What’s your favourite type of transport museum? Planes, trains or automobiles?
Fans of the BBC motoring show Top Gear will no doubt choose automobiles whilst train buffs will be unable to resist the lure of steam and railway engines.
But a great aircraft museum is hard to beat, with something for everyone.
The Imperial War Museum Duxford in Cambridgeshire is the museum to visit for aviation history in the UK
Its great selection of 200 aircraft ranges from old-fashioned passenger planes to hi-tech fighter jets, historic wartime bombers and modern helicopters.
Set within the grounds of the famous former First and Second World War airfield, you can lose yourself for a whole day wandering around the iconic planes.
Where else can you stroll on board Concorde, go inside the belly of a Dan Air transporter, and immerse yourself in the action of an authentic Second World War operations room?
Air buffs will want to spend a whole day there whilst there’s plenty for the non-specialist visitor from displays of social history to interactive toys and trips on board the planes.
When your energy levels dip, there’s a selection of cafes conjuring up the wartime spirit of “Keep Calm and Carry On”.
Duxford also boast one of the best museum book and gift shops I’ve ever seen.
Tammy had to be restrained before she splashed out on a sheepskin pilot’s jacket and giant-sized flying shades!
The biggest challenge is making the most of your time at IWM Duxford because this is a huge site with multiple sheds and exhibitions.
From the visitor centre I’d recommend heading into ‘Air Space’ which tells the story of British and Commonwealth aviation and features over 40 iconic aircraft.
Climb up to the aerial walkways where there’s a big ‘wow’ factor as you look down on a huge space with planes dangling from the ceiling and covering the ground floor below.
Look overhead and marvel as a bright yellow Tiger Moth, a biplane used for training pilots in the 1930’s and 1940’s, appears to zoom down on you.
Try your hand at becoming a fighter pilot with aptitude, reflex and vision tests. Tammy passed with flying colours!
For the uninitiated there are well-presented displays on the history of aviation plus interactive exhibits which work for both aduts and kids.
There’s a wealth of fascinating social history too. Did you know that the first in-flight meal was served to passengers as early as 1936 on a United Airlines flight?
Wonder what they ate and if it was any better than today’s ‘rubberised’ airline food?
I could’ve spent a couple of hours in this section but Tony was determined to speed up my trip and move me onwards and upwards.
Down in the main hall there were about 20 large planes but it was the Sunderland, a large guppy-like aircraft, that caught my attention.
This flying boat patrol bomber was used during the Second World War and is named after the city of Sunderland not far from where I live.
Its odd shape and gigantic belly make you wonder how it ever lifted off the ground, but this weird ‘bird’ later played a major role in the Berlin Airlift – as you’ll see in this archive film.
Concorde’s supersonic age
Then came a real treat – a trip onboard Concorde and a fascinating walk through this iconic airline.
The plane still has the power to engender awe and excitement with its slimline shape and supersonic capabilities.
The cockpit with its futuristic display panels (for 1977) provides a great insight into a world where air travel was at the cutting edge.
It seems remarkabe that Concorde took only 3 hours 20 minutes to fly from London to New York in the mid 1970s. Today the same journey takes more than 7 hours, more than double Concorde’s record journey time.
Somehow we seem to be going backwards when it comes to reducing long-haul flight times!
Once on board it’s surprising how narrow Concorde feels, a bit like flying at high speed inside a perfectly-shaped, tin cigar case.
Now restored by a group of experts and enthusiasts, you can see a small section of chairs (sadly you can’t sit in them) which provide a sense of the opulence and hi-tech experience of flying on Concorde.
It’s sad that we’ve lost this great plane from our airways, but it’s a thrill to be able to clamber on board for my first ever trip on Concorde, even if we didn’t get off the ground!
Back in the adjoining display hall Tony was keen to see the Vickers Valiant jet fighter. As a seven year old Tony wrote to the RAF when they were about to decommission the aircraft, asking if he could have the ejector seat!
Naturally the answer was ‘no’ but he did receive a lovely letter packed with Vickers Valiant goodies and helpful information about this impressive bomber.
Walking around the aircraft brought back all these memories and Tony was like a child in a sweet shop again, 40 years on.
But imagine our complete surprise when we spotted a small display next to the plane with the very same ejector seat which Tony had lusted after.
Tony beamed like he’d been transported back to 1965… a moment to savour.
But I was worried he’d climb over the barriers and try it out in a moment of pre-adolescent madness!
America’s military might
Leaving the main Air Space shed we scuttled through the driving rain to the next set of displays which are a bit of a hike away (you have been warned!).
En route we had a good view of Duxford’s impressive airstrip and walked through an exhibit featuring a group of old passenger airlines including BOAC and BEA planes.
I remember my American great aunt arriving on the classic-styled BOAC in the 1970s. At the time it looked huge but it’s surprisingly small in comparison to today’s new generation of super jumbos.
Eventually, we arrived at the American Air Museum, an impressive semi-circular building designed by international architect Norman Foster.
This showcase of American air power includes the largest display of American ‘warbirds’ outside the United States and includes a vintage B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell, P-47 Thunderbolt.
