REPORT: Royal International Air Tattoo 2018

The Royal International Air Tattoo this year had the distinction of being the official international celebration of the Royal Air Force’s centenary – for years a mouth-watering prospect. The 2018 edition of RIAT, however, managed the enviable feat of staging one of the best airshows in recent memory, whilst simultaneously leaving unfulfilled the tantalising promise of what could have been, as the home team’s anniversary felt less like a centrepiece, and more like an afterthought. We were told this was a once-in-a-lifetime centennial celebration, but without the glossy promotional material and live airshow commentary, nobody would have guessed it.

Taking place over 6 days, featuring over 25 hours of flying over three full show days, with 302 aircraft based on-site at RAF Fairford, RIAT 2018 was always going to be huge. As expected, Europe’s top display teams once again converged on Gloucestershire, ably supported by a select few items from further afield.

Perhaps most notably this year, however, the 2-mile static display was veritably heaving with a variety of aircraft unprecedented in the current era; the most high-profile were such gems as a rare return appearance by the Estonian Air Force Antonov An-2 and Ukrainian Air Force Il-76 Candid, the European debut of a JASDF Kawasaki C-2, the RIAT debut of the sole flying Embraer KC-390, and the perennial might of a US Air Force B-1B Lancer. Indeed, it is hard to think of any airshow worldwide that in the past decade has attracted such a varied and eclectic selection of rarities from all corners of the globe, particularly as air forces internationally continue to shrink.

Both the flying and static displays were, however, sadly hit by a string of high-profile last-minute cancellations. From the static park was lost the Royal Canadian Air Force CP-140 Aurora, Polish Air Force Su-22 Fitter and US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress, among several others. The flying display unfortunately lost two of its star items in the form of a Romanian Air Force MiG-21 LanceR-C due to a fatal accident at a Romanian airshow the week prior, and a French Navy ALT-2 Atlantique which was called off on operations right at the end of the final arrivals day. Fortunately, the latter did at least manage to fly a display rehearsal on the first day of arrivals, which afforded many of the most dedicated enthusiasts a rare chance to see this ever-elusive aircraft in flight.

While such rare aircraft were lost, much of the remainder of the flying display was nonetheless of a very high quality, and some rarities remained. This included a very welcome return by a Ukrainian Air Force Su-27P Flanker for the second consecutive year, from the 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade, flown by Col. Oleksand Oksanchenko. Despite a tense low-level slow pass during Friday’s display, which subsequently sent social media into overdrive, Col. Oksanchenko nonetheless consistently provided a stellar performance which showcased the power and manoeuvrability of his aircraft. Unlike last year, the weather did nothing to hamper the displays, and allowed for repeated examples of the notorious tailslide.

Another rare appearance was made by the Canadian Forces CF-118A demonstration team, flown by Capt. Stefan Porteous. While by some margin the most simplistic and formulaic Hornet display of the day, the aircraft nonetheless won the award for the best paint scheme.

Its performance, though, was outclassed by both other Hornets in the flying display; the Swiss Air Force F/A-18C provided a tight display with plentiful afterburner, punctuated by a series of graceful “pirouettes”, while the Finnish Air Force F/A-18C performed an extremely aggressive routine, for which it deservedly won the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for the best individual flying demonstration.

The Lockheed Martin F-16 was another type to see heavy representation in the flying programme, with four different air arms displaying the type over the weekend. The Polish Air Force F-16C “Tiger” team and Hellenic Air Force “Zeus” F-16C Block 52+ displays both represented a marked improvement over previous years, although it was the Belgian Air Force F-16AM “Dark Falcon” and SoloTürk F-16C from the Turkish Air Force which stole the show, with the latter winning the Paul Bowen Trophy for the best solo jet demonstration, among stiff competition.

The Turkish team’s imaginative routine could almost have been showcasing a different aircraft to other F-16 demonstrations, with several standout manoeuvres such as a sequence of tight, loaded rolls aimed directly at the crowd, and an extremely uncomfortable-looking bow to the audience at the end the routine. Barely a second went by when the jet was not either pitching, rolling or yawing in some way – exactly how a fast jet demonstration should be!

