REVIEW: Royal International Air Tattoo 2023


The Royal International Air Tattoo is a curious beast. While, to the casual observer, RIAT is reliably one of the most impressive aviation spectacles on earth, there is a very definite belief among its most ardent fans that a wide gulf exists between a “good RIAT” and a “bad RIAT”. Moreover, many have passionate – and conflicting – opinions about which category each edition of the show falls into.

The build-up to the event each year is an emotional rollercoaster, with erratic highs and lows that far surpass what most announcements individually justify, as the soap opera of Thursday lunchtime updates gradually reveals the line up. Following every update, the enthusiast community withdraws to forums and Facebook groups to furiously debate whether the upcoming edition could possibly rise to that most elusive, ill-defined of benchmarks: will this year finally be “Vintage RIAT”?

With an inspiring choice of themes – the 100th anniversary of the Italian Air Force and of air-to-air refuelling – 2023’s edition showed promise from relatively early on.

In the interest of full disclosure, this is not quite a typical airshow review; this year, I attended the Air Tattoo across all six days as a member of the PlanesTV team, working as a camera operator for their live broadcast and co-hosting the streams of arrivals and departures. My experience did not, therefore, come close to representing that of a ticket holder. Nonetheless, herein lie my highlights of the week. I will also be taking into account the experiences of my TIF colleagues, who attended the show using general admission tickets from Thursday to Saturday – although that shall follow later.

One of the big talking points of RIAT 2023 proved to be the weather, with some going so far as to predict a 2008-style last-minute airshow cancellation. Although good conditions prevailed for both arrivals and departures, the main public show days did not fare so well, with constant rain and low cloud on Friday, followed by strong winds, gusting at 40 knots, on Saturday. Sunday’s show was spared the worst of the conditions, but a passing shower still did its best to disrupt the programme. While few performers survived the week without being somehow impacted by the weather, all of them managed to take to the air at some point during the three show days, and the vast majority were able to perform at least one full display.

The calibre of front-line fast jet display was especially high this year, making it difficult to choose an obvious favourite. Three displays seem to have received the most praise post-show, namely the Belgian F-16AM, the Finnish Air Force’s F/A-18C and the French Air and Space Force’s Rafale C. The latter was awarded the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for the Best Individual Flying Display by the Flying Control Committee and the As the Crow Flies Trophy for the best display as voted by the Friends of the Royal International Air Tattoo. Despite being limited to 9G, rather than 11G as in its previous Air Tattoo appearances, the Rafale’s display was relentlessly tight and compact, with some imaginative takes on well-known manoeuvres, such as a rapid four-point roll with a reversal of roll direction at each hesitation.

The RIAT post-show trophies have long been something of a mystery to outsiders, and while it was difficult to pick a favourite between, say, the Rafale and Finnish Hornet, it didn’t feel to me like the Rafale warranted a double award while the Hornet crew walked away empty-handed. Once again, this was a display of the highest quality; where the Rafale excels in roll rate, the Hornet excels in pitch rate, with the display including some remarkably aggressive high-G pulls both from level flight to the vertical, and from the B-axis onto the A-axis. Most impressive of all was a manoeuvre called “The Hat”, where the aircraft pulls from level flight into a vertical climb, then pushes negative G into level flight again, using less than 1,000ft of vertical airspace; the initial pull to the vertical took only three seconds, a pitch rate unsurpassed even by some thrust-vectoring fighters!

Also bafflingly passed up for an award (for the second consecutive year) was the Belgian Air Componant’s F-16AM Fighting Falcon, known as the “Dream Viper”. As a 49-year-old aircraft, it would be easy to assume that the jet’s airshow capabilities would have been fully explored by now, but Captain Stephen de Vries has managed to eke yet more performance out of the aircraft for a second season running. His new, adapted display sequence now features countless manoeuvres inspired by the aircraft’s namesake, the viper, mimicking the slithering body and wandering raised head of a slithering serpent. Especially notable moments included a dramatic approach towards the crowd while kicking in successive bursts of left and right rudder, and an on-crowd -4G bunt, during which vapour formed not on top of the wings, but on the underside.

