The Royal International Air Tattoo 2012

Peter Cooper reports from the world’s largest military air-show with a selection of outstanding photographs and a full roundup of the event.

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Once again, as it has been in the past, the weather was not too kind in the week leading up to the show. Indeed, nor was it perfect for the two show days, which experienced some very heavy downpours. Nevertheless, some 130,000 people flocked to RAF Fairford over the weekend to witness the flying spectacle, the static aircraft, the ground exhibitions and traders. Another three nations joined the RIAT “family” and made their debut appearances at the display this year: Colombia, Japan and South Korea became the 52nd, 53rd and 54th nations to attend since RIAT began in 1971.The weather conditions throughout Europe delayed the arrival of several aircraft to RIAT, some of which only arrived at the eleventh hour. The same problem affected Farnborough, which followed directly after RIAT. As a result, there were some very last-minute display validation flights right up to and including the Friday evening.

The static display park contained some 120 aircraft, which was down on the numbers of RIAT’s heyday. However, to be fair, this is now the norm everywhere now in the wake of cutbacks across most of the world’s armed forces. There were some noticeable absentees from this year’s event as a result of commitments to conflicts and air-policing roles. However, of the many which did attend, three noteworthy visitors were the B-2A Spirit (stealth bomber) from Whiteman AFB, Missouri (with double barriers and armed guards present at all times and the aircraft hangared overnight), and C-130H Hercules from Brazil and Colombia (the latter for the first time); the Colombian C-130 also carried a T-90 Calima (Lancair) in its hold.

Many other C-130s also attended, including C-130s from Belgium, Denmark, Jordan, Norway, the United Arab Emirates and and the USAF. The Royal Air Force of Oman brought a Gulfstream IV, the German Air Force brought an Airbus A310-304MRTT and, for its first appearance at RIAT, the Japan Air Self-Defence Force brought a Boeing KC-767J. This was not only Japan’s first appearance at RIAT, but also the first appearance of an operational Japanese aircraft at an air-show outside Asia. The Italian Air Force also brought a KC-767 (a KC-767A).

Germany and and the US Navy both sent P-3C Orions; in addition to the P-3, the US Navy also sent an E-6B Mercury (airborne command post and communications relay aircraft). A Super Etendard SEM represented the French Navy, while the Polish Navy’s presence came in the form of a Mil Mi-14PL. Germany sent two types that are due to be retired in 2013: a German Navy Sea King Mk.41 and a German Air Force F-4F Phantom II. Germany also sent two Air Force Tornados (an IDS and an ECR variant) both painted in tiger markings. Another type that is also due for retirement in 2013 and which made an appearance was the RAF’s VC-10 C.1K.

As well as its navy’s Mil helicopter, Poland sent one of its air force’s C295s, and the Slovak Air Force sent a MiG-29UBS.

Airbus Military sent its ever-impressive A400M—now officially named appropriately as the “Atlas”, after the Greek god who carried the world on his shoulders—and Bell/Boeing presented its MV-22B Osprey, while NATO put in an appearance in the form of an E-3A AWACS aircraft.

The flying display at RIAT always impresses and even though there were fewer aircraft displaying this year, the display still spanned eight hours. When the honours were announced at the RIAT awards ceremony, it surprised nobody when the King Hussein Memorial Sword for the best overall flying demonstration was awarded to The Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) aerobatic team, the “Black Eagles”, for its superb display. When the Black Eagles were also awarded the “As the Crow Flies Trophy”, the team’s commander said the team was very honoured to receive two awards at RIAT to add to the one they had received at the RAF Waddington display.The Paul Bowen Trophy for the best solo jet demonstration went to Sqn. Ldr. Scott Loughran of No. 6 Squadron for his display in the Typhoon FGR.4. The Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for the best individual flying display was awarded to Captains Michael Brocard (for the second year running) and Cedric Ruet for the display in the French Air Force’s Rafale C. Captains Adrian Rojek and Artur Kalko, flying the Polish Air Force’s MiG-29A (one flying each day), won the Lockheed Martin Cannestra Trophy for the best flying demonstration by an overseas participant. The Steedman Display Sword for the best flying demonstration by a UK participant was awarded to Flt. Lt. Justin Shaw and his crew flying the Chinook HC.2 from No. 18 Sqn. The Polish Navy crew of the Mil Mi-14 “Haze” of 29 Eskadra would have been pleased with their award for the “Best Livery”, especially as it was the first time an Mi-14 had appeared at RIAT.

