The world’s greatest Airshow – Part 1
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.
In normal years, the month of July would witness the busiest period of the UK Airshow season, with tens of thousands of aviation enthusiasts attempting to manage a busy work/show schedule and cashing in all those family brownie points they had been earning over the previous twelve months. Things may well be a little different this year, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t still make July Airshow month, even if this requires a little flexibility and imagination. With the classic Flying Legends and gargantuan Royal International Air Tattoo events both usually taking place around now, it’s time to look skywards (or at your computer screen) and prepare for some Airshow action.
Over the course of the next two editions of Aerodrome, we will be heading back to last year’s Royal International Air Tattoo, where we endured rain, grey skies, wall to wall sunshine and everything in between, all so we could say we were present at the latest instalment of a show which is described as the greatest event of its kind anywhere in the world. As far as RIAT is concerned, it is all about the aeroplanes and for one glorious weekend in July each year, Gloucestershire can quite literally boast one of the largest air forces in the world. In this first review, we will be taking a stroll around the show’s impressive static display, looking at how the Belgian Air Component made a stunning aviation tribute to the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and attempt to hold our nerve in advance of a dramatic display finale courtesy of the British Army. With the emphasis very much on aviation imagery, strap yourselves in for some real blogtastic aviation action from the World’s Greatest Airshow.
All the fun of the Fairford
Some of the aircraft attending the Royal International Air tattoo are so technologically sensitive that they require a special guard
In the minds of many aviation enthusiasts, if they were only allowed to attend one Airshow each year, that event would undoubtedly be the Royal International Air Tattoo, the largest military Airshow in the world and one which attracts visitors from every corner of the globe. For one glorious week each July, the sleepy Gloucestershire village of Fairford quite literally becomes the centre of the aviation world, as its now famous airfield stages an event of such magnitude that it must contribute millions of pounds into the area’s economy each year. The RIAT show has also ensured that this picturesque corner of rural Britain has become familiar to millions of people the world over and it will now forever be inextricably linked with aeroplanes.
Any show which can boast an unrivalled static aircraft display and a flying programme which regularly exceeds its published 8 hours of thrilling entertainment, will always attract plenty of public support, however, RIAT is definitely much more than just a big Airshow. With many people spending an entire week of aviation indulgence either on or around the airfield, this show is more like an aviation rite of passage for enthusiasts, some of whom actually take this week as their annual holiday, arranging next year’s attendance whilst still enjoying the current years offering. This show is also a truly international event, not only from the perspective of the exotic aeroplanes it manages to attract, many of which will be making their only UK appearance of the year, but also by the impressive number of overseas visitors who support each show. It is not uncommon to find that you are sharing your section of the crowd-line with enthusiasts from America, Japan or Brazil, everyone united by a common love of all things aviation.
With so many things to see and do over the four days of the show and huge crowds guaranteed to be on the airfield each day, many people genuinely feel like they need to take a holiday after attending a RIAT Airshow, as the unrelenting strain of all this aviation enjoyment really can take it out of you.
Last year’s show marked the final RIAT appearance for the RAF Tucano T1 trainer, an aircraft which had just marked 30 years of service training young RAF pilots at the start of their military flying careers
The RIAT phenomenon arrived at RAF Fairford in 1985, when this massive event was hosted by the airfield for the first time, initially taking place every two years, but from 1993 held annually. Its record of hosting the event since that date has only been broken on two consecutive show occasions, when RAF Cottesmore stepped into the breach for two RIAT shows from 2000, as the airfield infrastructure at Fairford was undergoing extensive renovation works - everything was back to normal by 2002. Indeed, the return to Fairford proved to be something of a record breaking development, as the 2003 show attracted no fewer than 535 aircraft and earned the Royal International Air Tattoo the accolade of being the largest military Airshow in the world. Although it is unlikely that this impressive total will be beaten in the years to come, last year’s show was nevertheless a huge occasion in its own right, with hundreds of aircraft packed onto the airfield, representing air arms from countries from all around the world and as usual, it proved to be the aviation event of the year, with the crowds once more turning up in their thousands.
Gathering an impressive selection of aircraft from locations all around the world, to be in the same place at the same time, is clearly always going to be of great interest to aviation enthusiasts, but creates something of a logistic nightmare for the team behind such an undertaking. Having to contend with the usual aviation variables such as aircraft serviceability, operational commitments, aircrew availability, the prevailing world political situation and the weather, if the majority of the aircraft scheduled to be in attendance actually arrive at the airfield, this must be celebrated as a significant achievement. Unfortunately for them, a successful show is no time for resting on ones laurels and no sooner than when the last aircraft has arrived at Fairford to make the latest show a roaring success, arrangements have to be made to get them all safely away again. Departure Monday is an extremely busy day for the RIAT team, as most of the aircraft taking part in the latest flying and static displays have to leave the airfield, dictating that from around 10am in the morning, aircraft movements are taking place every few minutes and Fairford once again becomes one of the busiest airfields in Europe.
