With the temporary closure of RAF Waddington for runway resurfacing, Cosford was left as the sole RAF organised airshow in 2015. Expectations were high, but could this small air station in the Midlands rise to the challenge? Michael Lovering attended for AeroResource.
Traditionally a popular show amongst enthusiasts and the general public alike, Cosford’s compact and intimate setting allows a greater appreciation of the smaller acts, especially warbirds and aerobatic types, whilst its military roots attract some big names – including almost everything on offer from the RAF events team. Add to that the presence of a world-class museum (http://www.aeroresource.co.uk/articles/2015/raf-museum-cosford/) and the airframes of the Defence School of Aeronautical Engineering (DSAE) an airshow is a surefire success – 2015 was no different! In the weeks leading up to the show, the organisers pulled surprise after surprise out of the bag and offered a display to rival the biggest airshows in Europe. These included the ever-popular Mig 29 from the Polish Air Force, the UK debut of the Ramex Delta team (a pair of Mirage 2000s from the French Air Force), a flying German Navy P-3 Orion and F-16 and F-18 fast jet displays from Belgium and Switzerland respectively. Cosford was soon on most people’s calendars as a must-visit and tickets were quickly sold out.
Then the cancellations began. Considering the quality of the line-up it was a great disappointment when the Poles, French and Germans cancelled with less than a week to go, all citing operational or technical reasons for their non-attendance. As the show approached, the weather looked like it was going to add to the misery with the sun of the week before replaced by low cloud and rain. Fortunately when the first visitors arrived at 0700 on Sunday morning the sun was still shining and the efficient parking system began to fall into place, guiding over 55,000 people into the showground. This was the start of a fantastic day and despite a number further cancellations and overcast cloud on the day was by far one of the best Cosford shows in recent years.
One of the real highlights of any Cosford airshow is the unique ground attractions presented by the DSAE and the RAF Museum with the former positioning numerous SEPECAT Jaguar airframes around the airfield – including a number of differently painted examples. In addition to the static Jaguars, students from the school regularly gave live demonstrations throughout the day of some of the technical tasks they are taught as part of their training. These were immensely popular and provided an interesting insight into the role of Cosford within the Royal Air Force. The RAF Museum also added to the static display by towing a number of its exhibits out into the light of day. These included the stunning cold war strike and reconnaissance BAC TSR-2, XR220 – one of only two TSR-2 airframes that survive to this day following the project’s cancellation in 1965! The opportunity to photograph this beautiful machine in the sun that graced the event early doors was enthusiastically welcomed by visitors.
The DSAE Jaguars were not just confined to the static display, with Cosford being one of the few places in the world where you can still see them live, albeit only in taxying condition. On a normal working day, these are used to train future ground crews in the art of marshalling and are a useful atmospheric distraction for engineering apprentices, simulating the smell and noise of an active apron. With two examples of the aircraft (a twin seat T4 and a single seat GR3, both adorned in the colours of 6 Squadron) performing a choreographed taxi run in front of the crowds, many couldn’t help but smile – the Jaguar is one ‘Big Cat’ that the majority continue to have an affection for!
The aging Jaguars were not the only vintage jets on display at Cosford: the flying display featured a polished routine from the Classic Air Force’s Gloster Meteor NF11 WM167 in the hands of Jon Corley. Unfortunately the grey and green colour scheme of the night-fighter variant did not stand out against the milky grey sky, but the sheer number of topside passes more than made up for this – and it was again superb to see this night fighter model, which has been sidelined over the past few years for the recently restored Meteor T7 . More historic jet action came in the form of Jet Provost T.Mk.5 XW324 with Squadron Leader Dan Arlett providing an elegant display. Having not been previously announced prior to the show, the display was Cosford’s way of marking the memory of long term Flying Display Director Bill Hartree, who sadly passed away in November 2014. The display was a perfectly executed routine of graceful aerobatics that was a fitting tribute to a pivotal figure in the history of Cosford airshow.
