REPORT: RAF Cosford Airshow 2016

On paper, Cosford appeared to be making the best of a tough situation, with many classic jets replacing otherwise busy modern day operational aircraft. Until a few weeks before the show, the line-up certainly looked thin, and certainly lacking in RAF support; fortunately a host of flypasts were organised from the RAF as well as the undoubted star of the flying display – the mighty B-52.

Before I begin this report in detail, I must alleviate some of the undue criticism being levelled at the show organisers: last year the date for the 2016 was selected, and then moved to avoid a clash with Leeuwarden in the Netherlands into what was a ‘clear’ weekend, only for ‘Skrydstrup’ in Denmark to move onto the same weekend as Cosford. As a result, the only large airshow in Denmark was naturally heavily supported by European fast jet displays, and the frustration of the organisers was shared by some, but misinterpreted as many as “laziness” on the part of the organisers.

The crew of the Belgian Air Component A109 debrief after their display. Photo: Alex Prins

My arrival at the show was delayed by over an hour courtesy of ‘Arriva Trains Wales’ and so as a result I didn’t enter the showground until around 12:15, missing the Red Arrows/King Air and A400M Atlas flypasts. Consequently, my first display was the RAF Typhoon solo display, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Mark Long; this year’s routine is tailored more towards presenting the raw power of the Typhoon, and therefore it was not surprising to see so much afterburner!

A display of tight turns, meant the Typhoon was constantly shrouded in “fluff”. Photo: Alex Prins

Next up was what proved to be the only international participation in the flying display in the form of the Belgian Air Component Agusta A109. Unfortunately the beautiful special schemed display aircraft was unavailable; however the standard drab olive aircraft is by no means ugly!

An understated grace made the A109 display an enjoyable spectacle. Photo: Alex Prins

Several themes for the show were well represented, none more so than “Training” and “Air Cadets 75th”; personally I cannot understand why these two innocuous themes were so chosen to be so heavily represented as it meant that many displays were less interesting. Obviously “Speed and the Evolution of the Jet Engine” was a possible source of more dynamic displays, however this theme was most heavily hit by cancellations.

As part as both “Training” and “ATC 75” we were treated to an aerobatic display by a de Havilland Chipmunk, which took advantage of a slightly higher cloud-base to enable several elegant loops to be included. I believe the on-crowd wind may have contributed to the slightly distant nature of the display; certainly the new CAA rules had no impact, given that Cosford is an MAA-governed show.

Low cloud forced a flat display, with undersides the order of the day. Photo: Alex Prins

Next to enter, from the right, was the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Even before the weather the BBMF had been forced to cancel both its Lancaster and then its replacement – the Dakota. As a result it was only the fighters that reached Cosford, with Spitfire Mk XVI TE311 and Hurricane Mk IIc PZ865 making a joint appearance.

The fighter display as usual consisted of several formation passes, followed by the solos. Both fighter solos as usual lacked in ‘topsides’ for those of us photographing the display, however were still a hit with the crowd.

Next to display were the 9 replica aircraft from the Great War Display Team representing the ‘Somme 100’ theme, as well as the aviation aspect of the entire First World War. New for this year was the inclusion of pyrotechnics into the display, with mock anti-aircraft fire and ground fire adding an extra dimension to an already action-packed display. The large numbers of aircraft involved meant that there was always something happening in front of the crowd, be it an opposition pass or a mock dogfight, and as such they proved to be one of the absolute highlights of the entire show. I feel the final element to add to the quality of the display would be a dedicated commentator, as the official Cosford team proved to be poor on this occasion.

The GWDT have incorporated pyrotechnics into their display for this year. Photo: Alex Prins

Next up was probably the most out-of-place display at an airshow so far this year: a Rans S-6 Coyote II from the RAeS Schools ‘Build A Plane Challenge’. Whilst I do understand that Cosford aims to promote engineering in the younger generation, and also the charitable legacy of the aircraft, this display was just a flat failure. The commentators attempted to underline the significance of the project, however as the aircraft simply flew slow circuits, I noticed that even the younger generation whom the display was targeting were simply losing interest. I simply cannot understand the rationale behind the decision for this to be included in the flying display. I’m sure much better ways of celebrating ‘STEM’ and encouraging aviation in the younger generation could have been found rather than boring the 50,000+ capacity crowd…

Although distant “Wacky Wabbit” put on a pleasant display. Photo: Alex Prins

Providing a welcome change of pace was the Avro Anson from the BAE Systems Heritage Flight and T-6 Texan ‘Wacky Wabbit’, who flew in formation briefly before breaking into their respective solo routines. The Anson was a little disappointing after being much more impressive at Old Warden in September last year, and the Harvard, despite sounding beautifully raspy, was a little distant.

