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Royal International Air Tattoo 2017



"The crowds were treated to some incredible flying manoeuvres not often seen in air displays in the UK"

If you ask any air show regular or aviation enthusiast what is the biggest aviation event of the year in the UK and the chances are their immediate response will be the Royal International Air Tattoo.  Held annually, the aviation spectacle based at RAF Fairford in Gloustershire runs for three days (with separate days put aside for arrival and departure viewing) displaying a wide variety of both front line military aircraft and a splattering of vintage examples from all over the world to raise money for the RAF Charitable Trust, a charity set up in 2005 to support the wider RAF family

As with every years event a theme accompanies the show, with this year’s theme being 70 years of the US Air Force.  Given the huge collection of hardware in the US’ arsenal, the theme certainly sparked huge excitement and expectation from aviation enthusiasts the world over, with high hopes of rare viewings of some rather special types.

As announcements of visiting nations and aircraft are usually announced early in the year, the United States were the first to start the ball rolling when they announced their USAF display team, The Thunderbirds would be attending this years show.  As time went on the US supported the Air Tattoo with greater numbers of aircraft including some fantastic examples of “Heavy Metal “ in the form of a B-52H Stratofortress of the 2nd Bomber Wing, A B-1B Lancer of the 28th Bomber Wing,  a C-17A, a KC-135R Tanker and a rare appearance by a pair of U2 Reconnaissance aircraft.

The 2017 show saw a record breaking crowd attendance of 160,000, along with 246 aircraft (115 of which made up the static park) in attendance from 32 air arms across 26 countries.

Friday saw the best of the weather over the weekend and kicked off in grand style a unique formation flypast consisting of the RAF Red Arrows and the United States Air Force Thunderbird Display Team.  Fridays are often synonymous with unique one of a kind flypasts or displays and this years was quite a site up in, what was at the time, a really photogenic and moody sky.  Once the flypast was complete and F-16’s of the Thunderbirds were safely on the ground the Red’s officially opened the flying display programme with a fabulous display from their 9 BAE Hawks  A dramatic and moody sky giving for some great photographic opportunities for the thousands of lenses pointed skywards!

Fridays 4 hour show gave a great selection of displays with some great highlights such as the French Air Force’s Conteau Delta display with their pair of Mirage 2000D’s who conducted a highly dynamic role demonstration of skilled pairs flying and aggressive shows of power over the display area, including some dramatic low level flying.  This was the first year the Air Tattoo had seen the Conteau Delta, newly formed after the disbandment of the Ramex Delta display team who have wowed crowds in their Mirage 2000N’s at RIAT previously.

In keeping with the theme of the 2017 Air Tattoo the United States had arranged for a large scale flypast with an impressive selection of aircraft from their European based squadrons.  First up for the Friday flypast, which saw the better weather was a clutch of F-15’s that flew through in close formation including, C models from 493 Fighter Squadron and E models from 48 Fighter Squadron, followed by a pair of F-16C Fighting Falcons from the 480 Fighter Squadron before the “Heavy Metal” flew through in the form of a C-130J Hercules based out of Ramstein in Germany closed followed for a pass from a KC-135 Tanker, along with deployed fuelling probe. 

The flypast was further enhanced by a few more passes from the fighters including an impressive run and break from a pair of F-15 Eagles.  Out of the two days spent at the Air Tattoo it has to be said the passes felt more impressive on the Friday as oppose to the Saturday, that being said the KC-135 gave a close topside pass on the Saturday.  Those who attended on Sunday received an extra special treat in the form of a B-2 Spirit in formation with two Lakenheath based F-15’s as escort.

As impressive as the US flypast was there has been a slight feeling of disappointment that the B-1b and / or B-52H didn’t participate in any flying, both much loved aircraft and rare sights in flying displays, any of these would have been the icing on the cake, and dare I say star of the show in the case of the B-1b?

