Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford, 17/18 July
Part One: Being there
Gary Parsons was there...
It was simply a case of being there at the 2004 Royal International Air Tattoo. After a loss-making event in 2003, the chips were down for the organisers and privately it was a 'make or break' year for the show in its current format - a second loss-making year would at best instigate major changes to the format and content, at worst mean the end of thirty-three years of the finest airshows seen in the country.
After bouncing back from 2002's rather disastrous affair, last year's show deserved to succeed but fears of traffic chaos and lengthy security checks kept many people away. So the jury was out on whether the easy entry and exits were a result of the much improved traffic system, or simply because no-one turned up - this year may have provided an answer, as despite the threat of inclement weather, the crowd was around 168,000, up by at least five percent over the weekend and hardly any traffic problems were reported. Five percent may not sound a lot, but it could mean the difference between profit and loss.
For the Americans too, it was a case of being there - unlike many other shows in Europe this year. A sizable presence, most of the western end of the airfield was filled with USAF transport and bomber types, C-130s being prevalent, as one would expect with celebrating fifty years of Lockheed's milestone design. A variety of colours, units and air forces were represented in the examples to be found, with the C-130J becoming ever more common as the older airframes are retired across the world.
American heavy metal was headed by two B-52Hs and two B-1Bs, one of each taking part in the flying display each day. Sadly, as usual, 'displays' were restricted to high straight-and-level passes, as were the F-117A and B-2A Spirit - even last year's topside passes from the Nighthawk were missing. Each year the flying from these types becomes more diluted, but it's hard to see how much more diluted they can now get - yes, we must be grateful that we get the chance to see them, but the cost of operating such aircraft must surely warrant more than one pass? 1999 and the Spirit's spirited display seems an age ago now. But, at least they were there.
Hornet Haven - premier league
Top of the bill was Boeing's F/A-18F Super Hornet, fresh in VF-2 colours and destined for the USS Abraham Lincoln, appearing both here and at Farnborough the following week. Flown by Boeing's Chief Test Pilot for the Super Hornet programme, Ricardo Traven, the power and agility advantage of the updated Hornet over its parent design was clear to see with Traven putting some remarkable Flanker-like moves together in his award-winning demonstration. For the first time in the history of the Royal International Air Tattoo, three of the top awards went to the same competitor - the Boeing F-18F Super Hornet team.
Traven was presented with the 'King Hussain Memorial Sword' (best overall flying demonstration), the 'As the Crow Flies Award' (from Friends of RIAT) and 'FRIAT Best Livery'. "This is incredible," said Ricardo, a Canadian from Niagara Falls. "I demonstrate the Super Hornet in many parts of the world but Fairford is all about great crowds and great competition. "It is not just the individual but the entire team. And I have one helluva team."
The achievements of the US Navy isn't to denigrate the performance of the Swiss Air Force F/A-18C display team of Patrick Daehler and Captain Michael Reiner, taking it in turns at the helm - it was a particularly sparkling display to open the show on Saturday morning, but the F's larger wing area and uprated engines clearly make the bigger Super Hornet a superior machine. A probable candidate for an award in most years, let's hope they're back next year.
Battling it out in the 'first division' after the premier-league F/A-18 displays were the F-16s from the Dutch and Belgian air forces. In memory of the late co-founder and director of RIAT, Paul Bowen, the award for best solo jet display (the 'Paul Bowen Solo Jet Trophy') went to Commandant John Vandebosch, flying the Lockheed Martin F-16 MLU from 31 Tiger Squadron of the Belgian Air Force. Vandebosch was, like Ricardo Traven, making his debut at Fairford, but not the F-16; the thirty-year old design is now beginning to show its age, especially compared to Typhoon, with which Jon Hitchcock from 29(R) Squadron gave another demonstration flight, as had been done at Waddington. It is clear that the pilots' confidence is growing with each event, as the demo was slightly more aggressive than was given in Lincolnshire some three weeks ago. Hopefully next year will see a full display routine worked up so that the likes of Ricardo Travens will have some stiffer competition from an RAF service pilot, something unlikely to happen as long as they continue to fly Jaguar and Tornado, not the world's most agile of aircraft. Despite this, the 'Steedman Display Sword' award went to Flt Lts Tim Freeman and Neil Crawley in the Tornado F3 from 56 (R) Squadron, proving that few are as proficient as RAF display pilots - a converted bomber should never be that spectacular!
Collecting the Lockheed Martin 'Cannestra Trophy' for Best Overseas Flying Demonstration was Captain Yann Valet and Lt Fabrice Camliti, who each flew the Mirage 2000C display over the weekend.