The CzAF JAS-39C Gripen and SwAF JAS-39C Gripen solo displays – both recent Air Tattoo award-winners – returned to the Air Tattoo this year, although neither picked up a trophy on this occasion. In the case of the Czech example, this was entirely understandable, as the display struggled to maintain the attention of the authors; the use of smokewinders by the slipperly-looking Swedish jet made for an infinitely more engaging and photogenic routine as it zipped and twisted around the sky, adding a dynamic element which the Czech Gripen was sorely missing.

There were also two examples, too, of the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR.4 solo display from 29(R) Sqn proved to be surprisingly enjoyable after poor feedback from other recent shows – Flt. Lt. Jim Peterson’s high-G routine hits 9G on around 20 occasions over the course of the eight minute display, and is kept under such a high load that the afternurner remains engaged constantly for the first three minutes of the show. After a captivating first half, the display unfortunately tailed off a little as it progressed, with more distant manoeuvres and more obvious turnarounds between each one of them. Italy’s Reparto Sperimentale Volo F-2000 Typhoon, meanwhile, was underwhelming in comparison, using remarkably little airspace but always remaining fairly distant from the crowd; this marked a disappointing development following previously superb RSV showings.

Unfortunately, there is little positive to say about any of the other solo displays provided by the ever-generous Italians. The diminutive RSV T-346A Master once again failed to inspire, while a bizarre decision by the crew of the RSV C-27J Spartan saw the deliberate removal of any aerobatics such as their trademark loops and rolls, in favour of a much less spectacular role demonstration of the aircraft’s “everyday operational capabilities”.

Had we been watching any other large transport aircraft, the C-27’s sequence of tight turns and steep descents would have been utterly engaging, but knowing you were watching an aircraft capable of fully aerobatic manoeuvres, but whose crew had unnecessarily chosen to stop doing them, was nothing short of galling. It was lucky that the commentator informed us this was a temporary change, as while previously this display had shocked and amazed, this year it simply bored and disappointed. Certainly, the Airbus A400M display proved by far the most entertaining “heavy” at this year’s show, with its trademark 120-degree wingover as the finale.

France are great friends of the Air Tattoo, and this year proved no exception. Prior to cancellations aircraft were to be provided by all three branches of the French Armed Forces, however this was soon reduced following the cancellation of the Aerospatiale Puma pair of the Armée de Terre slated for static, along with the aforementioned Aéronavale Breguet Atlantique. The latter was particularly galling for those who had witnessed the superb rehearsal during the Tuesday arrivals day, which showed great promise, or who had been looking forward to its display following last-minute cancellations at the Yeovilton Air Day one week prior.

Fortunately, the Aéronavale provided a further flying demonstration, as a pair of Dassault Rafale Ms from Flotille 12F stayed on to make their RIAT debut. In past years the Aéronavale have displayed the Rafale M at other major airshows to much acclaim, though this display felt notably less powerful than previous showings at other events, in part due to some long pauses between manoeuvres. It did, however, improve in quality as the weekend went on – no doubt a consequence of the display having been rapidly worked up by operational pilots, with the Air Tattoo being their first event of the year.

Further aircraft of the Rafale stable were provided by the Armée de l’Air, whose Dassault Rafale C solo display made a welcome return in the hands of Capt. Sébastien Nativel. The Rafale continues to be one of the best fast jet display aircraft around, with its fast roll rate and tight turn radius; Capt. Nativel’s polished and flowing routine alternated between being punchy and graceful, with no dead time and several impressive transitions from low-speed to high-speed flight. With the aircraft constantly manoeuvring, and staying in full view of the crowd throughout, it was virtually impossible to discern where one manoeuvre ended and the next began. Little wonder this display packed twice as many manoeuvres into an eight minute display slot as its American counterparts managed in fifteen minutes!

With a display that simply outclassed their naval cousins, the Armée de l’Air’s Couteau Delta pairs tactical demonstration once again provided an astonishing demonstration of airpower, as both Mirage 2000Ds performed plentiful close formation manoeuvres – with afterburners engaged – and astonishing formation rejoins. Following a display that will truly live long in the memory as a RIAT Classic, it was no surprise that the team went on to win the As the Crow Flies trophy for the best overall display as voted by members of FRIAT.

