Hidden away in a nondescript industrial estate in the French town of Albert lies L’Epopee de l’Industrie et de l’Aeronautique – unknown to many who pass through. This collection of aircraft, vehicles and other varied items may be off the beaten track but is it worth seeking it out? Adam Duffield takes a look at the collection and some of its hidden gems.
During the First World War, the town of Albert and the surrounding areas were the site of intense fighting during the Battle of the Somme. Those with an interest in First World War history will have no doubt visited the area’s battlegrounds and numerous memorials including Beaumont-Hamel, Delville Wood, the Lochnagar Crater and, perhaps the most poignant, the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval. Albert itself is home to the Somme 1916 museum and the golden statue atop the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières – a landmark visible for miles as it rises high across the flat landscape surrounding the town.
But, hidden on the outskirts of the town is a collection of aircraft and other items that has been built up privately over the years. Those used to the ‘brown signs’ directing you to museums in the UK will be surprised to find nothing (not even a small sign!) at the end of the narrow road that leads up to the aircraft which can’t be seen from the main road – this really is a museum that you have to know about to locate.
Upon arrival, the cockpit section of an Air Inter schemed Dassault Mercure 100 (F-BTTG) attached to one of the three display hangars stands out with the wings and engines painted onto the backdrop of the wall. Entrance to the museum itself may also be a strange approach for many – whilst it may be classified as a museum, it may be better termed as a collection and, as such, there doesn’t appear to be any ‘formal’ opening times. Instead, prior booking of a visit is said to be essential as otherwise its hit and miss if the gates will be open. However, with the prior booking (and very modest €10 entrance price per adult) a tour of the display items is also offered, albeit in French.
Split up into three hangars and a reasonably sized number of external exhibits, there is plenty to see. Almost all of the collection’s aviation items represent the various French manufacturers and types produced over the years, most representing the time period from the 1950s onwards.
The largest aircraft in the collection is a Sud Aviation Caravelle III (F-BHRY). Still displayed in its Air France colours, it is one of the only aircraft where access to the interior is permanently possible giving a chance not only to see the retro style cabin but also the remarkably complete cockpit.
Joining it outside are a pair of Dassault Flamants with an example of both training (148/319-DE) and transport (275/316-KC) variants. It is however the impressive collection of three complete Nord Noratlas transports (54/63-WX, 97/63-WB and 184/328-EO) that dominate the external area along with the fuselage of another example (125) on display. Developed after the Second World War to form the basis of the French Air Force transport fleet, the type saw a distinguished career with the force and saw use in other roles including an electronic warfare and paradropping variant – something recognised by the Paratroop museum contained within the fuselage section of 125. The twin boom tail and clamshell doors at the rear give it a distinctive shape and, with a fifth example on display inside one of the hangars, the collection is the largest of the type in France and, quite possibly, the world. Also situated outside is a Lockheed T-33 (35339/XC) and Dassault Mirage IIIE (449/QL) both with their front wheels propped up for display purposes. An Airbus Flight Simulator unit can also be found outside the hangars – something very different to usual displays.
Heading over to the two main display hangars it becomes clearer that the collection is more than just aircraft. The largest of the hangars has three open sides and, on first glance, looks to have almost been built around some of the larger display items such as a Douglas C-47B (44-76420). This aircraft actually carries the scheme of USAAF aircraft 42-108979 and nose art of ‘Eightball II’ that was involved with D-Day paradropping operations over France. Two other large aircraft dominate your view of the hangar’s interior on first view – a fifth example of a Noratlas (189/316-FN) and a Dassault Mirage IVP (25/AX). The Noratlas itself it somewhat different to the others on show as it is one of the few RNR (Radio Navigation Radar) variants built and easily distinguished by the bulbous radome on the nose. The Mirage IVP is significantly larger than similarly named stablemates and during many of its years in service the type formed the backbone of France’s airborne nuclear strike capability. Whilst this role was withdrawn in 1996, the example on display continued flying reconnaissance missions with Escadron de chasse 1/91 ‘Gascogne‘ until retirement in mid-2000.
In total, the collection has six examples of the Mirage on display covering five variants. Sitting side by side in the main hangar, along with a number of other prominent fighter examples, are a Mirage IIIE (515/3-JN) in the markings of Escadron de chasse 2/3 ‘Champagne’ and a F1C (20/12-ZN) wearing the colours of EC 3/12 ‘Cornouaille’ based at Cambrai-Epinoy. With the two jets sat next to one another it is a perfect opportunity to compare and contrast the two – the F1 being developed from Mirage III. Lined up alongside this Mirage pair are a North American F-100D Super Sabre (42272/11-EF) and two other Dassault designs – a Super- Mystère B 2 (113/12-YQ) and M.D.450R Ouragan – the latter being not only the first French designed jet fighter but also the only example of the reconnaissance variant built. Directly opposite this line up of indigenous French fighters is one of only a handful of exhibits from a foreign air force the museum – ex-Swiss Air Force Hunter F.58A (J-4107). Of course, with a collection covering so many French designed and/or built types, it wouldn’t be complete without an example of the SEPECAT Jaguar and both types in use with the French Air Force are represented – the single seat Jaguar A variant (A15) and the two seat trainer Jaguar E (E35/7-HY). The distinctive Vee-tailed Fouga Magister is also represented with a dusty Patrouille de France schemed example (459) tucked under the wings of the C-47B.
