transition from forward to vertical flight and back again making it a very useful tool for the Special Operations environment, a capability performed to the on looking crowds during the Air Tattoo.
A surprise but very welcome appearance from the United States Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) occurred on the Sunday as a Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirit Stealth Bomber undertook a couple of flypasts overhead the showground. Flying in direct from the Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri; the B-2A ’93-1087, Spirit of Pennsylvania’ hailing from the 393rd Bomb Squadron was flanked by a pair of F-15C’s from the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath making the sight that little bit more special. The journey to the Air Tattoo was planned as a transatlantic 'Global Power' training exercise which saw the aircraft fly direct from the USA and back again without touching down. Unfortunately the flypast was only possible on the Sunday of the show due to that being the only possibility of it making an appearance, but it certainly completed a very strong aerial tribute to the US Air Force at 70 years old.
Completing the fantastic USAF 70 celebrations was an array of American aircraft in the static park present in numbers which hadn’t been seen at the Air Tattoo for quite a few years. Having a number of USAFE aircraft in the flying display, attending from very short distances meant that the same squadrons also provided aircraft for static; with a KC-135R, CV-22B and MC-130J Commando II from RAF Mildenhall, a pair of F-15Cs, a single F-15E and an HH-60G Pave Hawk from RAF Lakenheath, a pair of F-16CJs from Spangdahlem Air Base and a C-21A Learjet from the 76th Airlift Squadron at Ramstein Air Base. With the Thunderbirds attending, this meant that the heavy airlift element of the USAF was represented in the static park with a C-17A Globemaster bringing support for the demonstration team. Arguably however the stars of the USAF static display were of course the heavy bombers, returning to the show after a good few years of absence. Both a Rockwell B-1B Lancer and Boeing B-52H Stratofortress appeared in the static park from the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Base and the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Base respectively. If that wasn’t enough, a very rare appearance in the static occurred from a Lockheed U-2S “Dragon Lady”, a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing from Beale Air Force Base. RAF Fairford is sporadically used by the US Air Force for U-2 rotations to/from their area of operations in the Middle East, so to have one on the ground at Fairford and open to the public during the show was a real pleasure to see.
Surprise Soviet Flavour
Without a question of doubt, the undisputed star of RIAT 2017 was the incredibly welcome return of a Ukrainian Su-27 Flanker display, the ‘Beast from the East’. Announced only a week before the first aircraft arrived at Fairford, an already stellar line up was given the final touch when Douglas Bader House confirmed that the Ukrainians would be sending not just one, but two Flankers to RIAT, one each for the flying and static displays. Numerous rumours had been circulating, even the Ukrainian Air Force released a statement self-confirming their attendance, but true to fashion the organisers are not obliged to confirm an aircraft until all the paperwork is in place.
The attendance of the Ukrainians marked the first time the UK had seen the display since 1999 when it last crossed these shores, although a static example did make an appearance in 2011. Out of the two present, a single seater designated a Sukhoi Su-27P was the example provided for the flying display and a twin seater, designated a Sukhoi Su-27UB could be seen in the static park. Also in attendance and supporting the Flankers was an Ilyushin Il-76MD Candid strategic airlifter, this could also been seen in the static park throughout the weekend.
Travelling across from the 831st Guards Tactical Aviation Brigade based at Myrhorod in central Ukraine, the display itself technically wasn’t comparable to the likes of other fast jet displays at this year’s Air Tattoo; however Colonel Oleksander Oksanchenko put the Flanker through a graceful, yet brutish routine showcasing the sheer size and power of the aircraft. His routine won him the ‘As The Crow Flies’ trophy for the best overall flying demonstration, an award provided by members of FRIAT who vote for their favourite display over the course of the show.
Something we have become accustomed to at RIAT over recent years is punchy and flamboyant displays from our neighbours in France, a trend that 2017 certainly saw continue. This was no more apparent than with Capitaine Jean-Guillaume 'Marty' Martinez’s display of the French Air Force Dassault Rafale C attending from Escadron de Transformation Rafale 3/4 ‘Aquitaine’, Base Aérienne Saint-Dizier. Most of his routine was performed under full afterburner, keeping it very tight within the airfield boundary which led to lots of vapour streaming from the aircrafts surfaces. With 2017 being Marty’s last year as the Rafale display pilot, he certainly ended his UK appearance with a scintillating performance, one that won him the ‘King Hussein Memorial Sword’ for the best overall demonstration of the show. We wish Marty all the best for the future.
With RIAT securing the two ship RAMEX Delta tactical display for the previous two years, it came as a great shame that they disbanded after the 2016 season as the French Air Force drew down operations on the Mirage 2000N. Early in 2017, it came as a welcome surprise that a new tactical display team would form continuing the great pairs display tradition on the Dassault Mirage 2000D, they would be known as Couteau Delta and were confirmed to attend RIAT for the first time. Standing up from Escadron de Chasse 2/3 ‘Champagne’ at Base Aérienne 133 Nancy-Ochey in France, their routine was adopted from the former RAMEX Delta pilots due to the short timeframe available to work up the display. The routine as expected showcased the Mirage 2000D’s speed, agility and power with exceptionally close formation work that we have come to see from the French. For 2018, Couteau Delta will be creating and working up their very own routine so it would be great to see them return to RAF Fairford and show their progression.