Classics illuminate static display
A behemoth of an aeroplane, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is always an Airshow highlight, even though it is now in its 65th year of operational service
Even though most enthusiasts will speak extremely fondly of the previous RIAT shows we have attended, it can actually be quite a stressful few days, if the truth be told. With crack of dawn starts and long days spent on the open expanses of a massive airfield site, you really do have to be meticulously organised at Fairford if you want to be prepared for every eventuality, which usually means you lug around much more stuff than you are ever going to need. In addition to this, there is always so much to see and do at this show, with the showground extending over such a vast area that you can virtually guarantee that whatever you happen to be doing, you will be missing out on something.
With a hugely impressive static aircraft display to discover, should you document this whilst the Airshow is taking place, or try to rush round in the couple of hours it takes to clear the showground at the end of each day? When it comes to enjoying the packed flying display, should you try to secure a central crowdline position for the entire show, or look to obtain different perspectives by being a little more mobile? There are just so many things to consider and you can guarantee you will regret at least one decision you make over RIAT weekend – and most people think Airshows were all about enjoying yourself!
As a keen photographer, the static aircraft display at the show poses a number of very specific challenges. Clearly, the weather will always play a major role in whether your latest RIAT experience is a successful one, as will the actual time of day individual pictures are taken. Lighting conditions and the position of the sun really can make your pictures look very different, so if it is an aircraft you really want pictures of a particular aircraft, you could find yourself spending quite a bit of time in its company over the weekend. Then there is the age old bane of every photographer’s existence, obstacles – this can include cones, ropes, equipment, trade stalls and of course people. We have something of a love/hate relationship with our fellow enthusiasts. We love to spend time with them discussing our shared passion, but hate it when they stray into our picture … we are just so fickle. Unfortunately, this event is just so huge and attended by so many people that you really can’t avoid including the odd distraction in the majority of your static shots.
Amongst the aviation delights in the extensive static display at last year’s show were a pair of classics which were never without a sizable crowd of admirers throughout the entire weekend, aircraft types which can trace their service introductions back 65 and 60 years respectively. Standing as possibly the most recognisable symbol of post WWII US air power, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is a long range strategic jet bomber which is now incredibly in its 65th year of service and is still capable of striking fear into the hearts of anyone who has incurred their wrath. Although it has been some years since the crowds at RIAT have enjoyed a solo B-52 display, the sight of one of these impressive aviation leviathans in the static aircraft display is enough to guarantee a sizeable crowd around its generous proportions for the duration of its stay.
The aircraft on display at last year’s show was Boeing B-52H 60-0048/LA from the 20th Bomb Squadron, 2nd Bomb Wing, based at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. With the aircraft exhibiting plenty of paint wear on the wing leading edges and around the engine intakes, the crew were heard to apologise to enthusiasts about the presentation of their aircraft many times during the weekend. They described how they had recently been flying through some particularly bad weather, which left their aircraft in need of a quick trip to the paint shop. I don’t know what your thoughts on this subject are, but I think it weathering makes the aircraft look fantastic and much more photogenic – long live scruffy aeroplanes.
One aircraft which will always ensure racing pulses amongst the enthusiast fraternity, the awesome McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom is a classic combat aircraft of some repute and one which made its service introduction with the US Navy way back in December 1960. Fast and extremely powerful, the Phantom was used extensively during the Vietnam War, mainly in the air superiority role, but underlining its excellent adaptability, also proving equally proficient in strike and reconnaissance roles. With over 5000 aircraft eventually being produced, the Phantom would go on to serve with quite a number of international air forces, including our own Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, however, the advent of more modern, more manoeuvrable aircraft types would see this Cold War warhorse retired by most countries during the 1990s.
The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom might be very much in the twilight of its service career, but it still qualifies as an ‘A list’ aviation celebrity in the eyes of the aviation enthusiast
The magnificent machines gracing the static aircraft display at RIAT 2019 were a pair of Turkish Air Force F-4E-2020 Phantoms from No.111 Squadron ‘The Panthers’, who operate from Eskisehir Air Base in the north-west of the country. These particular aircraft are designated ‘F-4 Terminator’ 2020 and have undergone extensive modernisation upgrade to maintain the combat effectiveness of these hugely historic aeroplanes. This unit has the distinction of being the final Turkish Air Force squadron to operate the mighty Phantom, maintaining an association which now stretches back an impressive 46 years.
