RAF Cosford Air Show

RAF Cosford Air Show

RAF Cosford, the home of RAF Engineering, once again played host to the only official Royal Air Force airshow of the year. The show marked four different themes during the event in the air and on the ground including the 60th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Battlefield Support, International Cooperation and Space. The show brought together an eclectic selection of modern and historic aircraft, civilian and military, for an impressive five hour flying display and static exhibition.

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

There are very few airshows in the West Midlands so it therefore no surprise that RAF Cosford Air Show is a very popular event drawing in a massive crowd every year often hitting the 50,000 mark. It is therefore a very welcome “shop-window” for the Royal Air Force in an area in which the service has a relatively small footprint and is ideal opportunity to show the public what the RAF does and also potentially inspire young people to follow a Royal Air Force career. Cosford’s hangars become a huge exhibition space not only highlighting RAF trades, but with a wider presentation of “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” with all sorts of industry and youth organisations present. Out on the airfield, there is other entertainment including a ‘Vintage Village’ supporting by classic vehicles and aircraft plus all the usual traders.

Despite the limitations of a small runway and relatively small areas of hard-standing, Cosford always  boasts a good sized static display of aircraft. Naturally, many of the aircraft based at Cosford for training such as Panavia Tornado GR1s and SEPECAT Jaguars are on show en masse, but there are also more modern aircraft on show. Towering over the static display this year was an Airbus DS A400M Atlas C1. The Atlas has previously appeared in the Cosford flying display, but this was the first time the type had landed at Cosford.

There was strong support from nearby RAF Shawbury with examples of current and future rotary training aircraft on display together. The Airbus Helicopters Squirrel HT1 is reaching the end of its RAF career with the Defence Helicopter Flying School and was parked with its replacement, the Airbus Helicopters H135 Juno HT1. Further RAF rotary participation came from No 32[TR] Squadron with a rare airshow appearance with its new Leonardo AW109SP.

The RAF training theme was continued with Grob Tutor T1s from UBAS based at Cosford, Shorts Tucano T1 from No 72[R] Squadron based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse and Beechcraft King Air B200 from RAFC Cranwell based No 45[R] Squadron. Complementing the modern training were examples of the Scottish Aviation Bulldog T1, Percival Provost T1 and BAC Jet Provost T5 to mark cold war RAF training.

The RAF Museum rolled out a number of exhibits for the static display. This year it was the turn of the BAe EAP test aircraft and the Museum’s Hawker Hurricane IIc to make rare appearance outside the Museum hangars. Another “testing” airframe on show was QinetiQ’s BAe Harrier T4 VAAC which is now housed at Cosford. A welcome surprise was a Westland Wessex HAR2 in full yellow RAF Search and Rescue markings.

The ‘operational theme’ of Cosford 2017 was ‘Battlefield Support.’ Amongst the collection of aircraft brought together for this theme were a good selection of types from the Vietnam War including two UK based examples of the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog. The Postbellum Foundation added to the Cessna observation aircraft collection with the UK debut of their O-2 Skymaster. More familiar types connected with the UK armed forces included Taylorcraft Auster AOP6 and Auster AOP9, the Cosford Airshow office’s BAe Harrier GR3 and the RAF Museum’s BAE Systems Harrier GR9. The theme was brought up to date with a RAF Puma HC2 from No 230 Squadron which arrived and departed during the flying displays plus an Army Air Corps AgustaWestland WAH-64D Apache AH1.

Two international participants took part in the static display as part of the “International Cooperation” theme. The Italian Air Force showed off an example of the Alenia C-27J Spartan medium transport while the Irish Air Corps brought over one of their new Airbus Helicopters H135 helicopters.

2017 is a busy year for the Royal Navy with a new aircraft carrier about to commence trials and new helicopters entering service. Due to the pressures of this transition, the Navy has not got a regular flying display item on the circuit but they were able to contribute a Leonardo AW159 Wildcat HMA2 and Merlin HM2 for the static display. There was also a BAe Sea Harrier FA2 from the School of Flight Deck Operations which is currently resident at Cosford.

Completing the static displays were some civilian aircraft including the Airbus Helicopters H135 from the Midlands Air Ambulance based at Cosford and the Cessna 421C used by the Met Office for research.

Cosford’s flying display is always an incredibly varied programme boasting aircraft from the UK military, overseas air arms and huge mix of aircraft from civilian operators. This year saw significant better weather than the last two years, but there was still a nagging strong wind and a very short lived light rain shower during the afternoon which tested many of the displays.

