The skies of the Cotswolds again rumbled to the sound of the World’s largest military airshow in July as the Royal International Air Tattoo returned. Following an exceptionally hot and dry 2022, this year saw far more unsettled conditions with the organisers and participants battling wind and rain throughout the weekend. However, they prevailed on all three days to present a superb showcase of military aviation to huge crowds.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
After the three-year hiatus due to the covid pandemic, 2022 had been a triumphant return for the Royal International Air Tattoo with almost everything seeming to go the way of the RIAT organisers – big crowds, some superb participation from across the world and truly exceptional sunny weather. 2023 was altogether more challenging with some unseasonably unsettled weather and some of the local roads knocked out of action. One road which forms the Purple Route and the Blue Exit route was specifically recommissioned for the show with three temporary bridges over the subsiding areas – it looked an expensive installation but helped enormously aid the flow away from Fairford at the end of the day!
But the major headache was the weather. After a very hot dry June, July was much fresher and unsettled. Poor weather across Europe and the UK did scupper some plans for transits to Fairford with a Hungarian JAS-39C Gripen and the two Army Air Corps Gazelle AH1s not arriving for static display until Saturday morning! Over the Air Tattoo weekend, the forecast worsened for the Friday and Saturday. Friday was a very wet day indeed, but somewhat surprisingly the cloud base remained relatively high, and the visibility underneath was good enough for some of the scheduled display items. The persistent rain had gone by Saturday, but in its wake came some very strong winds and sharp showers as a low-pressure system skirted over the UK. The majority of the displays scheduled for Saturday did fly though a couple of star items did remain on the ground. By Sunday the winds had dropped, but there were still some showers about allowing for a very near full programme to take place.
Visitor experience for a huge event like RIAT is everything. While much was familiar for 2023, there were some frustrating moments for some. RIAT has always had a high level of security, but it was tighter for 2023 and was noticeably a slower process during Saturday’s event. Sunday seemed like a breeze by comparison. Also, the promised ‘No Luggage’ lanes didn’t materialise – a bit frustrating for those that had planned to travel light.
There has also been a fair amount of comment made about the new catering found around the showground regarding price and speed of service though the choice was appreciated. Those attending Park and View East however found a very limited offering that was also quite expensive = £10 for a Bacon Roll/Baguette?!?!
Niggles aside, the aviation element of RIAT was as good as ever with the SKYTANKER23 and Italian Air Force 100th Anniversary themes attracting some great participants in the air and in the two-mile static display area.
SKYTANKER23 – The Static Element
2023 sees the 100th Anniversary of Air-to-Air Refuelling. In 1923, trials at Rockwell Field led to a Airco DH4B passing 75 gallons of fuel to another DH4B via a hose. The receiving DH4B went on to fly q further six hours and 38 minutes before being forced to land with engine issues. 100 years later the art of aerial refuelling is far more sophisticated with various techniques used by military aircraft around the world. A more recent development has seen commercial operators flying tanker aircraft to support various military flights around the world. While there was no return of the huge lines of tankers seen during IAT95, there was still a pleasing, but small collection of various tanker aircraft from Italy, the NATO Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport Unit, Saudi Arabia and the United States. However, perhaps the standout aircraft was the former Royal Singapore Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker operated by Metrea Strategic Mobility.
The 100th Anniversary of the Italian Air Force
The Italian Air Force have long been superb supporters of RIAT and it was great to see the show celebrate the major anniversary of an overseas air arm. The showcase was sponsored by Eurofighter GmbH and brought together a great selection of historic and modern Italian Air Force aircraft. It was however a theme rather badly hit by cancellations. Notably it was the loss of the Italian based classic jets that was the biggest disappointment. Considering just how late the Fiat G91R from Volafenice had been made airworthy for June’s event at Pratica di Mare it was perhaps little surprise it didn’t make RIAT. However, it was a great shame not to see either of the MB326s which didn’t make it despite being scheduled to arrive on Wednesday. However, full credit to the pilots of the trio of Fiat G46s, the Piaggio/Focke-Wulf FWP149Ds, T-6D Texan and SF260AM and support aircraft for making it to Fairford.
The modern day Aeronautica Militare also lent strong support. As well the KC-130J and KC-767A supporting the SKYTANKER23 theme they debuted their Gulfstream/IAI E-550A CAEW in the anniversary section of the flying display. Also making a very welcome and rare appearance were a pair of SIAI-Marchetti U-208A aircraft plus perhaps the very last RIAT appearance by a pair of AMX International A-11A and TA-11B Ghibli light strike aircraft.