A second F-16 display came from the Danish Air Force – a performance not seen at RIAT since 2011. In many ways this was the polar opposite of the Dream Viper: visibly precise, deliberate and conventional, but extremely aggressive. The two displays complemented each other nicely, showing very different facets of the F-16’s performance. Denmark’s display jet is still wearing the beautiful Dannebrog livery, applied in 2020 to mark the 800th anniversary of the Danish national flag, and was probably my favourite special scheme of the week. It was such a shame, therefore, that technical problems prevented the jet from displaying on Saturday and Sunday. With Denmark’s F-16 retirement brought forward to 2025, hopefully the public will get another opportunity to enjoy this performance at RIAT next year.

The weekend played host to two Eurofighter displays: a Typhoon FGR.4 from the Royal Air Force and an F-2000A from Italy. Both were superbly competent displays and offered an incremental improvement on the past few seasons. The RAF example was recognised with the Steedman Display Sword for the best display by a UK participant, which feels like an increasingly moot award given the small scale of the British flying display contribution nowadays – but in this case, it was thoroughly warranted. This year’s RAF’s Typhoon solo is perhaps the best display we’ve seen from the type for since the mid-2010s and feels every bit like a deserving RIAT award-winner – especially following its display in Friday’s torrid weather conditions, when Flt. Lt. Matt Brighty took to the air amid low cloud and driving rain for a thunderous flat display at a time when most other participants elected to stay firmly on the ground.

Of all the contemporary fast jet types, it was the Gripen which was represented most numerously in the flying display, with three examples on show. The JAS-39C was displayed by the Swedish and Czech Air Forces respectively, with the latter demonstrating a ‘dump and burn’ on several occasions during its performance. That aside, it was a display with a few exciting moments, including a fantastic take-off on Sunday, but one which felt a little lost at times and would have benefited greatly from its usual flares (sadly not permitted at Fairford due to the lack of a designated handling area) or smokewinders.

The third of the Gripens came from Saab themselves: a next generation JAS-39E model. This was the first time the “Gripen E” had participated in a UK airshow, and the jet won the Paul Bowen Trophy for the best solo jet demonstration following its confident, steady and assured display sequence – relatively conventional, but flown with nary an imperfection, check-turn or unintended wing-rock. This perhaps gives a clue as to what the awards committee are looking for, and sadly, it is not always a style of display that provides the best entertainment value. While it was a high-quality, very watchable performance and certainly of a calibre befitting of a large international military airshow, I doubt many in the crowd would have described it as the best solo jet display of the day.

One award that was universally agreed upon was the King Hussain Memorial Sword for the most polished and precise flying display. This trophy went to the Swedish Air Force’s thoroughly captivating SK.60 solo display, which proved to be my runaway highlight of the week. Equipped with photogenic Sanders SGSC-5A smoke pods and further complemented by an excellent music choice, the diminutive SK.60 danced around the sky in a truly balletic style, irrespective of wind and cloud conditions, performing a flowing sequence of truly remarkable solo aerobatics. Standout moments included the slowest slow roll I think I have ever witnessed, and a quarter rolling circle – a manoeuvre I’ve not seen performed by a jet-powered aircraft before.

The quality and variety of fast jet solos was fairly remarkable this year, and it speaks of the high standard of this year’s line up that I keep forgetting that we had a Harrier in the flying display! Spain provided an EAV-8B II Matador II+ solo, flying a routine that in many ways surpassed the more genteel two-ship Harrier sequence the air arm staged at RIAT 2019. The first half of the show was especially dynamic, featuring a fast pass, twinkle rolls and a 360-degree turn, all linked by maximum rate, high-G dumbbell turns to reposition. This was followed by the typical hovering demonstration, and an impressive climb out into wing-borne flight at a rakish nose-high attitude.

