Royal International Air Tattoo 2019, RAF Fairford

Royal International Air Tattoo 2019, RAF Fairford

The Royal International Air Tattoo returned in 2019 celebrating an Air and Space theme plus the 70th Anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Other anniversaries were also marked over weekend including the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings, the 75th Anniversary of RAF Fairford and the 50th Anniversary of Concorde. 245 aircraft representing 25 different nations attended the event which returned its more familiar three day format with a shorter preview day on the Friday and the main longer displays held over the weekend.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author or as credited. Video from 

July always sees many of the biggest UK airshows of the year with the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at RAF Fairford being the highpoint. It is undoubtedly the biggest airfield based airshow of the year and an important date on the defence diplomacy and aerospace industry calendar. 2018 saw the show hold three full show days in a one-off for the 100th Anniversary of the Royal Air Force but 2019 returned to the more familiar format of a ‘preview’ day on the Friday with the full event taking place on the Saturday and Sunday. The showground too returned its more familiar smaller self with the return of on-base parking at the eastern and western ends.

RIAT was a milestone in the 2019 season as it marked the last weekend of Red Arrows displays in the UK before the team embarked on an extensive tour of Canada and the United States. This became the first subject of an intensive marketing campaign for the show which at times even pushed my patience with the level of marketing emails and social media posts. While marketing emails and social media posts are essential to promote the wide range of attractions at RIAT, I think the level of the 2019 campaign at times appeared a bit too frantic and knowing everything about the show is not always a good thing. Personally, a little bit of discovery, surprise and showmanship always boost my enjoyment of any event and for future years I hope a more balanced approach is adopted.

2019 marks the 50th Anniversary of the first human flown moon landings in July 1969 but the year has also seen the Royal Air Force ramping up its commitment to Space technology. This was reflected during the Air Power Conference which takes place in London during the build-up to RIAT where it was announced 23 Squadron would reform as a dedicated ‘Space Squadron’ overseeing the UK’s own defence satellites and coordinating with partner nations. It was therefore fitting that the main theme of RIAT was Air and Space. The main focus for this theme was the Techno Zone area which houses an incredible array of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics displays from the Aerospace Industry. Perhaps the star of the exhibition was Airbus Mars Rover prototype but there was plenty of activities for everyone to enjoy. The space theme also attracted British astronaut Major Tim Peake to the Air Tattoo for the first time. He said: “It was satisfying to see the wonderful impact that the Techno Zone is having in promoting STEM and inspiring youngsters.” Tim had quite the adventure during his visit to the Cotswolds flying with the Red Arrows during an in-season practice on the Thursday before the show too and clearly enjoyed the flight.

70th Anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

The major aviation theme of the 2019 Royal International Air Tattoo celebrated the 70th Anniversary of NATO. Many of the static display aircraft came from NATO Members plus nations that participate in NATO programmes such as the ‘Partnership for Peace.’

Alongside the Techno Zone, there were further glimpses of the future with a number of factory demonstrator aircraft on display as well as mock-ups of projects in development. Team Tempest had their full scale model on display and RIAT saw British and Swedish politicians confirm an agreement to work together on the future fighter. There were also familiar industry displays from Leonardo with the T-346 Master, Bombardier, Textron Aerospace and Gulfstream. Brazilian aerospace company Embraer continued their growing support of the show too with the Air Tattoo debut of their attractively painted EMB-314 Super Tucano demonstrator. One of the most eye-catching aircraft however was the Northrop Grumman Firebird. This light surveillance aircraft can either be configured as a manned aircraft or as a Remotely Piloted Aerial System for a variety of military and civilian tasks.  

The RIAT static displays are always the biggest of their kind in Europe and cover a very wide range of aircraft both modern and historic. All air forces find supporting airshows more challenging but it was good to see such variety on show. The Royal Air Force’s contribution was centred on the RAF Experience Area which showcased the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules C4, Westland Puma HC2 and Raytheon Sentinel R1 aircraft. RIAT also marked the first time the Royal Air Force and its industry partners had been able to show its new Military Flying Training Systems in full with Grob Prefect T1, Airbus Helicopters Juno HT1 and Jupiter HT1, Embraer Phenom 100, Beechcraft Texan T1 and BAE Systems Hawk T2 all displayed together. Close by were several historic training aircraft including the de Havilland Chipmunk T10, SA Bulldog T1 and three examples of the BAC Jet Provost.

