Photo: a Spitfire at the Shuttleworth Collection - you have to look left and right when taxi-ing a Spitfire - you can't see much ahead! © James Kightly, Air Heritage
It's chocks away for the Centenary of Flight: freelance aero journalist James Kightly takes us on a tour of some of his favourite aviation heritage sites in the UK
2003 is the centenary of the Wright Brothers' first flight, at Kittyhawk Sands, Virginia - and since then heavier-than-air flying machines have revolutionised our world. Think for a moment about how different our lives would be without the jet airliner. All over the globe celebrations of the centenary are taking place - so follow this trail of great places in the UK to find out our skybound heritage.
We are very lucky in Britain. More planes in less space than anywhere else! It's remarkably easy to see some of the early starters, significant developments, and some possible futures of flight, and you can explore the byways and oddities as well. Britain has one of the richest resources in terms of aviation history, from world famous personalities, places and machines, to incredible stories.
Although we can't bring you over the web the smell of burnt castor oil from a World War One rotary engine, nor the crackle of a Spitfire's Merlin engine, or indeed the chance to stand beside the aircraft holding records for first, fastest, highest, or slowest, we can point you in the right direction.
We simply can't cover it all, too. The following list picks a few of the gems out of a very rich treasure chest. If we've missed out a personal favourite, please let us know. So, let's fly!
Photo: despite losing his way halfway across, Louis Bleriot flew one of his own designs across the English Channel in 1909. Photo © Gary Brown, Air Heritage.
We'll start with the Wright Flyer itself. Before the Wright Brothers, plenty of people had set off to explore the sky, with varying degrees of success. But Wilbur and Orville, on that amazing day - December 17, 1903 - at Kittyhawk Sands, were the first to use a concentrated scientific development (from their bike repair shop) to have brought to fruition a powered, controlled flight by a heavier-than-air craft.
Although today the 1903 Wright Flyer is in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, there is a funny story behind the very important replica held in the British National Aeronautical Collection. (The aircraft from this collection are on display at the top of the Science Museum in South Kensington.) This replica was built to replace the original Flyer which was on show until 1948.
The reason that America's most important aircraft was in London, rather than in the USA's most important scientific museum, was that the Wright brothers were not going to allow the Smithsonian to claim their ex-director, Samuel Langley had made the first flight.
This unseemly squabble was eventually resolved, and the Flyer returned to the USA in 1948 - not before it had been stored for several years in a Welsh cave, to avoid German bombs during World War Two!
Photo: it's unlikely that the AA would have come to Amy Johnson's assistance on her way to Australia in 1930!
The National Aeronautical Collection at the Science Museum is also home to an amazing array of historic machines. For starters, there's Amy Johnson's 'Jason' - the open cockpit , fabric-covered deHavilland Moth that ex-secretary Amy flew all the way from Croydon to Australia in 1930.
Then there's a Vickers Vimy - the first aircraft across the Atlantic in 1919. Alcock and Brown took over 16 hours to cross the pond braving the elements from an ice-lashed open cockpit, and landing in an Irish bog at the end. They were knighted on their arrival after a rapturous reception. And not least, there's the oldest jet aircraft in the world, Gloster's enigmatically named E28/39. Oddly, the more catchy 'Pioneer' never really stuck.
Germany beat Britain in flying the first jet, the Heinkel 178 in 1939. However, the Heinkel was destroyed by allied bombs in Berlin in 1944. The Gloster E28/39 first flew at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire in 1941 and proved the work of Frank Whittle, who was the British father of the jet engine. In Germany, Pabst von Ohan had developed the jet at the same time as Whittle.
Photo: a wind-pressure driven airspeed indicator on a 1930s deHavilland Moth. This mechanism was known to Leonardo da Vinci.
Although the two men were not aware of each other's achievements in wartime, they became firm friends after the war, and the successes of the teams were shared with the world. One of the early German jet engines can be seen with one of Whittle's first examples in the comprehensive engine collection displayed in the Science Museum.