One of the strangest displays of the weekend came from the USAF F-35A Heritage Flight team from Luke AFB, Arizona. This year’s Heritage Flight celebrated RAF100 by including a Spitfire in the flypasts for the first time, in formation with an F-35A Lightning II and recently imported P-51D Mustang “The Hun Hunter \ Texas”. On the Friday, despite a general expectation of a full heritage flight, we instead witnessed a disjointed and thoroughly bizarre F-35A solo demonstration: a 15 minute slot during which the jet performed just three manoeuvres, repeating each one three times over. To make matters worse, each one was seperated by a gap of a minute or more while the aircraft disappeared behind the crowd to reposition. The team’s commentator seemed as confused as the rest of us, announcing several times that the aircraft was inbound for one manoeuvre, and persisting determinedly with his script even after it was obvious that the jet was doing something else entirely.

On the days that followed, the full formation made it to the show – sort of. Their opening pass was so high that it wasn’t immediately clear whether the display had actually started, and the second and third passes were so distant that, had it not been for the obligatory brash and gaudy commentary typical of the US Air Force demonstration teams, they, too, could have been missed altogether.

Of the lighter aircraft, the RAF Tutor and Slovenian Air Force PC-9M Swift both performed solo displays, although the former was clearly not suited to the Air Tattoo’s long crowdline. This was perhaps acknowledged by the organisers, who scheduled it to be the only RAF display with a “day off”, along with the various visiting fast jet displays. The PC-9, meanwhile, handled the venue well once again, with an immaculately-flown and technically demanding routine bursting with imaginative negative-G and knife-edge manoeuvres.

There were four rotary solo displays at the show, with enjoyable performances coming from the Finnish Army NH90 TTH, RAF Chinook Mk.6, USAF CV-22B Osprey and Belgian Air Force A109BA. The Chinook and NH90 particularly impressed, with agile manoeuvring and several close passes and hovers which took full advantage of the permitted 150-metre crowdline separation.

However, perhaps the biggest disappointment of Saturday’s display was the unexpected cancellation of the Osprey operating from its base at RAF Mildenhall – despite the aircraft having already arrived in the holding pattern. This was due to the Red Arrows’ unbending insistence that they be permitted to depart for a display at the Goodwood Festival of Speed exactly on time, irrespective of the fact that their being stationary on the runway was forcing an extended a halt to proceedings. This unnecessarily rigid process no doubt felt a slap in the face to the USAF crew, who had prepared and practiced a special one-off display; the word “disappointing” was clearly heard on comms as the tiltrotor departed Fairford’s airspace.

Despite this gratuitous rigmarole, the RAFAT Red Arrows’ displays throughout the week were typically polished, with perhaps their most varied display routine of the last few seasons. Manoeuvres particularly of note this year were the excellent Centenary Split (previously called the Palm Tree Split, added to the routine for the first time since 2014 – and the specially-choreographed Centenary Pass, during which three aircraft paint a number 100 in the sky with their smoke, while the remaining six perform a colourful topside pass underneath.

Overall, their display did not seem to flow as seemlessly as that of the Frecce Tricolori or Swiss PC-7 Team at times, but they nonetheless took home the Steedman Display Sword for best flying demonstration by a UK participant – and deservedly so.

RIAT 2018 could perhaps have benefitted from a further national aerobatic team in this most significant of years, with no team attending the event that hadn’t appeared in one of the past three iterations of the show, however their performances nonetheless proved tremendously enjoyable. In particular, the Frecce Tricolori’s performance was nothing short of outstanding.

With most display teams, the majority of manoeuvres involve a group of aircraft arriving from one direction, flying past the crowd, and departing again. With the Frecce Tricolori, that almost never happens. Virtually every manoeuvre includes a split, crossover or jaw-droppingly slick rejoin – and sometimes all three in sequence! This is interspersed by impeccable flying from the soloist, with moves such as the crazy flight, outside loop and lomcevak utterly eclipsing the efforts of any other aerobatic team soloist we’ve come across.

