RAF Cosford Air Show

Sunday 11th June 2023

Cosford has long been a staple of the UK airshow scene, and as the last remaining airshow organised by the RAF it is very much cherished. Happily, it survived the pandemic years, if in somewhat abridged form last season. UK Airshow Review returned to Shropshire hopeful that the Cosford Air Show had returned to its former glory.

Nigel Watson reports, with photography by the UKAR Staff Team.

It was a relief to everyone that the Cosford Airshow survived the pandemic years. Sadly, some airshows didn't re-emerge from the dark years of Covid-19, and it would have been all too easy for the Royal Air Force to call time on the very last airshow they stage. Undeterred by their short window in which to pull an event together, a new organising team produced 2022's show at short notice and despite a somewhat condensed show compared to the standard of previous events, we were all delighted that it happened at all. We made allowances, and all eyes turned to 2023. We looked forward to a return to form this year.

Much like last year, the early signs boded well. The Swiss national aerobatic team Patrouille Suisse was an early announcement. This was to be a rare appearance in the UK, and an even rarer one away from the Royal International Air Tattoo. A debut from an NH90 Caiman from the Belgian Air Force was a coup, and the Royal Jordanian Falcons were especially welcome in their first appearance at Cosford since 2002. All solid, quality content and very encouraging. It was a shame then that much like last year momentum seemed to fade away as the day approached. There is more to a Cosford than the programme on paper, it is a unique and charming venue which can often provide a new angle on the familiar but as the big day got closer it did seem that the show was going to lack numbers. And unfortunately, partly through design and partly through rotten luck, that is precisely how it unfolded.

Arriving on site on a warm and sunny morning, expertly marshalled into the parking area and with an airshow in store it occurred to me what a collector's item this event is. An airshow on an RAF base used to happen most summer weekends. Now we have one, and although Cosford will never be a like-for-like replacement for Waddington and we should never expect it to be, I couldn't be more eager for its continued success. The first thing the visitor sees is the static display, and this event has a head start over any other; there are scores of interesting airframes on site for ground instructional purposes. The event has a long tradition of bringing these out for the public to see, and as always there were some gems on display once again. Among others, there were Sea Harrier, Harrier GR3, Wessex, Hawks including an ex-Red Arrow, a stunning XVII Squadron camouflage Tornado and many Jaguars in several special schemes for the large crowd to admire. Three raspberry ripple marked Jaguars were lined up together, with the fly-by-wire Jaguar ACT in the centre, which was something new for this year among this familiar but nevertheless impressive collection.

More aircraft did fly in to supplement the home based historic airframes on static display. A Dutch NH90 complemented the Belgian one programmed to fly. A brand new Coast Guard Diamond DA62MPP was an airshow debut. An Irish H135 helicopter was impressive but was curiously exhibited in the car park, behind one of the impenetrable orange netting fences that criss-cross much of the public area. A vintage village, once again so well done in the past had barriers and paraphernalia so close to the aircraft on show that it was nigh on impossible to get a clear and unobstructed view of them, much less photograph them. Spitfire IX ZL842, looking immaculate in desert camouflage, and a debutant from Biggin Hill and an ex-Italian Army Piper Cub from nearby Sleap were especially frustrating; both were fine examples of their type, both rare, and both very difficult to take in in all their glory. Nearby, a line up of three Chipmunks, together with a tastefully placed Jaguar E-Type were perfectly set. The inconsistency was baffling. On a very significant week for the RAF Hercules fleet the specially marked C4 ZH870 had a queue of people all day to visit. Thousands must have paid their last respects before the type's imminent retirement. However, it too was positioned well off the beaten track, albeit possibly for operational reasons. The static positioning was scattered, seemed random, felt crowded yet there were swathes of unused space and was ultimately a layout that repeated many of last year's mistakes. Those mistakes we excused due to the organisational challenges a new team had to overcome, this year standards could reasonably have expected to return to those set by pre-pandemic Cosford Airshows, where the static exhibition has made the very most of the site layout.

Any visitor to the show in those pre-pandemic years will have fond memories of frequent occasions when choice exhibits have been placed in the static display by the RAF Museum. This year in a scene which seemed to project a 'that'll do' approach to a static display, prime position in front of the hangars was given to a line-up of unique and special one-off historic research aircraft. However, they weren't carefully moved outside from the museum's halls, looking immaculate as always, but towed from behind the museum where they have been stored in the open and deteriorating since January after having been displaced in a museum move-around. The scene was summed up by the Saunders-Roe SR-53, an exceptional dual rocket and jet powered machine and a one-off, which was ignominiously wearing black plastic sheeting over the canopy from its external storage. Did nobody notice? Maybe there was a good reason it was exhibited in this state. There was nobody around to ask. Perhaps the most frustrating of all to the photographer of the static display as a whole was that the blast pens which are such a perfect setting for static aircraft were fenced off, an opportunity missed; and a shame.

Settling in to the familiar crowdline for the flying display was comforting. The view across the little airfield never seems to change, the sun was shining and there was a flying display in store. A run through of its changes by commentator Ben Dunnell drew attention to multiple cancellations. Catalina, Navy Wildcat, Jet Provost, RAF Tutor and disappointingly the Belgian Air Force Caiman were all to be no-shows. An A400M, Wasp and Stearman were drafted in as replacements, the latter going unserviceable itself with a flat battery, before repair and an appearance in due course. A USAF KC-135 Stratotanker was announced as a surprise addition then withdrawn. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Lancaster was at risk. In the event it made it in time to close the show, but without doubt Lady Luck was not on the flying display director's side today.

