AeroResource’s Jamie Ewan and Niall Paterson – along with James Innes – were among some 50,000 people dropping in on the RAF’s sole airshow. With types such as Whirlwind, B-52, B-1B and Tornado gracing the flying display, would the show have enough to take ‘top spot’ this early on in the season? Here are their musings.
RAF Cosford has become a must attend event for many and as, for the third year running, the event remains the sole Royal Air Force Airshow, it is the only real chance to allow for the public to engage with the RAF – both in terms of personnel, trades and the aeroplanes. One of the ‘drawing’ factors about Cosford – for many aviation enthusiasts anyway – is the chance to see some of the types sadly no longer in service, but retained by the Defence School of Aeronautical Engineering (DSAE). The big attraction being the chance to shoot a number of ex-RAF Jaguar GR1s, GR3s and T4s that are still used by DSAE as part of the engineering training provided to a number of trades in the RAF before the students’ progress onto a front-line Squadron. The organisers obliged with no less than 25 Big Cats on display, all with a huge variation in markings and of course, resident favourite GR3 XX119 in her ‘Spotty’ scheme from the type’s disbandment 10 years ago.
As with previous years, the 2017 edition of the show focussed on three themes, both in the air and on the ground. The first theme was ‘International Co-Operation’, celebrating the increasing relationships between nations during times of need. ‘Space’ was the second, which highlighted the work the RAF provides to the UK’s Space Surveillance effort at RAF Flyingdales, this being supported by the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) initiative. The final theme, ‘Battlefield Support’, highlighted the different elements of air support ground troops have in place when needed – the show providing a well thought out and presented set piece as part of this theme to close the flying display.
Again like previous shows, 2017 saw a number of aircraft from the RAF Museum seeing ‘daylight’ for the show – the highlight being the British Aerospace EAP (Experimental Aircraft Program) ZF543 making its way onto the Shropshire airfield from the confines of the Test Flight hangar. The EAP first flew on August 8, 1986 and was a ‘big player’ in the development of the Eurofighter Typhoon. Also making its way into the static line up was Harrier GR9 ZG477 still resplendent in her 1(F) Squadron colours worn during the retirement of the Harrier Force in December 2010.
As well as the based Jaguars, RAF Cosford had a number of other fast jets on show, these including another three Harriers. Joining Sea Harrier ZH796 was the Cosford Airshow’s very own Harrier GR3 XZ991 still in her Arctic Camouflage scheme from last year, and the VAAC (Vectored-thrust Aircraft Advanced Control) T4 XW175 – the latter in her red white and blue test scheme. A pair of recently delivered Panavia Tornado GR4s saw their first public outing since delivery earlier this year – ZD715/083 and ZD793/101 arrived from RAF Marham and RAF Lossiemouth respectively to join the DSAE. With both still carrying mission markings from the 2011 Libyan conflict – and equipped with an array of Paveway IV, Dual Mode Seeker Brimestone and StormShadow – the swing wing jets also carried tell-tale signs of their previous lives with XV(R) Squadron markings on ZD793 and ZD715 carrying a mix of 12(B) and 617 Squadron markings. Finishing off the based assets were a couple of Tornado GR1s in various condition around the site. Although seen in far fewer numbers than in previous years, a number of Jet Provosts could be seen here and there across the airfield. That said, Jeff Bell’s stunning Midlands based JP T5A (XW324 /G-BWSG) – wearing it’s pristine 6 Flying Training School colours – was flown in to make a welcome return to the static, a genuinely fantastic looking machine.
2017 saw a couple heavy aircraft on display on the ground, including the debut static appearance at Cosford of an RAF Airbus A400M. By far the largest aeroplane on show, A400M ZM401 from 70 Squadron at Brize Norton had the honour of the first of its type to touch down on the Cosford runway. On the show day, the crew of ZM401 opened up the behemoth machine for the public to have a look inside the RAF’s newest transport aircraft. Also open on the show day was an Italian Air force C-27J Spartan from the Reparto Sperimentale Volo – the machine acting as the support aircraft for the Air Arm’s Tornado IDS which featured in the flying display. The Spartan repositioned into Cosford to join the static display after dropping off personnel and ground equipment for the Tornado at RAF Shawbury just down the road.