There is also a Spitfire and a genuine 1940 Battle of Britain Hurricane. More modern is the intriguing hoop on one wall - this is three people high, and it is a slice through a Boeing 747 'jumbo jet'.
London is home to no less than three world-class aircraft collections. Let's turn to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in Lambeth, with machines from World War One and Two. The IWM is perhaps the best place to visit to gather an idea of the horror and tragedy of war. Each of the full size artefacts (tanks, ships and planes) is backed up with a television presentation of material from the IWM's vast archives.
Photo: Spitfire, Focke-Wulf 190 and Mustang at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth.
The RAF Museum in Hendon is a Mecca for aviation enthusiasts and it's important to know it isn't just aircraft from the Royal Air Force! There are displays with a wide range of aeronautical themes, including the Battle of Britain Hall - when, in 1940, democracy depended on 'The Few'.
The Bomber Command Hall also has aircraft from the United States Army Air Corps and the Luftwaffe (Germany's airforce) as well as those RAF 'heavies' you'd expect, like the Avro Lancaster - this one flew 137 bombing raids.
Although the powerful and noisy machines of today's air force and World War Two are very impressive, the RAF Museum's collection (which is bang up-to-date with a Gulf War display) also includes some amazing machines (such as the wonderfully named Bristol Bulldog and the Westland Wallace) from the twenties and thirties. Made from varnished wood and fabric painted silver, this was a time when the RAF was the 'best flying club in the world'.
Later this year, the museum will be opening the 'Milestones of Flight' display. This is a new building with significant aircraft 'flying' through time in chronological order.
Photo: the RAF Museum at Hendon boasts a Lancaster bomber in its collection. © RAF Museum, Hendon.
The aeroplane has been used extensively as a weapon of war, and as you might expect, each of the armed forces has an aeronautical museum. The most 'nautical' of the 'aero' museums is the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in Somerset.
Photo: a history of flying technology on display at Yeovilton's 'Leading Edge'.
This museum has several great exhibitions. Carrier is a chance to see what life was like aboard a Royal Navy aircraft carrier in the 1950s. To 'board' it, you 'fly' in by helicopter! There is also the Leading Edge exhibition, which illustrates the development of aircraft technology, and includes one of the pre-production Concordes.
The army also has its aerial component, and their history is presented at the Museum of Army Flying, Middle Wallop, Hampshire. Soldiers were among the first into the air, borne aloft by kites of all things! Just as amazingly, they went on to attacking with gliders in World War II.
Both here and at Yeovilton you can also see the modern army and navy going about their airborne activities as these are still important bases for both services. Better still, they are home to (respectively) the Fleet Air Arm Historic Flight and the Army Air Corps Historic Flight; both of whom exhibit significant examples of their services' machines in the air.
The Fleet Air Arm Historic Flight fly past in their antiquated Fairey Swordfish open cockpit biplane (known to all as the Stringbag: because it's made of wire and carries a lot) with two of the crew at the salute, flag flying!
Photo: one of the surviving pre-production Concordes, this example can be seen, and actually walked through at Duxford.
On most weekends, at the former RAF base of Duxford, home to the Imperial war Museum (IWM), Duxford, you can hear the hangers echo to the roar of engines as some of the resident machines are put through their paces. These are not aircraft owned by the IWM, but are privately owned by a variety of individuals and organisations, who, together with the IWM make Duxford Europe's 'warbird' capital. It is one of the world's top venues for seeing old aircraft in action, plus the impressive static collection of the IWM.
Photo: Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress 'Sally B'. Airborne memorial to the crews of the 'Mighty Eighth' - many of whom did not return.
Here too are a wide selection of airliners. You can board Concorde at Duxford, although you won't be flown to New York as this machine is one of the prototypes and no longer flies: its research job was done over 30 years ago. But if you do want a flight, you can have a go in the last word in 1930's travel: Classic Air fly deHavilland Dragon Rapides from Duxford in the summer, a twin-propeller biplane 10 seater - pre-war elegance in the air!
Photo: a view over the aviation hall at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry. The Avro Shackleton in the middle was known as 'Dougal', from the Magic Roundabout, when in RAF service.
