To write about the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) would be like, as the famous saying goes, carrying coals to Newcastle. While a considerable amount of the articles published about this event usually only address the event itself and its participants, this report will focus more on the history, facts and figures of RIAT as the worlds largest aviation related event. No other event has quite as many highlights and so few low points as the Royal International Air Tattoo. Since its foundation in 1971, RIAT has been held a total of 31 times and cancelled only twice in its history, once in 1975 after the global oil crisis and again in 2008 due to heavy rain.
RIAT was founded by Timothy Prince and Paul Bowen (both former Air Traffic Controllers) together with Air Marshal Denis Crowley-Milling CBE, DSO, DFC. Air Marshall Crowley-Milling was a veteran of the Battle of Britain and flew as a wingman with the legendary Sir Douglas Bader. The very first Air Tattoo was held at North Weald airfield (located to the north of London) on 31st May 1971.
After only three years at North Weald the Air Tattoo was moved to RAF Greenham Common which served as its prime venue until 1985. The tattoo was then moved to RAF Fairford where, in conjunction with the RIAT, it is still located today. With a two mile long runway and ample space this base serves as an ideal venue for an event of this magnitude. RAF Fairford is also close to RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall, the only remaining airbase in the United Kingdom that is still operated by the USAF.
Some 100 aircraft attended the first Air Tattoo (including a Sikorsky S-65Oe of the Austrian army) and ever since then the number or aircraft and nations participating continued to climb well into the new millennium with attendance now reaching an almost astronomical level. In 2003 RIAT was the largest public aviation event of its kind with no less than 535 aircraft and helicopters in attendance, a record highlighted in the Guinness Book of Records. While such high figures are now a thing of the past, the organizer of the Air Tattoo, the RAF Charitable Trust Enterprises (RAFCTE) has still managed to arrange for a considerable number of aircraft (2015 there were 232 aircraft from a total of 75 countries on site) to attend and there is no real difference to past events regarding the quality of the excellent flying program.
The list of highlights featured at RIAT has continued to grow over the past 44 years and is now enormous, in fact is probably easier to list the aircraft that have not attended RIAT rather than trying to list all of the rare and exotic aircraft that have. Even this year the RAFCTE managed to attract a highlight not seen anywhere outside of Japan in the form of two Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft. These aircraft are operated exclusively by the Japanese Navy and are currently the most modern platform of their kind in operation (its American counterpart, the Boeing P-8 POSEIDON is based on the tried and true model 737-800). Developed by Kawasaki Heavy Industries under the prototype name of P-X, the P-1 made its maiden flight on 28th September 2007 with a total of 33 aircraft being produced and delivered to the Japanese armed forces. The reason why this aircraft participated at this year's Air Tattoo is due to current negotiations with the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) regarding the possible procurement of the type a replacement for the now abandoned BAe Nimrod MRA4. While the Royal Air Force has shown a keen interest in the P-1, there are some concerns about the Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries IHI XF7-10 engines used. Should the RAF adopt the P-1, the British variant could possibly utilise Rolls-Royce manufactured engines.
So what sets RIAT apart from other events? On one hand, its the high level of professionalism displayed by the events very experienced team of organizes, especially regarding how they conduct and market the event, this results in a continually high standard rarely found at other events. On the other hand, a significant factor is that the organizer is a non-profit, charitable organization with strong links to the MoD, although as to how this arrangement actually works is beyond the scope of this article. What is important however is a considerable portion of the revenue generated goes to the RAF Charitable Trust. This in turn finances various foundations such as the Air Training Corps (ATC), a cadet organisation, and to the provision of flying scholarships for disabled people.
An important element for any successful event is also the tremendous amount of hard work carried out by the organisers. This hard work, together with a considerable networking knowledge, has placed the RIAT team in the perfect position to arrange such an impressive line-up of aircraft from participating air forces. Its clear that the events great reputation and the excellent relationships formed with many of the worlds air forces over the past years has continued to underpin its huge success. This has been of great benefit to all as no where else can aviation enthusiasts and the general public alike get such good value for money than at the Royal International Air Tattoo.
Of course with such a long history there have also been a few setbacks. The first was experienced in 1975 with the resignation of the then airshow directors, this together with the oil crisis meant the event for that year had to be cancelled. Not only did this effect the show organisers but also the many participants and spectators whom travelled from many countries to attend the event. RIAT was cancelled again in 2008 due to heavy rain resulting in the flooding of car parks and camp sites, again a great disappointment for everyone involved. On the plus side is the very impressive safety record of the Air Tattoo. With only two minor exceptions no people have ever been injured in the history of the event. One spectacular crash involving two Russian MiG-29’s occurred in 1995, however both pilots were able to safely eject from their aircraft. In 2002 a tricky situation developed when an Alenia G-222 of the Italian Air Force, while performing the so-called Sarajevo-landing, touched down so hard that its front wheel collapsed and the aircraft thundered along the runway in a shower of sparks, then finally coming to a complete halt. In another critical situation a RAF Eurofighter TYPHOON recovered from a dive just three meters above the ground, this incident rounded off a small series of significant "mishaps" at the Air Tattoos.
Probably for the last time (at least for visitors to the RIAT) 2015 saw the final flight demonstration of Avro VULCAN B.Mk2 XH588. This icon of the Cold War has been fully restored to airworthy condition after years of painstaking restoration work by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust (VTTST), with the entire project being publically financed through donations, lottery funds and private sponsors. Actually, very few expected this prestigious project to ever get off the ground, but somehow the VTTST managed to collect enough Pounds Sterling to ensure Avro 698 VULCAN was able to complete her second maiden flight on 18th October 2007 using the identifier of XH588. Since then, this bomber, looking more like an oversized moth, has truly enriched the British airshow scene. To the disappointment of the British public and not to mention many aviation enthusiasts, the VTTST has announced that 2015 will be the last season in which the XH588 will be demonstrated in flight. When and where the final flight of XH588 will take place is not entirely clear at the moment.
In addition to the aforementioned highlights there was still plenty to see at RIAT. Even with only partially optimal weather conditions (the British would have called it perfect) the completely sold-out event did not disappoint and delivered as promised. The so-called synchro pair formation consisting of a Supermarine SPITFIRE Mk IIa and a Eurofighter TYPHOON FGR4 wowed the nearly 150,000 spectators as did demonstrations of the Airbus A400M ATLAS and a Lockheed Martin F-16C FIGHTING FALCON Block 52 of the Hellenic Air Force just to name a few.
The next show will take place between the 8th and 10th of July 2016. Preparations for this event are already in full swing so there is no doubt that Air Tattoo 2016 will be in the same league as this years event, CU there!
Robert Kysela, CHK 6
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