Royal International Air Tattoo 2022, RAF Fairford

After a long three-year absence, the Royal International Air Tattoo returned in 2022 with the most outstanding showcase of global military aviation. The highlights from RIAT 2022 were plentiful with Bahrain becoming the 57th nation to send an aircraft to the event, the very welcome return of the Republic of Korea Air Force’s amazing Black Eagles and the European airshow debut of a United States Air Force Boeing E-4B Nightwatch airborne command and control aircraft. All together this was classic RIAT which was matched by some scorching weather reminiscent of the golden 1990’s period.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author or as credited. To view the slideshow of images from the show, click any of the square thumbnails to start! 

Introduction

The return of the Royal International Air Tattoo was much heralded by airshow fans, the armed forces and industry alike. Its absence during 2020 and 2021 left a massive gap in the display season and its return hopefully signals a return to more normal times. The 2022 show was a complete sell-out over all three days with a bumper crowd approaching 200,000 attending.

Royal International Air Tattoo 2022, RAF Fairford - Image © Paul Johnson/Flightline UK

Some of the challenges of the pandemic still loom large over the events industry and RIAT isn’t immune from those. The loss of contractors and rapidly rising costs no doubt caused headaches and some very frank discussions in Douglas Bader House in the build up to the show. While rolling over tickets from 2020 and 2021 was welcome and did mean Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises had some cashflow over the fallow period, it would have undoubtedly made 2022 more of challenge financially. Undoubtedly, the new financial landscape events find themselves will be reflected in ticket prices for 2023 onwards. Sadly, RIAT’s first stage of introducing the price rises to its FRIAT members was handled rather clumsily and caused a fair bit of unnecessary heartache amongst the Air Tattoo’s loyalist supporters.

Bringing events back after one or two years away can in itself be a challenge with knowledge and experience lost in the inevitable churn of staff and volunteers. Since the last show at Fairford, there has been plenty of change at the base with much of the northside of the airfield currently undergoing redevelopment as the base prepares for a more active role. Perhaps the most noticeable change was the skyline under the flying display with a new hangar complex under construction near the centre of the airfield. However, RIAT really felt just as well organised as it was in 2019 and the team of staff and volunteers deserve a lot of praise for what was a very smoothly run event in some very challenging working and weather related conditions. Of course, there would have been many things that could have been done better, but there was nothing like the difficulties experienced in 2002 when RIAT returned to Fairford after two years of organising events at RAF Cottesmore. 

While the aircraft and aircrews are very much the show stars, RIAT offers so much more and attractions like the Techno Zone, RAF Experience and the Village Green were as popular ever offering the crowds a great deal of entertainment and engagement during the very long and hot weekend.

Maverick touches down at RIAT

It was not just aircraft or the armed forces that made headlines at RIAT. On Saturday, Tom Cruise visited the show on Saturday spending time with Air Cadets, Aircrew and many other guests of the Air Tattoo.

Paul Atherton, Chief Executive of the RAF Charitable Trust Enterprises, said “Tom’s visit is something we’ve been trying really hard to keep under wraps but keeping secrets like that is hard when they’re so exciting! The Top Gun films and Tom’s famous passion for aircraft and flying have really helped to catapult aviation into the spotlight, which will help promote and inspire future generations of young people. RIAT is a home for those who appreciate the brilliance and excitement of the aviation world, so I am delighted to be able to welcome Tom to that home.

A thought for Ukraine and absent friends

Royal International Air Tattoo 2022, RAF Fairford - Image © Paul Johnson/Flightline UK

The Ukrainian Air Force have been enthusiastic supporters of the Royal International Air Tattoo for a number of years. The terrible situation that Ukraine finds itself in defending itself against an aggressive Russia was very much on the minds of everybody at RIAT.

In the static display, there was poignant space paying tribute to Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko who sadly lost his life earlier in 2022 defending his homeland. Alongside the Ukrainian flag, there three chocks laid out where the wheels of a Su-27 would stand and some special artwork designed by Dean West.

Oksanchenko had previously displayed the mighty Su-27 Flanker at RIAT in 2017 and 2018 winning the 2017 As The Crow Flies Trophy for best overall display awarded by the Friends of RIAT.

