Midlands Air Festival

Friday 4th June - Sunday 6th June 2021

With uncertainty growing as to whether the UK government will implement phase 4 of the COVID-19 recovery roadmap on time, the Midlands region was treated to the first full UK airshow to go ahead during 2021 with reduced COVID-secure requirements in place. The Midlands Air Festival 2021 proved to be a great success paying witness to a number of debuts but wasn’t without its little foibles here and there.

Attending on Friday and Saturday, Andy Evans returns to his first UK airshow since July 2019 and reports for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the author and Nigel Watson.

As the largest airshow to occur in the UK since the end of 2019, the Midlands Air Festival represented an important step forward for the recovery of the industry as restrictions begin to be slowly eased nationwide. Held over three days in the grounds of the Ragley Hall Estate, the Air Festival was designed to appeal to everyone, be it the hardcore fast jet fan or the family who just wanted a nice day out. Crucially, the Air Festival was one of the first full scale airshows that did not run a drive-in format or paint boxes on the ground to encourage social distancing. Whilst the capacity of the event was limited to assist with social distancing and the commentators made constant announcements asking people to maintain a sensible distance from each other, the spectators were trusted to employ some common sense. This was easily achieved thanks to a sloping showground looking down on the display line, meaning everyone could find an unobstructed view.

Pleasingly this trust in the visiting public was not misplaced with the vast majority of spectators being respectful of each other. There were a few minor instances where common sense was thrown completely out of the window centring around moments where there was activity on the crowd line that triggered a surge forward, however, these were, for the most part, rare. Perhaps a symbol of how fluid the national and regional situation currently is, a short notice announcement was made in the run up to the show advising that a negative lateral flow test result would be required to gain entry. This seemed like a sensible precaution which appeared to work well on the Friday afternoon so it was therefore somewhat bemusing that no-one was checking test results early in the morning the following day after so much publicity to advise ticket holders of the requirement.

The Midlands Air Festival can be characterised as two distinctively different events, with a somewhat lazy Friday evening/night event called “Nightfire” and then a more involved weekend airshow. The Friday Nightfire show started slowly with model aircraft being put through their paces of increasing complexity including the rather impressive 55% scale Yak-54 flown by Steve Carr which whilst flying was difficult to tell apart from its full sized (and manned) cousin. The flying display in earnest was split into two parts in order to allow the public plenty of time to obtain food and drink on what was a gloriously sunny and hot evening. This was a challenge in itself being as the mobile network on site could not cope resulting in none of the vendors' card readers working in what is rapidly becoming a cashless society. In-between the two flying display sections and taking full advantage of the weather was the massed gathering of hot air balloons. Over the course of an hour and a half the showground launched in excess of 100 balloons that were a wide variety of shapes and sizes including classic shapes from years gone by. Of course, balloons cannot be controlled in the direction they travel which did result with some interesting angles plus amusing interactions between balloon pilot and spectator as some passed safely over the crowd at low level. As the sky filled with balloons (an unusual sight with the UK’s typical weather) for those of us for whom this was their first event since 2019, a sense of calm and relief began to build.

The second half of the show was dominated by Rob Barsby flying the glowing AeroSPARX Grob 109b fitted with 1,884 LEDs together with Otto the Helicopter, a world famous Schweizer 300C flown by the immensely talented Brendan O’Brien. Both displays wowed the crowd soon after dusk with their use of pyrotechnics fired from their aircraft with Rob’s gently flowing display highlighting the glowing airframe and its message to all NHS keyworkers on the underside. In a contrasting display Brendan, as always, threw the little Schweizer around the sky in an aggressive fashion performing what he had termed to the show commentator Peter McNamara as a “skygasm”. The Nightfire experience then moved on to its most unique display and the pinnacle of the evening’s entertainment. Along the crowd line around 25 hot air balloons inflated and were tethered in position as darkness truly fell. Then, choreographed with music ranging from the Beatles to The Who, the line of balloons began to ignite their burners on and off, glowing bright orange in a spectacle that was simply jaw dropping. As the balloons deflated the evening's finale erupted into a dazzling firework display which was a fitting ending to what had been a perfect evening airshow.

