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7:30 Sunday morning in the Green car park - just 800 yards to go... RIAT

Return to Fairford

Gary Parsons reviews a 21st century Tattoo experience

How was it for you?

Claire opens the show
A smile, even though we suspect the chunderbag had been used! What a trooper.
Claire Sweeney is the British Forces' adopted new 'Sweetheart'. She will be entertaining the troops overseas in the coming months and to kick off her military 'career' arrived at Fairford in the back of a 9 Squadron Tornado GR4 after a sortie over 'Brookside' and Liverpool.

So after two years away we were back in Gloucestershire - the pre-show publicity said this was a good thing, and a bonanza of 450 aircraft plus could be expected. Lessons had been learnt at Cottesmore, especially concerning parking, so the plan was to implement off-base parking at Fairford too, which had the additional benefit of easing the American-imposed security checks. Post 9/11 it was to be expected, just as much as the winter speculation of "will it, won't it happen" because of the USAF lodger units.

Security was everywhere - you're being watched!Security was the topic on everyone's lips - searches on the way in for everyone posed a logistical headache that was never really eased over the six days. Drafted in British Army personnel ensured everything was done by the book, but of course there are never enough personnel or scanners. Long queues built rapidly on the two showdays, many taking nearly two hours to make it from the car to the gate - this after spending many hours in the queues that had materialised on the red and blue routes. Having off-base car parking should have meant an easier exit, but again tales of hours spent stationary abounded. The ease of the Cottesmore experience never happened for Fairford - is it topography, or was it poor planning? The organisers have vowed to investigate what went wrong for 2003, but if security checks are needed again many may be put off after this year.

Bigger, but better?

Bigger for certain was the airfield - over $100 million dollars had been spent in resurfacing the runway and enlarging the taxiways. Vast acres of concrete had been laid, primarily on the southern loops, ready for the armada of B-1s, B-2s and B-52s for the USA to project its Global Reach policy. Of course work had been well underway by 11 September last year, but no sooner had the dust settled in New York the rumours of work being hurried at Fairford surfaced, so the bombers could be brought in. As we know this wasn't necessary, but it helped fuel the fires of the winter 'RIAT cancelled?' rumours.

The vast new acres of concrete at Fairford

Having more concrete to play with enabled some subtle changes to the traditional Fairford layout. Gone was the parking apron between the hangars on the northside, so extra flightline space was required and found on the south-eastern taxiway where the display teams were based. Such is the width of the taxiway that four rows of jets could be accommodated one behind the other - Patrouille Swiss, Patrulla Aguila, Red Arrows and the Frecce Tricolori provided a colourful and active apron, giving many the opportunity to get close to 'live' aircraft - definitely a plus point.


General Robert Burns, 85, a war hero who flew with the US Eighth Air Force during World War II, was an honoured guest at RIAT.

Born in Nettleton, Mississippi in 1916, General Burns enlisted in the Army in 1939 as an aviation cadet. He received his pilot wings and commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Corps at Kelly Field, Texas, in November that year. From 1939 to November 1942 he served in the Panama Canal Zone and Guatemala.

General Burns was appointed Deputy Commander of the 351st Bombardment Group in November 1942 and the following April went with the 351st to England as part of the Eighth Air Force. During his tour of duty he flew 24 combat missions on the B-17 Flying Fortress, leading many of the early raids from Polebrook airfield in Northants. General Burns became Group Commander of the 351st BG in September 1944 and returned to the United States in May 1945.

In a long and distinguished career in the post-war United States Air Force, General Burns was decorated many times, including the Silver Star, Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Cluster and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.

The 351st BG was formed in November 1942 and, after training in the western United States, arrived at Station 110 near the hamlet of Polebrook in April 1943. The group flew 311 World War II missions, the first to attack a German airfield in Belgium on 14 May 1943. Like other Eighth Air Force Bomb Groups the cost was high - the 351st lost 175 B-17s and their crews.


Most The vast new flightineof the static park was arranged around the massive southern loop that extends back almost to Kempsford village. It allowed some almost creative parking arrangements, the American lot being almost photogenic (for Fairford). The flipside was that the western loop near Marston Meysey wasn't used at all, which was always the preferred end for serious photographers with its high vantage point and open vistas. In fact the static line ended about halfway down the taxiway, the C-5B and C-141 almost stranded in open countryside.

