RAF Cosford Air Show

Sunday 11th June 2017

Now taking the laurels as the sole air display directly organised and managed by the Royal Air Force, the RAF Cosford Air Show is usually perceived as being one of the four major shows within the UK despite the airfield's small geographical size. Nestled in the middle of the air display calendar, Cosford should theoretically attract a strong and varied line-up. However, with last year marred by poor weather, plus a distinct lack of support by the RAF for their own show, the pressure was on for the 2017 event needing to bounce back strongly and eradicate the previous issues.

Dan Ledwood attended a distinctly blustery RAF Cosford and reports for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the UKAR Staff Team.

It's not unfair to say that 2016 was not a vintage year for Cosford. Whilst there were certain factors completely out of the organisers hands, namely the weather, a weak flying display line-up and poor support by international air arms unfortunately culminated in a lot of unhappy visitors. At the Air Show's Media Launch back in March, the Air Show Office were at pains to emphasise that they had taken these criticisms on-board and their promises of improvements seemed to have come good, particularly towards the end of the show's gestation period with a number of high profile announcements in the final month or so of build-up. We have long praised Cosford for their selection of and adherence to themes to focus the displays, and this year's "Battlefield Support" and "International Co-operation" were slightly more open than usual, allowing the show to attract a wide spectrum of aircraft and displays to diversify the line-up.

The flying display in particular provided much variety; the Westland Whirlwind HAR10 being a particularly pleasing sight for enthusiasts during its sedate Search and Rescue demo. Somewhat punchier was Peter Teichman in his P-51D Mustang, providing numerous topsides and perfectly executed barrel rolls. Sticking to warbirds, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight must be commended for the public debut of their four-ship display with three Spitfires and a single Hurricane. This display, known as the Thompson Formation, will only be performed at three public events this year. Both the tight formation passes, including a couple of topside passes, and the tailchase segment were extremely well executed and could potentially be regarded as one of the best BBMF displays to date.

Focused on the 'Battlefield Support' theme, the inclusion of a circa 40-minute set-piece surrounding the theme provided something particularly unique and diverse. The segment proved to be very punchy and allowed for some obscure formations, in particular the re-enactment of an engagement between a North Vietnamese Air Force Antonov An-2 (performed by the Popham-based example) and a UH-1H Huey. Joining the battle was an all too rare showing of MSS Holdings’ other helicopter, the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse. The scrambling of Tony de Bruyn in his poppy-adorned OV-10A Bronco to fulfil a Close Air Support role allowed for a sensational wall-of-fire to be executed behind the hovering Huey and Loach; a captivating spectacle akin to the Commando Assault finale at Yeovilton.

Arguably, the most hotly anticipated display at the event was the solo display from the A-200 Tornado, provided by the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (RSV), and they certainly did not disappoint! Arriving in an inverted fast-pass from the east, this set the tone for what transpired to be an incredibly energetic and brutish display. Furthermore, it allowed for numerous opportunities to study the stunning paint scheme that adorned the jet, commemorating 60 years of operations for 311° Gruppo. This participation coup for the RAF Cosford Air Show comes after two years of relationship building with the Aeronautica Militaire after the visit of the 'FlyFano' ultralight team back in 2015, members of which have now risen to more senior ranks. An RSV C-27J Spartan (which was the support aircraft for the deployment) was an added bonus in the static park. It's this kind of relation-building over a period of many years that will hopefully stand the show in good stead in future. More international flair was added to the flying display in the form of the Swiss PC-7 Team, who were awarded the show's "Hartree Memorial Trophy" for best flying display, battling against the strong winds in their tight, precise formations.

Another major coup was the late procurement of two USAF bombers for flypasts. A B-52H Stratofortress returned to the show for the second year running and thankfully made more of an impression than last year's outing, and it was joined by an incredibly rare showing of an Ellsworth AFB based B-1B Lancer. With both types operating from RAF Fairford as part of the on-going Operation Sabre Strike, it was certainly a superbly rare opportunity to see these bombers in the air at a UK air display. The B-52H provided a pair of high-speed (and highly smoky) flypasts, with the first occurring whilst B-17G "Sally B" positioned for a final pass of her display behind the Stratofortress. Whether this was a planned affair, or the Stratofortress arrived slightly ahead of schedule, the spectacle of these two strikingly different heavy performers flying in quick succession was very impressive and a candidate for our 'Top 10 Moments' for sure. Sadly, the B-1B flew through in totally different weather conditions to the B-52H, with low cloud and a sharp rain shower passing through as the crew performed a single afterburning pass with full wing sweepback. Whilst this was immensely disappointing, especially with the sun shining once again 5 minutes later, the lack of prior warning by the commentary team until after the aircraft had blitzed through proved even more annoying.