Rotary assets are few and far between within the collection but two very different platforms are shown in this main hangar with the most interesting being a Sud-Ouest S.O.1221 Djinn (FR144). Whilst from a distance this many look like a standard helicopter, it isn’t until you get closer than the unusual propulsion system is noticeable. Rather than a conventional solution of a gearbox driving the rotorhead, the Djinn used compressed air nozzles on tips of the rotor blades to generate propulsion. Whilst other manufacturers attempted to implement similar systems in their designs, the Djinn was the only design to make it into production and subsequently saw service with the French Army. The second rotary example on show in this area is that of Sikorsky H-34A Choctaw (SA59/68-DK) in faded Escadron d’Helicopteres 1/68 ‘Pyrénées’ markings.
However, as stated earlier, the hangar’s aviation related exhibits are far from the only items on show. In amongst the aircraft are numerous cars, engines and other industrial exhibits. From Bentleys to vintage American saloon cars, military 4x4s and even an old American style fire engine, almost every inch of the hangar contains ‘something’ making it very difficult to get clear, unobstructed views of the aircraft.
The same is also true of the remaining two hangars and, moving on to the one directly next door a significant collection of vintage cycles is housed within alongside plenty of other items. Immediate attention on entering is drawn to three examples of German Air Force fighters that represent the diverse range of types used over the years – the distinctive stub winged Lockheed F-104G Starfighter (21+96), the Italian designed Fiat G91R/3 (30+93) and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21SPS. Just some of the types operated by Germany prior to reunification in 1990.
Completing the collection of Mirages are IIIRD (358/128-TG) and IIIC (27/3.10-LE) tucked tightly in together facing opposite directions. The IIIC is in a beautiful desert camouflage scheme applied to aircraft under Escadron de Chasse 3/10 ‘Vexin’ while based at Djibouti on air defence duties however, it’s position in the museum makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible to get a clear view of. In contrast, the IIIRD is positioned in such a way the camera system housed within the nose can be viewed up close and set of steps allow a view inside the (closed) cockpit.
The collection also has three Max Holste Broussard on show, however only one of the machines – which was designed originally for the French Army – is as a complete airframe (315/F-GIFZ) with the other two (290 and 198 which is housed in the larger hangar) in many parts. Many other small French types from Nord are also present with a pair of Nord NC.856A Norvigie (108/F-SDYS and 26), a further pair of Nord 3400 (100 and 20) and a complete Nord N1203 Norecrin (F-BBET) amongst those present. Other notable airframes also include an ex-Indian Air Force de Havilland FB.52 Vampire (IB-427) in a French Air Force scheme, a second Fouga Magister (24/3-KB) and two French Army rotary assets – an Augusta Bell AB47G (046/BDS) and Sikorsky H-19D Chickasaw (55-3181/ABY). Unlike the larger hangar, every inch of space is used including the walls and ceiling to display items with numerous examples of wing sections, complete or otherwise, hung from the sides alongside multiple glider fuselages.
The final hangar contains only a single complete aircraft – a 1948-built Nord N1101 Noralpha (F-BLQV) nestled in amongst an incredible collection of other aviation memorabilia. Display cases packed from top to bottom with models greet you on entry whilst larger scale models are sat on top of it and hung from the ceiling – in fact, perched wherever possible. Engines and other sections of aircraft are placed around the edges of the floor (alongside over 250 vintage sewing machines!) while posters covering all aspects of aviation adorn the walls. Perhaps one of the most interesting items on display is (what appears to be) a replica front section of a Couzinet 70. This tri-engined monoplane was designed in the 30’s for use by the French Postal Service and is displayed with a number of historical documents covering its role and the life of the designer, René Couzinet.
If you are used to museums in the UK, the L’Epopee de l’Industrie et de l’Aeronautique will certainly feel very different and, in the eyes of the author, very much feels like a personal collection rather than a museum. Whilst photography may be tough and the aircraft surrounded by a wide range of non-aviation items, it is still more than worthwhile to visit the excellent selection of types on display not least for the wide variety of Mirage, Noratlas and other Nord aircraft displayed. And, with it being more of a collection, there are no pesky barriers to block your path – this really is a collection to get in amongst, explore and experience. However, if you are looking to go, make sure to get in touch around a month before your visit to ensure that the museum will be open for you – without prior notice, it is more than possible you will find yourself unable to gain entry.