Ominous clouds loom over RAF Fairford, an airbase in southwest England. Tickets scanned and bags checked, my friends and I step from under a tent onto the tarmac and taxiways of this massive airport. Already we can see the T-tails of the larger aircraft as we follow the crowd closer to the flight line. The 2019 Royal International Air Tattoo is underway.
First staged in 1971, the RIAT is the largest military air show in the world, and one of the largest overall. Though there are some civilian aircraft on display, it’s mostly military aircraft. This year’s show has many massive C-17, C-27 and C-130 cargo planes and multiple air refueling tankers, plus small trainer jets, midsize fast interceptors and large attack aircraft. Eurofighters, Saabs, and Tornados aren’t too surprising to see, but a state-of-the-art F-35 Lightning II sure is, as are the MiG-21s and a Su-27s. Over 245 aircraft from 25 nations are being exhibited at the show. I spent two days exploring it all.
Rain and sun, Tornados and Typhoons
The sun continually battled the clouds on Friday and mostly lost. The sky would occasionally dump a deluge of cold water, causing everyone to scatter underneath wings and into cargo holds. Most of the larger aircraft were open to the public, and most of those even let you check out the cockpit. Quite a thrill for your intrepid reporter who usually admires aircraft in museums, where interiors and cockpits are rarely accessible (though sometimes…).
The weather also limited or cancelled several of the planned aerobatics and flyby demonstrations. We still got to see an F-35 hover and maneuver, and the big CH-47 Chinook helicopter move with surprising grace.
Fortunately Sunday, my second day, had sunny weather. More aircraft were on display as well, including a tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, the instantly recognizable E-3 Sentry (aka AWACS) and even more C-27s. In the skies above we were treated to a show by the Italian aerobatics squad Frecce Tricolori and the British aerobatics squad the Red Arrows.
If those weren’t impressive enough, there were flyby demonstrations by two Soviet-designed aircraft, the delta-winged MiG-21 and the sleek Su-27, as well as a V-22 hovering and flying.
And to top it all off, an actual Lancaster bomber, escorted by a Spitfire and Hurricane, gave a taste of what could have been seen in the skies above Britain over 70 years ago.
Into the skies above
Weather aside, I’m glad I went for two days. It let me see a lot more and at a more relaxed pace than if I had been trying to cram everything into one day. Weather being weather, though, it’s of course impossible to book tickets ahead of time on days that might be sunny. I suppose it’s down to a bit of luck, and picking which day or days next year that have the demonstrations you want to see the most. Friday was less crowded, but there were also fewer aircraft on display.
Regardless, it was a fantastic show and I’m looking forward to next year. In the meantime, check out the gallery above for lots of incredible aircraft outside and in. I also saved an Instagram story with some short videos inside some of the aircraft and of a few of the demonstrations.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more.
You can follow his exploits on Instagram, Twitter, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel.