“I placed my soul and body in God’s keeping and I am going into battle with His name on my lips”Second Lieutenant John Engall 30th June 1916
Within the tapestry of the nation is engrained a fundamental respect and appreciation for the service, and sacrifice given by those who have served in our country’s armed forces. With a military service in the United Kingdom founded in three distinct tranches, historically there has been scope for cross-pollination into each other, the service of the Royal Marines for example acting as a fighting force in their own regard complimenting the institution of the British Army and here the service of the Fleet Air Arm, the aviation wing of the Royal Navy independent and away from the jurisdiction and scope of the Royal Air Force. Up until recently I had been aware of their existence and purpose, the supportive role they served from carrier operations for example but largely, the history of this institution was one, historically I was somewhat uneducated on. Situated in Somerset at RNAS Yeovilton is the Fleet Air Arm Museum, part of the larger National Museum of the Royal Navy with a number of attractions and locations mainly around the south of England, dedicated to the promotion and remembrance of British Naval Aviation and the Royal Navy in general.
Opened in 1964, the museum has seen continual change and innovation, its centerpiece the carrier exhibit between halls with its flight deck and aircraft experience a fascinating attraction unique to this location. In addition to the general attractions as with other museums of this type and nature it continues to support the restoration of military aircraft recovered and transported to Yeovil to restore and preserve the equipment for prosperity sake. Comparisons can be drawn to other similar museums and institutions, the Imperial War Museum center at Duxford airfield its nearest equivalence with similar exhibits and lineage on show. For me, having experienced the various sites of the IWM in recent years it was an interesting comparative occurrence, given its age and somewhat restricted location in an active military station it doesn’t garner perhaps the same acclaim or attention the other attractions of the NMRM receive or indeed even the IWM. But with a wealth of historical treasures collected from the course of the Air Arms existence in active service, it was a unique and fantastic museum to visit in its own right.
The journey to the museum was somewhat of an experience in itself, driving down the country roads until the air station comes into view, passing the familiar red and white military road signage and the prominence of the museum is clear as it stands with its bold blue and white exterior decoration. Having visited in recent months both the Imperial War Museum airfield at Duxford and the RAF museum in Hendon I was curious as to how this museum would compare, more specifically what if anything would differentiate the sites given the familiarity of the subject matter. Whilst those mentioned are now both used principally as tourist destinations with private aircraft using the airfield at Duxford this is very much an active air station and as such has a different sense and atmosphere when you arrive. This is an active military location, as such if you are fortuitous you may experience seeing aircraft in operation practising and taking off which is a real treat. There is a temptation to dismiss for show the impact of exhibits when visiting an historical museum, by products from a different era of history but to see these attractions amongst an active service is an entirely unique and distinct ambiance that deserves to be seen and promoted to a wider degree.
Exploring The Museum
Given its location it does benefit with space to expand and breath in contrast to the more residential location of the Royal Air Force museum in Hendon. There is ample and free parking which is always a relief as it doesn’t place undue constraints on your stay or experience, facilities are available outside the main museum and with a new outdoor play area for children and young visitors it is a location that is transforming and catering for guests in the 21st century. Entry, for those of an able-bodied disposition is made through a staircase to the first floor, signage does indicate an alternative entry point for those unable to use the stairs, where or how this is done is another question but equally it does remind you this was and is an active base, transforming itself for a new purpose and role. When you enter the museum you arrive in a well stocked and varied gift shop selling a variety of wares and items for the preservation and continuation of the museum.
The entry fee itself is relatively modest, as an option you do have a chance to purchase a ticket through the museums online portal saving yourself a small amount, as this can be done as late as the morning of the visit it gives small respite for this looking for an affordable activity to explore and enjoy. In addition this can be used again over the course of 12 months, for those visiting Somerset as a one-off experience perhaps the pull of returning for the museum alone isn’t to great but for those residing within a short drive or even close by there quite simply isn’t a museum and location such as this anywhere close without venturing further into London towards the Imperial War Museum institutions. I do enjoy and have benefited from these annual ticket options as through experience they don’t tend to incur any additional surcharge but allow repeated visits which I’ll freely admit to having taken advantage of. Divided into four separate halls, subjectively the first hall is perhaps not its greatest and a reflection both of the age and limitation of the museum, but still an interesting dedication to the history of the pioneers of naval aviation from the earliest kites and balloons to the transition and use of helicopters in the Fleet Air Arm.
