Top 10 Airshow Moments of 2023

Sunday 25th February 2024

Welcome to UKAR's traditional "Top Ten" feature! It's a chance for the whole team to get together, reflect, look back, and consider what we felt were the best moments at UK events in the last year. Except... we didn't. And we must start this feature with an apology, because unlike Gandalf, we are late. The honest reason we were late is a simple one; we just didn't attend many airshows in 2023.

Forgive us for sounding more pensive than necessary, but perhaps it says something about the overall vibe of the 2023 season, a certain mehness in the air that one couldn't put their finger on. The 2022 season's triumphant return from COVID seemed to be like a long time ago, and yet, there's still some sand in the UK airshow industry gearbox. A typically excellent RIAT was bludgeoned by poor weather (which no matter how good a show, is still unpleasant for spectators to stand in), Flying Legends didn't really feel settled (and as it turned out, had good reason not to) and bizarrely conflicted with the biggest European show in the calendar, the RAF Cosford Airshow couldn't excuse itself for only having a few months to plan, and fell short of the show's pre-pandemic high expectations. The series of always excellent Duxfords and Old Wardens felt a little samey and by-the-numbers to justify the costs these days, which brings us onto the second point - cost. Whilst we may be in a "technical recession" to the average Joeseph Bloggsworth and his 2.5, the cost of living post-COVID puts a palpable amount of pressure on in a way we haven't seen since 2008/2009. Shows that enthusiasts would have been happy take a gamble on in 2019 have seen hesitancy in 2023. People now wait to see what is announced, or what the weather is doing. Will life return to normal? Slowly but surely, yes of course, but 2023 just felt like one of those years where things didn't quite click as they ought to.

That said, there were indeed excellent moments to reflect upon - the new and upcoming Midlands Air Festival has moved from strength to strength, and its bold booking of the Saab Draken of the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight was the talk of the avgeek town. The RAF Cosford Airshow managed to be an appropriate staging point for the final RAF C-130 airshow appearances. RIAT typically pulled off the unique and surprising, and Duxford put together a decent showing this year of interesting formations. As always, it's a tough battle for the top ten spot - they're limited in number and there are a great many other honourable mentions we'd love to talk about, but don't have room for.

The way we approach Top Ten is enigmatic, and not along any system or syllabus. As a general rule of thumb, we ask ourselves what we truly remember about the 2023 show season - what was the "I was there" moment? And to that we must honestly and truthfully say, beyond the shining examples below, "not much". We very much hope that readers disagree.

So, we thank you for indulging us and without any further ado, we're happy, perhaps relieved even, to announce our "top ten moments" for the UK's 2023 airshow season. This feature has always been designed to provoke debate and discussion, so we’d love to hear what your thoughts are on the best moments of 2023.

We wish you all the very best for a safe, happy, and prosperous 2024 season ahead.


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The RAF Cosford Airshow are argued to have got a lot wrong in 2023. To some it felt like a bit of a misstep, and it continues to struggle to live up to the high standards the show gained for itself pre-COVID.

However, credit is due insofar as one of the star items for the show was concerned. The Patrouille Suisse, flying their lovely F-5E Tiger IIs made a very unique and rare participation at the small Midlands venue. With a crowd the size of RIAT, even the likes of some small jet teams can get lost, and whilst Patrouille Suisse manage it, it's undoubtedly a large space to fill. Not so at RAF Cosford, the small, arguably intimate airfield is the perfect venue for the afterburning(ish) jet team, wearing excellent colours practically flying classic jets in and of themselves. There's no farer way to say it, the Swiss Air Force rocked the joint. Plenty of noise, excitement, and fast-paced action kept the crowd's eyes glued to the sky. This appearance might well have just missed out on our usual Top Ten slot, save as to say that it was the Swiss' only military attendance at an airshow in the UK in 2023, even RIAT missed out on the likes of the F/A-18 or the PC-7 team. As such, the Patrouille Suisse was a relative coup for the RAF Cosford Airshow, especially in what was rumoured to be one of their last ever flying display seasons, and is therefore worthy of note in our Top Ten list. TJ

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Evening shows are great, especially in the golden summer light in lovely weather. Shuttleworth are well known as being the top dogs in the UK when it comes to evening events, and this attracted us this year to the Flying Proms. Perhaps the most unique show in the UK, the aircraft display throughout sunset to live music from a full orchestra.

