Prose & Photography: Robert Griffiths

Royal International Air Tattoo 2018 – July 10th-16th
RAF Fairford

It’s that time of year again, and no I don’t mean Christmas! Once a year, the annual pilgrimage for my father and I start off with the building excitement from announcements, to ensuring my gear is present and correct and hitching up the caravan (trailer to you guys across the pond). It seems to play out the same every year; with the caravan in tow, we travel together for a weeks’ worth of aviation at what I consider my home away from home: a little village in Gloucestershire. It remains quiet for most of the year, but then becomes the centre for hundreds of thousands of aviation fans. Its name is Fairford and it is a base for the United States Air Forces. Fairford is your typical English village as you would see in the brochure: quiet, quaint, sandstone houses with babbling brooks, but this tranquillity is shattered yearly by the cacophony of aviation related noises. This is the Royal International Air Tattoo, or more commonly, RIAT.

Originally called Air Tattoo, it was started in 1971 and was held at North Weald Airfield just North of London before moving to RAF Greenham Common between 1973 and 1983. In 1985, it would move to RAF Fairford, where it has been held ever since. It would gain the International vernacular in 1976 after its cancellation in 1975 after sponsor withdrawal and a renewed effort to advertise the show for the RAF Benevolent Fund. In 1996,  the Queen would grant it the unique status of Royal International Air Tattoo. In 2003, Guinness World Records called it the biggest military air show with 535 aircraft in attendance.

My own story with RIAT can be traced back to 1993 when my father won camping and show tickets for weekend. We had only been to two shows previously and far more locally in Wales, but this would set the precedent for the rest of my life, and one I have always been grateful for. IAT 93’ is ever etched in my mind as spectacular but tragic at the same time. This year would see the arrival of Russian Air Force hardware the likes of the West had never seen. MiGs, Tupolevs, everything in the Former Soviet Union had to offer with a full display by two MiG 29 Fulcrums. The tragedy would involve the two MiGs colliding but thankfully with no loss of life (somehow!) or further airframe destruction.

2018 would see my 23rd year at RIAT and over ten years as a Friends of the Royal International Air Tattoo (FRIAT). This year was something special and more poignant than many previous shows. This year would see the Centenary of the Royal Air Force and was pushing to be the biggest gathering of RAF aircraft from past, present and future. With a full air show over three days along with arrivals and departures, it was going to be a very busy few days. Not long after arriving at the campsite, my camera was already out, capturing the practice displays and I was raring to get into the Park & View areas to get closer to the action.

It’s difficult to condense 6 days’ worth of arrivals and air shows so I will condense these into some of my highlights from the show;

  • Couteau Delta Display of the French Armee D’Lair in their Dassault Mirage 2000s - this two-ship role demo is something that has been very special since 2016. The high energy, close formation display really puts the Mirage through its paces around the skies of Wiltshire.

  • French Marine Breguet Br. 1150 Atlantic 2 or ATL 2 - this was a first for me and this was meant to display this year but was unfortunately called away on operations. Thankfully I was able to catch it departing on the Wednesday.

  • Trenchard Formation – this formation made up of Battle of Britain Memorial Flight aircraft was a tribute to the RAF’s founder, Marshal of the RAF Sir Hugh Montague Trenchard. It was made up of the Lancaster, Dakota, two Hurricanes and four Spitfires.

  • 617 Squadron Tribute – with 75 years of the anniversary of the Dambusters Raid there was a special tribute which involved the Lancaster, Tornado Gr.4 and a newly arrived Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II of 617 squadron. After a single pass the Tornado and Lightning would do a joint pass before breaking off. The Tornado would then proceed with a high-speed run along the crowd line (a fitting send off for the type) followed by a slow down to the hover by the Lightning.

  • Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet Display -- the arrival of the beautifully coloured Hornet to the UK was one hotly anticipated by many in the UK. With its display at Yeovilton and a pass through the Loop en route to RIAT she is quite simply a stunning scheme and a fantastic performance.

  • Ukrainian Air Force Sukhoi SU-27 Flanker – this display was a surprise in 2017 and it was lovely to see again. Another spirited performance from such a large fighter it is simply stunning to watch this piece of hardware originally from Russia get put through it’s paces as if it was something half the size. Simply awe inspiring! And that colour scheme!

  • Estonian Air Force Antonov AN-2 – although not displaying, to see this old piece of Soviet era tech bumbling along into RIAT 2018 for static and out on departures day was something special. A rare sight indeed at RIAT and indeed the West.

  • Martin Baker Meteor Jet – the Meteor test bed for Martin Baker made a welcome appearance this year after some time as a non-flyer. This jet is still being used as an ejection seat test bed for the company, a system that has saved thousands of lives to date.

  • Royal Air Force RC-135V Rivet Joint – it was nice to see the latest ISR asset the RAF had at the Static park next to the E-3 Sentry.

  • Kawasaki C-2 – a late addition to the static aircraft list the new Japan Self-Defense Force (JASDF) Kawasaki C-2 medium transport made the long journey via Canada to debut at the show. It was lovely to see this almost mini C17 from the Japanese and as ever their crew were polite and very welcoming aboard the aircraft.

  • Numerous aircraft visits – many of the larger aircraft were open to the public to access and chat to the crew. Yours truly really enjoyed getting inside the Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker ‘Miss Irish’ and talking to the crew including sitting in the pilot’s seat and the boom operators position in the back (gave a good indication of what Raphael Duncan has to deal with!). I also got into the McDonald Douglas KC-10 Extender which will retire before the 135.

Overall, another bumper year for RIAT and one of the best I have been to in some time. There seems to have been an uplift in the quality of the show in the past three years and I hope that it continues… but how do you top it?