In all, the 2022 Royal International Air Tattoo welcomed some 268 aircraft together with 1,500 aircrew. The Royal Bahraini Air Force participated for the first time with one of their Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules becoming the 57th participating nation.

The camaraderie amongst the participating aircrews has always been exceptional, but this year saw a really lovely example of the spirit of RIAT. On the Saturday evening, the crew of the Trago-Mills SAH-1 Trainer spotted an elderly gentleman in the queue for their aircrew shuttle back to their hotel. He had clearly enjoyed his day and was telling war stories but it turned out he had missed his coach back to his home in Worthing and just wanted a lift to the station to try and find a train. However, the crew of G-SAHI did wonder how easy it would be to get a train home that late at night and managed to organise a whip round amongst the crew on that bus raising £194. They then managed to find a cab company willing to drive the gentleman home to Worthing from the aircrew hotel in a very comfortable Mercedes. The quick thinking and generosity was right recognised the next night at the Hangar party with a special award from RAFCTE.

Though RIAT always gathers a very varied selection of aircraft each year, many of them represent an operational theme or anniversaries. This year, the operational theme ‘Training’ , the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the 75th Anniversary of the United States Air Force dominated the static displays.

The Platinum Jubilee

Earlier this year, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II marked 70 years on the throne. During that time, she has shared a special relationship with the UK armed forces and those from the Commonwealth.

To celebrate the Jubilee a number of Royal Air Force and Commonwealth military aircraft both modern and historic were gathered In the RIAT static displays to mark 70 years of service by the Queen.

Training

The operation theme of training attracted an exceptional array of aircraft from a number of military operators. Amongst the rarest participants at RIAT 2022 were a pair of SOCATA TB-30 Epsilon trainers from Esquadra 101. Some of the other modern military highlights included the public airshow debut of the Qatari Emiri Air Force BAE Systems Hawk Mk.167s which are based at RAF Leeming.  Industry also sent some of their latest wares for static display including the new Pilatus PC-7 MkX and the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano. There were also a number of civilian aircraft from RAFCT supported flying clubs, the Flying Scholarships for the Disabled Charity and private operators. Amongst the civilian aircraft were a lovely Cessna FR172 marked up as a US Army Cessna T-41B Mescalero and a collection of light aircraft from the Italian based Fly Fano team 

It was however some classic jets that really were the standout participants within the theme. RIAT finally succeeded in getting a McDonnell Douglas A-4N Skyhawk to grace Fairford’s concrete with an example from Canadian firm Top Aces. These aircraft are based in Germany and used for dissimilar air combat training with Luftwaffe and other NATO aircraft. Joining the A-4 were three jets from the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight making their RIAT debut. They brought the two seat SAAB Sk37C Viggen, Sk35C Draken and J32B Lansen to RIAT arriving during the exceptional ‘Preview Day’ held on the Friday.

75th Anniversary of the United States Air Force

USAF participation is always a special part of any Air Tattoo. However, it is particularly special when USAF celebrates a major anniversary as demonstrated in 2007 and 2017. In 2022 though, USAF seems to be keeping 75th Anniversary celebrations quite low key, even in their homeland. This was reflected in the support for RIAT 2022 which perhaps didn’t match the hype bestowed on it by enthusiasts. It was further dampened at the last moment with the cancellation of a pair of B-52H Stratofortress aircraft for operational reasons.

RIAT did however manage to still put together a really credible celebration of USAF history in the static displays with a line-up spearheaded by historic aircraft. Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally-B’ was at the centre of the static displays and was joined by gaggle of warbirds which included some stellar international participation from Mistral Warbird’s Canadair CL-13B (F-86E) Sabre and Flying Legends’ North American P-51D Mustang ‘Frances Dell.

While much of the modern USAF line-up was familiar, USAF’s latest tanker aircraft, the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus made its RIAT debut alongside more familiar shapes such as the KC-135R Stratotanker, F-15E Strike Eagle, F-35A Lightning II, MC-130J Commando II, Lockeed U-2S and CV-22B Osprey.

