REVIEW: RAF Cosford Air Show 2024

WORDS: ADAM LANDAU | PHOTOS: ALEX PRINS

The RAF Cosford Air Show has had an interesting six years. From the highs of 2018 and 2019 – riding the crest of the RAF100 wave and under the stellar leadership of the then-operations director, Peter Reoch – to the cancelled shows of 2020 and 2021, the near-miraculous feat of having oranised any kind of airshow at such short notice in 2022, and then the fiasco of last year’s event, when almost a third of the flying display line up was lost at short notice due to an unprecedented tidal wave of technical problems, among various other issues.

All this makes it hard to judge Cosford’s most recent airshow against its own ‘typical’ standard. After all, what is typical? Cosford of late has endured dizzying highs and crushing lows far more than most shows on the airshow circuit. A glance at social media or online forums will quickly reveal that this is a show of which people have wildly conflicting memories and expectations.

So, perhaps we should set aside the fickle nature of the RAF Cosford Air Shows of 2018 to 2023, and look back to the early- and mid-2010s for a guide to what a ‘typical’ Cosford Air Show should be. Here, the pattern is clear: a gathering of all the RAF’s display teams (plus a smattering of special flypasts), a large selection of top-tier civilian performers – most of them with some kind of military connection – and one or two surprises from abroad. If that is the yardstick by which the success of modern Cosford Air Shows should be measured, then the only conclusion can be that 2024’s edition was a rock solid return to form.

The RAF’s contribution to Cosford’s flying display this year was, by contemporary standards, very generous. In fact, it was probably the biggest such contribution the RAF has made to any airshow since RAF100, with numerous notable debuts. The most important of these was the all new F-35B Lightning role demonstration – the first time there has been an all-British F-35 role demonstration and, it seems, the begining of a new, regular airshow act for the wider British circuit. Non-aerobatic, but nonetheless varied and action-packed, the demonstration proved to be assertive and at times very intimate, with an impressive tactical pitch and a low speed high-alpha pass proving to be the most memorable moments.

Another role demonstration debut came from the Chinook HC.5 – the first proper airshow appearance for this unusual-looking Chinook variant with its enlarged fuel tanks, housed in sponsons on the outside of the fuselage. While 18 Squadron did not have the time to prepare their usual solo display this year, they instead prepared a role demonstration which will be performed at three airshows during the summer, focussing not on the Chinook’s manoeuvrability, but its operational capabilities. The aircraft arrived carrying an underslung gun before demonstrating a close air support mission profile and landing several times to offload or recover troops and a quad bike. The demonstration felt rather drawn-out and didn’t involve sufficient troops, vehicles or a coherrent plot for the performance to live up to its full potential. Some smoke or pyrotechnics would also have helped. However, it was doubtless refreshing to see the Chinook adopt a more operational posture, and perhaps it is worth exploring whether some of these elements could be combined with the more familiar and dynamic handling display in future seasons when the solo display is able to return.

Cosford welcomed the biggest flying display contribution from the RAF Air Mobility Force of any show at least since RAF100, and their commitment also included a notable debut, with the Falcons parachute dropping from an Atlas C.1 for the first time at a public airshow. Furthermore, two additional Atlas C.1s performed a pairs flypast later in the day, giving a rare chance to see this impressive transport aircraft operating in loose formation in the low level environment. A final Air Mobility Force contribution came in the form of a Voyager KC.2 (the special scheme ‘Vespina’ airframe, no less), which performed a single flypast.

On top of all this, the RAF’s regular solo display teams could all be seen in the air: Tutor T.1 and Typhoon FGR.4. This was only the second show to feature the new 2024 Typhoon display, albeit seemingly flying a slightly shortened display sequence with a couple of manoeuvres axed towards the end. This year’s sequence is mostly quite conventional, with a particular penchant for loaded barrel rolls away from the crowd, but there are two interesting new manoeuvres: a three-point hesitation Derry turn performed directly towards the spectators, and a loaded high-alpha barrel roll into a high-alpha slow-speed pass, again performed towards the crowd. The latter is a technically interesting addition, and probably the closest that the Typhoon can get to a Sukhoi Su-30’s famous roll into the “cobra stance”, but the nature of the manoeuvre (combined, perhaps, with caution about the blustery wind) meant that the most interesting part was performed a very long way from the crowd. Sadly, this typified the Typhoon’s display at Cosford compared to the last couple of years: the whole thing felt distant and slightly detatched.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Cosford without the Red Arrows, but sadly the team had probably the worst luck with the weather all day. While a mainly grey and overcast affair, the Reds ended up displaying during the afternoon’s sole rain shower, with low cloud forcing them into a rolling show initially, and a flat show by the end. Nonetheless, this year’s display routine is a clear improvement over the last couple of seasons, and the team did a good job of adding some colour to an otherwise monochrome sky. These were not the only Hawks of the day, with a pair of Hawk T.2s from RAF Valley performing two passes in close formation.