The commentary team was a hot topic for discussion in 2016, with overwhelmingly negative feedback due to the lack of appropriate updates, unawareness to proceedings and random waffling. Sadly, it appears the same issue surfaced once again, despite a slight reshuffling seeing Jonathon Ruffle returning alongside Andy Pawsey for his first year. Both seemed to show a distinct lack of engagement during the show, with updates on the flying programme being both inconsistent and infrequent (with absolutely no mention of the Coastguard AW189 dropping from the flying programme). There was also a great deal of mistakes strewn throughout the day, including the random reference of an F/A-18 Raptor, this faux pas amongst several unnecessary digressions made throughout proceedings.

However, one area where criticism from 2016 had been addressed was the static aircraft displays, which were much improved and allowed for uncluttered photo opportunities for most of the aircraft on display. A wide variety of backdrops actually worked in a positive aspect, with the likes of the EAP and VAAC Harrier nestled in the 'Deployed Operations Training Area' blast-pens a real highlight for all photographers. Perhaps the best photo opportunities were where the temporary helipads had been constructed, with the likes of the Irish Air Corps EC135 being complemented with a wooded backdrop and consideration of where the sun would move throughout the day. Some of the aircraft were slightly harder to find, the DO Systems Cessna 421 for instance, but overall there was a good sense of care and consideration to fully utilise the available concrete and grass areas. The 'Vintage Village' is always a popular attraction on the ground, and this year was 1960s themed, with an O-2A Skymaster & Westland Wessex both welcome additions for static display in the area, surrounded by period vehicles. A particular treat for many was the sheer number of Jaguars dotted around, with over a dozen aircraft in various guises located across the entire length of the base.

Despite these positive changes, we must address the real elephant in the room, which was the movement of the display axis for both the RAF Red Arrows and RAF Typhoon display. The movement of the display area towards the western end of the airfield, together with a 45 degree orientation from the main crowd line allowed both acts to avoid over flight of the neighbouring village of Albrighton. Announced by the organisers via social media in the week preceding the event, it was evident from reactions that the alteration of the display axis had not been well received, even resulting in justification having to be made via a Facebook-live video stream. With no-one really knowing the full extent of this alteration, the first few manoeuvres by the Red Arrows provided a clear conclusion; it was a disaster. Despite positioning myself slightly closer to the adjusted display line, at their the closest point the nine-ship formations required full extension on a 400mm lens, with the opposition passes and smaller formations not even worth photographing due to the vast distances. The Typhoon experienced a pressurisation issue prior to breaking into its display, perhaps sparing the RAF's blushes a tad - a solo fast jet at this range would have been a ridiculous sight. As it was, a single flypast followed by a surprisingly high-G vertical climb out towards the relatively low cloud base was the only glimpse of the aircraft the crowd received. It has transpired that the new display line was proposed by the Red Arrows themselves, due to their inability to alter their display to avoid aerobatic over flight of Albrighton, with Royal Air Force duty-holder chain insistent that the Air Show allowed their change of display axis. It is certainly hoped that the same legislation does not return next year, as the overall impact was completely lost and left many individuals disappointed when the spectacle that the majority of people come to witness is nothing but distant passes for circa 30 minutes.

Sticking to RAF public engagement, it was disappointing to see a number of cancellations for the static park due to serviceability and operational commitments, including the Griffin, Jupiter and BAe 146 (plus the loss of the C-130J Hercules flypast the week prior). That said, the array of aircraft they did send was commendable, and included amongst their ranks were the public debut of the new Juno HT1 and the first visit of an Airbus A400M Atlas to RAF Cosford, thus becoming the shortest runway the type has ever operated from in Royal Air Force service. It remains somewhat disappointing that the Royal Air Force can task all of RAF Brize Norton's aircraft assets for the Queen’s Birthday Flypast, but cannot supply a single flypast of any of these types to the Air Show. With Cosford likely to remain the sole RAF show for quite a few years to come, it would seem naïve for the RAF to not attempt more of a public showing and in general make a little bit more effort instead of relying on the perennial display teams of the Typhoon, Red Arrows and so forth.

There is no denying that the RAF Cosford Air Show 2017 was a major improvement over last year, with the team certainly making the extra effort to build the show around previously perceived weak points. The flying display certainly had a greater deal of depth and character to it, with an almost-full programme provided amidst the very changeable and blustery British summertime weather. This is one thing the organisers have no control over, but do seem to get struck with less than ideal meteorological conditions year upon year. A handful of cancellations also affected the flying display, most notably the Sea Vixen after the damaged sustained during its belly landing and Hurricane R4118, with the aircraft not being able to depart from Halfpenny Green on show day due to technical issues. Whilst the RAF/MOD and the Red Arrows sought to embarrass themselves, it was left to strong foreign military participation to pick up the slack and contributions from the RSV, USAF and Swiss Air Forces were probably the biggest successes of the show.

It is certainly about time that the organisers of Cosford were gifted with two very important factors; better luck and better weather. An advert in the souvenir programme promises the 2018 event to be "the most spectacular and interactive air show tribute to the Royal Air Force's centenary", the increase in RAF assets available for display at the event, along with the ironing out of the kinks in the flawed display line would both be good starting points in giving the Royal Air Force an event worthy of their 100th anniversary.