The static park also saw a number of rotary assets taking part with an Apache AH1 from 656 Squadron Army Air Corps (AAC) being joined by a second Apache in the flying display, in the hands of the Attack Helicopter Display Team (AHDT). The Royal Navy sent a single Merlin HM2 and single Wildcat HM2 – both being show debuts for the types – with the prior being opened up to the public throughout the day. But it was the RAF who gave the public a chance to see the future with one of their recently delivery Airbus Helicopters H135M Junos making its debut appearance since arriving at Shawbury recently. Joining a Squirrel HT1 of 60(R) Squadron, the Juno is gradually due to replace the Squirrel over the next year or so to meet the UK’s Military Flight Training System (MFTS) requirement. A well thought out positioning of each provided opportunities to capture both individually and together. The RAF also provided a single Puma HC2 from 230 Squadron, which arrived and departed during the show and positioned itself near to crowd centre – a superb chance to see a type often over looked these days.
It was, however, the flying for which many had come and just like the static display, the flying display had a nice mix of aircraft types showcasing all spectrums of flight from a simple yet dazzling display from the Schleicher ASK 21 in the hands of Ian Gallagher, to the sheer raw power of a Panavia Tornado from the Italian Air Force. It is safe to say there was plenty on show to keep all aspects of the crowd interested.
The RAF supported their sole event in force with all of 2017’s display acts down to display – the mighty Typhoon, the thought provoking Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF), the energetic Tutor, the charismatic RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team and the world class Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), the Red Arrows.
The honour of opening the 2017 show fell to the Falcons. Jumping from their newly delivered all white Dornier Do 228, the team of nine put on an aerial display of near perfection, including their world famous ‘stack’, with blustery conditions making their display somewhat harder than it already is!
Although the RAF Tutor Display Team provided the solo Tutor display, RAF Cosford based 8 Air Experience Flight (AEF) and University of Birmingham Air squadron (UBAS) were on hand with a four-ship of Tutors in salute to Cosford’s sole flying element.
Both the Chinook and Tutor flew excellent solo displays with the latter making a very welcome return to the display scene showing the crowds an excellent example of both height and energy management in the hands of Flt Lt Andy Tagg, whilst the Chinook beat the air into submission with huge amounts of ‘bladeslap’.
The unmistakable sound of the Chinook ran to begin what was (as always!) another great display of agility with the crowd favourites such as the quick stop, ‘Gorni climb’ and the numerous spiral climbs and dives it throws in for good measure. A mention must go to the team’s commentator as he made a great effort in getting an already interested crowd even more interested with his enthusiastic commentary.
Celebrating their 60th Anniversary, the BBMF made their debut as ‘Thompson Formation’, named so after their first Officer Commanding. One of only three planned outings as ‘Thompson’ the four-ship of fighters – comprising three Spitfires and a single Hurricane – flew a number of passes including a superb opening topside before splitting for a spot of tail chasing followed by pairs opposition work in. Sadly, the Flight’s Lancaster was unable to take part – still being under the care and restoration of the Aircraft Restoration Company at Imperial War Museum Duxford.
When it comes to a display by the RAFAT Red Arrows, it is unusually hard to find anything negative to say – after all, they are by far one of the best, if not the best aerobatic team in the world, especially in terms of precision. However, their display at Cosford was marred by the team’s decision to use an ‘alternate’ display Axis – the Typhoon also down to use it – to that used by the rest of the display acts. Instead of the south-east/north-west (looking out from the crowd line) orientation, the team flew on an axis situated at the extreme far west of the airfield bearing north-east/south-west – essentially rotating the axis 45 degrees. Announced over social media in the week leading up to the show, the decision had been made to allow the team to fly their display and avoid the built up area of Albrighton while doing so. It would appear that this was down to ‘restrictions’ placed on the RAFAT’s Public Display Authorisation and the nature of the display flown, led to an inability to change their sequence and use the existing axis. Sadly, the decision left many in the crowd – who see the Red Arrows as the face of the Royal Air Force and in many cases are the ‘crowd puller’ for the public – somewhat disappointed, in particular those at the ‘eastern’ end of the site. It must be queried as to exactly what risk was perceived to be mitigated by this change of axis, given the decision by other acts that it was acceptable for continued use.