The best of the rest
RIAT is renowned for being the world’s greatest airshow, so it’s no surprise that there were a huge range of displays both in the air on the ground that to many different people, stood out as stars of the show. A great little gem amongst the big performers and a display that in such a stellar year perhaps went under the radar, did actually receive the reward it deserved. Contributed from the 152nd Fixed-Wing Squadron at Cerkjle ob Krki Air Base in Slovenia was the Slovenian Air Force PC-9M Swift multi-role turboprop light attack aircraft. Collecting the ‘Sir Douglas Bader’ trophy for best individual flying display, the award certainly reflected the routine which utilised the aircraft’s energy exceptionally well, demonstrating the performance and capabilities achievable from thePC-9M.
Having last appeared way back in 2004, the Finnish Air Force made a welcome return to the Air Tattoo with their Midnight Hawk display team. With all aircraft sporting a big Finnish flag on the tail fin representing 100 years of independence, the team were unfortunately affected by poor weather on the Saturday having to curtail their display after their first pass. Thankfully, the weather was somewhat kinder during Sunday and they were able to get a full display under their belts. Led by Captain Marc Fuss, the team is made up of instructors from Hävittäjälentolaivue 41, the fighter training school based at Kauhava Air Base for the Finnish Air Force. Having them back at the Air Tattoo was a great spectacle and it would be great to see them return once more, hopefully sooner than a 13 year period.
A very poignant moment on each show day was the appearance of The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, who during 2017 celebrated their 60th year of existence. With this celebration came a very special and unique display from the BBMF, dubbed as ‘Thompson’ formation. This consisted of a 5 ship formation; the iconic Avro Lancaster, three Supermarine Spitfires and a sole Hawker Hurricane who undertook a number of flypasts as a formation, then breaking into well-choreographed smaller display sections. With the sound of 8 Rolls Royce Merlin engines reverberating around the skies of the Cotswolds, it was a real stop and look up moment and a fine tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Of course the largest UK airshow wouldn’t be an airshow without the world famous and crowd favourites, the Royal Air Force Red Arrows display team. Taking part in all three show days, the team were able to perform a combination of flat and rolling displays, also sharing some precious time with their international colleagues from other attending display teams. None more so however than the USAF Thunderbirds, who as mentioned shared a flypast with the Reds on the Friday, but pilots from both teams were taken up during each other’s display to gain a wealth of experience on how each other go about their business, something evident from radio chatter and show commentary as a few laughs were had at each other’s expense. RIAT 2017 was an emotional time for a couple of the Red Arrow team members, with Red 1 taking charge of the team for his last season, and the voice of the Red Arrows in Red 10 hanging up the microphone for the last time. Whatever the future may hold for both, AIA wishes you all the best.
The Air Tattoo is as much about aircraft on the ground as it is with those in the air, with this year’s static park being packed full of quality whilst also boasting the biggest number of aircraft in recent times. Of those on show, the Royal Air Force had one aircraft making its final public appearance, the Panavia Tornado GR.4 ‘ZG450’, better known as the “Granby Special”. This Tornado was painted in desert pink colours during 2016 to mark 25 years of Tornado operations and the 25th anniversary of the first Gulf War. Having travelled the longest distance the Australian Air Force returned for the second year in a row, this time with a Boeing 737 AEW&C Wedgetail. Also representing the Commonwealth was Canada who made a tremendous effort to bring across a Boeing CC-177 Globemaster III, but packed inside also a stunning CH-147F Chinook. The Globemaster arrived a week prior to RIAT into RAF Brize Norton where the Chinook was offloaded, so both were then able to fly into the show.
The Pakistani Air Force also returned to RIAT for the second year on the bounce, again with a Lockheed C-130E Hercules from 21 Squadron at Faisal Air Base in Karachi. The aircraft wore a special scheme different to that which it wore back in 2016, but a nice touch was the inclusion of artwork in the scheme showing 2016’s aircraft. Another nation to bring a C-130 was the surprise attendance of Israel with their new C-130J Super Hercules, nicknamed the Shimshon. This aircraft was not formerly announced by the Air Tattoo, springing a surprise when it arrived in the days before. A nation that has become somewhat of a regular in recent years is Japan with the Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF), incredible to think that’s the case, but once again they returned to Fairford with one of their Boeing KC-767J tankers along with the highly impressive JASDF Taiko Drummers. Lastly worthy of a mention was the attendance of the Hellenic Air Force with a pair of F-4E AUP Phantom II’s from 338 Mira based at Andravida Air Base in Greece. With Greece being one of very few operators left flying the F-4E, it is always a pleasure to see the type in attendance at RIAT.
It’s fair to say that those at Douglas Bader House certainly excelled themselves for the 2017 Air Tattoo, proving that the modern day show still has the ability to produce a large scale spectacle reminiscent of the ‘old days’. RIAT still delivers a number of debuts, new and returning nations; plenty of fast jet action combined with display teams, trainers and helicopters alike which of course draws the crowds in year upon year. 2017 saw crowds upwards of 160,000 pass through the gates either selling out or being close to sold out on each and every day. Ordinarily, a stellar show such as this would be classed as a one off, but expectations for 2018 are set even higher, as the show becomes three full days of flying to celebrate 100 years of the Royal Air Force. RIAT has been chosen as the official celebration for the RAF’s milestone year with Royal attendance expected, it certainly promises to be the airshow of a generation. The show will be taking place from 13-15th July; we certainly cannot wait to see what’s in store…
Credits: Article and photography by Darren Willmin