AIRSHOW GUIDE: RIAT
AIRSHOW GUIDE: RIAT
GUIDE BY ADAM LANDAU | PHOTOS BY ALEX PRINS, JAMES CONNOLLY & JIM LUCAS
The Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, England, is the largest and most prestigious military airshow in the world, with a famous two mile-long static display and over seven hours of flying displays on the main show days, featuring many of the world’s best aerobatic teams and jet demonstrations.
As well as a regular line up of Europe’s top airshow acts – the Frecce Tricolori, Finnish F-18, Couteau Delta and countless others – RIAT also has a reputation for attracting true rarities. This has included the European airshow debuts of the F-22 Raptor in 2010, the first international appearance of the Black Eagles in 2012, the first visit to the UK by a Japanese maritime aircraft in 2015, a USAF-themed show headlined by the Thunderbrids in 2017 and a trio of venerable jets (Ukrainian Su-27 Flanker, Spanish Navy AV-8B Harrier and Romanian MiG-21 LanceR) in 2019. With a line up like that, it’s little wonder that RIAT is on the bucket lists of most of the world’s airshow enthusiasts.
- Wednesday: Park and View open 07:30-19:30, expect arrivals & some rehearsals/validations
- Thursday: FRIAT Grandstand and Park & View open 07:30-19:30, expect arrivals and rehearsals/validations
- Friday: Showground partially open 07:30-18:00, 4-hour flying display 11:00-15:00
- Saturday: Showground fully open 07:30-19:30, 7-hour flying display, 10:00-17:00
- Sunday: Showground fully open 07:30-19:30, 7-hour flying display, 10:00-17:00
- Monday: FRIAT Grandstand and Park & View open 07:30-16:30, expect all departures
The Air Tattoo’s myriad of ticket options can be confusing, with dozens of packages available, but the various options have been simplified in recent years. The airshow runs from Friday to Sunday (Friday’s flying display is typically around four hours, with around seven hours of flying on Saturday and Sunday), but for those who wish to view the arrivals, rehearsals and departures, tickets are usually available from Wednesday through to the following Monday.
In 2024, adult ticket prices begin at £40 for the Friday and £65 for the Saturday/Sunday. Under 18s go free with a paying adult. Tickets must be purchased in advance.
During the arrival and departure days, tickets for the popular ‘Park and View’ enclosures cost £25 per day. Park and View tickets allow visitors an unlimited number of entries to both the East and West enclosures, which are about a ten minute drive apart. We advise visitors to book Park and View tickets in advance, but there is usually also a limited number available on the gate.
A combination of Park and View and standard entry tickets can allow an adult spectator to enjoy the entire event, from Wednesday to Monday, for £245.
ADDONS & ENCLOSURES
A number of addons are available, giving access to exclusive enclosures and grandstands. New for 2024, most of these upgrades include event admission and you do not need to book both an upgrade and a standard admission ticket. Two of the most popular packages for general visitors include:
- Viewing Village – Garden: Private enclosure near show centre with garden-style seating (£98 for Saturday/Sunday, representing a £33 top-up compared to a standard ticket. Children must purchase a cut-price ticket. Lower prices for the Friday)
- Viewing Village – Grandstand: Grandstand seating in the Viewing Village (Price TBC)
It is our opinion that the added benefit of the Viewing Village does not tally with the cost asked for; the enclosure is not at show centre (although it is not too far away), and better views can be obtained from the general admission area. The main benefit is a quieter space with dedicated seating, and an elevated viewpoint for those at the top of the grandstand.
Other options, costing up to £600 per day, are also available, including indoor lounges and all-day catering.
FRIENDS OF THE ROYAL INTERNATIONAL AIR TATTOO:
FRIAT is the ultimate RIAT spotters package, including week-long access and use of a private grandstand at show centre. It includes: access to the Park and View enclosures on Wednesday, Thursday and Monday; access to the FRIAT grandstand located at show centre from Thursday to Monday; and access to the main showground from Friday to Sunday. On the main airshow days, FRIAT members benefit from priority parking and entry at the blue gate.
2024 prices have not been published, but the 2023 package was subject to a major restructure and price increase. Membership started at £300 for the least desirable grandstand seats, increasing to £375 for the most desirable seats. Compared to other airshows, however, it is a fairly ‘bare bones’ package. There is no subsidised food or drink, limited shelter, no electrical charge points or work stations, no left luggage facility and no alternative ‘photo pits’ distributed around the showground.
FRIAT members are entitled to attend the annual ‘FRIAT Forum’ at RAF Fairford each spring, giving them a chance to meet the Air Operations team, give feedback, ask questions in person, and learn more about the upcoming show.
In the past, we have not recommended the FRIAT package. Its limited benefits and its high price relative to standard admission tickets meant that, in our opinion, it did not represent good value for money.
