Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton 19th September 1998
Having negotiated early morning fog, our party of some thirty souls arrived at Yeovilton in glorious sunshine and lost no time in getting down to serious nattering in its warmth outside, or over coffee inside the excellent 'Swordfish 'Restaurant. The decor of the 'Swordfish' immediately puts one in the mood for aviation, with cleverly simulated wing sections covering the ceiling lights supported by equally convincing air-frame members and side elevation line drawings of the famous 'Stringbag' around the walls.
In due course we were rounded up and divided into three parties in the care of official volunteer guides - themselves members of the Society of Friends of the Fleet Air Arm Museum and in some cases ex Fleet Air Arm Pilots or Air Crew. This added greatly to the interest of our tour, as one or two of the group had been aviators, and it was interesting to listen to them exchanging notes as we moved among the aircraft. One of our number was an old friend, who had been an instructor at the Bristol Flying School and Test Pilot for the Bristol Aeroplane Company during my own time there -although I was unaware of it at the time.
Our Guides were Derek Moxley, Maurice Biggs and Robin Jewell -Harrison, who assured us that they were not going to do a lot of talking but rather guide us from Section to Section and be available to answer any questions. In the event, however, they gave us a fascinating and very complete run-down on all the major exhibits; such was their enthusiasm.
We started in the First World War Section, which is a very convincing tableau of a wartime airfield, including such famous aircraft as the Sopwith 'Camel' and 'Pup', A German 'Albatross' D.V.A. and a French Spad. Also the Sopwith 'Baby' (Jabberwock') float plane, which is the subject of the Museum's logo. She is displayed suspended in a flying attitude with the propeller revolving but the others are in various stages of repair, among barbed wire fencing, field telephone and Red Cross tents etc. The one out-of-period odd-ball is a reproduction 1930's Fairy 'Flycatcher', temporarily housed there whilst awaiting an engine, but looking in concept, very like her companions of ten years earlier.
The aircraft displayed here had probably never seen combat, unlike their contemporary, housed in it's own special display - the Short 184 Float Plane No. 8359 or at least the forward fuselage section and engine. Flown from the Seaplane carrier H.M.S. Engadine in 1916, she was the only aeroplane to participate in the Battle of Jutland. I found it amazing that this type could have been flown operationally at all, since the Pilot's forward vision was completely obscured by an enormous radiator!
From World War I we progressed into the 1920's and 1930's display which contained an example of the beloved D.H. Tiger Moth, in which type hundreds of pilots, both Civilian and Services learned to fly and was also used by Alan Cobham in his famous Flying Circus. By 1930 women aviators were no longer regarded as objects of curiosity and to make this point the museum Tiger has a lady wing-rider (without 'Zimmer' frame support) standing on the top main plane and her lady pilot relaxing on the lower. One can imagine the rigger's comments on their high heels!
The 1930's saw the development of the big 'commercial' airships and the Museum recognises this with a simulated airship gondola, together with other displays illustrating an age of rapid technological advancement. As we left this section we found a Supermarine Walrus amphibian at the entrance to the Second World War hangar. Many wartime aviators owe their survival to the courage and skill of the crews of this less-than-lovely but rugged aeroplane. As our guide commented, R. J. Mitchell must have had a bad dream when he designed the Walrus! But she did the job.
To describe all the aircraft in the W.W.2 collection would fill (and has filled) many a book, especially as it merges with those in post War conflicts. Suffice it to say that they are all impressive, even more so as they are not imprisoned behind barriers and the viewer can admire them from all angles. All the famous types are there - the Swordfish (Stringbag) and her would-be successor the Albacore, Fulmar, Firefly, Martlet, Corsair, Seafire, Avenger, Sea Fury and even the type she shot down over Korea, the MIG 15, together with their various power plants. Along one wall were side exhibitions and tableaux such as a Wren despatch rider negotiating the rubble of a bombed building - complete with motor-cycle noise and a group of Wren fitters working on a Harvard aircraft with a NAAFI canteen wagon open for business in the back-ground.
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It was then time to experience the BIG ONE, a visit to a Carrier's flight-deck via a 'flight' in a Wessex helicopter. Our guide saw us safely on board and then left us to it. We found ourselves in the rather spartan interior of the helicopter, wondering what was going to happen next, then the floor began to vibrate and a flickering of light on the cabin sides told us that the rotor was working. Then came a gentle thump - and we had landed. The door slid open and there we were stepping out of a Wessex on to a Carrier's Flight Deck, surrounded by the Carrier-borne aircraft of the 1960's and 1970's, such as the Vampire,Venom,Gannet, Buccaneer, etc. All in subdued, rather dramatic lighting. After inspecting these we were then taken on a tour of the "Island" - the nerve centre of the Carrier, by a very lifelike, bearded matelot android in full "square-rig", who appeared in every department to explain its function. It was very convincing, with figures working at their various tasks. They even simulated an emergency involving a foreign submarine in trouble, right up to scrambling two aircraft to sort it out. Our Carrier experience reached its climax when we were transported, by film and theatrical effects, to the flight-deck of an operational ship at sea. We found ourselves on an aircraft lift at eye-level to the deck, behind a pair of jet deflectors. These retracted to reveal a working deck with aircraft taking oft; moving into position, parking and landing on, when we actually felt the thump as the aeroplane touched down! The visuals were most impressive and included a pilot's eye view of take-offs and landings, close-ups of deck crew activities and even a "ditching" with subsequent rescue of the pilot by a diver. All this was accompanied by full pitch sound effects until the aircraft lift 'took' us down again into the silence of the Hangar Deck. A very worthwhile experience.
This type of Carrier was eventually made obsolete with the advent of very advanced helicopters and the famous vertical take-off Sea Harrier with the ski-ramp take-off deck and the next exhibition, 'Recent Conflicts', shows how these have been employed to good effect in the Falklands, Iraq and Bosnia. This and the 'Harrier Story' displays proved to be of great interest to our party, as did the hall devoted to supersonic flight and the British built Concord prototype 002. Although this exhausted the 'hardware' exhibits, mention must be made of the vast number of superb paintings, combining marine and aviation subjects, to be seen in all the Exhibition Halls and on the Gallery devoted to pictures. Many of the Artists are well known professionals but some are by highly talented amateurs and the Museum is the home of the West Country group of the Guild of Aviation artists, whose standards are very high. Thus, the Yeovilton Collection of pictures can match any Gallery in the Country. So ended a very worthwhile day among like-minded friends and our thanks to the Museum for making us welcome and to David Bailey for arranging it.
Sopwith "Baby" by Peter J. Stuckey
Reported by Peter J. Stuckey
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