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Air show still flying high after 40 years

By Matt Mansell | Nostalgia | Published:

For Cosford Air Show, the last 40 years have just flown by in spectacular fashion.

Over those years many hundreds of thousands of people have come from all over the country to enjoy the show, where they have been entertained by an unmatched combination of thrilling aerial displays and a world-class aviation museum.

In this anniversary year the aerial extravaganza is bigger than ever, and also falls on two other important anniversaries.

It is the centenary of the founding of the RAF in 1918, and is the 80th anniversary of the opening of RAF Cosford, the most commonly given date of which is July 15, 1938.

But how and when did it all begin?

The first modern Cosford Air Show was on Saturday, June 3, 1978, which you will know from the above, if you are any good at maths, was the 60th anniversary of the RAF.

Its advent also marked something else - the takeover of the famous Cosford Aerospace Museum, which had the largest collection of historic aircraft in the country, by officials from the RAF Museum at Hendon.

In the 1970s there was a dawning realisation that in the collection of aircraft at RAF Cosford there was the makings of a gem of an attraction. It was almost a little secret. Private parties and air cadets had been able to view them in the hangars, but it was not until April 6, 1975, that the Cosford Aerospace Museum opened to the public for the first time.

The air show in 1978 was up against a lot of local competition. In particular there was an established air display which was staged by Shropshire Aero Club at Sleap.

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Sleap's air show had started in 1968, was dropped in 1974 and 1975 because of inflation and fuel costs, revived in 1976, dropped in 1977, and then returned in 1978, but not gloriously.

Alas its show in that year, which was also staged in June, suffered its lowest ever attendance despite an exciting programme which included a giant Vulcan bomber and a B17 Flying Fortress. Factors blamed were a cold June day, the World Cup, and the Potteries' annual holidays.

There were others too, at places like Halfpenny Green and Shobdon. For instance, about 25,000 people went to the two-day Halfpenny Green show in the August of that year, which was supported by the RAF and featured the Red Arrows.

One man especially invited to the first ever Cosford Air Show was Albert Newport, of Ettingshall Park, Wolverhampton. He was a founder member of the RAF, and a boy entrant to the Royal Flying Corps which preceded it. He was a special guest in the station's officers' mess.

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Mr Newport had actually helped set up the training facilities at Cosford during the early part of the Second World War.

On the flying bill were a Spitfire and Hurricane, the Red Arrows, a Vulcan, a Nimrod anti-submarine aircraft, a Hawker Sea Fury and vintage Meteor and Vampire jets. It was a roaring success, with over 30,000 people turning up to watch the action.

Perhaps it was all initially meant as a one off, because we can't immediately find evidence of there being a show the following year - we stand to be corrected if you know better - and in September 1980 there was a private air show at Cosford for thousands of schoolchildren from all over England who travelled to the base for a tri-service careers convention.

There was a show on June 14, 1981, although it was an international aerobatic competition rather than the flying display which is so familiar today. However the air show as we know it was clearly soon to become an established annual event which went from strength to strength during the 1980s.

It should be pointed out that while the Cosford Air Show celebrates 1978 as its start date, there were flying displays there before then.

You could argue that it all goes back to September 1935, when Alan Cobham brought his National Aviation Day display to Cosford, flying from a field - this was in the days before the airfield had even been built.

Immediately before the war there were family air days when local people would take up vantage points around the station area to watch Tiger Moths and other aircraft of the time performing to RAF personnel and families.

There followed a long period of inactivity on the air show front, first because of the war, and secondly because of the hectic reorganisation of the RAF following the war years.

There may have been some semi-official or private displays over the years (does anybody remember for certain?), and we have in our files a picture said to be of "the annual Cosford air show" in the 1960s.

With the advent of the aerospace museum, as it was called then, the air shows were organised in those early days alternately by the museum and the adjoining air base.

Given that the show has become so massive, it is curious that Cosford is not particularly well equipped for flying. The runway is so short at 3,600ft that it cannot operate modern fast jets. Or rather, they may be able to land at a pinch and with all associated risks, but they can't take off again.

That's why for their Cosford display the Red Arrows, and various other display aircraft, will operate from RAF Shawbury.

The reason Cosford has made do with a short runway is that it has never been primarily a flying field - although aircraft do fly from it - its most important role over the decades being one of ground-based training.

That did not stop the Luftwaffe paying the airfield a visit during the war, dropping bombs and causing damage.

Another Cosford quirk is its control tower, which is the hub of the action and organisation of the flying display.

It's an architectural gem, a rare survivor of "fort type" control towers. It is one of the earliest parts of the airfield. The design dates from 1934, although it will probably have been built contemporaneously with the rest of the airfield in about 1938.

It is possibly the oldest control tower still in use by the RAF and is old-fashioned in another way, in that it has no radar.

As the air show at Cosford has flourished, so has the museum at ground level. Cosford Aerospace Museum "made the grade" in 1998 when, thanks to its improved facilities, it became a national museum, and was renamed the Royal Air Force Museum, Cosford.

It is now one of the best museums of its type in the world, a status cemented by the opening of the imposing National Cold War Exhibition, which dominates the site, in February 2007.

Every one of the air shows has its special attractions as organisers juggle a programme which features the best of the past with a representation of the modern RAF, which is one reason why it continues to draw enthusiasts year after year.

However, there are those factors which can never be planned for, the most obvious of which is the weather.

Among the recent examples was the show of 2011 when it rained throughout the day. Although flying was not stopped entirely, the aerial displays were limited.

Memorable for entirely different reasons was the 2009 show in which the organisation was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of visitors.

It turned out to be the most successful show ever to that date, with over 58,300 attending. The down side was that for the first time in the show's history the car parks became so full that people had to be turned away at the gates.

The traffic plan had been worked out for an expected 50,000 visitors. One of the big pulls that year was the appearance of the world's only flying Vulcan, following a recent restoration.

Then there was that rare occasion when there was no show at all. It was not, as you might think, in 2000 or 2001 during the foot and mouth crisis, but in 2003 when it was cancelled because of the impending Iraq war making demands on the RAF's air resources.

There has been occasional turbulence during the air show's long history, but after 40 years it is continuing to fly high.

Matt Mansell

By Matt Mansell
Product Manager

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