The Manchester Museum of Science and Industry has a wonderful Victorian hall crammed with interesting aircraft, while the new Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, has won a number of awards and clearly illustrates modern museum design.
Birmingham has the almost traditional Spitfire and Hurricane at their own museum of science and technology Thinktank, while those in the North East are well served by the North Eastern Aircraft Museum.
There's a Beverley at The Museum of Army Transport at Beverley; which is neat. The aircraft called the Blackburn Beverley is a huge airlifter and the last of its kind in the world. It holds an exhibition about air-transportation inside its enormous hold!
Woodley is home to the aptly named Museum of Berkshire Aviation and has examples of work by lightplane manufacturers Miles, as well as a selection of Fairey aircraft. Fairey's was one of Britain's most innovative manufacturers making machines from W.W.1 to supersonic record-beating jets.
Photo: Tangmere Aviaition Museum in Sussex. Picture courtesy Tangmere Aviation Museum.
At Tangmere Aviation Museum in Sussex is the prototype Hawker Hunter. 50 years ago it captured the world air speed record at 727.6mph. Another Battle of Britain airfield in the area is Hawkinge, home to the Kent Battle of Britain Museum. This exhibition is proof that a fantastic display can be put on with replica Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts.
Just after 1900, a private motor-racing track at Brooklands, Surrey was an almost accidental host to Alliot Verdon Roe (founder of Avro). He had a section of the fence made removable so that he could sneak in to fly one of his first aircraft without getting into trouble with the owners!
In 1909 he was credited as the first Briton to fly a controlled powered aircraft and by the 1930s Brooklands was a hotbed of aero and car engineering. Today, some of those glory days are recreated by the Brooklands Museum and a visit is a trip back in time.
Photo: still the fastest and still black, the Lockheed SR-71'Blackbird' is a truly awesome machine. The only one in Britain can be seen atIWM Duxford.
Lots of museums are very much run and developed by volunteers - if you get the aviation bug, you too can get involved! Two of the best are the Midland Air Museum in Coventry, and the Newark Air Museum in Nottinghamshire.
Newark has an unrivalled collection of early jets, and hosts the annual 'cockpit-fest' when owners of the 'pilot's bit' of the aeroplane gather to show their cockpit off! Though this year's 'cockpitfest' has gone, there are plenty of aircraft you can get close to and have a look inside, in the permanent collection.
The RAF Museum is not just based at Hendon. There is another impressive collection at RAF Cosford in Shropshire, which has (among many other fascinating aircraft) an unrivalled collection of test and experimental machines. Included are jets made entirely from stainless steel that take off vertically, and a Gloster Meteor designed to be flown while the pilot is lying on his stomach!
Photo: the Auster lightplane at Cosford as used with skis, wheel and floats in the Antarctic, 1956.
Although there isn't a museum dedicated to civil aviation, there is an excellent selection of airliners and transport machines at RAF Museum Cosford, including the deHavilland Comet - the first successful jet airliner in the world. At the opposite end of the scale is an Auster T7 'Antarctic'.
This plane, with a cockpit about the size of a car (but not so robust, being made of steel tube and fabric covering) was used in the Antarctic in 1956. Breezy and rather cool!
Scotland has an impressive collection at The Museum of Flight, East Fortune. The town itself is a historic site, as it saw the departure of the R34 Airship in 1919 headed to Roosevelt Field, Long Island, USA! As you may guess, this was one of the first ever transatlantic flights.
Today the museum at East Fortune is home to an impressive collection with everything from Scotsman Percy Pilcher's 1896 Hawk glider (the oldest heavier-than-air machine in Britain) to the 1934 Weir W2 Autogyro (an ultra-rare precursor to the helicopter of today).
Photo: the hangars of the Museum of Flight, East Fortune, Scotland.
Things with wings-that-go-around are commemorated at the International Helicopter Museum in Weston Super Mare. Here there are regular 'open cockpit' days, which is a great chance to get your hands on the complex controls of a whirlybird! If you've wondered what keeps a helicopter flying, this museum will endeavour to enlighten - and you'll be amazed at the complexity of a 'chopper'.
