Past Talks : March 2023

RIAT – Some memorable moments and impossible challenges” by Tim Prince OBE FRAeS

The striking thing about Tim Prince, our speaker tonight, is that he comes across as very relaxed, very approachable, and let’s be honest, rather laid back but in a very informed, sharp way. His memory is stunning. I first met Tim 40+ years ago as a sponsor of one of his early Tattoos. Tim instantly named my colleague who introduced us, which was more than I could remember!

To set the scene, the evening opened with a short, action-packed film showing dramatic highlights from several of the Air Tattoo events that Tim created and managed with his colleague Paul Bowen.

In his early days, Tim decided to make a career in the RAF. The RAF was not of the same mind and turned him down. Undaunted, Tim joined the DoT (Department of Transport), which later spun-off into the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) and he became an Air Traffic Controller (ATC) instead. As a part of the training Tim gained his PPL (Private Pilot’s Licence), which is a very enlightened step, enabling ATC’s to have a grasp of what is going on in the cockpit of the numerous aircraft they are controlling. Between 1967 and 1978 Tim gained all the relevant ATC licences and cut his teeth at A&AEE (Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment) Boscombe Down. It provided a firm foundation for his next steps in the organisation and presentation of world leading air shows.

RIAT (Royal International Air Tattoo) is the world’s largest military air show. Like many great events, it started quietly, but noticeably in 1971 at North Weald when Tim and his ATC colleague Paul Bowen, thought they could stage an interesting and entertaining airshow, with the intention of supporting the RAFA Charity (Royal Air Force Association). The event was a success with over 100 aircraft participating. Crucial to all the early events was the support and participation of Air Marshal Sir Denis Crowley-Milling. Also vital to its success was the time and energy given by the team of volunteers who made it all happen. When a follow-up event the next year was mooted, the volunteers came forward again. It was hard work, but an enjoyable atmosphere of team spirit and achievement. For example, before every show, the volunteers had to walk every inch of the runways and taxiways to meticulously clear any FOD (Foreign Object Debris) to prevent damage to any aircraft, plus to provide aircrew reception, all hospitality services to service and civilian personnel and then to manage the vast numbers of enthusiastic show visitors arriving, expecting refreshments and then later departing. It is a sobering task just to think about it.

At this time it was simply called an Air Tattoo to distinguish it from all of the other air shows taking place. Between 1972 and 1983 it was staged predominantly at Greenham Common, which at the time was a US Air Force base languishing quietly, primarily as a non-flying maintenance and storage facility, but kept in readiness for action should the Cold War turn nasty.

The Air Tattoo facilities at the base were astonishingly rudimentary, with just one telephone line and a mobile radar unit “borrowed for an exercise” from United States Air Forces Europe in Germany. Invitations to participate were sent out by Tim and team to various countries, including Russia, which really caused a stir in the corridors of Whitehall. Nonetheless, the response elsewhere was good and the USA decided to send an impressively big Douglas Globemaster transport aircraft to the Tattoo. In the event, mechanical Gremlins interfered so a CIA Constellation scheduled to participate in an air show in California, was re-directed to Greenham Common instead. Not only that, but there was a full military band on board.

Profits were being made at these Tattoos and over the years donations were made to the RAFA; then later to the RAF Benevolent Fund, where Douglas Bader, a renowned legless WW2 fighter pilot played an influential and high profile role; then on his death, to the FSDP (Flying Scholarships for Disabled People) which was created by Tim and Paul Bowen in recognition of Douglas Bader’s contribution to overcoming disability.

In 1980 the US Air Force started to develop Greenham Common as an active nuclear equipped base, but still generously allowed the Tattoo to take place.

It was around this time that the anti-war, ‘Ban the Bomb’ peace protesters were very active and camped around the perimeter of Greenham Common air base. In 1983 it was a fantastic scoop for a highly secretive SR71 ‘spy plane’ and its accompanying air tanker to participate in the Air Tattoo. The shine of such an achievement was unfortunately tarnished when the lady protesters climbed over the security fence at night and daubed paint over both aircraft. The SR71 has a very special coating, not paint and oh, the humiliation. Defence Minister Michael Heseltine made a special visit to apologise on behalf of the nation.

