100 years of Naval Aviation: The Fleet Air Arm Museum: Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Yeovilton

We have sent military archaeologist Keith Robinson to report on a new exhibition at RNAS Yeovilton, in celebration of 100 years of naval aviation.

Fairey Firefly TT4

One of the good things about the Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton, besides the drive through some great Somerset countryside, is the fact that it is part of a real, working naval air-station. Complexes of buildings on both sides of the road, the whine of rotor blades turning, the inevitable tall fences, all signal a living tradition of naval aviation.

Stressing this sense of continuity, the museum provides a couple of viewing areas in its display halls, so that visitors can watch contemporary machines in their workaday context. What sets the museum apart from the rest of the complex, though, is its huge, pictured exteriors, which contrast strongly with the more utilitarian appearance of its neighbours. An exterior which proudly boasts that it is not merely a museum but also an ‘experience’.

Replica of a Sopwith Pup

The museum consists of four hangar-like halls and various first-floor galleries perched around the edges of the display areas. The entrance to the museum is appropriately up a flight of stairs (with separate wheelchair access), which gives on to the ticketing and shopping area.

I had primarily come to see the revamped Hall 1 with its exhibitions celebrating the centenary of naval aviation, Fly Navy 100, which opened last year. The centenary being celebrated, however, is not the first flight, but the first order for an airship by the Admiralty on 7 May 1909. This contract was awarded to Vickers, a long-term naval supplier, but not one noted for its involvement in pioneer aviation.

The end product did not finally appear until 1911 when, on 22 September, the Navy took possession of HMA (His Majesty’s Airship) 1 – the Mayfly. Three days later, the 512 ft long monster was caught by the wind as it backed out of its shed and broke its back. Not a successful beginning!

1911 is perhaps better remembered for the training of the first four Navy pilots, at Eastchurch in Kent. This signalled a shift from airships to aeroplanes, with the pilots learning to fly on Short biplanes, owned by the aviation pioneer Frank McLean.

The exhibition story starts before that beginning with its introductory gallery ‘The Pioneer Years’. This, in a series of showcases and image panels, takes us briefly through the early years of aviation, the creation of the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, and its separation and formation as the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) on 1 July 1914, with war approaching.

Naval Pioneers

An introductory looped film sets the scene for the gallery and tells us of the many firsts in aviation that naval fliers achieved. The battered shell of one of these ‘firsts’ lies unrestored in its own case in the main hall below.

The Short 184 seaplane piloted by Lt Cmdr Rutland became the first aircraft to take part in a sea battle in 1916. It took off from the converted carrier HMS Engadine to spot for the British squadron under Admiral Beatty at the Battle of Jutland, its pilot earning the nickname ‘Rutland of Jutland’.

It is those objects in the hall, though, that are the main attractions. The gallery gives glimpses of the aircraft below and then a great panoramic view of the collection – a rectangle of planes with a tail of helicopters. The latter comprise: the aptly named Westland Dragonfly, the first to be accepted into the navy service in 1949; the powerful beast that is the Westland Sea King, this one flown in the Falklands conflict by Prince Andrew; and an example of that naval workhorse, the Westland Lynx.

Replica of a Short S27 of 1912

My two favourites, though, have to be what would be the earliest plane in the exhibition, but for the fact it is a replica, and an example of that curious hybrid, the flying boat. The replica is of a Short S27, a version of which, modified with attached air-bags to act as floats, became the first plane to take off from the deck of a ship. The pilot Lt Samson, a friend of Winston Churchill, claimed this honour when he took off from HMS Africa on 10 January 1912.

The flying boat is a Supermarine Walrus 1 built in 1939. It was originally intended for the Fleet Air Arm, but was diverted to the Irish Army Air Corps. On its way, it was forced to land in Wexford Bay, and whilst unattended it was stolen by four Irish Nationalists, who intended to fly it to join the Germans. In the event, it was recaptured and returned to Ireland. After many years, it was found discarded in a dump in Thame, from whence it was recovered, and has now been fully restored.

A BAE Sea Harrier F/A2

The exhibition is rounded off with examples of a replica Sopwith Pup, a Fairey Firefly TT.4, and a combat-proven Sea Harrier F/A.2. The frailty of the Short S27 compared to the robust, powerful design of the Harrier reminds us of how far flight engineering and technology have travelled in a century.

The whole exhibition is supported by numerous panels and video screens, but it is the aircraft one comes to see.

This is a full day out, with three more halls to wander through, and numerous supporting exhibitions, including a very good one on the WRENs. And, of course, there is Concorde!

The numerous aircraft are subtly but firmly roped off, and I know I for one would love to scramble into various pilots seats just to get a sense of the space pilots and aircrew had, and have, to work in. But if that is a little frustrating, then take it out on the enemy with the Vickers ‘KGo’ K gun simulator, or enjoy the other hands-on ‘experiences’ the Museum has to offer – for big and small kids alike!

Further information

The Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton is open daily, 10.00am to 5.30pm, 29 March to 31 October, and Wednesday to Sunday, 10.00am to 4.30pm, 1 November to 31 March. For further information, go to www.fleetairarm.com or phone 01935 840565.

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