We had our grandson, Alfie, visiting over the weekend so I thought I would take him along to the Gatwick Aviation Museum to look at the planes there. In all the time I have lived here I have never got round to visiting before so I figured it was about time. I also decided to take my camera along, having realised that I haven’t used it at all this year.
This is a place I would have loved to visit when I was about 12, and fortunately I turned into a 12-year-old when I got there.It really is a strange place though, and not like most other museums. I think that it is really just a private collection put together by an enthusiast that allows visitors in sometimes. Various volunteers spend their time working on the planes, so when you visit you might find some planes inaccessible, but still visible, like the Buccaneer on the day we went. I have a bit of a soft spot for the Buccaneer because I made an Airfix model of it when I was a lad and it was one of my favourites, with its folding wings for use on a carrier and its revolving bomb bay doors.
The museum is free to visit, but they recommend a donation which is fair enough. I doubt the donations add up to much though because it was not very busy there, even though it is only open one day a week at the moment. During our visit I think there were only one or maybe two other small groups of visitors.
So what is there? The most obvious thing is the airplanes themselves, about a dozen of them just standing around. No information boards obscuring your view and no barriers to keep you from touching them (unless there is work going on of course). There is also a large hut, or series of joined huts, with displays in them.
One display is a room full of various engines, which is not as dull as it sounds. It was particularly interesting to see the Harrier engine and be able to see how it all works with its four outlets. This part of the collection also has the cockpit from some small plane which kids of all ages can go in and pretend to fly.
There is a room all about Gatwick airport, with pictures and a model of the original Beehive terminal building and all sorts of memorabilia, including newspaper cuttings, that show the development of the airport from a small local airfield to the large international airport that it is today. I imagine the curators are following current developments closely to see if they need to expand the display to cover future growth. I did ask about that, and whether the proposed plans for expansion would affect the museum. Apparently the current plans wouldn’t affect it, after some changes to the plans a couple of weeks ago.
Elsewhere, there are displays about some of the airlines that were based at Gatwick, like British Caledonian, Dan Air and Air Europe, with models of their planes, promotional materials, uniforms, and anything they could lay their hands on.
Elsewhere there are loads of unlabelled things all over the place, including piles of gauges and electronic stuff taken from old planes, and hundreds of models. Most of the smaller models are in a couple of giant glass cases – about the only things that are protected from wandering hands.
You name it and there is probably a model of it in there somewhere: Spitfire, Vulcan, Lancaster, 747, of course, but also things like the Comet. How I wish they had a Comet amongst the collection, but so far they have only got military planes. Ironically, they are probably easier to lay hands on than civil aircraft.
There are some iconic planes in the small collection like the Lightning and the Harrier, but the centrepiece is really the Avro Shackleton, not a plane I really knew anything about before. To my eyes it doesn’t look much different to WWII bombers like the Halifax or Lancaster but in fact it only entered service in the 50s and some were still in use as late as the 1990s! This means that people who flew in them are still around and some of them are present to show visitors around and explain everything.
We had an ex-navigator on hand to answer questions and tell us about the various aspects of the plane. For example, the one we were in actually had a couple of jet engines fitted as well as the propellors. Somehow the outer engines had Rolls Royce Vipers fitted to supplement the power, but for various reasons they could only be used for about 10 minutes in a mission, so a bit like having nitro boost on a car I suppose.
You can go inside the plane and explore right from the back, through the area where the technicians worked, up to the cockpit and beyond to the front turret. This is certaintly not wheelchair-friendly! The interior is very cramped, and you can only imagine what it was like spending 10 hours in there with 10 people – although the guide told us that there were times, like during the Suez crisis, when the Shackletons were also used to carry troops so could have up to 30 paratroopers crammed in alongside a skeleton crew of 5.
In terms of the size of the collection, the Gatwick museum can’t really compete with the likes of Duxford but the sheer informality of the place gives it a certain charm. You couldn’t really spend a whole day there, but I am surprised how few people visit out of the many thousands who live within 5 or 10 miles of it, because it is well worth spending an hour or two there.