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.
- Tuesday: Showground closed, some early arrivals likely
- Wednesday: Limited viewing facilities open 07:30-19:30, expect arrivals & some rehearsals/validations
- Thursday: Limited viewing facilities 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: Limited viewing facilities open 07:30-16:30, expect all departures
The Air Tattoo’s myriad of ticket options can be confusing, at best, with dozens of packages available. 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 2022, adult ticket prices begin at £44 for the Friday and £57 for the Saturday/Sunday at Earlybird rates. The standard ticket price is £54 for the Friday and £62 for Saturday/Sunday. Under 18s go free with a paying adult. Tickets must be purchased in advance.
During the arrivals days, tickets for the popular ‘Park and View’ enclosures cost £17 on the Wednesday and Thursday and £22 on Monday. 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 may also be 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 £234, or the three show days for £168 (slightly less if using the earlybird discount).
ADDONS & ENCLOSURES
A number of addons are available, giving access to exclusive enclosures and grandstands. In general, these addons must be purchased in addition to standard admission tickets. Two of the most popular packages for general visitors include:
- Viewing Village: Private enclosure near show centre with garden-style seating (£23 Friday, £33 Saturday/Sunday)
- Viewing Village Grandstand: Grandstand seating in the Viewing Village (£38 Friday, £43 Saturday/Sunday)
Other options, costing up to £600 per day, are also available, including all-day catering.
FRIENDS OF THE ROYAL INTERNATIONAL AIR TATTOO:
FRIAT is the ultimate spotters package, with a private grandstand at show centre open from Wednesday to Monday. Tickets are available Saturday to Sunday (Mach 1), Friday to Monday (Mach 2) or Wednesday to Monday (Mach 3), with the top tier costing £310. FRIAT membership also comes with priority access at the Blue entry gate.
Despite the popularity of the FRIAT package, our reporters have found a combination of standard entry tickets and Park and View tickets to be more than sufficient to enjoy the show – but beware that the Air Tattoo’s crowdline is crowded with grandstands, enclosures and marquees around show centre, and standard ticket holders will struggle to find a good viewing spot for the flying displays within half a mile of show centre. FRIATers will also have by far the best view of arrivals, departures and rehearsals.
For those wishing to attend just part of the event, we have always found that standard admission tickets allow for a perfectly enjoyable experience. However, for those who want to attend all week, a Mach 3 FRIAT package costs only £76 more than an equivalent combination of standard entry and Park & View tickets, which is quite likely a worthy investment. We do not recommend any of the other grandstands or enclosures on offer.
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.
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.
BLUE ZONE/FRIAT ENCLOSURE: The closest zone to shoe centre, the blue zone offers the best view of the flying displays, but almost none of the crowdline is accessible to standard ticket holders. The FRIAT enclosure is located here, giving good, elevated views of movements using either runway.
GREEN ZONE: Generally the emptiest and most relaxed zone, the green zone has fewer grandstands and enclosures and more open space, however, as Runway 27 is usually in use, it doesn’t offer a good view of either take-offs or landings.
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, most arrivals taxy past, but 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 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, we think), but 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, most of which are not particularly close to the action, but 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.
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.
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, with three main car parks: the green car park (for cars from the Cirencester/Gloucester direction) tends to be slightly quieter, with most other visitors using 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. This costs £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 very regular shuttle bus service between Swindon bus station and the Air Tattoo yellow zone. Tickets for the airshow shuttle bus can be purchased in advance for £6 per adult and £4 per child, or they can be bought on the day for £7 per adult and £4 per child. Buses leave Swindon every few minutes from 06:45-12:00, and return 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 and waiting times were short. The journey time in 30 minutes. There were enough seats for most passengers to sit down for the journey.
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 (operated by Great British Railways from 2023). 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, Advance tickets will not allow you to travel on a later service.
The trip from Paddington to Swindon takes just under an hour and trains run every 15 minutes – but beware that trains start late on a Sunday: 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.
It is also possible to travel to Swindon by coach. National Express run coaches from Victoria coach station to Swindon bus station approximately every two hours, with a journey time of just over two hours. Tickets, which must be booked in advance and are valid only on a specific coach, start at £6 but increase as the coach gets busier. With the first departure from London leaving at 9am, it isn’t a viable means of outbound transport for an Air Tattoo daytrip, but it is a low-cost way of returning to London in the evening, or travelling to accomodation in Swindon before the start of the show. National Express also operate a small number of services between Heathrow Airport central bus station and Swindon bus station.
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, where a number of pubs and restaurants can also available. The village is around a 20 minute walk from Totterdown, 40 minutes from Flyby or Townsend, an hour from the Official Air Tattoo campsite, or longer from 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.
Some campsites have a food van on-site, and most permit supermarket deliveries.
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 Wednesday, Thursday and Monday, as long as their package permits them to do so. 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.
More information about this can be found under Ticket types and Site map & viewing spots.