On the 14th April 1973 the Newark Air Museum in Nottinghamshire officially opened its doors. Adam Duffield takes a look at the museum, its history and exhibits as it celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Newark Air Museum (NAM) is one of the UK’s largest volunteer managed aviation museums with over 23,000 visitors last year and is currently home to over 70 assorted airframes and cockpits as well as a large collection of engines and a substantial archive of books, photographs and other aviation artefacts. The museum itself is housed on what was once the site of RAF Winthorpe, a former World War 2 Bomber Command station that closed in 1959 and is now also home to the Newark Showground.
Whilst the museum itself may not have officially opened until 1973, the first aircraft in the collection arrived in 1967 in the form of Percival Prentice T.1 VR249. This RAF Basic trainer was flown into showground itself setting a precedent for the arrival of a number of other aircraft over the years including the mighty Avro Vulcan B2 example XM594 that is on display. Unfortunately, with the development of the showground, the runway is no longer suitable for aircraft landings and all new display aircraft are transported in by road.
The museums aircraft exhibits are housed across two hangars (the first built in 1990 and the second more recently in 2004) housing around two thirds of the exhibits and an external area that includes the current development of a new storage building and in the future a new visitor centre on what is known as the Southfield site. The museum undertakes a grading of all aircraft as part of the British Aviation Preservation Council’s National Aviation Heritage Register. By grading the aircraft into a number of categories it is possible not only to determine the restoration state of an aircraft but also its historical significance. Such is NAM’s commitment to restoring and displaying the finest of examples, 13 aircraft meet the highest grading of National Benchmark and a further 34 fall under the Significant Aircraft category.
Flown into the museum in April 1976 was one of the aircraft listed as a National Benchmark. The Vickers Varsity T1 (WF369) was designed to replace the Vickers Wellington as a crew trainer and was operated by the RAF between 1951 and 1976. This particular example is one of a number of aircraft within the museum that, on occasion, has its cockpit open for viewing to the general public. Staffed mainly by volunteers it can always be tough for NAM to ensure that cockpits are available for viewing but effort is always made to ensure that not only are they open, but that the staff manning them are enthusiasts willing and able to discuss details at every level.
Also a National Benchmark, the Falklands War veteran BAe Sea Harrier ZA176 is on display within Hangar 2. Not only does this airframe have a true battle record but it is also the infamous aircraft to have landed the Spanish container vessel Alraigo under the hands of Sub-Lieutenant Ian “Soapy” Watson in June 1983. Having lost both his flight leader and HMS Illustrious from which he had launched, Watson, running low on fuel, spied the Alraigo and managed to land the aircraft relatively safely atop a number of containers.
Other National Benchmark examples include Supermarine Swift FR.5 WK277, English Electric Canberra B2 WV787 that spent its career as a trials airframe, Gloster Meteor FR.9 VZ608 used as a test bed for the RB108 jet engine, an example of the first helicopter used by the British army in the form of Saunders Roe Skeeter XL764, tiny 1930’s homebuild aircraft the Mignet HM.14 Flying Flea and a General Aircraft Monospar ST-12 that is currently undergoing a full restoration.
And that’s not to say that any of the aircraft not mentioned or not listed as National Benchmarks are not worth seeing, in fact the truth is far from that. NAM also houses a number of exotic aircraft that cannot be seen in any other UK museum such as two Saab aircraft – a former Royal Danish Air Force RF-35 Draken (AR-107) and ex-Swedish Air Force AJSH-37 Viggen 373 918. The former aircraft is displayed in Hangar 1 complete with weapons fit and camouflaged backdrop whilst the Viggen is displayed in Hangar 2 in its distinctive M90 splinter camouflage scheme. Outside is another pair of aircraft exclusive to the museum in the form of a Mikoyan-Guervich MiG-23 and a MiG-27. These ex-Soviet Air Force examples both arrived during May 2002 and attract significant attention from enthusiasts especially during rare events when the cockpits have been opened for viewing. Also outside is the most recent additional to the collection, an ex-RAF T.2A variant of the SEPECAT Jaguar. The first new airframe to the site since the arrival of the Saab Viggen in 2006 still requires a fair amount of work to restore to a complete standard but externally looks very much complete and work will continue into the future to secure any missing parts.
Easily identifiable are a couple of the larger airframes, most obviously the imposing figure of the Avro Vulcan B.2 as you enter the museum and in the distance Avro Shackleton MR.3 WR977. As eluded to earlier in this piece, the Vulcan’s arrival is of particular interest. At the time of its delivery in February 1983 the runway at the showground was in use only for gliding and was not ready to accept an aircraft the size and weight of the Vulcan. After significant work to clear the runway itself and install temporary tracking to move the heavy jet across soft ground to the museum itself all that was left was to rely on the weather. Due to runway positioning the airfield approach could only be made in easterly winds which caused delays in delivery. Finally, on the 7th February, and battling snow at both Waddington and Newark, a sufficient window was found to land the Vulcan successfully at the showground marking the first, and last, jet engine aircraft to land on the Winthorpe runway.
It is not just whole aircraft that are on display either. A separate building houses examples of 30 engines ranging from a World War 2 era Daimler Benz 601 V12 that powered, amongst others, the Messerschmitt Bf109 to a Bristol Olympus 101 Jet engine used to power the original Avro Vulcan B.1’s. A section within Hangar 1 called the Lancaster Corner contains a number of artefacts including turrets and sections of fuselage relating to the venerable Avro Lancaster that would have been common in the skies above the museum during the 1940’s. Another external building houses smaller artefacts such as radio devices, medals, insignia and uniforms. A number of cockpit only sections are also on display at the museum including 3 different Canberra models, a Jet Provost T.3 and the part of the cockpit of Blackburn Beverley XB261 of which only one other example exists. And these visible elements do not cover the extensive archive that the museum has built up over the years that include 4,500 books, 18,000 photographs and another 18,000 photographs and 9,000 slides belonging to the Neville Franklin Photographic collection. Within the visitor centre shop there is also a wide range of items including an amazing selection of models not seen in most high street model shops.
In fact there is so much to see and do at Newark Aviation Museum it is difficult to cover absolutely everything with the detail and respect that it deserves. NAM and its volunteers run a number of events over the course of a year with some focused on a particular aircraft or units whilst others are wider focused. The regular open cockpit events, such as that which will be occurring on the 40th anniversary itself, give an opportunity to get a look inside some of the aircraft that are less frequently open and the Aeroboot/Aerojumble days give a chance to pick up something unique to add to a collection or, in some cases, restoration project.
With NAM having achieved 40 successful years of operation and with their plans for future expansion of the facilities well underway the future is bright for them. The dedication and commitment of the volunteers and staff is a tribute to the way the museum is run and the continuation of unique events will help to ensure continued support from both the enthusiast and general public communities.
AeroResource would like to thank Howard Heeley for his assistance with this article and the provision of historical images. If you would like more information on Newark Air Museum go to http://www.newarkairmuseum.org or alternatively to the dedicated NAM Sub-forum on Fighter Control.