Keith Robinson finds much to see at a splendid museum of military aviation on windswept Salisbury Plain.
It is always good to visit a museum which is part of a living complex where past and present lie side by side. The museum makes good use of this by having a cafe on the first floor with a balcony that gives a good view of the working airfield. With plenty of space outside, there are also a couple of aircraft there to entice the visitor into the open air.
The first of these is a Westland Scout AH Mark I helicopter, XP910 c/n F9513. Both the Scout and the Navy’s Westland Wasp were developed from the Saunders-Roe P.531, before the project and the company were taken over by Westland. Developed as a general-purpose military light helicopter, the production version first flew in 1960.
It was originally powered by a Rolls-Royce Nimbus 101 engine whose early operational life was notoriously poor, only sustaining four to six hours before requiring changing. However, by the end of 1964, it was down to only two or three changes per 1,000 flying hours and thus became the standard helicopter for light work such as observation and liaison.
Our example first flew with the Army Air Corps (AAC) in December 1963. In the main hall, suspended from the roof, there is an example of a trial version P.531 of 1958, kitted out in an anti-tank role, carrying a pair of SS11 rockets on each flank with a roof-mounted sight.
The second of the aircraft displayed outside is a DHC-2 Beaver AL1 which has been reconstructed from original parts. It is a single-engined, propeller-driven plane with high wings, similar to the Lysander. It was built and designed by de Havilland Canada, and with around 1,700 built was one of Canada’s most successful aeroplanes. Built as a ‘bush plane’, it was rugged and had short take-off and landing (STOL) capabilities, and whilst production ceased in 1969, many are still flying today.
Several hundred were bought by the US Army as a general utility aircraft, whilst an NZAF (New Zealand Air Force) Beaver flew in support of Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition to the South Pole in 1958.
The Beaver AL1 was the variant designed specifically for the British Army. A complete original Beaver, XP821, can be found in the main hanger. This one saw service in Malaya and Singapore before being loaned to the British Embassy in Laos. It is painted in cream and grey to indicate its neutrality, despite which, on a trip from Vientiane, it was hit by a Russian-made RPG7 missile from across the Mekong River. The missile punched a hole through the port wing, but the chopper was able to make a safe landing.
Balloons, gliders, and pups
On entering the main exhibition hall, one of the first exhibits you see is a display of five ‘pilot’ uniforms which effectively sum up the history of Army flying. The first represents the pioneering years of Army flight in the form of The Royal Engineer Balloon Sections (1878-1912), followed by the dominant force in early British military aviation, the Royal Flying Corps (1912-1918). We then have The Royal Artillery Observation Post Squadrons (1941-1957) and The Glider Pilot Regiment (1942-1957), which in 1957 were amalgamated to form today’s Army Air Corps.
The layout of the museum basically follows this historical tree, with much of the earliest material based on models, images, and textual displays. The displays get into full swing with the section on the RFC and WWI. There is a fine example of a Sopwith Pup, N5915, on show.
The Pup had good handling qualities and was generally liked by its pilots. A single-seater bi-plane, it was powered by a single nine-cylinder Le Rhone 9C rotary engine, and carried a single fixed, synchronised .303 Vickers machine-gun. It first saw service on the Western Front with the RNAS in October 1916, and the following year three RFC squadrons were equipped with it.
Passing a rare example of a WWI German Field Kitchen, one enters into the main hall, where a selection of light aircraft and helicopters covering WWII up to modern times are on display. One passes from an Auster AOP9 and a Cessna L19 Bird Dog past an Aerospatiale Gazelle AH1 to an example of a Bristow Helicopters’ Bell 47 – which for many years was the basic training chopper at Middle Wallop. For some fun, though, you can climb into the back of a Westland Lynx AH1, get a real feel for the cramped space, and view the complex control panels.
Passing through a series of displays detailing operations at the ‘End of Empire’, we enter another large hall. This deals primarily with the work of the Glider Pilot Regiment and in particular with operations on D-Day and the famous failed Operation Market Garden. Here there are examples of the standard British glider, the Airspeed Horsa Mark II, and the heavy-lift Hamilcar Glider. A small Hotspur Glider, mostly used for training, has its slim cigar-shaped body suspended from the roof. But dwarfing them all is the huge US Waco CG-4A Hadrian Glider with a wingspan of 83’8” (25.5m) and length of 48’8” (14.8m).
Much to see.