'Taking to the skies' at RAF Halton
PUBLISHED: 15:53 07 June 2016 | UPDATED: 15:53 07 June 2016
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At RAF Halton we have a unique museum and collections - so Sandra Smith flew over the Chilterns to 'take to the skies'
I’ve just flown a de Havilland Chipmunk. In anticipation of your inevitable question: yes, this was my first time at the controls of a military – or any, for that matter – aircraft though lack of experience didn’t prevent me from soaring over Buckinghamshire, the altitude showcasing aerial views of Wendover Woods, Aylesbury Vale and the Rothschild elegance of Halton House.
Actually, I should be more specific. Because whilst any deceit is unintentional, this is far from the full story. Truth is, I’m at RAF Halton’s Trenchard Museum and James McCudden Flight Heritage Centre where the history of the base is celebrated and interactive exhibits include a £15,000 Chipmunk simulator.
In an upstairs office overlooking the parade ground Min Larkin CBE, initiator of the Trenchard Museum, explains the origins behind this successful project. “I started resurrecting the history of Halton aircraft apprentices during 1994. We set up a little display in the old workshop with a few artefacts dating back to 1920. This was very ad hoc, and not for the public, but eventually extended to two rooms as popularity grew. In 1989 the Station Commander offered me a bigger building. I raised £7,000 for repairs, though it remained quite bare for a few months.”
When the Station celebrated its 80th anniversary Min persuaded the current Lord Trenchard – grandson of the Royal Air Force’s founder – to open the Museum which now bears the family name. “Once we started to advertise that the museum was open, families of deceased apprentices sent us boxes of stuff they’d been storing. We had some remarkable finds, including a set of medals with an OBE.”
The volume of memorabilia here could easily take several visits to appreciate. From uniforms to engines, medals to ejector seats, the ex boxing hut is packed with fascinating information. Accessibility is a positive feature, too, with only occasional exhibits protected behind glass. Overall there’s a sense of encouraging visitors to feel part of the fabric of the camp.
Curator Francis Hanford, who has been involved with the Museum since 1998, confirms the thinking behind this approach: “Visitors are allowed to touch things as they’re not likely to damage themselves. Within the RAF there is no other museum as developed as this. One of our most unusual items is a bit of the Wright Brothers’ original aircraft which somehow floated down in our direction.”
Catering, medical and dentistry disciplines are all represented with generous space also devoted to Don Finlay. A Group Captain at RAF Halton, this talented Great Missenden athlete competed in three Olympic Games, winning two medals as well as captaining the British team.
There may be plenty more to explore but volunteer Bill McGrath who spent 32 years in the RAF is eager to show me the James McCudden Flight Heritage Centre on the other side of the parade ground. Bill has been on board for 18 months during which he has accumulated a wealth of knowledge. He is one of 28 volunteers, though more would be an asset.
“Volunteers are welcome regardless of age or gender,” he assures me. “And a military background isn’t necessary.”
The most striking aspect of the Flight Centre is the coexistence of 21st century cutting edge technology alongside RAF history. I’m debating which to study first, a glider, model plane or air navigation equipment, until Bill proudly reveals a Link D2 trainer. This may resemble an adult size toy, but when he flicks a number of switches before climbing into the cockpit, I soon understand its significance. The D2 duplicates the motions of a real aircraft, its built-in navigation aids a vital feature in enabling the RAF to train our air crew.
Moving further down the vast room we pass a Wind Tunnel Aerodynamics exhibit and a Link D4 built by Air Trainers Ltd of Aylesbury before reaching the Link D4B in which I’m invited to sit. I’m engulfed by the tight space and numerous dials, then the door is closed and Bill slowly shuts the canopy so that I may, in some modest measure, appreciate the challenges of night flying.
Clambering out – at this point wishing I’d worn trousers – there to meet me was impeccably presented and chivalrous ex-Halton apprentice Tom Costello, who, in the seven years since volunteering (“The best thing I ever did”) has raised £50k from Rolls Royce, the RAF Charitable Trust and Heritage Lottery Fund.
I vow to chat to him again later, but for now Bill draws my attention to the ultimate exhibit. We’re standing next to the front end of a de Havilland Chipmunk which looks out onto a scene of RAF Halton. The aircraft was the basic flying trainer for pilots during the 1960s and adjacent to the craft is a simulator with three large screens projecting a panoramic view of the local area. My host sits at the controls, talking me through a take-off from RAF Halton whilst manoeuvring the controls. He makes it look easy, so I accept his invitation to have a go.
Now let me confess, despite any earlier boasts, my skills do not extend to piloting a plane. Actually, with a ‘crash’ imminent, Bill gallantly comes to my rescue. Still, the taster is a memorable encounter. No wonder this equipment attracts visitors from eight years of age to nonagenarians, particularly as, with a click of a button, ‘pilots’ can even land on an aircraft carrier. And that’s not all. Cool Aeronautics events include interactive workshops and hands on experience for school groups.
The growing footfall of this free Museum exceeded 10,000 last year, a testament to Min Larkin’s determination. “My long term vision,” he shares, “was to uncover RAF Halton’s legacy and preserve it as long as we could.”
The sprightly founder has certainly achieved his goal. Why not go along and see for yourself? You might even discover, or recapture, flying skills whilst circling over the Buckinghamshire countryside.
Visit the centre
The Trenchard Museum and James McCudden Flight Heritage Centre open every Tuesday 10am - 4pm and at other times by appointment. Visitors are requested to contact the Museum in advance: 01296 656841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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