REPORT: Royal International Air Tattoo 2017

In Britain, it is rare for airshows throughout the summer to be blessed with fantastic weather, however for the most part this year the weather gods had played ball, and shows such as Flying Legends or the Yeovilton International Air Day reaped the rewards of blue skies and high cloud-bases. Unfortunately, as this year’s hotly anticipated Royal International Air Tattoo drew near, it became clear that such good fortune was not to continue through to the second half of July; indeed some of the day of my attendance on Saturday the 15th of July was a washout, with cancellations blighting an otherwise superb line-up. Scroll down for video…

On paper, RIAT 2017 was perhaps the strongest of recent years, with much more variety in the flying display than was seen last year, including some welcome returns by displays not seen for a decade or more. Further, the static display of 115 aircraft had a higher proportion of military attendees than the 2016 edition, and included some appreciably larger airframes. The final week prior to the show saw several high profile items added, as well as some unfortunate short-notice cancellations; while Discovery Air Services’ A-4N Skyhawk was unable to transit to Fairford due to operational commitments with the German Air Force and the NATO-operated E3A Sentry customarily cancelled last-minute, these losses were more than aptly replaced by a static Israeli Air Force C-130 Hercules, which was first announced by its appearance on the arrivals movement sheet on the Thursday of the show!

Of course it would be remiss to fail to mention the most high-profile late addition, which was of course the Ukrainian Air Force’s cohort. Confirmed on Tuesday the 11th of July, this was the update that many had been waiting for since rumours first surfaced via a Ukrainian media outlet. The initial report suggested that the Ukrainian Air Force planned on contributing a flying Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker for the flying display, as well as an Su-27UB and Ilyushin Il-76 for the static display; what was initially dismissed as hearsay gained traction, as it became clear that the chairman of the RIAT Flying Control Committee, Wing Commander Jonathan Nixon, had visited the 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade at Mirgorod Airport, presumably to validate the display for a UK airshow. Conspicuous in their silence, Douglas Bader House did not dismiss these rumours, and the trio of aircraft was confirmed after the earliest visitors had already arrived at the show.

As previously mentioned, this report shall focus on the events of the Saturday show, which was heavily impacted by poor weather. The flying display began punctually at 10:00, as the Czech Air Force’s Saab JAS-39C Gripen lifted off into filthy weather; hampered by drizzle and low cloud, this display was nevertheless an impressive effort by the pilot, however as conditions further deteriorated the aircraft broke into the circuit to land, with the display seemingly having been cut short. Despite this, for his “consistently well flown and accurate fast jet demonstration”, Captain Ivo Kardoš was awarded the RAFCTE Trophy for the best flying demonstration by an overseas participant. Despite deteriorating visibility, the Midnight Hawks of the Finnish Air Force took off in impressively close formation and attempted to display. Unfortunately, within a few manoeuvres it became clear that to continue to display would be potentially dangerous, and team leader Captain Marc Fuss made the decision to land immediately. The team must be commended for their efforts however, as they even managed a formation landing despite the weather; fortunately their display on Sunday was in slightly better weather, and a more dynamic rolling display was performed, complete with an impressive sequence of crossovers and opposition passes. We hope that the team will return, preferably sooner than the fourteen years it had been since their last appearance at RIAT!

Following the Midnight Hawks’ landing there was a lull in the action while the team’s slot ran unfilled, in the hope that the weather would improve sufficiently so as to allow for the following displays to take place. Fortunately, Captain Gabriele Aiolfi deemed conditions acceptable enough for the commencement of his display in the Italian Air Force Panavia A-200A Tornado of the air arm’s Reparto Sperimentale Volo (flight test centre). As with the aircraft’s previous showing at Cosford earlier this year, the display was simply stunning, with the opening few manoeuvres flown as close to the crowds as regulations permit. The aircraft was deservedly awarded the Jeppesen Trophy for best livery, which WSO Colonel Paolo Fiorella described as “a dream come true.” Unfortunately, as the Tornado landed another band of rain drifted over, and Senior-Captain Aviator Tom “Gizmo” de Moortel was unable to display his Belgian Air Component F-16A MLU, which was instead relegated to providing a single slow taxi down the runway. Fortunately the other Belgian Air Component aircraft in the flying display was able to perform despite the conditions – indeed as a Search and Rescue helicopter, the Westland Sea King Mk.48 is renowned for being operated in the worst of flying conditions. Unfortunately this display, perhaps the last active-military Sea King display that we will see at a UK airshow, failed to make good use of the lengthy Fairford crowdline, with much of the display focused slightly beyond right-of-centre in front of the corporate chalets. Belgium’s three Sea Kings are to be retired next year, and it was a massively underwhelming send off for the type for the vast majority of the assembled crowd.

