NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY MARK ROURKE WITH ADDITIONAL IMAGES BY ODESSA MUNCADA & MANO ACOSTA ZAPATA
ROYAL INTERNATIONAL AIR TATTOO 2023
From the first arrivals on Tuesday July 11th, to the departures on Monday July 17th , the sounds, smells and sight of hundreds of aircraft around the huge USAF base at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire reverberates around this quiet corner of the English countryside. The Royal International Air Tattoo is back in town. In reality, RIAT never leaves, as a dedicated staff for the worlds greatest military airshow are required all year round. RIAT does not just happen, and an army of permanent staff, part-timers, volunteers and military personnel ensures this massive display of aviation related extravaganza runs smoothly.
The statistics for the 2023 edition of RIAT are impressive. 253 aircraft from 25 different nations participated for the three day event held over the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. With 48 Air Chiefs from countries around the globe joining over 150, 000 spectators this year, they had to bear something that the organisers could not control – the weather. 2022’s return of RIAT after the pandemic saw record temperatures in England on the weekend of the show, but this years event was marred by extreme climatic conditions of wind and rain, particularly on the Friday which saw some displays cancelled or curtailed. It was better for Saturday and Sunday but the wind and a few showers still affected some of the show.
This year RIAT led with two main themes, Skytanker, celebrating the history of air-to-air refuelling (AAR), and the hundredth anniversary of the Italian Air Force. For the skytanker theme aircraft from across the globe attended to show the variety of this essential component of modern military capability. Air to air refuelling is not new, the concept began on April 20th 1923 with the first ‘dry’ test flight, and a few weeks later the first actual AAR took place on June 27th 1923. The United and Kingdom and the United States of America have been at the forefront of AAR since it began, highlighted by the fact that this first successful refuelling in mid-air was flown by Americans Lieutenants Hine and Smith in British designed Airco DH-4B bi-planes. Nowadays the two leading concepts in AAR are the American Flying Boom and British Probe and Drogue systems. Both types were in attendance at RIAT in the static park and in the air.
On the 28th March 1923 the Italian Air Force was born. Called the Regia Aeronautica (Royal Air Force) it soon found itself involved in operations, particularly in Ethiopia and Spain, before the start of World War Two. There was a name change in 1946 as Italy became a republic, and the name, Aeronautica Militaire (Italian Air Force) took over as it lost its Royal title and is what it is known as today. There is no doubt that the Italian Air Force (ITAF) supported RIAT with a very large contingent on display at RAF Fairford. The ITAF had 19 aircraft around the showground and in the air over the weekend, and with support from the Italian Navy, Italian Army and historic aircraft, the show had a decidedly Italian feel this year.
The Italian Air Force are of course famous for painting their aircraft in special schemes and this year was no exception, even more so because of the centenary. One such special marked aircraft was one of two A-11 Ghibli aircraft in the static display. The Italian MOD decided a few years back to rename their aviation assets to make them more understandable and relevant to their role, so the A-11 would probably be more well known as the AMX to the British enthusiasts. The ITAF also embraced the Skytanker theme with a Lockheed Martin KC-130J Hercules of 46 Brigata and Boeing KC-767A from 14 Stormo on show. Since retirement of the Panavia Tornado from RAF service in 2019 this swing-wing strike bomber is a rare sight in the UK, so it was welcome that the ITAF Italian Air Force 6 Stormo sent over two A-200A versions for the British public to witness in the showground area especially set up for the sizeable Italian contingent. A very welcome addition were two SIAI U-208A trainers, a very rare sight in Britain.
This excellent contribution from the Italians was reflected in the awards given out at RIAT with three Trophies won by them. The RUAG Trophy (Overall winner of the Concurs d’Elegance competition) for the aforementioned SIAI-Marchetti U-208A, The ‘Spirit of the Meet’ trophy awarded to not just the ITAF, but also the Italian Historic Aircraft Group for embodying the spirit of the Air Tattoo and last, but not least, to the Italian Army’s 5th Aviation Regiment A-129 Mangusta winning the RAFCE Trophy for best flying demonstration by an overseas participant.
