After a recent £2.5 million refurbishment, what was the Museum of Army Flying Museum re-opened its doors to the public in April 2019 as the Army Flying Museum. Tracing the history of military flying, from the use of observation balloons through to the high-tech engineering of today, this museum is a great place for those interested in not just aviation, engineering and militaria but also the history of warfare.
We have always loved the Army Flying Museum, my son and I. Conveniently only a 20 minute drive from home, we first visited when he was a toddler and the displays of huge aircraft, flight simulators, the uniforms and the journey through the past 100 years of warfare were always of great interest to us both over the years.
He loved playing Top Trumps with World War I aircraft and the soft play area where we would build our own Bell helicopters, I loved the 1940s house with its haphazard displays of all things World War II and the familiarity of the militaria (I grew up in a military family).
We both loved the real attack helicopter where you could sit and handle the controls and press buttons while listening to a recording of a missile launch on targets as we pretended we were launching an attack on a nameless enemy below us.
After its grand reopening we decided to go back. I was slightly worried that it would now be all sanitised, with items lined up behind glass cases and an overload of screens shouting for our attention. I had liked the slightly ramshackle nature of it, with displays competing for investigation and random and unusual artefacts just plonked down next to each other. I like my museums to look slightly haphazard and cobbled together rather than too orderly.
The shop and ticket desk are at the newly streamlined entrance and then it's straight into the museum.
The makeover is evident immediately as you are greeted by a bank of screens with a display about the purpose of the museum and what is ahead.
It was very dramatic and my heart did sink a little as I thought that the whole museum would be like this, but round the next corner I was very relieved to discover that fortunately, not much has really changed, and the museum has retained its charm. Some of the older displays have gone (including our attack helicopter!) and there are more interactive screens and hands on things to do, but the essence of the museum has remained the same.
THE HISTORY OF ARMY FLYING
The displays start right at the beginning of UK military aviation, in 1878, when the Royal Engineers set up an experimental balloon section to test its uses in warfare. Balloons had been used with little success by the Austrians in 1849 and in the American Civil War, but by 1880 the British had deployed them with some success in both the Sudan and China, leading to the formal establishment of the Balloon Section in 1890.
Balloons were used in the Boer war 1899-1902 for observation, where they would remain attached to the ground, with a single man in the basket who would be able to see where the enemy were and signal to the troops on the ground to let them know.
After the Boers shifted to guerrilla tactics and there were fewer ‘set piece’ battles, the balloons became less relevant but they did pave the way for the future of army flying.
L: One of the early observation balloons which could only hold one man, were tethered to the ground and which were used for reconnaissance.
R: Samuel Cody, the American who made such an impact on the early days of military aviation that over 100,000 people turned up to his funeral.
The balloons led to man-lifting kites, which were devised by Samuel Cody in 1906, and which could raise an observer to 1,500 feet. Samuel Cody played a huge role in the early days of military flight. An American, born in 1867, he worked with the Wild West shows until he moved to England and toured with shows there. He developed an interest in kites and used the money from his shows to develop what became known as the Cody Kite.
Over the years he redesigned and improved his plans, and in 1906 he was appointed by the British Army to work at their Balloon School.
In 1907 he launched the Nulli Secundus, the first Army airship, and then the Army supported his development of a heavier-than-air plane, and in 1908 his was recognised as the first flight of a piloted heavier than air machine in Great Britain, five years after the Wright Brothers had achieved their maiden flight.
In 1908 the Army gave up their experiments with aeroplanes, until in 1909 a Frenchman, Louis Bleriot, flew over the English Channel and they realised that Britain could be vulnerable to attack from the air. Trials were held in Larkhill and the Royal Flying Corps was established, recruiting from within the Army and particularly the Royal Engineers. The Royal Navy set up their own, separate air force.
The first fatalities were in 1912 when a Nieuport monoplane took off from Larkhill, crashing shortly afterwards. Airman’s Cross was erected where they fell, and remained a local landmark for over 100 years until it was relocated to the new Stonehenge Visitors Centre.
Samuel Cody unfortunately died a year later, when his latest plane broke up mid air. He was buried with full military honours and 100,000 people turned out for the funeral.
ARMY FLYING DURING WORLD WAR I
At the outbreak of WWI, the RFC had fewer than 100 planes, none of which had a British made engine, and they relied heavily on the French who had made huge advances in flying over the years. British airmen were sent to France with a chronic lack of experience and with ill equipped planes. The motto of the RFC, and still today of the RAF which followed it, was Per Ardua ad Astra (Through Adversity to the Stars).
In August 1914, four squadrons of the RFC flew out to join the British Expeditionary Force in France, starting off just for reconnaissance, until their other benefits were soon realised, when pilots started taking guns with them for personal protection during the flights. It wasn’t long until planes were fitted out with machine guns and bomb dropping equipment.
The RFC set up a base at an aerodrome in Saint-Omer, in Pas-de-Calais, moving their headquarters out there in October 1914, where it remained as the central hub of the RFC for the next four years, and is still today thought of as the spiritual home of the RAF.
It was from here that the British ‘Aces’ flew, where they caught the imagination of the public with their tales of dogfighting and extreme risk taking.
It is also the place where 25 years later in World War II, Douglas Bader was shot down by the Germans, losing his tin leg in the process. He persuaded the Germans to allow a replacement to be airdropped to him here, which he then promptly used to escape his captors.
Although Britain may have started WWI with a huge air disadvantage, by 1917 they had established air superiority with planes such as the Sopwith Camel, although with a pilot loss rate of one in four. The museum has a Sopwith Pup on display as well as several early and experimental planes.
In 1918 the RFC merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force.
ARMY FLYING DURING WORLD WAR II
The museum then skips a few years and takes us to separate sections for both the Air Observation Post and the Glider Pilot Regiments, both of which remained under the banner of the Army.
The Gliders were operational from 1942 - 1957 and played a huge role in the D-Day landings, particularly the re-capture of Bénouville Bridge, when six Horsa gliders landed in the opening minutes of D-Day, took two critical bridges and held them against the odds until troops from Sword Beach arrived later that day.
It played such an important role in limiting German attempts to counter-attack that the bridge was renamed Pegasus after the flying horse symbol which the airmen wore on their uniforms.
Both a Horsa glider, and a large part of a Hamilcar glider, are on display at the museum, two of the few left in existence.
I was delighted to see that the 1940s house remains entirely untouched, with its sitting rooms, bedroom, kitchen, outhouses and garden including Anderson shelter. There is now the addition of a dress up area for kids inside the house, and it's a quiet little refuge away from the rest of the museum, which can get very busy on rainy days at weekends and school holidays.
The museum also has a section on the history of the site itself, as the airfield has been in use since 1940, when it was a pilot training school during the Battle of Britain. Several different types of squadrons were based here, including fighter squadrons that flew Spitfires and Hurricanes. A specialist night fighter unit was based here for two years, defending Britain against the Blitz, flying Bristol Beaufighters, which had the brand new and top secret Airborne Interception Radar technology.
The famous RAF ace pilot, John ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham was based here with that unit; he was the first to shoot down an enemy plane using this new technology and got a further 19 kills overall.
The Air Ministry told the papers that his great success at seeing in the dark was due to his love of carrots, as they had to keep the radar so secret, and it is from this that the myth about carrots giving you night vision arose.
The airfield was bombed in August of 1940, when the Germans were targeting airfields and aircraft manufacturing sites. Three men died trying to close the hangar doors to protect the aircraft inside, with the massive steel doors collapsing on top of them.
The airfield was subsequently used by the American Air Force, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, before it was returned to the Army Air Corps i