REPORT: RAF Cosford Airshow 2017

Cosford this year was a show of ‘what could have been’: so much could have been better, while other aspects could indeed have been much worse. While the RAF supported its only show fairly well in the static park, its overall contribution and future commitment to the show would seem to be questionable. Following last year’s modest international support, a clearer effort was made to ensure that aircraft from further afield could be tempted across to the show for the flying or static. My personally suggested theme of ‘International Cooperation’ was taken up by the Airshow Chairman as one of the three key themes chosen, by way of encouraging international participation. Throughout the day in the flying and static displays, the themes of ‘Space’, ‘International Cooperation’, and ‘Battlefield Support’ were reasonably well represented, with the latter two establishing the bulk of the action. Scroll down for video…

The display opened at 11:20L with a jump from the first of the RAF’s flying participants: the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team, who dropped from a Dornier 288 leased to them by the Canadian company ‘Summit Air’. Once the team had hit the drop-zone, our attention was drawn skywards once more by a solo AeroSPARX Grob 109B, flown by Guy Westgate. The display benefitted from the first burst of blue skies and broken cloud, and was wonderfully tightly flown, with the aircraft remaining close to the crowd at all times. The display was a world first, debuting a system allowing spectators to view live footage from inside and outside the aircraft via an app, with the viewer able to manipulate the rotate the angle through 360°. However whilst this was interesting, that such a feature was so relentlessly advertised throughout the commentary of the display was a little irritating, given the fact that few would want to look away from the display before their eyes to get a different view through their phones.

Following this solo display, we were treated to two formation displays of contrasting gravitas and engagement. Firstly, a quartet of Grob Tutors continued the Grob manufactured lineage, with two flypasts provided by the University of Birmingham Air Squadron. This was mercifully brief for those of us that failed to become enwrapped in the formation, and paved the way for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight to recapture our attention. This year, the Flight is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and RAF Cosford was one of three locations chosen to host more unique displays to honour this milestone. Three Supermarine Spitfires of various marks, and a Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIc, flew in “Thompson Formation” in honour of the Flight’s founder Group Captain Peter Thompson DFC. The four pilots flew a wonderful routine of formation passes and tail-chases; the display was worse for the absence of the Flight’s venerable Lancaster, which was missing from the celebrations due to overrunning maintenance at Duxford in the hands of the Aircraft Restoration Company.

As the four warbirds cleared back to RAF Coninsgby, and the last strains of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ faded, another aircraft of a 1930s-ilk arrived in the form of BAE Systems Heritage Flight’s Avro Anson. Unfortunately, as with its display last year, the routine was rather lacking in flair; most passes were straight-and-level, while the few topside passes were markedly more distant than the rest. A Puma HC.2 then flew in and landed at crowd centre as a last-minute addition to the static display, although it was positioned beyond the crowdline fencing; it was to depart back to RAF Benson before the end of the flying display.

Once the Puma had spun down, an airfield assault began. Mark Petrie’s Omani Air Force BAC Strikemaster Mk.82 was joined by a Mk.52 Jet Provost flown by Jon Corley, in the colours of the South Arabian Air Force (effectively modern-day Yemen). Initial plans were for a pair of Strikemasters to fly, however it appears that the CAA were uncooperative in certifying Mark’s second aircraft in time for the show. Whilst the Jet Provost was arguably out of place, the effort to obtain a combat-esque camouflaged aircraft, rather than the more common ex-RAF Central Flying School examples, was effective and the effort was appreciated by those present. The display itself was perhaps a little short, as once the assault (complete with pyrotechnics) was complete, the aircraft departed – it seemed that the display was over almost as soon as it had begun.