On arrival you are treated to a brief cinematic film of the history of the service before entering the first hall and descending into the first chamber where you get to experience the various historical aircraft, all well-preserved however somewhat limited in the scope of detail and information about them. It gives the impression perhaps then of a museum in transition, with certain aspects and areas developed or modernised whilst others linger to a degree waiting to be refurbished. The museum does of course rely entirely on the income generated through entry at this specific site and the wider group it is a part of, with the recent halt to visitors you can imagine now more than ever it will need guests to return when feasibly possible to allow expansion and progression if it is even possible to open again. The film on arrival is fascinating to watch, a few nice touches of design and aesthetic however equally certain parts seem a little dated in contrast. I enjoyed certain touches, the connectivity to the forces, the various military quotes along the walls add a certain poignancy and connection to the history of those in the service.
Equally, on the times I have visited a couple of the displays have been turned off or not functioning with equipment lying around, it lacks some of the polish and finish of its contemporaries and peers. Venturing further into the museum brings you to the second hall where a great deal of the museums military aircraft are based in addition to the exhibitions which truth be told in other venues would have attracted an additional charge. I’ll readily admit I do enjoy the spectacle and marvel of this machinery and exhibits, the projected power and prestige of the armed forces and the nations ingenuity and fortitude in the construction and preservation of these aircraft for prosperity sake. As a historical fact, naval aviation fundamentally changed the structure of the war at sea as much as submarines, from large battleships as the dominant force at the beginning of the 20th century to carriers being able to project a great distance and expose the vulnerability of stationary targets.
All documented and discussed but in addition some fascinating side exhibits including a display of art and paintings of the Air Art assets in action and operation which was fun to see but also a somewhat subdued but still prominent exhibition on the role of women in the services. I will always champion exhibits such as those featured in this museum which tell and present a true reflection of the role women had during the great wars as couriers, messengers, mechanics, factory workers, all crucial and fundamental to the war effort to keep the nation going. There’s a temptation to project our present day sensibilities and attitudes onto the past to reframe and try to make sense of a sense of character and purpose we don’t understand or can comprehend. In my humble opinion it’s not only a disservice but a dishonor to ignore this crucial function and role, to try to project an illusion of equality of role and duty at this time, without the aircraft mechanics and factory works, the medical staff, the couriers, code breakers and communication workers there wouldn’t have been an infrastructure and supply line that kept the forces operational and turned the tide. There are so many roles and duties women served during the war these are the real stories I enjoy discovering which should be championed above all else.
Flight Deck Experience
One of the attractions greatest exhibits and selling points is without question the Carrier exhibit, modelled, ostensibly after the Invincible class carriers that served the Royal Navy over the past half century most notably during the Falklands War conflict. Situated in the third hall visitors are provided an opportunity to ‘fly’ onto the carrier through a helicopter simulator that attempts to reproduce the sound and sensation of landing upon a flight deck. It’s somewhat aged in contrast to more modern sensory based exhibits but in truth is great fun to experience and stepping out the hatch onto the flight deck of the carrier is enjoyable as you witness the various aircraft around you. From there you are treated to other interactive exhibits such as a landing aircraft using both video footage combined with stationary fighters. There is the option to bypass this boarding process which is a nice touch, for me, emerging from the confines of the shell of the helicopter was great to experience.
On a busy day I would imagine it could feel quite crowded given the proximity of aircraft and the restricted floor space available but with only a few guests passing through and no pressing rush or drive to move on you can quite easily amble around before moving onto the Tower portion of the attraction, a recreation of the various operations rooms and departments on a carrier that faithfully recreate the appearance and aesthetic of a military vessel during this period. You do need to approach the exhibit with a mindset that is very much a product of its time, the introductory and tour videos that play at various stages as you progress from room to room a little dated in both its appearance and quality in contrast to more digital based content more readily available at the museums bigger contemporaries. Certainly when compared to the relatively recently renovated National Army Museum in Chelsea or the main Imperial War Museum’s First World War exhibit the Carrier attraction is showing its age.
However, to the best of my memory there really isn’t anything like this with your tour guiding you through the various departments and areas of a carrier. Certainly HMS Belfast in London provides an opportunity to explore a preserved vessel from its time and with other attractions as part of the Naval Museum package is this form of display strictly necessary? questionable but it is enjoyable and such a unique way to display the aircraft housed within the museum. Quite simply the museum could have put a facade of a tower and not lost any appeal or attraction, the planes are the stars of this museum and certainly no other museum has gone to such lengths to showcase the history of the Fleet Air Arm. However, taken in its entirety as a showcase of the role the Navy played in conflict, specifically the aircraft carriers which at the time of its construction would have still been in active service and mainly unavailable to the civilian population to tour an exhibit such as this was a wonderful showcase of a technology that would have been both alien and hostile to the world around them.
