REVIEW: Royal International Air Tattoo 2019

WORDS: ADAM LANDAU | PHOTOS: JAMES CONNOLLY

The Royal International Air Tattoo has, for several decades, been the UK’s must-attend military airshow, and one of the foremost aviation spectacles in the world. This year, once again, Douglas Bader House managed to pull together a line up of aircraft unmatched at any other show on earth, with rare jets such as the EAV-8B Harrier, Su-27 and MiG-21 represented in the flying display. Yet despite this, the Superbowl of the airshow world seemed to have lost some of its usual magic this year. Above all, though, it felt as if aviation enthusiasts are no longer the core of the Air Tattoo’s fan base, but are a mere afterthought – a bi-product, which organisers seemed almost unwilling to address.

Of course, many of the acts that flew at the show were entertaining and high quality. Among the most anticipated aircraft in the display was the Romanian Air Force MiG-21 LanceR C of the 861st Combat Aviation Squadron. It was the first time a MiG-21 had participated in a UK flying display in eighteen years, and the ageing jet did not disappoint, with a punchy display that included a dramatic missed approach and a photogenic topside pass.

Joining the MiG-21 was another Cold War beast in the form of a Ukrainian Air Force Su-27P Flanker of the 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade in the hands of its new display pilot, Colonel Yuriy Bulavka. The Flanker was appearing at its third successive Air Tattoo, staging an immensely powerful demonstration which included two tailslides, and deservedly won the Paul Bowen Trophy for the best overall jet demonstration.

Making up the trio of elusive jet displays was a pair of EAV-8B II+ Harriers from 9 Squadron of the Spanish Navy. It was the first time the Spanish Navy had displayed this variant of the Harrier at the Air Tattoo, and indeed the first time that any Harrier had displayed there since 2009. The two jets began their display with several fast formation passes, followed by a slow pass and then individual hovers, with one jet in the middle of the crowdline and one at the eastern end. It was a shame not to see more of these magnificent jets – particularly for those watching from the green zone – which were rarely close enough together to be caught in a single photo. Nonetheless, the British public’s affection for the Harrier shone through, drawing spectators to the crowdline like only the Red Arrows usually can.

Perhaps the jet demonstration that was most lavishly heaped with praise, however, was the Finnish Air Force’s F-18C Hornet solo display. This display has picked up awards on all three of its most recent Air Tattoo appearances, and this year had the distinction of being the sole double award winner at the show, claiming the As the Crow Flies Trophy for the best display as voted by members of FRIAT and the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for the best individual flying demonstration. Watching this display, it is easy to see why, for it was an extremely tight aggressive routine, immaculately flown by Captain Arto Ukskoski. The same goes for the Swiss Air Force’s F-18C Hornet, flown by Captain Nicolas Rossier, which benefits from similarly exceptional manoeuvrability as the Finnish example. The Swedish Air Force JAS-39C Gripen also put on a phenomenal display, earning it the King Hussain Memorial Sword for the best overall flying demonstration.

There were two types, too, of the F-16 on show. Three Belgian Air Component F-16AM Fighting Falcons performed a series of flypasts on Saturday morning, followed by a solo display by the “Dark Falcon”, flown by Captain Stefan Darte. This was exactly as graceful and well-flown as we have come to expect from the Belgian team, and contrasted significantly from the punchy (but no less well-flown) F-16CM “Viper” of the USAF Air Combat Command. Major Garret Schmitz’s demonstration was less graceful but packed plenty of punch, particularly in the high speed pass and photo pass, but sadly had to be cut short on Sunday when the aircraft’s horizontal stabiliser began to de-laminate shortly into the routine. Unfortunately, the second USAF act, the Special Operations Command CV-22B Osprey from RAF Mildenhall, suffered similarly bad luck, developing a technical snag and diverting en-route to the show on Sunday. Luckily, the aircraft was fixed and re-scheduled for later in the day, making a very brief appearance later in the afternoon, but was forced to divert again as it headed for home that evening.