There are few museums dedicated to a single manufacturer, and the hundreds of innovative companies that existed in the heydays of aviation manufacture in the UK have shrunk to a handful of multinationals and specialist builders. One of the greatest aircraft manufacturers was deHavilland, and the deHavilland Heritage Centre at Salisbury Hall, just outside London, is home to a representative collection of the deHavilland types.
1930's lightplanes in Britain were almost all deHavilland Moths, such as the Tiger Moth, Leopard Moth and Fox Moth (Geoffrey deHavilland was a keen lepidopterist) and the museum has several on display. But the jewel in the crown is the first ever Mosquito preserved by one man despite instructions from his boss in the 1950s to burn this 'wooden wonder.'
Two rich areas for aviation are commemorated in quite different ways. The Southampton Hall of Aviation has a Spitfire (the manufacturers, Supermarine, were based here) as well as the S6A - a world speed record holder, and the last word in intercontinental travel in the 1930s - a four engined Sunderland Flying Boat.
Photo: the privately-owned Lancaster Bomber 'Just Jane' at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, East Kirkby regularly has engine runs and taxis in the summer months. Photo © Mark Ansell, Air Heritage
In Lincolnshire, a group of venues have got together to form the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Trail. The trail takes hardy visitors through the sites of seven wartime airfields and the operational stations of Waddington and Digby. A free guide to the trail, which also contains details of Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre and Tours of the Ops Room Museum at RAF Digby, is available from Sleaford Tourist Information Centre by phoning 01529 414294 - a fascinating route through 'bomber country'.
The airshow season is already well under way but there are still some little gems out there such as the garden party atmosphere of private flying in the 1920s and 1930s - recreated each year for an August weekend by the deHavilland Moth Club in the grounds of Woburn Abbey.
Photo: The Hawker Hurricane, Avro Lancaster and Supermarine Spitfire of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight attend hundreds of events over each summer.
The days in 1940 when Britain stood alone to oppose the might of Nazi occupied Europe are commemorated by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, with airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes and the only flying Avro Lancaster bomber in Europe. Based at the still active RAF base of Coningsby in Lincolnshire they attend a wide range of events throughout the year, and are an active reminder of the cost of war.
To finish with a venue that combines some of the world's best flying machines with the chance to get up close and personal to static displays, theShuttleworth Collection at Old Warden Aerodrome, in Bedfordshire, is home to one of the most impressive collections of historic aircraft that still fly anywhere in the world.
On calm evenings Britain's oldest active flying machine, the 1912 Blackburn Monoplane, will putter into the sky, pulled aloft by its rotating engine, perhaps accompanied by a replica or two from the film 'Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.' Machines more modern, such as their Spitfire and Sea Hurricane, also make regular flights along with the famous spy-dropping Westland Lysander.
Established in the 1930s, as a private grass airstrip, Old Warden Aerodrome, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire is home a number of record-setting aircraft, all of which fly. Even today it looks nothing so much as a sleepy field with a windsock, couple of hangars and a manor house just over the hill.
The collection is celebrating a couple of impressive anniversaries of its own. It's 75 years since the founding of the collection, and Richard Shuttleworth's own biplane, a deHavilland 60 Moth, holds an amazing world record. It has lived at (and flown from) one single aerodrome for longer than any other aircraft in aviation history. Yes, in 1932, he bought it new - and it's still here, and still flying.
Photo: Old Warden aerodrome; one of the few places you can see at least 75 years of aviation in action.
All photographs are the copyright of James Kightly, Air Heritage, unless otherwise noted.
James is an aviation journalist, and likes to travel the world visiting(among other things) aviation museums and hopping flights in old airliners.During the day, he works in the museum sector. If you'd like to commissionhim to write on aviation heritage, e-mail email@example.com
Here are some aviation websites to keep you busy when you can't get out to visit a flying museum!
The de Havilland Moth Club
Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
Royal Aeronautical Society 100 Years of Flight Website