Individual awards notwithstanding, there were plenty of other excellent flying demonstrations: the Red Arrows’ typically excellent display; a Tornado GR.4 role demonstration, an RAF Hawk T.1A, a Tucano T.1, the Belgian and the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s F-16AM Fighting Falcons, the Swedish Air Force’s Saab JAS39C Gripen, the F/A-18F Super Hornet flown by a Boeing test pilot, an army Air Corps Apache AH.1 and the Yak-130, to name but a few.There were fewer aerobatic teams this time. Although the Royal Saudi Air Force’s Hawks had returned home from the UK after participating at RNAS Yeovilton and RAF Waddington, there were two first-time aerobatic teams for RIAT: the Korean Black Eagles, mentioned above, flying Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50B Golden Eagle supersonic jet trainers, and “Al Fursan” (The Knights) from the United Arab Emirates Air Force based at Al Ain in Abu Dhabi, who flew Aermacchi MB-339NATs. For both teams, RIAT was their first performance in Europe and both teams flew excellent displays. Al Fursan only made their debut display in November 2011 at Dubai, to mark the 40th anniversary of the United Arab Emirates, and their only other international appearance before arriving at Fairford was at Bahrain in January 2012. The RAF’s Red Arrows and the six red and white F-5E Tiger IIs of the Swiss Air Force’s “Patrouille Suisse” added a colourful mix to the numerous blacks and golds amongst the team performances. The civilian “Breitling Jet Team” performed with its seven L-39C Albatros jets and the Jordanian Falcons produced something a bit different with a polished display in their four Extra EA300Ls.

However, it was the RoKAF that stole the show with its fantastic aerobatic and fast flying manoeuvres. The Black Eagles’ ten T-50Bs were disassembled and flown to the UK aboard Korean Air B747F freighters. After arrival at Manchester, they were unloaded and transported by road to RAF Leeming in Yorkshire, where they were assembled and test-flown, and pilots from the RAF Hawk squadron there helped acclimatise the Koreans to operating and flying in the UK. Reportedly, the operation was a big success, and the RoKAF air and ground crews enjoyed their time in the UK very much. Sadly, they did not perform as a team at Farnborough the following week, although team members provided a solo demonstration each day.

“SkyLift” was the main theme for RIAT 2012, which was why there were so many transport aircraft and helicopters in the static display. It was a reminder that with everything that is happening in the world today, the international deployment of military forces relies heavily on airlift capability to provide logistic support for those on the ground in the theatres. The theme covered the full range range of capabilities, including fixed and rotary wing, in both strategic and tactical roles, as well as the ability—as has been demonstrated frequently in recent times—to use airlift for a range of humanitarian support missions. Such is the increasing demand for airlift capacity in this troubled world that many of the world’s air arms are finding themselves stretched to meet their strategic needs. As a result, there is an increasing need for multi-national co-operation and even the use of civilian aircraft for many tasks previously undertaken by military transports.

The cavalcade of transport aircraft from the nearby air  transport base of RAF Brize Norton represented the past, present and future of the RAF’s airlift capability. It included a VC-10  C.1K (101 Sqn), a TriStar KC.1 (216 Sqn), a Hercules C.5 (24/30 Sqns), a C-17A Globemaster III (99 Sqn), an Airbus (A330MRTT) Voyager KC.2 (10 Sqn) and, not yet in the RAF inventory, the A400M Atlas.

Representing the various civilian aircraft types that can be—and are—used in the transport/airlift roles, DHL sent a Boeing 757-236SF freighter, in DHL’s distinctive yellow and red livery, to give a brief display on the Saturday. On the Sunday the company sent a B767-3JHF freighter conversion to cavort around the sky, while one of its B757-236SF freighters was on display in the static park.

The second theme of RIAT in 2012 was a tribute to HM Queen Elizabeth II in her 60th Diamond Jubilee year. Part of the Jubilee celebrations included a flypast by RAF Hawks similar to the one on 19 May over Windsor Castle. A total of 27 Hawk T.1/2s were to fly in a formation that spelled out E II R. Unfortunately, the weather on Saturday—low cloud, strong winds and heavy squally showers—prevented the full formation from appearing, but a diamond nine-ship formation of the new Hawk T.2s, from No. IV (R) Sqn got airborne and flew over RAF Fairford in tribute. On the Sunday, much better weather allowed all 27 aircraft—from RAF Valley, RAF Leeming and RNAS Yeovilton—to make the dramatic E II R formation fly-by. In addition to the fly-past tribute, several RAF aircraft displayed in the static park (Tucano) and flying display (Hawk and Tucano) wore special Diamond Jubilee celebration markings.

The RAF Charitable Trust benefits greatly from the RIAT displays and provides support, grants and sponsorship to many different organisations within the RAF. Since 2005, it has awarded a total of £1.69 million to a wide range of projects and initiatives, so it is good to know that the revenue generated from these shows goes to such a worthwhile cause.

Once again—and perhaps against the odds—the organisers and 1,500 or so volunteers produced another memorable RIAT this year, which will be remembered for all the right reasons. Despite challenging times, the organisers of RIAT have maintained their belief and confidence, and secured RIAT’s place as the largest and best international military air-show in the world.

Having got very wet during two of the four days spent at Fairford, the change of timing because of the Olympic Games meant it was time to devote my attention to Farnborough—where I immediately got very wet again… but that’s another story!

Next year, RIAT will take place during the weekend of 20–21 July with the main theme of “Sky Guardian”.