TНЕ ROYAL International Air Tattoo (RIAT) continues to attract more interest from the military aviation enthusiast than any other airshow in the world. It is also one of the United Kingdom’s biggest public events.

In its heyday in 1995, the International Air Tattoo (as it was then called) attracted over 200,000 people and a massive 300+ military aircraft, even though there were severe traffic problems for visitors and despite the fact that at £20 the admission charge appeared inflated. The show was a financial success, which should have been reflected in the contributions to the RAF Benevolent Fund Enterprises (RAFBFE), the main benefactor of the event.

Unfortunately, in 2003 only 150,000 people visited and RIAT had to cope with a 25% slump in attendance over the figures for the previous year. Serious traffic — and admission — queues reached scandalous proportions in 2002 and many people vented their anger by refusing to return the following year (see November 2002, p76-77). Inevitably, RIAT was faced with a big operational loss and some harsh economic truths, which between them led to a number of redundancies within the organisation.

Morale at RIAT was dealt another blow in May this year when Paul Bowen, the energetic RIAT Director, sadly passed away after losing his battle against cancer. He and Tim Prince were the founders of RIAT and organised their first airshow at North Weald in 1971. Although RIAT has a large organisational team, it was the pair’s influence and driving force that was behind the success of the RIAT show over the years. It was against this backdrop that the 2004 event was organised — and the knowledge that a similar slump in attendance could signal its end.

Getting There

When you have visited as many airshows as I have it is easy to become a little blase, so this year I took with me a friend from China, Eric Zhang, whose previous airshow experiences extended only to aerospace shows in Singapore and China every other or so lanes through which visitors could enter.

After a security check, it was just a matter of handing over your ticket and you were in. In all, it took us 30 minutes from parking the car to getting in. So far so good. Then came the walk to the static park, aided by the fact that most of the flying aircraft were parked close to the footpath.

The walk would have taken me around 20 minutes but Eric — mesmerised by the RAF Tornados, Finnish Hawks, Swiss F-5s, Red Arrows Hawks, Jaguars and all — couldn’t help lagging behind a bit. He had never seen anything like it! His only previous experience of them had been photos in magazines and books, so you can imagine his sheer amazement as we arrived at the static park. A Chinese national getting this close to a U-2 with a camera! «We do have these in museums in China,» he enthused, though he didn’t explain that they were wrecks shot down by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force!

The US 9th Reconnaissance Wing personnel we saw around the U-2S had brought along a mannequin dressed in the appropriate high altitude flying gear -not something the public usually gets the chance to see. They were in good humour and obliging towards Eric’s requests. Just behind the U-2 was a F-117, and again my Chinese friend’s camera was put to good use.

I didn’t see much of Eric that day — he wandered off into the anonymous crowds and by the end of the day, had found out he had run out of space on his cards for his digital camera. He was in complete awe at seeing so many military aircraft — not to mention the sheer number of stalls he could visit to buy merchandise. He found the grandstand, with people waving their small flags at the end of the day, amusing, too. Let’s hope the idea catches on in China.

Eric was not alone in his verdict that the best flying display was put on by the pilot of the F/A-18F Super Hornet, Boeing Chief Test Pilot Ricardo Traven. It was a view echoed in the awards ceremony at the end of the show, where Canadian-born Traven was awarded an unprecedented three trophies. He received the King Hussein Memorial Sword for the best overall flying demonstration, the As The Crow Flies Award for travelling the furthest distance, and the Friends of RIAT Best Livery — the aircraft (BuNo 165917/’NE10V of VFA-2) was sporting a special colour scheme.

He told those present: «This is incredible. I demonstrate the Super Hornet in many parts of the world, but Fairford is all about great crowds and great Where were our European friends?

Many of the aircraft in the static and flying display were representative of the show’s four main themes -100 years of French-English Entente Cordiale, 50th Anniversary of the C-130 Hercules (1954-2004), Hawk’s 30th Anniversary (1974-2004) and the D-Day 60th Anniversary.

Had it not been for the US representatives, the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the C-130 * which made its first flight on August 23,1954 — would have been a flop, as only seven Hercules out of the 16 in the static were not from the US military. The US presence at RIAT was in sharp contrast to the RAF Waddington airshow in late June where there was no US participation (see August, p96-97), and the selection of C-130s from the USA was impressive.

In addition to the Puerto Rico ANG C-130E, Alaskan ANG and Tennessee ANG C-130Hs, there was a MC-130E Combat Talon I, MC-130P Combat Shadow, MC-130H Combat Talon II, WC-130J weather aircraft and a ski-equipped New York ANG LC-130H (the latter won the Concours d’Elegance-Hercules Award).