The only criticism of their display would be that one of its highlights (a 9-ship downwards bomb burst and cross) was performed only on the arrival days and not during the airshow proper, apparently because it was not deemed compatable with UK airshow regulations. Given the Thunderbirds had been given special dispensation to perform tried-and-tested manoeuvres that break UK airshow rules in 2017, it was a shame that the Frecce Tricolori’s relatively minor incursion was not similarly permitted.

Further display teams in attendance were the immaculate and thoroughly enjoyable Swiss PC-7 TEAM, the Royal Jordanian Falcons (performing at RIAT for the first time with their new fleet of Extra 330LXs), who received the RAFCTE Trophy for the best flying demonstration by an overseas participant, and Patrulla Aguila from Spain. The latter were accompanied by an extremely enthusiastic commentator, but unfortunately such energy was largely missing from the lengthy routine; those still watching by the end of the display (culminating in a seven-ship formation landing) were left less than ‘Thunderstruck’.

It is when we arrive at the one-off RAF centenary celebrations that things begin to come unstuck. Sadly, due to the one period of bad weather all week, the planned 50-aircraft flypast on Friday, featuring aircraft types from across the RAF’s inventory, was cancelled. As one of the show’s biggest draws – at least for the Friday – it was disappointing that the RAF’s planning and NOTAM scheduling failed to account for the possibility of bad weather (a foolish decision given the usual summertime climate!) and having put all of their eggs in one basket, the Powers That Be ultimately ended up with egg on their face. On the following two days, the commemorative flypast consisted solely of a diamond nine of Typhoon FGR.4s, which truly was the bare minimum for marking such a momentous occasion.

Indeed, with their surprise flypast of a USAF B-2A Spirit from Whiteman AFB accompanied by two UK-based F-15C Eagles on Saturday afternoon, the Americans seemed to put almost as much effort into special one-off flypasts than the RAF did at their own centenary event.

Civilian displays dedicated to the RAF’s history at RIAT 2018 included the Great War Display Team and a pair of Vampires from the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron. Given the history involved, such representation was absolutely right to have been there, however both displays felt perhaps twice as long as they should have been. This smattering of historic acts lacked a coherence within the wider flying programme, and one can’t help feeling that special one-off performances, rather than a pair of well-known off-the-shelf acts, would have been far more fitting, and in keeping with RIAT’s ambitious past.

Fortunately, a more inspired moment came from the Royal Air Force, with a flypast of Avro Lancaster, Tornado GR.4 and F-35B Lightning II representing the illustrious past, present and future of 617 Squadron. This formation was truly a delight to see, as were the solo passes by both jets that followed, and served an illustration of exactly what is possible when effort and attention is focussed in the right direction.

The Lancaster, of course, also participated in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s own displays. On Friday, this consisted of the ‘Memorial’ display (Lancaster and two Spitfires), on Saturday, ‘Trenchard Plus’ (Lancaster, Dakota, three Spitfires and two Hurricanes) and on Sunday, ‘Trenchard’ (Lancaster, Dakota and two Spitfires). ‘Trenchard Plus’ was truly a magnificent sight to behold – and probably the BBMF’s best airshow performance in recent memory – as all seven aircraft approached in formation to receive a standing-ovation and scattered applause; as the formation split, there followed a superb sequence of opposition passes by the Spitfires, which nicely filled the the gaps between formation flybys from the less-manoeuvrable Lancaster and Dakota. Then, the two heavies returned to close out the show with an impressive break and solo routines. The Flight very deservedly won the King Hussain Memorial Sword for the best overall flying demonstration, having doubtless provided some of the most memorable moments of the entire week.

However, while the BBMF display and 617 Squadron flypast have been deservedly heaped with praise, I can’t help but feel that it wasn’t really enough to rescue an anniversary that has felt, at times, like a bit of a damp squib. There was so much potential for more of the same – for example the otherwise-faultless lead commentator, Ben Dunnell, pointedly noted that on Saturday, the Red Arrows and Vampire pair were flying back-to-back but not together… that in itself would have been an appropriate and low-effort flypast commemorating RAF aerobatic teams past and present. Alternatively, the Gloster Meteor T.7/F.8, Jet Provost T.3, Jet Provost Mk.5, Folland Gnat T.1 and Vampire T.55 were all present in the flying or static displays, and could have combined for a flypast of past RAF training aircraft. Indeed, both Vampires were in 72 and 54 Squadron markings, and could conceivably have flown with modern-day aircraft from those squadrons, which were present in the static display! That alone would have been far more fitting than the everyday two-ship display we were instead presented with. Even the return of the RAF’s Synchro Pair (Typhoon and Spitfire team), usually used in Battle of Britain anniversary years, would have been very welcome.