It is the Royal Air Force who are very much at the forefront of the display and naturally all of the services display teams were in attendance. However, for the RAF Red Arrows their 2017 participation was very different to that of previous years. The last two years have seen major changes to the air display regulations for both civilian and military events. As Cosford is Defence Estate property, the flying is regulated by a document called RA2335. Like its civilian equivalent, the document now specifies a defined display area in which aircraft can perform high energy aerobatics. These areas cannot be put over “congested” areas. The village of Albrighton adjoins Cosford Airfield at the eastern end and is considered to be a congested area. With the way the UK military Public Display Authorisation process works, military displays have little scope to vary their routines and therefore the position of Albrighton poses a significant challenge. Rather than face the prospect of losing the headline display acts, an alternative display axis was created to the west of Cosford to avoid ‘high-energy aerobatic’ overflight of Albrighton. It was not ideal, but credit for at least making sure the Red Arrows display went ahead must go the Cosford organisers, the Red Arrows and other local agencies that had to close roads outside the airfield at extremely short notice. The same modified display axis should have also been used for the RAF Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 solo display, but sadly the aircraft suffered a technical snag on approach but did offer a quick and noisy flypast before heading home.

The rest of the RAF items were unaffected by the restrictions. The flying was opened by the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team jumping from their new Dornier Do228 supplied by Summit Air. Despite the strong winds the team put on a superb demonstration of their world famous loose stack before landing right at crowd centre for the salute though gathering up their chutes proved a challenge with the wind!

The University of Birmingham Air Squadron also took part in the flying offering a “Station Flypast” by four of their Grob Tutor T1s. As well as instructors, four cadet pilots also flew in the aircraft for a rare opportunity to participate in a flying display at a public event.

The Cosford weekend was the first weekend of the season for the Grob Tutor T1 solo display flown by Squadron Leader Andy Tagg. Andy continues the tradition of crisp aerobatic routines for the Tutor with his 2017 routine which will be seen a few select venues around the UK during the season. The Boeing Chinook HC4 display team completed the RAF contribution to the flying display and providing a worthy finale to the day. Despite a slightly ‘tamer’ routine, the Chinook will always be a really impressive display aircraft with immense agility and presence.

Cosford also saw the debut of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s four-ship fighter routine as part of their 60th Anniversary celebrations. The formation is called “Thompson Formation” in memory of the flight’s founding father, Group Captain Peter Thompson DFC. Flying in formation are OC BBMF, Sqn Ldr Andy Millikin, Sqn Ldr Mark Discombe, Flt Lt Andy Preece and Flt Lt Antony Parkinson. The display saw a curving ‘box’ formation arrival before the four fighters (Hawker Hurricane IIc LF363, Supermarine Spitfire IIa, Spitfire Vb and Spitfire LFXVIe) split into a spirited tailchase. The finale to their display a spectacular four-ship cross modelled on the Red Arrows ‘Gypo Pass,’ Cosford is one of just three venues to see the display with the other being the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford and the new Scampton Airshow.

The British Army completed the look at the present day UK armed forces with an explosive display from the Attack Helicopter Display Team and their AgustaWestland WAH-64D Apache AH1. Of all the military displays, the AHDT are certainly the most engaging for the public giving a real insight into attack helicopter operations around the world.

Sharing Cosford Airfield with the University of Birmingham Air Squadron is the Wrekin Gliding Club, part of the Royal Air Force Gliding and Soaring Association. The RAFGSA offers all RAF personnel the change to take to the air regardless of rank and develop their gliding skills. The Cosford Chielf Flying Instructor, Ian Gallacher (who is also a member of the GliderFX Display Team) gave a lyrical aerobatic display in one of the RAFGSA Schleicher ASK-21 to showcase the association to the public. Another type associated with the RAF is the Grob 109b (a civilian version of the Vigilant) and one appeared at the beginning of the day in the hand of Guy Westgate of the AeroSPARX team. His display was downlinked in 360º Video live and broadcast over the internet in what is believed to be a first for UK airshows.

As well as the gliders, there were plenty of colourful displays from other civilian displays. Rich Goodwin returned to Cosford with his Pitts S-2S Special ‘Muscle Biplane’ defying the laws of physics with his incredible display of brute-force aerobatics. More biplanes came from the Breitling Wingwalkers, always popular with the Cosford crowds, who had new wingwalkers Katie Hobbs and Gina Marshall on the top surfaces of the Stearman. After being absent last year, Cosford also welcomed back The Blades Aerobatic Team, all ex-members of the Red Arrows, for a dynamic display for precision formation aerobatics.

Cosford had a very healthy line-up of historic displays. It was very nice to see the BAE Systems Heritage Flight’s Avro C19 Anson away from its base at Old Warden making some elegant sweeping passes along the crowdline.

