Midlands Air Festival

Friday 31st May - Sunday 2nd June 2024

The Midlands Air Festival, held in the picturesque landscape of the Ragley Hall estate in Warwickshire, has firmly established itself as a feast of all things aviation, from hot air balloon to fast jet and most points in between. Appealing to the casual day tripper and enthusiast alike, the show once again proved to be the ultimate variety show, and a resounding success.

Nigel Watson reports for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the author and Andy Evans.

There really is nothing else quite like the Midlands Air Festival. The biggest hot air balloon event in Europe, together with an international airshow. There is 'Nightfire', an evening airshow, after-dark balloon glow to music and firework finale. There is a scope here that is as broad as the world of aviation itself, all packed into three days and presented in such a natural amphitheatre that the audience can see everything, in comfort and without any feeling of overcrowding. The moniker of 'Festival' is apt indeed, this is much more than either an airshow or a balloon meet.

The event has established itself on the air event calendar in a few short years. First run in 2018 the kudos of being a unique event among a summer of hot air balloon meets and airshows is testament to the organising team who bring much experience from airshow and ballooning worlds together. This sixth edition of the event did feel as if it has been running much longer, with a thoroughly professional feel to everything from social media to showground. There were clear and informative announcements on the build up to the event, the flying display content was settled and all seemed set for show weekend. Unfortunately, circumstances forced some changes as the event grew close.

The very sad loss of Squadron Leader Mark Long in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Spitfire IXe MK356 on 25th May led to the grounding of the Flight and their withdrawal from the event. The Royal Air Force replaced Friday's Typhoon display with a pair, piloted by ex Typhoon display pilots, to perform some formation passes and a missing man manoeuvre in tribute to their fallen comrade. As this review is published the BBMF's flying activity remains paused, and we at UK Airshow Review extend our deepest sympathy to all at RAF Coningsby.

B-17 Sally B was added to the flying display at short notice, only for further disruption to be caused by the weather over mainland Europe. What were to be some of the flying display's international stars were stranded and couldn't travel: Red Bull's P-38 Lightning and Bo-105 aerobatic helicopter, together with Frederic Akary's F-86 Sabre were ruled out, very much at the last minute. At this point Midlands Air Festival's organisers could have shrugged, put it down to bad luck, and gone into the weekend with a lesser show. Instead, in came Tony DeBruyne's OV-10 Bronco, and Mark Hooton in a Jet Provost T3. Most remarkably, the Swedish Air Force Historic Aircraft Flight's Saab Draken which had been slated for Sunday only was added to the Saturday flying display. This was an exceptional effort from the organisers, and truly appreciated.

This isn't an event that demands the visitor arrives at the crack of dawn to get the best view. Arrival by car is stress free, and the layout of the event in a gentle valley means there is certainly no rush to grab a premium viewing spot. The irony here of course is that if you do get there early, the reward is the best chance of experiencing the mass hot air balloon ascent. Although this is timetabled for morning and evening both Saturday and Sunday, ballooning is very much at the mercy of the weather, and mornings tend to be stiller. Sunday morning saw over a hundred balloons take to the air, Sunday evening was, despite high temperatures and clear sky, out of wind limits. A sky full of hot air balloons really does have the wow factor; a true spectacle and well worth the effort to catch.

Whereas the Saturday and Sunday are full day events, the Friday at Midlands is a half day show which couldn't be any further laid back if it tried. Following a short model aircraft display, a relaxed afternoons flying display program kicked things off in earnest which included the first 2024 UK display of the Red Arrows, a wonderfully close and energetic RAF Tutor display and what should have been the debut of the D-Day Typhoon display which, as discussed earlier, was postponed to remember Sqn Leader Long. Whilst the wind did try its best to limit the early evening mass Hot Air Balloon launch, this still went ahead in a reduced form. Whilst many indulged in a bite to eat and drink, the crowd sat back and watched a selection of balloons of all shapes and sizes getting airborne for a short flight across the grounds of Ragley Hall. As the light faded, the Friday Nightfire show came alive with a pair of superb pyrotechnic laden displays from from Extra 300SC G-IHHI and Airborne Pyrotechnics flying their pair of Grob 209 motor gliders emblazoned in thousands of LED lights which kept the crowd entertained whilst the highlight of the evening was prepared. 16 tethered Hot Air Balloons stretched along the crowd line proceeded to choreograph the lighting of their burners to a wide range of popular songs, a unique sight. As the balloons deflated, the cold night sky erupted into the finale fireworks display that took full advantage of the wonderful surroundings. The Nightfire is a spectacle that every enthusiast should try to witness at least once.