Further UK military participation came from the Army Air Corps ad Royal Navy. Both displayed aircraft together with the Army having an impressive exhibition with example of the Leonardo Wildcat AH1 and Apache AH1 displayed alongside a Taylorcraft Auster AOP9. Likewise the Royal Navy grouped its BAE Systems Hawk T1, Wildcat HMA2 and Merlin HM2 together with its exhibition trailer. Increasingly, other UK government agencies are exhibiting at RIAT. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency had its own impressive exhibition on the static line with the Cessna F406, Leonardo AW189 and Sikorsky S92 on display. QinetiQ are long standing participants and this year exhibited examples of the Pilatus PC-21 and BAE Systems RJ70.

July 2019 also saw the first flight by a RAF Boeing P-8A Poseidon from Boeing’s factory. The type was once again represented in the static display by a US Navy example alongside some other American machinery. It was particularly good to see a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress back in the RIAT static display. The example that attended looked extremely weathered with almost all its leading edges worn through to the yellow primer paint. Other US participation included a 315th AW C-17A Globemaster III, KC-10A Extender, MC-130J Commando II, F-15E Strike Eagle and CV-22B Osprey.

As ever, there was superb support from some of the UK’s European allies, particularly the German Armed Forces and Italian Air Force. It was particularly impressive to see so many special scheme jets amongst the static display participants including the commemorative D-Day schemed F-16BM Fighting Falcon from the Royal Norwegian Air Force, the ‘Dannebrog’ F-16AM Fighting Falcon from the Royal Danish Air Force which marks the 800th Anniversary of the Danish Flag plus two special Squadron anniversary schemes on the Eurofighter EF2000 and Panavia Tornado IDS from the Luftwaffe.

International Static Display and Support Stars

As ever, RIAT’s static display was full of military and civilian aircraft from across the world. Some of the star items for enthusiasts are some of the support aircraft bringing in equipment and personnel for the participation aircraft and VIPs.


RIAT’s Middle Eastern based participants also wore pleasing special tails. The Turkish Air Force was represented in the static display by a pair of McDonnell Douglas F-4E-2022 Phantoms. The charismatic cold war warriors both wore tail-art with one celebrating 60 years of the F-4 and the other the 70th Anniversary of NATO.

The Royal Jordanian Air Force are one of the Tattoo’s most loyal participants always represented by a Lockheed C-130H Hercules. This year their aircraft wore a special tail celebrating the air arms relationship with the event on one side and large representation of the Royal Jordanian Falcons flying over the desert on the other. The Pakistan Air Force was another welcome returnee this time with a Lockheed C-130B Hercules, one of the oldest of the type still flying. The aircraft wore some patriotic markings as well as tail markings representing the Air and Space theme of the show and perhaps a glimpse of future projects the country will undertake.

Equally attractive was the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III from the Qatari Amiri Flight which was joined by a rather more drab Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Hercules II from the Qatari Emiri Air Force. A further C-17A was also on show from the multi-national Strategic Airlift Capability. The superb run of support from the Royal Canadian Air Force continued too, this time with a Lockheed Martin CC-130J Hercules II and CP-140 Aurora.

As well as the fixed wing types, there was a nice selection of rotary aircraft. Star turns were the Aerospatiale SA330B Puma and SA342M Gazelle from the French Army and an Italian Air Force pair of Leonardo HH-139A and HH-101A Caesar. Other international helicopter participants included a German Navy Westland Sea Lynx Mk88 and a Royal Danish Air Force Leonardo Merlin Mk512.

For those attending the arrivals and departure days some of the star items were those supporting the show. Amongst the more usual C-130 Hercules from the Swedish and Italian Air Forces were such gems as a brand new Swiss Air Force Pilatus PC-24 plus rare appearances by a Dassault Falcon 7X and Airbus A319 from the Hungarian Air Force.