Lift West’s Westland Whirlwind HAR10 was a much anticipated addition to the flying programme with a role demonstration of winching. The aircraft is not often seen on the airshow circuit, and so far I have only ever seen it on static display. Wearing its original yellow RAF Search and Rescue colours, the sight of a Whirlwind brought back many memories of the heyday of RAF Search and Rescue operations.

Many of the historic acts reflected the “Battlefield Support” theme. Early on in the flying was the pair of BAC Jet Provost T52 flown by Jon Corley and Mark Petrie piloting the Strikemaster Mk82a marking both jets roles in ground attack operations in the Middle East, specifically South Arabia (Yemen) and Oman. The pair recreated a close air support mission performing strafing runs and bomb runs with a help of ground based pyrotechnics.

The finale set-piece looked at the South East Asia conflict in the 1970s which really saw close air support come to the fore. The sequence opened with the An-2 Club’s Antonov An-2 playing the role of a North Vietnamese An-2 attacking a US radar station in Laos in January 1968. In the actual engagement, four An-2s attacked the base but were intercepted by an unarmed Air America Bell UH-1D which managed to down two of the attacking aircraft with a crewman firing an AK-47 rifle at them. The UH-1 was played by MSS Holdings beautiful Bell UH-1H Iroquois. The sequence then moved on to a more general close air support scenario with the UH-1H and Hughes OH-6A Cayuse (or LOACH) providing air support to friendly ground forces under attack from enemy troops. The Coup de Gras for the sequence came from the Bronco Demo Team’s North American OV-10B Bronco which provided fixed wing close to friendly forces using guns and bombs to neutralise the threat to friendly forces.

However the high-points of the display came from the international participants. The Swiss Air Force sent their PC-7 Team to Cosford for the first time. It is has been a few years since such a large visiting national display team has visited the show and a bonus for Cosford is the team’s Pilatus NCPC-7 Turbotrainers can operate from the short runway and taxy on the grass. Their display is also well suited to Cosford with a very tight and precise display from such a large formation of aircraft. The team’s excellent display earned them the Bill Hartree Trophy for best overall flying display.

A coup for Cosford was the appearance of two United States Air Force bombers with examples of the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress and Rockwell B-1B Lancer performing flypasts during the afternoon. Both aircraft were based in the UK at RAF Fairford for Exercise Sabre Strike which takes place in the Baltic region involving ground as well as air forces. Unfortunately for the B-1B, the aircraft arrived just as the worst of the afternoon weather passed through though this did create a really dramatic cloudscape as it thundered past. The appearance of the B-52H slightly later in the programme was particularly sweet as last year a similarly planned flypast didn’t quite go according to plan when low cloud rolled in preventing the crowd from seeing the aircraft! It was part of a nice little salute to the United States Air Force involving Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B and Peter Teichman’s North American P-51D Mustang. Its first fly-through did seem a little premature as it screamed past just as the B-17G was setting up for her final pass catching the commentators unaware – but it was nice to see two Being Bombers in the same piece of sky all the same! Fortunately for those who missed it the first time, the B-52H did return for a second flypast before climbing rapidly into the clouds.

However, for enthusiasts the star turn of the flying was an appearance by a Panavia A-200 Tornado from the Italian Air Force. The aircraft wore an incredibly striking special scheme featuring an eagle to celebrating the 60th Anniversary of 311º Stormo otherwise known as Reparto Sperimentale Volo (RSV), the Italian Air Force’s test centre based at  Pratica di Mare near Rome. While the Tornado may have once been a common sight at European airshows, it is now a rare beast to see in a flying display as neither the Royal nor German Air Forces display the type. The RSV display was typically flamboyant demonstrating the aircraft with various wing-sweep configurations and adding plenty of thunder to proceedings!

Cosford 2017 faced many challenges both the in the lead up to and on show day itself but overcame them all to present a very high quality and memorable event. Despite the odd fallen tree found the day before the event and a passing wide load on the M54, entry and exit seemed to be very smooth and orderly. It was certainly a very full day out showcasing the Royal Air Force at its very best through the various hangar displays, the RAF Museum and of course the aircraft with their crews. The static display was spread out (It took some a fair while to find the EAP!), but for photographers many of the aircraft were very nicely presented with uncluttered backdrops where possible. The variety too was very pleasing both in the static and flying displays in spite of inclement weather around the UK and unserviceability forcing some late cancellations. Al of the display crews deserve a great deal of credit for coping with such strong winds so well!

RAF Cosford Air Show returns next year on the 10th June 2018 in what promises to be a very special part of the RAF100 celebrations.