For 2024, this perspective is changing – assuming that prices stay the same, at least. As general admission tickets creep up in price, the cheapest FRIAT package now costs just £55 more than six days of standard entry tickets. For those attending on all six days – especially those who value being at show centre – this is now a reasonable extra expense.
It should be noted that this change of mind has been prompted not by a reduction in the cost of FRIAT, nor by an improvement in the product itself, but rather because the basic RIAT product has become less competitive, narrowing the gap compared to the ‘premium’ FRIAT option.
Nowadays, FRIAT exclusively sells six-day packages. It is, therefore, no longer a viable option for those attending for just two or three days of the show. In this case, standard admission tickets are the way to go – and for those who really want the grandstand experience, the Viewing Village will be the next best option. We do not particularly recommend the other enclosures and hospitality options (especially for photographers, for whom they offer little or no benefit), which are high in price and, in most cases, located far from show centre.
The size of the airshow site, which accomodates upwards of 50,000 spectators per day, means that a number of viewing spots are available. Note that the runway in use is usually (but not always) Runway 27.
YELLOW ZONE: Flying display aircraft (usually major aerobatic teams) often park here; the view of the flying action is not particularly good from here, but crewing in/startup/taxy shots may be possible.
RED ZONE: Located at the eastern end of the showground, the red zone opposite the BAE Systems hangars is generally favoured by standard ticket holders. It offers a good view of take-offs and landings on Runway 27. However, the crowdline in the red zone gets extremely busy and you will need to arrive early to stake our your spot.
BLUE ZONE/FRIAT ENCLOSURE: The closest zone to show centre, almost none of the crowdline in the blue zone is accessible to regular ticket holders. This is where hospitality chalets are located, as well as the FRIAT grandstand. As well as offering the best view of the flying displays, it is also a decent place to see take-offs; although they have often lifted off the ground by this point, departing aircraft are still relatively low.
The FRIAT enclosure is located precisely at show centre, giving good, elevated views of the flying displays and any other movements, regardless of which runway they use.
A small area of crowdline is accessible to general admission ticket-holders between FRIAT and the Viewing Village, which is our favoured spot.
GREEN ZONE: Generally the emptiest and most relaxed zone, the green zone has fewer grandstands and enclosures, and more open space. There is usually plenty of room to be found on the crowdline, but as Runway 27 is usually in use, it doesn’t offer a good view of take-offs or landings (departing aircraft are airborne well before here, and arrivals often turn off the runway before reaching the Green zone). A slight hill means that the 27 threshold is not visible. It is usually easy to find open space on the crowdline here.
The Viewing Village is located at the western end of the green zone, offering good views of movements on both runways from the grandstand (although not from the garden, which is too low to see the thresholds clearly). It is also reasonably close to show centre.
Depending on the parking plan, some flying display aircraft may park at the far western end of the green zone; the view of the flying action is not particularly good from here, but crewing in/startup/taxy shots may be possible.
Another feature of the green zone is the ‘Southwest Loop’. Feeling slightly detatched from the main showground, and far less busy, this is a photogenic and secluded area where some of the older (but still-in-service) static display aircraft are parked. With good photo opportunities usually on offer here, this area is well worth exploring.
PARK & VIEW EAST: The busier of the two Park & View enclosures, open on Wednesday, Thursday and Monday only. Arrivals onto Runway 27 touch down close to this point, and departures on Runway 27 taxy and line up for take off in front of the enclosure. When Runway 09 is in use, many arrivals taxy past Park & View East, but departures are too high to be of interest. It is too far away from show centre to offer good views of display rehearsals, although fast jets thundering down the runway on full afterburner can look very dramatic from this point.
PARK & VIEW WEST: Our preferred Park & View enclosure, thanks to its more relaxed atmosphere. Also open on Wednesday, Thursday and Monday, Park and View West is at its best when Runway 09 is in use, when arrivals touch down nearby and all departures taxy right past the enclosure, sometimes with their wings overhanging the spectators. When Runway 27 is in use, some arrivals taxy past the enclosure (about one third on average, we think), but most departures are too high to be of interest. It is too far away from show centre to offer good views of display rehearsals.
PARK & VIEW TOTTERDOWN: Viewing from outside the airshow site is not encouraged at RIAT, and large fences are errected to block the view from the roads passing each end of the runway. Several Park & View options are offered off-site by independent landowners, most of which are not particularly close to the action and which do not offer an especially good view of the displays. One exception is Totterdown Hill Campsite, on the opposite side of the runway to the showground. Located under the aerobatic box, Totterdown offers stunning views of the flying displays, but lightning is less favourable than in the main showground and the runway itself is not visible. Lighter aircraft and helicopters are also not particularly close from here. Spots are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, with the site opening at 6am (there is usually already a long queue by this time). Entry costs £10 per adult or £5 per child, with a minimum fee of £20 per car. There are obvious safety risks associated with using such a facility as it sits underneath the aerobatic box.