The two aircraft attending last year’s show were both sporting particularly aggressive ‘Panther teeth’ and were definitely amongst the most flamboyantly presented machines at RIAT 2019. Both also benefitted from spectacular tail artwork, designed specifically to commemorate the impending 60th anniversary of this magnificent aircraft entering service. An absolute treat for all aviation enthusiasts, the combination of Phantoms, teeth and commemorative artwork is a heady cocktail indeed and ensured that these two overseas visitors were amongst the undoubted highlights of the show – in the world of historic aviation, the Phantom is a true flying megastar.
Without doubt, the Belgian Air Component made the most visually impactful tribute to the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, with their pair of beautifully presented Lockheed F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters
Another aircraft which must now be thought of in ‘Classic’ terms, the General Dynamics (Lockheed Martin) F-16 ‘Fighting Falcon’ may now be well into its fourth decade of service, but it still has to qualify as an incredibly potent fighting aeroplane and the consummate Airshow performer. When you add to this the fact that in the eyes of many enthusiasts, these older ‘Cold War’ designs are far more interesting than the latest cutting edge designs which are lining up to replace them and you can see why RIAT shows will usually boast several F-16 displays on the program during show weekend. An agile aircraft which was developed following a review of US aircraft performance during the Vietnam War, the F-16 has attracted plenty of European air force suiters over the years, with many of these beautiful aeroplanes still in service across the continent.
One of the major themes for the 2019 show was the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day and thanks to the creativity of the Belgian Air Component, we all had two beautifully presented F-16s in special markings to drool over at Fairford. Sporting a full set of the distinctive Invasion Identification Markings which were originally applied to most Allied aircraft involved in D-Day operations in the days prior to invasion, these two Fighting Falcons also benefitted from magnificent tail artwork, both featuring different representations of D-Day Spitfires. In support of the D-Day seaborne assault on 6th June 1944, two Belgian Royal Air Force squadrons flew Spitfires on operations providing top cover over the landing zones, ready to pounce on any Luftwaffe aircraft which attempted to attack the beaches. In fact, No.349 Squadron were actually credited with scoring two aerial victories against Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 bombers on D-Day.
Invasion markings for a pair of Belgian F-16s to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day
This Belgian Air Component F-16 from No.350 Squadron based at Florennes sent this special Spitfire tail commemorative aircraft to grace the 2019 RIAT show
In honour of their WWII forebears and to mark the D-Day heritage of their squadrons, both No.349 Squadron (which also has the distinction of being the first operational F-16 Fighting Falcon squadron in NATO) based at Kleine Brogel and No.350 Squadron, which operates from Florennes, sent two of their Fighting Falcon’s into the paint shop to receive these stunning commemorative markings. Making a unique and extremely appealing tribute to both the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and their historic contribution to this WWII operation, these beautiful F-16s were undoubtedly amongst the most photogenic aircraft on display at RIAT 2019, providing further evidence that European air forces are much more proactive when it comes to event commemoration and the presentation of their aircraft – Royal Air Force, please take note!
An aviation trade of Tornados for Typhoons
With the retirement of the RAF Tornado earlier in the year, it was nice to see the continuation of No.IX(B) Squadron’s ‘Green Bat’ history, with the arrival of one of their new Typhoons. It seems rather fitting that Sqn. Ldr Batt was flying it!
One of the slightly less conspicuous, yet no less interesting aircraft on display at RIAT 2019 was RAF Eurofighter FGR.4 ZJ924, an aircraft which is inextricably linked to the final days of RAF Tornado service and one which is about to be immortalised in the Corgi Aviation Archive model range. Sporting the distinctive ‘green bat’ emblem of RAF No.IX Squadron (motto, ‘Through the night we fly’), it is also noteworthy that the aircraft carries the name of the Squadron’s new Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Simon Batt on its fuselage side – quite fitting really.
As Britain’s aviation enthusiasts finally came to terms with the fact that the Panavia Tornado GR4 had been withdrawn from RAF service during March 2019, many will have been pleased to note that one of the final Tornado squadrons was to immediately re-equip with the Eurofighter Typhoon. As one of the two final RAF Tornado squadrons, No.IX(B) Squadron is one of the oldest units in the Royal Air Force and one which had been associated with the Tornado since the aircraft first entered service back in 1982. Its distinctive ‘Green Bat’ emblem had adorned the tail of one of the specially presented Tornados during the final months of the aircraft’s service and on the day No.IX Squadron surrendered their Tornado GR4s at Marham, they immediately re-formed at RAF Lossiemouth, this time equipped with the Eurofighter Typhoon.