The foreign air arm with the biggest presence at the flying display was the Italian Air Force, who provided not only the wonderful Frecce Tricolori, staging possibly the best display of formation aerobatics of the weekend, but also three solo displays from the Reparto Spetimentale Volo. The three acts provided were the same dispatched to last year’s show, and while a little variation would have been nice, such fantastic commitment to the Air Tattoo is hard to fault. All three displays had upped their game from last year, with a punchy demonstration by the F-2000A Typhoon, a tidy routine from the T-346A Master and an eye-catching aerobatic performance by the C-27J Spartan. The Spartan’s display attracted criticism last year when the crew axed all aerobatic manoeuvres from their routine, but this year, most (but not quite all) were back, with the display featuring an aileron roll and three Derry turns.

The Italian’s contribution was only surpassed by the home team. The Red Arrows participated in their final European airshow of the year, and all of the RAF’s solo display teams were in attendance. The Tucano T.1 was met with heartening interest from the crowd, given the type is due for retirement later this year, and the Tutor T.1 was impeccably flown – a fact that almost made up for its diminutive size and slow speed, as it worked Fairford’s 3km crowdline. The Chinook HC.6 added some extra variety and the Typhoon FGR.4 put on a stellar display in the hands of Flt. Lt. Jim Peterson, in what could have been the best display we’ve seen from an RAF Typhoon for several years. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flew with a Spitfire and Hurricane on Saturday, with the Lancaster grounded due to a technical problem. It joined the fighters for a three-ship display on Sunday. On the Friday and Saturday, the RAF also displayed their new F-35B Lightning. What was advertised as a flypast by the Air Tattoo was described as a “role demo” by the RAF, but transpired to be somewhere in between the two – a high-G 360 degree turn, followed by a slow pass, hover and pedal turn.

Other equally worthy contributions came from the Hellenic Air Force, who dispatched the T-6A Texan II of Demo Team Daedalus to RIAT for the first time, the Breitling Jet Team, the Patrouille de France (albeit flying on Saturday only), Airbus Defence & Space’s A400M, the Army Air Corps Attack Helicopter Display Team displaying a single WAH-64D Apache and long-standing friends of the Air Tattoo, the Royal Jordanian Falcons. This year, however, the Falcons were joined by The Blades, a civilian team of Extra 300s participating in the Air Tattoo for the first time. The inclusion of such a team was widely, and understandably, lambasted by many, as the team can more usually be seen at most of Britain’s free seaside airshows. The team certainly seemed an uncomfortable fit at a show that has long prioritised military acts and displays not seen elsewhere in the UK, but they undeniably staged an precise and technically challenging performance which filled Fairford’s long crowdline surprisingly well.

As always, the Air Tattoo featured several special flypasts, but this transpired to be a major point of contention. First up was the NATO flypast, a planned tribute to the alliance’s 70th anniversary. Sadly, the flypast did not take place on Friday due to poor weather, with the exception of a rarely seen NATO E-3A Sentry. Saturday’s flypast was also incomplete, with several aircraft going ‘tech’, but it did feature three RAF Typhoons, four F-16s from Belgium, Denmark and Norway, a German Eurofighter, French KC-135R and three USAFE F-15s. The Sentry, as well as a German A400M and Tornado, sat forlorn on the tarmac. On Sunday, this theoretical centrepiece of the show didn’t go ahead at all – which made it all the more gratifying for Sunday visitors that it transpired to be a damp squib.

Saturday transpired to be the main day for flypasts, not just with the trio of Belgian Air Component F-16AM Fighting Falcons, but also including a flypast of a British Airways Boeing 747-436 in BOAC livery with the Red Arrows, marking the airline’s centenary, and a combined flypast of the Red Arrows and Patrouille de France, both flying past in Concorde formation to mark the 50th anniversary of the type’s first flight. The latter two were immensely impressive, with the Concorde tribute having been postponed after poor weather forced its cancellation on Friday. Two of these flypasts were virtually unannounced, the organisers perhaps fearing a backlash from Sunday visitors who had little of their own to celebrate.

