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Royal International Air Tattoo 2016 – A Cut Above All The Rest By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

redarrowsAsked his view of the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin had absolutely no hesitation saying that “this is THE best airshow”. He is absolutely right and these are justified words from a man who commands very high respect wherever he goes. They are said for good reason to because this annual event founded by Tim Prince, the late Paul Bowen and Air Marshal Sir Denis Crowley Milling just gets better every year. This year’s event will be no exception to that rule.

This year the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire takes place on July 8th to 10th. RIAT visitors are promised another fantastic event by the organisers and one that I am sure will befit a rather apt description of the most recent event made by racing driver Jenson Button and who described RIAT as being “All the thrills, excitement and noise of a Grand Prix, but in the air”.

Does RIAT live up to such high expectations and superlatives? Yes, it certainly does, a must do event on the annual calendar and this is a view that I know from experience is one shared by industry and military professionals alike. RIAT has never failed to live up to high expectations such high and this is one event that one finds being expounded from professionals and air enthusiasts alike that come back to RAF Fairford year after year to see the quite remarkable military aircraft displays and view what must surely be the largest array of static fixed wing and rotary aircraft capability to be found at any airshow in the world.

Apart from seeing fast jet displays there will as in the past be a massive variety of military transport, heavylift, ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance), maritime, rotary and other air power capability available to be viewed. As well as celebrating 70th anniversary of the de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk the Royal International Air Tattoo will also be marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Air Training Corps. The 2016 Air Tattoo will as always be looking to the future under the main theme “The Next Generation: Inspiring Innovation”. Just as at other military air shows such as that held at RAF Cosford, there will be a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) related initiatives. Air arms, aircraft operators, aerospace and technology companies as well as organisations involved in STEM have all been invited to participate and the Royal Aeronautical Society which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year will be represented by the Young Members, Careers and Outreach teams who will be exhibiting some very interesting work done over the past year including the Boeing sponsored ‘Schools Build a Plane project’.

To run and organise an annual Air Tattoo such as this is no easy task and it requires a team of dedicated and hard working professionals to ensure continuing success. CEO Andy Armstrong has a great team of people to work with and they are doing a very fine job of work. But the Air Tattoo would not be possible without the 2,000 plus volunteers who come together each year to help run and organise the event and that are the real key to making the Tattoo what everyone has come to expect. As June 1st to 12th marks what is being called National Volunteers’ Week I hope that you will agree that it is timely that I should choose to put out my now annual pre Royal International Air Tattoo commentary today.

Air forces from Belgium, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Jordan, Netherlands, Oman, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the USA and of course, from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy will all be taking part at this year’s Tattoo and the event will feature a remarkable 250 plus aircraft on display. Croatia which is represented at RIAT for the first time this year is the 56th nation to participate since the airshow began.

The reality is that few if any air show events held anywhere in the world rival the intensity, drama and spectacle on offer at the Royal International Air Tattoo. Just as much as the Tattoo is perhaps the best and most important networking event to military and industry personnel involved it is equally well regarded by those that come back year after year to be the absolute premier outdoor extravaganza of family entertainment. Alongside with the thrill of flying action from countless dozens of aircraft RIAT will witness the debut first appearance outside of the USA of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an aircraft that UK industry has a vested interest in its success and that in Royal Air Force and Royal Navy service will be known as the Lightning 11.

I understand that as far as the F-35 and other US flying display involvement is concerned the current plan is for two US Marine Corps F-35Bs and one RAF F-35B to be in the main flying display. There will also be a simulated air to air refuelling exercise with an F-35A flying in tandem with a KC-130J Hercules tanker aircraft. The US Air Force will feature a Heritage Flight formation flypast over all three days comprising F-35A, F-22 Raptor plus one or two as yet unspecified historic aircraft. It is also hoped that there will be at least one F-35 Lightning II on static in the south-side operational area at certain times.