This year this included a display from the collections own Gloster Gladiator. In the golden light this powerful biplane fighter flew low and aggressively for the crowd as the last rays of sunlight reflected off its polished surface. At any normal evening show this would have been quite a sight but on this night, it was that little bit more special. Accompanying the Gladiator was the National Symphony Orchestra who performed a wonderful rendition of Now We Are Free, composed by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard. Most will know this as the theme music to the movie, Gladiator.

A fitting piece of music to listen to whilst enjoying an early war legend on a summers evening, even made lovelier by the start and end of the display being precisely timed to the beginning and end of the piece of music itself. AE

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A rare sight at airshows in recent years, the addition of a Royal Air Force Hercules to the static line up at the 2022 Cosford Air Show was a real highlight. Even though the retirement date of the type in RAF service was creeping ever closer, we really thought it would be the last time we’d get to clamber in and around one.

Fast forward to 2023 and the announcement was made just weeks before the show that a RAF Hercules would again be on static, ultimately one of the last opportunities to see one in operational service. Complete with special tail – albeit another bleedin’ sticker – it was a fantastic way to celebrate some 56 years of faithful RAF service.

However… that wasn’t all.

Donning the rose-tinted spectacles for a moment, the more hardened aviation enthusiast will remember the days of seeing the RAF Falcons parachute display team jump from a Hercules, rather than their current aircraft of choice, the Dornier DO-228. So it was perhaps a fitting tribute that the RAF were able to spare a second Hercules to send to the show, allowing the team – alongside the French Air and Space Force's Team Phenix – to launch the flying display.

With spectators gazing upwards, listening to the distinguished drone of the aircraft as it dipped in and out of the odd cloud, it was a sight reminiscent of days gone by as both teams leapt from the ramp. Once on terra firma, they lined up to salute the audience as the Hercules tore along the runway, signing out with style. With an Airbus A400M performing a flyby at the show later on too, it really was out with the old and in with the new.

It was something so simple, yet so effective, and top marks must be given to the RAF for pulling out all the stops to support the show and celebrate the mighty Hercules – made even more incredible considering that the final Hercules sorties were just days after the show. IG

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We're fortunate to have a wealth of Hispano HA-1112 Buchons in the UK these days, a venerable warbird type that has been on the circuit for decades, although opinions vary about the fact that they are all painted up as Messerschmidt One-faux-nines rather than their original service colours. The type primarily serves as the airshow 'adversary' for Spitfires and, less often, Yakovlevs, engaging in tailchases and mock dogfights before inevitably being 'shot down' by the victorious Allied fighter.

Rarely do we see a solo display outright by the type as we do with almost every other type around, no doubt a factor of the type's recognition and popularity, or realtive lack thereof, with the general airshow audience. However, the Buchon is, of course, an excellent design in its own right that warrants being thrown around a little now and then, and just so did John Romain do with the Aircraft Restoration Company's Yellow 10 (G-AWHK) at the Shuttleworth Around the World Airshow in June.

The aircraft ran through a typically elegant and precise Romain routine over Old Warden's skies that suitably demonstrated the, perhaps unappreciated, Buchon's other qualities as a warbird and a airshow performer. A flawless display in delightful weather that stood out on an already well-balanced flying display as so many have done at Old Warden over the years. SW

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Gone are the glory days of private twin-engine warbird displays in the UK. There was once a time when airshows would regularly see a Mosquito, P-38, Tiger Cat or B-25 displaying but for now we are left with just the Blenheim, and we appreciate what we have. That may have course soon change with the Mosquitos that are currently in construction.