Unfortunately while the Sea King was unrestricted by limited visibility, the following two scheduled displays’ requirements for several kilometres of visibility forced another series of cancellations and disappointing “very flat” displays along the runway. The loss of the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 and Spanish Air Force EF-18M were both disappointing, the latter more so for the fact that it had initially been scheduled to fly much later in the day, in what turned out to be improved weather conditions. Reports of the EF-18’s display on Sunday suggest it to have been one of the highlights, and many suggest it was unfair for the team not to have picked up an award of some sort. In perhaps a metaphor for their unwavering commitment to RIAT, the Royal Jordanian Falcons then persevered in getting airborne and flying a series of flypasts in various configurations, however even their usually charismatic commentator sounded deflated in conceding that the weather was considerably worse than anything they had ever displayed in before. The RAF Chinook was fortunately able to break the spell of the last hour’s dreariness with a characteristically powerful rotary display.

At this point in the proceedings the rain had eased, and thus visibility had ceased to be the greatest hurdle for subsequent displays – therefore the Czech Air Force’s second contribution to the flying programme was able to begin. A debut for RIAT, the Czech Air Force L-159 ALCA pair role demonstration was a welcome improvement on the solo display that it replaced, and the inclusion of pyrotechnics made for an entertaining spectacle. The combination of operational manoeuvres and aerobatic flourishes was a tasteful mix, and the resultant display was one of the unsung highlights of the day. Following on from the ALCAs was a crowd-favourite, the Red Arrows. Following on from frankly embarrassing appearances at Cosford and Flying Legends, the team were in fine form as they performed to their usual high standard, despite the low cloud that put even the flat display in jeopardy. It was refreshing to see the team back on top form, and I was left feeling decidedly proud to be British. This led conveniently into the first of the US displays as a USAF CV-22B Osprey based at RAF Mildenhall flew in to perform a brief display. A rare performer even in the States, the Osprey has flown at RIAT for the last three years in a row, and is now perhaps taken for granted – this was not lost on those that attended only the Sunday show, as the Osprey was notable in its absence – one assumes due to operational commitments.

As the Osprey departed for Mildenhall once more, the next two displays were alike in one unfortunate aspect – both left many underwhelmed. The displays in question were the Austrian Air Force Saab 105 and Slovenian Air Force Pilatus PC-9M; while the skill and overall quality of the pilots’ displays was in evidence throughout, both are diminutive airframes and this meant it was an uphill struggle to engage on such a big stage. That is not to say that the displays went unappreciated however, as the Slovenian display once more picked up an award for best individual flying display. The subsequent display by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight was also of an award-winning standard, and I feel that the decision to award the Steedman Display Sword to the RAF Typhoon display over the BBMF was perhaps unduly influenced by the show’s corporate sponsorship. The BBMF are “old hat” for some, however this year’s Thompson Formation in celebration of the team’s 60th anniversary felt revitalised – all the more so for the return of Avro Lancaster PA474 after several years’ absence. ‘Leader’ was joined by three Spitfires (marks PRXIX, IIa and LF.XVIE respectively) as well as a Hurricane IIc, the latter of which was a founding member of the ‘Historic Aircraft Flight’ – the forerunner of the BBMF. The only blight on an otherwise excellent set-piece was the overall appearance of two of the airframes – Spifire TE311 remains in its black primer undercoat as its repaint continues to be delayed, and Hurricane LF363’s temporary markings in honour of Battle of Britain-veteran Tom Neil were noticeably peeling. The team does well to commemorate the heroes of the RAF’s Second World War history, however the failure to address these issues made for a slightly motley sight.