There’s also scary-looking aircraft from the Cold War era such as a B-52 Stratofortress, SR-71 Blackbird and F-4 Phantom.
There’s the whole back catalogue of American military supremacy from the B52 bomber to the Huey helicopter (the Bell UH-1 Iroquois), made famous in the Vietnam War – and instantly recognisable from Hollywood movies like Apolcalypse Now and The Deerhunter.
The world’s fastest manned aircraft – the Blackbird ‘spy plane’, looks menacing with its black cape-like wings and sheathed exterior.
It looks like the sort of aircraft that Batman would pilot if he ever took to the skies.
It broke the world air speed record in 1976, hitting speeds of 2,193.2 mph – a feat which has not been surpassed more than 30 years later.
Only 93 pilots have ever qualified to fly this plane, less than the number of trained astronauts.
Only 32 planes were built, making this aircraft pretty special. It is at once a terrifying flying weapon and a sublime piece of engineering.
Away from the aircraft, a small display of military memorabilia in a side room caught my eye with its beautifully presented American uniforms, which made the British outfits look like sackcloth by comparison.
No wonder the GIs proved so attractive to British women in the Second World War!
Back outdoors we skipped the large display of tanks and land war exhibits because our feet were mighty tired from several hours of walking.
The British weather had worsened so we headed over to the military buildings which house a range of wartime exhibits.
Don’t miss the 1950s prefab bungalow which has been moved to Duxford from its original London home, providing a glimpse of life in the post-war period when rationing and austerity were the order of the day.
Duxford is a living, breathing base, still used in part, and its old buildings provide a fascinating glimpse into life on an air base in the Second World War.
My favourite exhibition was the impressive and authentic recreation of the original 1940 wartime operations room, from where RAF fighter pilots would be directed into combat.
It’s just like something out of the classic Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death with David Niven.
As we stood in the quietness, I could almost hear the cries of ‘scramble’ and ‘deploy squadron’ more than 70 years ago.
Next door, there’s another giant shed, this one featuring a Battle of Britain theme.
Rare Spitfires rub noses – or should that be wings – with German Messerschmidts and other classic British planes like Lancasters and Bristols housed in the original 1917 hangar.
The Spitfire was the iconic aircraft of the Battle of Britain, seen as THE British fighter plane by the public and beloved of pilots for its higher victory-to-loss ratio.
There are only around 47 airworthy Spitfires left worldwide so it’s brilliant to see one of the few original planes at Duxford.
Duxford also boasts a good selection of German wartime planes including this Messerschmidtt BF 109E which was shot down in the Battle of Britain.
The bomber crash landed in a Sussex field and the recreation of that incident is a stark reminder that these war planes were harbingers of death and destruction.
Conservation and classics
In the adjoining conservation sheds, it’s fun to explore the privately-owned historic aircraft which are being restored, maintained and prepared for flight.
There’s also a chance to see the classic B17 Flying Fortress or ‘Sally B’, the star of the Hollywood film Memphis Belle, which still impresses with its American swagger and colourful, decorative female figures.
Over the way, there’s a chance to buy shares in the Catalina plane for around £17,500, something Tony looked at long and hard before I dragged him away!
I could understand why he was intrigued by this unusual-looking flying plane, the first-ever US navy monoplane seaplane.
It’s a class act with its sleek design and light-weight styling. It’s certainly more appealing to me than buying a sports car but we haven’t got a spare £17,000 in the bank!
Just when we thought we’d completed the sheds, we discovered yet another exhibition area. My feet were killing me but I was determined to be completist.
The impressive Air and Sea exhibition features boats, submarines and maritime aircraft including a few unusual exhibits.
I was drawn to the submarine, a scary beast of a naval military machine. My grandfather served on a submarine in the Second World War so it was fascinating to see how narrow and claustrophobic these vessels can be.
Back outside, we awarded ourselves a gold star for almost completing everything!
This museum is truly remarkable – you could lose yourself here for days and I’m sure that people sometimes do.
My Dad would love this place so I hope he’s reading this blog post – just one problem, we’d never get him home!
It’s almost impossible to convey the breadth of this giant collection in a short article but I’d urge anyone to see Duxford for themselves.
There’s no finer place to capture the spirit of aviation history and get up close to a brilliant collection of iconic aircraft.
Visit Duxford and other flights of fancy
IWM Duxford is located about eight miles south of Cambridge off the M11 – about a 15 minute drive. It’s open year-round from 10-6 in summer and 10-4 in winter. There’s an entrance charge but this covers everything you’d want to do during a full day’s visit.
Look out for the big seasonal air shows in spring, summer and autumn plus regular special events.
The Science Museum, London – great for the early history of avaition and the pioneers. Also features a Supermarine S6B racing seaplane, the Hawker P1127 – which led to the Harrier jump-jet fighter – and a complete slice of a genuine Boeing 747 jumbo jet!
Manchester Museum of Science and Industry includes an aviation hall which features pioneering aircraft such as a triplane.
RAF Museum – based at Cosford in the Midlands, there’s a variety of displays including 70 aircraft including the world’s oldest Spitfire.
Imperial War Museum – currently closed for restoration until 2014 but once reopen, you can check out its superb wartime history galleries and aviation history section.