Following the classic jet pair was an entirely different form of display, with Ian Gallacher flying a Schleicher ASK 21 glider, billed as returning to the flying display “due to popular demand”. Quite who demanded this is unclear, as while the display no doubt required skill on Gallacher’s part, it did not inspire the same rapturous attention as the preceding display. The aircraft was provided by the RAF Gliding and Soaring Association, and Gallacher is an instructor at Cosford, however to argue that this was the RAF bolstering support for its only show would be limp at best. Following this unpowered aerobatic routine, the whine of a Rolls-Royce Gnome announced the commencement of a display by Lift West’s Westland Whirlwind HAR.10. The only airworthy example in the world, the Whirlwind is owned by Andrew Whitehouse and was making its debut flying display at a major airshow, following a series of low-profile events and static appearances. This immaculate example of the 1960s Search and Rescue stalwart performed a tidy, if brief, display. Full credit must go to the organisers for securing this rare enthusiasts’ item in amongst a fairly “family friendly” line-up. The team announced just days prior to the show that they had acquired 2 Westland Wessex helicopters (the Whirlwind’s successor) and intend to restore one of the pair to flight to display alongside the Whirlwind; incidentally there was also an example of another 22 Squadron aircraft, a Wessex HC.2, on static display at the show.

What followed should have been an extreme change of pace, with The Blades entering (unusually from crowd-left, as opposed to their customary crowd-rear arrival). The team were unfortunately an aircraft short due to serviceability issues, and this was felt keenly in several elements of the display. Whilst there is little that can be done in this situation, the routine lacked the usual dynamism and panache; the crowd itself seemed fairly impressed with the trio’s efforts, however.

Continuing with the family-themed displays, The Blades were succeeded by a pairs display by the Breitling Wingwalkers. The display contained the usual barnstorming shenanigans that do so much to engage the crowd, and at the more family oriented airshow that Cosford has become, for good or for bad, they were extremely well received. Rich Goodwin followed, in his Pitts S2S “Muscle Biplane” which enables him to fly a compact and intense routine; the strong winds broke enough of the cloud cover to enable what appeared to be a largely ‘full’ routine. The display closed, as is customary in a Goodwin show, with a low-level knife-edge pass, with the aircraft’s colossal rudder allowing the aircraft to stay in that position down the entire length of the crowdline – truly a world-class performance!

Unfortunately, the following two displays can only be described as a farce. Nine days before the show, an announcement was made by the organisers, that the RAF Red Arrows and RAF Typhoon Display Team would be displaying on an alternative axis, shifted to the west. A speech was made by the Airshow Chairman, in which he claimed responsibility for the decision to relocate the display axis, however there is some speculation suggesting that this may not be the case, and indeed the Wing Commander may have ‘taken the fall’ on behalf of the show, rather than the RAF’s top two displays being tarnished by decision-making from the “powers that be”. The Wing Commander stated that the two acts’ display routines would go “outside of the flying display area that the FDD [Flying Display Director] has detailed to all participants, and would involve overflying a small area of Albrighton in aerobatics, that is totally unacceptable.” This does not quite account for the fact that the Italian Air Force Tornado was able to display as normal, and there is photographic evidence that this included aerobatic manoeuvres over Albrighton.

There remain many unanswered questions, such as why the decision was made so late, or why the Red Arrows were suddenly deemed unsafe to display over RAF Cosford as they have previously for 40 years. What is clear is that the impact on the overall spectacle of the RAF’s primary display team, at its only official airshow, was profound. The display was, from my location at crowd-centre, several further away than usual, and for those east of my position this distance only increased. The Typhoon solo display that was to follow was then cancelled due to a fault with the machine’s ECS (Environmental Conditioning System), and so Flt. Lt. Ryan Lawton was only able to fly a single fast pass with afterburners lit, followed by a vertical climb into the low cloud. The unfortunate fault would have affected the oxygen and de-pressurisation systems, and so it would not have been safe for a complete display to have been flown. This was an inadvertent mercy, as rather than being subjected to a pathetically distant solo display, the crowd got to witness a brief yet crucially close-up display of the Typhoon’s power.

As the rumble of the twin EJ200 jets faded above the clouds, the first of a pair of USAF strategic bombers arrived. Unfortunately, the weather beat the B-1B Lancer to the punch, however the crew were not to be deterred and performed a single high-speed pass with all four afterburners.  Following this, the Army Air Corps’ AH-64 Apache from the Attack Helicopter Display Team fulfilled their earlier promise during the Red Arrows/Typhoon saga to “bring the action back to crowd centre”. I feel that the display strikes the right balance between operational capability demonstration, and aerobatics rarely utilised in combat. The use of pyrotechnics, including new simulated anti-aircraft fire used for the first time this year, increases the realism of the role demo – however the ground element of the display could in my opinion be further improved with the inclusion of ground forces to better demonstrate the cooperation and vital support that the AAC’s Apaches provide ground forces on operations.