Keeping on with the US theme the F-22 Raptor display team were in attendance to give both their flying display and to form part of a heritage flight alongside P-51D “Frenessi”, which had also made the trip across the Atlantic to perform in the UK this summer.  Sadly the heritage flight only managed to take place on the third day of proceedings, and the F-22 completely missed displaying at all on Saturday due to an unfortunate cloud base and visibility.  The Friday display put on by the Raptor was nothing short of spectacular as always, with some incredible flying and acts of aviation magic.  Due to the airframes ability to vector it’s thrust, the crowds were treated to some incredible flying manoeuvres not often seen in air displays in the UK.

The American segment was completed with the US Airforce’s display team, The Thunder Birds in their distinctively liveried F-16C / D airframes.  It is fair to say there are differences between European display teams such as the Red Arrows and the Thunderbirds.  This isn’t to say this is a bad thing; its simply different.  European display teams tend to be more flamboyant with the flying display and aerobatic manoeuvres than those seen from the six F-16’s that make up the Thunderbirds.  From a viewer’s perspective, one could look upon it as a breath of fresh air due to the different styles of flying display.  The close formation flying seen by what is a front line fighter is quite a spectacle and generally a rare sight, especially in UK skies.

Sadly, and totally uncontrollable, the weather didn’t always play ball over this years Air Tattoo, with Saturday seeing its fair share of rain in the morning, and extremely low cloud base throughout  the course of the day; It’s a sad fact that this did have an impact on the flying.  Saturdays display started with a display from the Czechoslovakian Saab Grippen which wasn’t easy to see due to the low levels of visibility seen in the morning. Following the Grippen it was the turn of Finland’s aerobatic display team, the Midnight Hawks, who took off in perfect formation in what can only be described as appalling conditions.  This was the team’s first visit to the Air Tattoo since 2004, but sadly didn’t manage to actually display due to these extenuating circumstances in the way of the weather.  Numerous displays had to cancel or miss their time slots throughout the day on Saturday due to the weather, probably most notably the F-22 Raptor display, but also including the RAF’s Typhoon FGR4 Display and Spain’s F-18 Hornet display.

Not all was thwarted by the weather however, with aviation enthusiasts being given a great opportunity to see a Sukhoi SU-27 of the Ukrainian Air Force not only in the static park but also in the air giving a dramatic demonstration of raw power.  With both afterburners projecting immense “carrots”, the display pilot demonstrated a fantastic example of low level manoeuvrability and agility afforded to the “flanker”.  An impressive display, for a relatively large fighter aircraft it must be said.

In reflection the weather did cause disruption with the flying programme and a degree of disappointment with a proportion of the spectators, but the crowds were still treated to scores of epic displays from air arms the world over.  Ultimately the award for best overall flying display went to the French Air Force’s Rafale Solo display; an elegant and aggressive display flown by Capitaine  Jean-Guillaume “Marty” Martinez in the beautifully liveried Dassault Rafale C.

Spectators were given the chance to see Air Tattoo regulars like the Airbus A400M display and Red Arrows as well as rarer items as mentioned such as the SU-27 in its incredible blue digital camouflage.

One has to highlight and respect the professionalism of all the display pilots at the three day extravaganza as they really were up against it with the visibility and cloud base, especially on the Saturday show.

From the line up on both in the static parks and on the flying programme it was clear that a great deal of work and effort had gone into the show; as always.  As expected given the theme, the United States did feature heavily, however on a personal level there was a minor level of disappointment that some of the most highly hyped and coveted aircraft were sat in the static park.  As published multiple times by DB House in the lead up to RIAT, the organisers do not get to pick and choose what actually flies and what sits in the static park sadly. 

The United States fly past warrants a further special mention, especially for the formation pass of F-15 Eagles, a rare site at UK air shows.

Next years theme for RIAT is 100 years of the RAF,  to be held from 13th to the 15th July and early expectations from aviation enthusiasts are that the RAF are to feature heavily and perhaps we may see a UK F-35 Lightning II display of some sort.  Here’s hoping.

Review by Jonathan Wintle

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