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The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm Museum is situated, with startling logic, twenty miles or more from the sea. It is a massive place and, if you haven’t already guessed, it tells the story of the Royal Navy in the air: oh, come on – you know what I mean… The museum opened in 1964 and is actually on an operational Fleet Air Arm base, Royal Naval Air Station, Yeovilton, Somerset, also known as HMS Heron.
The British Admiralty was looking into the usefulness of aircraft as early as 1903. In 1909, it appointed the firm of Vickers to design and build an airship. In 1912, the first aircraft took off from a British warship, HMS Africa (the US Navy achieved this in 1910) and, later that year, the Royal Flying Corps, the air arm of the British fighting services, was founded with military and naval wings (pun intended). In 1914, the Royal Naval Air Service was formed, under the direct control of the Admiralty, with the RFC continuing as the flying branch of the Army. In 1918, the RNAS and RFC were merged to create a separate Royal Air Force and, in 1924, the Fleet Air Arm was created within this. In 1939, control of the Fleet Air Arm passed completely to the Admiralty, where it remains to this day.
The Fleet Air Arm Museum has more than 100 ‘airframes’ in its collection, dating from 1909 to modern times, and it displays the best, as well as other items and artefacts, in four large halls and a dozen or more particular exhibitions. These range from the very early days of powered flight and the First World War, battling Zeppelin airships, through the Second World War, including the Battle of the Atlantic, the Korean War (1950-53) and the Falklands War of 1982, right up to the Gulf Wars, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
So the Fleet Air Arm has a reasonably long, and certainly proud, history. It is also natural to associate this with aircraft carriers, which of course enable a state to operate fixed-wing aircraft far from home, without relying on land bases. The first aircraft carriers were adapted from ships built for other purposes. The first purpose-designed aircraft carrier in the world was the Royal Navy’s HMS Hermes – though design changes and other delays meant that this was not commissioned until 1924: so, the quiz books will rightly tell you that first aircraft carrier in the world was the Hōshō, launched for the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1922.
One of the highlights of the museum is the award-winning Carrier exhibition. This astonishingly ambitious display recreates a section of an aircraft carrier’s flight-deck as well as the ‘island’ – the bridge, where visitors can walk through departments going about their duties operating aircraft at sea, staffed by Royal Navy mannequins. Our own experience would have been more fascinating without the anti-social antics of a few obnoxious teenage schoolboys, too immature to be allowed out, really, whose inadequate teachers seemed unable, or unwilling, to control. I am not a violent man; but it was a close thing… They could not spoil the flight deck, however, which seemed vast and is intended to represent the flight deck of the renowned carrier, HMS Ark Royal. You are ‘transported’ there by a mock-up helicopter. With about ten aircraft and a background of sound-effects and projectors, it succeeds in being simultaneously interesting and dramatic as well as, to be honest, a little scary; tremendous!
The Fleet Air Arm Museum says that, “The aircraft carrier experience was created with the intention of showing naval aircraft in their natural home, the aircraft carrier.” Hmm. Given that statement, the history of Royal Navy aircraft carriers, and assuming that these highly expensive bits of kit are still considered necessary in our ever-shrinking world, it is kind of surprising that Her Majesty’s Government decided the Royal Navy could rub along without one for a decade or so. The last fixed-wing aircraft to take off from a British carrier did so in November 2010 and the ship, HMS Ark Royal, was decommissioned in March 2011. Two new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are due to be operational by 2020. It takes between 5 and 9 years to build an aircraft carrier. Is it not comforting that we pay for minds so bright they accurately predicted that aircraft carriers would become surplus to requirements in 2011, but that changing circumstances would mean they will be needed again by 2020? Only a cynic would suggest that this is either a colossal bungle in defence planning, if carriers are needed, or a colossal waste of money if they’re not. Meanwhile, the only aircraft the Fleet Air Arm can operate at sea are helicopters.
Among the twenty one unique aircraft in the museum’s possession is Concorde 002, the first British prototype of this fabulous airliner, worthy of the word ‘iconic’. Not without reason – and I certainly can’t tell you – few people are aware of Concorde’s close association with the Fleet Air Arm – but who cares? Only 20 Concordes, a joint venture between Britain and France which began in 1962, were ever built. Concorde 002 first flew in 1969 and last flew in 1976. It achieved a maximum speed of Mach 2.05, roughly 1,350 mph. Outside, it is so graceful; inside it is unexpectedly, but unsurprisingly, small – and basic. I assume the passenger versions were rather better fitted out, but imagine it would still be buttock-rubbingly cosy in the cabin. The first commercial flight of Concorde took place on 21st January 1976 when Concordes operated by British Airways and Air France flew from London Heathrow to Bahrain and Paris-Charles de Gaulle to Rio de Janeiro. The first flight to the USA was on 24th May 1976 to Washington: it took 3½ hours; today’s normal non-stop flight time, in a Boeing 747 for example, is 7–8 hours. The fastest transatlantic Concorde crossing was 2 hours 52 minutes on 7th February 1996 from New York to London. The last commercial flight was in 2003.
I met a Concorde pilot once; he had a collection of little plastic aeroplanes in his office.
The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm Museum is a great rainy-day option if you’re in the Dorset/Somerset area, but is in any event a really excellent museum. It is exceptionally well laid-out, with a good blend of just looking at and hands-on material, large exhibits (of course) and small. Judging by the reactions of our fellow visitors, young and old, somehow, the Royal Navy has managed to design a museum that obviously excites and engages children, without patronising everyone else or forgetting that adults are visitors too. It’s a strategy other museums could learn from. You can easily spend a whole day at the Fleet Air Arm Museum; another option not far away, if you’re so inclined, is the Tank Museum at Bovington…