Following this was the Old Buckers, a pairs display consisting of a Bücker Jungmann and a Bücker Jungmeister, in Spanish Air Force and Luftwaffe schemes respectively. After breaking formation for some opposition elements, the pair flew a solo routine with the occasional opposition pass, however I think the inclement weather possibly decreased the impact of the routine, as both aircraft were a little lost against the dark grey clouds.

This MiG wears the colours of Yuri Gagarin’s “Red 18”. Photo: Alex Prins

After the Old Buckers came what should have been the first of four classic jet displays: the Norweigan Air Force Historical Squadron’s MiG-15UTI. This diminutive aircraft was perhaps a little distant, however given the new regulations for classic jets it was a encouraging to see this display booked. What was pleasing from a photographic perspective was that as a result of the prohibition of aerobatics Per “Smiley” Strømmen flew several sweeping topside passes along the entire length of the crowdline, presenting the beautiful profile of Mikoyan-Gurevich’s first and most numerous jet fighter.

Also of a Communist ilk was the following display, a solo Nanchang CJ-6; unfortunately what was originally intended to be a pairs display was reduced to a solo due to maintenance issues with the sister Nanchang. Derived from the Yak-18, this Chinese developed trainer was flown primarily by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force from the 1960s onwards. This solo display was also impacted by the poor weather, as the drab green aircraft was lost against the darkening clouds.

The RAF provided a single C130 flypast amongst others. Photo: Alex Prins

Subsequently, we were treated to a single flypast from an RAF C-130; unfortunately both special schemed aircraft were out of the country on operations, so the visiting Hercules was a standard schemed airframe. So much effort went into diverting this aircraft from its operational tasking, that it was somewhat anticlimactic to get a single level flypast.

‘Wall’ formation is the new entrance formation for the Reds this year. Alex Prins

The RAF continued with its contingent of displays with the RAFAT the Red Arrows. Always a crowd favourite, the Reds opened their display with the usual overhead flypast, however this year they were in ‘Wall’ formation. This was boasted as the “widest formation” of the display, however the aircraft were spread so broadly that it seemed to defy the point of its inclusion in a formation routine! Personally I much prefer the previous, more patriotic, red white and blue smoke-on pass in close formation. Amongst others, the display for this year includes dedications to astronaut Major Tim Peake and the late Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, and despite being a flat display the Red Arrows were, as usual, fantastic!

Despite the deteriorating weather the Reds put on a stunning display. Photo: Alex Prins

Another RAF act was the Chinook, arguably the best rotary display in Europe! The display seemed to be very similar, if not identical to previous years, but after all: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it! Afterwards we were treated to the most intense aerobatic display of the day in the form of Lauren Richardson in her Pitts Special biplane, performing her third display of the day – an impressive feat of endurance!

Cosford was Lauren’s third display of the day. Photo: Alex Prins

At this point in the day, the weather really had taken a turn for the worse, so it was all the more admirable when Ollie Suckling raised the Jet Provost T3 of the Jet Provost Display Team off the tarmac of Cosford’s short runway. The display was very much the same as the BBMF, with the flat display consisting of a combination of straight and level and underside passes, not the most exciting but given the conditions I don’t believe it would be fair to be overly critical!

Despite the poor weather, Ollie Suckling certainly put on a decent display. Photo: Alex Prins

One of the displays that in the build-up I had been most looking forward to was the Gazelle Squadron, who were making their flying display début at Cosford, with a duo display and a further example on static. The Gazelle Squadron intend to operate 9 aircraft, spanning all three military services, however on the day it was two RAF examples that were used. After a period of close formation hovers, utilising their recently gained CAA distance exceptions to hover close to the crowd, the Gazelles then pirouetted gracefully around each other before splitting off for a series of solo passes, turns and crosses. The Squadron would seem to have a bright future, and I for one cannot wait for the next show that I visit that has the Gazelle Squadron booked – one to watch out for!

The Gazelle Squadron made their flying display début at Cosford. Photo: Alex Prins

The rotary theme then continued until the conclusion of the show, with yet another new act for this year! The Army Air Corps Historic Flight made its flying debut at Abingdon earlier this year and so Cosford was only one of their first displays – however unfortunately only the Westland Scout was serviceable to fly in formation with its modern counterpart the Apache, with the AB Sioux unfortunately remaining on Terra Firma for the entirety of the day. What was touted as a “formation”, however, was in reality simply the Scout and Apache hovering about 100m apart in torrential rain; I realise that a great amount of work went into bringing it together, and I just hope that a closer formation in better conditions is on the cards for some point in the future!

