Planes, planes and more planes

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August 26th 2014
Published: September 1st 2014
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American Air Museum, IWM DuxfordAmerican Air Museum, IWM DuxfordAmerican Air Museum, IWM Duxford

An astounding collection of aircraft - the black tail of the B52 is just visible.
A day out at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford (near the famous university city of Cambridge) is a Big Day Out. The blurb said "there is much more than most people can see in a day" and boy, they were not wrong. We gave it a red hot go but failed. I'm told the Smithsonian in Washington has an astounding display of historic aircraft and spacecraft, but this place would go close. About the only thing missing from this UK version is a Space Shuttle.

Spread across a number of hangers and other historic buildings along the airfield, the museum is home to every conceivable British aircraft since the dawn of flight, a (small) piece of the Wright Bros Flyer, the American Air Museum (AAM), a land warfare exhibition, Battle of Britain ops room and host of other exhibits. On the day we visited, which fell during UK school hols, we were also lucky enough to see flying displays from a Spitfire and early fighter jet (the name of which escapes me, probably horrifying the purists). No extra cost, no crowds of people to fight through as per airshows I've been to at Avalon and Temora, and a
SR71 BlackbirdSR71 BlackbirdSR71 Blackbird

Mean...just mean...
great spectacle to boot.

With the war anniversaries currently underway, there was a big focus on aviation in both wars (the machines and human cost on both sides). The displays were measured and balanced. For example, while there is recognition of the 'Blitz spirit' which London and other areas of the UK are known for (and the fact German bombing raids killed 60,000 during WWII) the museum points out a single Anglo-American raid killed more people in a single night in one raid on the city of Hamburg than were killed in London during the entire war. Overall, allied bombing raids killed a staggering 750,000 in Germany and 500,000 Japanese (many, but not not most, in the two atomic bomb drops).

One of the grandest exhibits is the American Air Museum, housed in a purpose built giant enclosed concrete hanger and home to a phenomenal array of aircraft jostling for space on the group and suspended from the ceiling. Pride of place (and proving the American do everything from meal sizes to aircraft 'big', is a massive B52 Stratofortress bomber, dominating the space. The aircraft type first flew in 1952 and is expected to
Air and Space exhibit, IWM DuxfordAir and Space exhibit, IWM DuxfordAir and Space exhibit, IWM Duxford

Giving the yanks a run for their money - it can't be seen here but they managed to fit a Concorde in amongst this lot!
remain operational with the USAF until 2030, carrying nuclear weapons 'just in case'. I'm not sure if that is reassuring or not! While it's difficult to pick favourites with all the metal on display, the other aircraft which attracted attention was the once secretive SR 71 Blackbird spy plane, which holds the record for height and speed for powered flight - nearly 26km high and more than 3,500km/hr (faster than a Concorde, which is also on display at the museum complete with escape chutes to be used by the test crew in the event of catastrophic failure during early flight tests).

In another part of the hall is the venerable F111, retired from armed combat within the USAF in 1992 but still flying with the RAAF up until 2010 - which just shows how long we are prepared to keep flying 'old' tech we get from the yanks!

In the UK Air and Space exhibit (which we'd left way too little time for) was a plethora of UK aircraft, including a Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR3 (jump jet) Dad made parts for back in Brough years ago. He also had a crack at the morse key in the historic comms section, proving he's still got it! Not sure the exhibit is used to a professional having a crack! There was enough time for an interior inspection of one or the three Concorde aircraft used to test the supersonic flight concept (the other two are in France) before heading for our train to Birmingham after a solid six hours on the airfield.

Of the Museums visited so far on our trip, this was the pick by far, particularly if you like aircraft. Even to those with a passing interest (yours truly) this was very impressive. And like most museums here, they have gone above and beyond to create engaging exhibits and activities for kids. It's not a cheap day out (it's out of the way and entry is £17 for adults, kids free) but highly recommended. In the 'don't miss' category.


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