Comprehensive restrictions are in place to stop cars from stopping on roadsides. Drivers who park around the airfield, but not in an official parking area, are could face a fine, or worse. Spectators attempting to gather around the airfield perimiter – especially around the threshold of Runway 27 – will be moved on by the police.
All of London’s commercial airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Southend and City) have good rail connections, airport hotels and plentiful hire car facilities. Visitors could also fly to Birmingham, Cardiff and Bristol, although the latter two are not connected to the rail network.
By far the most convenient way of getting to the Air Tattoo – especially for those camping – is by car. The airshow site is around a two hour drive from London along the M4 in normal traffic conditions, 30 minutes from central Swindon or 15 minutes from Cirencester. Traffic management is as good as can be expected, given the small rural roads. We suggest aiming to arrive no later than 6:30am and expect to queue slowly for at least the last half hour of your journey.
Parking at the Air Tattoo is free for ticket holders, but needs to be booked in advance while purchasing your ticket. There are three main car parks: the green car park (for cars from the Cirencester/Gloucester direction) tends to be slightly quieter, with visitors arriving from the M4/M40 being directed to the red and blue car parks. Visitors will be directed towards specific car parks along a colour-coded entry route, which start several miles out from the showground.
PARK & RIDE:
For those wanting to avoid the traffic, a Park & Ride system is operated from Cheltenham Racecourse on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In 2022, this cost £8 per adult and £5 per child, and must be booked in advance. Buses leave Cheltenham at 07:30, 08:00 and 08:30, with a journey time of 90 minutes, and return at 17:30, 18:00 and 18:30.
BY PRIVATE HIRE VEHICLE:
There are no pick up/drop off facilities at the Air Tattoo. Combined with one-way systems and traffic congestion, this means it is not possible to use a taxi or minicab to attend the show.
BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT:
The airshow runs a free, regular shuttle bus service between Swindon bus station and the Air Tattoo yellow zone. Tickets for the airshow shuttle bus can be booked in advance while purchasing your admission ticket, or on the day at Swindon bus station. Buses run from Friday to Sunday, leaving Swindon every few minutes from 06:45-12:00, and returning from 14:00-19:30. Although experiences have varied, we found that if arriving at Swindon bus station at 06:30 and departing the show at 18:00, queues were minimal, waiting times were short and we were given access to the showground as soon as gates opened. The journey time is 30 minutes on a clear route that avoids most airshow traffic. There were enough seats for most passengers to sit down for the journey, but beware that you may have to stand.
Swindon bus station is a short five minute walk from Swindon railway station, which is served by regular, fast Great Western Railway services from London Paddington, Bristol, Cardiff, Reading and several other cities. The standard off-peak return fare from London to Swindon in Standard Class is around £50, although Advance Single tickets (which are only valid for a specific seat on a specific train) can cost less than £15 each way on certain services, if booked well in advance. Use Advance tickets with caution as, if you are held up in queues leaving the airshow and miss your planned train home, your train ticket will be immediately invalidated.
The trip from Paddington to Swindon takes just under an hour and trains run approximately every 15 minutes. We suggest taking the earliest train possible (the first departure leaves London at 06:30 and arrives at Swindon at arou d 07:30 on weekdays and Saturdays). However, beware that trains start late on a Sunday, with the first arriving into Swindon at around 8am: you’re unlikely to make it to the airshow itself in time for the start of the flying display, even if you leave London on the earliest possible train.
If you are going to be travelling regularly by train during your visit, consider checking if you are eligible for a Railcard. Costing £30 and valid for a year, Railcards give 1/3 off all journeys and are available to under 30s, over 60s, couples and families with children. A railcard has often paid for itself after just three journeys. They can be purchased either as a physical plastic card or a mobile app. Railcards are not transferable and they will bear your name and image. You will need to have access to a UK address to which your railcard will be registered.
It is also possible to travel between London and Swindon by coach. With a journey time of two hours and an approximately two-hour service frequency, we only suggest this option for the most budget-concious travellers (booked in advance, tickets start for as little as £6). Delays are frequent and the first daily service from London arroves at Swindon bus station too late to catch the start of the flying display.
For those travelling from abroad, National Express operates a useful service from Heathrow Central to Swindon several times per day. This is a good way of getting to and from Swindon the day before or after the airshow.
BY COACH TOUR:
Air Tattoo daytrips are offered by a number of companies, running from towns and cities across the UK. Coach tours arrive and depart from the yellow zone. These tours usually offer rapid point-to-point transport, with entry to the airshow included in the ticket price. However, we do not recommend using these if at all possible, as visitors are sometimes called back to their coach several hours before the daily flying display has ended.