Despite the cancellations, modern fast jets were still well represented at Cosford. Following a rather relaxed opening by the RAF Falcons parachute display team, who began the show with a low altitude jump, a rather noisier display came in the form of the Belgian Air Force F-16AM Fighting Falcon solo display flown by Cdt Tom “Gizmo” De Moortel. Gizmo flew an impressive routine in the spare aircraft after a problem with the newly painted 2015 display jet (christened “Blizzard” – if you see it, you’ll know why!). To compound the bad luck, the spare then had an issue with its flare dispenser and so the loaded pyrotechnics couldn’t be released. Despite these setbacks, the display was well received and set the tone for the rest of the day. There were no such problems for Captain Julien “Teddy” Meister who expertly threw his Swiss Air Force F/A-18C around the sky squeezing every drop of vapour from the air. His display went on to win the new for Cosford Hartree memorial trophy for the most accurate, safe and polished flying display during the show.
Not to be outdone, the RAF also brought some noise with both the familiar Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 solo display and the Synchro Pair routine – a return of a display not seen since 2010. Solo display pilot, Flight Lieutenant Jonny Dowen, showed off the 29(R) squadron centenary jet superbly with plenty of tight high-G turns and liberal use of afterburner. The same Typhoon returned later in the hands of Flt Lt Ben Westoby-Brooks as he joined up with Flt Lt Antony Parkinson MBE of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight in Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb AB910 for the Synchro75 pairs display. Sadly the specially marked Battle of Britain marked Typhoon was unserviceable at local RAF Shawbury,from where the fast jets were based for the show. Nevertheless, the perfectly symmetrical display of two world beating fighter aircraft separated by more than 55 years was a pleasure to watch, especially the final crossover and climb out that left the airfield shaking in the wake of two EJ200s in full reheat with a hint of the growl of a Rolls Royce Merlin!
The BBMF supported the show in force by bringing four fighters and the Dakota, the latter standing in for the grounded Lancaster. In addition to their solo displays and the Synchro routine, the two Spitfires and Hurricanes formed up with the Red Arrows in a pleasing formation to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
Apart from the Reds, who performed their flat display as a result of the low cloud base, the remainder of the display teams taking part were civilian acts often seen and welcomed on the UK display circuit. Fortunately, the short crowd line is the perfect venue for teams like the Breitling Wingwalkers who put on an entertaining routine in their two bright orange Boeing Stearmans, which felt closer and louder than larger sites. The Wingwalkers were joined by The Blades who arrived in style with a unique formation with Oil Spill Response Boeing 727 G-OSRB owned by their parent company 2Excel Aviation. The former FedEx tri-jet has undergone conversion to allow the jet to spray dispersants on maritime oil spills and is funded by a number of large oil companies to be ready to respond in case of an emergency. The red and white jet was put through its paces with an awe-inspiring display in the capable hands of Dan Griffith – a man who seems to be capable of getting the best out of any aircraft he flies regardless of size!
On the smaller end of the spectrum, the Cosford crowd were treated to a stomach churning display of aerobatics by Rich Goodwin in his highly modified Pitts S2S “Muscle Biplane”. The incredible performance of G-EWIZ allowed Rich to fly his best Harrier impression as the aircraft was flown to an almost complete hover, hanging by its propeller. An unlikely highlight of the show that has to be mentioned was Rich Goodwin’s stand in commentator Peter Dickson, otherwise known as ‘The TV Voiceover Man’. He came over as a passionate enthusiast and his humorous commentary fitted the display perfectly. Further solo aerobatics were provided by the RAF solo Grob Tutor display, using a University of Birmingham Air Squadron aircraft due to the adverse weather preventing the display aircraft flying in from Cranwell. Unfortunately the Tutor was not the only aircraft to fall foul of the weather on the Saturday arrivals day. Almost all of the static airframes representing the University Air Squadron theme had to cancel, along with the Scottish Aviation Bulldog programmed to join the Tutor in the flying display.