The Flying Bulls of course operate both a P-38 Lightning and a B-25 Mitchell in their fleet, both gloriously presented in polished metal, both are infrequent visitors to these shores. Making a welcome return last year to the circuit was Flying Legends at its new home of the former RAF Church Fenton in Yorkshire and as always, competing with the biggest airshow of them all for our money, you would think someone would have twigged by now?

Those that ventured north were not to be disappointed, the graceful Lighting was put through its paces in a wonderfully flowing display aerobatic routine which we rarely get to see anywhere else. The display was made even more evocative through the use of smoke generators throughout the sequence. There’s nothing quite like seeing a multi-engine aircraft performing effortless loops and rolls in a summer sky. A display that was made all the more interesting by the detail commentary that accompanied it. AE

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The Victory Show is so much more than an airshow. The UK's biggest World War II re-enactment event brings an atmosphere totally unique, and a spirit all of its own. Its such an entertaining, immersive day quite unlike any other; and that is true of its flying display element as much as the ground battles and living tableaux that place the visitor into what feels like a movie set.

The crux of what makes the Victory Show enthralling is how the visitor is immersed in living history. Its all around you. Aircraft operate from a grass strip so close you feel as though you can touch them as they roar into the air. In 2023 the event was blessed with perfect weather, and the afternoon's flying finale of a P-47 Thunderlbolt and two P-51 Mustangs summed up what is so special about Cosby. Hotrod warbirds in colourful schemes looking and sounding at their absolute best as they make the most of the curved display line with topside after topside. We saw several solo passes and a delightful vic formation, shining in the late summer sun. It was everything one could hope for from ten minutes of air display flying.

We are very fortunate to have the warbird scene we have, and to see these machines displayed this intimate way is the icing on the cake. Lovely. NW

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Since the end of lockdown, one show nestled deep in the countryside has leaped into the limelight, each year building on the previous year’s success. We are of course talking about the Midlands Air Festival at Ragley Hall near Stratford upon Avon. Whilst the display may be into the sun, the events relaxed showground that slopes down to the crowd line is rapidly becoming a favourite with families, especially their Friday evening displays that go on well into the night. In 2023 the show surpassed itself when it announced the UK debut of the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight’s single seat SAAB J35 Draken. Not only was this a classic cold war jet aircraft but it was also an over land display by an afterburning classic jet. Something we have not seen for many years for obvious reasons.

The day came and we stood there in anticipation of what should have been the highlight of the year. Sadly, thanks to being based a significant distance away and air traffic control routing issues, the Draken arrived at Ragley with insufficient fuel to display. What should have been a display of noise and afterburners was reduced to a couple of underside only passes. Whilst it was great to see, it was a bit of disappointment.

That said, the Midlands Air Festival gets a massive A+ gold star from us for bringing the Draken to our shores but sadly, gets a C- for execution. It is that, and only that, which prevents this entry from being this year’s number one slot – and makes it in to our Top 10 alone for what it represents, a Draken displaying in the UK – wow! AE

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RIAT isn't especially known for its warbird appearances and, other than the BBMF, vintage aeroplanes in the flying display have often tended to ruffle some feathers. However, the participation of the Flugmuseum Messerschmitt's reproduction Me 262 proved extremely popular and generated much excitement for it represented not only the first time the type has appeared at a British airshow but the first time a "Swallow" has flown in the UK since the 1940s. With only a handful of these reproduction Me 262s flying in the world D-IMTT's attendance was a rare coup.

The aircraft was positioned near the spectator area while parked up, placed next to the Martin-Baker Gloster Meteor as a representation of both the first Axis and Alied jet fighters. Its flying routine, flown by Airbus test pilot Gerhardt “Geri” Kraehenbuehl, was fairly sporty for the aircraft design, although it was clear that it was not the most powerful jet ever flown at RAF Fairford, and although it was a realtively small aeroplane flying a slightly distant display, it was nevertheless an exciting moment in the flying programme that undoubtedly caught everyone's attention.