The main beneficiary of any Tattoo is the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises, dual chaired by Air Marshal Phil Osborn and Alan Smith. The Royal Air Force always supports RIAT in good numbers and has its own exclusive area on the showground to support the future of the service with the Royal Air Force Experience aimed at highlighting the role of the RAF and includes recruitment opportunities in the diverse aspects of life in the RAF. This area held Airbus Military A400M Atlas C.1 ZM421 of 70 Squadron, the latest of the huge 4 engine transport aircraft delivered a few months ago to its base at nearby RAF Brize Norton. Dominating this area was an even larger aircraft, a Boeing C-17A Globemaster III of 99 Sqn. The Red Arrows were back in the air as an 8-ship this season after its recent issues and hopes to be back to the iconic 9-ship in 2024. The RAF even managed to get Lancaster B.1 PA474 to brave the weather on the Sunday so the sound of 4 Rolls Royce Merlin engines made a fantastic soundtrack different to the jet engines normally prevalent in the air display at a modern military show such as RIAT. RAF Brize Norton joined in with the Skytanker theme with a demonstration of the probe and drogue system from one its Airbus A330 Voyager aircraft throughout the weekend. The aircraft also paid tribute to new NATO members Sweden and Finland by flying in refuelling formation with a Swedish Air Force Saab JAS 39C Gripen on Sunday and a Finnish Air Force McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet on Saturday. The Steedman Display Sword, for the British participant with the most notable contribution to RIAT, was won by Flight Lieutenant Matt Brighty in his brightly coloured Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 of 29 Squadron. One of the many highlights was when a 617 Squadron Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning formatted with a Spanish Navy EAV-8B Matador II+ , showing these very different but also very related airframes together in the air.
The RAF was not the only UK armed force that operates aviation assets obviously, and it was nice to see the Army Air Corps debut its new Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian this year. ZM710 from 3 Regiment taking its place in the static alongside two Westland Gazelle AH1s and a Wildcat AH1. The Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy had another rarely seen aircraft in the static area with Flag Officer Sea Training (FSOT) AS.365N2 Dauphin ZJ165. Even though the Dauphin has been in service for over 20 years it is not common to see this aircraft at an airshow.
No less than four Belgian Air Force General Dynamics F-16AM Fighting Falcons attended this year, the strikingly coloured FA-87 from 350 Squadron having one of the most amazing schemes applied to a F-16. Unfortunately another very colourful F-16, this time from Royal Danish Air Force ESK 727 unit, had a technical fault and could not display Saturday and Sunday. No less than 3 different Saab JAS 39 Gripen air demonstrations took part in the flying programme – from the Czech Air Force, Swedish Air Force and the brand new JAS 39E from Saab. The latest E version will replace the current C version in Swedish Air Force service. Andre Brannstrom, flying the E model at RIAT, was awarded the Paul Bowen Trophy for the Best Solo Jet Demonstration. It must be said that one of the most graceful displays ever seen at any tattoo was by Captain Nils Schylstrom in the Swedish Air Force Saab SK.60. He deservedly won the King Hussein Memorial Sword for most Polished and Precise Flying Display.
Talking of award winners, Capatine Betrand ‘Bubu’ Butin stole the show. His display in the French Air Force Rafale set a very high bar for future fast jet displays at RIAT and elsewhere. It was simply amazing. The organisers and FRIAT obviously thought so too, as he was awarded the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for Best Individual Flying Display and the Best Overall Flying Demonstration from FRIAT in the shape of the As The Crow Flies Trophy.
Back to some tanker action, and a great combination of large and small from the German Air Force. An Airbus A400M from LTG 62 at Wunstorf formatted with two Panavia Tornados to highlight the flexibility of the A400 airframe in the many roles it has taken over from individual aircraft, which includes AAR. The Tornados themselves showed another tactical operation in air to air refuelling with the Buddy Buddy pack slung underneath one of the jets trailing a probe and drogue to simulate a refuelling of his wingman. The spectators were spellbound at the sight of Tornadoes again in the British skies after the RAF retirement in 2019. The German Army was again back at RIAT to showcase in NH Industrie NH90 TTH helicopter in the flying display and in the static show.
