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2011 UK Airshows : REVIEW

Royal International Air Tattoo 2011

This year saw the Royal international Air Tattoo celebrate its 40th Anniversary. Since 1971, the Air Tattoo has developed into not only one of the foremost airshows in the UK, but also one of the UK’s biggest outdoor events. Those 40 years have seen massive changes to the Air Tattoo and few that attended the Embassy Air Tattoo at North Weald could have foreseen what the event would have developed into in 2011!

RIAT 2011 welcomed participants from across the world to RAF Fairford to celebrate the show’s 40th Anniversary, the 50th Anniversary of the NATO Tigers Association and the show’s operational theme of Strike, Attack and Reconnaissance (STAR11).

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by author.

The last 40 years have seen massive changes to the world, the airshow industry and to the audiences that attend such events. When the Air Tattoo was conceived in 1971 during the height of the Cold War, it was a relatively small airshow at North Weald held for the benefit of the Royal Air Forces Association. However, even in those small beginnings the seeds were sown that were to produce the largest military airshow in the UK. That first show brought together some rarely seen international participants from Austria, the Netherlands and France amongst others.

Fast forward to 2011, and the Air Tattoo has grown into an event of global significance. The Cold War is well and truly over and some of those Cold War adversaries are now allies and friends attending the event with not only aircraft, but also with their military chiefs. The show is also growing into an event for trade with it’s much more informal atmosphere allowing for an easier networking environment.

>For the visitor, the show has changed beyond recognition. From what was a simple air display, the Air Tattoo has developed it’s attractions to bring in a much wider audience. Simply to survive most big public events need to provide attractions for everyone and the Air Tattoo’s current model is not too dissimilar to the large sporting events such as Formula 1 and Horse Racing adding large ground shows and concerts. This can prove slightly controversial to some aviation enthusiasts who have been attending the show for many years, or those who don’t want distractions from aviation, but in these days of every rising costs to event organisers attracting the widest possible audience is vital. The change can be tracked clearly in the pre-event publicity and the type of ground shows on offer. Gone are the wonderful posters featuring paintings by Wilf Hardy showing massed collections of aircraft from the show themes to be replaced with much more ‘Pop Art’ inspired illustrations that seem a little more generic. The arena displays and concerts are also very different. While stunt driving is still a traditional part of the ground shows, there are now large industry displays, a Battle of Britain Village as well as other varied ground attractions. The concert stages have also grown from a show closing performance by RAF bands to a day long programme featuring a number of pop acts with this year including X-factor star Alexandra Burke. To say this caused some controversy amongst aviation enthusiasts would be an understatement, but whether you like it or not it clear that RIAT feels it essential to expand its audience and publicity base.

However, what has not changed is the large collection of aircraft that form the central attraction of the Royal International Air Tattoo. 2011’s static display was understandably much smaller than usual. The days of long lines of Hercules and Stratotankers are part of history. However that didn’t stop RIAT bringing in some very interesting participants. The undoubted stars were the Ukrainian Air Force pair of Illyushin Il-76MD and Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker.’ They were surrounded by visitors all weekend with the crews offering the chance to sample to cockpits of both aircraft. The Sukhoi in particular was superbly presented in its blue and grey camouflage. The pair slightly blotted their copybook on departure from RAF Fairford however with the Illyushin blowing two tyres with a premature cycling of the undercarriage and the Sukhoi following immediately performing a low aileron roll immediately after take-off! Spectacular stuff but it would have surely captured the attention of the flying control committee on the Tower! We hope they will be back very soon!

Though RIAT was not an official ‘Tiger Meet’ there was a small, but quality line-up of Tiger Schemed aircraft at the Tattoo which included French Air Force Mirage 2000C and Mirage 2000N, German Air Force Tornado IDS and Tornado ECR and Belgian F-16AM Fighting Falcon.

It was also an important event for the Royal Air Force as the Tattoo marked the first public appearance and the naming ceremony for the service’s newest and largest ever aircraft, the Airbus A330MRTT Voyager KC1. The aircraft arrived from Boscombe Down on the Friday before the show for the ceremony which was attended by a number of dignitaries from the RAF, allies and industry. As with all airshows this year, RAF participation was smaller than usual but there were some highlights including a rare appearance by a Brize Norton based C-17A Globemaster III wearing 10th Anniversary markings on its tail, a 'tooled up' Typhoon T3 from 3(F) Squadron and the anniversary 41(R) Squadron Tornado GR4.

