American Air Museum: Imperial War Museum Duxford – Review

Opened on the 1st August 1997, the American Air Museum located within the Imperial War Museum in Duxford is home to one of the best collections of US military aircraft on public display outside of North America. Since its formation as an annexe of the main Imperial War Museum location outside of London in 1977 it has built up and established one of the largest collections of US military aircraft in Britain. The American Air Museum was conceived in the 1980s to commemorate the role of US personnel who had fought in active combat during the Second World War and their presence in this country in that time. With the acquisition of a number of planes to their collection including the formidable Stratofortress in 1983, the intention was to create a permanent gallery to showcase these spectacles of engineering for generations hence whilst preserving the human element and narrative in a purpose built space. Designed by notable architect Sir Norman Foster, the gallery was opened on the 1st August 1997 and today remains one of the largest and most notable collections of US military aircraft on display outside of North America in addition to other memorabilia and vehicles that tells the narratives and stories of those that have served their nations military whilst overseas in the UK.

Today, it stands apart from the historically preserved aircraft hangers that serve to showcase the museums collection and sits infused into the landscape, a neutral and subdued façade that houses the devastation of the military war machine within. It is an incredible space to visit, one of the highlights of any visit to Duxford. Not only for the vast assortment of aircraft that are unique to this museum in this country but also the human element that is revealed and the personal stories they share. It’s easy to be captivated by the size of the B-52 as it sits idly on the ground overshadowing a large proportion of the collection. Or the distinct, unique shape of the SR-71, the top secret spy plane that was one of the instrumental aircraft during the Cold War era that today is readily available to see and marvel at. Where the gallery succeeds is the human element, remembering the brave men and women who served and created a bond with their British allies during our darkest hour and continues to maintain the special relationship between the two historic nations. The museum continues to evolve with additions from recent conflicts including a portion of the World Trade Centre located near the entrance foyer one of the notable items in the collection. It serves a purpose to teach lessons of the past to ensure we remember and learn from them moving forward.

“We boys were really thrilled. We watched them go to war. We would count the bombers out and count them back”

Roger Freeman

Harbingers of Death and Destruction

The calm, ambiguous façade of the of the outside gives way to the vast collection of military aircraft within that hangs like an ominous spectre to those that look upon them. It’s a visually impressive collection of planes and ground vehicles that is unique to this museum in Britain and demands your attention as you step foot into the gallery and first see the expansive Stratofortress as the centre piece of the collection. The gallery was envisioned and designed by Sir Norman Foster to accommodate this particular aircraft with the open glass front allowing a swathe of natural light to illuminate the gallery inside. Your first impressions are moved towards the large, historical aircraft within the gallery, the majority of the display from the World Wars however there are notable inclusions from the Cold War era in addition to the War on Terror. Whilst any further additions are of course reliant on their retirement from active service and transference to an overseas museum away from domestic markets it is positive to see this motivation to keep this particular gallery and museum relevant to a modern audience. One of the particular highlights was the inclusion of the SR-71 spy plane towards the front of the museum. It was shrouded in secrecy for a long period of time after its retirement from active operations in 1989 and had an air of mystery and menace given its unique shape and design.

The majority of the surviving Blackbirds are located today in museums in North America today including one surviving aircraft at the Aviation Museum at Richmond International Airport in Virginia. It is a privilege to see this particular plane in the UK and whilst much of its service and history is still classified what is available makes for a fascinating narrative of its own. As a child I was drawn to this plane in the film D.A.R.Y.L and longed to see it in person. I was enthralled to come upon it when visiting Richmond a number of years ago, it was a great discovery to find the only model of this plane on public display outside of North America is located at Duxford a short drive from where I live. This section of the gallery is devoted to more modern conflicts and events, detailing the alliance between the two countries during the Cold War and the impact of the Terror Attack in New York in 2001 with the inclusion of debris from the World Trade Centre on show. The inclusion of the SR-71 and its modern equivalence in the Predator Drone that hangs from the ceiling give indication of the US Air Force move away from the vast expansive bombers such as the B-52 towards directed targetter strikes. They may lack the visual panache of their historical counterparts but serve a more practical, precise function.

UH-1H Iroquois ‘Huey’
F-111 & A-10
SR-71 Blackbird

The main attraction is of course the B-52 Stratofortress located in the centre of the gallery that practically overshadows nearly every other aircraft. These strategic bombers were first introduced by the US Air Force in 1952 and continue to serve and operate today. They are an intimidating instrument of war and you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the size as you stand beneath one of its wings, it has a wingspan of 56.4m in total, and try to imagine how it has the ability to take off. The UK is one of four nations outside of North America home to one of the retired bombers and it is certainly a highlight of a visit to this museum. Whilst it may have been superseded from a technological standpoint by advancements in aeronautical engineering with the use of Stealth technology in the SR-2 for instance, its reliability and durability has meant it continues to be an active element of the US strategic plan and as such its inclusion as a permanent exhibit is a highlight of this museum. Hanging above the B-52 is the F-15 Eagle, one of the variations of this durable fighter that continues to serve in conflicts across the globe. First flown in 1972, like the bomber beneath it, the longevity of the design and durability is clear to see as it continues to serve a purpose in the world today and is remarkable to see two active aircraft designed long before I was born.

