A museum with an international flavour

This museum forms Trail 26 of our tour around Britain’s aviation past. It is of particular interest to me, not just because of its aviation heritage, but because it’s not far from where I was brought up. Indeed, I was born in the City of Coventry, a mere three miles or so from here. After about 6 months we moved away to more leafy surroundings but the influence of Coventry was not left behind.

More importantly though, my father, my inspiration and the man who gave me my love of aviation, worked here at Baginton on the Argosy for Armstrong Whitworth, an aviation company long since gone. A dear friend of his, also worked here on some secret aircraft, so secret my father sadly never saw it.

DSC_0105

The main building; the Sir Frank Whittle Heritage Centre.

Of course, this area is steeped in aviation history. The Jet engine was developed around here, Sir Frank Whittle’s name is used in his honour for a number of pubs and industrial sites across the region. I used to live not far from Lutterworth, famed for ‘Bitteswell’ where many test flight were made for AW, modifications were carried out to Britain’s Vulcans, Buccaneers, Gnats and Hawks to name but a few all under the name of British Aerospace. Also not far from my home was Whetstone, which had the first purpose-built jet engine factory. Coventry itself was a main target for the Luftwaffe suffering great casualties and damage during the blitz and the Cathedral ruins now stand as a monument to those who lost their lives during those terrible times. The former Standard (Later British Leyland) Motor works here built over 1000 Mosquitos and a number of other aircraft parts were made in this area. Baginton itself produced heavy bombers such as the Whitley and the Lancaster, Dunlop has a factory here as does Rolls Royce. Coventry and the area around it is steeped in both wartime and aviation history.

So Baginton holds good links to my past, and it has been far too long since I was there. So, whilst in the area, I decided to take a detour and visit the Midland Air Museum, Coventry.

DSC_0028

The cargo hold of the Argosy

The museum is located to the northern side of Baginton (Coventry) Airport and has utilised this site since 1975. It originally had only five exhibits when it opened but has grown  into the enormous collection it is today, holding around 40 airframes and various exhibits including: helicopters, a range of aircraft engines, cockpits, galleries and a vast collection of models. The main building, the ‘Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre‘ is not only the main building for the displays and  engines but holds a dedicated exhibition of Sir Frank Whittle’s remarkable work.

In here, are a vast number of photographs, letters and other documents relating to the creation and development of the Jet Engine. It takes you through, step by step, the process of development of the engine, Frank Whittle’s life and the organisations that built and developed this major invention.

July 2015 006

Sir Frank Whittle and the early jet engine

The exhibition is housed in a small hangar crammed with jet engines amongst a small collection of aircraft. A meteor F-4 (and Mk 8 cockpit), a DH Vampire F-1, Saab J-29 and Lockheed’s T-33 being the most prominent. Cockpits other than the Meteor include that of the Harrier and a Canberra from RAF Wyton and some of these the visitor is free to sit in and experience what it was like as a pilot. Upstairs in this building, are displays of Baginton’s links with the air industry and local events of the Second World War. Again, photographs and documents relate the lives of those who lived through the war in the surrounding area. An absolute wealth of information here finished of with a huge range of well made models,

Sadly, most of the airframes are outside, some succumbing to the weather and all that the elements can throw at them. However, this aside, the range and selection of airframes is tremendous. Most models here come from the post war era, remnants of the Cold War. A Meteor night fighter stands next to the modern Tornado, A Gloster Javelin, A.W. Sea Hawk, D.H. Sea Vixen, Fairy Gannet and Harrier represent the great naval traditions of British aviation. From the RAF we have the Canberra, Hunter, Gnat, Percival’s Prentice, D.H. Beaver and two stunning E.E. Lightnings; a Saudi T-55 and a Binbrook F6 retired in 1988.

Many of these aircraft saw development in the years following the Second World War. The Canberra, first flown in 1949, served right up until 2007 and achieved many awards for altitude and performance flights. Used by Air Forces across the world, variants saw action over the Suez Canal, in Vietnam and in the Indo-Pakistan conflict in the late 1960s. Built under licence in the United States with a redesigned cockpit, the B-57 was admired by many. Production of the Canberra and its variants total around 1,500 and filled a number of roles with a variety of Air forces.