However, it is the flying display which is the main focus of any RIAT. Sadly though for the public at least the summer weather played its part in how the display progressed each day. Three hours were lost from Saturday’s display while Sunday fared slightly better just losing the opening act, Patrulla Aguila who were the only team unable to fly on both days. However, both Saturday and Sunday’s displays once they got underway were hugely enjoyable affairs with some very nice set pieces and exciting solo and team displays. However, many have questioned RIAT’s decision to run the same flying display each day considering the weather. While changes to the flying display were considered, it would have proved to be a diplomatic nightmare if decisions were made as to which display was more “interesting.” You also run the risk of upsetting elements of the crowd if something is dropped for another act.

Sunday saw the fullest display and opened with an act with fitted nicely into the Tiger 50th theme; the Austrian Air Force SAAB J105OE in a spectacular tiger scheme and an equally eye-catching display.

One of the interesting aspects of the RIAT flying display this year were four different F-16 displays. Air Tattoo regulars from the Belgian and Royal Netherland Air Forces were joined by examples from the Royal Danish Air Force and for the first time in the UK, the “Solo Turk” F-16C Fighting Falcon display from the Turkish Air Force which it’s rather smartly painted aircraft and winning the award for best overall flying demonstration. There was further representation from the Royal Netherlands Air Force with its AH-64D Apache display though sadly without flares with which it made such an impressive sight at Yeovilton a week earlier.

Also sporting some very distinctive special markings celebrating 30,000 flying hours was the Dassault Rafale C from the French Air Force complete with wingtip smoke-winders. The very polished routine by the Rafale led to the display not only winning the prize for best solo jet displays, but also the applause of the crowd.

The only United States Air Force participation in the flying displays was the A-10C Thunderbolt II flown by the West Coast A-10 Demo Team from the continental US. The display was a stunning mix of aerobatics and role demonstration showing off the agility and capability of the close air support aircraft to great effect though Saturday’s display had to cut short due to technical difficulties.

Also stunning the crowd were the displays from the Italian Air Force Flight Test Centre (RSV.) The RSV sent their Tornado IDS and Alenia C-27J Spartan solo displays. It was great to see a full aerobatic display by a Tornado back in the UK and the Italian display certainly made great use of the impressive noise and wing sweep of the Tornado but the real talking point of the weekend was the display by the C-27J Spartan. For the first time at a UK show, the display crew were permitted to give their full aerobatic display. Back in the mid 1990’s the forerunner of the C-27, the G222, did perform a barrel roll at RIAT but the C-27 built on this including derry turns and most impressive of all a full loop! Sadly these displays were only seen in public but on Sunday they really captured the attention of everyone at Fairford.

Another “test” aircraft in the flying display was BAE Systems’ Eurofighter Typhoon IPA5 flown by Mark Bowman. The Royal Air Force is unable to present its Typhoon display in 2011 due to the on-going operations in Libya but for RIAT BAE Systems was able to present its own display. For the show the aircraft was configured as a standard FGR4 variant of the Typhoon but carried a full payload of external fuel tanks, Paveway Laser Guided Bombs as well as AMRAAM and ASRAAM missiles. The weapon fit does not leave much space under the aircraft and increases the weight dramatically. Even so the Typhoon is an impressive performer and is still capable of the “velocity vector roll” which is the aircraft’s party-piece at air displays.

A further theme to RIAT was the 70th Anniversary of the Air Cadets. This was marked in the display by an impressive collection of aircraft representing many of the types available to Air Cadets through the 70 years of the organisation. Opening the flypast was a formation of De Havilland Tiger Moth, De Havilland Canada Chipmunk, Scottish Aviation Bulldog and the Grob Tutor. The subsequent waves of the flypast highlighted motorgliders with a Slingsby Venture and a Grob Vigilant and a balbo of Gliders. The Gliders segment was an impressive bit of flying featuring two dual tows of vintage gliders with two Slingbsy T21s, a Sedburgh and Swallow following a De Havilland Supermunk and a Piper Super Cub. Rounding off the flypast was a single Robin DR200 towing the current Grob Viking glider.

