Royal International Air Tattoo 2018 – Celebrating RAF’s Centenary

Royal International Air Tattoo 2018 – Celebrating RAF’s Centenary

Report and images by Gabriele Rivera

December 27, 2018

As already addressed in the previous reports published on APD, attending RIAT is almost a must for anyone who loves aircraft and the intriguing world of the airshows. After having been there for several years in a row, one could wonder about taking a pause and choosing to visit other events, but this was not the year to take such a decision; celebrating Royal Air Force’s first 100 years is not something that one can allow to miss!

RAF100 celebrations have started on March 31st, with a concert held at the Royal Albert Hall; several other events have been scheduled all over UK, the pinnacle surely being the flypast performed by 100 aircraft which, after forming up in a perfectly timed choreography, have flown over the Mall and over Buckingham Palace on July 1st. The same formation was scheduled to be the highlight of the first day of the RIAT, Friday, July 13th, but the weather, just on Friday, decided not to play ball, and so this impressive display had to be cancelled. Quite ironically, the following days have been very sunny, a weather condition usually uncommon in Fairford during RIAT.

But for those who love flypasts RIAT had anyway other interesting formations to offer; a nine Typhoons (or Tiffies, as the Brits love to call them) diamond, the Trenchard formation and the Dambusters one. The Trenchard one was formed by a Dakota, a Lancaster, a Spitfire and a Hurricane; specially devised by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) for the RAF100 celebrations, the formation (which at RIAT was complemented by other three Spits) maneuvers for over twenty minutes, whose first part, after that the fighters have left the scene to hold off, is a sort of a pas de deux performed by these two old ladies of the sky, to be concluded by a surprising split in front of the crowd. The formation is named after Hugh Trenchard, Air Marshal and Chief of Air Staff under Churchill, recognized as one of the early advocates of strategic bombing and of the RAF’s strength and prominent role.

The Dambusters flypast has been performed by the Lancaster, a Tornado and an F-35B, and it was intended to celebrate the 617 Squadron reformation, destined to become the first operational Lightning II squadron, and its link with the one formed during World War II whose unique mission was to destroy German dams using a specially-designed bouncing bomb, carried under modified Lancasters. The F-35B was one of the four British jets landed at Marham just a month before, after an 8-hours flight from MCAS Beaufort (South Carolina); after the Lancaster left the formation, the Tornado (another aircraft which has served in the Squadron) and the F-35B flew side by side over the runway and then split, after which the Lightning showed everyone her impressive hovering capabilities.

A historic transatlantic flight had occurred just a few days before the opening of the airshow; the General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian, a Medium-altitude Long-endurance (MALE) Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS), left Grand Forks (North Dakota) and flew over the Atlantic, landing at Fairford the following day with enough fuel to stay aloft circa 16 hours out of her 40+ hours endurance. The MQ-9B, which in the RAF will be dubbed Protector, will enter service in the RAF starting from 2024.

But records of ‘first something’ don’t finish here; a Japanese transport, the Kawasaki C-2, has visited UK for the first time, while a Brazilian one, the Embraer KC-390, has logged her first presence in Fairford (two years ago she went only at Farnborough).

As usual some airplanes haven’t made it: very sadly, we have to remember the tragedy of the Romanian MiG-21, whose crash killed the display pilot a few days before RIAT, leaving everyone in dismay. Luckily the other cancellations were due to operational or other kind of reasons, like the B-52 who should have been sitting in the static together with the B-1, or the Polish Su-22 Fitters. A last-minute one was that involving the French Atlantique ATL-2; on Thursday she rehearsed above the airfield, and a few hours later news came that Marine Nationale had to task her to an active mission. Speaking of rehearsals a funny fact (which could have turned in a big problem) happened when a French pilot, maneuvering on the tarmac, pushed a bit too much on his Mirage 2000 throttle, letting a bunch of unfortunate spotters experience what thrust is.

The static exhibition was really interesting; the Royal Air Force has brought practically every model of aircraft in its inventory, especially some heavies which are uncommon to spot, like the RC-135W or the Sentinel. Also the “once upon a time” selection offered some gems, like an Avro Anson, a Westland Whirlwind (a license built Sikorsky S-55) and the one and only flyable Bristol Sycamore, a recent acquisition of the renowned Flying Bulls’ collection. Another particular aircraft on display was the Gloster Meteor owned by Martin Baker company, used as testbed for the ejection seats; for that reasons she flies without the backseat’s canopy.

U.S. air forces have brought a huge selection of aircraft, all of them destined to the static exhibition (except for the F-35A who has performed in the Heritage Flight and a CV-22B); the squadrons based in UK were present with the usual F-15C and F-15E from Lakenheath, while the MC-130J and the Ospreys made a short hop from Mildenhall, as the KC-135R. All the other airplanes came from over the Atlantic, and among them, one has been a subject of particular interest: a Boeing E-6B Mercury, one of the “Doomsday’s planes”, nickname related to her peculiar missions, which are to convey instructions from the National Command Authority to the fleet of SSBN and to control remotely the Minuteman ICBMs using the Airborne Launch Control System.

Another considerable contributor both to the static and dynamic exhibitions has been Italy; besides the Frecce Tricolori, the Reparto Sperimentale Volo has brought three different assets (Typhoon, T-346 Master and C-27J Spartan), all of them well appreciated for their performance. Other three airplanes, a Typhoon, a Tornado and a Spartan, were on display in the static area, together with two helicopters, a HH-139A and a HH-101A, both of them operating with 15th Stormo; the HH-101A Caesar (whose name exposes a significative clue about the CSAR role for which she has been optimized), with her aggressive black camo has surely been one of the highlights in the rotary wing sector, together with the nearby Finnish NH-90 carrying a pair of additional tanks not often seen on this model.

