Opening as an RAF Station in 1938, RAF Cosford has been home to numerous training colleges over the years and today still provides training for many trades within the Royal Air Force. On top of this, it is also home to one of the two RAF museums. Adam Duffield and Duncan Monk spent a day exploring the many exhibits.
Located just to the North West of Wolverhampton and off the M54, from the moment you approach the RAF Museum (RAFM) at Cosford you are reminded of its attachment to an active base. Driving past the main gates and then alongside the fence line that runs parallel to the runway you are eventually bought through the gates of the museum itself. A sizeable pay and display car park (a maximum of £3.50 and the only charge levied for the visit, with entrance to the museum itself being free) awaits, with the impressive visitor centre clearly identifiable.
The museum complex consists of the main visitor centre, three display hangars and a number of outside exhibits. The logical route leads you into the visitor centre which houses not only the information point but a small cafe, toilet facilities and a number of conference rooms. Walking straight through and outside brings you to a group of external exhibits, before the path leads you to the first display hangar.
With an expansive collection of aircraft within the RAFs collection, the layout of the hangars and distribution of displays has been accomplished in such a way that there is little overlap with the RAFM Hendon collection. In terms of unique collections of aircraft, there may be none more unique than those within the Test Flight hangar – the first that you enter. With one corner dedicated as a learning zone, the remainder of the area charts the history of British flight testing from the post World War Two era right up to some of the most recent aircraft within the RAFs inventory. From this area a small doorway leads you into the “War Planes” collection that resides in an adjoining hangar. A single walkway guides you through the aircraft in this section charting some of the early types involved in World War One,through World War Two (the bulk of the examples) and right up to the modern Afghanistan conflict – albeit with a sole example of a BAe Systems Harrier GR.9.
Exiting through the Test Flight hangar, the Cold War Hangar is only a short walk away – however before entering there is a key area to visit that is tucked behind the War Planes hangar. Following the recovery of the Goodwin Sands Dornier 17 and its subsequent shipping to the museum, a restoration team has been working hard to preserve the remains of the airframe. Whilst the main fuselage has completed its first stage of conservation, smaller sections such as engines and undercarriage are undergoing a chemical wash procedure in two polythene tents giving a unique view of some of the important conservation work undertaken at the museum.
The Cold War Hangar is by far the most visually impressive at the museum, both inside and out. Split across two floors it features an array of airframes and cockpit sections displayed in both conventional and more unusual manners. For example, the inverted Canadair Sabre 4 tracking the slant of the roof, the vertically hung English Electric Lightning and precariously perched Vulcan all add to the impact of the display. A well hidden viewing platform at the very top of the hangar can also be accessed via a lift for an elevated view of half the collection. The hangar is also home to the museum’s expansive shop, as well as a small cafe area serving basic food and drink.
A collection of transport and training aircraft await the visitor in the final hangar of the collection, Hangar 1. Housed within a large and open display area taking up the full expanse of the building, there is a raised walkway along one length that gives a good overall view of all the aircraft, together with a comprehensive model display housed in cabinets along the wall. Also present are two areas dedicated to an art gallery and the history of RAF Cosford.
Cosford is an impressive collection of aircraft totaling over 70 examples, along with numerous engines and missiles (and the odd appropriate vehicle), meaning there should be something to interest almost every enthusiast interested in any era of aviation and, with the number and quality of the airframes on show at the museum, it really is difficult to pick the highlights. Some of the larger and more recent additions to the collection join the Lockheed Neptune outside. At the entrance to the museum and acting as gate guard is Hawker Siddeley Hunter F6A XG225, whilst in the car park Bristol Britannia 312 G-AOVF and Lockheed Hercules C130K XV202 are preserved. Located with the Neptune behind the visitor centre are another two Hawker Siddeley examples in the form of Dominie Mk1 XS709 and Nimrod R1 XV249.
The Test Flight hangar collection is perhaps the most interesting of all not only because of the types on display but their varied flying careers and contribution to modern aviation. Dominating the room are the stainless steel Bristol Type 188 XF926 and British Aircraft Corporation TSR2 XR220. Around the edges are other, smaller types such as a pair of aircraft critical to the design of the Lightning – English Electric P1A WG760 and Short Brothers SB5 WG768, the supersonic world record breaking Fairey FD2 WG777, Hawker-Siddeley Kestrel XS695 and the short take off Hunting H126 XN714.
Covering a full spectrum of aviation history, the Warplanes hangar collection ranges from a genuine 1916 built Sopwith Pup N5182 which saw action during the war through to the recently retired BAe Harrier GR9A ZG477. An impressive number of World War Two aircraft span both Allied and Axis types, and include the oldest known Spitfire survivor in the form of Mk1 example K9942, together with de Havilland Mosquito TT35 TA639, Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIc LF738, Consolidated PBY-6A Catalina L-866 and Messerschmitt Me410 420430. The two highlights of the period though must be the Mitsubishi Ki-46 ‘Dinah’ and Kawasaki Ki-10001b aircraft that represent the much rarer Japanese types.
One of the real highlights of the museum is the ability to see all three of the V-bomber types together one location. Avro Vulcan B2 XM598, Handley Page Victor K2 XH672 and Vickers Valiant B1 XD818 represent one of the most well known trios of aircraft and seeing the complete examples next to each other is an experience only Cosford can provide. Strung from the ceiling and walls are other fine Cold War examples such as English Electric Canberra PR9 XH171, the vertically hung English Electric Lightning F1 XG337, Hawker Hunter T7A XL568, Canadair Sabre 4 XB812 and even a couple of Soviet fighters, in the form of MiG-21PF “Fishbed” 7105 and MiG-15bis “Fagot” 001120. Down on the lower floor are some of the larger transport aircraft examples such as Handley Page Hastings T5 TG511 and Short Brothers Belfast C1 XR371.
