The RAF Museum Hendon was opened in 1972 on the site of the former Hendon Aerodrome and now contains a significant collection of historically important airframes and types. Adam Duffield explores the treasures within for AeroResource.
Conveniently located on the North Western edge of London and only a few miles inside the M25, just off the M1, the RAF Museum at Hendon is very easily accessible not only by car but also rail and bus. The museum is one of a small number that are free to enter however a small charge does apply for parking.
From the moment you enter the car park, the size of the museum becomes apparent. Greeted by an ex-Royal Oman Air Force Hunter and a very British pairing of a Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane (albeit both replicas), you park in the middle of the museum complex. The main entrance to the display hangars is easily found due to a large sculpture called ‘Sky Dance’ designed by Kisa Kawakami to emulate vapour trails in the sky. Upon entering and being confronted by a vertically mounted, chromed Spitfire a set of stairs leads to an upper walkway that marks the start of the Milestones of Flight hangar.
This hangar is dedicated to the display of significant aircraft and the developments throughout a century of powered flight; the hangar was opened in 2003 to coincide with the century milestone. The upper walkway allows a perfect view over the entire area and is the first real impression of the museum; it also displays how much is crammed into the areas available. A mock up air traffic control tower is also in this area, up another flight of stairs, with information available of the various roles that are carried out by RAF personnel working within that field. The walkway itself forms an ‘L’ shape along one side of the hangar allowing a clear view of ceiling mounted aircraft before taking you down to the ground level displays. Along one wall length is also an impressive timeline providing aviation milestones for each year of the centenary that the hangar celebrates. At the time of the visit (late Jan 2014) it was also home to a display of 2013 RAF Photographic Competition winners featuring some impressive images.
A short covered walkway leads from the first hangar into the second – the Bomber Hall. At the time of the visit work to the building was being carried out therefore one corner was inaccessible resulting in displays being slightly miss-placed. As well as a display section relating to the Dambusters, numerous displays reflect on the achievements of RAF bomber command and their American counterparts during World War Two. As suggested by the name, an impressive collection of bombers, old and modern, is gathered within and given the size of the airframes space is truly at a premium. The collections Avro Vulcan is a perfect example where it is positioned facing a corner with the tip of the probe less than a foot from the walls.
Walking through a wide opening in the centre of the hall leads into the adjoining Historic Hangars, which is also home to a small cafe. This area is split into five sections named Whirling Rotors, Wings over Water, Fighters, Jets and The RAF Overseas with a clear path to walk around them all. A small number of raised platforms/stairs allow viewing into a few of the cockpits and there is also a mock-up forward section of a Chinook (marked as the infamous Bravo November) for visitors to look at. Aircraft in this area cover a wide expanse of aviation history from the 1930’s era Bristol F.2B right up to the EH101 Merlin demonstrator. After finishing in this area, the exit leads through an extensively stocked shop back out into the car park, completing the largest section of hangars that form the three different areas of the site.
Directly across from the exit and easily visible is the Battle of Britain Hall that also contains the main museum restaurant. After walking through a short diorama designed to give a small insight into life during the war visitors are led out into one half of the hangar containing both allied and axis aircraft of the battle. This area also contains a large statue of Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Park who, as Air Vice Marshall at the time, commanded No. 11 Group of the RAF providing defence of London and the South East. Whilst the hangar is mostly dedicated to the Battle of Britain a section also covers the Battle of the Atlantic and includes a walkthrough of a Shorts Sunderland. Also within this area is a memorial named ‘The Few’ dedicated to those that lost their life either during combat or as a consequence of during the Battle of Britain along with a mezzanine floor level containing a gallery of paintings relating to the subjects.
The final area of the museum is the Grahame-White Hangar, dedicated to the memory Claud Grahame-White, a pioneer of British aviation. Claud used Hendon as a flying school base before setting up his own aircraft factory. The hangar itself is part of the original factory and was relocated to its current position by the RAF Museum. In keeping with the aviation age that Grahame-White was involved in, the hangar contains aircraft and artefacts from around the World War 1 period and shows the amazing workmanship involved in the design and build of the aircraft.