The USAF once again came to the fore, with an apparently inadvertent display of “then and now”, as Boeing B17 Flying Fortress ‘Sally B’ flew a graceful routine in uncharacteristically blue skies. The display was interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the USAF Boeing B-52H Stratofortress; it seems that the crew had not been cleared to “run in” for their flypast when they did, and those with scanners describe the ATC’s warning to the B17 crew to take avoiding action! The opportunity to witness two generations of “Fortress” bombers was wonderful and may be unique to the UK this year. The USAF theme concluded with a lyrical display by Peter Teichman in his North American P-51D Mustang; Peter’s routine did everything to cement his reputation as one of the top warbird display pilots in the country.

“International Cooperation” was then maintained with possibly the best two displays of the day. Firstly, the Swiss Air Force PC-7 Team brought a touch of their usual class and precision, with a wonderful display that earnt them the well-deserved ‘Bill Hartree Memorial Trophy’ for the “most accurate, safe and polished flying display at the RAF Cosford Air Show”. The PC-7 Team were outstanding, and gained the accolade in the eyes of many present of having outclassed the Red Arrows – almost unheard of at a UK show (let alone the RAF’s only airshow)!

If the Swiss were precise, then the Italian Air Force A200 Tornado was nothing short of thunderous. The aircraft was resplendent in an astonishing paint scheme (RAF take note) celebrating the 60th anniversary of 311° Gruppo, which is part of the Italian Reparto Sperimentale Volo. The unit is responsible for the development and testing of the Italian Air Force’s inventory, and thus Captain Gabriele Aiolfi could push the aircraft to its limits for the assembled crowd. Unsurprisingly this wonderfully adorned airframe earned the ‘Best Presented Aircraft’ award for the unit.

What few will have realised, is that this astounding display was the culmination of several years’ correspondence between the Cosford organising team and the Italian Air Force, which was first demonstrated in 2015 with a static appearance by the Italian ‘FlyFano Team’. Those members, who appeared at the time to some as perhaps an uninteresting static appearance, have since risen through the ranks in the Italian Air Force, which has hopefully allowed for a burgeoning relationship with Cosford to form. This was further underlined by the presence of an Italian Air Force Alenia C-27J on static at the show, demonstrating a welcome effort by the Italians to reposition the aircraft from nearby RAF Shawbury where it was acting as support for the IDS Tornado. Such support truly demonstrates the old adage: “mighty oaks from little acorns grow”.

Following the Tornado was the “Battlefield Support Finale” that wasn’t, as it turned out, a finale. This was an incredibly anticlimactic affair that was rescued only by a magnificent showing by Tony de Bruyn in his North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco. Quite how the organisers hoped the audience would remain enthralled by possibly the slowest tail-chase in airshow history as a Bell UH-1 ‘Huey’ hovered somewhere above an Antonov An-2, accompanied by piecemeal pyrotechnics, is beyond me. The lack of other participating aircraft and more impressive pyrotechnics left me thoroughly underwhelmed. Relevant aircraft such as the Postbellum Foundation’s Cessna O-2 Skymaster were relegated to the cluttered Vintage Village. The set-piece was hit by several cancellations, including most notably Kennet Aviation’s Douglas AD-4NA Skyraider, however I believe that the “spectacle” was flawed from the onset. As theoretically interesting as the event depicted was (where a Huey crewman downed two An-2s with an AK-47 over Laos in 1968) it was not as dynamic as the later mock assault by the Bronco. There was similar, yet infinitely more exciting scope for engaging set-pieces, for example the 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh of the Vietnam War. Every scheduled aircraft could have been retained, whilst other aircraft may have been able to simulate gunships, transport aircraft, or indeed portray the more dynamic aerial insertion/extraction for which the Huey is more renowned. This would have allowed for more exciting ground engagements to have been simulated – it would even have justified the short landing attitude demonstrated by Tony de Bruyn’s Bronco (it’s called a ‘Khe Sanh’ for a reason!) These are mere suggestions, as I understand that the airshow has a limited budget, and there is a limit to the range of aircraft available, however I am dubious that the events recreated were the most exhilarating and engaging possible.

