NARRATIVE BY GRAHAM BRIGHT & IMAGES BY MARK ROURKE
2017 Royal International Air Tattoo
The 2017 Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) was held at Royal Air Force (RAF) Fairford over 3-days from the 14th-16th July 2017, with the main display days being the Saturday and Sunday. As in previous years the display aircraft and their support arrive in the week leading up to the show, and depart during the week after. This makes RAF Fairford one of the busiest airfields in Europe for 2-weeks of the year.
The theme of this year’s show was to showcase and celebrate the 70th anniversary of the formation of the United States Air Force; this is particularly apt for this airfield due to its historical connection with USAF operations, and the close relationship between RIAT, the RAF and the US military.
RAF Fairford was constructed in 1944 and built to support the D-day invasion of Normandy during World War II by acting as a departure point for a force of troop carrying aircraft and gliders for both the British and American forces.
Following the end of the war in Europe, and as the Cold War with the Soviet Union began, the British and American governments agreed that elements of the newly formed USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) would be based in the United Kingdom (UK).
It was felt that the bases in East Anglia were too close to the Warsaw Pact, and potential air attack, so airfields were selected behind the fighter defence line. The four airfields selected were RAF Brize Norton, RAF Greenham Common, RAF Upper Heyford, and RAF Fairford.
In 1950, 3-years after the formation of the USAF, RAF Fairford was transferred to the USAF for strategic bombing operations, and the construction of a 10,000 foot runway to support those operations commenced.
The runway was completed in 1953 and the first aircraft of SAC to utilise the airfield were the Convair B36 Peacemakers that were forward deployed from Carswell Air Force Base (AFB) in Texas.
These were followed by the Boeing B47 Stratojet’s that were maintained at a heightened state of readiness due to increased tensions between the Soviet Union and the Western World.
Since the end of the cold war the airfield has seen active service in support of USAF operations during both Gulf wars and in the conflict over the former Yugoslavia.
Following a major NATO funded upgrade RAF Fairford remains a designated standby airfield for strategic bombing operations that is capable of reactivation at 24-48 hours’ notice, as well as hosting USAF strategic reconnaissance units flying the Lockheed U2, and of course the annual Air Tattoo.
The USAF was formed following the National Security Act of 1947 that was signed by President Harry Truman on the 25th July, the act decreed that the Air Force which had formerly been part of the US Army would become its own branch of the US military, this became effective on the 18th September, and so at the dawn of jet planes, supersonic flight and nuclear deterrence the USAF was born.
To celebrate the anniversary it was expected that USAF participation at the tattoo would be at a high level and they did not disappoint. Participation in the flying display and static came from the following elements based in Europe and the United States:
Representing Air Combat Command was the Lockheed Martin F22A Raptor from the 1st Fighter Wing (coded FF) based at joint base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, and the Lockheed U2S from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing (RW) from Beale AFB (BB) in California.
The United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) provided a mix of combat and support aircraft, RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk sent a Boeing KC135R Stratotanker from the 100th Air Refuelling Wing (ARW), while the 352nd Special Operations Wing (SOW) supplied both the Bell Boeing CV22B Osprey and the Lockheed Martin MC130J Commando II.
From the 48th Fighter Wing (LN) at RAF Lakenheath both versions of the McDonnel Douglas F15 Eagle in the shape of the F15C from the 493rd Fighter Squadron (FS), and the F15E Strike Eagle from the 492nd FS appeared. Combat rescue capability was present with the Sikorsky HH60G Pave Hawk from the 56th Rescue Squadron (RQS).
On deployment to RAF Lakenheath from their base at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany the Lockheed Martin F16C Fighting Falcon from the 52nd FW (SP) appeared in the static park as well as the commemorative flypast that formed part of the main flying programme.
The other European based aircraft in the static display was the Gates C21A Learjet that is used for VIP transport, communications and medivac duties from its base at Ramstein Air Base in Germany where it forms part of the 86th Air Wing (AW).
Air Mobility Command sent a Boeing C17A Globemaster III from the 437th AW from their base at Charleston AFB in South Carolina. The C17A is now the primary heavy lift tactical and strategic transport aircraft in the USAF inventory with 224 examples having been delivered between 1993 and 2015.