Of course, this being the aviation world – and particularly the RAF – there are any number of reasons why this may not have been possible, but one feels it is exactly the kind of one-off performance that other major air arms would stage for their own centenaries, just as the Swiss did with typically impeccable style for their centenary show four years ago. And, in comparison to the hugely ambitious set-piece displays lovingly choreographed at RIATs of old, I can’t help feeling that the late Paul Bowen would have been as disappointed with this year’s offering as any of us.

As for all other aspects of the show’s organisation, they were exactly as slick as you would expect for an airshow that has been running for the best part of half a century. Signage to the Park and View West enclosure was a little lacking, but otherwise entry into the showground was reasonably swift throughout the week (though complaints circulated on social media regarding poor traffic management upon exit, which we did not experience).

My one quibble was that, for those of us who were camping, the pedestrian exit at the red gate was not particularly conveniently placed, funneling spectators on a needlessly convoluted route over a largely redundant footbridge. Simply allowing spectators to depart from the nearby yellow gate would have significantly seen us leave the base more quickly, and shortened our the walk by several hundred metres – surely this would have been preferable for all.

In past years, RIAT staff have come under criticism for rudely forcing the departure of spectators an hour or more before the showground was due to close. Luckily this worrying trend seems to have dissipated in recent years. A special mention must go to the wonderful staff at Park and View West, who were among the friendliest we have encountered at any airshow: where else will marshalls stop to have a chat between arrivals, periodically provide personalised updates on the latest schedule based on the interests of each individual visitor, and give regular friendly reminders to apply a new layer of sun cream?! This friendliness combined to make West an incredibly relaxed and pleasant location, regardless of the runway direction in use.

Another niggle with the Air Tattoo is with elements of its commentary. This is provided in the most part by the excellent Ben Dunnell, ably assisted by Group Captain Mark Manwaring, and is probably the best English language commentary we’ve come across at any enthusiast-centric airshow in the world. However, between the displays, George Bacon and Sam Waller often took the microphone to read clumsy and stilted pre-written announcements about the Techno Zone and Vintage Village. Not only does it seem wholly pointless to employ two commentators who only speak for a few minutes each day, but the continual insistence that we should visit these minor showground attractions became extremely wearing.

That being said, as a complete package, it is hard to fault RIAT 2018, and there is little doubt in my mind that it was the best all-round airshow anywhere in the world since the Swiss centenary effort in Payerne four years ago. At the end of the day, the sheer quantity, quality and variety of participating aircraft was virtually unmatched.

But at the same time, following several years of planning, hype and high-level diplomacy, it must be said that the “RAF100 effect” failed to materialise with much substance. The much-touted discussions with dozens of far-flung nations seem to have come to nought, and a wander through the static park or perusal of the flying programme would give the impression that this year was a “good RIAT”, but not the culmination of years of negotiation geared towards an unrepeatable, unprecedented extravaganza to celebrate the centenary of perhaps the single most historically significant air force in the world.

This year’s Air Tattoo may be defined by a herculean effort by the organisers at Douglas Bader House, let down by an RAF hamstrung by  a limited budget and weak imagination, and what appears outwardly to be very much a “that’ll do” ethos in the upper echelons of the service.

It is a testament to the overall quality of the Air Tattoo that they can stage one of the best airshows in recent memory, and yet still be heavily criticised, but RIAT 2018 was always supposed to be about more than simply hosting an excellent international air display. The stated objective of RAF100 was to “make our people and the public feel proud of the RAF and inspired about its future.” On the basis of the 2018 edition of the Royal International Air Tattoo, they have emphatically failed.

This report was written by Adam Landau, founder and editor of This is Flight, and deputy editor Alex Prins. Photos come from Alex Prins and James Connolly. Video by Adam Landau.