Sunday visitors were long promised two special flypasts, but organisers failed to confirm what they would comprise until just a few days before the show. In the end, only one materialised: The Blades flying with Airbus’ A400M, ostensibly to mark Airbus’ 50th anniversary. This flypast, and the ludicrously overhyped publicity that came with it, was quite rightfully derided. “This will be the first time you will have ever seen anything quite like this,” crowed the commentator. Well, perhaps there is a reason: it smacked either of laziness or of total desperation, and one wonders how many other ideas the organisers had to try before settling with this one.

Indeed, after Sunday’s marathon eight-hour flying display, Saturday’s seven-hour effort felt notably curtailed, and lacked not just the flypasts and the F-35, but also major display acts like the Patrouille de France (although the team’s colourful flypast as they departed, in lieu of a full display, was very much appreciated). The day was further weakened by a slow two hours in the early afternoon which almost entirely featured small training and aerobatic aircraft, during which the crowdline notably thinned out. We expect and accept that a few display acts may not be able to commit to Saturday and Sunday for operational reasons, but hopefully 2019’s woeful imbalance was a one-off freak combination of factors which will not occur again.

As for the action on the ground, it is the same niggles that seem to come back to haunt the Air Tattoo every year. While the static display included several gems, such as two Turkish Air Force F-4E-202 Phantoms, a Qatar Emiri Air Force C-17 Globemaster in Qatar Airways colours and a US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress, there are always complaints that the static layout could be better for photographers. Admittedly, there were notably fewer aircraft on the ground this year, but overall neither reviewer had any particularly significant complaints about the static display, with the exception of a row of portaloos in the red zone which made photography of most of the special scheme fast jets all but impossible.

The show’s commentary also continues to frustrate; the bulk of this is provided by Ben Dunnell and Mark Manwaring, who are among the best airshow commentators in the business and whom we have lavished with praise in the past. The pair were equally good this year, although there was perhaps a disconnect between their cheerful tone and the mood of the crowd at times – particularly during the bad weather on Friday. The pair were frequently interrupted by George Bacon and Sam Waller, who stumbled through stilted, repetitive pre-written announcements about other showground attractions which were repeated with vexatious regularity. This particular problem has plagued the Air Tattoo for several years and should be an easy fix, yet nothing is done to rectify the matter.

Of course, the Air Tattoo also suffers from all the same challenges encountered at almost any UK airshow – namely dealing with a vast influx of people on a road network ill-equipped to deal with them, and processing them quickly as they enter the show site. This year, some clearly experienced stupendously slow security queues at the red and blue gates, as well as severe traffic congestion when leaving both gates. We are unable to verify this, as our reviewers entered by car through the green gate (Friday and Saturday) or through the yellow gate via the Swindon shuttle bus (Sunday), both of which ran like clockwork in either direction.

Another major irritation for visitors this year came not at the show, but long before it began. This year’s marketing was the worst seen at any Air Tattoo in recent times: patronising, tone deaf, littered with errors and often missing vital information. Aircraft updates were ambiguous, air arms were misidentified, vague promises were made and not kept and certain announcements received frankly absurd levels of fanfare. In previous years, it felt as though Douglas Bader House took the enthusiast community into their confidence; they published minor details which they knew spotters would find interesting, hinted at what they might be planning, and owned up when things didn’t work out. This year’s happy-clapping media releases no longer treated the reader as an equal, but as an easy-placated child.

Finally, it’s impossible to review this year’s show without mentioning the Friday ticket costs, which were equal to Saturday and Sunday’s prices despite the advertised flying display being only half the length and the showground partially closed. Charging full price for half a product is completely unacceptable and must surely be reversed next year if reason and a sense of fairness prevail.

The Air Tattoo still is, and will likely remain, the UK’s foremost airshow for years to come, but with the event feeling ever more corporate and sterile, it feels increasingly like the Air Tattoo is at a fork in the road. Either they can look to their roots – a show run for, and by, the enthusiast community, where corporate intrusion is permitted as far as neccesary without overshadowing the general public’s experience – or they can follow the path of the now-defunct Farnborough public weekend, peddling a broadly unremarkable flying display for a very high ticket price, relying on their name and fame, and the blissful ignorance of a large proportion of the public. But, as we saw earlier this year, the public don’t stay blissfully ignorant for ever.