International Static and Support Aircraft
Even in these very busy times for air arms around the globe, the static display at RIAT pulls in more international military aircraft than any other event of its kind. The Royal Air Force always make a big contribution, much of which supports the RAF Experience area of the static area. Notably this year a 617 Squadron Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning appeared within the static display for the first time. The Army Air Corps also debuted its new Boeing AH-64E Apache AH2 alongside a Wildcat AH1 plus a pair of Westland Gazelle AH1s. The Royal Navy contribution was small but did include a very rare public outline for one of the Bristow operated AS365N2 Dauphin II that supports Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) operations.
Despite the modernisation of Eastern European air forces, it was wonderful to see some old Cold War warriors grace the static display. There cannot be many days left where we will see the likes of the Polish Air Force’s Sukhoi Su-22M4K ‘Fitter’ parked alongside the Hellenic Air Force McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II. The Romanian Air Force also made a welcome return bringing an Antonov An-26 ‘Curl’ while the Czech Air Force showed off their special scheme Mil Mi-171Sh.
A notable contribution came from the Royal Netherlands Air Force which included a pair of Boeing CH-47F Chinooks plus a NH90NFH Caiman. However, it was the line of two Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons from 312 Squadron alongside a pair of F-35A Lightning IIs from 313 & 322 Squadrons that caught the eye. This was possibly the last time a Dutch F-16 will attend a UK event and it was great to see them alongside their successors (who were making their UK debut at RIAT).
As well as the Italian Air Force, both the Italian Army and Navy made contributions after lengthy absences. The Army was represented in the static by a Dornier 228-212 and a Leonardo UH-169B. However, it was the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B+ and TAV-8B Harriers from the Italian Navy that really stood out. They are an incredibly rare sight at airshows and the last time they appeared at RIAT was 2005!
A strong contingent of aircraft came from the United States Air Force. The return of the mighty B-52H Stratofortress was an obvious highlight as was the Lockheed U-2S that is deployed to Fairford. However, the star of the USAF ‘corral’ was the Lockheed Martin WC-130J Weatherbird from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based at Keesler AFB, Mississippi. Nicknamed the ‘Hurricane Hunters’ they are the only operational unit in the world flying weather reconnaissance missions regularly.
Amongst other aircraft catching the eye in the static were a new Qatar Emiri Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon alongside a pair of Hawk Mk167s, a particularly well-presented SAAB Sk.60 from the Swedish Air Force wearing a retro training scheme, Martin Baker’s Gloster Meteor T7(mod), the Britten Norman Islander that will soon trial Hydrogen power plus a Dassault-Dornier Alpha Jet A from Top Aces.
The Flying Displays
Even with a host of changes due to weather and other cancellation, the 2023 RIAT flying display was brimming with quality throughout. It was in the flying that the SKYTANKER23 really shone with several very different flypasts and unique displays.
While the historical re-enactment of post war refuelling trials featuring the BBMF Lancaster (Playing the role of a modified Lancastrian) and the Martin Baker Meteor fell through due to weather and other factors, there was a notable contribution from nearby RAF Brize Norton with a 10/101 Squadron Airbus A330MRTT Voyager KC2 performing flypasts on all three days. Sadly, the weather on Friday meant the link-up with the RAF A400M Atlas C1 didn’t happen with the two types performing separate flypasts. But over Saturday and Sunday, the Voyager performed a simulated link-up (minus the hose) with a Finnish Air Force F/A-18C Hornet on Saturday and a Swedish Air Force JAS-39C Gripen on the Sunday. As well as showcasing how the role of air-to-air refuelling is often a multi-national task, the flypasts also highlighted that both Sweden and Finland have now become full members of NATO.
Another simulated refuelling flypast thwarted by poor weather was that by a United States Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from RAF Mildenhall and the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress. However, Sunday’s display at least saw the KC-135R make a high flypast with the boom down. Having far more success was the USAF Special Operations flypast showcasing the ability of the CV-22B Osprey to take fuel from a MC-130J Commando II. Following the flypast, the CV-22B then completed a short demo of its unique flying abilities.
Friday’s display saw something rather special from the French Air and Space Force. The appearance of the Boeing C-135FR from ERV 3/41 was publicised as a flypast. However, that grew into a rather nice display sequence of three passes – one with the boom down, a topside pass and the low approach with dramatic wing-waggle as it climbed away. Not only was the appearance of the C-135FR rare, but it has been many years since a Stratotanker has performed anything more than just flat flypasts at any UK event!
The icing on the cake for SKYTANKER23 was the German Air Force demonstration featuring an Airbus A400M, Tornado IDS and Tornado ECR. They opened with two flypasts that highlighted the A400M’s role as a tanker. The first was a simple flat pass but they return in the opposite direction showing the upper surfaces of the formation. The Tornado pair then split from the A400M and demonstrated their ‘buddy-buddy’ refuelling capability. This was again displayed to the audience in a flat pass and a curved topside pass. The display closed with one of the Tornados performed a high-speed pass in reheat.