It was interesting to see this evolution of technology from the formidable aircraft flown during the World Wars to their modern day equivalence with a more streamlined appearance and design. In the UK we eulogise the legacy of the Spitfire for the role it played during the Battle of Britain but you feel that same reverence to the American aircraft on show such as the P-51D Mustang that hangs from the ceiling with its slightly garish but bold aesthetic. Given its historical legacy and origins as a collaboration between the two countries, this aircraft and variations of the design were responsible in ensuring not only were bombing raids successful over Germany in an escort capacity but also served to ensure air superiority in 1944 against the Luftwaffe. They don’t have a subtle aesthetic and appearance but exude a sense of ingenuity and defiance. The inclusion of the Huey, one of the more recognisable helicopters in their service history was also a nice addition to the collection given its long service and use in popular media. The design of the gallery with its grey and white finish sets the ambience perfectly with the muted dark colours of the aircraft standing out vividly wherever they are positioned. It has the atmosphere of a curated installation, though you have to remind yourself these exhibits once served a very different purpose.

‘You might be having your last conversation with your best friend. The next morning he was gone. And that happened over and over’

John Watters – B-17 Bombardier, Second World War

The Human Narrative

The human element of this gallery doesn’t perhaps have the visual dominance of the aircraft but it is an integral part of the exhibition and deservedly so. As with the range of aircraft on display, the narrative of the Air Force personnel is woven into the tapestry of our history, highlighting the impact of their arrival and integration into British Society during the World Wars, and poignantly symbolises the terrible cost paid to ensure our liberty at a critical juncture in time. In 1944 there were a reported half a million Americans living in the UK, predominantly around the airfields in East Anglia where the US Air Force was based. This collaboration between allied forces was one of the determining factors in ensuring air superiority was maintained, but away from conflict it was the personal stories, the jovial interactions of two distinct societies and cultures coming together that shared a common language but were a world apart given the sustained conflict in the UK at that period of time. You have preconceptions of stoic pilots going off to war, its fascinating to see the human element of these individuals as they interacted with Britain at that period of time, every photo someone’s personal contribution that paints a picture of life at that period of time. This narrative continues to the modern day, one of the most distinct images a photo captured of US Air Force personnel marching through the streets on a commemoration day with a Greggs Bakery in the background.

There are some fascinating personal narratives interspersed throughout the gallery that dispel some of the gender misconceptions of service in the Air Force. It was interesting to read about Captain Meghan Booze, an F-15 Strike Eagle pilot based in the UK and the demands of service in her profession. Indeed one of the interesting aspects of the gallery is how it showcases the service of women in the US Air Force from a supportive role during the World Wars working in logistics and manufacturing to a more balanced and even role in modern conflicts as front line pilots. An evolution in proficiency that is similar in many ways to our armed services in the UK. It crafts this narrative in a similar way to the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton that provides the real stories of these incredible, brave individuals in an objective and concise way. An interesting observation that resonates with many of the societal issues permeating today is the reception and reaction to the division of white and black service personnel during the Second World War and how this was perceived by residents in the villages close to the US Air Force bases. One of the most moving and poignant exhibits is situated at the entrance way to the gallery, Counting The Cost, a memorial sculpture crafted and designed with the depiction of 52 panels shaped as aircraft for each plane missing in action flown by American forces leaving from Britain. Its a touching reminder when you realise its meaning of the very real cost paid to ensure our liberty and survival alongside the RAF.

In Summary

An informative and modern museum that celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, a highlight of any visit to Duxford and one of the best examples of US military hardware outside North America. It is home to a number of exhibits in this country such as the SR-71 that was a long held childhood dream to see in person and maintains that aura of mysticism and spectacle. There are a number of museums devoted to the RAF and the Air services in the UK, the RAF Museum in Colindale is a great example of a modern, well designed destination which celebrates the history and future of this branch of the armed services. Equally the Fleet Air Arm Museum of the Navy is both informative and interactive in a unique, distinct fashion with its hanger designed as the landing deck of an aircraft carrier. But given the nature of the subject matter you don’t tend to see this sort of collection outside of the US and it was a privilege to be able to walk around it at leisure and see a number of planes that helped shape and defend liberty in the West against the rise of fascism during the World Wars and more recent threats. It speaks to the relationship between the two countries there is a permanent exhibition such as this, it’s the open spirit of co-operation that exists between allies and serves to showcase the sacrifice and support of the US Air Force both historically and in its current role and is presented in a stunning, modern space.

Access is available through the cost of general entry to Duxford, as an Air museum, its primary focus is around the aircraft on show however there is a significant amount of personal artefacts and items that held an interest. In addition through its online domain, a growing portal that stores and archives personal narratives from those that served and presents them freely to explore and learn from. Its a great addition to an already remarkable museum in the heart of Cambridgeshire. One of the main issues with Duxford besides being some distance from the other museums in London, given its historic function it is a little challenging to access away from private transport. This aspect of the museum in Duxford is one of the best aspects of your visit but on balance, it doesn’t other anything substantially different from what’s already available. For me, the appeal of visiting this particular museum and collection was the opportunity to see the unique exhibits and planes outside of America. One or two I’ve been fortunate to see other models of before having visited the Air and Space museum in Washington and other Air museums in North America in recent years. But for an opportunity a lot closer to home that houses some of the defining aircraft from the history of the US Air Force, this is certainly not only a great addition to the Imperial War Museum but also for anyone with a fascination in this subject matter.

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