The third edition of the Midlands Air Festival saw the three-day event return to Ragley Hall in Warwickshire in early June. The festival combines many different facets of aviation with a centrepiece flying display alongside some very colourful mass launches of Hot Air Balloons.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports from the second day of the event. All photography by the author.
Midlands Air Festival is a relatively new event and was first held in 2018 at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. For 2019 it moved to Arbury Hall also in Warwickshire before planning a return to Ragley Hall in 2020. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 but organisers were quick to announce their return for 2021.
The concept of hosting major airshows in large country estates is nothing new. In the 1970’s, the Barnstormers Flying Circus used to tour both airfields and large country estates with their airshows. More recently events such as ‘Fly to the Past’ and the International Moth Rally have hosted their events in the grounds of Blenheim Palace and Woburn Abbey. Ragley Hall is a particularly beautiful location for an airshow with the rolling tree-lined hills of the Warwickshire estate providing a near-perfect backdrop.
The Midlands Air Festival is a three-day event starting on Friday evening. This opening day not only saw a massed Balloon ascent, but also a sunset-into-twilight flying display, a balloon nightglow and a spectacular firework finale. Over the weekend, the days started early with a morning balloon ascent followed by six-hour afternoon flying display. The action returned to balloons as the sun went down with another massed ascent.
With organisers able to work within the current limits of 4,000 spectators per day the Air Festival was one of the few major airshows to take place in June. At the time of the event, the pandemic situation was delicate and therefore it was of little surprise that the local authorities and organisers asked visitors to take the free NHS lateral flow COVID antigen tests in the run up to the event and warned that temperature checks maybe taken on arrival. However, it was somewhat confusing on arrival to find out neither test results or temperature checks were taken! In uncertain times things can often change and it would perhaps have been somewhat reassuring to hear why these checks were withdrawn even if it was just to smooth the entrance to the event and prevent too much queuing.
The public area was situated on the southside of the Ragley Hall on some sloped ground overlooking a small temporary airfield able to accommodate some of the lighter aircraft and helicopters. Though it seemed to be quite busy around the immediate vicinity of the entrance, there was plenty of room for the audience to spread out and still enjoy a fine view of the aerial action.
Perhaps the biggest draw of the flying for the public was the first chance in a very long time to see displays from the Royal Air Force. For the Red Arrows, their displays on Friday and Saturday were the team’s first public displays in the UK since July 2019! 2021 sees Squadron Leader Tom Bould take over as Red 1 and he has certainly added his own mark on the team’s display bringing back some old favourites from past displays and adding some new twists. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight also completed one of their first full display commitments of 2021 with a duo display from Supermarine Spitfire Vb AB910 and Spitfire XVIe TE331.
Attracting just as much attention as the Red Arrows was the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 solo display from 29[R] Squadron. Flt Lt James Sainty, callsign ‘Anarchy 1’ was not only showing off his new routine for 2021 for the first time at Ragley Hall, but also the brand-new display scheme for the Typhoon display aircraft which has been nicknamed ‘Blackjack.’ Whether you like the new look or not, there’s no denying it is very striking and stands out a country mile from the normal air defence grey.
Completing a very full selection of RAF displays on offer were the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team. 2021 is special for the team as it marks the team’s 60th Anniversary season. The team were formed in 1961 by six instructors from No 1 Parachute Training School at RAF Abingdon and made their debut at that year’s Farnborough Airshow. For 2021, the team have developed a new display and dynamic routine showcasing the agility of their modern canopies with crosses and a carousel tailchase before their arena landing.
As with previous editions of the Air Festival, much of the flying display reflected some of the lighter and more colourful displays that ideally suited the confines of Ragley Hall. Amongst the favourites were the Tiger Club’s Turbulent Team, the Tiger 9 Display Team, Team Raven and Paul Freeland’s SIAI-Marchetti SF260. The Stampe Formation Team made an emotional return to public displays after a sad time for team following the loss of Angus Buchanan in a training accident. The team opened their formation display with a missing man formation in honour of Angus before presenting their usual spirited routine of formations and solo aerobatics.
There were some great contrasts during the flying. Rich Goodwin presented his new Pitts S-2SE Special G-JPIT in a rip-roaring demonstration of high-powered flicks, tumbles and gyroscopic aerobatics. At the opposite end of the scale were the elegant flowing loops and barrel rolls flown by Tim Dews in his Grob 109b motor-glider drawing delicate and colourful shapes in the sky from his wingtip smoke generators. Much more smoke came from ‘OTTO’, a Schweizer S300C, flown by Brendan O’Brien during his eye-catching routine of ‘chopper-batics’ which closed Saturday’s display.
There were some delightful displays from lighter historic military aircraft. The Vintage Pair of David Petters and Jon Higgins flew a fine routine of close formation flying in their de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunks not only marking the 75th Anniversary of the type, but also the passing of HRH Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip who flew his first solos in the type. More Chipmunk flying came from the Gypsy Pair with Simon Tilling’s Chipmunk T10 flying alongside Kevin Hale’s Taylorcraft Auster AOP6 saluting Army Air Corps fixed wing aviation. It was also great to see the Army Historic Aircraft Flight back on the display circuit demonstrating their Agusta-Bell Sioux AH1 and Westland Scout AH1 which looked great pictured low down against the trees and hills which would have been their operating environment.
It wasn’t just the lighter historic aircraft on show. Both Plane Sailing’s Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina ‘Miss Pick-Up’ and Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally-B’ made the trip west from their Duxford base to display over Ragley Hall. For ‘Sally-B’ it was her first public display in 18 months and it was a delight to see her back in the air again and looking in fine fettle following a repaint. But the star of the warbird line-up was the Supermarine Spitfire IX from the Hangar 11 Collection and flown by Peter Teichman. First flown in late 2020, this restoration has an incredible attention to detail. The aircraft was recovered from Russia where it had been transferred under the lend-lease programme during the Second World War. It’s operational flying career was short and the aircraft crashed following a mid-air collision in May 1945. Recovered to the UK by Peter Monk, the aircraft was fully restored to airworthy condition. To recreate its authentic Russian Air Force appearance the aircraft was first restored to its standard Royal Air Force scheme before the appropriate green paint was applied over the roundels and the iconic Red Stars applied. She also carries an authentic set of bomb-racks under her wings giving her a very unique appearance compared to other airworthy Spitfires.
Congratulations must go to the Midlands Air Festival for overcoming many challenges to present the UK’s first major airshow of 2021. The show may well have benefited from the unusual airshow season and the opportunities it gave the organisers but that should not detract from the fact that this event is a unique addition to the display calendar and a thoroughly fun day out in beautiful surroundings.