But perhaps the standout aircraft supporting the USAF 75th Anniversary and probably the entire show was the Boeing E-4B Nightwatch. Operated by the 595th Command and Control Group, the aircraft is used as the National Airborne Operations Center from where military and government control can be maintained in times of war. Though based on the Boeing 747, the aircraft is heavily modified and is hardened against the effects of a nuclear blast. Just four of these aircraft are in service and are seen in support of presidential trips across the globe. They are very rare airshow participants in the US and RIAT 2022 was the first time the type had participated at an international show. It made quite the arrival too as part of Friday’s preview day performing a flypast before landing in front of the audience – a very special moment in RIAT history!

International

From Bahrain becoming the 57th participating nation with its C-130J Hercules through to a gathering of aircraft celebrating the 200th Anniversary of HM Coastguard, the Royal International Air Tattoo attracts a sizable number of aircraft from across the globe in its static displays and offering more general support for the show.

There were some far travelled airlifters on show with a Japanese Air Self Defence Force Kawasaki C-2 and a Brazilian Air Force Embraer KC-390 Millennium. Closer to home another star participant was a Romanian Air Force Antonov An-30 Clank photo cartography and reconnaissance platform. Another Eastern European national giving exceptional support to RIAT was the Lithuanian Air Force with a C-27J Spartan and a very welcome appearance by a Aérospatiale AS365N3+ Dauphin from their Search and Rescue unit.

There was some superb support from the Luftwaffe which contributed an Airbus A340, Airbus A400M plus pairs of Panavia Tornado IDSs and Eurofighter Typhoons. Adding to the collection of Eurofighter Typhoons was a factory fresh example from the Kuwaiti Air Force making a very welcome return to the Air Tattoo after nearly 30 years.  Perhaps making the type’s final Air Tattoo appearance was an Italian Air Force AMX TA-11B Ghibli from 51° Stormo.

Looking to future, RIAT featured electric aircraft for the first time. Making its last public appearance ahead of preservation was Rolls Royce’s Sharp Nemesis NXT ‘The Spirit of Innovation.’ Billed as the fastest all electric vehicle of any kind, the aircraft was flown by pilots Phil O’Dell and Steve Jones to speeds upto 345mph during its short flying career.

The Flying Displays

Between Friday and Sunday, approximately 20 hours of flying displays played out for the capacity crowd in near perfect conditions. Friday is very much billed as a preview day with just a four-hour flying display whereas Saturday and Sunday saw marathon flying displays well over eight hours in duration.

In most years, Friday is usually just a cut down version of the full weekend display but this year was very different. For starters some of the outstanding highlights of the static displays were scheduled to arrive before and after the main flying displays adding a very special feel to the Friday. Secondly Friday’s flying display featured a number of displays not seen during the main weekend flying displays. Throughout the weekend, the Red Arrows performed different flypasts with other aircraft. Friday saw the return of the Royal Air Force’s Maritime Patrol capability celebrated with a Boeing Poseidon MRA1 from 120 Squadron leading the seven scarlet Hawk T1s through clear blue skies.

 

Following the Red Arrows display there was then another special flypast featuring two Extra 300LPs of the Blades Aerobatic Team with 2Excel Aviation’s Boeing 727-2S2F Oil Spill Response Aircraft which was arriving for static display.

Friday is very much an ‘industry day’ and this was reflected in the flying display with the only appearance of the weekend by the Leonardo AW149 demonstrator. This helicopter alongside with Airbus Helicopter H175M which was on static display are competitors to replace the Royal Air Force’s Puma helicopters in the not-too-distant future. The final of the unique displays to the Friday was Rolls Royce’s Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX flown by Chris Hadlow. The aircraft also flew much later in the day during RIAT’s Gala Dinner on the northside.

 

The Royal Air Force were very much at the forefront of the flying displays. The special flypasts by the Red Arrows continued into the weekend with Saturday seeing the team fly with the RAF’s VIP configured Airbus DS A330MRTT Voyager KC2 ‘Vespina’ while Sunday saw the team flying with the Republic of Korea Air Force’s Black Eagles. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight also supported all three days of the event with their Supermarine Spitfire IX and Hawker Hurricane IIc. The weekend displays saw the Avro Lancaster B1 PA474 join the show with the team performing their standard three-ship display.