The Royal Air Force participated with a large compliment of displays including the Red Arrows, Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Grob Tutor, Shorts Tucano, BAE Systems Hawk, Boeing Chinook HC2 and the Tornado GR4 Role Demo. Sadly the Navy was not represented in the air due to the Swordfish being weathered in at Yeovilton but the Army Air Corps made a rare contribution with it’s stunning Apache AH1 solo display.

Elements of the flying display were given over to the show’s own 40th Anniversary. The Old Flying Machine Company sent its pair of Spitfire IX MH434 and P-51D Mustang Ferocious Frankie to mark the anniversary. MH434 appeared at the very first Air Tattoo in 1971 in hand of Ray Hanna. 25 years later Ray again flew the aircraft in 1996, this time leading the Red Arrows at Fairford. In 2011, Brian Smith took the controls alongside Alister Kay in the Mustang for of OFMC’s superb formation displays. A slightly strange inclusion in the RIAT 40th theme was a Embraer E195 from FlyBe. Airliners have also been part of Air Tattoo whether it has been DHL’s Boeing 757 or Oasis’ Boeing 747 displays to the British Airways charters feature 777s, 747s and Concorde.

It was good to see the Air Tattoo celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Hawker Hunter with a collection of six in the flying display. Four were provided by Team Viper making their Fairford debut with their elegant display. They were joined by Jonathon Whaley’s distinctive Hunter F58a Miss Demeanour and an equally colourful ‘Tiger’ Hunter T68 from Switzerland. It was a shame the Swiss Hunters involvement in the displays was so short as it was one of highlights of the display this year. Rounding off the classic jet involvement in the flying displays was the Avro Vulcan B2 XH558 whose future in looking slightly more secure now for the rest of the airshow season.

Over the years RIAT has hosted a number of the world’s great display teams and it was great see old friends to the Tattoo joined by new teams in 2011. Il Frecce Tricolori has been a firm favourite with their typical Latin flair and great use of smoke. They were joined by the likes of the Royal Jordanian Falcons, Patrulla Aguila and the Red Arrows. An old name in a new form was the Belgian Air Component Red Devils or Diables Rouges. The team previously attended the Tattoo flying the Fouga Magister but were subsequently disbanded. However in 2011, and to celebrate the 65th Anniversary of the Belgian Air Force the team have been reformed from the Hardship Red team on the SIAI Marchetti SF260. The newest team to the Tattoo were the Saudi Hawks which were on the final leg of a short European tour. The team fly a very different style of display to the European teams with some very wide formations and some interesting use of smoke the create some of the national symbol of Saudi Arabia.

The finale to the displays was a very different one for the Air Tattoo starring two very different civilian teams both sponsored by Breitling. The UK based Breitling Wingwalkers were presenting their full four-ship display for the first time in the UK and were joined by Jaques Bothelin’s Breitling Jet Team with their seven L-39C Albatros jets for a couple of circuits before each team performed it’s separate displays. It made for an impressive sight and was something very different to that usuallt seen at UK shows. It was a great shame that many missed it whether it be for fear of getting stuck in the car parks, fed up of being wet through or simply because of a lack of expectation from “civvies.” It was great finale to celebrate not only the 40th Anniversary of the Air Tattoo but also the involvement of one of the most famous and important airshow sponsors here in the UK and around the world.

2011 may not have been a classic Air Tattoo for many but it was enjoyable one with a great flying display which remains unequally in the UK. The static display was a slightly disappointing one compared to previous shows but with cash strapped air arms and more and more operations it was not a surprise.

It is somewhat concerning however that the crowd figures suggest numbers were down considerably this year. A few years ago the “capacity” crowds reached 167,000 yet 2011 was quoted at just 138,000 which means RIAT has lost a crowd figure equivalent to a small to medium sized airshow! With tough financial times for many it may not be surprising as everyone has to cut back but I hope it’s not a sign of withering interest in what is the biggest and one of the most exciting aviation held in the UK each year. It needs and deserves support.

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RIAT 2011

Wednesday Arrivals

Thursday Arrivals

Friday Arrivals

Extended Highlights