Museum of Flight at East Fortune uncovers its own history

By Culture24 Staff | 16 June 2009
a black and white photo of men perched underneath an airborne airship

(Above) An early airship flight from East Fortune. Picture © NMS

Exhibition: Fortunes of War, National Museum of Flight, East Fortune AirfieldEast Fortune

Fortunes of War, at Scotland's Museum of Flight near Edinburgh, explores the history of the former airfield site and the stories of the men and women who served there.

Today the remaining hangars at the Museum are packed with a national collection of aircraft and exhibits, telling the story of aviation from the Wright brothers to Concorde and beyond, as well as the history of the of the airfield itself.

Fortunes of War provides an opportunity to discover what it was like to serve at East Fortune airfield at different times in history and learn how it functioned through two World Wars.

The airfield was established during the First World War in response to the first Zeppelin raids on English towns. The War Ministry moved to defend British shores with a series of defensive airfields, eventually stretching along the country's East coast from Scotland to South East England.

a black and white photo of women removing chocks from the wheels of a bomber

WAAFs with a Bristol Beaufort during World War Two. Picture © NMS

Due to its proximity to the North Sea the admiralty singled out the sleepy farming community of East Fortune as an ideal place to station airships to patrol the vital shipping channels of the North Sea.

By mid-1916 East Fortune was home to some of the first airships used for anti-submarine and convoy protection, as well as a series of early warplanes including Sopwith Scouts and Avro 504s.

A series of permanent hangars were erected to house the selection of aircraft used at the base, which was officially commissioned as a Royal Naval Air Station in August 1916.

Throughout the First World War airships and aircraft based at East Lothian mounted a credible defence of North Sea shipping lanes, and the base also became a training area for ship-borne aircraft, including the famous Sopwith Camel and the torpedo-carrying Sopwith Cuckoo.

The coastal and sea defence role of the airbase is explored via an interactive map allowing visitors to trace this history, navigate an airship and find an enemy submarine. Historic film footage also brings this important part of the site history to vivid life.

a photo of two children using an interactive in a museum

Interactive exhibits help to explore the history of the airfield at East Fortune. Picture © NMS

After the war East Fortune became the base for the first flight between Britain and the United States, when airship R34 set off from the airfield on July 2 1919. The successful return flight to Long Island, New York paved the way for the great age of the airship, which declined when the famous R101 crashed in France in 1930.

During the 1920s the airfield was decommissioned, serving variously as a tuberculosis hospital and an emergency landing strip before the onset of the Second World War saw it pressed into service as a major training aerodrome and later as a coastal defence airfield, housing Beaufighters and Mosquitoes.

After a post-war period as another TB sanatorium, temporary civil runway and a food depot, East Fortune eventually returned to its aeronautical roots when the Museum of Flight opened at the site in July 1975.

The exhibition offers a first-hand look at what life was like on this active airbase with models, aircraft parts, uniforms and flying equipment giving a very personal sense of what life was like at East Fortune.

Open 10am-5pm. Admission £8.50 / £6.50 (free for under-12s). Visit the Museum online or call 0131 247 4238 for tickets.

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