It was one of the highlights of the show that launched the flying display. Another RAF Hercules in its final days of service was used as a jump platform for both the RAF Falcons and the French Air and Space Force's Team Phenix. Both were a spectacle in blue skies, jumping one after another, and once on the ground both teams lined up together to salute the audience while the Hercules flew past in a scene reminiscent of Falcons displays of yesteryear. A nice touch, and the RAF deserve credit for it. The RAF are of course great supporters of the airshow scene, both at home and abroad, but had any visitor hoped for anything other than the regular and standard airshow staples at the RAF's own show, they may have been disappointed. An A400M Atlas flew through twice and an F-35 made a fleeting appearance, pausing to hover. The Red Arrows as an 8-ship formation showed a marked improvement on last year and are hopefully recovering and on the way to a 9-ship once again. The familiar yet excellent Chinook and Typhoon displays completed the RAF's contribution to the flying display. The majority of the RAF's assets went unrepresented, and while aerobatic displays are expensive and consume valuable resources, a role demonstration or even fleeting flypast from the assets of the wider fleet would make the world of difference at the RAF's own event. It would mark Cosford out as their own and show their guests something unique to the day. Even 2022's post-pandemic show had Hawks, Tutors and a Prefect fly by. It can be done.

The Patrouille Suisse were sublime, displaying six Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs, the archetypal jet fighter. They displayed with precision that was, well, Swiss. Close formations, tight to the crowd and impressive in every way. The Royal Jordanian Falcons also brought their undoubted charm to the show. Both teams showed well at this smaller venue, with the Jordanians operating their Extra 300s from a flightline in front of the crowd as is traditional at Cosford. The two vintage helicopters in the display were both displayed well too, Navy Wings' sweet Wasp HAS1 and Project Lynx' Lynx AH7 impressed. Warbirds were represented by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Spitfire Vb and Hurricane IIc, the Rolls Royce Heritage Flight sequence of Spitfire XIX and Mustang, by Bob Davy in his Yak-3 and by John Beattie flying Kennet Aviation's delightful US Navy marked Stearman. The flying display lineup was completed by aerobatics from Ian Gallacher in Shawbury Gliding Club's ASK-21 glider, Cristophe Simon in the Tiger Clubs CAP10 and Rich Goodwin in his Muscle Pitts. One of this season's most anticipated new machines, Goodwin's Jet Pitts stayed ground bound, but at least was on show to those who ventured into the STEM exhibition in Hangar 2. A super little duo of cold war era observation aircraft, Auster AOP6 and Cessna Bird Dog completed the flying display of around five hours in length, if not five hours in content.

The flying display certainly contained some fine flying, and some high quality flying displays. It was a good airshow. However, it is only natural, and quite fair, to compare the Cosford Airshow of 2023 to previous years. There was a period leading up to the end of the last decade when Cosford elevated itself to a league above its historical position, it became an international airshow, and maybe that has set expectations of many an enthusiast rather too high. That purple patch may be over, but the Cosford that we were accustomed to prior to that era is a reasonable yardstick by which to judge where we are today. Those shows had some military content from home and abroad. They had some warbirds, some airshow novelty acts, some of everything to entertain both a family audience and the more devoted aviation fan in the crowd. Something for everyone, and a non-stop show. This year, the show lacked that strength in depth. There was nothing to fault what was presented, but despite the effect that sheer bad luck had on the event, the line up seemed flimsy at best, even before cancellations weakened it further. Whereas the term 'filler' can be used somewhat disparagingly by some, it is precisely what this show lacked. It was smaller than last year's comeback show, and the display really did need filling up and padding out. The disorganised static display and rag, tag and bobtail assortment of museum rejects displayed without care, even among some higher quality content, didn't help the feeling that this year's Cosford Airshow was somewhat underwhelming, by Cosford Airshow standards.

Maybe there are solid reasons of course, factors that the casual visitor may not be aware of that have affected the organisers' freedom to book the acts that would have filled the flying display to its more traditional size and scope. Costs for everything have risen, but while last year's budget was set by rolled over tickets, the event was free to set this year's ticket prices at a level that afforded a budget to work with. Perhaps speculation is inappropriate, but all of us at UK Airshow Review care about this event both as the RAF's last airshow, and as a great airshow in its own right. Hopefully, lessons can be learned, experience gained, and next year we may see the event climb again to the standards we've been fortunate to enjoy over the years. Even that it may have some better luck.

The appetite for the show among the local community is abundantly clear; it achieved yet another sell out, and by that yardstick at least must be considered a success. Cosford has been a favourite for a many a season, for me, 22 years. It's one of those airshow venues that a visitor couldn't mistake for anywhere else, with a character that is all its own. Naturally, I'll be back next year. In the mean time I'll keep faith that Cosford Airshow can once again be not just a good airshow, but the great one it has been for most of the last 22 years. RAF Cosford Airshow returns on Sunday 9th June, 2024.