Recently, I was delighted to get an invite to the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) inaugural re-opening of its American Air Museum (AAM) at Duxford in Cambridgeshire. The AAM opened to the public on Saturday 19 March 2016, after being closed for 12 months for major redevelopment work. I had the opportunity to get a sneak preview and to talk to some honorary guests, whose legacies form part of the new exhibition. A midweek event meant my trusty photographing sidekick of a son could not join me due to school. Given half a chance, he would probably have skipped to come with me.
The AAM is housed in a concrete semi-conical building with a glass front that faces the airfield and, as you can see from the AAM’s floor plan above, it’s packed full of aircraft that showcase some of the very best in US historical aviation.
I was met by IWM’s press officer, Esther Blaine, who gave me a quick rundown of the morning’s activities. After a quick coffee, cinnamon danish, and pit-stop, I milled around the main causeway for introductory speeches from historians Jenny Cousins and Carl Warner about the updated AAM collection. I had a delightful shock to the system when meeting a former school friend, and now an Associated Press photographer, in the small gathering. We hadn’t seen each other in roughly 20 years so we had to whisper during our brief reunion. Small world.
Since nothing was getting airborne today, the mood was perhaps far more serene and relaxed than the recent Spitfire homecoming at SOU event or last year’s 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain spectacle. We were invited to walk among the displays at our leisure, ask questions of staff members who were floor-walking, and interview some of the honorary guests.
Having briefly spent the afternoon in the flight deck of an Airbus A319 on stand at London Stansted (STN) the day before, I marveled at the world’s first instrument flight simulator. It is a Link D2 trainer, built by Link Aviation Inc in the 1930’s and now proudly at home among its bigger brethren in the AAM.
It is difficult to pick a favorite among the aircraft, especially since being a child of the movies, I associate so many of them with some great flicks. Looking at the P51 Mustang takes me straight to Empire of the Sun and the “Cadillac of the Sky” moment. The B-25J Mitchell throws me into the world of Yossarian and Catch 22; a brilliant book and enjoyable film.
However, the A-10 tank buster sits on the summit for me. As a child, I recall the news footage of it action during the 1990 Gulf War and at about the same time my mother bought me an Airfix model of one to assuage my bitter disappointment at failing an important school exam. I still have it hanging on the ceiling in my son’s room as a reminder never to give up.
I was impressed listening to one of the honorary guests, military veteran Jack ReVelle, speak. Now this chap was involved in two nuclear accidents during his USAF career, one of which included leading a team to Goldsboro in North Carolina to recover and defuse the nuclear payload that had fallen from a crashed B-52 in 1961.
This information having been declassified since 2013, he very calmly described his team’s horror at finding the weapon’s switch set to “arm,” upon locating it.
After being introduced to Jack by an IWM employee, I had the courage to ask him a question. Get ready for it… “how would you describe your perfect Sunday?” His eyes widened and a bemused smile spread across his face and he said, “Well, I’d say watching a football or basketball game, having read the Sunday papers and having eaten a decent breakfast.” Looking at me as if I was certifiable, he then said “young man, that is the strangest question I’ve had all day” to which I said that I didn’t want to ask the same question about disarming nukes that had probably been asked by everyone else. He smiled and nodded, but I think he still wondered whether I was a lunatic.
The AAM makes the claim that it contains the best collection of American aircraft on display outside of North America. I would love to test that claim. In any event, the re-vamped AAM serves to enhance an already superb civil and military aviation museum experience. When visiting the UK, I heartily recommend that all AvGeeks from across the Pond, and elsewhere, head up there and enjoy it.