The Royal Navy and its civilian-operated heritage flight, Navy Wings, both had a strong showing in the flying display this year. 825 Naval Air Squadron’s Black Cats display team, who aim to fly two-ship displays later this summer, dispatched a single Wildcat HMA.2 to Cosford for a solo display that still proved enjoyable. The Wildcat also joined up with Navy Wings’ Wasp HAS.1 for some formation passes and a lovely on-crowd opposition break ahead of the Wasp’s own solo display. The Wasp itself flew twice during the afternoon, taking to the air for a second time to perform a formation pass with Navy Wings’ Swordfish Mk.I. The Swordfish then performed a truly delightful solo routine of its own, making best use of its excellent low speed handling characteristics to keep the aircraft tight to the crowd.

There were other Second World War-era warbirds aplenty, including The Catalina Society’s PBY-5A Catalina “Miss Pick Up”, B-17G Flying Fortress “Sally B”, the Spitfire PR.XIX and P-51D Mustang of the Rolls Royce Heritage Flight and Hurricane Mk.I P3717, which was put through an unusually punchy display by the normal standards of Hurricane displays nowadays. Also participating – and making his UK debut, no less – was Stijn de Jaeghere from Belgium in his AT-6D Texan, with a pleasant but extremely high solo aerobatic performance. The major omission in the warbird line up was the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, who had been due to fly as a five-ship (Lancaster and four fighters), but whose attendence had to be cancelled following the tragic death of Sqn. Ldr. Mark Long in a Spitfire accident two weeks prior.

Post-war military aircraft were well-represented, too, with no fewer than three classic jets in the flying display. This included Chris Heames in the Yellowjacks-schemed Folland Gnat T.1, making its first airshow appearance in a number of years, with a very graceful performance indeed, and two versions of the Jet Provost (one was a last-minute replacement for Mark Hooton’s Vampire T.11, which was unservicable). In lieu of his Vampire, Mark took the controls of the Newcastle Jet Provost Group’s Jet Provost T.3A, for a performance that was not especially high energy, but which included plenty of photographer-pleasing topside passes. The second Jet Provost – a T.5 model – was flown by David-John Gibbs, last year’s RAF Tutor display pilot. While much more aerobatic than the T.3A’s performance, it was also a little higher; however, this being DJ’s first display in a jet-powered aircraft, we can probably expect to see the height come down later in the season. Rotary action, meanwhile, came not only from the aforementioned Wasp and Wildcat, but also from a quartet of Gazelle HT.2/3s from the Gazelle Squadron. Their four-ship display is a criminally-underused asset on the airshow circuit and is remeniscent of several current and former military formation teams, with plenty of formation changes, breaks and crossovers.

Fans of aerobatics had plenty to cheer for at Cosford this year, as Christophe Simon returned with his delightful CAP-10 solo display (flying an attractive red and white CAP-10BK rather than his usual red and yellow CAP-10C), with a new and improved display routine and a nostalgic soundtrack, starting with ‘Sleeping Sun’, the former anthem of the Breitling Jet Team. He was joined by two other Cosford returnees, Rich Goodwin in his Pitts S2S and Ian Gallacher in the K-21 glider. Also taking part was an Extra 330SC of the Equipe de Voltige (EVAA), the World Aerobatic Championship-winning unit of the French Air & Space Force, making only its second mainland British airshow appearance. The display was flown by Capt. Sébastien Souchet, the EVAA’s newest recruit, and while not quite at the same level as his more experienced counterparts, it still proved to be an impressive demonstration of unlimited-category aerobatics of a style that we now see quite rarely in the UK.

The headline-grabber from France was not the EVAA, but Couteau Delta, a two-ship Mirage 2000D tactical display which had not been seen in the UK for six years. French Air Force tactical displays seem to have been toned down a bit in the last few years, and the formation flying wasn’t quite so tight, nor the display quite so compact, as when it last visited these shores back in 2018. However, the chance to see two Mirages tearing around some very moody skies, generating some spectacular vapour at times and ensuring plentiful afterburner, was a sight not to be missed, and a tremendous coup for the Cosford organisers – particularly given the team performs at just three to four events per year.

Away from the full and varied six-hour flying display, other elements of the RAF Cosford Air Show offered an improvement on the last few years, too. The static display was more thoughtfully laid-out, with no fewer than 13 Jaguars arranged in a gracefully curving ‘catwalk’ at one end of the showground, and an assortment of special scheme Jaguars positioned together elsewhere. The hangar exhibits were engaging and the Vintage Village made for an appealling sight. The crowdline at Cosford was rammed, of course – it always is – but this year, respite was offered to hardcore aviation enthusiasts in the all new Jerry Fray photography enclosure. With raised staging for photographers to stand on, garden-style tables and chairs and a reasonable admission price, the atmosphere in the enclosure was relaxed and social.

In short, then, the RAF Cosford Air Show 2024 returned to the show’s roots and did what it has always done well: a lengthy and fluid flying display with good variety, which showed off the RAF as well as reasonably possible, and which provided plenty for both the family audience and the discerning enthusiast to enjoy. In short, it was a show which got the important things right.

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