The flying displays held over the three show days are always the main attraction of RIAT for its visitors and naturally receive the most comment. Saturday and Sunday ended up looking very different with Sunday’s display ended slightly earlier than that on the Saturday. The majority of the difference came aircraft availability for some of RIAT’s iconic formation and flypast set-pieces but there were a handful of display items also unavailable on Sunday due to commitments elsewhere. These circumstances are well beyond the control of the flying display organisers and I hope very much that 2019 proves something of freak year in this regard. Friday’s ‘preview’ display was always going to be shorter by design, but became a near write-off due to the persistent low cloud that plagued the area.

Saturday’s full display started with one of those unique set-piece formations which involved three Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons from the Belgian Air Force. The formation was led by the familiar ‘Dark Falcon’ solo display aircraft. The other two were from 349(F) and 350(F) Squadrons of the Belgian Air Force which were both Free-Belgian units serving with the RAF during the Second World War and were both involved during operations supporting the D-Day Landings. This year those squadrons have adorned their aircraft with some beautiful tail-art celebrating their role in June 1944 with invasions stripes added to the rear fuselage and wings of the jets. After a couple of formations passes, the combination performed an elegant break before Captain Stephan Darte performed his solo display.

The second major formation of the weekend was one of the outstanding highlights of the whole show celebrating the 100th Anniversary of British Airways. The airline has supported the Air Tattoo is various ways for many years and often used to ran charity charter flights into Fairford. In their 100th year, British Airways has given four aircraft within its fleet ‘Retro’ schemes celebrating BOAC, BEA and earlier BA schemes. For their flypast at Fairford, their BOAC marked Boeing 747-400 flew two spectacular flypasts with the Red Arrows on the Saturday.

The centrepiece of the NATO 70th Anniversary events was also a flypast. However, it was much more than a single formation and was planned to comprise of multiple of elements but was sadly never seen in its planned entirety. A NATO Boeing E-3A Sentry was planned to have lead the flypast but on Saturday it was unserviceable. It did get airborne on Friday to flypast on its own thus making a very rare UK flying display appearance and the first for several years. Saturday’s full flypast was led by a three-ship of Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s from Nos II and IX sqns and followed by four-ship of Lockheed Martin F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcons from the Royal Danish Air Force, the Belgian Air Component, the Royal Netherlands Air Force and the Royal Norwegian Air Force. The Luftwaffe had committed three aircraft to the flypast but sadly its A400M was called back before RIAT and the Tornado was unserviceable leaving just a solitary Eurofighter EF2000. The star of the flypast line-up was a Boeing C-135FR/KC-135RG Stratotanker from the French L’armee de l’air. It was certainly the first time a French C-135FR/KC-135RG had participated in a UK flying display and will perhaps be the last as the French fleet is due to be soon  replaced by the A300MRTT known as “Phenix” in AdlA service. Bringing up the rear of the flypast were three McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagles from RAF Lakenheath.

Fairford, which itself celebrates its 75th Anniversary in 2019, was also pivotal in the development of the Anglo-French Concorde supersonic airliner. The British prototypes were built at Filton in Bristol but Fairford’s longer runway was more suitable for test operations. 2019 marks the 50th Anniversary of the first flight of the Anglo-French project and to celebrate that Saturday witnessed highly unusual joint flypasts by the Red Arrows and the Patrouille de France both in ‘Concorde’ formation. It was beautifully presented with joint commentary from both of the team commentators and each team taking turns to smoke national colours with their national anthems playing over the commentary system.

The contribution of the Red Arrows to the 2019 was marked by the team being awarded the Steedman Display Sword for best display by a UK participant. Team manager Sqn Ldr Doug Smith commented, “This is absolutely fantastic. We adore coming to RIAT every year — it’s a tremendously well-run airshow — and to come away with the trophy for best display from the UK is stunning. To do the flypasts with the 747 in BOAC livery and the ‘double Concorde’ formation was really, really good.”

Sunday’s display also had its own special flypast with the Blades Aerobatic Team flying in close formation with the Airbus A400M demonstrator. This formation marked Airbus’ own 50th Anniversary and was also a great piece of airmanship matching such a large transporter with four small sports aerobatic aircraft.

