Bob Archer reviews the disaster area that was Fairford, mid-July. Additional material by Bob Franklin
The organisers of the Royal International Air Tattoo were justifiably proud that their event at Fairford had been chosen to host Her Majesty the Queen to present the Royal Air Force and its Regiment with new standards. The events were to culminate in the flypast by ninety fixed and rotary winged aircraft to commemorate the Service's ninetieth anniversary and were to take place on Friday, 11 July, with meticulous planning taking place for many weeks prior. The date was chosen to coincide with the world renowned Air Tattoo, but not to affect the flying programme on the two public days. With storm clouds threatening, Her Majesty took her place, and amid marching bands and personnel in their best blue uniforms, carried out the presentation before being whisked away for lunch in the Patron's Pavilion. Seconds after departing, the heavens opened, and a deluge of monsoon proportions fell on Fairford, drenching service personnel and the hundreds of invited guests, almost certainly ruining many pretty dresses and uniforms.
The flypast was due to begin overflying Fairford at exactly 14:30 - amazingly, at exactly this time, there was a lull between the weather fronts, enabling the aerial procession to go ahead as planned. The training and support formations were first to overfly the assembled dignitaries, composed of DHFS Griffons and Squirrels; Grobs and Tutors; the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster, Hurricane and Spitfire; a Hercules with two Jetsreams and two Dominies; nine Tucanos; and seven Hawks. The next formations began with a VC10 refuelling an E-3D Sentry; another VC10 and a pair of BAe 125s; a TriStar with two Hawks; a solitary C-17A; a diamond nine of Typhoons; four Harriers; two more diamond nine groups containing Tornado F3s and Tornado GR4s; before the Red Arrows overflew producing patriotic red, white and blue dye into their exhaust pipes. There followed a number of vintage types, before the Queen departed and Fairford resumed its operational normality.
Earlier in the week a low pressure front from the Atlantic Ocean crossed Fairford with heavy showers. Located on a low flood plain, this area of Gloucestershire retains water, which soaks away much slower than elsewhere in the UK. These factors contrived to flood three of the four major car parks outside the air base - furthermore, the showground and other public areas of the base itself were waterlogged. In consultation with the Police and other safety organisations, the RIAT organisers were forced to make the unprecedented decision to cancel the airshow on Saturday, 12 July. Frantic efforts were made to pump water from the affected areas, but with little or no improvement, Sunday's show was also cancelled. The decision was a devastating blow to the many people who had purchased advanced tickets and had travelled from all over the world. Nevertheless, the decision was made on the grounds of safety to the public, and the assessment was the only one available, as the organisers could have been found negligent had a member of the public been injured by the flooded areas and begun court proceedings.
A year of preparations for the three major themes, the Royal Air Force ninetieth anniversary, 'Sky Tanker' 08 and 'Global Engagement' had brought some three hundred aircraft to Fairford. More than a hundred military aircraft were exhibited in the static area, while the operational aprons contained no less than ten flying display teams. Looking at the static park first, the organisers had positioned some of the more interesting and colourful exhibits on the apron in the south-west corner, ideal for photography, as the backdrop is trees, with none of the usual annoying airshow factors to spoil images. Star exhibit was the Hellenic Air Force McDonnell Douglas RF-4E adorned with special markings for the fiftieth anniversary of the first flight of the Phantom - the design featured the familiar 'Spook' emblem on the fin and the legend 'Phabulous Phantoms Phorever' along the fuselage side. Alongside was a pair of Italian AMXs from 32 Stormo, again both wearing special markings for significant events. The Aeronavale Nord 262, a popular feature at the recent 'Ocean Tiger' meet at Landivisiau, was also parked in this area, embellished with a white and black arctic tiger pattern. At the head of the line up was the extremely colourful Mirage F1B from France's GC 01.030 at Colmar-Meyenheim, marked with the legend Groupe 'Alsace' - 67 ans de chasse (67 years of operations). The unit disbanded in June 2008, with the Mirage F1 performing its last operational flight before being preserved at Colmar.
Opposite the special scheme parking area was a line up of eleven Lockheed Martin F-16s from European air arms, featuring two with special tail markings. Nearby were some of the larger exhibits, including a Brazilian Air Force CASA 295, assigned the local designation C-105A, on delivery from the Spanish manufacturer to Brazil. Positioned as the centrepiece of the overseas participation was a Pakistani Navy Lockheed Martin P-3C with the inscription 'World's Youngest Orion' on the nose - it featured artwork on the fin and rear fuselage, portraying the presence of civilisation on the shores of the Indus River for five thousand years. Merhan Naval Air Station is located adjacent to the river, thereby creating an advertisement for the region, as well as a unique scheme. Not to be outdone, the Royal Jordanian Air Force applied a huge decal depicting the monastery at Petra to the tail of its Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules. Both of these tail markings were applied especially for RIAT 2008.
