Modern Day

The Return of RIAT – The Biggest Military Air Show in Europe

For those who have attended the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in the past, the queue to get in has always been an unforgettable experience.

So finally, after a 3 year hiatus, aviation enthusiasts were able to experience the early starts and waiting again when the 2022 Airshow was held in July.

There are a huge variety of aircraft at RIAT every year.
The sole USAF flying demonstration came from a CV-22B Osprey.

I jest a little about the queuing, as it must be said the process of entry is quite efficient, even with random searches and X-ray machine use. But even though the gates open at 0730 the queues start to form soon after 5am and can become a social event in themselves.

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RIAT is huge, with well in excess of 50,000 visitors a day on the main show days, so that’s a lot of people to process, especially as many have huge camera bags and trolleys of camping gear.

The Hellenic Air Force is always a welcome addition at RIAT.
The Hellenic Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon with conformal fuel tanks showing off its performance.

For the enthusiast, it can become an endurance event, up to a week-long, if you want to catch all the participants arriving, practising and departing – and this year the scorching temperatures did not make life easy.

Attendance at the 2022 show was complicated by the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 events, whereby the tickets rolled over to subsequent years.

The Canadair CL-13B was on static display.
The Canadair CL-13B was an excellent addition to this year’s static display.

Not surprisingly the show was a sell-out, particularly on Saturday where tickets were not available for weeks prior to the day. Even Tom Cruise could only get in by air, and sadly not in a stolen F-14.

Reviewing the aircraft at the show, the organisers pulled together and excellent mix of modern and older machines both for the air display – which lasts for over 8 hours, by the way – and the static exhibits.

With over 260 aircraft in attendance, if you want to see everything you really do need to spend 2 if not 3 days at the show.

The Red arrows performing a roll during their display.
The RAF Red Arrows made a most welcome appearance.

RIAT has always been a military aviation event, with a primary focus on modern types and these were represented by air arms from across the world. Bahrain became the 57th participating nation with a C-130J Hercules attending, while the US Air Force provided a Boeing E-4B Nightwatch – an aircraft rarely seen in public and especially in Europe.

Participants ranged from east to west, the most extreme being a Kawasaki C-2 transport of the Japan Air Self Defence Force and an Embraer KC-390 transport of the Brazilian Air Force.

This Kawasaki C-2 flew from Japan to attend RIAT.
The C-2 is a rare sight at Western air shows but made the trip all the way from Japan.

RIAT usually adopts annual themes, and for 2022 this was ‘Training’ and the 200th anniversary of HM Coastguard.

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As a result, the static lineup included a number of training aircraft and helicopters through the years and the air displays also incorporated training and SAR elements – although in the main these were modern machines – in fact most were manufactured by the Swiss company Pilatus.

Aircraft attendees of particular interest included an A-4N Skyhawk from Canadian operator Top Aces, the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight Sk37C Viggen, Sk35c Draken and J32B Lansen, and a P-3C Orion from the German Navy – all of which were on static.

The Swedish Historic flight is a rare sight at RIAT.
The Saab SK-37E Viggen. This is a twin seat trainer model.

The flying display included two demonstrations from classic Soviet-era Hind attack helicopters, the first a solo display from a Mi-24P of the Hungarian Air Force and then a display from the Czech Air Force of a Mi-24V/35 and an MI-171Sh Hip transport.

The Mil Mi-24V Hind has an extremely distinctive shape.
The Czech also flew their Mi-24V Hind.

The latter is likely to be withdrawn from service shortly so seeing such a display was a highlight. The most unusual display item award probably went to the Airbus A330 BelugaXL which performed a flypast on Saturday, and while not in keeping with the military theme it was nonetheless something quite unique to see.

In fact given current tensions in Eastern Europe the Czech Air Force were a significant supporter of the show, supplementing the Hind/Hip combination with a display from a PZL W-3A Sokol SAR helicopter and an L159 ALKA on static for the training theme.

The A-4N was a welcome sight at RIAT this year.
One of the rarer planes at this years RIAT was the A-4 Skyhawk. Built as a nuclear-attack capable light bomber.

Other Eastern European participants included a Gripen from the Hungarian Air Force, a PC-9M from Slovenia, an M-28 Skytruck from Estonia, a C-27J Spartan transport and AS365 Dauphin helicopter from Lithuania, another C-27J from Slovakia and a most unusual AN-30 ‘Clank’ from the Romanian Air Force.