The display itself – a ‘rolling’ display given the cloud base during their slot – was of the usual high standard, all nine jets cavorting in perfect unison with Red 10 doing his utmost to keep all eyes pointing the right direction.
Unfortunately, the RAF Typhoon display was confined to a single fast pass and climb out into the low cloud as the aircraft had a serviceability issue whilst waiting to run in for the display – the issue said to be with the jet’s ECS (Environmental Control System). Unlike previous years which has seen a plethora of marked jets used for the display, 2017 sees a standard grey jet being used albeit without any squadron marks and a single three digit tail code – a sign of the times for the RAF’s Typhoon Force. The aircraft itself was ZK349 – well known to enthusiasts, having recently been returned to its operational colours after nearly two years in commemorative Battle of Britain colours.
Not to be outdone by their RAF colleagues, the Army Air Corps returned to the skies of Cosford with the Attack Helicopter Demonstration Team (AHDT). Returning with just a single aircraft for 2017, the AHDT showed off the Apache off to its full and deadly potential, accompanied by the immense pyrotechnics provided by the team at Event Horizon. Despite a huge number of exercise commitments this year, the team have included a number of new manoeuvres that really add to the already fantastic scenario being played out in front of the crowd. As with previous years, the usual ‘wall of fire’ erupting behind the hovering helicopter was a favourite with the crowd. This year also see the new inclusion of simulated surface-to-air missile or SAMs being hurled into the sky after the menacing helicopter as it flies numerous attack profiles.
Providing the show’s first fast jets of the afternoon were two classic jets – a grey Royal Air Force of Oman marked BAC Strikemaster, and the sole flying Jet Provost T.5 anywhere in the world – flying a spirited simulated airfield attack in the hands of Mark Petrie and Jon Corley respectively. Although the Omani marked Strikemaster of North Wales Military Aviation Services Ltd based at Hawarden has been seen at events up and down the country over the past couple of seasons, the Jet Provost – owned and operated by Sword Aviation at North Weald – has been seldom seen flying in a display. Wearing the unique colours of the often forgotten South Arabian Federation Air Force (which later became the Air Force of South Yemen) the aircraft sustained minor damage during a number of ground attack sorties between 1967 and 1975 – a genuine combat veteran! Flying a series of pairs topside passes before splitting to attack simulated ground targets, the addition of pyrotechnics added to what was a well-flown display.
One of three rotaries taking part in the flying display provided one of the rarer opportunities with the world’s sole airworthy Whirlwind HAR.10 conducting a somewhat sedate Search and Rescue (SAR) demonstration. Still adorned in her yellow SAR colour scheme and wearing the markings of both 22 and 202 Squadrons, XJ729 was a welcome sight for many seeing this unique machine flying in this her first full season – the aircraft having been seen on static at the show in 2015. With another of Westland’s stable – the museum’s SAR yellow Whirlwind – making a surprise static appearance in the shows’ ‘Vintage Village’ and the retirement of the venerable Sea King HAR.3, one wonders what are the chances of all three one day gracing the show?
Richard Goodwin once again provided an outstanding yet stomach churning display of unlimited aerobatics in his Union Flag adorned Pitts Muscle Biplane – from the unbelievably low tailslide, topside passes galore to multiple roll passes, this was one display that certainly got the crowd interested. At no point does the aeroplane seem to point in the same direction for more than a second or two – a fine example of aerobatics from this small yet agile biplane that kept everyone on his or her toes as to what was going to happen next!
The Blades – fresh from their win at the inaugural Formation Aerobatics Championships in China – were on hand with a solid display of formation and unlimited aerobatics. Having been on the circuit for 11 years now – where does the time go! – the team flew their repertoire of well-known formations such as crazy flying, the Spitfire rolls and the Blades break.
At the other end of the aerobatic spectrum was the ballet like routine of the Schleicher ASK 21 from the RAF Gliding & Soaring Association – this kind of display really showing flight in its purest form! Giving a similar graceful display (albeit with a bit more ‘punch’!) was one-half of the AeroSPARX, Guy Westgate in a G109B. The display was a first in the UK, with a 360-degree camera broadcasting ‘live’ via a downlink, as the aeroplane tracing his way through the blue skies dominating the morning of the display, black smoke pouring from the wingtip smoke generators.