Amongst significant highlights to note are displays by Eurofighter Typhoons from all four partner nations – Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK. Apart from the already mentioned USAF Air Combat Command F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team there will be displays by French Air Force Mirage and Rafale Jets, Swedish Air Force Saab Gripen together with international aerobatic display teams from Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Jordan and as always to be welcomed at this event, the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight which will hopefully include the Avro Lancaster plus Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft. The Royal Air Force Red Arrows will no doubt provide another spectacular display and I would also highlight appearances by a US Special Operations Bell Boeing V22 Osprey, two of which aircraft were noted flying over London last week and most likely, a Boeing P-8 Poseidon of which aircraft type the UK Government is about to acquire as its intended future Maritime Aircraft capability. There will also be appearances of a German Air Force Airbus A400M and Panavia Tornado together with many other aircraft all of which are listed on the Royal International Air Tattoo website. Civilian owned aircraft of note include examples of the Jet Provost/Strikemaster, a P-51D Mustang and a de-Havilland Chipmunk.

The reality is that few if any events held in the UK or anywhere else in the world can rival the Royal International Air Tattoo for its sheer intensity, drama and spectacle. But there is another very important side to RIAT as it is perhaps the only event of its kind where industry, military and those engaged in managing air defence in government come together to network and engage in a relaxed yet professional environment.

RIAT is regarded by most military and industry professionals as being the single most important networking event on the calendar. The Tattoo traditionally follows the two-day Royal Air Force Air Power Conference and that is hosted in London each year by the Chief of the Air Staff. This very important event in the air power calendar attracts many senior air force chiefs and their staff from all over the world and I know from experience that they follow this important event up with great pleasure by moving straight on to the Royal International Air Tattoo where they can continue to network, engage and to look over the vast array of air power capability on display.

As an outstanding celebration of aviation RIAT this year is expecting to host no less than 50 Air Force chiefs and their delegations together with many senior Royal Air Force and Royal Navy officers, senior officials and members of the UK Government together with leaders from over 25 of the world’s largest defence companies. The Royal Air Force has long recognised the importance of the Royal International Air Tattoo in furthering international defence diplomacy and that the event continues to deliver against industry expectations as it places executives and senior military decision makers in a relaxed networking environment away from the pressures of a trade show.

During the thrilling 7.5 hour flying display visitors at RIAT will not only be able to see fast jets, giant transporters, historic aircraft, and much more besides there will also be the chance to meet the crews, to get really close to the aircraft and to enjoy a feast of first class entertainment including the Techno Zone, an interactive showcase designed especially for youngsters, the Vintage Village, Autodrome and the brilliant Adrenalin Zone.

Run by the remarkable Royal Air Force Charitable Trust whose strength lies in the ability to support a wide range of projects and initiatives that benefit Royal Air Force serving personnel (both regulars and reserves), cadets, other young people and veterans, the mission is to promote the Royal Air Force, to support its people and in the future to encourage air mindedness and the aviation related education of youth. This is achieved in many ways including staging the annual Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, giving of financial grants to satisfy the Trust’s objectives and the funding of scholarships and other awards.

The Trust awards grants to those people and projects that they assess to be most worthy of financial support and most closely aligned to the charitable objectives. Since this was formed in 2005 the Trustees have awarded over £3.5 million.

As mentioned earlier, with June 1-12 marking  ‘National Volunteers’ Week’ it is very appropriate that we should take time out to pay tribute to the 2,000 plus volunteers who come together each year to organise what is one of the world’s greatest aviation spectacles. Experts in such fields as air trafficking, refuelling, IT & comms, aircraft handling and medicine can and do enjoy something of a busman’s holiday at the Royal International Air Tattoo and they may not only be able to apply their professional skills at the event but learn from it too. Many other volunteers perform equally important roles and in the process of doing enjoy a ‘break’ from their day jobs as train drivers, kitchen fitters, teachers, chaplains and police officers.