In a break from the overarching historical segment of proceedings, the Airbus Space and Defence A400M Atlas display brought us right up to date with a typically energetic display, as we have come to expect from the aircraft. This year’s display was flown by an all-British crew, and was as dynamic as always. This surprised many given the low cloudbase, which few would have believed allowed for 120° wingovers and steep banking turns. As with the Osprey, this rare “heavy” display is perhaps another that is taken for granted – the day that Airbus eventually end their commitment to displaying the ‘Atlas’ at RIAT will be sad, for it will literally be a ‘big’ loss. Following on from the A400M was another ‘heavy’ of sorts, as B-17G Flying Fortress “Sally B” kick-started the subsequent commemoration of the USAF’s 70th anniversary. Flown by Andrew Dixon and Roger Mills, the bomber’s appearance over Fairford was a welcome nod to the USAF’s roots in its previous guise as the US Army Air Force, when the bombers of the ‘Eighth Air Force’ flew from Britain into combat over Occupied Europe. In a continuation of this poignant commemoration, Peter Teichman flew P-51D Mustang “Tall in the Saddle” to celebrate the founding fighter pilots of the USAF; it is rare for a solo warbird to “hit the spot” at Fairford, however Peter pulled it off with ease, in a magnificent contribution to the core theme of the show. It must be said however, that the lack of additional aircraft in this segment was a little disappointing, as given that the USAF is steeped in history it was a shame for other aspects to be overlooked or forgotten. The contemporary USAF then came to the fore, with a series of flypasts displaying various aircraft that form part of the USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe). The flypast was comprised of a Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, a Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Hercules, three McDonnell Douglas F-15s (two ‘C’ models and one ‘E’) and two Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcons. The heavies performed single passes, while the latter fighters flew 3 passes in total; the final pass from each fighter then ended with a performance climb into the low cloud. The flypasts on Saturday were noticeably less “sporty” than Friday’s edition, as the topsides seen the day before were replaced with more mundane level passes by all participants, however the effort in coordinating the various different types into the series of flypasts was greatly appreciated.

In conjunction with this impressive set-piece, it was hoped that each show day would also witness a unique additional display; Friday saw the Thunderbirds join in formation with the Red Arrows, and in perhaps the single biggest surprise in RIAT’s recent history, Sunday saw a series of flypasts by a B-2A Spirit bomber. As part of a Global Strike mission, the bomber flew directly from Whiteman AFB in Missouri to appear at RIAT, and was escorted through its two flypasts by a pair of F15s. Saturday saw no such unique celebration, leaving those in attendance slightly poorer in comparison with the other days. A further disappointment was the lack of an F-22A Raptor display on the Saturday, due to low cloud. Whereas most fast jet flat displays have a display minima of 1000ft, the Raptor’s requirement for 1,500ft was unfortunately not met, and thus Major Daniel “Rock” Dickinson vacated the runway threshold without even a conciliatory pass along the runway or a full explanation from the commentator as to why the planned flypasts with P-51D Mustang “Frenesi” were not attempted (as explained in our Smoke On podcast, the weight of fuel onboard the F-22 in the absence of a display prevented the aircraft from formating safely on the Mustang). In a contentious move, for the second year running the team was given an award despite missing a weekend show day (in 2016 the Raptor was unserviceable on the Sunday), this year taking home the Paul Bowen Trophy for the “best jet demonstration”.

As the Raptor’s display slot went unfilled, there was much speculation as to whether the USAF Thunderbirds would be able to display, given their similar weather requirements. Given that a failure to display would extend the lack of flying to almost an hour, the Flying Display Director made an unprecedented move in preparing alternative displays from those aircraft that had been scuppered by weather earlier in the day. Fortunately, Thunderbird 1 Lieutenant Colonel Jason Heard lifted off in the lead F-16 and flew two weather-check flypasts, which allowed him to confirm to the crowd directly through his radio that the Thunderbirds were go! The subsequent display divided opinion amongst those more considered observers, as some celebrated the energy and dynamism of the display, while others bemoaned the detached composition with lengthy pauses, or the poor commentary which failed to properly aid the crowd. I felt the Thunderbirds were judged harshly in comparison with the European-style displays, and that for what they are the team do a decent job – the crowd over-flights were welcome exceptions to the norm, for example. Regardless, it was welcome to see the “Ambassadors in Blue” airborne, and it was to transpire that there were to be no further cancellations to the remaining flying display (although conditions remained poor).