The Westland Scout of the Army Air Corps Historic Flight flew a solo. Photo: Alex Prins

The Scout then flew a solo display, which was perhaps a little dispirited given the conditions and the circumstances forcing an impromptu solo. The pace was then quickened with the AAC Apache Role Demo, which employed pyrotechnics, pre-recorded audio clips and a knowledgeable commentator to enhance the experience for those of us hardy/foolish enough to remain on the crowdline in what was by then a torrential downpour.

A finale by circumstance, the flying display with a literal bang! Photo: Alex Prins

This display was, although we weren’t to know it, the final of the day – much to the disappointment of many. The biggest highlight of the day was no doubt to have been the USAF B-52 from Minot AFB on deployment with a cohort of others to Fairford, that was planned to provide three flypasts at varying speeds. Unfortunately, B-52 flypasts are cleared only to a minimum height of 1000ft, which was above the cloudbase at the time, so although I caught a brief glimpse of the Stratofortress, that was all we got. Most gallingly, the commentator chose that moment to make the cringiest and most sarcastic comment of the entire day: “I’ve got some good news, although we won’t be able to see it, we will be able to hear it!” This drew an audible groan from those of us remaining, and brings me onto two of the major issues that many had at the end of the show: the cancellations and the commentary.

The Fairey Delta II of the RAF Museum was brought outside. Photo: Alex Prins

One of the biggest complaints in the days following the show is one that I find completely understandable: the commentary team of Johnathan Ruffle, Claire Sturgess, Peter Dickson and Gareth Attridge was just consistently poor. On many occasions the team had less of an idea of what was happening than those on the crowdline. Also, it would seem, those of us monitoring social media were kept more up to date than the majority of the crowd, as at no point during the commentary was it mentioned that the Gnats and the Sea Vixen had both cancelled, despite announcements being made on social media. Such a situation is poor, and I feel that the lacklustre commentary team must be altered for next year.

This brings me onto the next issue that impacted the overall show – the cancellations. From a line-up that really was relying on classic jets, both the Gnat Display Team and Sea Vixen “Foxy Lady” were forced to cancel due to a cloud-base of 600ft at their operating airfield, which would have breached their Visual Flight Rules clearances. Such situations are unavoidable and blame cannot be laid at the feet of the organising team. This is also the case with the other presumably weather or engineering difficulties that led to the cancellations of, among others, Peter Teichmann’s P51D in its new scheme, as well as the planned Puma HC2 flypast – what would have been a rare appearance by possibly the most elusive of all of the UK armed forces helicopters!

Sea Kings of the based Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering. Photo: Alex Prins

Travelling by train, aside from the aforementioned difficulties, proved to be a much better method of travel than entry by car, as it meant that entering and exiting the showground took a matter of minutes as opposed to hours! I have heard many stories from people stuck in traffic, including my TIF colleague who attended the show and then spent two and a half hours getting off base; sadly this was not an isolated incident. Many families and members of the public will be unlikely to return to the show unless they are given some assurance that the traffic management system has been much improved.

Also, the static, although impressive with regards to quality given the length of the runway, was poorly positioned and provided unsightly backgrounds for many photos. The Royal Netherlands Air Force Hercules proved to be a popular “walk-through” display, and so that cannot be criticised, however so much effort was put into bringing the Fairey Delta II and Avro 707 outside for the event, only for them to be positioned with cluttered backgrounds. Even worse was the newly painted Harrier GR3 and special schemed King Air which were both penned in by stalls and/or tents. It is admirable that aircraft from the museum are brought outside, alongside the veritable host of Jaguars that were displayed at the show as usual, however I feel if this is repeated for next year, more consideration must be put into where they are positioned.

A Jaguar GR1 representing the theme of ‘Operation Granby 25’. Photo: Alex Prins

So how best to summarise the show? Well I feel that much of the battering that the show has received on social media is unjustified: due to shows in Europe securing essentially all of the fast jet displays in Europe, and the CAA preventing the appearance of the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight, the organisers at least on paper provided an impressive line-up. Almost every classic jet in operation in the UK this year was accounted for – given the current climate towards the types this is hugely admirable; unfortunately the weather proved to be the biggest downfall for the show, which was completely outside of the organising team’s control. I will hopefully be attending next year, and I understand that much more effort is being made to ensure that Cosford Airshow 2017 does not clash with any other European airshows; as such I would hope that many more fast jets are in attendance. Next year Cosford will not be the only RAF airshow of the year, however I feel that RAF support for its home show(s) must be drastically improved – unless changes are made it could lose one of its biggest recruitment tools, to the detriment of the Air Force as a whole.

Alex Prins is a UK based photographer and aviation enthusiast who attends several airshows every year. He is also the deputy-editor of This is Flight.