Last weekend was my annual pilgrimage to the world's largest military airshow deep in the Cotswolds. I've rarely missed a year and by now I must have been attending for half my life, yet there's always something new to see as well as the old favourites.
As I struggled up the M4 on Friday morning, rain bouncing off the surface and creeping steadily in through every weak spot on my bike suit, I wondered why I was doing this. I had my answer when the Red Arrows flew over as I was queuing to get on the airfield.
Friday is a practice day so everyone can get their routine perfect for the weekend. The airfield is open only to hardcore Friends of RIAT, who are bussed to the entrance and escorted to the FRIAT grandstand. There's an Airshow Look to the FRIAT members: hat encrusted with aviation badges, hard case with squadron stickers for camera equipment, plastic poncho, T-shirt from a previous year's Air Tattoo or some far-flung air base or squadron. (My best show-off shirt is from the Prague-Kbely aviation museum.)
When it got too drizzly I set off to find my home for the weekend, the Greyhound Inn in Letcombe Regis. A cosy room, friendly locals in the bar, pub grub and a longhaired German Shepherd who was entirely filling a small sofa. Because I would be leaving for Fairford too early to take advantage of the included breakfast, the landlady put out a packed lunch for me.
On Saturday it didn't rain at all, which seems to be the best one can hope for from summer now. In my day it wasn't a proper airshow if you didn't come home with skin like a hog roast. I stayed in my seat watching the flying for most of the day, which meant that during Sunday's heavy showers I could go off and seek shelter without fear of missing something I hadn't seen yet.
One of this year's major themes was Fly Navy 100, celebrating a centenary of naval aviation. My photo can't do justice to the flypast by forty helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft from the Chipmunk trainer, which first flew before my parents were born, to the latest Merlin.
This year the Swiss Air Force had sent their PC-7 team, ten graceful little turboprop planes which flew in formation with clockwork precision and performed a lovely flypast accompanied by an F-18. The Italian team, Frecce Tricolori, were back with their usual enthusiastic commentary, as were our old friends the Royal Jordanian Falcons and the Breitling Jet Team.
My obsession with Swedish aviation was indulged by two Saab Gripens, one from the Svenska Flygvapnet and one Hungarian, while the Eurofighter Typhoon flew the flag for the EU. Perhaps the most notable display by a modern fighter, though, was this orange Dutch F-16, a great favourite of my dad's and always flown to the edge of its envelope. The Dutch commentator was possibly my favourite of the weekend, too: "Ladies and gentlemen, put down your pints, come out of your tents and see what is up!"
I had already seen the Vulcan fly at Biggin Hill, but I think it was holding back in order to save itself for a full-on display at Fairford. It made repeated passes, some with the bomb doors open, and tilted on its side to show that wonderful, distinctive shape.
On Sunday the commentator announced a special treat: following their displays, the Vulcan and the B-52 would taxi down the runway together, two doughty Cold Warriors. It was pelting with rain at this point and the heavy bombers rolled along in a shower of spray, yet we all stayed to watch this unique moment. As soon as the planes had departed everyone ran for cover.
I had my annual meet-up with elfasi (we should do this more often), catching up on each other's news while the F-18 swooped overhead and the rain hammered on our umbrellas. The leopard headed off to beat the exit rush and I returned to my seat.
It was now time for the Beechcraft King Air's 'Mr Blue Sky' routine. By some airshow miracle, the rain stopped and the sky cleared as the takeoff run commenced and ELO started up. Seeing this twin-prop passenger plane throw itself about like a jet fighter against the sudden blue, while the sound system demanded to know why Mr Blue Sky had had to hide away for so long, so long, was a highlight for everyone in the crowd.