WORDS: ADAM LANDAU | PHOTOS: ALEX PRINS & JAMES CONNOLLY, WITH GUEST PHOTOGRAPHER ROY GORE
As RIAT 2022 approached, the mood was one of cautious optimism. After two years of enforced hiatus, the return of the Air Tattoo was always going to be cause for celebration, but with a largely new team of organisers in Douglas Bader House, and against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis and an unprecedented war in Ukraine, nobody knew quite what to expect when the world’s biggest military airshow finally returned to RAF Fairford on the 15th-17th July. As it turned out, we need not have worried.
Of course, the announcement of the Black Eagles in May did much to dispel fears that this year’s show might not live up to expectations. But as the event drew closer, it became clear that the organisers and air forces of the world had delivered in spades, with space running out to accommodate the expected static display aircraft, and the flying display being extended to an exceptional eight hours per day.
The flying and static display was, for the first time, under the stewardship of incoming Head of Air Operations Peter Reoch. A long-time military airshow enthusiast, fresh from a five-year stint growing the Cosford Airshow into a significant fixture on the European airshow calendar, he was able to work his magic even more effectively at the Air Tattoo, delivering perhaps the most varied, star-studded aircraft line up of recent years.
The centrepiece of his work, and the crowning glory of the static display, was arguably the USAF E-4B Nightwatch, in service since 1973, but participating in a European airshow for the very first time. The aircraft arrived at the end of Friday’s flying display, when, to the delight of the crowd, it performed a dramatic flypast before circling back to land and taking up its position in the static park.
The arrival of the Nightwatch was such a momentous occasion that even the appearance of an exceptionally rare Romanian An-30 – which would otherwise have been the star of the static – seemed almost insignificant by comparison. But the fact is that this year’s static display was rammed with quality participants. Out on the re-opened “western loop”, one particular quartet of aircraft summed up the show’s appeal better than any other: a Brazilian Air Force KC-390, participating in the show for the first time since entering service, was parked up next to a Royal Air Force Poseidon MRA.1, also making its RIAT debut, a Japanese Kawasaki C-2, participating for only the second time, and a Canadian CC-150T Polaris, the latter being on its first visit to RIAT for 20 years. Four in-service military aircraft operated by, and built in, four different continents, parked up alongside each other: a feat no other airshow is likely to deliver.
The quality was not limited to the western loop, and elsewhere there were plenty of debutants, swansongs and assorted other rarities: Germany contributed a CH-53, P-3 and A340, and the USAF a U-2S, F-35A and a special scheme USAF F-15E. Types making their RIAT debuts included the KC-46A Pegasus and C-295MP Persuader, from the USA and Oman respectively. Kuwait sent a Typhoon for the first time, fresh out of the factory and still yet to arrive in its home country. Rather older, the outgoing Italian Air Force AMX A-11B Ghibli was a keenly-awaited arrival, and wore a special paint scheme marking its imminent retirement.
Also soon to retire, the RAF’s Hercules fleet became an informal theme, represented by three aircraft: a still-in-service C.5 participated in the static display, along with an ex-RAF Bahraini C-130J (Bahrain being a first time RIAT participant). They were joined by another ex-RAF Hercules, an Austrian C-130K, which performed in the flying display.
Although RIAT is a modern military airshow, it was also a strong year for classic jets in the static display, most of which arrived while the showground was open to the public on Friday. A Hunter T.72 from Hawker Hunter Aviation, CL-13B Sabre Mk.6 from Mistral Warbirds and a much-anticipated A-4 Skyhawk from Top Aces all arrived individually, each performing a solo pass over the airfield as they arrived in the circuit. Then, three jets from the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight (an SK-37E Viggen, SK-35C Draken and J-32D Lansen) arrived in formation, followed by low overshoots from each of the three before they finally landed.
The arrival of many of these classic jets on the Friday (along with the aforementioned E-4) meant that, in a welcome change, the Friday show had some real appeal in its own right, even among those who were also attending on the weekend. Usually a “RIAT Lite” preview day ahead of the main weekend event, this year saw the organisers introduce various not-to-be-repeated civilian performances to the Friday flying programme, in addition to presenting some of the highlights of the weekend’s flying action. This, combined with high-profile arrivals and half a dozen unpublicised display practices and validations, made for a full and entertaining show day which offered quite a different atmosphere and spectacle to that of Saturday and Sunday.
