Midlands Air Festival, Ragley Hall

Midlands Air Festival, Ragley Hall

A big weekend of celebrations for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee opened with the Midlands Air Festival at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. From a temporary airfield in the grounds of the stately home, Midlands Air Festival celebrated a wide section of aviation with classic flying displays mixed with one of the largest hot air balloons meets in the UK.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports from the opening day. All photography by the author.

The four-day Bank Holiday weekend to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was an exceptionally busy one for the events industry with not only the large-scale national celebrations in London, but also many thousands of events dotted around the country. Amongst those events were a number of major aviation events starting with the Midlands Air Festival at the picturesque Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. Now in its fourth year, the event really shot to prominence in 2021 when it was one of the few early season events to be organised during the coronavirus pandemic. That attracted significant Royal Air Force participation to the event for the first time and in turn drew much bigger public attention.

Despite a very busy programme of commitments, the Royal Air Force returned to the Midlands Air Festival in 2022 with headline displays from the Red Arrows, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team and the RAF Grob Tutor T1 which meant Midlands welcomed an even bigger crowd without the cap on numbers – the grounds were certainly packed on the opening day on the Bank Holiday Thursday. All the RAF teams appeared across all three days of the festival though the Reds had a challenging Thursday when Red 6 suffered a bird-strike during the opening few manoeuvres of their display and was forced to return to RAF Fairford. They left just six aircraft for the rest of their display which did look somewhat strange and disjointed without the synchro pair.

 

The Grob Tutor T1 Display Team were making a very welcome return to the display circuit after three years off the circuit. For 2022 the display is flown by Flt Lt David-John Gibbs from 115(R) Squadron based at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire. DJ is a former Royal Navy Sea King search and rescue pilot and instructor on the Slingsby Firefly at RAF Barkston Heath. He was subsequently the first UK Military pilot to fly the Grob 120TP Prefect while it was being evaluated for UK use. He transferred to the RAF in 2019 and is currently officer commanding of the Tutor Standards Flight. He also flies and instructs on a number of historic aircraft such as the Jet Provost and Tiger Moth. His display was a very elegant routine of flowing aerobatics and was flown in one of the recently repainted Tutors wearing a yellow and black colour scheme.

As in 2021, much of the flying display over the three days was made up of a colourful line-up of UK airshow favourites such as the Tiger Club Turbulent Team, Tiger 9 Display Team, Team Raven, Kevin Hale’s Taylorcraft Auster AOP9, the Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina and Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B. Adding to the warbird line was the Rolls Royce Heritage Flight with their Supermarine Spitfire XIX. Piloted by Chris Hadlow, the powerful Griffon-powered Spitfire made for a wonderful sight over the Warwickshire countryside as it performed some elegant aerobatics. Joining the Spitfire over the Friday and Saturday was the flight’s North American P-51D Mustang.

 

Amongst the regulars there were some new acts and faces. Fittingly, Iain Smith flew one his first public displays in his very patriotic Pitts S-1S Special G-OKAY. More aerobatic thrills came from Christophe Simon flying the Tiger Club’s Mudry CAP10C in its eye-catching red and yellow colour scheme while Radio Controlled model ace Steve Carr gave another outstanding performance with his large-scale Yak-54.

Some of standout displays came from aircraft from the Cold War. The 40th Anniversary of the Falklands conflict was marked by the Westland Wasp HAS1 flown by Terry Martin who made great use of the treeline to show off the aircraft’s unique camouflage. Perhaps the most impressive aircraft to operate from Ragley’s small grass airstrip was the Bronco Demo Team’s North American OV-10B Bronco. Tony de Bruyn showed off the twin turboprop’s short take off and landing capabilities off to full effect between the trees as well as performing his usual impressive display highlight the agility of the former Luftwaffe target-towing aircraft.

 

Classic jets were also well represented in the displays. Mark Petrie and Ollie Suckling presented the pair of BAC Strikemaster Mk82as from North Wales Military Aviation Services over the Friday and Sunday. But perhaps the star for many was the de Havilland Vampire T11 from the Vampire Preservation Group. Initially scheduled to display on just the Saturday, the Vampire’s contribution was expanded to all three days thanks to a sponsor. The Vampire last appeared in a flying display programme in 2014 but during that time has remained active thanks to the efforts of the VPG now based at Coventry Airport. It was displayed at Ragley by Mark Hooton.

The opening day of the Midlands Air Festival is dubbed ‘Nightfire’ with the event running late into the Night with ‘nightburns’ from some of the assembled balloons plus fireworks. Nightfire took on extra significance as it coincided with the national lighting of Jubilee Beacons around the UK. One such beacon was lit at Ragley as well. However, before that, there was still some more spectacular flying.

 

As the sun set, there was the very special spectacle of a massed hot air balloon launch. Some 200 balloons had been gathered for the event and many of them launch from all corners of Ragley’s grounds into the sunset. There were a few special shapes amongst them as well as powered ‘blimp’ and some one-man balloons – one of which flew over the crowds spraying water from a super-soaker much to delight to some children who chased him as he drifted west.

 

Ahead of the beacon lightning, there were a couple more flying displays in the twilight. Opening the evening flying were father and son, Tim and Tom Dews flying the Grob 109bs from Airborne Pyrotechnics. They performed some graceful loops and wing-overs as a pair and as solos with fireworks firing from their wingtips. In complete contrast, Brendan O’Brien closed the flying displays with OTTO, a Schweizer S300C helicopter. OTTO probably carries the most pyrotechnics of any display aircraft with over 1000 different effects exploding from the helicopters sides and skids filling the sky with colour and noise for a “rock ‘n’ roll’ finale!

Midlands Air Festival is a relatively new, but unique event on the UK display calendar. It has been great to see it grow after its short four-year history and become a firmly established event with its own style and flair.