Royal International Air Tattoo 2022
If you maintain an air show bucket list like I do, I submit that the list is not complete without the Royal International Air Tattoo. This exceptional show, which occurs every year in July at RAF Fairford, about an hour west of London’s Heathrow Airport, is a photographer’s dream, with the east/west runway and north-facing crowd line eliminating the often-backlit photos so common at many shows. Additionally, while the show itself runs on Saturday and Sunday, just as in the United States, there are ticket options that include an abbreviated show open to the general public on the preceding Friday as well as hard-to-get tickets specifically aimed at photographers that include Wednesday and Thursday (to capture arrivals) and Monday (to observe departures). Exercising all options, you’ll find yourself taking pictures during six consecutive days, culminating in a very action-packed departure day where there’s an aircraft taking off every few minutes. Trust me on this, the last day is terrific!
Another attribute that made this show special is the short distance between the show line and the runway. While pilots conduct their aerial routines further away from the crowd, takeoffs and landings are quite close and provide excellent photo opportunities using no more than a 300mm lens for fighter aircraft and 70mm (sometimes less) for large cargo planes. I took a Nikon Z9 with a 200-500mm lens, backed up with a Nikon D5 with a 70-200mm, and found I used the full zoom range on the D5 and rarely exceeded 400mm on the Z9. Photos of the static aircraft, which ranged from the Boeing E-4B down to small turboprop trainers, required a much wider lens than I was carrying, so I missed opportunities to capture these aircraft while parked. But I’ll say again, Wednesday, Thursday, and Monday provide for opportunities to capture these aircraft in the air, so don’t feel like you need to carry around a 24-70mm to get some relatively boring shots of parked aircraft with chocks around the tires (tyers for you British folks out there).
The air show itself is very well organized with only momentary periods lacking an aircraft in the sky to keep you face turned upward. As a matter of fact, it was during those quiet moments when I’d find myself literally running to the porta-potty so I could be back on the show line for the next event, which ranged from Hungarian Typhoons intercepting an unidentified C-130, to a Czech Mi-24 Hind, to a Swedish JAS-39 Gripen, and aerial demonstration teams from the UK (Red Arrows), Republic of Korea (Black Eagles), Switzerland (Swiss Air Force PC-7 Team), Ireland (Silver Swallows Display Team), and Denmark (Baby Blue Display Team). What I find so disappointing about many U.S. military shows is their significant predictability and annoying use of jet trucks and aerobatic bi-planes to fill in the flying display. The Air Tattoo suffered from none of those issues. This is a military air show, plain and simple.
While the flying display was extraordinary in its great variety, the U.S. military was very poorly represented. Only one extremely brief display occurred, that of a USAF CV-22 based at RAF Mildenhall. Otherwise the entirety of the U.S. participation was in the form of static displays only. Even the U.S. static displays were less than expected with the last-minute cancellation of the B-52H and P-8A that had been previously scheduled. So any photographer wishing to capture images of the USAF assets would have to do so during the arrival or departure days, and as far as the USN is concerned, they sent nothing. Again, an underwhelming level of participation at this, the “greatest air show in the world”.
If you plan to attend a future show, the first order of business is to get a hotel room reserved. Rooms within a 15-mile arc sell out soon after the current year’s show is complete. The town of Swindon is a good location with only 10 miles to travel and good roads upon which to do so. Another good location is Oxford, but it’s a much longer daily commute. Second, is acquiring tickets. If you intend to participate in the arrival and departure days you must seek out the Friends of RIAT (FRIAT) tickets. Not only do you get to be on base Wednesday through Monday, but you’ll also have a grandstand seat at show center, plus an enclosure within which you can retreat to get out of the sun occasionally. These tickets, just like hotel rooms, sell out quickly. In fact, you must purchase your FRIAT tickets by the first half of August for next year’s show. With regard to the grandstand, seats are quite close together which makes panning with a long lens challenging as the people in either side of you do so as well. Most of the hard-core photographers abandoned their seats and chose to position themselves on the show line at ground level. Yes, you lose the elevated perspective, but it’s far less frustrating than dealing with the grandstand’s tight conditions combined with the requirement to pan while seated. That’s right, you’re not allowed to stand up. If you intend to do as the hard-core photographers do, make sure you show up each morning at least two hours before the gates open. In this way there will be space available on the show line when you arrive.
Static displays are exceptional if for no other reason than the sheer quantity of them. The static area spans the entirety of the south ramp at Fairford. You could spend an entire morning just moving between aircraft and photographing them. It will take you appreciably longer than that if you choose to stop and chat with the pilots who are routinely available for conversations, and even longer still should you choose to peruse the available squadron hats and t-shirts commonly on sale.
Make plans to attend this show. If you love aviation, particularly military aviation, and appreciate great variety, you can’t go wrong. Perhaps in future years the USAF and USN will find a way to send more than one demonstration aircraft, but even if they don’t with countries as far away as Bahrain and Japan represented, it’s worth your time. If you would like to see the aircraft that were at the 2022 show, hit this link: