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2013 UK Airshows : REVIEW

Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford

The Royal International Air Tattoo is by far the biggest airshow of the year in terms of aircraft participation and scale of the airfield showground. The show attracts military participation from across the globe not only for the seven and half hour flying display, but also an extensive static display that stretches for nearly two miles. 2013 saw the Air Tattoo face several challenges due to the volatile nature of defence budgets but still managed to produce the outstanding highlight of the aviation year.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography copyright of the Author or as credited. Video from RIAT.

The Royal International Air Tattoo held at RAF Fairford in the heart of the Cotswold is recognised around the globe as one of the very best airshows. The show is the showcase event for the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust not only raising funds, but also raising the profile for its valuable work aiding the RAF family with all manner of projects.

2013 saw the show celebrate Aviation Excellence as well as the operational theme 'Skyguardian '13.' It was however a challenging year for the Air Tattoo's organisers with the global economic downturn playing havoc with Defence budgets and the ability of the world's air arms to send aircraft to the show. Perhaps the biggest casualty of this were the various armed forces of the United States of America which due to the dramatic effect of sequestration have not supported a single airshow this year at home or overseas. Held at a United States Air Force airfield, the Air Tattoo has always received superb support from the US both in terms of aircraft and other help. Gone were the traditional greetings from the Commander of the USAFE from the programme or indeed any mention of the US Department of Defence! It did feel slightly odd not to see the Stars and Bars around RAF Fairford and we do hope the Americans can return very soon, but the Air Tattoo still managed to pull in enough interest from other nations, particularly in the form of the larger aircraft to mitigate the loss of the US aircraft.

Even without the US, there was still participation from across the Atlantic. As part of the Skyguardian theme the Brazilian Air Force sent one of their Embrear R-99B surveillance aircraft. It was displayed in the static park alongside a R-99A from the Hellenic Air Force providing an interesting contrast of the various bulges and antennae that adorn these modern eyes-in-the-skies. It did seem slightly odd there were no examples of the RAF's or Royal Navy's main ISTAR assets such as the Sentinel, Sentry or Sea King ASaC7 or indeed any examples of the iconic E-3! However, there were plenty of other interesting Skyguardian aircraft such as the Netherlands Coastguard and German Navy Dornier Do228s. The German Navy has a very credible line-up with a Sea King Mk41 and special centenary schemed examples of the Westland Lynx Mk.88 and the Lockheed P-3C-II Orion.

Even without the participation from the US, there was no shortage of heavy types on show at RIAT. The Luftwaffe sent one of its Airbus A310MRTT multi-role tanker transports to domiate the western end of the static park while full credit must go the Royal Air Force for managing to get the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III and Airbus Military A330MRTT Voyager KC3s into the static park. The Voyager was parked next a BAC VC-10 K3 from 101 Squadron which will go out of service in September which was just one of a number of aircraft probably making their final RIAT appearances.

Perhaps two of the outright stars of the static display were the pair of Dassault Mirage F1CR reconnaissance fighters from the French Air Force. These cold war warriors are due to retired by June 2014 so perhaps it will be the last time the charismatic F1 will ever been seen at Fairford. Alongside them in the static display were a pair of German Air Force Tornado IDS from JG51, one of which was wearing it's spectacular Arctic Tiger markings. These made a stunning entry to RIAT on the Wednesday spending 15 minutes carrying out circuits and touch and go's.

The latest pan-European fighter project, the Eurofighter Typhoon had a very impressive showing in the static displays. The Italian Air Force sent a pair of Eurofighter EF2000's for the first time and they were joined by examples from every RAF squadron (Nos 1, 3, 16, 11 and 29(R)) bar 41sqn in an impressive line-up. A further 3 Squadron Typhoon formed part of the BAE Systems Village alongside a rather anonymous looking Tornado GR4, Hunter T7, Hawk T2, Sopwith Snipe plus a Spitfire replica.

In total contrast to the modern fighters and transport aircraft on show was the Antonov An-2 from the Estonian Air Force. Though the Estonian Border Guard has been to RIAT before, this was the first time the very small Estonian Air Force had visited RIAT and we hope it is the first of several future visits!

There were also plenty of helicopters on show with the like of the French Army with a Puma and Gazelle plus a Royal Danish Air Force Merlin joining it's RAF counterpart plus a RAF SAR Sea King HAR3A plus the wonderful UH-1H Iroquois and OH-6 Loach from the Huey Display Team.

Breitling are always superb supporters of the Tattoo and this year they dominated the static park line-up with their wonderful Lockheed Super Constellation which supported their enclousure. It was a shame the aircraft was only on static display, but it was still great to see such a rare propliner back in the UK.