Boasting a collection of over 100 aircraft, RAFM Hendon covers almost every aspect of aviation you can imagine however there is an obvious focus on the RAF. From early gyrocopters and observation balloons to the latest in operational fighters, the museum contains many examples of airframes, including –
Handley Page Halifax Mk.II (W1048) – On 27th April 1943 this aircraft, also known as ‘S for Sugar’ departed RAF Kinloss as part of a planned attack on the infamous German battleship Tirpitz and, after being damaged by defensive fire, crash landed on the frozen Lake Hoklingen. Recovered in 1973 the airframe is displayed in the condition it was found and is one of the most evocative pieces in the museum.
deHavilland DH9A (F1010) – Veteran aircraft of recent wars may be relatively common however this DH9A saw active service during World War 1 and is the only example of its type remaining. F1010 was on of the aircraft assigned to No.110 (Hyderabad) Squadron, named after His Serene Highness, the Nizam of Hyderbad. Carrying out bombing raids over areas such as Frankfurt, Cologne and Buhl whilst operating from Bettoncourt, France, it was forced to land in German territory in October 1918. Displayed in museums in Berlin and then Poland, it was rescued in a sorry state by the RAFM in 1977 and underwent heavy restoration to todays state.
Westland Wessex HCC.Mk4 (XV732) – Built in 1969, this was the penultimate Wessex built and was configured for VIP use, specifically with the Queens Flight, which was based at RAF Benson at the time. The records kept for the airframes passengers are exceptionally detailed and include regular flights by HRH Princess Anne, HRH Prince of Wales and the Queen Mother along with numerous government dignitaries. Prince Philip also piloted XV732 for a number of flights over the years however it wasn’t until 10th August 1977 that Queen Elizabeth herself flew on the aircraft.
English Electric Canberra PR3 (WE139) – The PR3 was the first production photo-reconnaissance version of the Canberra produced and operated by the RAF. The airframe on display at Hendon took part in the 1953 London to Christchurch air race, also known as ‘The Last Great Air Race’. Crewed by Flight Lieutenant Roland Burton (pilot) and Flight Lieutenant Don Gannon (navigator), they completed the race in a total time of 23 hours 50 minutes and 42 seconds taking both the overall and speed title with a record that still stands to this day.
Messerschmitt Bf110G-4 (730301) – Believed to be built in 1944, this aircraft served with 1 Staffel of Nachtjagdgeschwader 3 during the war carrying out night patrols over Denmark and Northern Germany. It was surrendered to the Allies in May 1945 in Denmark and was transported back to RAF Brize Norton for evaluation of the type prior to being placed in long-term storage. This is the only remaining Bf110G in existence and one of only two complete, original airframes in existence.
Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer S.2B (XW547) – First taking to the skies in 1958, the Buccaneer was an aircraft designed for low-level strike attacks. Whilst the type entered service with the Royal Navy, XW547 was one of the initial batch ordered by the RAF and entered service at the end of 1972. As well as being part of the longest Buccaneer flight in history (Lossiemouth to Ascension, March 1983) the aircraft is also a Gulf War veteran and still carries the distinctive colour scheme and ‘Guinness Girl’ nose art from its service.
Messerschmitt Me-262A (112372) – As the world’s first jet powered fighter, the Me-262 is deserving of its place in the Milestones of Flight hangar. Delivered to the Luftwaffe just before the end of World War 2, the true history of the airframe is still unclear. It was however brought back to the UK after the war for a period of evaluation at Farnborough before being retired in 1947. Having been previously displayed at RAFM Cosford, it carries scheme of ‘Yellow 4’ applied in 2003 following new information about its potential identity.
With the large number of aircraft on display there is so much to see and every aircraft holds its own impressive history detailed on its information board. In the Milestones of Flight hangar a full spectrum of aircraft are covered. From the pre-WW1 Nulli Secundus airship replica through to the very latest Lockheed Martin F-35 mock-up other examples include a Bleriot XI (164), Hawker Tempest (NV778), Gloster Meteor F9 (DG202/G) and Eurofighter Typhoon (ZH588), the second of the types development aircraft.
The Bomber Hall contains aircraft mostly related to the World War II era such as Consolidated Liberator B24 (KN751), Fairey Battle (L5343), B25 Mitchell (34037) and Heinkel He162 (120227). One of the stand out pieces is the Avro Lancaster (R5868) which dominates the centre of the hall guarding the entrance to the Historic Hangar. Moving through to that area brings you into one of the most varied sections of the museum. The distinctively shaped Bristol Belvedere HC1 (XG474) and EHI Merlin (ZJ116/G-OIOI) dominate the rotary section, as does the Supermarine Stranraer (920) in the Wings over Water section, which amongst others also includes the Bristol Beaufort VIII (DD931) and Lockheed Hudson IIIa (A16-199) that was used by the Royal Australian Air Force. The remaining hull section of Supermarine Southampton (N9899) on display is a perfect example of the skill and workmanship that went into wooden framed aircraft with the wood panelling all visible. Within the Fighter Aircraft collection are some examples of well-known types such as Curtiss Kittyhawk IV (FX760), Supermarine Spitfire F24 (PK724) and Mk.Vb (BL614), Republic P47 Thunderbolt (KL216), Hawker Hunter (XG154) and Panavia Tornado F.3 (ZE887).