The success of the annual International Air Tattoo was such that in 1980 the Farnborough Air Show organisers required that Tattoo alternated with the Farnborough air show (whose primary purpose is to showcase UK manufacturers to the world). Similarly, the RAF who had rather distanced itself from the event in earlier times changed their stance to the point where today they are very active participants in the organisation and participation at RIAT.

In 1985 the Tattoo moved away from, now busy, Greenham Common to RAF Fairford. Fairford was a fully functioning US airbase now primarily on stand-by use and RIAT has remained there since, apart from occasional deviations due to external circumstances.

From 1996 the title of the event was elevated from the International Air Tattoo to the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT).

During the course of the evening Tim made it very clear that he could keep relating tales for as long as we sat there listening. Anecdotes tumbled out faster than I could record them, such as when the Portuguese aerobatic team were happily taxiing to their place, there was a distraction on the other side of the airfield and when the Portuguese leader stopped, the aircraft following ran into the back of him. It all ended well and replacement aircraft were ‘magicked’ into place overnight. On another note, in the very early days, accommodation was rudimentary and everyone slept on site on camp beds, or whatever was available. This included all foreign crews mucking in and making-do – except the French who looked down their noses and walked out to make their own arrangements. Ah, those were the days. On another occasion at the time of an anniversary of the F111 aircraft, the Americans painted the aircraft in a special celebratory colour scheme. The following morning one of Tim’s colleagues found his brand new Triumph GT6 Coupe repainted overnight in the F111 colour scheme. He was not impressed. In 1994 the just refurbished Avro Shackleton ‘Pelican 16’ took off form its base in South Africa in transit to the Air Tattoo. In the middle of the night over the Sahara Desert it suffered engine failure. Incredibly, the Shackleton made a soft belly landing and all 19 occupants stepped out into the desert,19 miles from the nearest habitation. Another well publicised event was the collision between two Mig 29 aircraft displaying in front of the crowd. There were many more tales. It was very entertaining to hear.

What was played down by Tim was the full extent of what it took to organise, to co-ordinate and to present these events. It is a stupendous effort and yet Tim makes light of it, while acknowledging that it could not be done without the input of the whole Tattoo team.

What makes the shows so remarkable is the scale of the programmes. Each year a theme was chosen, so one year it was C-130 Hercules from countries all over the world; another time it was F4 Phantoms and so forth.

Paul Bowen tragically died in 2024 after a six month battle with cancer. For RIAT that year, an incredible 535 aircraft took part, which is a record that still stands today for any airshow.

From the ad hoc days when random countries were written to by Tim and Paul inviting their participation, there is now a very formal process and an approved list of countries. Those countries selected each year have to receive formal approval by the Ministry. In a nutshell, tentative invitations go out at squadron level initially, then to the Air Force chiefs, then finally a formal invitation is submitted at Defence Attache level. The renown of RIAT is now such that countries vie to participate. A distinct benefit from this is the informal exchange of information and practises between all levels of personnel between the participating nations.

Likewise, as if it were an everyday occurrence, Tim also referred to the conference of 64 overseas Military Chiefs which takes place, when the Chiefs attend the Tattoo also bringing their respective wife. These are incredibly important people and to bring them together in a relatively informal way, plus to allow the wives to mingle and enjoy the hospitality is worth every rare moment.

Tim’s last show was in 2014 when the very new F35 was to make its debut, but the Gremlins struck again, preventing its transatlantic flight. Polish Sukhoi S-22 Fitters, plus a special Red Arrows 50th Anniversary Display took centre stage instead.

Now Tim is an adviser and consultant in demand for many air display and charitable events. A very impressive and fulfilling career to look back upon. Thank you to Tim Prince for an excellent evening entertainment.