Cranfield Festival of Flight

Cranfield Festival of Flight

2016 marks the 70th Anniversary of Cranfield University, one of the most famous aviation institutions in the UK. When a major news story concerning aviation breaks, interviews with researchers and staff based or taught at Cranfield are almost guaranteed. The 17th September saw a special day of events at the University to mark the anniversary and many of Cranfield’s achievements.

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

1946 saw the creation of the College of Aeronautics at RAF Cranfield. The station had been a base for RAF Light Bombers and latterly RAF Night Fighters. Post war saw the formation of College of Aeronautics at Cranfield which initially worked alongside the Empire Test Pilots School which had a brief period based at the station until 1947. The college was new independent institution that would aid education of aerospace engineers, designed and managers for the new age of aviation development.

The College soon became a leading light in aviation research contribution to the development of numerous aircraft such as the Harrier. The college has always had its own flying laboratories and perhaps the best loved and most famous was Avro Lancaster B1 PA474. The aircraft was rescued by the college following survey missions in Africa and was notably used in research relating to wing design. Today PA474 is the flagship of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

The 1950’s saw the College of Aeronautics develop into the Cranfield Institute of Technology. Cranfield’s development has also seen it diversify its education and research. It formed major partnerships with industry, notably companies such as British Aerospace, Rolls Royce and Nissan all of which took advantage of the collocated Technology Park. In 1993 the institution became Cranfield University.

Today Cranfield is a postgraduate university specialising in technology management. It provides the UK Ministry of Defence’s largest education contract and has a major stake in the Defence Academy based at Shrivenham in Wiltshire. It is also the only university with its own airfield which is home to a number of aircraft operated by the University as flying research laboratories. A new addition to the airfield which is nearing completion in this 70th Anniversary year is the Aerospace Integration Research Centre (AIRC). This new hangar complex with allow rapid research and development to take place on new aerospace technologies being developed for current and future aircraft.

To mark the 70th Anniversary, the University held two special event on the 17th September. The first in the morning was an “Oper Doors” allowing people to tour many of the facilities at the University. The afternoon saw the “Festival of Flight” which saw a static display of some of Cranfield’s resident aircraft and a short flying display. Amongst the gems on static display were the University’s Scottish Aviation Bulldog, Slingsby T67M Firefly and BAe Jetstream 31 aircraft. Making a very rare public appearance was the Cranfield A-1. Originally designed and built as a single seat aerobatic aircraft with input from the late aerobatic champion Neil Williams, the aircraft was modified into a two seater by Cranfield students in the 1990’s. It is hoped that the A-1 may well be made airworthy again in the near future.

Also making a rare airshow appearance was the BAE Systems 146 FAAM. FAAM stands for Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements and the aircraft is owned by the Natural Environment Research Council with support from BAE Systems and operating company Directflight. Another Directflight aircraft on show was a Cessna F406 used for fisheries patrols and maritime surveillance on government contract.

Perhaps the most striking aircraft on static display however was the English Electric Lightning T5 XS458. Owned by Russell Carpenter and the T5 Alive group, the aircraft wears the colours of both 92 and 111 Squadrons on the spine and fin while all Lightning units are recorded on the port-side fuselage. The aircraft is kept alive and is often taxied up and down Cranfield’s runway.

The flying display was sadly thwarted by stubborn low cloud and low visibility at airfields all around Cranfield. In the end just three acts made it to Cranfield to provide some limited aerial entertainment to celebrate the anniversary.

Opening the afternoon’s flying was the ‘Little and Large’ Duo of ¼ scale radio controlled and full size Extra 300S aerobatic aircraft flown by Mike Williams and Chris Burkett respectively. Despite the low cloud, both pilots were able to fly a beautifully synchronised and very well matched routine.

Before the advent of the College of Aeronautics, Cranfield was a military airfield. Both before and during the earlier stages of the Second World War, the Bedfordshire aerodrome was home to RAF light bomber units. In the 1930s, these units operated elegant Hawker Biplanes. As Europe headed towards war, these were replaced by the Bristol Blenheim. To mark Cranfield’s association with the type, John Romain flew the Aircraft Restoration Company beautiful Bristol Blenheim 1F in from Duxford for a display of smooth curved passes.

The warbird theme continued with Peter Teichman’s North American P-51D Mustang. During the later stages of the Second World War, the aircraft of the United States Army Air Force were a common sight across the Midlands and East Anglia so would have been a regular sight over Cranfield. Peter, despite the low cloud, gave a stirring account of the Mustang with a lovely smooth barrel rolls and sweeping passes.


With the conclusion of the Mustang display came the end of the flying for the day because of the poor weather. It was a crying shame that low cloud spoilt what should have been a fine tribute to one of the UK’s major aviation institutions. Cranfield in the past has hosted some great airshows, notably seeing the final RAF Vulcan display in 1992. We hope someday in the future more events can be held at this historic aviation hub.