The Royal International Air Tattoo is arguably the world’s greatest airshow, located in the West of England in the heart of the Cotswolds. This seemingly small place houses RAF Fairford, a forward operating location that is available for use by the United States.
Many awe-inspiring aircraft have been based here, including the B-2 Spirit, U-2 Dragon Lady, B-1B Lancer, and the B-52 Stratofortress.
Once a year, usually in July for the space of a week, RAF Fairford becomes home to a host of aircraft. Over 35 nations from around the world participate in this event. With over eight hours of flying displays on Saturday and Sunday, plus four hours on Friday and 150+ aircraft on static display, this is an enthusiast’s wet dream.
Traffic. Lots of traffic. Over 160,000 people attend RIAT every year meaning that there is a huge number of cars all converging to a relatively small area. The showgrounds open at 0730 and I would advise getting there earlier to give plenty of time to park up and queue to get in and look around the static park early morning. The flying display starts at 0945, so you’ve got two hours to look around then find a good spot to sit for the flying to start.
I’ve always tried to get as close to the runway as possible for maximum viewing pleasure.
But before you can walk in, you’ll need to be searched – the organizers of RIAT are very keen on security which is critical when you have such a large number of people and very expensive and high-tech warplanes all sitting within (almost) touching distance. Security is pretty slick and didn’t hold us up upon entering.
Upon walking in you are greeted by aircraft, obviously. But it is almost overwhelming, there are so many it is a struggle to know what to begin with. As a seasoned RIAT-goer, my usual route is to walk to one end of the airfield and take in as much as possible, photographing interesting aircraft before hoards of people flood in and get in front of the lens.
With the amount of planning that it must take to sort out the ideal parking places for every aircraft, it is amazing to be able to get up so close and get a real sense of the size.
But it isn’t just all about the planes – there are often car clubs that bring their vehicles onto the grounds. The manufacturers have gazebos up with showcases for their newest technology with interactive elements for those wanting to get involved and plenty of fun activities for younger audiences too. You can even meet the pilots from your favorite display team!
The flying display is of course the biggest attraction for the majority of people. This year the flying program started at 0938 and finished at 1800. Eight hours and 22 minutes filled with some of the best aerobatic display teams and high-performance aircraft from around the world.
F-16s, F-35s to the small SAAB T-17, the organizers do a great job of dispersing modern jet fighters with some of the slower, more ponderous aircraft to keep things entertaining. All of the displays have fantastic commentary by Ben Dunnell and Mark Manwaring, two very familiar voices for those who have attended RIAT before.
One of the highlights of this year was the Czech Mil Mi-24 Hind and Mil Mi-171 Hip. A rather unusual display of two Cold War-era types that are becoming an increasingly rare sight on the airshow circuit.
Later this year the Czech air force are retiring all of their Hinds from service in order to be sent to Ukraine and will be replaced by AH-1Z Vipers. The pair showed off the performance capabilities of their aircraft and the rather menacing noise and aesthetics of the Mi-24.
Another display of interest was a QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) demonstration from the Austrian Airforce with a C-130K Hercules and two Eurofighter EF2000 Typhoons. The C-130 acted as an aircraft that had gotten dangerously close to airspace that it should not have.
The two EF2000s leapt into the air under full reheat filling the skies above RAF Fairford with incredible noise and intercepted the C-130, all whilst providing live communication to the crowd as if this were a real event.
The pilot in one Eurofighter pulls alongside the cockpit of the C-130 and uses a variety of ways to gain the attention of the pilot. The other Typhoon stays around a third of a mile behind ready with a weapons solution if it becomes required. A wonder and extremely interesting glimpse into some of the important missions undertaken by our air forces.
Of course, on top of these military demonstrations, we also saw plenty of action from some of the best display teams in the world. This included the Republic of Korea’s Black Eagles who were back in the UK for the first time since 2012! They took to the skies all three days of RIAT in their T-50B advanced jet trainers (that look suspiciously like F-16s) to wow the crowds. As the weather was so good they were able to perform their full height display.
I would recommend finding clips of it online, as some of their maneuvers are unbelievably impressive. Naturally, the Red Arrows were at the show too, as well as the Irish Air Corps Silver Swallows and the Freece Tricolori.
Over the course of the three days, there were over 20 hours of flying display action making the Royal International Air Tattoo the largest military airshow in the world.
The static display is another big attraction for me. Types are usually grouped together making it easier to navigate and find whatever interests you. As always, there is a great number of large transport aircraft and often you can take a look inside! Likes of the C-17 Globemaster III or the KC-135R Stratotanker were available for the general public to walk in and get a feel for how large and complex these airplanes actually are.
The highlight for me was USAF E-4B from the 595th Command and Control Group. Heavily based on the Boeing 747, the E-4 is one of only four flown by the USAF. Known as the Nightwatch or the Doomsday Plane, these aircraft would be able to run the military and government in the event of nuclear war.
It was amazing to see such an incredibly historical and unique aircraft up close.
In contrast to the huge E-4B was the Swedish Airforce Historic Flight’s SAAB J-32B Lansen, Sk35C Draken, and the Sk37E Viggen. Three beautiful heritage aircraft that is a very unusual sight on the UK display circuit. Unfortunately due to regulations, they are not allowed to fly displays over land. However, they have performed at the Bournemouth airshow previously where I was lucky enough to see the Sk35C fly. Regardless it was amazing to see these three parked together.
With too many aircraft to count – quite literally hundreds – you can spend an entire day walking up and down the 2-mile stretch of the runway looking at warbirds to modern and even future vehicles. Other worthy mentions were the U-2 Dragon Lady, 2Excel Aviation Boeing 727, A-4N Skyhawk, and the An-30 Clank.
Anyone who is an aviation fan will absolutely love going to RIAT. It is my favorite show of the display season and one I have been to many times and will continue to attend for years to come.
My recommendation is to buy tickets for both days to ensure that you do not miss anything. It’ll give you plenty of time to look around the static park as well as enjoy all of the amazing flying that goes on across the weekend.
For the more “hardcore” enthusiasts, Monday is the departure day. It sees RAF Fairford becoming the busiest airport in the entire world and you’ll get to see everything in the static park leave to return home.
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For now, the wait is on for the 2023 Royal International Air Tattoo.