The other Hercules in the static show included two from the RAF (a C-130K C.3 and C-130J C.5), one from the Brazilian Air Force (C-130H), Italian Air Force (C-130J), Royal Jordanian Air Force (C-130H, which also won the Concours d’Elegance-Hercules, Runners Up spot), Royal New Zealand Air Force (C-130H), an RAF of Oman C-130H. Of these, the fact that only one came from another European air force shows that either our European friends are losing interest in this show or their Hercules fleet is extremely busy.

While the list of Herk absentees was impressive, so was the number of countries with no representation at RIAT. These included Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey, all of whom had supported the event in the past. A lack of eastern European participation confirmed that the great days when Iskras, MiG-21s, MiG-29s, Su-22s and Mi-24s could be seen at RIAT have been consigned to the history books. RIAT was once the place where you could see a splendid array of former Warsaw Pact fighters — but this year there was only one — a Lithuanian Air Force L-39 . This is no fault of the organisers’, merely a sign of the times as former Warsaw Pact countries join NATO and modernise their fleets.

Flying Display

As part of the 30th Anniversary of the Hawk theme, the Finnish Hawk aerobatic team ‘The Midnight Hawks’ was making its UK debut. The four-ship team put on a good performance, mainly comprised of tight formation turns, but it was a welcome addition to this year’s event. It was also nice to see a NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) CT-155 Hawk parked in the static display before its delivery to Canada, alongside a Centre of Aviation Medicine Hawk T.1 from Boscombe Down. The main tribute to the Hawk came in the shape of the Red Arrows, which for nearly an hour showed the audience why they are the top aerobatic team in the world.

Despite the differences of opinion held by the French and British Governments on the subject of Iraq and on some European matters, it was good to see our French allies making an effort to celebrate 100 years of ‘Entente Cordiale’. It was on April 8, 1904, that the UK and France signed a document attempting to stop both countries going to war over Egypt and Morocco, and since then an alliance of mutual friendship has existed. The French military sent along nine aircraft from the Air Force, Navy and Army to appear in the static display. The latter sent a type rarely seen in the UK. a Pilatus PC-6B Turbo Porter, wearing special marks. The pinnacle of the Entente theme was a flying display which should have included a French Air Force Mirage 2000C and an RAF Jaguar, though as things turned out only the Jaguar flew, making a dummy bomb attack that led to lots of pyrotechnics exploding.

With the passing of Paul Bowen in May, it was only fitting that there should be a «missing man’ formation flypast. In mid-afternoon on both days, a Piper Cherokee, along with the Royal Jordanian Falcons (with Extra 300s), paid a poignant and fitting tribute to the man who had for so long been the driving force behind RIAT.

For some, the highlight of the day was the flypast by the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, flanked on the Saturday by two F-15Es and trailed by another. The following day, an additional F-15E trailed it.

The finale to the flying display on both days was the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, which featured a number of World War Two types, including four P-51D Mustangs (though only three on Sunday) and four Spitfires. This one-hour show was well-organised and an interesting spectacle. The reality of what ^ happened on June 6,1944, was heightened by two Wactors talking their way through different scenarios over the show’s commentary system, from the press gantry. It was made all the more convincing by the actors simulating hollow-sounding radio conversations typical of the early days of radio, this being achieved by cups fitted over their mouths! I thought the idea worked very well, and RIAT is to be applauded for organising such an authentic tribute to those who fought during the war.


I thoroughly enjoyed RIAT, and I know that Eric will probably never be the same again after seeing so many different aircraft (approximately 200 modern military aircraft) over one weekend. RIAT is now far more than just an airshow — large fun-fairs, stalls, corporate chalets and a grandstand which hosts a concert at the end of each day show its attempts to attract other visitors than those simply passionate about aircraft. However, I fear for its future. I suspect that the show can only continue with attendances of around 200,000 because of its cost-base — to ensure that it makes a healthy profit for the RAFBFE — but I doubt if attendances like these will ever be seen again. Although the organisers have overcome the traffic problem which choked RIAT for so many years, I still think that the admission fee of £35 on the gate is too high, even though under-16s get in free. Furthermore, one wonders if Tim Prince, RIAT’s new Director, has the will to make it the financial success for the RAF Benevolent Fund that it once was. We shall see.

To conclude, when I interviewed Paul Bowen in 1995 he told me he looked upon RIAT as a «theatre of the sky». I think this year’s event echoed that sentiment more than any other RIAT ever. It was a shame he wasn’t there to witness it.

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