The Royal International Air Tattoo – or RIAT – starts this Friday and will feature three days of spectacular air displays and stunning aerobatic flying by teams from around the world, with the highlight being a very special flypast to celebrate 100 years of the RAF.

This year, the show will also include the arrival of a civilian-registered drone following a non-stop transatlantic crossing – a first in world aviation and perhaps a sign of things to come.

I’ll be there as part of the volunteer team that gathers each year to make the show a safe and exciting experience for the thousands of visitors who attend. It’ll be an incredibly busy few days for the air traffic controllers in the tower, all of whom are from airports around the country and bring with them the experience of handing complex traffic in the UK’s busy airspace.

But the work starts long before the show opens its doors to the public.

In late June comes the ‘Longest Day’, when arrival and rehearsal slots are allocated to participating aircraft. With over 250 participants to process, it’s easy to see where this day gets its name. Working with the Air Ops team and taking into account the complications of the aircraft parking plan, an arrival plot is eventually formulated to make sure everything runs smoothly.

The airfield will open for Air Tattoo operations on Tuesday,, with Wednesday and Thursday being the busiest arrival days. Even with the good weather we’ve got, the programme can get quite hectic because it’s important that rehearsals are done in their planned slots.

From an air traffic control viewpoint, the display days tend to be more predictable, because the flying display is programmed to the minute. Working closely with the Flying Display Director (FDD), the Air Traffic Team works hard to keep everything on time. Both the Air Traffic Team and the FDD liaise closely with the supervising Display Flying Committee, with a hotline phone to enable instant communication should anything go awry.

The departure phase then starts at around 0900 on Monday, organised by the Flight Operations Team which allocates slots to the aircraft based on requested time, parking position and any en-route restrictions. The whole team will then get very busy, as over 250 aircraft depart in under six hours in all directions and at all heights.

Some of the NATS RIAT volunteers from 2017.

But that’s not all. Away from the tower and operational volunteers, NATS will also be running activities alongside the John Egging Trust as part of our new partnership and encouraging the next generation of engineers and aviation fans with games in the Technozone.

Graduates from the Early Careers Scheme at NATS will show eight to 16-year-olds various games and activities they’ve designed. These include a pilot and controller game, giving kids the chance to see how a controller works to line up aircraft ready to land. And, in honour of the RAF’s 100th birthday, we’ll also have a fantastic new Battle of Britain game and digital tower experience for people to try this year.

The games are a fun way for young people to see a version of the challenges controllers can face, and as we’re currently recruiting it’s also a chance to think about whether a career as a controller could be for them in the future.

It’s hard work for the volunteers, but also hugely enjoyable and fulfilling, which is exactly why we see the same faces every year! And if you’re thinking about coming along as a spectator, I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’ll be a spectacular show.


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