DSC_0035

The Boulton Paul P.111A bulit in one piece and designed to explore the aerodynamic properties of the Delta wing.

Baginton is not just limited to RAF types either. The USAF is also represented through several models, there’s the North American F-86A Sabre and F-100D Super Sabre,  McDonnell Douglas F-101B Voodoo and of course the famous McDonnell Douglas F-4c Phantom.

Initially designed as a carrier based aircraft, the Phantom was adopted by numerous air forces across the world including the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. First flown in 1958, it was so successful that it would continue to serve into the early 21st century; with production totaling nearly 6,000 – it was a major contribution to aviation history. Like other models here, the Phantom fulfilled a variety of roles, being continually adapted to meet new demands and challenges. Truly a great aircraft.

No Cold War exhibition would be complete without opposing aircraft. A MIL Mi-24D Hind helicopter with its formidable nose mounted cannon and gas turbine engine stands alongside  Russia’s highly proven  warrior, the Mig 21.

DSC_0074

A McDonnell Douglas F-101B Voodoo

The Midland Air Museum has a good international flavour to it. Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter, dubbedWitwenmacheror ‘Widowmaker’ because of its unforgiving nature, stands in Royal Danish Air Force colours, the Mig 21, East German, the Gnat in Finnish Air force markings and the French represented with Dassault’s Mystere IV.

However, amongst all this hardware, there are two airframes that stand out for me here at Baginton, and not for their size alone, Avro’s B2 Vulcan ‘City of Coventry’ XL 360 which stands in 617 Squadrons colours, a squadron it served with before retirement, and Armstrong Whitworth’s Argosy 650, of which this is the oldest surviving example. To see both, not only remind me of my younger days, but provide a link to my father whose memories are fading as each day goes by.

One of the delights of the Midland Air Museum is that you can sit for free (donations accepted) in many of the cockpits where knowledgable guides will talk you through its history and features, something rarely found elsewhere.

DSC_0036

Avro Vulcan B2 XL360 ‘City of Coventry’

To finish off your walk round, there is a small but clean and pleasant cafe, a shop that is filled to the brim with model kits, books and other mementos of your day. The staff are friendly and helpful, always a blessing.

Whilst some of the airframes are looking a little jaded, there is an extensive collection  to be found here, and for those interested in all things aviation, especially the development of the Jet engine; from the early days of the Sapphire, through to the Olympus, the Avon and the RB199 turbo fans of the Tornado; the Midland Air Museum has them all.

July 2015 021

Sisters sit side-by-side

Coventry Cathedral is about 3 miles from here, and if time permits, is also worthy of a visit.

Details of the museum can be found through their website.

Advertisements

RAF Sculthorpe – a relic of the Cold War.

In this second part of the Norfolk Trails, we visit three more of Norfolk’s treasures. Deep in the heart of Norfolk, two of them are very much complete, but the third is all but gone. However, all is not lost as it still an active private airfield, and some of its features have luckily survived.

The first of these three jewels on this trail is RAF Sculthorpe.

RAF Sculthorpe 

Located to the west of Norwich, Sculthorpe has its origins in the Second World War, but it has a larger claim to fame that it still retains to this day.

A once busy shop

A once busy shop now derelict and forgotten.

Designed initially as a heavy bomber site, and satellite to RAF West Raynham, Sculthorpe now has three runways one of 12,000ft and two of 6,000ft, all concrete. With its enormous technical and administration sites that housed up to 10,000 personnel, Sculthorpe was one of the biggest bases in Europe, an honour it retains to this day.

Sculthorpe had a limited Second World War life, being opened quite late in the war in January 1943. Following a years development and growth, it initially housed Mosquitos of 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) squadrons.  Originally based at Methwold, the Mosquito FB.VIs replaced the earlier and slower twin-engined Venturas. At Sculthorpe, these two units were joined by 21 Sqn who stayed until the following December, before moving on. Then the much heavier B-17s of 214 sqn moved in thus changing the role of RAF Sculthorpe. The B-17s were redesigned and adapted to assist in radio jamming trials, the early form of Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), the B-17 crews would also be joined by other personnel from the United States, who stayed carrying out this role, until just prior to the end of hostilities.