Thanks to the Air Tattoo’s rural location, hotel or Bed and Breakfast accomodation near the show site is limited, prohibitively expensive and prone to selling out many months before the show. Ordinary chain hotels in Swindon are liable to charge a three figure sum per night, even a full year ahead of the event. It is sometimes possible to find options in Swindon itself (convenient for those using the airshow shuttle bus, wanting to avoid a twice-daily train journey) and we have even booked a room via Air BnB for £30 per night, including breakfast, at just a few weeks’ notice.
Those who to not object to driving into the show every day can usually find reasonably-priced hotel accomodation around an hour’s drive from the show. Hotel prices are unlikely to be abnormally high in towns such as Reading, Oxford or Bristol.
The most convenient option, for those who are up to it, is camping – see the seperate section.
Due to the lack of more conventional accomodation, camping at RIAT has become a rite of passage, and is a firm part of the Air Tattoo experience. A number of options are available, but these are some that we recommend:
OFFICIAL AIR TATTOO CAMPSITE:
Also known as Tangerine Fields and located outside the yellow gate, this is the closest and most convenient campsite of all. For a self-pitched tent, costs start at £10 per person for Wednesday and Thursday nights, climbing to £20 for Sunday night and £30 for Friday and Saturday nights. Attending for the full duration of the show therefore costs £100 per adult.
A number of pre-pitched tents are available for those without their own equipment. In addition to the prices listed above, a two-person tent costs an extra £70, a four-person tent £160, a six-person tent £270 and an eight-person tent £320. “Glamping” options are also available, but for a much higher price.
An additional fee of £8 is levied for car parking.
TOTTERDOWN HILL CAMPSITE:
One of the most famous Air Tattoo campsites, Totterdown is located underneath the aerobatic box, offering stunning views of the action (see Site map & viewing spots). Located a five mile, hour-long walk from the showground, it is also one of the cheapest campsites, starting at £16 per adult per night for a two night stay (£8 per child) and decreasing to £14 per adult per night for a stay of four nights or more (£7 per child). This means a four night stay for one person costs just £70. Note that there is a £60 minimum pitch fee and that a non-refundable deposit must be paid in advance. The site can sell out within a few minutes of bookings opening, which typically occurs in January.
Many other campsites are established over the week of the show, with Kempsford (just outside the blue gate) being the best-known example. Fairford Airshow Camping (also known as Townsend Farm) and Flyby Camping are located around a 20 minute walk from the red gate. All three offer prices between that of Totterdown and the Official Air Tattoo campsite.
FOOD AND DRINK WHILE CAMPING:
Beware that, due to heavy traffic and one way systems, it may not be convenient to drive from the campsite to nearby shops, restaurants and pubs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This is particularly true for the Official Air Tattoo Campsite and Kempsford Camping.
Two small convenience stores can be found in Fairford Village, along with several pubs and restaurants. The village is around a 20 minute walk from Totterdown, 40 minutes from Flyby or Townsend or an hour from the Official Air Tattoo campsite. It is not within practical walking distance of Kempsford. On arrival and departure days, when traffic conditions are fairly normal, the driving time between any of these locations is less than five minutes, but driving around the local area becomes impractical on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Some campsites have a food van on-site, and most permit supermarket deliveries, but remember that these will be susceptable to traffic restrictions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Most major campsites are marked on our site map (see seperate section).
Arrivals, rehearsals and departures are a major part of the Air Tattoo experience. On Wednesday and Thursday, the action is near-constant all day; expect upwards of 100 aircraft to arrive on each day, along with at least half a dozen display rehearsals and validations. On Monday, the bulk of the participating aircraft (usually numbering upwards of 250) will depart in quick succession.
FRIAT ticket holders can continue to use the FRIAT grandstand on Thursday and Monday (they can also use the Park & View facilities on Wednesday, Thursday and Monday). Anybody else can buy a Park & View ticket, which allows entry and re-entry to either or both of the Park & View enclosures. There are no other locations from which aircraft movements can easily be observed.
Undeniably, the best spot for departures is the FRIAT grandstand, located near to the point where aircraft lift off the runway. Depending on the runway in use, one Park & View enclosure will offer good views of aircraft taxying to the runway and powering into the distance, and the other will be of little interest; neither will permit good airborne shots.
There is no single “best” spot from which to watch on Wednesday and Thursday. The FRIAT grandstand offers by far the best view of rehearsals, as both Park & View facilities are far from show centre. It also offers decent views of landings on either runway. Depending on the runway in use, one Park & Viewfacility will offer far closer views of aircraft on final approach. Both Park & View enclosures will also offer some exceptionally close taxying shots, but only from a relatively small proportion of aircraft.
More information about this can be found under Ticket types and Site map & viewing spots.