Solo displays came from the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 flown by Flt Lt Adam O’Hare and the Boeing Chinook HC6A captained by Flt Lt Matthew Smythe. The latter picked up the Steedman Display Sword for best display by a UK participant. The RAF’s latest fighter also featured in the flying with a brief flypast and hover by a 207(R) Squadron Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning. The F-35 was flown by Lt Nick Smith from the Royal Navy. Nick, who is the son of Duxford warbird pilot Brian Smith, is no stranger to the display world being a pilot for Air Leasing flying a number of different warbirds..

 

The Training theme pervaded throughout the flying displays with displays from solo items and the teams. The Royal Danish Air Force’s Baby Blue Display Team were making their Air Tattoo debut this year with their new six ship routine. Flying the SAAB T-17 Supporter which are used as basic trainer, their routine a pleasing mix of solo aerobatics and formation flypasts which culminates in their eye-catching waterfall break.

More advanced training aircraft were presented as solo displays with the Slovenian Air Force Pilatus PC-9M Hudournik and the Finnish Air Force BAE Systems Hawk Mk.51. The latter display was a new display for RIAT with Captain Eemeli Vähäsöyrinki performing a very elegant routine accentuated by the wing-mounted smoke generators.

 

The French Air and Space Force’s Mustang X-Ray Tactical Demonstration Team made their UK display debut flying a pair of Pilatus PC-21s from BA709 Cognac-Châteaubernard. The PC-21 fulfils a number of different missions in the training role and their display highlighted some of the basic combat profiles that are taught on the type including air interception and ground attack.

 

Pilatus products were also highlighted by two of the national display teams participating later the flying displays. 2022 marks the centenary of the Irish Air Corps and to mark this milestone they have reformed their display team, the Silver Swallows. The team last appeared at RIAT in 1997 when the team were in their last year flying the Fouga Magister. In 2022 they fly four Pilatus PC-9M training aircraft through a very original routine of formation passes and solo aerobatics. The honour of closing the weekend flying displays was given to the Swiss Air Force with presented a very entertaining combination of the PC-7 Team and their F/A-18C Hornet solo display. The PC-7 Team were down to just eight pilots due to parental leave but still gave a very polished display in the early evening light.

 

Joining the Swiss hornet were a string of other solo jet displays. Further hornet action came from the Spanish Air Force’s EF-18M Hornet while the F-16 was represented by the impressive F-16AM Fighting Falcon from the Belgian Air Force and the Hellenic Air Force’s Zeus Demo Team flying the later F-16C Fighting Falcon. The Swedish Air Force also continued their great support of RIAT with their SAAB JAS-39C Gripen solo display. 

The Royal Jordanian Falcons have long been fantastic supporters of RIAT and no comeback show would have been complete without them. Against the spectrum of big heavy military hardware, they are often overlooked but their display is always worth watching with some spectacular breaks and crossing manoeuvres.

 

More colour and panache came from the Italian Air Force’s Il Frecce Tricolori. The 10 Aermacchi MB339PANs are always one of the must-see displays when they appear at RIAT filling the big Cotswolds skies with the national colours of Italy. They headlined an impressive contingent of Italian Air Force displays with also displays from Reparto Sperimentale Volo’s Leonardo T-346A Master, Eurofighter F-2000A Typhoon and the Alenia C-27J Spartan. The Spartan display added to the long list of awards won by Italian G222 and C-27J displays picking up the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for best solo display.

Despite the obvious pressures due to the war in Ukraine, Eastern European nations really did support RIAT very well with flying displays. The Czech Air Force sent two very different helicopter displays. Despite having been a regular on the European circuit for many years, the pair of Mil Mi-35 Hind and Mi-171Sh Hip were making their RIAT debut this year. It was also the first time an example of the Mi-8/17/171 family of helicopters had appeared in a RIAT flying display as part of a formal display. Another RIAT first timer was the incredible little PZL W-3A Sokół search and rescue helicopter. While billed as a search and rescue demonstration, the Sokół is quite the performer able to tight very tightly at some very unusual angles. The winchmen also made a notable performance as part of the routine dangling from the full length of the wire as the helicopter completed a very speedy circuit of the airfield!