The Red Arrows and Patrouille de France also performed their own displays over the weekend and were joined by Il Frecce Tricolori, Royal Jordanian Falcons, Blades Aerobatic Team and Breitling Jet Team for an impressive gathering of formation display teams. Considering the Blades are celebrating their 14th display season in 2019 and their military heritage it is surprising this was their first visit to the Air Tattoo. They did not disappoint the crowds either drawing the biggest applause during the flying displays. The Frecce’s displays also impressed the flying control committee with the team being awarded the RAFCTE Trophy, awarded to the best flying demonstration by an overseas participant. Team leader Maj Stefano Vit said, “It is really a great honour for me and for all the team, because it’s a special trophy. The Air Tattoo is the biggest airshow in Europe, and winning this trophy is a big reward. It’s nice to leave an occasion like this.”

The UK armed forces were presented in the flying by the Royal Air Force and Army Air Corps. Flt Lt Liam Matthews had the honour of performing the final Shorts Tucano T1 demo at RIAT over the weekend and was joined by Flt Lt Neil Owczarkowski flying the Grob Tutor T1 who due to weather was restricted to just one display on the Sunday. The Royal Air Force’s new combination front line jets was also on show with Flt Lt Jim Peterson giving a powerful aerobatic account of the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 and brief appearances by the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning on the Friday and Saturday. UK rotary air power was represented in the display by RAF Boeing Chinook HC6A from 18(B) Sqn and the Army Air Corps Attack Helicopter Display Team with the AgustaWestland WAH-64D Apache AH1. The Royal Air Force provided the only heritage display in the flying with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flying their fighter pair of Supermarine Spitfire IX and Hawker Hurricane IIc on both weekend days plus the Avro Lancaster B1 on the Sunday.

It is however the number international solo displays that are the most outstanding feature of a RIAT flying display. Eastern European hardware is a highlight of any show and there were two such cold war warriors in the display this year. The Ukrainian Air Force’s Sukhoi Su-27P1M ‘Flanker solo display from the 831st Guards Tactical Aviation Brigade has been a high point of RIAT flying displays for the past three years but this year was in the hands of new display pilot, Lt Col Yurii Bulavka. His smooth yet powerful demonstration of the massive interceptor won him the Paul Bowen Trophy for the best solo jet display. “I will say only one thing”, commented Bulavka. “Thank you for your attention, wonderful Air Tattoo. See you next time!”

But for Air Tattoo enthusiasts it was the long overdue return of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 Lancer-C to RIAT that was the highlight of the flying display. Operated by the Romanian Air Force, the Lancer-C is a heavily updated version of the classic 1960’s era Soviet fighter. With its tiny delta wing and massive engine, it put on one of the most eye-catching displays showing off the full performance envelope of the aircraft including the incredibly high speed it lands at! With the Romanians taking on the more modern F-16, the MiG-21’s days may be numbered so I hope this wasn’t a final appearance.

The Hellenic Air Force’s Beechcraft T-6A Texan II solo display, Daedalus, made its first RIAT appearance this year. The team were conducting a short UK tour which saw them display at the Royal Navy International Air Day a week earlier. The team brought a special display aircraft to the UK which wore the Greek national colours and had its own smoke system showing off their pleasing display at its very best.

Il Frecce Tricolori were just part of another impressive contribution from the Italian Air Force. The Reparto Sperimentale Volo (Flight test Centre) had three different displays which took part over the weekend. Fast jet action came from the Eurofighter F-2000A Typhoon and Leonardo T-346A Master which both gave style displays against the grey skies. The Alenia C-27J Spartan is an Air Tattoo favourite and was back giving its unique aerobatic display full of jaw-dropping rolls and Derry turns.

Joining the Belgian F-16 was the United States Air Force’s official F-16 Viper Demo Team which made the trip over from their home at Shaw Air Force Base. The team flew a F-16CM Fighting Falcon borrowed from the 52nd Fighter Wing based at Spangdahlem in Germany. Maj. Garret Schmit flew a very different routine to that of his Belgian counterpart with some very sharp aggressive turns and pitches. His take offs were equally aggressive with a very low 90 degree turn to start his display. Sadly Sunday’s display was cut short after it appeared the rear section of one the F-16’s horizontal stabilizers started to delaminate!

