Fairford Sketchbook

An artist’s impression of Europe’s largest airshow.

PARTLY BECAUSE IT HAS THE LONGEST RUNWAY IN GREAT BRITAIN, extended by the U.S. Strategic Air Command in 1950 to 10,000 feet, RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, 80 miles west of London, annually hosts the Royal International Air Tattoo. In the United States, a two-day celebration of aviation with aerobatics, flyovers, and static displays of aircraft is called an "airshow," but "tattoo" means the same thing (and has evolved into "an outdoor military exercise," its current definition, from the 18th century term "tap-toe" or taps shut, a signal calling soldiers or sailors to quarters at night).

Although the Royal Air Force is the largest presence, the Fairford tattoo is indisputably international: Last year 300 airplanes from 35 nations formed a two-mile static display, and national demonstration teams included La Patrouille de France flying eight Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jets, Spain's Patrulla Acrobatica Aguila with seven CASA C-101EB Aviojets, Patrouille Suisse in six Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs, and the Royal Jordanian Falcons in four Extra EA300s. The Los Halcones team of Chile arrived in an ancient 707 with five crated Extra 300s in the cargo hold.

But the event is also unmistakably British. In honor of the Queen's Golden Jubilee, a year-long celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's 1952 accession to the throne, the 2002 tattoo opened with a "flypast" ("flyover" in the United States) spanning five decades, with the British Electric Canberra B2/6, Hawker Hunter F6A, Sepecat Jaguar GR3, Panavia Tornado F3, and a pair of BAe Sea Harrier FA2s. As the British demonstration team, the Red Arrows, flew its routine, the crowd sang along to "Rule Britannia." During previous tattoos, the RAF has flown in a formation spelling "E II R."

RAF Fairford opened on January 18, 1944, to accommodate the British and U.S. troop carriers and gliders that would be used during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Today's tattoos reflect that heritage with flights of British and U.S. aircraft that fought in World War II.

The 2003 RIAT will celebrate 100 years of flight on July 19 and 20 with replicas of the 1903 Wright Flyer and Blériot XI and such historic aircraft as a Sopwith Camel, Avro 504K, de Havilland Gypsy Moth, and Gloster Meteor, Javelin, and Buccaneer. The organizers fill each day with at least 150 flying displays. For more information, visit http://www.airtattoo.com.

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