Royal International Air Tattoo 2017
Report and photos by Gabriele Rivera
October 8, 2017
On time like a Swiss watch (or the Patrouille Suisse, taking part also this year), the Royal International Air Tattoo 2017 edition has staged several surprises for its visitors. Those who want to attend this famous airshow start several months before to spend countless visits to the organization’s website checking the additions to the aircraft participation list.
Last year sold-out, due to the first-ever exhibition of F-35s in UK, surely was not easy to beat, but also 2017 theme was one not to miss: the 70th anniversary of the USAF, a reason good enough to decide in advance to attend. Thunderbirds participation has been the first to be announced, then the Raptor, followed months later by B-52 and B-1, and U-2 later; aircraft which are not so common to photograph for the average European aviation enthusiast.
In addition to such an interesting main theme other intriguing confirmations increased the expectations; just to name a few, the Couteau Delta (the new French duo on Mirage 2000 which has taken the place of the unforgettable Ramex Delta) and the Rafale Demo from France, the Italian Tornado, the Midnight Hawks with a livery celebrating the 100th anniversary of Finland independence and a robust number of interesting guests in the static display.
The topping on the cake has surely been the confirmation of a rumour circulating on Internet since a couple of days before the airshow start; two Ukranian Flankers would have joined the show, a Su-27UB (a two seater) for the static exhibition and a Su-27-P1M listed in the flying program, plus an Il-76MD for support. A real boost for an already beefed-up edition!
RIAT extend over almost a week; those wanting to photograph the arrivals gather along the runway (or outside the fence, if paying the ticket is not considered an option) since Wednesday and Thursday; the real airshow takes place on Friday (with a limited program lasting almost six hours) and during the weekend, while Monday is reserved for departures.
APD managed to arrive on Thursday, a day usually fully packed with arrivals and rehearsals. Unluckily, some of the most interesting airplanes (like the USAF bombers) landed the day before; that’s understandable, the static areas are still empty and it’s easier to move in place such huge aircraft, but it’s been really bumming to miss those landings! On Thursday, due to the continuous traffic on the aprons, stands are still closed, so the public is forwarded to the east and west runway heads; usually landing traffic come from east, so we have chosen that side to take pictures of approaches and taxing to reach the static area. Aircraft which will take-off for in-flight exhibition are parked on the north-eastern aprons.
Aside a crowded list of incoming traffic, Thursday has had its interesting moments; a German Tornado has needed to abort the landing due a flock of birds which abruptly crossed her path, an emergency swiftly managed by the pilot who landed a couple of minutes later with no apparent consequences. Other interesting arrivals have been the Dutch Hercules, which performed a sort of tactical landing, and the Royal Navy Merlin, which arrived from an unusual direction catching by surprise most of us.
After the Thunderbirds two-seater alone took the air (probably to verify what was needed to know for the following day, a few hours trip to France to celebrate the Bastille day), everybody was in trepidation waiting to watch their rehearsal, but an incoming formation was ready to steal the scene, the two Ukranian Flankers escorting the Candid. Their landing was scheduled at 1pm, so almost an hour before lots of people started to track their route from Myrhorod (central Ukraine) inbound Fairford. When the three aircraft started to circuit in the distance everyone kept an eye on their position while taking pictures of the other landing planes. Their approach has been accompanied with a sort of spirited silence; the two seater has been the first to land, followed by the Su-27-P1M, and eventually the Ilyushin with an impressive howl of the four Soloviev D-30KP engines reversed to shorten the run.
Thursday has offered also a second opportunity to see a Dragon Lady landing (for those who wasn’t there the previous day); the hint she was nearing was a couple of white cars (instead of the usual Pontiac GTO or Chevrolet Camaro this time they were Tesla Model S) waiting in the operative area. When the U-2S starts her descent towards the runway they are ready to chase the long-winged airplane, inside each of them an U-2 pilot calling out altitude and wing attitude over the radio to the colleague inside the landing aircraft who, due to the poor visibility from the cockpit and the pressurized helmet, is not able to judge by himself. When the height reaches 60 feet the pilot stalls the aircraft forcing her to land; the Dragon Lady needs to land to the alternate (or circuit waiting for better conditions) in presence of lateral wings stronger than 15 knots. Once landed, not having wheels under the wings (the ones used during the take-off are lost when the wings gains lift), the aircraft will touch the runway with one of the wingtips (reinforced with titanium skidplates), exactly like a glider.
Almost everyone waited till 7pm in order to see the Su-27 rehearsal; the heavy Sukhoi fighter took off with full reheat and used it during most part of the display. Thundering over Fairford airfield, the Ukranian aircraft kept everybody with their nose up for over 10 minutes, closing an exhibition of sheer power with a chute opening to brake the airplane. Surely enough, we could call it a day!
Friday, for the past few years, is the first day open to the general public; flying programme lasts about five hours (eight during the weekend) and the static display is not overall accessible. The Thunderbirds left at 7.30am to reach Paris, preceded by two Raptors, taking part as guest stars to the flypast of the Armée de l’Air to celebrate the July 14th anniversary. In the morning a single Patrouille de France Alpha Jet, landed the day before to pay respects to the RIAT and to exchange greetings with the American counterpart, had taken off to rejoin the rest of the team in time.
A few minutes before the Thunderbirds came back from France the Red Arrows took the air; then the two formations joined for a unique passage, a scene which wouldn’t be repeated during the following two days. After the landing of the American Demonstration Squadron’s F-16s the Reds performed their typical exhibition, whose first half consists of a series of formation passes followed by a more dynamic phase, involving the Synchro Pair (Reds 6 and 7) executing the opposition manoeuvres while the rest of team performs wing-overs, rolls, breaks and other aerobatics.
The flying program continued with the scheduled exhibitions of different aircraft and helicopters. At 1pm another bonus was ready to be shown, an augmented BBMF (Battle of Britain Memorial) Flight, consisting of one of the two last airworthy Lancaster, an Hurricane and three different versions of Spitfire.
USAFE contributed with a flypast of some of the aircraft belonging to units deployed in Europe; two F-15C and one Strike Eagle from Lakenheath, two F-16C from Spangdahlem, a KC-135R from Mildenhall and a C-130J-30 from Ramstein. Actually the Eagles and the Fighting Falcons performed three passes, concluding their contribution with high-speed ones.
Other Friday highlights have been the Raptor (hardly surprising, all the people inside the hospitality tents came out immediately after the powerful take-off), the Couteau Delta and the RAF Typhoon, while the Thunderbirds exhibition closed the day.
Saturday was a problematic day, due to the low ceiling of the clouds; the Finnish Midnight Hawks took off and after a few formation passes decided to abort their performance for safety reasons. The Italian Tornado went up and was the last one to exhibit for over forty minutes, completing an impressive program notwithstanding a minimal horizontal visibility; then, in order, the Belgian F-16, the British Typhoon and the Spanish F-18 had to cancel their dynamic demos, substituting them with a sort of parade along the runway before parking again the aircraft at the apron. Only the Belgian Sea King SAR demo was shown, and perhaps the rain and the low visibility gave an approximate idea of the usual conditions in which this mission is brought on.
The program restarted with the Jordanian Falcons, followed by the other scheduled participants, till came the turn of the peculiar BBMF formation. Once gone, the echoes of so many Rolls Royce Merlins, another feature of the day delighted the public; ‘Sally B’, the last remaining airworthy B-17 in Europe, based in Duxford, passed a couple of times over the runway with an engine emitting white smoke, paying a tribute to all the bomber crews that lost their lives during World War II. Another tribute to the men who fought during WW II was a privately owned Mustang, a P-51D ‘Tall in a Saddle’ whose red tail is an evident homage to the Tuskegee Airmen.
Also the Heritage Flight faced an unkind fate; after a few minutes wait at the runway’s head, the P-51D ‘Frenesi’ side by side with the Raptor, took the sky alone, because the ceiling was too low to let the F-22 perform the scheduled manoeuvres. The ‘Frenesi’ has been a last minute substitution for the P-51B ‘Berlin Express’, landed in UK two weeks before after having covered the 5,470 mile transatlantic journey in seven days, and subsequently involved in an incident at Duxford (the canopy plexyglass broke in pieces) which precluded the planned participation in the Heritage Flight.
A pessimistic mood started to spread among the public when the Thunderbirds aligned on the tarmac waiting for another ceiling evaluation; then the Leader took off to check by himself what was possible to do, and after a few minutes the other F-16s reached him in the sky. Watching them rotating, we noticed that this season the aircraft sport on the left, just before the visited countries’ flag matrix, a small crest celebrating USAF 70th anniversary. Weather conditions improved enough to let the Thunderbirds perform their planned aerobatics sequence.
Luckily the dynamic program continued, offering to the public (the tickets for Saturday were sold-out since several weeks) a gripping competition among some of the best European demo pilots; Soloturk performed with the usual energy his program, whose narration is brought on with uncommon enthusiasm. A new way of greeting the crowd has been introduced in the exhibition, this time on the pitch axis, resembling a dolphin jumping in and out in the water; after the landing the drag chute is released and kept lifted up for a while with brief throttle strokes; really an enthralling performance.
It was pleasing to see the Patrouille Suisse exhibiting again with a full formation, after a very bad season in 2016, when two aircraft collided at Leeuwarden, forcing them to display with only five planes instead of the usual six.