Today, yes a somewhat nostalgic look at the military of that time but still an enjoyable exhibit to explore. Perhaps my only complaint the requirement to move forward relatively quickly from room to room, I enjoyed the means to explore Belfast at my own pace and time, here it felt constrained with a necessity to push forward but given the confines of space and a narrative to follow its tolerable and you never feel you miss any of the information on show or the videos guiding you around. It is afterall a simulation not an historical museum such as Belfast, as such it tells it’s experience well fortuitously catered towards a present day mentality of creating a one way direction between rooms allowing for the safety of its visitors. Ending with a descent on an aircraft lift simulator and depositing you in an area overlooking the conservation area which was interesting to see the skeleton and shells of these recovered planes and an indication of the work needed to restore them to the condition exhibited in the museum, also giving you a brief summary of the latest carriers serving the Navy and entry to the final hall.
The Age of Supersonic Aircraft
The final hall in the museum is at best, described as a somewhat eclectic but impressive mixture of both civilian and military aircraft, most notable for housing one of the early prototype Concorde planes. It’s difficult to imagine this pioneering technology grows further into distant memory for generations living today, even in my youth I was only vaguely aware as to its impact on the aviation market. Having gone aboard one of the other models in the UK at Duxford, the plane housed here is somewhat devoid of the equipment and housings found in the IWM exhibit however is still an equally impressive exhibit to explore. Entered from the rear compartment allows you to experience the full scope and length of the plane. A word of warning, it was designed for aerodynamic efficiency and performance, those of a somewhat taller disposition will suffer from a bumped head and shin on more than one occasion whilst traversing the length of the Concorde but this was very much the future of transport at one stage, arguably ahead of the curve that suffered a regrettable fate that restricted the expansion of this technology onto the mass market.
As noted on the other model I have visited these experimental aircraft were very much a mixture of civilian comfort and scientific endeavour, fascinating to witness and explore. I enjoyed some of the nice touches, the inclusion of the seating area gives a brief hint as to the grandeur and opulence of this aircraft and those who were fortunate to ride upon her and her predecessors. The thrill of achieving supersonic speeds over the Atlantic and arriving in so short a time in New York would have been exhilarating, today a distant memory or living only in imagination. The menu’s detailing the foods on offer suggest far dining far in excess of any found aboard todays modern aircraft. One nice addition that stands in contrast to its counterpart in Duxford was the ability to move further forward into the cockpit area, I enjoyed the access and being able to move, somewhat carefully to witness the technology almost 6 decades old but still a testament of its time. On leaving the Concorde a concourse route around the exhibit hall gives witness to many of the military craft featured including a Harrier jet and one of the impressive Sea King helicopters.
There is a substantial amount to see when visiting this museum, I was perhaps a little guarded or wary of what to expect when I attended having been in the good fortune to attend similar thematic locations such as the museum in Duxford and Hendon which both showcase a familiar range of aircraft and information. Subjectively, a strange conclusion to draw but I would probably say what I enjoyed most about this museum was its historical charm and nature, showcasing and capturing a chapter of the aviation history of the Fleet Air Arm whilst acknowledging the future of the service aboard the newest flagship of the navy in active service today. With the work it carries out to preserve recovered aircraft there is a sense your visit and donation supports and funds the continued work of the museum, the staff and volunteers are friendly and knowledgeable able to provide context where required on what you see before you. Certainly there is scope for development and modernisation but arguably, that would take away some of the charm of the attraction.
There’s a temptation to look upon this museum with whimsical charm, a product of a bygone era but it’s very setting reminds you the Fleet Air Arm is an active part of the UK’s military operation, being witness to the helicopters in training and service is fascinating to watch. This then making the Fleet Air Arm Museum an authentic and welcoming attraction to visit. The effects of the recent pandemic across the UK and globally has had a devastating impact on this particular sector amongst many, relying on the income generated through entry to continue to operate viably which given its more isolated location away from any central hub makes this a challenging period ahead for this particular location. There was evidence of some modernisation, and I suppose having had the good fortune to visit similar attractions in recent years you can see where it might look to emulate but that of course comes at great cost and effort, whether there is that ambition to modernise this location is for others to decide.
There is something to be said for a location such as this that emphasises its historical collection of equipment and artefacts, a contradiction perhaps of an earlier point around the lack of information and context but equally a balance I feel the Imperial War Museum in London and other modern museums such as the recently refurbished National Army Museum have failed to balance in only showing select items at the expense of its vast collection. Here, quite rightly, it feel’s the museum has pride in its assortment of restored Aircraft, similar to the hangers found in Hendon and Duxford. It is enjoyable to just stand in front of one of these machines, feel humble at its size and grandeur and understanding if only for the briefest moment and amount the trepidation felt by the airmen taking the skies. I hope, the museum finds a viable solution to reopen in due course, it has a story to tell and one that deserves to be heard.
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