Aircraft on display within the Battle of Britain hall all centre around the obvious theme and, as expected, include examples of the RAF’s dominant fighters in the form of Hawker Hurricane Mk.I (P2617) and Supermarine Spitfire Mk.I (X4590) however it is the collection of German aircraft that may stand out more for some. Single engined Messerschmitt Bf109E (4101/DG200) and Junkers Ju87G ‘Stuka’ (494083) can be seen close up along with the larger twin engined Heinkel He111 (701152) and Junkers Ju88 (360043). A very nice matt black Boulton Paul Defiant Mk.I (N1671) carrying Polish Air Force markings is also within this area representing the link to other nationalities and forces that operated during the battle. Within the smaller Battle of the Atlantic section of the hall the main display is that of the Short Sunderland MR5 (ML824) which includes a walkthrough of the airframe.
The Grahame-White hangar contains some of the oldest aircraft in the collection and represents a wide range of types used during World War 1. Given the age of some of the models, its not unsurprising that original aircraft no longer exist and, as a result, a number of those on display are actually replicas such as Bristol M1c (C4994), Vickers FB5 (2345), Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter and Royal Aircraft Factory RE8. However some originals have withstood the test of time including Caudron G.III (3066), Sopwith Triplane (N5912), Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a (F938) and Bleriot XXVII (433) that was built in 1911.
With aircraft all being held inside, photography can always be somewhat more difficult and RAFM Hendon is no exception to this. Lighting is always a major factor and the construction of the hangars used means that there is minimal natural lighting available, if at all. The Milestones of Flight and Grahame-White hangars offer the best of the available natural light but the small windows that are in place are all very much at ground level so offer very little benefit. Adding to the difficulty is that the windows are at just the right height to cause over-exposed backgrounds in a number of shooting positions. The Bomber Hall and Historic Hangars offer no natural light at all and, in the case of the former, the lighting is very subdued making for very difficult conditions. The latter on the other hand is slightly brighter although white balance can be an issue due the lighting temperature. The Battle of Britain Hall has polar opposites of the lighting available in the two different areas. The actual section dedicated to the Battle of Britain is very dimly lit with dark walls surrounding and, whilst offering a very sombre and emotive environment, is difficult for cameras. The Battle of the Atlantic area on the other hand is at the eastern end of the hangar where a full height glass window is present lighting up the small number of exhibits well.
Although the lighting is far from ideal for many, Hendon does buck the trend of many museums by allowing the use of a tripod. This can make shooting a lot easier allowing for the longer exposures required without having to compensate with higher ISO settings for example. In order to ensure that tripods do not spoil the experience for other visitors you are required to obtain a permit from the main reception prior to entry and these may not be available during busy times and a quick phone call ahead may well save a wasted trip if this is a major factor. Staff within the hangars do check for the permits and will politely ask to see it if not visible.
Hendon has a significant number of aircraft on display throughout the museum and despite its size, space is very much in demand. In all display hangars an intricate jigsaw puzzle has been completed to try and fit them all in and still provide the best possible viewing. Wide-angle lenses are an absolute must if shots of a single, whole airframe is the target however even then it can be very difficult to achieve. With some time and thought outside of the box however some very different images can be achieved and the relative closeness to the displays can really allow detail to be captured.
There can be no doubt that some of the items on display at RAFM Hendon are of significant historical importance and the efforts that the museum has gone to highlight the detailed history of each aircraft should be commended. With so much to look at across the four hangars there are so many areas of the museum that haven’t been covered in this article and a visit could easily see a whole day vanish in a flash and still not have taken everything in. The Grahame-White hangar is a hidden gem of some incredible machines and although it really could do with better signposting being tucked away from the main paths with only minimal signposting. Whilst conditions for photography may be far from ideal, this is a museum that being trapped behind a viewfinder hides the true detail, beauty and rarity of the exhibits. A perfect opportunity to leave the camera behind and immerse yourself in history. The fact that the museum is also free to enter should make this a must visit for any aviation enthusiast, young or old.
Visitors Note – Since AeroResources visit to RAFM Hendon, the Grahame-White Factory Hangar has been closed to the public to allow for building renovation work to take place. As part of this the collections Sopwith Tabloid and Vickers Vimy have been moved to the Museums Reserve Collection in Stafford. The Grahame-White Factory Hangar is expected to re-open to the public in November 2014.