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As is often the case at RIAT, having a lot of aircraft on static and the tendency to place cones around them meant that worthwhile photography of some of the more unique aircraft was challenging if not impossible, but it was nonetheless good to see some types that may not return.

Austria also made a significant contribution with their Quick Reaction Alert ‘QRA’ display, where their supporting C-130K acted as an interloper to which two Typhoons were scrambled to intercept.

The RAF Typhoon had a special paint scheme.
The RAF’s Typhoon also took part in this year’s flying display.

One nation which did not attend this year was of course Ukraine, and readers may be aware that one of their senior pilots Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko ‘Grey Wolf’ – who was the Su-27 display pilot and performed at RIAT twice – was sadly shot down and killed in the early days of the ‘operation’ after coming out of retirement to resist the Russian offensive.

The RIAT team recognised this by having a gap in the static aircraft with a memorial and Ukrainian flag flying in his memory, a most well considered act.

Ukraine was abscent from this years RIAT.
An excellent tribute to Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko ‘Grey Wolf’. Previously Grey Wolf has attended and amazed crowds with the impressive performance of the Su-27P1M Flanker.

As usual, the air display included several national display teams – the Swiss PC-7 as an eight-ship with their F/A-18C Hornet, the Irish Air Corps Silver Swallows with four Pilatus PC-9M’s, the French Air and Space Force Pilatus PC-21 duo, the Italian Air Force Freece Tricolori with their 10 Aermacchi MB339’s, the RAF’s Red Arrows with their Hawk T1’s (but only a 7-ship display these days) and the South Korean Black Eagles team with their 8 KAI T-50 Golden Eagle jets.

Many usual pairings are seen at RIAT.
The Swiss had a rare combination of Pilatus PC-7s and a F/A-18 Hornet.

Not surprisingly the Black Eagles won two awards for their display, which involved crisp and dynamic manoeuvres and at times very entertaining commentary.

The distinctive colours of the Black Eagles.
The Black Eagles put on an excellent display using their T-50 aircraft.

The American contribution to the show – remembering that we are at RAF Fairford, a US Air Force operating base – was expected to be significant with it being the 75th Anniversary of the formation of the USAF.

While the E-4B was undoubtedly a special visitor, other support was sadly lacklustre. Admittedly there are global issues that must take greater importance, but it was disappointing to not see significant USAF participation in the display segment.

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Two B-52Hs were scheduled to attend but cancelled, leaving an F-35A and F-15E plus an MC-130J, a KC-135R Stratotanker, a KC-46A Pegasus and two visiting F-16CMs on static. I’ll also accept that getting up close to a U-2 Dragon Lady was a rare opportunity, but they are regular Fairford visitors.

The U-2 is a frequent visitor of RIAT's runway.
The U-2S is a frequent sight at RAF Fairford.

For the display, the crowd had to settle for two passes from a CV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor, with a similar machine on static.

Thank you, RAF Mildenhall and Lakenheath, for your contribution but what a shame more could not have be made of this significant anniversary. A flypast of some of these types would have been very special…

A shame that F-15 did not display at RIAT this year.
The USAF F-15E with her heritage paint scheme landing on arrivals day.

So, after a 3-year break did RIAT 2022 compare well to past shows? Well, I would say a resounding yes.

There was a great selection of aircraft both on static and in the flying display, and while it would have been nice to see more participation from some Air Arms it was entertaining and more than enough to satisfy most aviation geeks.

The F-35 in hover.
The RAF F-35B Lightning flew from RAF Marham to show off its hover.

Let’s be honest, it is not a cheap day out but its a once a year special event and no worse than going to a premier league football match.

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So if you are into aviation it remains a must. My only real gripe was that over the last 3 years no one had seen fit to dispose of those brightly coloured cones…

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Phil Royal is a full time professional photographer based in the Lake District, Cumbria. He has been supplying images and articles on transport subjects to publishers since the mid-1990’s, particularly military and aviation themed. He is from Kent and emigrated to the north pre-pandemic to switch his photographic focus to landscape imagery after deciding to move on from his previous full time career designing offshore platforms and ships. His images are available for sale in Cumbrian galleries, pubs and various online outlets and he offers photographic guiding and tuition in his local area.