On Bank Holiday Monday 31st May 1971, a new airshow called “Air Tattoo ‘71” supporting the Royal Air Forces Association opened its doors at North Weald in Essex. Over the subsequent 50 years that fledgling event would develop into one of the world’s greatest and most inspiring aviation spectacles. On the 31st May 2021, the Royal International Air Tattoo marked its 50th anniversary with a small celebration at North Weald alongside one of the aircraft that appeared at that first event.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author with video footage from the Royal International Air Tattoo.
While it looked very different from the modern day Royal International Air Tattoo, “Air Tattoo ‘71” set many of the precedents that set the foundations for the ‘must-attend’ event it is today. Perhaps the most important was the impressive international participation which in 1971 included military aircraft from the United Kingdom, United States, Austria, Denmark, France and the Netherlands. The show also included historic military aircraft such as the Spitfire IX MH434 and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight plus a Formula 1 Air Race! That first show attracted 80 aircraft and was enjoyed by a crowd of 12,000. It also gained national newspaper coverage thanks to the support of the Daily Express.
The 1971 show organisation was led by Squadron Leader Jack Currie but amongst the organising team were Boscombe Down based air traffic controllers Tim Prince and Paul Bowen. Over the subsequent years Paul and Tim became co-directors of the organising team leading a small dedicated permanent staff and thousands of volunteers that helped create some of the most memorable aviation spectacles.
After another event at North Weald, the Air Tattoo moved in 1973 to the United States Air Force base at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire where it expanded significantly becoming a two-day event and had acres of hard standing to fill with aircraft. This expansion also brought in sponsors including many of the big aerospace firms who saw the potential of the event as a major networking event with so many air forces taking part bring high ranking officials with them. Air Tattoo ’74 was the last associated with the Royal Air Forces Association and for 1976 the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund started a long association with the show. The Embassy and eventually the International Air Tattoos also fostered the incredibly close relationship the Air Tattoo has shared with the United States Air Force to this day.
The long taxiways at Greenham lent themselves to some incredible gatherings of singles types. In 1976, the Air Tattoo celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the Hawker Hunter with 26 aircraft lined up. 1979 saw the show celebrate 25 years of the C-130 Hercules with 25 airframes lined-up.
1985 saw the move to the show’s present home at RAF Fairford, another United States Air Force base. Greenham had been a very good base to host the show, but Greenham’s changing role saw it chosen to house USAF cruise missiles. Not only did this mean some major construction on the airfield, but made it just too sensitive to house a major public event – particularly with the arrival of protestors outside the base fence. At the time Fairford was an active base as home to the European Tanker Taskforce with its KC-135 Stratotankers. Like Greenham, Fairford boasted miles of hardstanding allowing for huge gatherings of aircraft allowing the show to grow and grow. Like Greenham, Fairford was also able to host huge line-up of single types often associated with an operation theme. IAT’94 brought together 40 C-130’s for the 40th Anniversary of the type though the number dwindled slightly during the show weekend as aircraft were recalled due to the Rwandan humanitarian crisis. A year later with the operational theme of ‘Skytanker’ there was memorable line-up of Boeing KC-135s alongside other tanking aircraft.
The 1990’s were truly golden years for the Air Tattoo when its international reach grew substatially and often made global headlines. The IAT organised ‘TVS Battle of Britain Airshow’ at Boscombe Down in 1990 saw the first Eastern European displays at the event when Czechoslovakian based companies displayed the L-39MS Albatross Let L410UVP at the event for the first time. The next year at IAT’91, the Czechoslovak Air Force participated with a MiG-29A Fulcrum and L-39ZA Albatross in the flying display plus a MiG-23ML Flogger, An-12 Cub and Tu-134 on static display. IAT’91 was also memorable for it’s salute to aircrews that had participated in the first Gulf War earlier that year and a 30th Anniversary Tiger Meet that added a great deal of colour to the static displays.
Throughout the 1990’s more Eastern European air arms made their western debuts at IAT events but perhaps the biggest coup was the 1993 appearance by a Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-95MS Bear-H. That year the aircraft appeared on static display alongside a USAF B-52H Stratofortress making for some very memorable photographs. IAT’93 also grabbed the headlines with the mid-air collision between two MiG-29s from the Gromov Aviation Research Institute. Caught for a national television programe annd by hundreds of photographers, the images of the mangled yellow and blue aircraft were beamed around the world though fortunately there were no serious injuries.
IAT ’94 saw a Tu-95MS return for a flying display appearance and a Russian Navy Tu-142 Bear-F on static display. In 1996 the Russian Navy returned with an Ilyushin Il-38 May and in 1997 the Russian Air Force presented Sukhoi Su-30s in both the static and flying displays. The Ukrainian Air Force also became stars of 1990’s Air Tattoos with appearances from the Su-27, Ukrainian Falcons and the T-22M3 Backfire bomber.
1995 saw perhaps the ultimate airshow finale, the Victory Salute. In what was the absolute definition of ‘Theatre of the Air’, the salute was very much the vision of Paul Bowen and saw aircraft and helicopters from multiple air arms lined-up and hovering in along Fairford’s runway while a series of flypasts from historic and modern aircraft passed overhead while Peter Donaldson gave an emotional commentary that was prepared by IAT’s commentator Sean Maffett.