The first Air Tattoo was organised at North Weald airfield in 1971 by a small team of volunteers and as the event grew so did the number of volunteers. Apart from the years 2000 and 2001 when the event was held at RAF Cottesmore, the event has been held at RAF Fairford since 1985, initially on a bi-annual basis and since 1993 annually. Over the years, notable volunteers have included legendary fighter pilot Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, renowned test pilots such as Brian Trubshaw who had flown the first UK built Concorde 002 from Filton to Fairford in April 1969 and Roland Beamont (English Electric Canberra, P1 Lightning, BAC TSR2 and Panavia Tornado), actor Sir David Jason, former US Air Force Chief Gen John Jumper and military historian Prof Richard Holmes. The list is very long and all have helped to make RIAT what it is today. It is the work of volunteers that allows RIAT to happen.

Following the establishment of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust (RAFCT) Board of Trustees in 2005 past chairman have included Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight and Air Chief Marshal Sir John Cheshire. The current Chairman and President of RIAT is Air Marshal Sir Kevin Leeson. Industry does it bit too and BAE Systems is one of many important industry sponsors and that also include Airbus, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman as well.

That the US Air Force effectively hands over the keys to their huge air base in Gloucestershire each year to a group of civilians, the vast majority of whom as volunteers, in order to stage this wonderful event is testament to the trust and respect that this incredible group of people have earned by consistently delivering the fantastic event that the Royal International Air Tattoo has become. We are all hugely grateful to the generosity of USAF in allowing their base to be used for this great event.

There are of course other aspects to RIAT that the public do not get the chance to see and that further highlight the excellent work that the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust undertake. For instance, preceded by a wonderful sunset ceremony at which the Chief of the Air Staff will take the salute and that will most usually have a Spitfire flying overhead, the Gala Dinner that held on the other side of the RAF Fairford base in Hangar 1205 is a quite wonderful event that I not only consider myself very fortunate to have been invited many times over the years but one that I would describe as being like no other and that I have always very much enjoyed. Decking out of the massive Hangar with black drapes and all the other requirements that make the dinner so special is another example of work done by volunteers. The Royal International Air Tattoo is a near perfect example of the art of the possible and of what can be achieved when everyone works together as one for the self-same ends.

Not surprisingly, tickets for next month’s airshow have sold phenomenally well and the expectation is that once again RIAT will have been a sell-out well before the first aircraft even arrives. Clearly, all this is good news for the Air Tattoo’s parent charity, the RAF Charitable Trust and which has handed out more than £3.5 million to help Promote the RAF, to Support its people and to encourage a spirit of air-mindedness in young people.

With completion of the CAA review following the tragic accident at Shoreham last year rules governing certain types of flying display and procedure, particularly those undertaken by privately owned vintage military aircraft and their pilots have changed. Andy Armstrong, Chief Executive of RAF Charitable Trust Enterprises which is the organisation behind the Air Tattoo has continually emphasised and underlined that safety has and will always remain his No1 priority. Since the tragic events at Shoreham in August last year, Mr. Armstrong and his team have reviewed all the event’s many safety procedures and where necessary, modified or introduced new measures to ensure that the proud safety record of the Royal International Air Tattoo is robustly maintained.

And what of the future? The Royal International Air Tattoo is certainly in rude health and it seems fairly certain to me that the 2016 event will break even more records. Complacency is not a word that would ever be recognised by the RIAT organisers and they well understand the need to remain adaptable and flexible to ever changing needs. In my view, the future for RIAT continues to look very bright.

Of course, not everyone can attend RIAT over the three days that the show is held and if we are to encourage sufficient numbers of young people to get involved with air power and to promote the spirit of air mindedness in young people we will continue to need more than just RIAT and the bi-annual Farnborough International Airshow and other smaller shows. Fortunately the excellent one day air show event held at RAF Cosford continues to go from to strength to strength although it is also true to say that the loss of the RAF Waddington air show in 2014 has been very keenly felt. The good news is that the former Waddington event is to be replaced with a show to be held at RAF Scampton in September 2017. Following the RAF Charitable Trust’s announcement of the planned new show at RAF Scampton earlier this year Andy Armstrong said “I am confident that the UK aerospace industry and the Royal Air Force will throw their weight behind making this event too as equally successful, in its own way, as RIAT”. So say all of us and I am absolutely sure that he is right.

CHW (London -1st June 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785


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