They say good things come to those who wait and that was certainly the case in 2022. After a three-year, pandemic-enforced hiatus, the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) returned to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.
Having bought tickets for the world’s biggest military airshow in 2020, only to be thwarted by the restrictions implemented by Covid, we tried again in 2022 and, this time, nothing was going to stop us.
I had been to RIAT only once before, but I was eight then and don’t remember it. This time, now as a fully- fledged airshow enthusiast and self-confessed ‘av geek’ with a love for the fast, loud and modern jets, I could barely contain my excitement as the weeks, days and hours ticked down to Saturday, 16 July.
It was an early 7am start from my friend’s house in Southampton and a 90-minute drive via the A34 and the M3 to arrive at Fairford on a swelteringly hot July day: absolutely perfect conditions for an airshow at the height of the British summer.
There were very long queues to get into the car park but, having done so, we entered the showground just as the marathon eight hour flying display kicked off. First up; a rip-roaring routine from the Italian Air Force Eurofighter F-2000A Typhoon.
I won’t run through every single display here: with a programme stretching from 9.45am right through until 6pm and featuring 30 different types; we’ll be here all day. Instead, I will pick out my highlights and discuss the aircraft I enjoyed the most.
Undoubtedly one of the most unusual aircraft ever seen at an airshow caught the eye early on: the public display debut of the Airbus A-330-743L “Beluga” with test pilot Anthony Flynn at the controls. The giant transporter gave some very impressive passes before a dramatic rolling departure into the gin clear blue skies.
But for me the undoubted star of the RIAT flying display came right at the end in the early evening light. Having presented a very entertaining combination alongside the Swiss Air Force PC-7 team, Captain Yannick ‘Fonsi’ Zanata wowed the Fairford spectators with a loud and breathtaking solo routine of power, agility and precision in the F/A 18C Hornet.
Joining the Hornet were a string of other first-class solo jet displays. Another Hornet came from the Spanish, whilst the F-16 was twice represented impressively with the Belgian Air Force F-16AM and the Zeus Demo Team from Greece in the ‘C’ variant of the legendary fighter jet.
The RAF were, as ever, out in force, with contributions from Flight Lieutenant Adam O’Hare in the Eurofighter Typhoon and Steedman Display sword winner for best display by a UK participant courtesy of Flt Lt Matty Smythe and the Chinook. The Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight are ever presents at every major UK show and RIAT was no exception. The RAF’s latest frontline fighter also featured in the display with a brief – but no less impressive – low pass and hover demonstration as Fairford was shaken to its core by the raw power and noise of the F-35B Lightning II.
Two of the best sequences came from the Hungarians with two vastly contrasting appearances in the flying. Their SAAB JAS-39C Gripen solo display (one of two in the programme), flown by Captain David Szentrendei, proved a worthy winner of the Paul Bowen trophy for best individual jet display and came complete with an eye-catching ‘dump and burn.’ However, it was the Hungarian Mil Mi-24P Hind helicopter which also caught the eye with a very spirited and energetic routine which used pretty much all of the crowd line.
Other helicopter displays included the mighty NH90 tactical transport helicopter from Germany and an impressive two-ship performance from the Czechs in the shape of their battle hardened combat rotary wing MiL Mi-35 Hind and Mi-171Sh Hip. The pair put on a fearsome demonstration of their combat capabilities – a rare treat from a display never before seen at RIAT.
Another outstanding set piece role demonstration came courtesy of the Austrians and another award-winning display. This involved the now sadly rare, but once familiar, sight of a Lockheed C-130K Hercules together with a pair of Eurofighter EF2000 Typhoons. The C-130K played the role of an unresponsive aircraft in friendly airspace with the Typhoons scrambled to intercept, identify and escort the rogue aircraft to a safe landing at Fairford. Once the C-130K had touched down, the pair of Typhoons took centre stage…and how! The Fairford crowd were captivated and held completely in thrall as the two Typhoons put on a superb sequence of close air combat one on one manouevres. This was certainly up there as one of my favourite displays of the event and combined the rare sight of the Herc with the wonderful sound of not one but two modern fighter jets at the same time!
Considering one of the themes of this year’s RIAT was the 75th Anniversary of the USAF, it was disappointing to see only one aircraft from ‘across the pond’ feature in the flying. The tilt rotor, V/STOL Bell Boeing CV-22B Osprey from RAF Mildenhall was a welcome addition, but the last minute cancellation of a pair of Boeing B-52H Stratofortress aircraft – which would have been the first time I’ve seen one flying – was a shame. Overall, the USAF support didn’t match the hype bestowed upon it by enthusiasts. We were looking forward to seeing the B52s but safety must come first and there’s always another year.
More colour and panache came from the Frecce Tricolori of the Italian Air Force, mainstays of RIAT as they filled the Cotswold skies with their high energy syncronicity and the green, white and red of the Italian national flag. The four Extra 300s of The Royal Jordanian Falcons provided a nice contrast to the backdrop of heavy military metal.
By far the best of the foreign display teams, though, was the headline act of RIAT 2022: the much anticipated return of the Republic of Korea Air Force’s Black Eagles, last seen here in 2012. The Red Arrows become staid and dated and you see them so often their undoubted skill becomes all too achingly familiar. The eight KAI T-50B Golden Eagle fighter/trainers used by this excellent team provided not only the novelty factor but also something modern, vibrant and very slick. The team’s exceptional performance concluded when they used their smoke to paint their nation’s national symbol, the Taegeuk, in the skies over Fairford, and landed back in front of an awestruck crowd to a loud standing ovation. It was no surprise to see the Black Eagles team win not one, but two awards – the King Hussein Memorial Sword for best Overall Flying Demonstration and the Friends of RIAT’s As the Crow Flies trophy for best Overall Flying Demonstration.
A brilliant day was had by all at the UK’s premier military aviation event. We had an easy journey home and arrived back in Southampton shortly after 9.30pm having stopped for dinner en route. A day which will live long in the memory and a long-awaited item to tick off the bucket list. Maybe Yeovilton next year?