For most people, aeroplanes are things we just get on and off – like buses. Many have no interest in how they work, or even what they can do, beyond the food we’re served or the movies being shown as we travel from one city to another with our favourite airline. But a day spent at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) will soon remind you just how remarkable aeroplanes really are…
Although organised by Britain’s Royal Air Force – with profits going to its charitable trust – this event is not a solemn display of British military hardware. Actually, it’s more like a celebration of brilliant flying machines from all around the world, from the distant past to the future. It attracts aeroplane enthusiasts from everywhere, and they come to marvel at the world’s best, or oldest, or most unusual aircraft.
This year, Air Forces from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and USA all supplied planes. They were of both civilian and military origin, and some were brand new, state-of-the-art, and others amazingly well preserved classics.
Indeed, it is said to be the world’s biggest military airshow, and like many things in Britain has grown from a small, amateur event for aircraft fans to an epic, three day-long celebration of the skies. It started in 1971 in a field in Essex with just 100 aeroplanes, now there are over 500 from over thirty Air Forces, and the event is held at the RAF Fairford base with over 150,000 people attending. It got ‘international’ status in 1996 and was awarded the ‘Royal’ title in 1996, in recognition of its importance.
Aircraft fans are always in for a treat. Often there are world premiers of formerly secret military aeroplanes. In 1997 the B-2A Spirit ‘stealth bomber’ made its first public appearance outside the United States, and in 2008 America’s new F-22 Raptor was shown. There are some great classic planes too – this year we saw perfectly restored World War II-era Supermarine Spitfires jostle with a Messerschmitt Bf109G-4 fighter plane, just as they had seventy five years ago. A grand Bristol Blenheim bomber took to the skies – made twenty years before the prestigious company started making luxury cars, and Britain’s old Cold War-era nuclear bomber made a special appearance.
The American CV-22B Osprey was a favourite too – a bizarre hybrid between a helicopter and a plane. We saw Boeing Apache helicopters doing death-defying loops, and even an Airbus A-400 – a British made civilian passenger jet – doing aerobatics that you would not think possible for a normal aircraft. The Polish Air Force showed some exciting Russian planes, which it inherited from the Soviet Union in 1990 and still runs. The sight of a MiG-29 fighter jet looping around the skies was fun, and a Sukhoi Su-22M-4 was on static display. An RAF Typhoon jet stunned the crowd with its incredible vertical climb immediately after take off, and 700km/h flypasts just 50m off the ground.
For many, the special aerobatics teams were the highlight. Spain’s Patrulla Aguila thrilled the crowd, and the Patrouille de France were also popular. Britain’s Red Arrows made their annual appearance at the show, and filled the sky with red, white and blue smoke during some death-defying high speed runs, flying less than two metres from one another at times.
On each of the show’s three days, there is a seven hour air display, and visitors can sit on the grass and watch, or go to special viewing areas. People can view from 50m away from the runway, so many bring their cameras and take stunning photographs of aeroplanes landing or taking off. But even if you’re not a fan of the flying, there are lots of shops – in tents or temporary buildings – to visit, selling all kinds of weird and wonderful things. There’s also a plentiful supply of food (fish and chips, hot dogs, hamburgers, pasties) and beer, wine or water to wash it down.
The interesting thing about the Royal International Air Tattoo is the informality of it, and the friendliness. There’s little sense of it being a military event, it’s more like a sporting occasion with supporters of many different kinds of aircraft clapping, cheering and gasping as all types and all ages of aeroplanes and helicopters loop around the skies above. Where else can you go that puts on a show that children love, yet offers the chance to mingle with and speak to pilots of all ages – including some who fought in World War Two?
If you’re thinking of coming to next year, here’s what you need to know. You should book tickets in advance from the website (www.airtattoo.com) because you can’t buy them on the day. Bring light waterproof clothing; even a sunny summer’s day is never far away from rain in England. Bring a peaked baseball cap for weather protection and to reduce eyestrain, and sunglasses too. No need to bring water (it’s free), but don't forget earplugs – the sound of jet aircraft taking off is deafening when you are nearby. Many show-goers will also want to be bring folding chairs, for a more luxurious viewing experience. This done, whatever the aeroplanes are on display next year, you are bound to have fun!