The special flypasts did not end with SKYTANKER23. A most special moment early in the weekend displays saw the Royal Air Force Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning flypast in close formation with a Spanish Navy EAV-8B Matador II+ marking the two generations of V/STOL strike fighters. The pair then returned for a joint hover in front of the crowd – a moment for the RIAT history books even if Saturday’s hover was someone truncated by the strong gusty winds.
The final special flypast of the weekend was one closely linked to Air Tattoo history. In 1983 Air Tattoo co-founders Tim Prince and Paul Bowen set up the Flying Scholarships for Disabled People (FSDP) charity as a living memorial to Sir Douglas Bader. Bader lost both legs in a flying accident in 1931 but fought to return to Royal Air Force flying as the war clouds gathered in the late 1930s. He subsequently became one of the RAF’s top fighter aces. Later, Bader became the IAT president from 1976 to 1982. Over 40 years FSDP has inspired 500 disabled people using the medium of flight building their confidence, self-esteem, and future aspirations. The Jordanian Royal Family have long supported the charity with the late HM King Hussein and Prince Feisal Ibn Al-Hussein both serving as FSDP Patrons. It was therefore a fitting salute to FSDP’s 40th Anniversary to have a Piper PA28 Cherokee used by the charity and flown by Sam Whatmough leading the four Extra 330LXs of the Royal Jordanian Falcons during Sunday’s display. Unfortunately, their flypast coincided with a huge downpour which led to cancellation of the Falcons display. With the poor weather on Friday and Saturday it meant that the Falcons were unable to display for the public over the RIAT weekend which was rather sad as they are such enthusiastic supporters of the event.
Alongside the Falcons were two other national display teams from the Middle East both making their second appearances at RIAT. The Saudi Hawks are perhaps the most familiar team having conducted several tours to Europe since 2011. The team enjoy a strong relationship with the Red Arrows as they fly similar aircraft, the BAE Systems Hawk Mk65. They have also developed their display with the aid of former members of the Red Arrows who are posted to the team as advisors. Just prior to RIAT, the team visited the Red Arrows at their base at RAF Waddington taking part in the station’s families day. They performed a very pleasing routine across all three days of RIAT including a memorable performance in the very wet weather on Friday. This was greatly appreciated by the crowd who at the time were probably not expecting any flying at all!
Completing the eastern team line-up were Fursan Al Emarat with their seven very smart Aermacchi MB339NAT aircraft. Since their first RIAT appearance in 2012, the team have developed their display with some spectacular and very original manoeuvres – greatly enhanced by the vibrancy of their coloured smoke.
Just two European teams were presented this year. For the Red Arrows, the Royal International Air Tattoo is one of their most important displays of the year with lots of ground engagements in the RAF Experience and Techno Zone. Next year will be even more special for the team as they will mark their 60th Display Season. The honour of closing the 2023 Air Tattoo went to the Spanish Air Force’s Patrulla Aguila flying six CASA C.101EB Aviojets. The C.101 is not the most powerful or spritely jet trainer, but the team always do a superb job with some flowing formation passes and some very unique synchronised passes during the second half of their display. With much calmer conditions at the end of Sunday’s display they were also able to show off their party piece with the entire team landing in formation.
The wind and rain rather reduced the contributions from historic aircraft in the flying programme. Sunday’s display did however see a solo display from the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster B1 in between the rain showers. Sunday also saw the only public display of the weekend by one of the event’s outstanding star items – Flugmuseum Messerschmitt’s stunning Messerschmitt Me262A/B-1c. This American produced reproduction of the first operational jet fighter was brought to the Air Tattoo thanks to sponsorship from Airbus. It arrived at Fairford on the Wednesday in company with the Rolls Royce Heritage Flight’s Spitfire PRXIX and P-51D Mustang. It was extraordinary to watch the menacing shape fly over Fairford, particularly as the last time such a sight was seen near UK skies was during the 1940s!
Amongst the military solo displays were some rare rotary displays. While the RAF Boeing Chinook HC6A is an Air Tattoo regular, it is only participating at a handful of displays in 2023 under the command of display captain Flt Lt Jim Hobkirk. The German Army Aviation NH Industries NH90TTH made a very welcome return to RIAT after its debut in 2022. Despite displaying in some wet conditions, the crew put on one of the most dramatic displays of the weekend.
One of the rarest flying display participants across the weekend was the Italian Army’s Agusta AH-129D Mangusta flown by Lt Col David Della Rossa and Captain Mario Costantino. The type last appeared in 2005 in it’s A-model form and currently the type is slowly being withdrawn from service in anticipation of the new AH-229 entering service. It is quite a small aircraft and can perform a very tight display. According to RIAT’s Flying Display Director Roger Steele, extending its display to reach the length of Fairford’s crowdline added two minutes to its display over what he witnessed in Italy for its validation. Their extended display impressed the flying control committee which awarded them the RAFCTE Trophy for Best Flying Demonstration by an Overseas Participant.
