In March 2015, the American Air Museum at the Imperial War Museum Duxford closed its doors for a year as it underwent a major refurbishment of both the building and the displays. A little over a year later, Saturday March 19 saw the public reopening of the museum giving everyone a chance to look at the changes that have taken place.
Originally opening in August 1997, the American Air Museum (AAM) has always been one of the most impressive and interactive collections of aircraft in the country and, with multiple aircraft hung from the ceiling, no doubt provided inspiration for the current design of Airspace when Hangar 1 was re-opened in 2008. The building itself a spectacle with its distinctive curved concrete roof and substantial glass paneling – which is technically the rear of the building despite what would appear the logical layout!
Announced towards the end of 2014, the yearlong closure of the museum was just part of a much larger plan to expand and update the collection, which included the launch of a new, dedicated website (www.americanairmuseum.com) featuring a vast collection of stories and images available.
Those who visited Duxford during this time would have seen the extent of the work carried out. With the unmissable glass paneling removed and security fencing placed around the building, it was easy to look inside at the few aircraft that remained housed within the concrete shell. During this work only the collection’s Boeing B-52D Stratofortress (56-0689) and B-29 Superfortress (44-61748) remained inside for the vast majority of time and only removed for short periods of time when absolutely necessary. This meant that the remaining aircraft were distributed around the remaining hangars with the vast bulk of the collection finding temporary homes within Airspace or, in certain cases, finding themselves receiving some TLC inside the conservation hangar. In particular, McDonnell Douglas F-15A 76-0020 – which had been housed outside for many years – received a fresh coat of paint transforming it into the same 36th Fighter Wing marks it wore while based at Bitburg AB, Germany. Also receiving attention was North American B-25J Mitchell 44-31171 with a new scheme applied representing aircraft 43-4064, which was assigned to the 488th Bomb Squadron, 340th Bomb Group, 12th Air Force and flown by American writer Joseph Heller.
Upon entering the museum for the first time, its immediately clear how much reorganisation has taken place with only the B-52 and McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom (155529) remaining in the same spots. Both ground and suspended displays have been re-positioned into much more visually attractive positions giving much clearer views of the majority of the aircraft. A prime example is the Fairchild A-10A Thunderbolt II (77-0259) which is now in a much more accessible location to the left of the B-52 whilst the F-15A now hangs directly above the bomber replacing the F-100D Super Sabre which, at the time of writing has been broken down inside Hangar 5. The other highly noticeable move is the location of the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird (64-17692) and Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress 44-83735 which have effectively switched positions. One new item on display arrived in 2015 specifically for the American Air Museum – a North American P-51 Mustang marked up as aircraft 44-11631 ‘Etta Jeanne II’. The aircraft represents a machine that was flown from Duxford during the Second World War by Huie Lamb during his time with the 82nd Fighter Squadron, 78th Fighter Group and was unveiled in November last year with Huie in attendance.
And, it is this personal link to the aircraft on display that shows the major change to the contents of the American Air Museum. In amongst the numerous aircraft are the stories, and personal belongings of 85 individuals – people who served in, or had a link to, the American Air Force. From the Second World War to today’s Air Force there is an incredible assortment of stories that really bring the collection to life. For example, contained within a display cabinet is a flight suit and helmet owned by ex-RAF Navigator Martin Loveridge. This in itself is interesting to see, but when you realise that he was the navigator when the collections F-4J landed for the final time at Duxford you really see the effort that has been made to bring the personal touch to the exhibits. Links to the wider collection are also evident with an interesting crowd sourcing effort using touch screen ‘tables’ to help catalog and tag the wide range of photographic images that the American Air Museum hold. This may seem gimmicky but the implications of this for those that use them as resources are wide ranging and greatly helps to speed up the indexing of the many thousands of images that are held.
All in all, the work carried out on the American Air Museum over the last year has really transformed it and taken it to the next level. From the re-arranged displays to the revised and much more detailed information boards that help to engage and inform the public, the aircraft really are just a small section of the wider story that is being told. Something that is now clear for all to see in both an immersive and engaging way. Make sure to set aside a couple of hours on your next visit to explore all the items on show – they deserve the time.