Between balloon launch and flying display, there is plenty to do, with a growing number of trade stands and ground attractions on the showground, with tethered balloons as well as a large model aircraft flying throughout the morning. There is a missed opportunity to chill and flick through the programme; the omission of a souvenir printed programme is a curious one here. However, the unashamed entertainment of a model battle set piece with fireworks precedes the PA blasting into life, with commentator Peter Anderson making the long trip from Australia once again to lead the flying display commentary, bringing a distinctive style. Maybe an acquired taste for some, but for many adding to the entertainment of the afternoon, and certainly raising a smile.

The landscape of the site provides the opportunity for the lighter flying display acts to operate from a grass strip in front of the crowd, and this brings a level of intimacy to these acts that is rare elsewhere. It adds another dimension to the likes of Peter Davies' Calidus autogyro, which used the gaps between coppices to great effect. The Tiger Club Turbulent Team truly engaged the crowd, to a degree that is rare elsewhere. Amazingly, the Turbs are celebrating their 65th Anniversary this year, with an act that has barely changed, if at all over those years. Surely that is a great achievement in this day and age. Celebrating their own anniversary this year are the RAF Red Arrows, in their 60th season, and back to a nine-ship for the occasion. In clear blue skies on Sunday it was comforting as well as thrilling to have that nine-ship back, and to have the Red Arrows back on form. If totally honest with ourselves, there can't be many airshow fans that can't trace everything back to being hooked in by the Red Arrows, and the reaction of the audience as the team arrived over the showground in Diamond Nine suggested their impact is still as strong as ever.

If the Red Arrows were the stars of the event for many of the spectators, the Swedish Air Force Historic Aircraft Flight's Saab J-35J Draken is peak airshow content for the enthusiast. Historic, yet somehow still futuristic, the Draken has that cold war era magic, brutal yet graceful, blasting around the sky with a reheat trail of shock diamonds which seemed as long as the beast itself. Without doubt a restricted display to comply with CAA airshow regulations, there were no aerobatics. Rather there were swooping passes, turns and climbs that showed the distinctive double-delta shape just as well. The effort to bring the Draken back after last year's partially successful attempt to display once again betrayed the attention to detail, and sheer hard work, put into this show by its organisers. To be here to witness a Draken thundering around the Warwickshire countryside over Capability Brown landscaped parkland on a hot sunny day could be the ultimate airshow experience, and if it wasn't for the position of the sun, it probably would be. Directly onto crowd, the sun presented rather a challenge in looking into it for most of the day, not least for photographers who must contend with back-light to the point of silhouetting during the peak of the afternoon. While far from spoiling anything, it is worth being aware of, having to work that little bit harder for useable images. This was especially true when the immaculately presented Douglas DC-6 and B-25 Mitchell of Red Bull performed. The DC-6 in particular, delightfully Art Deco in silver, natural metal and blue, perhaps surprisingly spritely and always graceful, making the most of the stage bounded by trees and turning steeply. Captivating.

The merit of a 50 minute break in flying, albeit with some tethered balloons, could be debated, but this at least allowed the sun some time to move around a little and when B-17G Sally B resumed the flying display the lighting was a little less brutal. Maybe because of the sunshine, maybe it was due to the parkland setting, but there was entertainment throughout the entire flying display. The Stampe Display team were charming, while Chris Burkett wrung his Extra 330 out to a point where there seemed little to differentiate between it and a 55% scale radio controlled model Yak-54 that followed it. There was a short but very sweet cameo from a Red Arrows liveried Gnat which was able to use smoke to at least partially compensate for the fact it was a small fast aeroplane a long way from the crowd. The Aerosuperbatics Wingwalkers, always good value for colour, noise and spectacle had Helen Tempest commentate. Helen was the first wingwalker atop Vic Norman's Stearman when the act first launched in the 80s; her insight was absolutely fascinating and added a whole new level of entertainment to this stalwart act.

As the last handful of acts displayed in the dropping early evening sun, smoke on deep blue sky filled the stage and father and son duo of Tim and Tom Dews drew the event to a close with their Grob 115 pair. The flying display element had been very much in the spirit of the event as a whole; Air Festival by name and very much an air festival by nature. In this hobby some people do develop their specialisms. I hear people suggest they don't like fast jets, others that they only like things that are modern and military. There are many variations on this. But for me, if its flying, I'll look up at it. I just can't help it. My taste in flying machinery is as broad as it is possible to be. And this event caters precisely to that broad outlook. What the Midlands Air Festival aims to do is showcase the world of flight in all its forms and to make it accessible, and while in reality it can only scratch the surface, what you do get here is the variety show of the season. It has evolved to an international event in a short space of time, and hopefully it will continue to thrive and develop in precisely the same vein, as a true all-rounder. Highly recommended.