Though Il Frecce Tricolori are concentrating their display season in Italy for the centenary celebration, there was plenty of Italian Air Force participation in the flying display. The Reparto Sperimentale Volo contributed their familiar Eurofighter F-2000A Typhoon and Leonardo T-346A Master solo displays to the flying display. Sadly, their C-27J display couldn’t take part in the flying as a fleet issue was identified during its transit to Fairford. A very welcome addition to the Italian displays was a Leonardo HH-139B from 15⁰ Stormo performing a search and rescue demonstration. The finale saw a winchman hold out the Italian flag as the helicopter flew in front of the entire crowdline – we hope he was bought a few beers after getting royally drenched during Friday’s programme!
As ever, there was a feast of European solo jet displays in the programme. The Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 flown by Flt Lt Matt Brighty headed the line-up displaying on all three days and took home the Steedman Display Sword. Three Gripen displays graced the display with examples from the Swedish and Czech Air Force ripping through the Fairford skies. However, it was the SAAB JAS-39E Gripen that drew lots of attention. This new variant of the Gripen was brought to RIAT by SAAB and flown by test pilot André Brännström. His thunderous display earned him the Paul Bowen Trophy for the Best Solo Jet Demonstration. “It was a real delight to show the aviation fans at RIAT what Gripen E is capable of in the air and, as the Saab team, we really enjoyed the interest and enthusiasm from the public we met every day at our static display. We wanted to show them that this all-new Gripen E fighter is everything that they loved before about Gripen but now on an even higher level. This award shows that we hopefully achieved that and can return to Sweden happy,” said André.
Two Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon displays also displayed. Friday’s display saw the dramatic Royal Danish Air Force solo display take to the air in the beautifully presented ‘Danneborg’ painted aircraft. Sadly, a technical issue kept him on the ground for the rest of the weekend but the audience did enjoy the very different display from Capt Steven ‘Vrieske’ De Vries in the Belgian Air Force ‘Dream Viper.’ Vrieske flies a lot of negative-g figures during his display including some interesting bunts and high-alpha rolls.
More dramatic High Angle of Attack flying came from the Finnish Air Force McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet. The sharp pull-up on take-off is just the start of an incredibly powerful display which highlighted the Hornet’s ability to power through rapid changes in pitch and its care-free handling.
A real favourite with the crowd was the solo display by the McDonnell Douglas EAV-8B+ Matador II (Harrier) from the Spanish Navy. Though it had already flown earlier in the day in company with the F-35B, the hovering routine towards the end of its display had the attention of the whole crowd. The Matador/Harrier may well be into the twilight of its flying career – but it is still a head-turning highlight of any airshow.
Picking up the Sir Douglas Bader Trophy for Best Individual Flying Display and the ‘As the Crow Flies’ for best display as judged by FRIAT members was the French Air & Space Force Dassault Rafale C solo display flown by Captain Bertrand ‘Bubu’ Butin. Bertrand’s display feels at times like he is performing a freestyle aerobatic competition sequence with his jet constantly rolling in different directions. The Rafale also has an incredible turn of speed which is highlighted through the display sequence.
But if there was one jet display most deserving of an award, it was that from the Swedish Air Force’s SAAB Sk.60 trainer. The Sk.60 is such an understated aircraft yet in the hands of its display pilot Captain Nils ‘Princess’ Schylström it was put through the most stunning and elegant aerobatic sequence. They was no obvious start or end to any manoeuvres; instead every turn and aerobatic figure flowed seemingly in one another including a slow roll taking in all two miles of Fairford’s crowdline. Fittingly, Nils took the King Hussein Memorial Sword or the Best Overall Flying Demonstration.
The final act of flying on Sunday was the final flypast and landing of the United States Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress. While USAF flypasts seem to get higher and higher, the presence of a B-52H in the RIAT programme was very welcome. The B-52H’s crew added another little treat on their return showing off the aircraft’s ability to crab down the runway. The airfield management were however probably less impressed by the destruction of some of the runway lights in the process.
While the abiding memory of RIAT 2023 may have been the weather and all the challenges that brought with it, it should not overshadow the incredible quality of participating aircraft that did make it to RAF Fairford for the flying and static displays. The flying display was just so full of unique moments it is very hard and probably very unfair to pick an outright star particularly as everyone flew in less than perfect conditions. Then there is all the excellent supporting entertainment such as the Vintage Village, RAF Experience, and the Techno Zone. All the permanent staff and volunteers at Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises should be very proud of the event they staged – we cannot wait for what they manage to bring in 2024!