1996 saw IAT become RIAT as the event was awarded the Royal title reflected its significance to the nation. Then in 2000 and 2001, the show moved to RAF Cottesmore in Rutland while RAF Fairford’s infrastructure and runway were renewed. While the shows were slightly smaller at Cottesmore, they still retained the unique spirit of the Air Tattoo.
In 2002, RIAT moved back home to Fairford and faced new challenges. Since the last Fairford event in 1999 the world had changed drastically following the events of September 11th 2001 and security became a major challenge for all military events. Due to the queues getting in through new security arrangements RIAT 2002 was not fondly remembered and those feelings were further aggrivated when Saturdays flying programme was disrupted after the Italian Air Force G222 display made a heavy landing on the newly re-laid runway causing the front undercarriage to collapse. It was a great shame that the poor visitor experience in 2002 affected the crowd numbers in 2003 as that very much a return to form for RIAT which celebrated 100 Years of Powered Flight with nearly over 500 aircraft taking part including many from museums that were brought in by road to Fairford especially. Financially however, 2003 was not a successful event for the organisers or the RAFBF charity.
2004 also started on a sad note with the passing of Paul Bowen which was a bit hit for the RIAT team. They however carried on to produce another memorable Tattoo that featured an emotional salute to its director with one of the Flying Scholarship for the Disabled’s Piper Cherokees leading the Royal Jordanian Falcons for a missing man formation towards the end of the flying displays. Then between the 2004 and 2005 the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund withdrew from the airshow business threatening the future of RIAT. The RAF however saw RIAT as a cornerstone of its defence diplomacy and recruitment and aided in the formation of the RAF Charitable Trust to ensure RIAT could continue.
2008 was another challenging year when unseasonable wet weather in the lead up to the event water-logging the car-parks and forcing the cancellation of the weekend event on the Friday evening putting a dampener on the RAF’s 90th Anniversary celebrations. Thankfully, the following years saw new plans to cope with extreme weather come to fruition and RIAT continued on a more stable footing attracting some spectacular international participants. Even when in 2013 when sequestration meant there was no overt USAF participation RIAT was still a very special event.
The last decade has seen RIAT continue to invite new nations to the event with notable highlights being the appearance of the Black Eagles from the Republic of Korea Air Force and Japanese participants including the Boeing KC-767J and Kawasaki C-2 from the JASDF. The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force went one better in 2015 presented two examples of the Kawasaki P-1 Maritime Patrol Aircraft in the static and flying displays. 2018 was a highlight in RIAT’s 50-year history as it hosted the international celebration of the Royal Air Force’s Centenary. It was the biggest event in RIAT’s history with three full days of action for the public to enjoy.
The Air Tattoo is however much more than an airshow. It has brought nations together to share experiences and build new relationships. For many its a huge social event where they meet friends from around the world and a truly inspiring event for thousands of devotees. I count myself as one of them; my first airshow was TVS Battle of Britain Airshow at Boscombe Down in 1990 and since then there have only been three years when I’ve not been through the gates of an IAT or RIAT. Over thirty years the events have changed a great deal, but there is always something special about being at ‘IAT.’
It has therefore been a great shame we have not been able celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Air Tattoo at the event itself. However, the occasion was marked with a small event at North Weald Airfield on the 31st May 2021. The small event organised by the current RAFCTE staff brought Tim Prince back to North Weald alongside aviation journalist Peter March. Peter was at the very first Air Tattoo and has been on the volunteer roster ever since and his photographs have documented many of RIAT’s incredible achievements.
Tim said: “Returning to the birthplace of what is now the Royal International Air Tattoo has been very special for me as I am reminded of all of the wonderful people who volunteered their time and energies and came together to stage Air Tattoo 71; whether civilian, RAF, Army, Royal Navy or Air Cadets we all stepped into the unknown and staged an event that was to become world famous as the stage for the air forces of the world to meet annually in a spirit of friendship and cooperation whilst inspiring the next generation of aviators through the magic of flying.”
Also present was one of 80 aircraft that participated at the first Air Tattoo, Jodel D140C Mousquetaire G-ATKX. This aircraft is currently based at Redhill Aerodrome in Surrey and is still flown regularly by its owners. Tim also got the chance to take to the skies over North Weald in the Jodel and take an aerial tour over the site of the first Air Tattoo.
Some of the current Air Tattoo team also joined the celebration including lead commentator Ben Dunnell who recently authored a superb book charting the history of the event and Alan Smith, chairman of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust.
The current director of RAFCTE Paul Atherton said “The Air Tattoo has an illustrious history and its success over the past 50 years is a result of the incredible support provided by the US Air Force, the Royal Air Force, international air arms and the aerospace industry. That this support continues to this day is testament to the professionalism, passion and hard work of the organising team, many of whom are volunteers, who come together each year to stage this unique event.”
By coincidence, a pair of United States Air Force C-17A Globemaster IIIs overflew North Weald on their way into Stansted supporting the G7 Summit. Their presence was quite appropriate given the level of support USAF continues to lend to the Air Tattoo with the use of RAF Fairford and visiting aircraft. In 2022, USAF’s 75th Anniversary will no doubt be a major feature of the Air Tattoo when it returns over the weekend of 15th-17th July. Paul commented; “Of course, it’s hugely disappointing for everyone involved that the pandemic has meant we’ve been unable to stage an Air Tattoo in its 50th year but we plan to be back bigger and better in 2022 to open a new and exciting chapter in the event’s history.”
Thanks to Peter Reoch and Richard Arquati for their kind invite to attend the anniversary celebrations.