RIAT Fairford 2023

Once again, I attended the annual Royal International Air Tattoo held at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, with the public flying days from Friday the 14th to Sunday the 16th of July.

As usual, I purchased a Friends of the Royal International Tattoo (FRIAT) ticket, which also provided access to the Park & View areas on the Wednesday and Thursday prior, enabling the ability to view and photograph the airshow participants as they arrive, as well as access to a reserved seat in the FRIAT Grandstand on the Friday, Saturday, Sunday for the flying displays and Monday after the show as most of the participants depart.

Just before the show, I purchased a new camera body, venturing into the world of mirrorless cameras for the first time. My new toy, a Nikon Z8, arrived about 3 weeks prior and I had only one opportunity to get accustomed to the settings and buttons before using it anger. Fortunately, I received some great pointers from my good friend Howard German, who is a user of my camera’s big brother, the Nikon Z9. He gave some really useful tips on focus options and frame rates – I have to say the 15 fps rate scares me – it’s really easy to fill up a storage card!!

I haven’t bought any new Z class lenses (yet!), so I’m using the Nikon FTZ II adapter with my existing Nikon F lenses. However, Nikon UK had a presence in the FRIAT marquee, organised in conjunction with The Centre of Aviation Photography (COAP), where they had Z class lenses available to borrow for up to 1 hour at a time on the Saturday and Sunday. I took advantage of this facility and borrowed both a Nikon Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 and a Nikon Z 800mm f6.3 S. Some of the images below were taken using these lenses on the Sunday – in particular the Leonardo HH-139B using the 100-400mm and the BBMF Avro Lancaster using the 800mm. I was paricularly impressed with how easy it was to hand hold the 800mm lens at 1/125 second shutter speed and get reasonable results.

Back to the show – RIAT is billed as the world’s greatest military airshow and there’s certainly no reason to doubt that claim. It attracts participants from far and wide, although obviously this year, with the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, there was undoubtedly an impact. Nevertheless, a number of interesting aircraft attended and many were in special colour schemes.


In particular, 2023 is the centenary of the formation of the Italian Air Force and they provided many aircraft with special artwork, as well as a number of aircraft never before seen at the Tattoo. One area of the static display was dedicated to the Italian Air Force and there were visitors from many different squadrons and types, along with civilian aircraft in historic paint schemes.

The other centenary theme for RIAT 2023 was Skytanker – 100 Years of Air to Air Refuelling (AAR). Again, this brought displays not previously seen at RIAT, including the German Air Force demonstrating AAR from both an Airbus Industries A400, with two Panavia Tornados, as well as the Tornados performing buddy refuelling, the United States Air Force with a Lockheed MC-130J Hercules from the 67th Special Operations Squadron and a Bell-Boeing CV-22B Osprey from the 7th Special Operations Squadron based at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk and a Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from the 100th Air Refuelling Wing, also based at RAF Mildenhall. There was the rare (in UK skies) sighting of an Armee de l’Air Boeing KC-135R performing fly-bys on both Thursday and Friday but sadly not on either of the weekend days.


A first-time attendee was yet another Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, operated by Metrea Strategic Mobility, a civilian company that offers AAR services to the military, in particular for training United States Navy and United States Marine Corps pilots. This particular aircraft is a former Republic of Singapore Air Force asset and is painted in an attractive grey camouflage paint scheme, with both its previous military and current civilian registrations displayed.

For me, there were a few main highlights of the show – firstly, the sight of two Italian Navy McDonell-Douglas AV-8B+ Harrier II aircraft, in both single-seat and two-seat versions. These are extremely unusual sightings outside of Italy and the RIAT organisers must be commended on getting to the show. Add to these the two Spanish Navy AV-8B+’s, so 4 Harriers in total – not something I expected to see at a UK airshow again after the RAF retired theirs in 2010.

Flying Displays

Secondly, it was the sight of a Messerschmitt Me262 flying in the skies over Gloucestershire, with this replica being rebuilt and operated by Flugmuseum Messerschmitt and supported by the Airbus Heritage Flight. This replica was built in the USA and has strengthened undercarriage components plus the use of modern reliable General Electric CJ610 Turbojet engines, disguised to look like the original Junkers Jumo 004B engines. It was very well displayed by Airbus test pilot Geri Krähenbühl. After RIAT he took the aircraft over to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight base at RAF Coningsby – it must have looked amazing to have a Me262 alongside a Spitfire or two!!

Third was the Hellenic Air Force McDonnell-Douglas F-4E Phantom II, a pair of which, from 338 Squadron from the 117th Combat Wing at Andravida Air Base, were scheduled to be on static display. Sadly, one of the aircraft suffered technical problems en route in Germany and didn’t get to RIAT – however, its sister aircraft did make it. Many thanks to the crew for persevering.

Display Teams

Another of the display highlights (for me) was the extremely elegant display of the Saab 105 (Sk.60) flown by the Luftstridsskolanat – the flight training school of the Swedish Air Force based at Malmen Air Base. Another type not seen for a long time at RIAT and definitely not a loud, high-speed aircraft, it was gracefully flown around the skies of Fairford, with some delightful accompanying music. In fact, this display won the King Hussein Memorial Sword Award for the Most Polished & Precise Flying Display.


I can’t finish this narrative without mention of the weather. This year was typically RIAT – mixtures of showers (some heavy and prolonged) and sunshine. Friday, which is the day I normally walk the static display line, was effectively a washout for me – I gave up at around 11:00 am, having taken only 21 photos! On the other days, the showers were sometimes short and sharp, although on Saturday I did retreat to the FRIAT marquee on at least 2 occasions to get out of the downpours.

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