Leading Edge of Naval Heritage

PUBLISHED: 17:01 17 September 2007 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013

The Fleet Air Arm Museum

The Fleet Air Arm Museum

One hundred years ago the Wright brothers offered the Admiralty an aeroplane, but the latter declined the proposal on the basis that it 'will not be any practical use to the naval service'. The Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton ...

However, in defence of the Admiralty, Graham Mottram, Director of the Museum, says, "The Navy had grasped in the space of 50 years the move from wood to metal ships, from sail to steam, from smooth bore to rifle artillery, it had embraced submarines and wireless telegraphy; it was all a huge technological leap, and aircraft, in their first manifestation, was probably one step too far."

Moreover they were quick to put things right. By 1911 there were four naval officers trained to fly and at the end of the First World War, Britain had three aircraft carriers - the rest of the world put together had none.

Arriving at the museum, I spot a helicopter hovering in the air and a few seconds later a couple of gliders moving effortlessly through the sky - it feels like a welcoming party. A huge bonus of the Fleet Air Arm collection is that it is set within the grounds of a fully operational Royal Navy airbase, so should you tire of looking at the aircraft of yesteryear you can get yourself to a viewing gallery to watch the aircrews of today going about their business.

Not that you're likely to get bored. With gallery space of more than four football pitches, the Fleet Air Arm Museum is Europe's largest naval aviation collection. The museum offers a riveting day out for the real aviation enthusiast and enough action and hands-on bits to keep even the sceptic amused for half a day. On entering the building I am immediately struck by the museum's commitment to the interactive with the 'Leading Edge' exhibition. This tells the story of aircraft development from early bi-planes to Concorde and the Sea Harrier. Touch-screen displays show you how aircraft fly; you can adjust the tail fins of a model in a wind tunnel to see how an aeroplane rises or falls.

Through planes, models, mock-ups, information displays and videos, the museum traces the history of the Royal Naval Air Service's contribution to both World Wars and more recent conflicts. There is a particularly impressive selection of First World War aircraft, including a Short 184, the first plane to be used in a naval battle (Jutland, 1916), complete with steering wheel rather than joystick and a huge radiator in the front that must have seriously obstructed the pilot's vision.

Moving on to the Second World War, I pass a group of children constructing paper aircraft with the help of staff and volunteers. Using the models, the youngsters are then shown how difficult it is to launch a plane from the rolling deck of a ship. Recognition is given to the part played by the Fleet Air Arm's most famous aircraft, the Swordfish, and also the work done by the Women's Royal Naval Service. Curiously, there is even a side exhibition devoted to the Japanese kamikaze pilots.

The centrepiece of the whole museum has to be the 'Carrier Experience' - a theatrically choreographed tour of life on the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. You join the ship by Wessex helicopter (actually it's a lift that vibrates a bit, but an authentic feeling nonetheless). Once on board you see genuine aircraft, but also two large projection screens showing a Phantom strike fighter and a Buccaneer fighter bomber. Being in the heart of the action as the jets take off and land around you, people have been known to leap out of the way! Then you are led through a series of faithfully reconstructed cabins and operational areas, from the bridge to the kitchens to the communications room, culminating with a (simulated) visit to a flight deck, the hectic activity of which is expressed through a multi-screened audiovisual display - the floor actually shakes as a plane comes in to land.

Not content with all this excitement, you can even tell your friends 'I've been on Concorde'. The British-built prototype of the Anglo-French supersonic aircraft is a prize exhibit of the museum, although the Royal Navy connection is perhaps a trifle tenuous.

Currently on display in the shadow of the great white bird is a special exhibition to mark the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War. Several of the helicopters used in the conflict are on show, including a Wessex that was hit by shrapnel - visitors can feel the actual bullet holes in the metal.

When the Duke of Edinburgh opened the museum in 1964 there were less than ten aircraft and about a thousand other items including documents and photographs. But as Graham says: "Now we're talking about an organisation with 100 aircraft, there are more than 50 engines and a photographic collection of about half a million images. We have over 1,000 medals including two original First World War Victoria Crosses, the only two awarded to naval aviators of the First World War. A documentary collection that we have to measure in kilometres, which includes all the recruitment papers from the First World War - there's something like one and a half million of those alone."

Graham is fond of declaring that a good museum is like an iceberg, at any one moment you see only a part of the full content. In this case the remainder of the aircraft and artefacts are housed across the road in a purpose-built, climate-controlled warehouse called Cobham Hall. The store was constructed just a few years ago, thanks to a multi-million-pound grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and has made an enormous difference to the internal operations of the museum. It is itself open to the public for two days of the year.

One of the items held in the hall is a 1917 aircraft carrier that has been cleaned up after being fished out of the Thames. This, the oldest surviving carrier, is now the subject of the museum's next big aspiration.

"The dream is to have it in a brand new entrance building," Graham explains, "on view with a Sopwith Camel fighter on top of it, making a very fundamental statement that aircraft fly from ships, because that's what we're about."

Partly because of the rainy summer perhaps, visitor numbers are dramatically up this year, but the museum team are not satisfied.

Graham says: "We are still frustrated that our marketing campaigns don't get over to people the size and scale, the dynamism, the entertainment level we've worked very hard for this museum to produce. Particularly with the 'Leading Edge' and the 'Carrier Experience', where we try to push back the boundaries and use modern technology in a way to encourage people to get involved and to have fun and to learn through entertainment - this is something we think is very important. People are very surprised on their first-time visits about the scale, the size and the innovation we've shown here."

Prepare to be surprised - a visit is certainly an experience.

The museum is located seven miles north of Yeovil on the B3151, just off the A303 and A37. It is open daily in October 10am-5.30pm and Cobham Hall, the reserve collection, is open on 25 October. The museum then continues to be open throughout the winter Weds-Sun 10am-4.30pm. Tel 01935 840565, www.fleetairarm.com. Visit the museum on 13 October and go to the Somerset Heritage Roadshow, a collaboration between museums across Somerset offering the chance to discover more about the county's history. Entry for the Roadshow is free (11am-4pm) and tickets to the Fleet Air Arm Museum will be half price (tel 01823 320203).

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