 

It has been quite sometime since the Hungarian Air Force appeared in a RIAT flying display and it was good to see them back with two very different displays. Their SAAB JAS-39C Gripen solo display picked the Paul Bowen award for best solo jet thanks to its dramatic routine which included the its trademark ‘dump and burn’ pass. However, it was the Hungarian Mil Mi-24P Hind display flown by Lt Col Sándor Makaithat and Lt Col Attila Suszter really caught the eye with a very spirited routine which used pretty much all of the crowd line.

Another punchy helicopter display came from the German Army’s NH Industries NH90TTH. Displayed with its long-range tanks fitted, the crew really showed off the power and agility of the tactical transport helicopter with some tight turns and steep spiral descents. Completing the rotary action in the displays was a Bell/Boeing CV-22B Osprey from the 7th Special Operations Squadron based at RAF Mildenhall. With the loss of the B-52 flypasts, this was the only USAF contribution to the flying display in their 75th Anniversary year.

 

Saturday’s display saw a very unique public display debut with some flypasts by an Airbus A330-743L BelugaXL from Airbus Transport International. This latest generation of outsize transport aircraft is used by Airbus to transport various sections of its aircraft to the final assembly line at Toulouse in France from factories across Europe. Airbus Test Pilot Anthony Flynn was at the controls of giant transporter and gave some impressive passes before a dramatic departure into the gin clear blue skies.

 

One of the weaknesses of RIAT in recent years has been the lack of big set-piece role demonstrations. IAT and subsequently RIAT was once famous for the ‘Theatre of the Air’ concept which often saw fast jets, helicopters and transport aircraft demonstrating various types of military operations to the public. Such demonstrations have also become intrinsic parts of European military airshows. That was put right at RIAT 2022 with the Austrian Air Force Quick Reaction Alert demonstration involving one of the Lockheed C-130K Hercules and a pair of Eurofighter EF2000 Typhoons. The C-130K played the role of a non-communitive aircraft in friendly airspace with the pair of Typhoons scrambled to intercept, identify and escort the rogue aircraft to a safe landing. Once the C-130 had landed the two Typhoons then demonstrated a sequence of very dynamic one-on-one air combat manoeuvres with completely enthralled the audience. This superb display was another award winner picking up the RAFCTE Trophy.

 

However, the enduring highlight of RIAT 2022’s flying displays was the highly anticipated return of the Republic of Korea Air Force’s Black Eagles aerobatic team who first appeared at RIAT in 2012. A decade on, the team were just as if not more impressive with the incredible weather over the weekend allowing the team to perform their full displays. The KAI T-50B Golden Eagle lead-in fighter trainer the team flies has an amazing presence in the sky and the team takes full advantage of its exceptional performance with some dramatic and very fast formation changes performed mid-loop or mid turn. While some of their display has some familiar formations and aerobatic figures, it is also highly original with some very creative elements – not least painting their nation symbol, the Taegeuk, in the skies over Fairford. Their incredible performance in the air is matched by their enthusiasm on the ground as well. Their support and PR team were very friendly visitors to the FRIAT enclosure each time they flew and the rest of the team were spotted around the showground meeting the public and taking in the whole event. It is little wonder then the team repeated its feat of 2012 winning both the King Hussein Memorial Sword and FRIAT’s As the Crow Flies awards for best overall flying demonstration at RIAT 2022.

In Conclusion

I always knew I’d be writing just how good it was to be back at RIAT again, but RIAT 2022 was a very special and exceptional comeback for the team at RAFCTE. A herculean effort by the relatively new team at RAFCTE, superb support from the UK and international air arms, the series of very special arrivals during Friday’s preview day and enthralling flying displays held in stunning summer weather really did show what we have been missing in 2020 and 2021. There are undoubtedly some lessons learnt from this year and a number of challenges ahead for RAFCTE and RIAT, but on the strength of 2022 I have no doubt they will overcome them and remain as a centrepiece of the UK and European airshow season for years to come.