The final hangar contains a collection of training and transport aircraft. Dominating the room are the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy C1 XP411, de Havilland Comet 1XB G-APAS and Hawker Siddelet Andover E3A XS639. Situated next to the Comet is also an interesting section of fuselage from the pressure testing that took place to identify cause of the window frame fractures that occurred on early models (stress concentrations in the corners of the square windows). Other aircraft include the diminutive Mignet Flying Flea G-AEEH, Westland Wessex HC2 XR525, ski equipped Auster T7 Antarctic WE600 and Fairchild F-24 Argus G-AIZE. Also present is a large collection of aircraft engines, along with a number of missiles including examples of both V1 and V2 rockets.
British Aerospace Experimental Aircraft Programme (EAP) – ZF534 – The EAP is one of the most recent additions to the collection at Cosford and is a prime example of one of the most modern British test aircraft. First flying in 1986, it was used as a research and testing aircraft looking into new technologies for future aircraft designs and, eventually, developed into the Eurofighter EF2000 Typhoon. After retirement in 1991 it spent time at the Loughborough University Aeronautical & Automotive Engineering Department before being moved to Cosford in 2012 and eventually placed on display in 2014 as the only example of its type.
Gloster Meteor F8 Prone Position – WK935 – Possibly the most peculiar looking aircraft in the museum, this aircraft was developed in the early 1950s to investigate any potential benefit in g-force tolerance provided by the prone position. Operated by the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine for the trials, it conducted a total of 99 trials flights spanning 55 flight hours, from February 1954 until July 1956 at which time it was concluded that the loss in pilot visibility, coupled with advancements in flight suit equipment rendered the solution impractical.
Lockheed SP-2H Neptune – 204 – Operated by the Dutch Naval Aviation Service, this Neptune is the only example of the type on display within the UK. Entering service in November 1961 it was used initially for Maritime Patrol and Anti-Submarine Warfare including during operations against Indonesia in 1962. After being upgraded to SP-2H configuration, from 1970 it was reassigned for predominantly SAR and Pollution Control purposes before finally being retired in July 1982.
Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV – 68-8284 – Built as a HH-53C in 1968, this aircraft was the United States Air Force variant of the CH-53 Sea Stallion and used for Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). During the late 1970s and early 80s it operated with the 67th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at RAF Woodbridge and was involved with the recovery of two UK based USAF airframes in Scotland following accidents. After being converted to MH-53M specification for Special Operations it served with the 20th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron and saw action during both Gulf Wars.
Vickers Valiant B1 – XD818 – The only complete example of the type in the world, the Valiant is by far the least well known of the three V-bomber types. However, despite the Valiant being withdrawn from service in 1965 due to premature fatigue problems with the wing spar construction, XD818 may be one of the most important survivors of the V Force. On 15th May 1957, as part of Operation Grapple and flown by Wing Commander Hubbard OBE DFC, XD818 was the aircraft to drop Britain’s first live Hydrogen Bomb. Its final flight was on 9th December 1964, just two days before the entire fleet was grounded.
Avro Lincoln B2 – RF398 – During the final stages of World War Two a requirement for a heavy bomber with a longer range than the Avro Lancaster emerged and from this was born the Avro Lincoln. However, the turn of events meant that the Lincoln arrived too late for active service. RF398 was first flown on 11th September 1945 and was immediately placed in the hands of a Maintenance Unit for storage, and it wasn’t until 12 years later it was assigned to a flying unit – despite the Lincoln having already been withdrawn as a front-line bomber. Assigned as an instructional airframe at RAF Cosford in 1973, it is the only example that remains in the UK.
With the vast majority of the museum’s exhibits inside, lighting is the predominant concern for many. By far the best lit hangar is that containing the Training and Transport aircraft with ample white lighting giving the best chance for handheld shots. On the opposite end of the scale is the Cold War hangar that has some very dark areas contrasted against translucent walls which can cause metering problems. Thankfully for those not steady enough for longer hand held exposures, the museum is welcoming to tripod users and, unlike Hendon, does not require you to obtain a tripod permit.
A welcome experience compared to many other museums is the barrier situation around the displays with ankle level barriers presenting minimal obstruction to both viewing and photography. However, a number of the aircraft – specifically within the War Planes and Training and Transport hangars – are tightly packed or surrounded by many objects preventing clear photos – something that cannot be helped given the space available and the sheer number of exhibits.
Although smaller than its London based counterpart (see the AeroResource article from 2014) it is by no means a second rate museum. The test aircraft contained within the collection are an incredible grouping of rare and unique aircraft that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world, charting the importance of British engineering in aircraft development. Combined with the only chance to see all three V-Bombers together, there really is something for everyone to see. The museum also holds a number of events throughout the year including Open Cockpit and Restoration days and, whilst not directly part of the museums events, a number of the aircraft are regularly taken out of the hangars to form part of the static display at the RAF Cosford airshows. There is also the chance of catching one of the ground running Jaguar aircraft (in use by the RAF No.1 School of Technical Training) taxiing around the adjoining airfield. A visit to Cosford is certainly something that should be on any enthusiasts list.
Visitors note – Following AeroResource’s visit, a new exhibition has opened at RAFM Cosford entitled ‘First World War in the Air’ and is housed within the War Planes hangar.