Entente Cordiale goes bang
The largest single ignition of fireworks ever detonated in the UK exploded into a huge 'French flag' during RIAT as part of the 'Entente Cordiale' celebrations. The organisers aimed to explode a huge burst of red white and blue coloured fireworks 150 ft into the air as a French Mirage 2000 and a Royal Air Force Jaguar flew overhead. Part of a series of special MoD sponsored events taking place at the Tattoo to mark the centenary of the signing of the Anglo-French 'Entente Cordiale', Charlie Adcock, owner of Somerset-based pyrotechnics company Event Horizon, said he was unaware of anything similar being done before. His team connected 300 coloured 'mines' to detonating cable stretching along 300 metres of the runway. It was a case of 'blink and you missed it' though, Sunday's flypast consisting of only the Jaguar as the Mirage had technical problems. Other Entente Cordiale attractions include the recreation of a World War One French Allied airfield; displays by both the RAF Red Arrows and the Patrouille de France; a joint flypast by a selection of British and French military aircraft plus a taste of British and French cuisine and culture. And no, we didn't manage to photograph the 'bang'!
In the static park was a single Concorde nose, a salutary reminder of past Anglo-French glory. Looking rather battered and pathetic, it could have been a poignant reminder of the loss of this great aircraft - due to the French, many people believe. Maybe a case of Entente Irony, perhaps…
D-Day finale fails to deliver
Ending the flying displays on both show days was a D-Day commemoration set piece with pyrotechnics, something that RIAT normally excels at. As with the Entente Cordial celebrations, this was sponsored by the MoD and featured period aircraft set to a script with accompanying music at appropriate intervals. A fine idea in principle, it suffered from being far too drawn-out with yawning gaps in-between the participating aircraft, most of which performed straight and level passes, of which we had already seen far too much of from the Americans. Coming just a week after Flying Legends, the contrast in excitement was marked except for a five-minute segment consisting of four P-51 Mustangs and three Spitfires, set to the score from the 'Battle of Britain' film - stirring stuff that set the hairs on the back of the neck twitching. At an hour, the D-Day piece was at least forty minutes too long and needed to be much tighter with the action - proof was the virtually deserted FRIAT stand on the Sunday afternoon.
What did work was the D-Day atmosphere airfield re-created at the eastern end of the crowdline - some very authentic costumes, vehicles and paraphernalia whisked one back to 1944 in a setting that would have done Shuttleworth or Flying Legends proud. One almost to felt the urge to ring the bell and shout 'Tally Ho, cheps'!
Second yoof day a success
Secondary schoolchildren from around the country were invited to consider their future careers at Europe's largest airshow this summer - at no cost. 20,000 youngsters were guests of the RAF, Royal Navy and Army at RIAT. School pupils and members of the three Services' cadet organisations were able to meet a wide variety of Service personnel, get close to many of the display aircraft, enjoy interactive displays, take part in competitions and experience a variety of aircraft, tank and boat simulators.
The RAF's Head of Recruiting, Group Captain Dawn McCafferty, said: "Last year's inaugural event, which was launched by pop star Abs, attracted more than 13,000 school pupils and cadets and was judged by all involved to have been a great success. This summer's event has built on that and we hope that teachers see it as both an entertaining and informative day out for their pupils."
VIPs being there
Guests who attended this year's Airshow included HRH Prince Feisal of Jordan, who presented RIAT Flying Scholarships for the Disabled 'Wings' to six pilot graduates; HRH the Duke of Kent accompanied by his son Lord Nicholas Windsor; HRH Crown Prince Hamzah of Jordan; Mr Aloysius Rauen, president and CEO of Eurofighter and Mr Ivor Caplin, the Under Secretary of State for Defence and Minister for Veterans. British military chiefs in attendance included Chief of the General Staff Gen Sir Michael Walker, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge and Sir Richard George, chairman of the RAF Benevolent Fund. Among the US military present were Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, Gen John Jumper, Gen Robert Foglesong, Commander of US Air Force Europe, and Dr James Roche, Secretary of the US Air Force.
With Farnborough taking place immediately after the event, many industry guests made an appearance including Mr Bob Stevens, president of Lockheed Martin, Mr Mike Rouse, managing director of BAE, Mr Philippe Camus, chief executive EADS, Mr Aloysius Rauen, President and CEO of Eurofighter and Air Chief Marshal Sir John Day, military advisor for BAE.
A tribute to the late Paul Bowen, co-founder of the International Air Tattoo with Tim Prince in 1971, was flown by the Jordanian Falcons and Piper Cherokee G-DIAT. The Jordanians have always been closely associated with RIAT, so it was fitting they should be asked to do the flypast. The loss of Paul has obviously added to the rumours of RIAT's impending demise, but his legacy should be the continued success of the Tattoo for many years to come.
Director of RIAT Tim Prince said the 2004 airshow had exceeded his expectations. Despite previous statements to the contrary, it was clear that the 2004 airshow was under considerable pressure to succeed after the debacle of 2002. With the operating budget slimmed, and an increase in crowd numbers, it would seem its future is secure for now. "For the most part, the weather was exceptional, the flying was incredible and the atmosphere electric. There were few problems with the traffic, the attendance figures were up on 2003 and we had wonderful range of aircraft on display. It amazes me how each year volunteers, participants, sponsors and permanent staff pull together to create what is Europe's largest airshow but this year, more than ever, everyone was determined to ensure it was a success - for Paul", he said. Next year, be there too.
For part two, click here...