43 air arms from 30 different nations brought 302 aircraft to Fairford, of which 121 took to the sky for the dynamic display; during three days 185,000 people enjoyed the exhibitions of five aerobatic teams (Red Arrows, Frecce Tricolori, Patrulla Aguila, Swiss PC-7s and Royal Jordanian Falcons), solo demo teams and flypasts, all of them contributing to fill an exciting 8-hours schedule each day.

In the weekend the sunny weather has allowed all of them to perform their high-level programmes; this has increased the anticipation for the famous Frecce Tricolori’s “bomba” maneuver, but new safety measures have inhibited them to perform it. The Reds have taken off two times a day; in addition to the exhibition at RIAT, they were awaited over Goodwood for the local Festival of Speed (in the meanwhile the USAF F-35A has taken to the skies to perform the Heritage Flight with a P-51D Mustang over Duxford for the Flying Legends airshow). The Royal Jordanian Falcons have performed for their first time at RIAT with their new mount, the Extra EA330LX.

Among the solo teams one presence must be cited for its rare appearance in Europe, the Canadian CF-18; every year the Royal Canadian Air Force chooses a different theme and paints consequently the demo aircraft (this year’s color scheme celebrated 60 years of NORAD’s activity). Noteworthy also the new schemes adopted by the French Rafale solo display and the Belgian F-16 one; both of them sport a livery where black plays a dominant role.

Besides the flypasts already described, an interesting tribute to the World War I pilots and machines has been offered by the Great War Display Team; created thirty years ago, in 1988, this team flies nine replicas of six different types (Avro 504, Sopwith Triplane, Fokker DR.1, Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c and SE5a and a Junkers CL1). The display of the duels in the sky among these first protagonists of the aerial warfare has been a nice addition to the programme; moreover the birth of the Royal Air Force is deeply connected with the developments of the air arm in the closing months of the Great War.

Saturday offered another chance to witness the strength of the relations between UK and USA; during the exhibition of the RAF’s Chinook, in the distance can be noted an orbiting B-2, escorted by two 48FW’s F-15s. The Spirit of New York, the third B-2 produced, actually assigned to the 13thBS, based at Whiteman AFB (Missouri), performed a transatlantic flight just to arrive in time to execute an elegant flyby over Fairford (unluckily, it was a one pass only!).

Sunday evening, when the airshow is officially ended, the prize winners are announced at the end of closing ceremonies:

  • King Hussein Memorial Sword for the best overall flying demonstration to the BBMF’s Trenchard formation;
  • Steedman Display Sword for best flying demonstration by a UK participant to the Red Arrows;
  • Paul Bowen Trophy for the best solo jet demonstration to the Turkish Air Force’s F-16C Fighting Falcon display, Solotürk;
  • Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for the best individual flying demonstration to the Finnish Air Force F/A-18C Hornet.
  • RAFCTE Trophy for the best flying demonstration by an overseas participant to the Royal Jordanian Falcons.
  • As The Crow Flies Trophy for the best display to the Couteau Delta, mounted on Dassault Mirage 2000-D.
  • Best Livery and the Chief Executive Trophy for an outstanding contribution to the show to the Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet Demo Team.

Monday, as every year, is a busy day; scheduling the movements of over 300 aircraft is no easy task, but RIAT organization manages it with experience and professionalism. Every one attending this bonanza of take-offs hopes that every aircraft will take to the sky according to his preferred criteria but, obviously enough, every pilot decides how to perform the take-off depending on several parameters; most of them wave the public off rolling the wings, other prefer to abide to a strict professional conduct. This departures day has reserved some surprise, like every year; some positive, like the Ukrainian Flankers taking-off side by side using the runway in the opposite direction and asking permission (granted) for a salute flyby, some negative, like the cancellation of the B-1’s departure (seems due to problems with the ejector seats) or the majority of the helicopters leaving from their parking slot and choosing not to overfly the runway for a goodbye (understandable but disappointing).

One funny situation has seen a C-17 assigned to the multinational Strategic Airlift Capability consortium, stationed at Papa, Hungary, negotiating the head of the runway with two ItAf Typhoons, 37th Stormo, based at Trapani; for unknown reasons the Typhoons have backtracked on the runway, closely followed by the C-17. Once reached the head of the runway the Italian aircraft obviously couldn’t take-off and have been directed to the nearby junction in order to leave space for the C-17’s U-turn and take-off; once freed the runway, the Typhoon flight has gracefully taken to the skies side by side.

At three o’clock in the afternoon the aprons were by then empty; time to say “goodbye and see you next year.” After such a historic celebration it is not easy to imagine what 2019’s edition will have to offer to stand comparison, but we are sure that RIAT people are already working to satisfy the demands of an ever growing public.

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Gabriele Rivera on Email
Gabriele Rivera
Photojournalist at Aviation Photography Digest
Gabriele was born in Turin, Italy, grew up in Sicily and now lives in Rome. His love for aviation goes back to the days when he was seven years old, he started to collect the ‘History of Aviation’ sold weekly at the nearby newsstand. With that, he realized that his goal was to become a military pilot. This dream met a harsh reality when, during the medical tests, a defect in his chromatic sense of sight was discovered.

His interest in photography arose a few years later, when he bought from a colleague his first single-lens reflex camera, a Pentax ME Super. Then everyday life took its toll; working as an IT analyst, studying for an MD in political science and starting a family left no time for enjoying his old interest for aviation. One day in 2008, he decided to revive the passion, starting again to take pictures of aircraft each time he has a chance. Now, using Canon gear, he is striving to become a photojournalist.

Gabriele can be reached at: [email protected]
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