Joining the F-16s were a pair of McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet displays. The Swiss Air Force demo which this year is flown by Capitaine Nicolas ‘Vincent’ Rossier has for a long time shown the amazing abilities of the type to fly at extreme angles of attack to great effect. He was joined at RIAT by his Finnish Air Force counterpart, Capt Arto Ukskoski. Arto’s display was simply breath-taking showing off Cobra-like pitches and near stall-turns in the heavy fighter. He was a double-winner in the post-show awards taking away the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for best individual flying demonstration and and the As The Crow Flies Trophy for best display as judged by the enthusiast members of Friends of RIAT. “I am quite surprised”, said Ukskoski, “because there are so many good aircraft and so many good pilots. It’s amazing, especially for the Finnish Air Force because we don’t do so many airshows internationally every year.”

Further Scandinavian display flying came from the Swedish Air Force SAAB JAS-39C Gripen flown by Major Peter Fallén. Peter has been a regular at RIAT with his fast-paced and precise displays in the Gripen and this year won the King Hussein Memorial Sword for best overall flying demonstration. An emotional Fallén said, “This means so much to me. I’m almost in tears now, because RIAT has been a big part of my career as a display pilot. I’ve been flying here for six years, and it’s been the main event every year. I’m so grateful.”

It was however a very special duo of fast jets that proved to be the show stars for enthusiasts and the public alike. RIAT’s Air Operations has for many years worked with the Spanish Navy to bring a display of the McDonnell Douglas EAV-8B Harrier II+ to Fairford. 2019 was the year it happened marking some 25 years since the Spanish Navy last appeared at the then IAT 1994 with first generation Harriers in the flying and static displays. As in 1994, the arrival of the Harriers was not without incident after a minor fire stared in one aircraft’s landing gear. In the true spirit of RIAT however, the Spanish were not beaten and the next day a Cessna Citation arrived from their base at Rota with spares to get the jet operation for the weekend flying displays. For their efforts, they were awarded The RIAT Chief Executive Trophy, presented by outgoing Air Tattoo CEO Andy Armstrong. In celebration of their Air Tattoo appearance both aircraft wore special tails combining the Spanish national colours, the Cobra insignia of 9 Squadron and Air Tattoo artwork. Friday’s low cloud reduced the display to a solo but both weekend days saw a unique pairs display from the two Harriers. The Harrier pair were the show Finale on Sunday afternoon and there was something particularly nostalgic watching the two fighters hovering over Fairford’s runway in the late afternoon  sunshine. For one of the pilots, Commander ‘Moro’, Sunday’s display also marked his final Harrier flight before his next posting to Colombia. “Moro”, who has flown 2,200 hours in the Harrier during his career, commented: “I am very happy to have my last flight here, not many pilots get to have their last flight at an airshow. Flying the Harrier at the Air Tattoo is like being a rock star on a stage, there is so much support from the crowd.” After his display, he was greeted by a water arch salute from the Air Tattoo’s firefighters.

The Spanish Harrier crew were also visited by record-breaking pilot Tom Lecky-Thomson during their time at the Tattoo. Tom flew a first-generation Harrier in the 1969 Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race between London and New York. The participants in that race started from the Post Office Tower in London and completed their race at the top of the Empire State Building in New York. After a short helicopter flight from the Post Office tower Tom flew the Harrier from a railway yard near St Pancras Station using a vertical take-off before a six hour transit to a New York pier. From there he used a motorcycle to get to the Empire State building. Tom said: “I am so proud to have been a part of the team that had made that flight. The Harrier was a wonderful aircraft to fly, even better than a helicopter when in the hover.” His Spanish counterparts were amazed when Tom explained he had just 70 hours experience in the Harrier when he took part in the race.

There’s nothing quite like the Royal International Air Tattoo on the European airshow circuit. Few other events can match the international line-up or the scale of spectacle that the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises team manage to put together year after year. While Air Tattoo 2019 may not join the ranks of the most fondly remembered Fairford events, it was still a great Air Tattoo full of rare aircraft and probably more set-piece flypasts than we’ve seen at previous events. There’s no doubt the majesty of the BA100 flypast, the ever so powerful and aggressive Finnish Air Force F-18C Hornet, the thump of the MiG-21’s reheat kicking in or the sight of two Harrier hovering again over Fairford in Sunday’s late afternoon sun will feature highly in many people’s memories of 2019 season.