Another show star on static display was Mid Air's BAC Canberra PR9 XH134. The aircraft has been subject to a long restoration since the type was retired from RAF service in 2006. Based at Kemble, XH134 made the odd appearance on static display or taxying during recent Cotswold Airshows. The aircraft made its first post restoration flight on the Friday morning before the RIAT weekend which went well meaning the aircraft could make the short hop over to Fairford. It arrived in some style for an aircraft on its second flight with a speedy run and break. The Canberra was parked close to the Classic Air Force's Meteor NF11 and a special area celebrating the Empire Test Pilots School 70th Anniversary featuring the Agusta A109, BAE Systems Avro RJ100 and Dassault-Dornier Alpha Jet A operated from EPTS's base at Boscombe. Down.

The centre-piece of the Air Tattoo however is the seven and half hour flying display which gets underway at 10 each morning. As ever, Flying Display Geoff Brindle put together a display of contrasts and some very special flypasts which has become the hallmark of the Air Tattoo. On Saturday, it was opened by one of those special Air Tattoo moments which marked the 100th Anniversary of Military Aviation in the Netherlands. The Royal Netherlands Air Force have long been strong supporters of the Tattoo and this year had both their F-16AM Fighting Falcon and AH-64D Apache solo displays in the flying programme. Both performed their solo displays but between each display joined up for an awesome joint flypast which the Apache flying as fast as he could while the F-16 was going almost as slow as he could fly.

Further F-16 and rotary action came from the Netherlands near neighbours, Belgium. 'Grat' Thys had a busy weekend not only performing his great solo display in the F-16 at Fairford, but also at his home base at Florennes for Belgian National Day on the Sunday. The rotary element of Belgian participation came from the colourful Agusta A109BA performing some very eye-catching spirals and tight turns.

It was however the Royal Air Force that took centre stage throughout the afternoon. A Solo aerobatic displays came from the 72(R) Squadron Shorts Tucano T1 wearing the attractive desert camouflage markings which celebrate 70 years since that Squadron was in action in North Africa, Malta and Italy. Flt Lt Andrew Flyvie-Rae picked up the Steedman display sword for the best display by a UK participant. The RAF's frontline was represented by the Eurofighter Typhoon flown by Flt t Jamie Norris who deservedly picked up the Paul Bowen trophy by Best Display by a solo Fast Jet.

That was not the end of the award for the RAF flying displays either. Flt Lt Paul Farmer and his crew picked up the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for the Best Individual Flying Display for their stunning demonstration of the Boeing Chinook HC2.

Nearby Brize Norton also contributed to the flying display with a low flypast by one of 216 Squadron's Lockheed Tristars each morning. Like the VC10, the Tristar is rapidly approaching the end of its RAF career and replacement by the Airbus Voyager.

It was of course the Red Arrows in their 49th Display Season that were the real stars of the RAF participation for the crowds at RIAT performing two full displays under Fairford warm skies. However what were most memorable about the Red Arrows participation at RIAT was the joint flypasts they performed on both days of the Tattoo. Saturday saw them form up with British Airways first Airbus A380 for two flypasts in front of the crowds. It was a jaw-dropping sight, particularly when the A380 performed an overshoot on its return to Manston giving the crowd a very close up view of the giant airliner!

Sunday saw the Reds formate with the Airbus Military A400M Atlas to not only mark the future of the Royal Air Force, but also a future shape for the skies of the local area as the A400M will be based at RAF Brize Norton from the end of 2014. The A400M Atlas also gave an impressive solo display on both days of the show. The agility and performance of the airlifter is truly staggering – its climb-out after its slow pass had to be seen to be believed!

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were also on hand to mark the RAF's past with the full complement of Spitfire XVI, Hurricane IIc and Lancaster B1. RIAT was one of the venues to see the Dambusters commemoration flypast by the BBMF Lancaster and a 617 Squadron Tornado GR4 which was supported by an emotive commentary from Ben Dunnell as the pair ran in.

It was not just the BBMF offering warbirds in the flying display. The Royal Navy's only flying participation was the Hawker Sea Fury T20 flown superbly by Chris Gotke during Saturday's flying display. Saturday also saw Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B make an appearance. It really was heartening to see Sally-B join the RIAT flying display to get some superb exposure in these financially difficult times which will hopefully lead to more support from the public and industry for this very important warbird. Further Duxford based participation came from the PBY-5A Catalina 'Miss Pick Up' which appeared on both days. Classic Jets too featured in the flying display with the Classic Air Force's Gloster Meteor T7 put through its paces by Dan Griffiths and of course, the Avro Vulcan XH558.

It was however the Austrian based Flying Bulls that were the star turn of historic line-up. It was Flying Bulls first visit to RIAT, though they have been star participants at Flying Legends airshow for the past three years. Their Chance Vought F4U Corsair is a familiar participant at Legends and was flown at RIAT by Eric Goujon who certainly showed off the power of the naval fighter to great effect. The Corsair was joined by the North American B-25J Mitchell making its UK debut and which is kept “naked” in highly polished bare metal. Some may not appreciate the non-military scheme but in your author's eyes it looks simply beautiful. Breitling too had a presence in the flying display with the locally based Breitling Wingwalkers Team putting on a rare fourship display. Their display was also significant for the team with new wingwalking recruit Nikita Salmon making her display debut.