During squadron’s transitional period, the RAF mounted an iconic photo sortie where the IX(B) Squadron retirement Tornado GR4 ZG775 flew over RAF Lossiemouth in formation with Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 ZJ924, with both aircraft proudly displaying the unit’s famous ‘Green Bat’ motif and confirming this interesting aviation development. Relinquishing their strike and reconnaissance roles, No.IX(B) Squadron will now serve as an air defence unit, providing Northern QRA cover for the UK, with an additional responsibility for providing air-to-air aggressor support for other fast jet units throughout Europe, simulating the tactics of potential adversaries. In this new role, it is possible that a number of these Typhoons will receive distinctive new markings, to identify them as adversarial aircraft in their training role as ‘Aggressors’.
The last time we saw an RAF No.IX Squadron aircraft at RIAT, it was a Tornado GR.4 wearing the unit’s famous ‘Green Bat’ emblem
Situated on the beautiful Moray coastline in north-eastern Scotland, RAF Lossiemouth is now the most northerly of the remaining Royal Air Force bases and is certainly one of the most active. Also serving as the home station of the RAF’s new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, Lossiemouth is now also home to no fewer than four Typhoon fighter squadrons, including No.IX(B) Squadron, which only arrived at the station in April 2019, having relinquished their long association with the Panavia Tornado. Equipped with some of the RAF’s early Tranche 1 Typhoons, in addition to undertaking vital air defence duties, No.IX(B) Squadron will also undertake the fascinating aggressor role, where these aircraft will provide air combat training support for other fast jet units by adopting tactics used by potential adversaries.
This role has previously been undertaken by the Hawk T.1A trainers of RAF No.100 Squadron at Leeming, so the adoption of the Typhoon will offer a significant upgrade in role capability – they are destined to be in high demand from both RAF units as well as Airshow organisers. It remains to be seen if any of these aircraft will be given distinctive new schemes to resemble those found on Russian aircraft, but if they do, they will undoubtedly immediately become firm favourites with aviation enthusiasts across Europe.
In recognition of the illustrious wartime history of RAF No.IX Squadron, Typhoon FGR.4 ZJ924 also carries the codes WS-J on its tail, which commemorate Avro Lancaster Centurion W4964 ‘Johnnie Walker – Still Going Strong’, one of only 35 wartime Lancasters to complete 100 operational sorties or more.
A couple of things which are absolutely guaranteed to grab the attention of everyone on show day and instantly propel a display to the top of the Airshow popularity charts are big explosions and lots of fire! Always a big hit with younger members of the audience and photographers hoping to secure a memorable picture, the British Army’s Attack Helicopter Display Team never fail to deliver on the ‘boom factor’ stakes and once this sinister aircraft has performed it’s trademark display finale, all other display acts seem a little tame by comparison. Obviously also doing much to encourage youngsters to consider a future career in the Army, the Attack Helicopter Display is highly sought after amongst display organisers, but often only appears a handful of select events – in 2009, only 4 Airshows could boast this fantastic spectacle on their programmes, one of which being the Royal International Air Tattoo.
Wait for it ….. any time now and the Apache Attack Helicopter Display Team are about to liven up proceedings at RIAT 2019
The awesome AH-64 Apache is yet another effective illustrator of why the helicopter now occupies such a prominent role on the modern battlefield, possessing awesome offensive firepower and the ability to acquire and engage multiple targets in the fraction of a second. The two man Apache is quite simply a rotary powered killing machine, designed and manufactured specifically to dominate the battlefield, destroying enemy armoured fighting vehicles and supporting friendly ground troops wherever they deploy, wielding fearsome firepower from an impressive array of offensive armament and aided by a suite of highly effective targeting sensors. Typically, a fully armed Apache could be wielding air to ground and air to air missiles, Hellfire guided missiles and a sinister 30mm chain gun, which can bring withering fire down on a target over great distances. Possessing exceptional loiter capability, the Apache can be used to suppress enemy activity in advance of the arrival of a Chinook laden with ground troops, or whilst covering a casualty evacuation operation.
The British Army’s Agusta Westland Apache is a licence built version of the Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter, with the first AAC unit achieving operational status in May 2005. With the latest AH-64E variant of the aircraft due to enter British service in 2022, this highly effective machine is scheduled to remain in service for many years to come, performing its invaluable role as the airborne ‘Angel on the shoulders’ of Britain’s deployed ground forces and nemesis of enemy armour.
That is where we will leave this first review of the Royal International Air Tattoo 2019 show, but there will be much more Fairford action to come in the next edition of Aerodrome in two weeks time.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our email@example.com address, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 31st July, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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