The UK is littered with airfields and RAF bases, past and present. Mostly past. The majority were opened at the outbreak of WW2 and closed again at the end of the war. There were no airfields terribly close to my current residency in Bournemouth. There were RAF Stations nearby, as you’d expect on the south coast. Radar installations, watching out for Jerry.
Still, Bournemouth has become a destination for fans of flying, both civilian and military. There is a small airport offering cheap flights with RyanAir to places like Barcelona, Pisa, Faro, Malta, Ibiza and more. And in late August, early September the annual Bournemouth Air Festival draws huge crowds to see four days of aeronautical displays. It’s a fantastic show, especially when the owners of the last, creaking Vulcan manage to get that delta winged beast into the skies.
But there is a lesser known, almost hidden corner of Bournemouth’s aviation scene. The Bournemouth Aviation Museum. It’s just £6 for an adult entry ticket, and it’s situated, appropriately, right next to the airport. Perhaps the fact it has a children’s Wonderland park the other side is a hindrance. Or maybe it’s not. Either way, for those that make the trip, there’s a fascinating walk down RAF Memory Lane waiting for you.
First impressions aren’t perhaps that great. Museum or mortuary? There’s a lot of carved up jet carcasses littered about the site. Mostly cockpits. It’s as if an aircraft industry version of al-Qaeda turned up, decapitating planes left right and centre. But having said that, there are a fair few complete models to look at. And besides, this is very much a hands on museum. And if you can get your grubby mitts on any part of an airplane, then the cockpit is the place to be.
In the space of a few minutes I got to act and feel my ages. All of them. I leapt into the single seat of the English Electric Lightning fighter jet with huge enthusiasm and promptly demonstrated the mental age of a four year old, flicking every button and switch and pulling every lever in the cockpit. What’s this one do then? And this one? And this one? None of them, of course, did anything. But that didn’t put me off. I imagined life as one of the glorious few who got to fly this awesome piece of machinery, setting their sights on enemy MiGs. The Lightning was a phenomenal machine, Britain’s first supersonic jet fighter, capable of Mach 2+, the most ridiculous vertical climbs and the ability to fly high enough to intercept a U2.
Then I extracted myself from the plane, and all of a sudden I was no longer a youthful four year old, but a creaking 40 something. It wasn’t a dignified exit. There was bashing of knees and elbows, curses, a pained back, and I ended up crawling away on hands and knees. These jets have seriously cramped cockpits. I had been pleased to see I had the place to myself when I had first entered the park. I was doubly grateful there was no one else about to witness my ungainly departure from the Lightning. But nonetheless, it was worth it. Totally worth it. I repeated the exercise with a few other jets.
Each cockpit was a model of functionality. Very mechanical. These were not computerised fly-by-wire planes. Masses upon masses of dials and switches. With yards of messy, exposed wiring that would be enough to give Steve Jobs a nervous breakdown. It all seems delightfully primitive, in a 1950s and 60s way. Until you get to the cockpit of the Vulcan. You aren’t allowed to sit in the cockpit seats. Nor one of the three rear facing seats for the navigator and his two chums. But there’s an distinct step up in tech with the Vulcan. Still lots of dials and switches. But it’s a different beast.
You can see a few photos below. Click on one of the images for the gallery view. Or go see the whole set on Flickr by clicking here.