Kudos has to be given to the organisers to trying to cater for enthusiasts needs at such a huge public event, and as they are aviation lovers themselves, they know what they like. This is why in one of the few areas at RAF Fairford where you can get uncluttered backgrounds for your aircraft photos they situated some classic and rare jets. A very nice line up of Hellenic Air Force McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II, Polish Air Force Sukhoi Su-22M4K and McDonnell Douglas AV-8B+ and TAV-8B+ Harriers were a firm favourite with many who attended to look at the diversity of aircraft on offer at RIAT. With the crews there selling merchandise and meeting and chatting to the enthusiasts the feeling was mutual.
The Jordanian Air Force (RJAF)has been a firm supporter of the Tattoo for decades, and the determination of the Jordanian Falcons to format with Flying Scholarships for Disableds Piper PA-28 on Sunday during monsoon conditions was a sight to behold. The Middle East air arms that attend RIAT are a big attraction for plane spotters in Europe to attend RIAT and they were spoilt for choice this year. As well as the RJAF, the Qatari Emri Air Force had brand new Eurofighter Typhoon QA414 in the static alongside two 11 Squadron BAE Hawk mk.167s. Saudi Arabia took on the mantle of Sky Tanker with Airbus A330 MRTT 2403 from 24 squadron in the static display and in the air the Saudi Hawks display team wowed the audience with a very polished and interesting display. The United Arab Emirates Air Force Team Fursan, equipped with Aermacchi MB.339NAT trainers, perhaps had the most heavily dense coloured dye seen from an aerobatic jet demonstration team in living memory, the smoke adding to another fine performance.
Its not just the military air arms that make RIAT of course, they are assisted by numerous civilian, industry and warbird aircraft to make RIAT the greatest airshow on Earth. HM Coastguard made their RIAT debut of the new Diamond DA-62 MPP alongside a Beech 200 and Sikorsky S-92A seen before at the show. The centenary celebration area for the Italian Air Force would not be complete without historical context and seeing three FIAT G-46 alongside Piaggio P-149s, a De Havilland Vampire, T-6G Texan and SIAI SF.260AM with their more modern counterparts only added to what was already a spectacular display. On the civilian front one of the most interesting was the AERVOLT Pipstrel Velis Electric powered aircraft, the first type certified fully for VFR pilot training. Metrea is a civilian company offering air to air refuelling to assist military air arms across the globe using ex Republic of Singapore Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers and displayed one of these aircraft in the static park. Perhaps for many the star of the show as Messerschmitt Me-262 D-IMTT. One of 5 new built examples by the Me 262 Project in the USA, D-IMTT is the only one of these to operate in Europe and is owned by the Flugmueseum Messerschmitt at Manching in Germany.
RAF Fairford for the 51 weeks RIAT is not on, is home to the United States Air Force 501st Combat Support Wing which are known as the Pathfinders. Over the years the USAF has supported RIAT beyond what could be expected, right from the early days at RAF Greenham Common. There is no other show where the you will see as many USAF assets in one place outside the USA as the Royal International Air Tattoo. Highlights including refuelling demonstrations as part of Skytanker with the Lockheed MC-130J with a Bell/Boeing CV-22B Osprey, both part of the 352nd Special Operations Wing at RAF Mildenhall, and a Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker of the 351st Air Refuelling Squadron trailing its Flying Boom past the crowds of spectators and enthusiasts. With over twenty aircraft on show from the USAF, from fighters, the mighty Boeing B-52H Stratofortress, to the rather apt Weatherbird WC-130J, perhaps its best to let USAF Air Force Chief of Staff, General CQ Brown Jr state what RIAT means to the USAF.
“RIAT is always a fantastic opportunity to showcase our airmen, aircraft, and weapons systems. This year is particularly significant as we recognise a century of achievement in aerial refuelling and the benefits it has provided to allied airpower, an increasing important capability in a changing world. I thank our friends in the RAF for continuing to host the annual celebration of airpower”