The Harrier also performed a memorable two-ship formation with a Royal Air Force F-35B Lightning – a true “only at RIAT” moment. The sequence began with a gentle topside pass, followed by a second pass with a tactical break, before both jets flew down the display line in STOVL mode. The only disappointment of this sequence was that it deprived us of any real chance to see the F-35 itself; seemingly anxious to clear the way for its predecessor, the F-35 never fully came to a stop during its slow pass, sidling irreverently past show centre before disappearing on its way, while the Harrier hovered by the FRIAT grandstand for almost a full minute. Given the Harrier went on to perform a full solo display later in the day, I can’t help feeling the time would have been put to better use by giving the F-35 a rare chance to demonstrate its hover capabilities, or, better still, by having both jets in the hover alongside each other. Presumably there is a good reason why this didn’t happen, because I’ve no doubt that both pilots and airshow organisers would have wanted it to, if it were at all possible.

As for rotary assets, RIAT 2023 delivered some outstanding rarity (albeit from aircraft with rather less allure than last year’s Cold War-era beasts). Joining the ever-present RAF Chinook HC.6A in the flying display was the German Army’s NH90 TTH, making its second RIAT appearance, and an Italian Army Mangusta, which was attending the show for the first time since 2005 – packed with gutsy and energetic wingovers and an endearing triple-bow to the crowd, it was a performance that won the RAFCTE Trophy for the best display by an overseas participant. This was chosen on the basis of modifications that the crew had made to their usual display routine in order to ensure that the diminutive helicopter could be enjoyed from any point along RIAT’s two-mile-long crowdline.

Another rare Italian rotary contribution was the Italian Air Force’s HH-139B search and rescue demonstration. This is not, it must be said, an especially energetic performance, and the crew’s religious insistence of slowly covering the entire length of the crowdline during the final two passes had both pros and cons: on the one hand, it allowed every spectator the chance to get a good look at the aircraft, regardless of where they were, which is no mean feet for a rotary asset at Fairford, but on the other hand, it did make the display drag on for a full 15 minutes, which is simply too long for a performance of that nature. A worthwhile contribution given the show’s themes, perhaps, but not a display I shall be seeking out on my travels in future.

In addition to the aforementioned Typhoon and HH-139 solos, the Italian Air Force also contributed their polished and highly-watchable T-346A Master solo display to the flying line up. They also dispatched their ever-popular C-27J Spartan solo display to RIAT, but sadly, technical problems saw it relegated to the static display at short notice (Reparto Sperimentale Volo commentator Mike Palombo did invite the crowd to throw rotten fruit at the C-27 to show our collective displeasure!). This impressive contribution helped mark one of the core themes of RIAT 2023, which commemorated 100 years since the foundation of the first independent Italian air arm. The Italian Air Force’s static display contribution in support of that theme was yet more impressive, featuring types such as the A-200 Tornado, KC-767A, P-72A maritime patrol aircraft and E-550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning aircraft, the latter two being RIAT debuts. Italy also contributed a pair of AMX A-11A Ghiblis, due to be retired in 2024, with one jet painted up to mark its squadron’s 60th anniversary, plus a beautiful U-208A (a type which, extraordinarily, had never visited RIAT before, even after more than 50 years of service) painted to mark the centenary. The U-208 won the Concours d’Elegance award for the best static display participant.

Also a part of the centenary celebrations, the Air Tattoo organisers drafted in a large variety of former Italian Air Force types for the static display. Rather than booking local warbirds with tenuous Italian links, a special effort was made to attract aircraft from Italy itself, or those wearing Italian markings (the Norwegian Air Force Historic Flight’s Vampire FB.52 received temporary Italian roundels, for example). Sadly, some of the real stars – the G.91R, P.166, MB.326E and MB.326K – didn’t make it to the show, for reasons ranging from the Italian authorities’ refusal to grant a Permit to Fly in time, through to technical failures and pilot injury. Those that did arrive – predominantly former training aircraft, most notably including a trio of FIAT G.46s – were nicely showcased in a dedicated area of the static display. Although not quite everything went to plan, the Italian Air Force and Historic Aircraft Group deservedly won the Spirit of the Meet award for their enormous contribution.