Global Strike Command is the main user of RAF Fairford with regular deployments of the Boeing B52H Stratofortress, Rockwell B1B Lancer, and Northrop Grumman B2A Spirit. In the static park the B1B was present with an example from the 28th Bomb Wing (BW) from Ellsworth AFB (EL) in South Dakota, while the B52H was from the 2nd BW at Barksdale AFB (LA) in Louisiana.
The flying display was curtailed by the weather on the Saturday which caused the cancellation of the heritage flypast from the F22 with its World War II forebear the North American P51D Mustang; however the inventory demonstration from USAFE included the KC135R, F16C, F15C/E and the Lockheed Martin C130J Hercules. The C130J had forward located from its base at Ramstein to RAF Mildenhall and came from the 86th AW (RS).
The USAF aerobatic display team (The Thunderbirds) gave their usual demonstration of precision formation manoeuvres and fast passes despite the low cloud, and demonstrated the agility of the F16C and its 2-seat version the F16D to good effect.
This was an excellent contribution, and we can only hope that they can match it in the years to come.
RIAT was not just about the USAF, with participation from a total of 25 countries the static arena showcased aircraft from across Europe and further afield.
There was a Boeing E7A Wedgetail from The Royal Australian Air Force, the Boeing CH147F Chinook and Boeing CC177 Globemaster III from the Royal Canadian Air Force, a Boeing KC767J supplied by the Japanese Air Self Defence Force, and 2 aircraft from the Air Force of the Ukraine with the Ilyushin IL76MD tanker/transport, and Sukhoi SU27UB fighter.
As well as the USAF examples the display area also contained a mix of Hercules transport aircraft. The oldest was a Lockheed C130E from Pakistan, along with C130H’s from Jordan and the Netherlands; the more modern C130J came from Israel and Qatar.
The display teams are always popular and even without the Frecce Tricolori from Italy or the Patrouille de France from the Armee de l’Air (AdlA) there was still plenty for the crowds to enjoy.
As well as the USAF Thunderbirds who won an award for an outstanding contribution to the show, there was the Midnight Hawks from Finland with the British Aerospace Hawk Mk 51, the Patrouille Suisse flying the Northrop F5E Tiger II, the Royal Jordanian Falcons with the Extra EA300L, and the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Display Team, the Red Arrows, with the Hawk T1.
The top solo flying displays from the weekend were honoured with awards presented by the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust (RAFCT).
The best overall flying demonstration went to Capitaine Jean-Guillaume “Marty” Martinez of the AdlA flying the Dassault Rafale C from St. Dizier. This award followed his success in 2016 when he won the best solo jet demonstration.
Major Dan “Rock” Dickinson was also a winner for the second time, picking up the best jet demonstration for his display in the F22A; he noted that that he was particularly pleased to accept the award in the 70th anniversary year of the USAF.
Best UK participant was Flight Lieutenant Ryan Lawton who flew the British Aerospace Typhoon FGR4 from 29 (Reserve) Squadron at RAF Coningsby.
Not to be outdone by the fast jets the Pilatus PC9M flown by 1st Lieutenant Andrey Fiorelli of the Slovenian Air Force was awarded the trophy for best individual flying display.
Always a popular RIAT participant the SAAB JAS39C Gripen in the hands of Captain Ivo Kardos of the Czech Air Force won the prize for the best overall flying demonstration by an overseas participant.
The Friends of RIAT awarded the “As The Crow Flies Trophy” to Colonel Ileksander Oksanchenko of the Ukrainian Air Force who flew the Sukhoi SU27PM. The air arm was a late confirmed participant to the event but their contribution in both the flying and Static Park was very welcome, let us hope that they return again in 2018.
Best livery for a participant went to the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (RSV) flight test centre of the Italian Air Force and their Panavia A200A Tornado. The aircraft was painted to celebrate the 60 years of their squadron, and was a striking feature in the flying display.
On the 1st April 2018 the RAF will celebrate its Centenary; RAF100 will commemorate and celebrate the achievements of the past while inspiring future generations and technology in a changing global environment.
One of the most high profile events will be RIAT 2018 to be held between the 13th and 15th July, the RAF promises it to be an extra special event, and one that will be eagerly awaited by all of us with an interest in aviation.