Fortunately one theme that was very well represented in both the static and flying displays was the Search and Rescue (SAR) meet. On the ground the past and present of the RAF SAR fleet were represented with a Bell Griffin HT1, Westland Sea King HAR3 and the worlds sole airworthy Westland Whirlwind HAR10, XJ729 making appearances in the static. Foreign participation was particularly strong in this area with appearances from a Sea King Mk.41 from the German Navy, AgustaWestland HH-139A from the Italian Air Force and an NH-90 from the Dutch Air Force (one of three temporarily deployed to RNAS Culdrose, and secured at extremely short notice just days before the event). The theme was also represented in the air by the ever popular Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina, G-PBYA, and an emotional final flying appearance from the familiar yellow Sea King HAR3 of C flight, 22 Squadron, RAF Valley. The RAF transfer SAR duties to Bristow Helicopters this year, which will see Valley, along with all other RAF SAR units ceasing regular SAR operations by the end of June 2015. As it stands this short role demo may have been the last opportunity for many people to see the venerable yellow helicopter – a true angel in the skies!
Helicopters were well represented in the Cosford flying display with each of the armed forces sending a rotary wing demonstration. Along with the SAR demo, the RAF provided the impressive Chinook solo display. Unfortunately, due to even more technical gremlins, the 18 Squadron anniversary aircraft was unserviceable at Northolt, where it had been present for an event the day before – and was replaced by a standard airframe flown in on the morning of the show. Nevertheless, the violent display brought with it lashings of blade slap and some genuinely incredible manoeuvres. The Royal Navy offered a comparatively tame Lynx HMA8 display, but its appearance was greatly appreciated as the Wildcat continues to replace the older Lynx airframes – the Army Air Corps Lynx AH7 is already formally withdrawn from service. However, the highlight of the helicopter displays was provided by the Army Air Corps in two WAH-64D Apaches AH1s. New for this year a second aircraft has been added giving an additional level of interest to an otherwise familiar role demonstration. The scenario was succinct and engaging and, perhaps most importantly, the use of pyrotechnics was liberal!
Cosford was also allocated flypasts from two of the RAF’s overworked, and therefore rarely seen, transport assets from RAF Brize Norton in the form of a C-130J Hercules and Voyager. Unfortunately the Hercules suffered technical problems at Brize Norton but the single flypast from the Voyager was most welcome. Adding to the complement of heavies was the ever popular Avro Vulcan in her final year of flying. The ‘Vulcan effect’ was obvious as people stopped what they were doing to admire the sleek delta winged bomber. The prolonged howl as Bill Ramsey and Martin Withers pulled the aircraft into the spiral climb was particularly ear-splitting and a fine reminder of what a tremendous achievement the last eight years have been.
The finale of Cosford 2015 was a WW2 set piece intended to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day. The display started with a well flown solo routine from the Classic Air Force’s Avro Anson T21 G-VROE (WD413) before it was intercepted by Cliff Spink in his regular mount: Duxford based Hispano Buchon G-BWUE owned by Spitfire Ltd. Despite not being a ‘real’ Bf109, the Buchon, still in the livery worn for the 1968 Battle of Britain film, was an impressive stand in and quickly dealt with the lumbering Anson. Almost immediately a Hurricane and Mustang were scrambled and a dogfight ensued. It is always a pleasure to see Peter Vacher’s Hurricane Mk.1 R4118, but even more so when flying alongside the newly painted ‘Shark mouth’ P-51 Mustang operated by the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation. Following the dogfight the individual aircraft entered into solo routines, of which the highlight was the arching topsides offered by Lars Ness showing off the Mustang’s immaculate RAF camouflage paint scheme.
In conclusion, Cosford 2015 was a significant step up from previous shows. The variety of international participation, although marred by significant cancellations, is a positive sign for the future. Despite having awful luck with aircraft serviceability and the weather running up to the show, the organisers managed to put together a fine day of entertainment that was clearly enjoyed by the sell out crowd of more than 55,000. Traffic management, historically a recurring problem at Cosford, was also vastly improved in 2015 with many people reporting only minimal queuing to get in and out. This was aided no doubt by the extended opening of the runway entrance, and the impressive feat of re-opening the route to traffic within ten minutes of the end of the flying display! The themes of the show, too often lost amongst other participation, were well represented in both the static and the flying display. It was refreshing to see this approach and the thought that had gone into booking interesting but appropriate aircraft. If the Cosford airshow team build upon this year’s experience and continue to improve, 2016 is sure to be another sell out.