Understandably the central and eastern parking areas were exclusively reserved for the Royal Air Force, with past and present aircraft types on display, as well as the traditional displays of the myriad of trades that constitute the modern day air force. While the weather was predominantly cloudy on Saturday, that prevailing on Sunday was set fair, and would have been ideal for a full flying programme, had the ground conditions improved. With the 160,000 + spectators prevented from attending, Fairford had a distinctly empty, almost eerie feeling, enabling a gentle stroll through the static exhibits without threading through the mass of people usually found at RIAT.
Despite the lack of a flying programme, which would probably have negated any cancellation insurance claim, the display teams, and all of the individual flying aircraft, had performed a practice for the flying control committee during the week, enabling them to become familiar with the Fairford area. Without question, the star performer was the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor, which flew a demonstration on Friday afternoon against low cloud, creating massive vortices streaming from its stubby wings and fuselage. The routine was nothing short of breathtaking, as pilot Major Paul 'Max' Moga of the 'Raptor Demonstration Team' performed manoeuvres that clearly showed why the F-22A is the most advanced of the fifth-generation air dominance fighters. Virtually stopping in its tracks on several occasions, 'Max' demonstrated the thrust vectoring in pitch axis, with the aircraft ceasing to fly forward and instead slowly floating earthward while under full power. It was an amazing spectacle, and one which was denied the public until the following Monday at Farnborough. Three F-22As from the 1st Fighter Wing had flown to Fairford from Langley AFB, Virginia on Tuesday 8 July, and one of the three pilots was Royal Air Force exchange officer Flt Lt Dan Robinson, who is the first overseas pilot to be assigned to an operational Raptor unit.
Also making their RIAT debut were the five Indian Air Force HAL Dhruvs, which collectively form the 'Sarang' Helicopter Display Team. With no public display available, the helicopters relocated to Farnborough on Sunday morning to end their protracted European tour. The Brazilian 'Esquadrilha da Fumaca' team was also to perform in the UK for the first time with its eight T-27 Tucanos from the Air Force Academy at Pirassununga-Campo Fontenelle. The Tucanos, escorted by a Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules, flew across the central part of the Atlantic Ocean, with a total flight time of more than thirty hours - brave pilots indeed spending so much flying time in a single engine propeller aircraft over such vast stretches of water. Disappointingly, the team only flew a familiarisation performance, before beginning their lengthy flight home on Monday. A few participants took the opportunity to depart early on Sunday, although most aircrew were happy to remain at Fairford. The Patrouille de France left for home on Sunday morning as planned, with their ten Alpha Jets displaying special markings for the teams fifty-fifth anniversary, a large gold '55' containing silhouettes of the various types that the team has operated since 1953.
Having been deprived of the largest and best military airshow in the world, the aviation enthusiast community flocked to Fairford for departures on Monday 14 July. Both park and view areas quickly filled with enthusiasts, although part of the eastern one remained closed as it was still considered unsafe. Spectators in the eastern park and view were treated to the vast majority of participating aircraft departing on runway 27, offering photographic opportunities as well as the chance to view the surfeit of interesting types and the twenty-plus special colour schemes.
Those enthusiasts who chose the western park and view were treated to a spectacle, as many of the pilots of the more interesting aircraft types elected to make traditional RIAT low-level departures. These interesting, but also safe departures also afforded some wonderful photographic opportunities. Many pilots had already agreed to these spectacular departures, and others were requested to do so by RIAT volunteers. Several photographers asked the author if it would be possible to request the Raptor pilot to depart at low-level at the start of his journey to Farnborough - 'Max' was more than happy to oblige, and was equally happy at the request not to vacate the runway at the mid point, but instead roll the F-22A all the way to the end of the runway taxi past the assembled photographers. Instead of a conventional taxi past, 'Max' elected to bring the new jet extremely close to the spectators, before turning her around and taxing back towards the runway. With the rear of the plane facing the spectators, he operated every control surface on the wings and rear fuselage as a token of goodwill. The crowd were thrilled, and the gesture certainly went along way to reducing the disappointment from the previous days' inactivity.
The unprecedented cancellations have reverberated throughout the aviation world, causing many event organisers to rethink their plans. Tim Prince and his team at RIAT headquarters will also be reviewing exactly what went wrong, and to ensure it does not happen again. Tim is one of the most experienced and resourceful airshow organisers in the world. Rumour control has been working overtime in the aftermath of RIAT 2008 - much of it based upon little more than hearsay. What is fact is that Tim and his team will consider every possibility to ensure the 2009 event proceeds as planned. Nothing sensible will be excluded, whether it be utilising an extensive 'park and ride' system, or even relocating RIAT to another site. All will be considered in due course. The themes for the 2009 event include NATO's sixtieth anniversary and 'Sea Search', with the two public days scheduled for Saturday and Sunday 18 and 19 July. Air-Scene UK will be there, at what will undoubtedly be a memorable event.