The other main theme of this year’s show was Skytanker, marking 100 years since the first successful in-flight refuelling. This attracted several star items to both the flying and the static. Those static Skytanker participants included such aircraft as civilian air tanker company Metrea’s new ex-Republic of Singapore Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker, as well as RIAT debuts from Saudi and NATO-operated A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transports. Derivatives of both types appeared in the flying display too, with a Royal Air Force Voyager KC.2 performing mock aerial refuelling flypasts with an RAF Atlas C.1, Finnish Hornet and Swedish Gripen (one aircraft per day), as well as an extremely dramatic series of flypasts by a French C-135FR on the Friday, including a topside pass and an impressive low overshoot and wing rock.

The US Air Force provided two displays for the Skytanker theme. First, an MC-130J Comando II led a CV-22B Osprey down the display line before the Osprey’s traditional solo display. Later, taking place on Sunday evening only due to poor weather earlier in the week, a KC-135R Stratotanker led a B-52H Stratofortress in a truly anticlimactic aerial refuelling simulation, in which both aircraft were several miles apart and flying at 1,500ft. Far more entertainment value came during the B-52’s take off and landing (the USAF took the rare step of deploying the aircraft to Fairford for the show), followed by a sideways crabbing taxy down the runway, during which the aircraft accidentally mowed down 18 sets of runway lights!

Probably the most keenly-awaited Skytanker display of the week came from the German Air Force, who mounted a three-ship display involving one A400M, one Tornado ECR and one Tornado IDS. The three-ship performed one straight and level pass with hoses and drogues extended, followed by an imposing steep topside pass, still in close formation. The two Tornados then returned to repeat the procedure, this time imitating “buddy-buddy” refuelling. It was the first time a Tornado had participated in the RIAT flying display since 2018, and seeing both jets blasting around the Fairford sky was truly a sight for sore eyes. A nostalgic solo fast pass by one of the Tornados, flying with full afterburner, rounded out the performance.

As if I haven’t already mentioned enough glamorous fast jets, RIAT 2023 was also graced by the participation of Flugmuseum Messerschmitt’s replica Me262. It was the first time that an Me262 had flown in UK skies since November 1945 – quite remarkable, given this aircraft has been based in Germany since 2006. Much credit must be given to the Air Tattoo organisers for having the vision to finally bring the little jet to our side of the English Channel. RIAT is one of just two public events at which the aircraft will perform this season; it was a privilege to have seen it.

In recent years, the Middle East has become an ever more important part of the Air Tattoo family, but 2023 felt like a major step-change, with three national aerobatic teams from that region participating in the flying display. Sadly, RIAT regulars the Royal Jordanian Falcons were unable to display at all, due to crosswinds on Saturday and visibility-sapping rain on Sunday. They managed to squeeze in a flypast on Sunday, flying alongside a Piper PA-28 from Flying Scholarships for Disabled People. The two remaining teams, which were both visiting the UK for the first time in a decade, managed to take to the air for all their planned slots, but only performed their full displays on Sunday, due to low cloud.

The most keenly-anticipated was probably Fursan al Emarat from the UAE, displaying their seven attractively-painted MB-339NATs. When they last visited RIAT in 2012, Al Fursan was a fledgling team that had only existed for a few short months. Now firmly established and having performed at airshows across Europe, Africa and Asia, the team has upped the ante of their display under the mentorship of former members of the Patrouille de France. Writ large with symbolism of their native UAE, the team’s performance was intimate, polished and highly photogenic, aided by truly spectacular smoke systems, which produced plumes of white, green, red and black. Particularly of note were their world-unique two-ship synchronised lomcevaks and their spectacular closing manoeuvre, UAE DNA, the smoke from which hung heavy in the air for several full minutes after the display was complete.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia also deployed their national aerobatic team, the Saudi Hawks, to RIAT 2023. Despite their strong links to the Red Arrows, this was only the team’s third visit to the UK. Given their similarities to the Reds, it was easy to view the display through a critical lens: it was undoubtedly repetitive at times (three corkscrew-style manoeuvres is surely more than enough for anyone!) and was remarkably similar in style to that of the home team, albeit lacking some of the Red Arrows’ polish at times. That being said, the Saudi Hawks equalled or surpassed their British counterparts in many other ways, with more photogenic and energetic bomb bursts, more vibrant smoke and more interesting formation shapes, despite having one fewer aircraft. It’s unfortunate that the two teams inevitably draw comparisons to each other; the Saudi Hawks very much had their own individual identity and were a very worthwhile addition to the lineup.