I believe it would have been better if the various component aircraft had simply performed standard routines, as what little we saw of each aircraft individually had great potential. For example, the Antonov An-2 Club’s flew a ‘slow pass’ into the strong winds on the day, allowing for a speed-over-ground of as little as 25.8mph! MSS Holding’s Hughes OH-6A Cayuse (or Loach) was also underrepresented during its stablemate’s exploits, and I expect the standard pairs display would have better portrayed the two helicopters’ capabilities. Fittingly, the show was concluded with an actual finale by yet another rotary display – that of the RAF Chinook Display Team. Following a premature end to last year’s display season following airframe fatigue issues, the team made their triumphant return with a routine that seemed, to my eye, not to have suffered for any alterations.

Following the conclusion of the flying display, I sampled the mixed static display that Cosford could offer. As with the flying, I felt this also had unexploited potential, as some of the more photogenic aircraft such as the rare Wessex HC.2 or charismatic Jaguar GR.3 “Spotty” were hemmed in by ropes or cones. The resident 238 Squadron of the No. 1 School of Technical Training provided 34 SEPECAT Jaguars, as well as an array of Harriers and newly arrived Tornado GR.4s. Given the numbers available, it is no wonder that some were poorly placed, however it was disappointing that gems such as the ‘Arctic Camo’ Harrier GR.3 and ‘Operation Granby’ Jaguar GR.1 were part of a line-up with a backdrop of fencing, cones, cars and toilets. However, there were numerous positive aspects to the static display, such as the careful positioning of the visiting Royal Navy AgustaWestland Merlin HM.2 and Wildcat HM.2, and Irish Air Corps’ Airbus Helicopters H135, against a naturally uncluttered background of trees. Further welcome aircraft placement that must be applauded was that of the British Aerospace EAP, the demonstrator aircraft for what became the Eurofighter Typhoon, which was extracted from the RAF Museum and placed alongside the Vectored-thrust Aircraft Advanced Control’ Harrier testbed in the DOTA (Defence Operational Training Area), which allowed for uncluttered photographs from a range of angles.

Overall the event left me decidedly conflicted – there was a notable increase in international participation, and elements of the show-day organisation, such as traffic management, was drastically improved. One of Cosford’s biggest shortcomings in previous years has been its congestion issues and traffic delays getting into and out of the show, however this would seem to have been rectified, with the organising team ensuring a speedy entry and exit for the thousands that arrived by car. There were, regrettably, various unavoidable cancellations such as the Sea Vixen, Hurricane Mk.1 (R4118), and the HM Coast Guard AgustaWestland AW189, which did unfortunately impact upon the show. The latter’s cancellation was not mentioned at all throughout the day, which brings me neatly onto my biggest bugbear of the show: the commentary. Last year I criticised the commentary team’s “lacklustre performance”, however for reasons unknown to many, Johnathan Ruffle was retained. Whilst his performance this year was improved, it was at times “hit-and-miss”, and was doubtless exacerbated by the poorly positioned commentary location. Potentially show-defining moments such as the USAF strategic bombers’ arrivals were missed by some, as they were not given due warning by the commentary team – this must be rectified or the show will continue to suffer. A temporary but better-considered position must be constructed, as is done elsewhere; stubborn retention of the current location will continue to draw criticisms from enthusiasts and members of the public alike.

Finally, the RAF’s flying support, in my opinion, remains weak in comparison with the Royal Navy for its own shows, or indeed any European air arms. Also, the disastrous alternative display axis for the Red Arrows and Typhoon must be rectified by next year, otherwise the show’s days will be numbered and the RAF’s only remaining airshow will die an undignified death. Next year Cosford will be significant for the ‘RAF 100’ centenary celebrations, however I remain sceptical as to how much of a spectacle this will prove to be…

Alex Prins is a UK based photographer and aviation enthusiast, and also the deputy-editor of This is Flight. Photos also come from James Connolly, with videos by Adam Landau.