B-1B Lancer
B-2A Spirit
F-15D Eagle

A numbers game

C-17A ZZ173 headed up an impressive RAF static parkWhich brings us to the content - 400 aircraft had been the pre-show number, but reality made it a little over 300. Fairford's extra space made the smaller static even more dispersed, and it was evident that many nations were missing as were many aircraft types. Fighters were sparse compared to previous years - no F-18s, F-104s, A-7s, or Gripens, for example. A quick estimate produced 135 static aircraft, of which 81 were non-RAF, which is actually down on what was present at both Cottesmore shows. 1999, the last show at Fairford, had 197 in the static, of which 148 were foreign.

So where were all the goodies over the RIAT weekend? Mostly sitting at Farnborough - two Super Hornets, Typhoon, a USN S3, E2 and C2. Once again the back-to-back RIAT/SBAC fortnight played against the Tattoo. Sitting at Kleine Brogel on the Thursday prior to RIAT weekend were all the Doh!great special-markings fighters assembled for the 'Lion Meet'. Sitting at Waddington - dozens of F-18s and Mirage 2000s, including the Spanish and Swiss Hornet display pilots. As for the multitude of other nations that have been RIAT participants in the recent past - where were they? Something was missing with the invitation process, unheard of in previous Tattoos.

Southern hemisphere migrants
RNZAF Boeing 727
Chilean AF Boeing 707
Chilean AF Gulfstream

This lack of quality, to be brutal, extended into the flying programme. Six display teams were present, but most were UK airshow regulars and didn't have that uniqueness of, say, the Ukrainian Falcons, excepting the Chilean 'Los Halcones' with their Extra 300s. Items from the Ukraine had been invited and it was hoped to see the return of the Tu-22M Backfire, but cancellation came a couple of weeks before the show, along with the Russian Tu-95. So, one must congratulate the Americans for appearing in strength (see sidebar), for without their attendance it would have been a very average show indeed. This is not meant as any disrespect to the pilots of the RAF display teams or their civilian counterparts - it's just that RIAT has for so long provided the unique and unusual, continually setting the standards for other airshows to aspire. That it fell short this year cannot be denied, for whatever reasons - 9/11, world-wide cutbacks in military spending, or simply not inviting in sufficient numbers. RIAT was a victim of its own past successes, and succumbed to mediocrity - more F3000 than F1, more Manchester City than United. No doubt the team will bounce back in 2003.

So why do they do it?
The RAFBF was established by Lord Trenchard in October 1919 in response to hardship faced by the families of airmen lost or wounded in the Great War. In its first year, the charity spent 919 on welfare.

Fund resources were stretched to the limit in the aftermath of the Second World War. Broadcasting to the nation in 1951, Winston Churchill said "The RAFBF is part of the conscience of the British Nation". Public response was generous, reinforcing voluntary donations from serving RAF personnel, and the Fund continues to care for the men and women who have served their country.

22 million was spent on welfare in 2001, including donations to sister charities and other organisations also looking after the extended RAF family. The Fund also helps young parents cope with seriously ill children, providing a safety net for servicemen and women leaving the RAF on medical grounds, and cares for thousands of elderly veterans. It is not just those from the two World Wars that are helped, but also those more recent that have suffered injury through active service in the many ongoing hotspots around the globe. More than 30,000 members of the RAF family now face the future with renewed confidence and certainty.

This is why the Tattoo is held every year - to provide additional funds for the RAFBF. It may seem expensive, but is nothing in comparison with the debt we owe many of its beneficiaries. It may not live up to expectations every year, but deserves your support in an age of disappearing airshows.



Sustainability - keyword for the future

Italian flair on this AMX
More Italian influence
French Navy Lynx
French AF Mirage F1
Belgian AF Alpha Jet
One from the Brits! Hurrah!

Given the security issues, the parking problems and the traffic management, one has to ask if Fairford is a sustainable venue for RIAT to grow and prosper, as it needs to with ever-increasing costs. American foreign policy will cast a dark shadow over the event for as long as USAFE remains - given the recent investment, this will be for a considerable time yet. Every year will see the "will-it, won't-it" rumours circulate, creating uncertainty that is not good for long-term health. History may review the 2001 show at Cottesmore as a halcyon time for RIAT - great venue, no queues, great weather, good aircraft, but most importantly a big and happy crowd.

Members of the press get younger every year! Photo by Chris ChambersWe would like to see a benign venue found, one that does not have any military ties and could be developed as a permanent airshow home with the opportunity to expand other ventures for the other eleven months of the year. A vacated airbase such as Alconbury or Upper Heyford would be ideal - the MoD could bequeath the site to the RAFBF in perpetuity for little cost to the taxpayer. With a stable platform on which to develop proper parking and facilities, RIAT could become the world's showcase for aviation, instead of being the lodger at the call of the landlord.

Part two : The actual airshow!


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