Opening Friday’s official flying display was a Poseidon MRA.1 from 120 Sqn RAF, flying in formation with the Reds Arrows; one example had already taken its place in the static display, but this would be its RIAT flying display debut in UK service. It was then followed by several of the star military displays due to take place over the weekend, as well as a trio of civilian contributions that flew on Friday only. This included the Rolls Royce Heritage Flight’s Spitfire PR.XIX, a flypast by a Boeing 727-2S2Fr and two Extra 300Ls from 2Excel Aviation and a sprightly display from the Leonardo AW149, currently competing to replace the Royal Air Force’s Puma and Bell 212 fleets.
While these three displays introduced some very welcome variety to the STEM-themed Friday show, Saturday and Sunday’s displays were blissfully unsullied by civilian aircraft (save for some very enjoyable flypasts by the Airbus A330-743L Beluga XL on the Saturday), paving the way for over eight hours of back-to-back military performances.
Seven national aerobatic teams took part in Saturday and Sunday’s shows, flying everything from afterburning jets to the smallest of military trainers. The largest of the group was the Frecce Tricolori, flying ten MB-339s in a performance that, while slightly stunted by UK airshow regulations, was relentlessly colourful and spectacular. Notable as always for its dramatic splits, crossovers and rejoins, as well as its outstanding solo manoeuvres, the display culminated with the usual nine-versus-one crossover, which left an earie arc of red, white and green smoke hanging in the sky above the runway for many minutes afterwards.
This year, though, the Frecce faced stiff competition, in the form of the Republic of Korea Air Force’s Black Eagles. Leaving their native Asia for only the second time (the first was for a visit to the UK in 2012), the Black Eagles showed off their updated routine, developed during the pandemic-stricken 2020 season, which includes several new manoeuvres, such as Vortex (an impressive Card to Echelon formation change by means of synchronised opposition aileron rolls) and Typhoon (a downwards bomb burst during which all eight aircraft twist anti-clockwise, creating a spiral shape in the sky).
Combining the noise, power and speed of teams like the Thunderbirds with the grace, elegance and imagination of teams like the Patrouille de France, the Black Eagles display routine is a masterpiece of aerial choreography. It includes a little bit of everything: every kind of bomb burst, every kind of opposition pass, sneak passes, slow passes, synchronised rolls of various kinds, and the quickest, most dramatic formation changes of any aerobatic team on the circuit. The last time the team visited, they had the rare honour of being RIAT double award winners, and this time was no different: they claimed the King Hussain Memorial Sword for the best overall flying display and the As the Crow Flies trophy for the best display as voted by the Friends of the Royal International Air Tattoo.
In contrast to these two teams, the usually impressive Red Arrows, reduced to flying just seven aircraft this year, offered little to write home about. The team’s stubborn determination to stick to their very particular style of flying and choreography can be noticable even in a normal year, but in a tumultuous season that saw two pilots drop out at short notice, it was a constraint that made the resulting seven-ship display less inspiring than it might have been. The result was a fragmented and soulless performance that unfolded with plodding predictability.
The other four national aerobatic teams flew propeller-driven aircraft of various types. RIAT stalwarts, the Royal Jordanian Falcons, have further tightened their display routine since their last visit to Europe, showing off their Extra 330LXs to very good effect. The PC-7 Team, from Switzerland, reduced to eight aircraft rather than the usual nine, did a good job of re-choreographing their display to hide their missing aircraft. The highlight of their show saw them join forces with the Swiss Air Force F-18C Hornet display aircraft. The eight PC-7s performed an arcing 360-degree turn over the airfield, with the Hornet roaring down the runway during the first pass and forming up on them around the back of the turn, making for an impressive nine-ship formation by the time of their second pass. As they exited the display area, the Hornet applied full power and climbed out of the formation, before both elements set up a memorable eight-verus-one “tunnel” manoeuvre down the line of the runway.
The remaining two teams were rather rarer, but perhaps not as spectacular. Baby Blue from Denmark, flying six T-17 Supporters, were making their RIAT debut, but sadly their display was rather too slow and too high to have much of an impact. Ireland, meanwhile contributed the Silver Swallows, flying four PC-9Ms – a team which last flew at RIAT in 1997, then flying the Fouga Magister. After 24 years of inactivity, the Silver Swallows were reactivated this year to mark the Irish Air Corps’ 100th anniversary, with RIAT being their first of four public events. The display mainly comprised of four-ship formation loops, rolls and flypasts, followed by several opposition passes. While simple, it was a polished, fully-fledged aerobatic performance, and the team will be a great asset to the Irish airshow circuit if they are allowed to continue flying beyond 2022.