Much like the earlier Saab 105 display, the subsequent Italian Air Force RSV T-346A Master display was also unfortunately underwhelming. The flat display left much to be desired, and was essentially a combination of underside passes. Fortunately the following display proved that despite the weather, excellent flying could still be enjoyed. The Turkish Air Force’s “SoloTürk” F-16C performed an extremely dynamic display, countering the more detached showing by the earlier six F-16s of the Thunderbirds. Major Peter Fällén of the Swedish Air Force then picked up the gauntlet with an equally impressive display for the Swedish Air Force’s JAS-39C Gripen solo display, despite what he later described as “difficult” conditions which forced him to seamlessly switch between his flat and rolling displays on several occasions.

The Patrouille Suisse, which followed the Swedish Gripen’s display, are considered by some to be directly comparable with the USAF Thunderbirds, and in almost every aspect it must be said that the Swiss come out on top. Back up to a full complement following various difficulties last year, the routine was arguably the best team display of the day, with customary Swiss precision enabling swift formation changes that kept the action in front of the crowd for a great deal of the display. If the Patrouille Suisse were typically precise, then the subsequent display by the Italian Air Force’s C-27J Spartan was typically extravagant! Accompanied by the team’s incredibly excitable commentator, the flight crew put on an extremely spirited display, including knife-edge passes and rolls that were astounding enough given the aircraft type, and which was made all the more impressive by the fact that all of the manoeuvres were performed below a cloud-base that varied between 1000 and 1500 feet! The transport aircraft’s manoeuvrability under the weather conditions of the time served only to embarrass further the USAF’s Raptor’s “capability to outmaneuver all current and projected aircraft”.

The subsequent pair of displays were both abundant with a certain je ne sais quoi, as the French Armée de l’Air provided two of the day’s stand-out items. This was most certainly evident as Couteau Delta took to the skies; born like a phoenix from the ashes of the now-disbanded demonstration team Ramex Delta, Couteau Delta fly a pair of Mirage 2000Ds with a thunderous yet precise formation routine that raises them above comparable displays such as the earlier Czech ALCAs. As the team is in its debut season, the routine was largely identical to the award-winning Ramex incarnation – however you would be hard-pressed to find anyone complaining! Following on from Couteau Delta, the French showcase continued with an exceptional Dassault Rafale C demonstration by Capitaine Jean-Guillaume ‘Marty’ Martinez, in his wonderfully adorned aircraft. The “faultless, flowing and dynamic flying display” was deservedly awarded the King Hussein Memorial Sword for the best overall flying demonstration, in a masterclass of display flying.

The penultimate flying display of the day was perhaps also the most eagerly awaited, as pilot Oleksand Oksanchenko finally ignited the afterburners of his Sukhoi Su-27P1M Flanker. The brutish routine was deafeningly tumultuous, and there was barely a moment where the aircraft was not projecting afterburner flames several metres into its wake. Unfortunately the low cloud on both days prohibited more vigorous manoeuvres such as the infamous tailslide, however the blue digi-camo paint scheme did at least allow for the aircraft to stand out despite the gloom. It was hardly surprising, following the show, to find that the team from the 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade had been awarded the As The Crow Flies trophy for the best overall flying demonstration, by FRIAT members. Given the cost and effort involved with securing this participation, it is unlikely that the Ukrainians will return soon, however if and when they do, it is hard to imagine them failing to impress and amaze once more.

Closing the Saturday edition of the Royal International Air Tattoo with a bang, the Army Air Corps Attack Helicopter Display Team solo Apache role-demo-cum-display was an adequately spectacular conclusion to proceedings. While the positioning of the “wall of fire” drew criticism from FRIAT members for being shifted to the west of the centre-datum, this did allow for some general admission ticketholders, as well as those in the disabled enclosure, to greater appreciate the finale event.

RIAT this year is perhaps best summarised with one of the songs included in the Thunderbirds’ accompanying musical medley, for in many respects the show was a ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. The flying display line-up was the most varied in years, and stand-out individual items among this eclectic mix served only to improve the overall spectacle of the event; Mother Nature however played her part in sabotaging proceedings, as had the show been blessed with the weather of just a few days earlier, it would have been transformed. As it was, the show was still of an extremely high quality, and will no-doubt be one of the best shows seen in Europe this year. The bar has been set high, and attention will switch to what little the home team can muster for next year’s show, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force. The opportunities for international support and historic commemorations are mouth-watering, however for many there is one item that is most desired – please let’s have some blue sky!

Alex Prins is a UK based photographer and aviation enthusiast, and also the deputy-editor of This is Flight. Photos also come from James Connolly and Jim Lucas, with videos by Adam Landau.