Accomodation Block

Barrack Block

It was really at this time that Sculthorpe came into its own. With the influx of crews from the States, more accommodation would be needed and quickly. A sustained period of redevelopment, improving of runways and hardstandings, saw Sculthorpe gain the designation of Very Heavy Bomber base. It was anticipated that the enormous Boeing B-29s would be stationed here, but when the war in Europe came to an end, further deployment at Sculthorpe ceased and the B29s never arrived. However, the rise in ‘Soviet Aggression’ and post conflict tensions during the Cold War and Berlin airlift, secured the immediate future of Sculthorpe. Atomic weapons were stored here ready, when the North American B-45 Tornado found itself becoming the front-line four engined bomber designed to attack Soviet targets from the UK. During 1952, the 47th Bomb Wing of the Strategic Air Command were redeployed here from the United States. This wing consisted of the 84th, 85th, and 86th BS, along with the 420th Refueling Sqn and the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance sqn. These units operated a number of types including the: B-45, B-66, KB-29, KB-50, and RB-45C aircraft.

Control Tower

The Control Tower in a setting sun.

Ninety day duty rotations saw aircraft like the mighty B-36 ‘Peacemaker’ fill the skies over Sculthorpe, until finally, political agreements and imposed de-escalation strategies between the Cold War factions, prevented further deployment of large-scale US bombers on European soil.

Gradually, as nuclear deterrents turned to missiles and naval based platforms, Sculthorpe’s activity began to slow. Being returned to RAF ownership in 1964, it was placed in care and maintenance, and held by only a small detachment of support staff. Then in the late 60s, the USAF returned once more, needing a base from which to operate its aircraft whilst other airfields were redeveloped and runways resurfaced. This brought new life to Sculthorpe, American F-4 Phantoms and C-130s were based here, along with other aircraft types from the RAF operating under similar circumstances. This process went on well into the late 1980s and Sculthorpe became a mecca for plane spotters for at least another few years.

Airmens huts

‘Hut 380’, a Second World War remnant.

This was not to last however, and Sculthorpe finally closed its doors in 1992, the enormous accommodation blocks and technical sites were sold off. Both these and many of the remaining buildings were left to decay, whilst planners gae thought to what they should be used for. However, like a phoenix, Sculthorpe returned from the dead yet again. The RAF, Army Air Corps and USAF using it for manoeuvres, with tilt wing aircraft, paratroops and rehearsals of supply drops over its enormous runways; much of this activity taking place at night. Even up until recently, C-130s have also been seen landing here, again rehearsing quick ‘stop-‘n’-go’ drops.

Looking at Sculthorpe, it is hard to believe its origins were in the Second World War. Being a real monster of the Cold War, Sculthorpe is clinging on by the skin of its teeth. The accommodation blocks that once housed 10,000 personnel are decaying and vandalised, refurbished areas are now sold off and accommodating local families. A small industrial area has been developed from the technical area, and the local farmer grazes his cows on the far reaches of the site. Many of the older orignal buildings have been left to rot and fall down. The American authorities still retain some ownership of the site, whilst a large part of it is in private hands.

Technical site buildings

A large part of Sculthorpe has been left to rot, piece by piece.

The original guard-house is no longer manned, and a number of other buildings close by are also empty. A small public track that once took eager plane spotters to the rear of the airfield, still allows views across the north of the now quiet site where a blister hangar continues to stand alone. The control tower is still intact visible in the distance from this point, as are a number of original Nissan huts and Second World War buildings hidden amongst new buildings and old developments.

Reunion 'memorial'

In remembrance of the 47th BW, 50th anniversary reunion, 2002.

Sculthorpe was once a bustling airfield, home to some of the world’s heaviest bombers, a mecca for aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters alike. Today, it is a decaying industrial site, a mix of old buildings and new developments, a remnant of the Cold War, it clings on to life by the skin of its teeth, maybe, just maybe, the Phoenix will rise up once more and spring into life again.

Blister Hangar

Sculthorpe’s remaining Blister hangar in a low setting sun.

From Sculthorpe, we travel a few miles south, a stones throw, to its sister station and another post war relic – RAF West Raynham.