Although they were the last of the national aerobatic teams, there were several other multi-aircraft displays that took in RIAT 2022. A RIAT debut came from Mustang X-Ray, one of the French Air and Space Force’s popular two-ship tactical demonstration teams. Founded in 2021 and flying the Pilatus PC-21, rather than a front-line fighter, the team demonstrate a mix of air-to-air and air-to-ground scenarios in a similar style to Couteau Delta and Vautour Bravo, but mix this with formation and opposition manoeuvres more reminiscent of the defunct Cartouche Doré. With its fighter-like performance, it certainly feels like the PC-21 has a lot of potential as an airshow performer, but the choreography of the team’s performance does not always use the aircraft to best effect, with some lengthy gaps and distant manoeuvres that could perhaps be tightened up and brought closer to the crowd to better engage the audience.
Also a RIAT debut, although one that has long featured on the wish-list of many RIAT regulars, was the Austrian Air Force’s Quick Reaction Alert demonstration. Initially featuring the dramatic interception of a C-130K Hercules by a pair of Eurofighter EF2000s, the highlight of this particular performance was arguably the dramatic, afterburner-filled Eurofighter tailchase that followed, which easily proved to be one of the most enjoyable sequences of the week. Technically non-aerobatic, but relentlessly high-powered, high-G and tight to the crowd, this was an excellent example of how air forces can show off their aircraft to the full, without needing to train and certify a fully-fledged aerobatic team. The performance deservedly won the RAFCTE Trophy for the best flying demonstration by an overseas participant.
Of course what many visitors come to see are the solo fast jet displays, and although RIAT 2022 did not live up to the variety of 2016 and 2017 in that regard, it still delivered a strong line up. The Paul Bowen Trophy for the best solo jet demonstration went to the Hungarian JAS-39C Gripen, participating in its first RIAT for nearly a decade, and causing a stir with its impressive flashes of dump-and-burn. It was one of two Gripens in the flying display, the other being the Swedish Air Force’s JAS-39C, which has been a RIAT regular for many years.
Like the Gripen, there were two F-16s one show, of which both were RIAT regulars. The Hellenic Air Force’s F-16C from the Zeus Demo Team has sadly lost its special paint scheme in recent years, which was one of the most memorable elements of the team’s show. Now flying a standard grey jet through the team’s familiar, relatively simplistic American-style solo display, the Greek performance was outclassed by the Belgian F-16AM, flown this year by Captain Stephen de Vries, the fifth most experienced F-16 pilot in the world. Captain de Vries has been able to wring even more out of the Belgian F-16 than even his highly-accomplished predecessors, with three extraordinary examples of negative-G manoeuvring, including an outside split-S at -4G. To the delight of the spectators, due to a technical fault, the team were forced to use their spare jet (the popular, but rarely-seen X-Tiger) rather than the primary display aircraft, the Dream Falcon.
There were two examples, too, of the Classic Hornet, with the Spanish Air Force’s EF-18A+ returning to the show for the first time since 2017, with a display that included some remarkably abrupt pulls and perhaps the most impressive low speed, high-alpha pass of the day. The Swiss F-18C, meanwhile proved once again to be one of Europe’s top fast jet solo displays, mixing low, fast, high-G turns with some mind-bending high-alpha loaded rolls and the team’s signature “pirouettes” – almost reminiscent of the pedal turns performed by the latest thrust-vectoring jets, and made possible by the aircraft’s updated flight control software.
It wouldn’t be an Air Tattoo without multiple Eurofighters in the flying display, and this year the type was represented by an RAF Typhoon FGR.4 and an Italian F-2000A Typhoon. This year’s RAF Typhoon display has had a mixed response, with some praising the high power, high speed nature of the routine, and others noting that it is not such a compact performance as in previous years. Although perhaps not one of the day’s most memorable performances, it certainly fit in well with the other fast jet displays on show, and compared favourably to the rather lengthy, higher and more distant performance fielded by the Italian Air Force.