Moving on to the weekend’s main event, the Saturday started early with a mass hot air balloon launch which coincidently was also to be the closing act that day too. However, in between was a mix of acts to suit everyone’s tastes from model aircraft performing airfield attacks to a plethora of warbirds, up to some family favourites including the likes of the Tiger 9 team and the Turbulent Display Team. The venue certainly lent itself to the likes of Team Turbulent who are usually lost at larger airfields but here at Ragley their barnstorming antics were a real highlight of the day injecting some fun low down.

The warbird scene was well represented with the first appearance of the year by Sally B together with the popular Catalina from Plane Sailing. Providing a welcome rotary display with such a green backdrop to the display line were the Historic Army Heritage Flight who flew their Westland Scout and Bell 47 to the commentary of George Bacon, the Scout in particular looked superb. The low point of the entire display was unfortunately the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight who provided a Spitfire pairs display which in years gone by has been a popular dynamic display, however, this year it appeared to be limited to a sedate tail chase predominantly consisting of underside passes and was frankly, quite dull.

Making its debut at the Midlands Air Festival and the undoubted highlight of the display was Spitfire PT879 “Stalin’s Spitfire” operated by Peter Teichman who attempted to show the Red Star and the aircraft’s unique scheme off to full effect, an attempt that was somewhat hampered by the sun disappearing behind the cloud. It’s great to see a new UK-based Spitfire on the circuit, especially one in a scheme marking the use of the type by anyone other than the RAF or during the Battle of Britain. Also making his display debut was RAF Typhoon display pilot Flt Lt James Sainty, callsign “Anarchy 1” in the newly repainted black and Union Jack-themed scheme nicknamed as “BlackJack” by the display team. The Union Flag design on the wings happens to have a striking resemblance to the UKAR logo! This year’s display, commentated on by 2018/2019 display pilot Jim Peterson, was as energetic and dynamic as can be expected with plenty of topside passes to show off the special scheme to its full extent. The scheme itself was met with mixed reviews when it was revealed but after seeing it in real life, the scheme works well even with the normal grey centreline tank installed against a blue-sky background, although when the sun goes in and the cloud appears, the scheme becomes a black aircraft against a white background which for photographers ends up as just a silhouette. Perhaps black wasn’t the best colour to choose when the British weather is considered.

These were not the only debuts of note at the Air Festival. Opening the show on Friday and Saturday plus a flypast on Sunday were the Red Arrows with their first UK mainland public displays since July 2019. As always, their shows were performed with absolute professionalism with the return of some old favourite manoeuvres including the hammer break, however, both displays were flown with just an 8-ship. Operating from RAF Fairford for the weekend, the team had not deployed with a spare aircraft and on the Friday evening one aircraft suffered a fuel leak. Having to run their two debut shows an aircraft down does highlight the increasing age of their aircraft and the complete lack of investment in a viable replacement by the Government for these national ambassadors, yet at the same time the nation can find £200 million to fund a new private yacht.

The Midlands Air Festival may not initially appeal to many hardcore enthusiasts being located at a country hall rather than an airfield but for those willing to make the journey, the venue worked well and the organisers clearly understand what display acts are suited to it. Whilst the Friday and Saturday were bathed in glorious sunshine, the same sadly cannot be said to the same extent for the Sunday that suffered from some rain.

This Air Festival cannot have been cheap to organise with such a variety of acts including military and the inclusion of an (often expensive) fireworks display. The event therefore should represent a beacon of light to all other event organisers during this period of COVID restrictions to highlight that it is indeed possible to run a virtually normal viable event albeit with a smaller capacity. The 2021 Midlands Air Festival was on the whole an excellent event that did its organisers proud. Perhaps we’re looking through rose-tinted spectacles after being without proper airshows for so long but the bar for a 2021 display with COVID restrictions in place has been set high. We cannot wait to see what other events can pull out of the bag later this year.