Another 'civilian' organisation making a contribution to the flying display was Eurocopter which had put together a role demonstration of their helicopters roles with the UK emergency services as part of the SkyGuardian theme. It features two EC135s and a EC145 configured as a Police Helicopter, Air Ambulance and as support for the London Fire Brigade. It is always interesting to see these unusual displays which is this case featured a rescue on a rural road. However considering the long display line, the demo was simply too centred at the display datum so people away from the FRIAT enclosure and corporate chalets simply would not seen what was going on!

As well as the Royal Netherlands Air Force Apache and Eurocopter combine, there were plenty of other helicopters on show. The Army Air Corps provided both their aerobatic Westland Lynx AH7 and WAH-64D Apache AH1 displays. The Finnish Army too contributed to the flying display for the first time with the NH Industries NH90TTH support helicopter which gave a dramatic display of its capabilities.

On top of the static An-2, the Estonian Air Force also contributed to the flying display with one of their pair of Aero Vodochody L-39C Albatross jet trainers. The aircraft is unusual as it sports the same colourful scheme as the Baltic Bees Jet Team from which the aircraft is leased. With so little display experience in the Estonian Air Force, it was not surprising that the display was quite basic and safe but with the experiences gained at RIAT and other European events, it is hoped that Estonia will become a regular participant at shows.

Estonia was not the only East European Air Force in the flying display. Hungary sent its SAAB JAS-39C HU ERS Gripen solo display which over the weekend was thwarted in its attempts at a dump-and-burn during its noisy display. Another Gripen display came from the aircraft's home country of Sweden.

But one of the absolute show stars was the Polish Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrum solo. The smoky and loud MiG-29 is for many what the Air Tattoo is all about. The type was a regular participant at Fairford (and Boscombe Down) throughout the 1990's ever since the then Czechoslovakian Air Force debuted at IAT 1991. The two Polish pilots gave a great account of their mount and for many was the display of the weekend.

Further solo fast jet action came from the French and Italian Air Forces The French Air Force Rafale always puts on an incredible display and this year was no exception showing off its superb speed and agility. The Italian Air Force Fight Test Centre Eurofighter EF2000 made its RIAT debut too. Their display was very different from the RAF solo display not only as the aircraft carried smokewinders, but also highlighted the Typhoon's capabilities with very different manoeuvres.

The Italian Air Force contribution to the flying display was particularly impressive. The RSV also sent their Alenia C-27J Spartan solo display which has managed even more aerobatics to its routine. Seeing a large cargo aircraft loop and roll like a trainer is really something else! They also sent one of their new Boeing KC-767TT aerial refuelling tankers which performed a role demonstration flypast with the Italian and RAF Typhoons on each day.

An important aspect of any Tattoo is the collection of National Display Teams in the flying display. This year there were contributions from the Royal Jordanian Falcons, the Swiss Air Force PC-7 Team, La Patrouille de France and Il Frecce Tricolori. Both the French and Italian teams naturally take the limelight (though the French did have to cut short their display due to technical issues) but it was great to see the PC-7 team pick up the King Hussein Memorial Sword for best overall flying demonstration. Their display is so well flown with precise formations and solo aerobatics in their colourful PC-7 Turbotrainers.

With such a loyal following it is no surprise to see so many views expressed on this year’s show. Yes the aircraft numbers were down, but in a world where Air Forces are having to justify everything they do to those controlling finances the Air Tattoo still managed to attract a very international line-up and there are very few European shows this year than can boast participation from South America! The flying display was certainly very good overall and had something for everyone.

In these changing and often uncertain times, it is clear the Air Tattoo will have to evolve over the next few years. The balance the Air Tattoo has to strike is to maintain the event's status as a premier aviation event with the ability to appeal to the widest possible audience. The Tattoo this year boasted three different Ground Exhibition Zones and the Service Stations. The latter are a particularly good idea being the perfect areas to take a break but some of them were a little like a maze at times! The Vintage Village was another high point of the show and was incredibly well presented offering entertainment and typically english refreshments. The Adrenalin Zone perhaps brought more mixed reviews, though this seemed to be the result of poor positioning and long hours of noise right next to one of the major campsites which was unfortunate. Arena displays of stunt driving and so on have always been a feature of IAT and RIAT and this was purely a development of that aspect.

Special mention must go the volunteers; they have always made the Tattoo the great event that it is, but this year they took a more prominent role inspired by the London 2012 “games-makers” as the 'Air Tattoo' crew. They certainly added a great deal to the very welcoming and friendly atmosphere at this year’s event.

Despite the difficulties, the Air Tattoo remained the UK's premier aviation event of the summer. 130,000 attended this years's event and the Saturday was a sell-out; the good weather clearly helped, but the Air Tattoo organisers produced one of the most exciting events of the summer full of noise and spectacle. 2013 will undoubtly show up some areas that can be improved upon and the show will evolve - Long may it continue!

Royal International Air Tattoo 2013 - Extended Highlights Gallery

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