2017 sees the United States Air Force (USAF) celebrate its 70th Anniversary, following its creation in 1947 from the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). Whilst there were no current USAF assets on the ground at the show, there were, however, flypasts from two of their ‘heavy hitters’ – the B-1B Lancer and the B-52H Stratofortress, both of which were forward deployed to RAF Fairford from their bases at Ellsworth and Barksdale AFB respectively.
With last year’s flypast by a B-52 being a case of ‘be heard and not seen’, the aeroplane – provided by the 96th Bomber Squadron – wearing the nose art Blackjack was graced by sunshine as the crew flew a number of passes – the jet’s eight Pratt & Whitney TF33s shrieking away. Whether or not it was a breakdown in communications or planned, the B-52 ran in for the first of its two passes as B-17G Sally B positioned for ‘her’ last pass from the opposite direction – two generations of US bombers in the same piece of sky!
Unfortunately, the B-1B – provided by the 34th Bomber Squadron – came through during a heavy rain shower hit the airfield. Rather ironically, the aeroplane was carrying the nose art HEAVY RAIN! Dropping in just below the cloud, it was a welcome sight to see the Lancer in the skies at UK airshow again – even more so with the wings swept and ‘burners lit.
Keeping with the American theme, Hanger 11’s Peter Teichman brought his ‘Red Tails’ marked P-51D Tall in the Saddle to fly a rather smooth and near perfect display, his trademark topsides showcasing the Mustang beautifully while its iconic ‘howl’ whistled through the sky.
It is fair to say that the 2017 edition of Cosford was a truly international affair both on the ground and in the air – the Irish Air Corps adding to the mix with one of their EC135s in the static line up. In the air, the Swiss Air Force made an appreciated contribution with the PC-7 display team, with one of the best displays by the team seen at a UK show in many a year! With Cosford’s small display line, it was an ideal ‘stage’ for the Swiss to showcase their skills in close formation. The Team are made of up of Swiss Air Force F/A-18C/D pilots who fly the Hornet during the week and give up their weekends to meet up and display for crowds all across Europe, RAF Cosford being the teams only visit to the UK this year. Precision flying at its very, very best… especially given the wind!
For many, the ultimate highlight of the day came from the show’s second foreign flying element. Making a very welcome first display at Cosford was the Italian Air Force with their solo Panavia Tornado IDS. Operated by from 311 Gruppo as part of the Reparto Sperimentale Volo or RSV, the aircraft wore a striking colour scheme celebrating 60 years of 311. The Italian display saw the return of a much-missed type to the UK display circuit, after the RAF Tornado GR4 role demo was withdrawn in 2012. Unlike the RAF Role Demo which showed off the jet’s tactical abilities as such, the RSV jet – without the Tornado’s characteristic underwing tanks – was chucked around the sky in a display of sheer power, noise and a bit more of each from the moment it arrived on slot from Shawbury – inverted down the display line!
Closing the show was the ‘Battlefield Support’ set piece. With such rarely seen types such as the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, Huey, Loach and Antonov AN-2 due to take part, it was shaped to be something memorable. However strong winds prevented the Bird Dog from taking to the air, but that didn’t stop the main action from taking place. The scenario was set, Vietnamese AN-2s were attacking a US radar station in Laos – an action which actually took place during the Vietnamese war in January 1968! During the attack, an unarmed UH-1 Huey in the hands of two Air America pilots gave chase to the pack of four An-2s with one of the crewmen able to bring down two of the four with an AK-47! With the An-2 Club providing their ‘Annie’ for the display, the seldom seen Blackpool based Huey played the role of the victors.
Once this scenario was completed, the OH-6A (Loach) – also based at Blackpool – joined the Huey for a bit of Close Air Support (CAS). Whilst they conducted their CAS work, the pair were engaged by enemy forces and called for further assistance – a single OV-10B Bronco being sent to their aid! What followed was a well-executed role demonstration from the three CAS assets including pyrotechnics as the Bronco engaged the Vietnamese ground forces – a wall of flame ending the show.
The organisers now look towards the 2018 show and with the RAF celebrating its centenary next year, the expectation is high after a successful show in 2017, another classic Cosford!