The final national aerobatic team at the show was Spain’s Patrulla Águila, currently in the midst of their first full airshow season since 2019 and flying as a six-ship rather than the traditional seven. Admittedly, the team’s flat show, performed on practice day and again on Saturday, is no great spectacle, being virtually non-aerobatic aside from a litany of near-identical mirror passes. Perhaps as a result of this, I think the team became unfairly maligned as the week progressed, with people perhaps assuming that was all they had to give. Sunday’s good-weather show certainly matched the standards of the other big teams at the show in my book, with formation aerobatics, bomb bursts and solo manoeuvres as diverse as a dirty loop and tailslide. The team’s six-ship close formation landing was a particular delight to witness. With their C-101EB Aviojets on the cusp of retirement, possibly to disappear without being replaced, I for one enjoy every possible opportunity to see Patrulla Águila: we’ll miss them when they’ve gone.

One area that proved a little disappointing – although this is not usually within RIAT’s sphere of control – was some of the guest commentators. This was especially evident for the visiting aerobatic teams; the Saudi Hawks’ narrator seemingly needed to be prompted through his own script by Red Arrows veteran Mike Ling, and a low-tech music solution got Al Fursan in hot water, when their music recording captured a mid-roll YouTube advert for toilet rolls and played it out on full volume to a crowd of over 50,000. It’s up to each individual display team to either rely to RIAT’s expert commentators or to provide the audio and commentary themselves, in which case RIAT defers to them entirely. It is, after all, their display to narrate as they see fit. The trouble is that when those guest commentators fail to rise to the occasion, it reflects badly on the event as a whole. Some of this year’s efforts were distinctively unimpressive and certainly not befitting of the slick, high-quality event that RIAT has otherwise become. Perhaps even more serious are the reports (not noticed by the TIF team ourselves, but picked up on by several friends) that the commentary was entirely inaudible in parts of the showground, including at least one of the viewing enclosures.  Poor commentary or not, it is important that all visitors are able to hear it, especially if they have paid extra for a premium seating option.

Away from the flying, there were many more gems to be found around the airfield, in a static display that was generally well laid out and bursting with quality. Adjustments to the location of food courts and service stations certainly improved the visual appeal of the main showground, where rarities such as a USAF U-2 Dragon Lady and WC-130J Weatherbird, Dutch F-35As, German CH-53G, a gorgeous special-scheme Swedish SK.60 and an elusive RAF Globemaster C.1 were parked. Several of the Cold War-era stars, such as the Greek F-4E Phantom, Romanian An-26, Polish Su-22M, Italian AV-8B and TAV-8B Harrier II+, were nicely positioned on the secluded but highly photogenic southwest loop. The parking of two jets behind the NATO A330, in line with the hose and drogue system as if holding station to take on fuel, was also a nice touch, given the Skytanker theme. A handful of areas, especially out west, felt a little sparse and disjointed (the Belgian SF.260 felt especially remote and unloved) but this was mainly the result of several last minute cancellations, which would have filled those gaps nicely.

The only major complaint about RIAT 2023, and by far the biggest sticking point in our team’s experience, seems to have occurred outside the showground. While not a problem I experienced myself, other reporters for This is Flight tell of long queues at security both at Park and View and for the showground itself from Thursday to Saturday. One recalls arriving at 07:20 on Saturday and taking just 10 minutes to park, only to find the security queue stretched the length of three fields; it took them two further hours to enter the showground. The other also tells of a two-hour queue that meandered around the car park, barely controlled, and with baggage restrictions that weren’t properly enforced, while security staff picked through every single item at the gate – even going so far as to open glasses cases.

