Mid-June heralded the return of the RAF Cosford Air Show, the Royal Air Force’s last remaining ‘At Home Day.’ It is one of the most popular ticketed airshows in the UK, attracting around 55,000 spectators to the home of RAF Engineering, the RAF School of Physical Training and the Defence School of Photography. As well as all the available Royal Air Force displays, the show featured a varied mix of displays from international military partners and civilian operators.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
The Royal Air Force’s last remaining airshow takes place on the old-fashioned military airfield at Cosford. The station itself is a very busy training unit for several different trades in the armed services including engineering, physical training, and photography. The airfield is home to the University of Birmingham Air Squadron (UBAS) flying a small fleet of Grob Tutor T1 aircraft. The airfield is quite small by modern military standards and retains its original hangars dotted around the boundary.
Like many other major events, the organisation of the RAF Cosford Air Show finds itself in a very different place from the pre-pandemic years. There have been multiple changes to staffing and the costs of running the event had risen significantly even before high inflation took effect. There have also been changes to how the show can accommodate visiting aircrews with the loss of the Telford University campus used pre-2020. Despite this, RAF Cosford had kept its ticket prices the same as they were in 2022 to keep the event attractive to local families. The raison d’être for holding the RAF Cosford is to showcase the station, the wider RAF and aerospace industry to the widest audience possible, not just those already enthused by aviation. With a capacity crowd of 55,000 attending despite the cost-of-living crisis the organisers were very successful in achieving that aim on one of the hottest and most humid days of the year!
Cosford is quite a challenging airfield to hold a significant static display of aircraft as its lacks much hard standing. The concrete areas that are available are only needed to accommodate light aircraft most of the year and are quite small. That said, the 2023 static display layout did seem rather random, lacked impact and at times just defied logic – particularly the UBAS hardstanding out on the airfield with aircraft paked on and just off the concrete! Hopefully that is something that can be improved upon in 2024!
For the engineering training role, RAF Cosford is home to quite a few different airframes. Most prolific in recent years has been the SEPECAT Jaguar and multiple examples were on show in the static displays. Particularly eye-catching were a trio of Jaguars all wearing Raspberry Ripple colours from their roles with the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Aircraft and Armament Evaluation Establishment and Empire Test Pilots School. Joining the line-up of Jaguars was the familiar 6 Sqn retirement scheme jet plus others from Cosford’s fleet. Also on display were preserved examples of the Tornado GR4, Tornado F3, Sea Harrier FA2, Harrier GR3 plus multiple examples of the BAE Systems Hawk T1.
The modern-day Royal Air Force contribution to the static display was quite frankly very poor with just a handful of aircraft on show. The lack of the lighter RAF training aircraft or helicopters was very noticeable compared to previous shows. UBAS showcased a sole Grob Tutor T1 amongst some of the lighter aircraft related to youth organisations and RAF Air Cadets. RAF Shawbury was also represented on the ground with a sole Airbus Helicopters H135 Juno HT1.
Though tucked away on the western taxiway, by far the most popular RAF static aircraft was a 47 Squadron Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Hercules C4. Long queues quickly formed to get onboard the aircraft and persisted for much of the day. The Hercules is being retired in June after 56 years of service with the RAF. An official ceremony was held just before Cosford Air Show to mark the retirement, but 47 Squadron will be conducting a few more flights around the UK before the aircraft finally exit service completely by the end of June.
Alongside the UK military aircraft on static display was the Royal Netherlands Air Force with a NH Industries NH90NFH Caiman. The aircraft came from 860 Squadron who fulfil several maritime roles with their NH90s including Search and Rescue. The maritime theme was bolstered by the debut appearance of a HM Coastguard Diamond DA42MPP. Based on the special missions variant of the DA42 Twin Star, these aircraft are operated by 2Excel Aviation. A further international rotary participant in the static displays came in the form of an Irish Air Corps Airbus Helicopters H135.
