Looking Back at Some Air Tattoos – Part One

Between 1997 and 2002, I attended six grand air shows in the United Kingdom.  The yearly celebration of military aviation known as the Royal International Air Tattoo, or RIAT for short, brought together several hundred military aircraft in one place at one time.  As a matter of fact, Guinness World Records recognized the 2003 Tattoo as the “world’s largest military airshow”, after 535 separate aircraft gathered that year.  Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines a “tattoo” as an “outdoor military exercise given by troops as evening entertainment”, although the shows lasted from mid-morning till evening. This made for an aerial display of epic proportion.  Participants ranged from solo aerobatic jet fighter and high performance transport demonstrations to 9-ship formation routines.  Many flybys from retired warbirds were included too.


The Air Tattoos I attended were held at two venues… RAF Fairford (an auxiliary USAF bomber and tanker base) and RAF Cottesmore ( a former Harrier base).  In fact, all the Tattoos have been convened in Great Britain, beginning in some form since 1971.  The grounds offer great viewing from midfield grandstands and enclosures at the end of the runway.  Their sprawling ramps held over a hundred static aircraft, which journeyed to the show from around the world.  One of my favorite opportunities was to take an hour-long double decker bus tour for photographers on Friday afternoon, allowing great photos of the assembled static aircraft park.

The Air Tattoo celebration continues today, and is held during a long summer weekend.  For true military aviation enthusiasts, a six-day pass can be purchased, allowing fans to get aboard the airfield grounds to watch three days worth of arriving aircraft, the two-day weekend show, and Monday’s mass departure of almost every one of the participating aircraft.  It is a photographer’s playground, and is an opportunity to emphasize both quantity and quality for anyone’s aircraft photo archives!

While attending these shows, I witnessed and photographed dozens of classic warbird aircraft that had been retired from active military service… whether by individual air arms, or worldwide.  I saw a great collection of older European-built warbirds, some common and some one-of-a-kind restorations.  Ever see a Gloster Gladiator or Bristol Blenheim fly?  There were plenty of Spitfires, Hurricanes, Vampires and Hunters on the ground and in the air.   There were a few American-built warbirds in attendance too, like Mustangs, Dakotas, a Thunderbolt, and a B-17.

Here’s a look at the older of two large groups of classic warbird aircraft; those classics that were operational from before the 1940s through the ‘60s.  Another way to describe them would be to say that their operational  years ranged from before World War II through to the Cold War.  Part two of this story will focus on a different group; those military warbirds either well on their way to retirement, or those which were retired between 1997 and 2002.


Ken Kula

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