The risk of disruption to airshows has never been higher, and the prospect of an airshow one day being halted due to well-intentioned environmental protests seems like an inevitability (this is, we understand, the primary reason for beefed-up security at British airshows generally this year). Equally, though, however good the security, there is always a high chance that such protesters could slip through the net, or simply use improvised materials purchased from retailers inside the showground. It is for each show to decide, based on their own threat level, risk assessments and security requirements, whether to prioritise a preventative approach or a remedial one, but if it was RIAT’s aim to expunge the problem at the entry gate with thorough, painstaking security checks, then the number of staff was simply insufficient to deal with the task at hand – a fact that was readily acknowledged by the unfailingly polite and apologetic checkpoint personnel. The good news is that on Sunday, checks were substantially relaxed, queues eased, and the show passed without incident. Clearly RIAT is aware that the draconian methods used earlier in the week had been problematic – and had perhaps proved to be even more detrimental to the visitor experience than an undetected protester would have been. Sunday’s relaxation proves that RIAT is adopting a pragmatic, flexible approach to the matter; it will be interesting to see how the process is adapted in 2024.

For many of us, it’s perhaps hard to shake a feeling that RIAT 2023 could have been a truly vintage Air Tattoo had fortunes been a little better. Poor weather affected every single show day. The much-anticipated Lancaster and F-35 formation was cancelled entirely, as was a flypast featuring the Lancaster and Martin Baker’s modified Meteor T.7. This would have been the first time a Meteor had flown at a UK airshow for almost a decade – until it was relegated at the last minute to the static display at its operator’s behest. The aforementioned relegation of the Italian C-27 to the static display also felt like a major blow, simply for the extra variety that this aerobatic transport aircraft would have offered. The Turkish Stars had, at one point, been due to take part in the flying, but had to cancel, hamstrung by the ongoing recovery efforts to Turkey’s tragic earthquake earlier this year, which continue to occupy the team’s support aircraft. Finally, the Czech Air Force’s brilliant ALCA Display Team was forced to withdraw after one of its pilots sustained injuries in a non-aviation accident.

The static display, too, was somewhat diminished, following the last-minute cancellation of the G.91, MB.326s, Zambian C-27J Spartan, Italian YEC-27J JEDI, Canadian CP-140M Aurora and US Navy E-6B Mercury. Attempts to create a large line up of Stratotankers along the main taxyway sadly didn’t materialise, with a grand total of just two. A USAF KC-46A Pegasus also had to be dropped from the Skytanker lineup. In one moment that was either galling, exciting or intriguing – and possibly a mix of all three – airshow commentator Mark Mainwaring appeared to confirm that RIAT had been expecting to host Indian Jaguars this year – exactly the sort of announcement that would have made the “vintage RIAT” chants grow louder. Sadly, it was not to be.

But, if anything, that list of cancellations is to the organisers’ immense credit, not their detriment. None of those cancellations could be helped (at least, not by RIAT themselves) and frankly, few airshows would have had the ambition and determination to try and attract any of those assets in the first place. Indeed, more military aircraft cancelled their participation in RIAT 2023 than most airshows could ever dream of hosting – and despite that, this year’s Air Tattoo was still probably the premier military airshow to have been held anywhere in the world since the pandemic. The list above is, in a way, the most impressive endorsement of RIAT that I can think of: the fact that a single airshow could lose so much, and yet still appear barely diminished in its size or quality, is nothing short of remarkable.

There is often quite a lot of doom and gloom in the enthusiast community when people discuss the future of RIAT. If 2023 is anything to go by, I’m not sure much of that is warranted. 52 years after the first edition, even regular contributors like the USA, Italy and the Netherlands are still contributing a healthy number of debutantes each year. And admittedly, while the show no longer hosts military aircraft in quite the same numbers as in the late 1990s and early 2000s, RIAT is instead welcoming aircraft and teams from ever further afield and strengthening its relationship with far-flung air arms. More than ever before, RIAT is the singular, premier global showcase for military aviation. The world’s air arms, defence companies and enthusiasts alike all recognise that fact.

Public appetite, too, appears entirely unabated: despite the poor weather forecast, post-pandemic price hikes and the cost-of-living squeeze, this year’s show was a near sell-out. There’s plenty of life in the Air Tattoo yet.