One of the highlights of the showground for many is the Vintage Village. Alongside some period ground attractions, the village attracts some historic aircraft for the static display. The centrepiece was the Aero Legends Douglas C-47A Skytrain ‘Pegasus’ marking the 75th Anniversary of the start of the Berlin Airlift. Bu the highlight of the Village was Supermarine Spitfire IX LZ842. This aircraft has recently been restored to flight by the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar and was making one its first public appearances. It is believed to be the second earliest MkIX Spitfire in airworthy condition and is currently the only aircraft flying with a Rolls Royce 63 engine. The aircraft flew with the Middle East Force from Malta and Sicily before it was transferred to South Africa. It has been restored in its Mediterranean markings with brown & sand upper surfaces and light blue undersides. The Spitfire was the centrepiece of displays marking the 80th Anniversary of Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily. ARCo also sent their Spitfire PRXI to the show, though this was parked up outside the main hospitality area at the western end of the crowdline out of sight for many.
The Royal Air Force Museum made a significant contribution to the static displays with a number of the test and development aircraft currently residing within its collection. These included the hybrid jet/rocket powered Saunders-Roe SR53, the Hunting H.126, Gloster Meteor F8 Prone Pilot and the SEPECAT Jaguar ACT. Some of the more familiar RAF types also pulled out of the Museum collection included the Spitfire PRXIX, Percival Pembroke and de Havilland Devon. As ever there were a trio of de Havilland Canada Chipmunk T10s flown in for static display including the ‘Royal’ Chipmunk WP903. A further surprise historic participant arrived early on show day itself, the Sywell based North American T-28S Fennec wearing the markings of a USAF T-28B Trojan.
Alongside all the aircraft on show, Cosford always has an impressive ground show with hangar exhibitions as well as all the usual traders and showground attractions. As well as RAF Cosford’s own resident training units showcasing some of their work, Cosford enjoys some impressive industry support from many of the companies that support UK defence and aerospace. With the very warm weather these proved very popular as visitors sought some respite from the sun!
When it comes of the flying display, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such bad luck afflict a show like it did for Cosford. At various points, planned displays included the Belgian Air Force NH90 Caiman, USAF KC-135 Stratotanker, Norwegian Vampire, Royal Navy Black Cats, Jet Provost and RAF Tutor. All cancelled at various points over the weekend. It must have been so, so frustrating for the Air Operations Director Tony Leather, Flying Display Director Mike Stanway and the rest of the Flying Control Committee seeing plans unravel through no fault of their own and having to constantly re-jig the display despite the favourable weather. Also, you must feel for the commentary team of Andy Pawsey and Ben Dunnell who found themselves conveying what seemed a constant stream of bad news to the audience.
Unusually the display was opened by the first of the international participants, the French Air and Space Force’s Team Phenix Parachute Display Team. Though well known in France, they only started performing at international events in 2022. They are very different to UK display teams performing some exception canopy relative work formations and were very well received by the Cosford crowds. They were immediately following by the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team who were making a little history with their display. They jumped from a Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Hercules C4 which in itself in quite rare these days. However, this jump was the last time any UK military personnel would make a parachute jump from a RAF operated Hercules. It was clearly a moment that meant a great deal to the team and the RAF’s Air Mobility Force as the C-130 conducted one final flypast over the salute. The successor to the Hercules, the Airbus A400M Atlas C1, also appeared in the flying performing a couple of flypasts later in the afternoon.
Cosford was the first public display of the 2023 season for the Chinook HC6A display. Flight Lieutenant Jim Hobkirk and Flt Lt Jamie ‘JJ’ Johnson displayed the aircraft at Cosford and it remains a firm crowd favourite with its presence and distinctive blade-slap.
The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 solo display is always a standout moment at any show. Flt Lt Matt Brighty’s routine for the 2023 certainly has eye-straining skywards with some very dramatic and thunderous passes along the crowdline. Sadly, the planned formation with the BBMF Lancaster was one of the planned displays that fell by the wayside with the bomber delayed by technical issues. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight did however present their fighter duo of Supermarine Spitfire Vb and Hawker Hurricane IIc on time and Avro Lancaster B1 did make it to Cosford to provide the closing display of the afternoon.
However, stealing the show for many in the crowd were of course the Red Arrows and the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning. Despite appearances later in the day, they both tempted the audience back to their feet despite the heat for two very different aerial spectacles. Though still brief, the F-35B’s appearance was a little more substantial this year with two flypasts and a very loud hover at the crowd-centre before effortlessly accelerating away back to its RAF Marham base.