As an indication of how special the attendance of the type was at a UK show, the aicraft was met by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Spitfire Mk Vb AB910 when it entered UK airspace and visited at RAF Coningsby to join thier collection of warbirds as well as conduct some formation and photo flights with the squadron and the Rolls-Royce Heritage Flight Spitfire and Mustang. It's almost certain that it was the first time in history a formation of the three types had been conducted. SW

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One of the true talents in creating spectacle is to work with the tools you have at your disposal, and combine otherwise ordinary things into new and fresh showpieces. RIAT's F-35B and EAV-8B Harrier II joint formation flypast plus hovering was simple, effective, and as is the way with these things, one of the lasting memories of RIAT 2023. Other than Italy who did something similar (but not really as one jet was hovering, the other flew over) a few weeks earlier, a joint flypast and joint hover between an F-35B and Harrier of any variant could have been done many many times before, especially by the US Marines or Italy's Marina Militare who operate both types, but they didn't. RIAT's eye for the unique, to bring the "special" out of the ordinary, is what continuously sets itself out as a show above all others.

One of the golden rules of airshows is to keep it simple. It's easy to get bogged down in over-complicated plans and manoeuvres which, don't get us wrong, have their place, but often a lot of that extra effort isn't worth the hassle. But a simple formation topside, and joint hover, is all that one needed. It's the type of thing you could have imagined taking place at airshows of the 1990s, but somehow seems out of reach in this day and age of health and safety, endless signoffs, and international red tape.

Any discerning airshow organiser could do worse than to monitor the success or failure of their ideas by the types of photo that are shared online, and the F-35/EAV-8 was front and centre in all the reviews, all over Instagram, and in all of the Facebook Groups. Loathe as we are to mention it, it's probably also the type of thing that impressed the suits in the chalets, too, and it is indeed their money that makes the world go round.

At its core, the EAV-8B and F-35B was a (seemingly) simple, relatively inexpensive and effective formation that will live long in the memory. A true airshow spectacle in the old fashioned sense, and well deserving of its spot in our Top Ten. TJ

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Themes form an important part of numerous major annual airshows; they allow similar types flown by operators around the globe to gather under a common banner. It also has the simpler task of giving structure to a show to help generate variety year to year, after all variety is the spice of life. RIAT is one airshow known for running three or four annual themes, sometimes these can be broad designed to attract a wide range of aircraft whilst others can be quite specific aimed at a single aircraft type.

Every now and again, a RIAT theme attracts a rare type or an unusual display item that we don’t often see in the UK, if at all. One such theme for 2023 was Skytanker which celebrated 100 years of air-to-air refuelling. When this was announced our thoughts all turned to a static display full of tankers and the occasional flypast by a KC-135 or a Voyager. What we couldn’t have dreamt about was the Luftwaffe’s contribution.

Unlike the RAF, the Luftwaffe operate the Airbus A400M both as a transport aircraft and also as an aerial refueller, a role that had previously not been demonstrated in the UK. Therefore, our attention was caught by the news that the Germans would be performing a refuelling demo with one, accompanied by a pair of Tornado’s. Thoughts turned to earlier refuelling displays at RIAT which were typically quite flat, and that’s just what we expected from this display too. We didn’t mind this as it meant we would once again witness Tornado’s operating from RAF Fairford. How wrong we were.

Of course, the display involved a few flypasts from the A400M trailing its hoses to the Tornados, but the ante was soon increased as the second pass became a topside, granting a great view of the display and the photographers the perfect photo against the clouds. The Germans however weren’t finished there. Breaking formation from the lumbering Airbus, the Tornado’s then settled into their own mini demonstration of their buddy-buddy refuelling capability, something not seen in the UK for many years.

It was a display that left a smile on everyone’s face, not only had it been interesting, but it involved a much-loved type now missing from British skies. We can only hope that future themes are executed with such thought and passion. It was an airshow moment that certainly deserved our number one slot for 2023. AE

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Do you agree with our choices? What do you consider to be the most memorable moments of last season?

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