The highs and lows of Cosford Air show over the decades as event makes welcome return

The roar of the Merlin, the thunder of the jets...

The programme for the RAF Cosford Open Day of Saturday, June 3, 1978.
The programme for the RAF Cosford Open Day of Saturday, June 3, 1978.

For decades Cosford Air Show has thrilled the crowds with its spectacular aerial display which is an unmissable annual date in the calendar for enthusiasts.

For one day of action, with entertainment both in the air and on the ground, the airfield swells to the size of a significant town, drawing enormous crowds from across the region.

Its stunning success has sometimes proven a problem in itself – in 2009 so many people turned up (58,300) that "show full" signs went up, leaving thousands shut out and disappointed.

But there have been those rare years too when the show has been grounded. In 2003 it was war – the impending Iraq war – which led to its cancellation. This was the first time ever that a Cosford Air Show which had been planned did not go ahead.

Of late it has been a different kind of war, the fight against the global coronavirus pandemic, which has left aviation buffs and families who enjoy the great day out disappointed.

And as the air show raises cash for four RAF charities – the RAF Association, the RAF Benevolent Fund, the RAF Charitable Trust and the RAF Museums – its absence has been a heavy blow for them too.

Every year brings its own highlights, from the regulars of the Red Arrows, to the evocative roar of the Spitfire, and to those rare and precious "I was there" occasions like the display by the last flying Vulcan bomber, and an Apache attack helicopter display team featuring Prince Harry.

Crowds checking out a Meteor jet fighter

When did it all begin?

There will surely have been displays of flying skills by pilots over the airfield throughout the history of the air base, and there seem to have been some air shows in the 1960s.

But the start of the modern public Cosford Air Show can be traced back to Saturday, June 3, 1978. It was billed as a 40th anniversary open day, as the RAF Cosford base was opened in 1938. It also came in the 60th anniversary year of the foundation of the RAF itself.

The show 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.

A crowd estimated at more than 30,000 flocked to watch the action in a two hour display in which top of the bill were the Red Arrows aerobatic team.

The Red Arrows are often a popular attraction

Other aircraft which took part included a Spitfire and Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, a Vulcan bomber and a Nimrod anti-submarine aircraft.

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 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.

By one measure, Cosford is an unlikely airfield to host such a big event, because by modern standards the runway is very short. As it is incapable of safely operating jets, those air show regulars, the Red Arrows, use RAF Shawbury instead, and then fly on to Cosford for their display.

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