Then it was France’s turn; the Armée de l’Air came with the Couteau Delta duo and the Rafale Solo Display. Besides the gorgeous desert scheme of one of the two Mirage 2000Ds, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the raid against an airstrip at Ouadi Doum, in Chad, the manoeuvres of such a duo are always quite a sight and one of the few exhibitions with two ships. The Rafale pilot held firm to the level of performance he and his previous fellows has accustomed us to, and the beautiful livery of the plane was another reason to admire her display.
After the mighty performance of the Flanker, the day ended with a pyrotechnical exhibition of the Army Air Corps WAH-64D Apache, simulating a close air support operation like those requested hundreds of times in theaters like Afghanistan and Libya.
Sunday started with slight better weather forecast; the programme was the same as Saturday, except for a timing reshuffle …. and an exceptional sideshow: after the BBMF exhibition and the Sally B flypast, two F-15C from Lakenheath entered from east, escorting a B-2, just arrived from Whiteman AFB. The Spirit flypass, a dream become true for most of the public, has been a deeply appreciated gift of the USAF, gracing the RIAT with the participation of the full bomber triad.
During the day every scheduled aircraft has gone up; those who had to cancel their demo the previous day due to the inclement weather have had the opportunity to demonstrate their dexterity and the performances of the machines they ride. Approaching the end of the show a big, rainy cloud started to pour its content over the runway, forcing the Rafale to exhibit in a very humid atmosphere, and the result, for those who remained under the rain, has been a very tough display. Once stopped the rain, the cloudy sky, lit up by a sun starting to set, created a dramatic backdrop for a Flanker’s take-off that will be remembered in the years to come.
On Sunday night, during the traditional hangar party, the best displays have been awarded with full honours; first of all, the King Hussein Memorial Sword went to Capitaine Jean-Guillaume ‘Marty’ Martinez, the Armée de l’Air Dassault Rafale C solo display pilot from Escadron de Transformation Rafale 3/4 ‘Aquitaine’ at Saint-Dizier, for the best overall flying demonstration, while Maj Dan ‘Rock’ Dickinson of the USAF’s 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB, Virginia, won for the second time, getting the Paul Bowen Trophy for the best jet demonstration. 1st Lt Andrej Fiorelli of the Slovenian Air Force 152nd Fixed-Wing Squadron, Cerkjle ob Krki, was awarded with the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for best individual flying display.
The Steedman Display Sword for the best flying demonstration by a UK participant went to Flt Lt Ryan Lawton, No 29 (Reserve) Squadron, RAF Coningsby, piloting the Typhoon FGR4; the “reciprocal” award, the RAFCTE Trophy for the best flying demonstration by an overseas participant, has been assigned to Capt Ivo Kardoš, flying a Czech Air Force Saab Gripen from the 211th Tactical Squadron at Čáslav.
The Friends of RIAT vote by majority to assign two awards; the ‘As The Crow Flies’ trophy for the best overall flying demonstration, which went to Col Oleksander Oksanchenko, the Su-27-P1M pilot, from the 831st Guards Tactical Aviation Brigade, and the prize for the best livery, which was assigned to the Italian Air Force Panavia A-200A Tornado, Reparto Sperimentale Volo at Pratica di Mare.
Finally, the RIAT CEO Award for an outstanding contribution to the show has been presented to the Thunderbirds, for their commitment to be part of the event’s tribute to the 70th anniversary of the USAF with a specially tailored deployment across the Atlantic.
Monday morning is the last opportunity of taking pictures of the planes taking off to go back home, especially the ones which stand parked in the static areas. After three days of clouds and showers the sun shines, but a fast glance to the departures schedule give us a delusion; neither the B-52 nor the B-1 are in the plan, after a check somebody tells us that they’re going to leave the day after. At least today’s pictures surely will be better than previous day ones!
Aircraft that have been parked on the operations apron will take off from the eastern runway head, such as those exhibited in the central and eastern sectors of the static; those which have been positioned on the western side of the airport need to take the taxiway, offering another opportunity to the photographs to catch some other images before taking off. Luckily enough, some have been authorized to behave differently: for instance two Herkys reaching the eastern runway head, the Jordan one using the runway while the Dutch one followed her on the taxiway. In few cases aircraft have taken off directly from the western end of the runway, like the Canadian Globemaster, the Japanese KC-767 or the Ukrainian party; the Il-76 took the sky first (waving conspicuously her wings to say goodbye) followed by the two Flankers taking off in pair.
After everyone is gone the show is definitely over; this edition has seen the participation of 246 aircraft (115 static), from 32 air arms in 26 countries, numbers not easy to reach in today’s airshows. Next year’s edition promise to exceed those figures; at present the theme has not yet been announced, but April 1st, 2018 will be the Royal Air Force centenary, so make of it what you will!
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