Once again, though, the Italian commitment to the show was outstanding: in addition to the aforementioned Typhoon and the Frecce Tricolori, as well as several aircraft (including the A-11B and MB-339A) in the static display, they also contributed the T-346A Master and C-27J Spartan for the flying display. The T-346 display was technically very accomplished, with impressive demonstrations of the aircraft’s vertical performance, including a slow, high-alpha pass that quickly evolved into a half vertical eight, although it did nonetheless feel like a display that dragged on for several minutes too long. Meanwhile, the C-27 display was as good as it ever has been, with three Derry turns, one full roll and an incredible steep sideslip to land; it won the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for the best individual flying display.
This year was a particularly strong year for helicopters, with a huge variety participating in the flying display. The now-familiar RAF Chinook HC.6A was joined by an NH90 TTH from the German Army, a sprightly W-3 Sokol search and rescue demonstration from the Czech Air Force, and two displays of Soviet heavy metal from the Czech Republic and Hungary. The Hungarian contribution was an exceptionally rare Mil Mi-24V solo display, which showed off the aircraft’s manoeuvrability well – particularly its impressive yaw rate – and worked the length of the crowd line to surprisingly good effect. The Czechs, meanwhile, paired up an Mi-24V with an Mi-171S for a two-ship performance which may not have explored either aircraft’s flight envelope as fully as the Hungarian solo, but which certainly provided some unique opportunities to see both in aircraft flying in close proximity – including during several synchronised and opposition manoeuvres.
Somewhat controversially, the show’s main operational theme was training aircraft. Although not to everyone’s tastes, it is undeniably one of the few themes nowadays that can have a meaningful impact on both the flying and static displays, and it certainly provided some high-quality participants. The ever-popular Slovenian PC-9M Swift display returned for its usual technically-accomplished, highly impressive performance, which included such manoeuvres as a negative-G avalanche and even a stall turn to land. Equally welcome was a Hawk Mk.51 from the Finnish Air Force, flown in a very different style to the Red Arrows’ examples, with a flowing routine of tall, graceful aerobatic manoeuvres, highlighted by the aircraft’s very photogenic under-wing smokewinders.
The show’s other main theme was the 75th anniversary of the US Air Force, and this led to perhaps the biggest disappointment of the show. Despite the best efforts of both RIAT and several of the teams themselves, none of the USAF’s four jet solo demonstrations could make it to RIAT this year for logistical reasons, and the cancellation of planned flypasts by a B-52H Stratofortress meant that, despite this theme, RIAT 2022 had the weakest USAF representation in the flying display for quite some time. The sole American participant in the flying display was a CV-22B Osprey from Mildenhall, with a performance that seemed shorter than usual, and didn’t make such good use of the entire length of the crowdline as in previous years.
Although the B-52’s flypasts were cancelled, at least two other special flypasts were arranged for each day. Friday saw the Poseidon and Red Arrows, as well as the 727 and Extra 300s from 2Excel Aviation. On Saturday and Sunday, 617 Squadron RAF sent an F-35B through for some flypasts – first, a lacklustre fast pass that would have benefitted from a little afterburner, and secondly, an always-spectacular hover at show centre. Saturday also saw a pair of Airbus products: two passes by the Beluga XL, making its flying display debut, and one by the RAF’s special-schemed, VIP-configured Voyager KC.2, flying in formation with the Red Arrows as it made its first airshow appearance since being repainted. Finally, on Sunday, the Red Arrows joined up with the Black Eagles for a single pass in a 15-ship formation.
The result of all this was an exceptionally well-balanced flying display: it didn’t just offer fantastic variety over any one show day, but it also offered something different and special on each day, for the benefit of multi-day attendees. Despite that, and unlike in 2019, anyone visiting for just one show day could do so without feeling too hard done by, with the bulk of the flying displays being identical across both main show days and Friday delivering a unique day of entertainment in its own right, which met or exceeded what the organisers had promised in the run-up to the event.
RIAT 2022 proved that, even in the midst of a post-pandemic economic crisis, and even while war is waged on NATO’s borders, the Royal International Air Tattoo is no less relevant, no less impressive, and no less well supported by its dozens of military partners around the world. A sell-out crowd, even as the cost of living rises for all of us, is also very encouraging, and suggests the public were similarly enthused by this year’s offering.
With a superb and varied line up, a week of uncharacteristically good weather, and an insatiable appetite to get back to a major international air display again, the stage was set for one of the most memorable airshows held anywhere in the world in the last few years. With a substantial increase in ticket prices on the way, RIAT 2023 has a lot to live up to: we wish them every success in doing so.