The RAF Shawbury Gliding Club also contributed to the flying display with an excellent display by Ian Gallacher on one of their ASK-21 Gliders. Originally known as Wrekin Gliding Club based at RAF Cosford, RSGC is open to anyone. However, it does its utmost of offer all service personnel the chance to learn to fly.
Two international display teams added to the aerial theatre. The Royal Jordanian Falcons started their annual European tour at Cosford with a very polished routine in their four Extra 330LX aircraft. They were joined by Patrouille Suisse making their first, and possibly last, Cosford appearance with their six Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs. While Cosford has seen a number of international military teams over the past few additions, its been a fair number of years since the show attracted one of the big European jet teams making the Swiss participation all that more special.
Adding to the modern military flying was a small, but very good selection of civilian operated historic displays. Though the current Royal Navy was unable to participate in the flying, NavyWings did step in at the last minute with a lovely display by Tim de le Fosse in the Westland Wasp HAS1. Likewise, with no current Army Air Corps aircraft available for flying displays, Project Lynx were welcome nod to the British Army with a punchy routine from Westland Lynx AH7 XZ179. Adding to the Army Cooperation theme was a lovely pairing of Kevin Hale’s Auster AOP6 with the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog flown by Lauri Gregoire. Often overlooked by more glamourous aircraft, both the Auster and Bird Dog were invaluable during various conflicts from the Second World War to Vietnam directing ground and air-based firepower over the battlefield. Adding to the historic displays were the powerful Yakovlev Yak-3UTi-PW of Bob Davy plus the Rolls Royce Heritage Flight duo of Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX and North American P-51D Mustang. A late addition to the display was Kennet Aviation’s Boeing-Stearman N2S Kaydet beautifully flown by John Beattie. The Stearman was originally booked for the Vintage Village and could have also joined the list of flying display cancellations thanks to a flat battery. Fortunately it was a fault soon rectified by the on-site team!
Rich Goodwin is very much a favourite at Cosford. Last minute paperwork issues prevented him from displaying his new Jet Pitts though he did have it on show in the STEM hangar displays. He did however display the Muscle Pitts G-EWIZ with great aplomb delighting the crowd. However, we must make special mention of Christophe Simon who displayed the Tiger Club’s Mudry CAP10C quite brilliantly. Christophe is incredibly passionate about flying and aerobatics putting in huge efforts to realise his dreams. He has been mentored by the Tiger Club and Pete Kynsey in the art of aerobatics and display flying and has won many plaudits for his displays which he has developed over the past two seasons. He says his 2023 display takes inspiration from the French Air Force Rafale display and that shines through with the little CAP10C constantly rolling and pitching throughout the routine which also manages to take in the whole crowdline. That clearly impressed the Flying Control Committee who awarded Christophe the Bill Hartree Memorial Trophy for the best flown display at the show. On his social media Christophe said “Being presented the Trophy by the RAF Cosford Station Commander and the Chairman of the Flying Control Committee in front of military display teams that have been such an inspiration for so many years left me speechless. Thank you to the @royalairforceuk, to the @rafcosfordairshow and to the @safpatrouillesuisse, @royal_jordanian_falcons, @rafchinookdisplay, @typhoondisplayteam, @ambassadeurs_parachutistes, @irish_air_corps, @belaircomp and everyone else for making that evening something I will cherish for a long time.”
The 2023 RAF Cosford Air Show has attracted quite a bit of comment both before and after event. There are clearly areas for improvement across the board and one hopes that future RAF Cosford Air Shows don’t ever suffer that level of bad luck with the flying displays. However, a glance at social media shows that plenty of people did enjoy their day at Cosford and with the Royal Air Force. And that’s why RAF Cosford Air Show is so important, not only to the display circuit but also to the UK military. It is a chance for an active RAF station to showcase within the very buildings used for training the service, its heritage (thanks in large part to the co-located RAF Museum), the supporting aerospace industry, the military lifestyle and a wide variety of trades military personnel undertake. While RIAT also does that very well, it has a very different feel as it pops up from essentially an empty airfield. The RAF Cosford Air Show will return on 9th June 2024.