Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Royal Air Force Museum

Grahame Park Way, London NW9 5LL
Wednesday March 23 2016

This museum is really only for  folk who like aeroplanes as, apart from a few uniforms, the main emphasis is on the aircraft used  or abused ( ie shot down) by the Royal Air Force over the last 100 years. The RAF, very much the junior service, was founded in 1915 and the Milestones of Flight Gallery was opened   as a centenary exhibition in a new purpose-built hall in 2013. Somehow we failed to grasp that the other display galleries were in separate buildings so only in fact visited a fraction of the whole Museum  as a result. To revert to our former pursuit – it felt a bit like discovering we had got off the bus before it reached its destination. At the other BIG national Museums we knew we had to make some choices and plan return visits but here we just failed to find about 3/5 of the displays!!

We walked from Colindale Underground Station marvelling at all the new buildings that had gone up since we were last here – the Newspaper bit of the BL is now ‘Luxury affordable flats’ or  similar and the whole area either side of Grahame Road is a work in progress.  And of course much of this area was the former Hendon Aerodrome run by the RAF, which is why there is quite so much ‘brownfield site’ to develop.  Grahame Road is named for the pioneer aviator and entrepreneur Claude Grahame of whom more later.

The Museum itself occupies a large site and we trekked across a huge car parking area.  (Museum Entrance is free but contributions welcome and the car park charges.)  The white domed buildings, new built but looking like a cross between a hangar and a garage, seemed to be a conference centre. Presumably the vision was for conference members to wander into the galleries when time and boredom permitted. The car park seemed quite empty today as was the Museum itself, though it did swallow up a French school party — not an easy meal to digest.  

We headed upstairs in the first hall noting that both lifts were out of order as were some of the audio-visuals. Compared to many museums (and this one is free, which must have a bearing on things) there are very few staff as the exhibits are so huge and suspended from the ceiling that there is little risk of the public  either harming or nicking the objects. Some of the planes are real, some replicas and there is everything from a reconstruction  of  the plane Bleriot flew in his historic cross channel trip from Calais to the very modern European  Fighter. The early planes are intriguing in their fragility seemingly made of balsa wood and linen on a set of bicycle wheels and exposed to the elements. At least they would have been quiet unlike the modern jets – I have been at air days and displays when the Typhoon flies overhead and you really do need ear plugs.

Across the ground floor wall there is a Timeline cross referring world events, random  facts (invention of the zip fastener)  and milestones in aviation history including the more daring exploits of early flight and of course the foundation of the Royal Air Force in 1915* up to its modern day. The yellow line over the top indicates the length of the Wright Brothers’ first flight – about 120 yards...There is plenty to read and this gives a good context for the displays in this hall and presumably the rest of the museum.

[*Anorak alert: the historians associated with this project had always understood that the Royal Air Force was founded in 1918, by a merger of the Royal Flying Corps (founded 1912) and the Royal Naval Air Service (founded 1914).  Quite where the date of 1915 comes from we do not know, but this is what various placards say here and elsewhere in the Museum.]

My only ‘ambition’ before the visit was to see a Halifax Bomber having just finished reading  'A God in Ruins' with the author, Kate Atkinson’s hero a Halifax pilot, where life expectancy was short, but with descriptions that will stay with you.  There did not seem to be a Halifax which was slightly puzzling , though of course had we found (where there any signs??) the gallery for Bomber Command or the Battle of Britain, we might have seen one.

The sign we did see was for the ‘First World War’ in the air in the Claude Grahame-White Building – from the outside this looked so pristine we assumed it was a newly built addition though very much in the style of an airfield command unit. Once inside it was clear from the oak staircase and panelling that this was original and research indicates it was  moved and rebuilt

It is known as the Watch office and the front is for business and the back opens onto a large hangar space where  the history of Grahame-White’s enterprise and the early days of the RAF are presented. Presumably beyond that would have been the airfield and runways, which the RAF were reluctant to give up until it
became clear that vertical take off was not the next big thing…but a passing phase.
We enjoyed the atmosphere of the building – a wonderful panelled board room complete with doggy water bowls  and the role of the RAF  in the First World War clearly set out. In spite of tales of the Red Baron aerial combat played a minor role compared to the importance of photography, reconnaissance, escort and artillery observation and of course with such a ‘new’ service teaching men how to fly was a major part.  Each of these functions is illustrated by the appropriate exhibits – maps plans etc. The planes on show in here also have their engines proudly displayed.
We emerged into the Spring gloom and noted  the Museum to our left – little did we know the other buildings housed  other substantial collections.

Better initial research on our part might have meant we asked for directions once on site but neither of us remember signs or directions urging us to see more….a return visit will therefore be likely. 

 Yes - it's a woolly plane which just about sums up our experience today.


  1. The road you walk to the museum is Grahame Park Way not Grahame Road

  2. The Halifax at Hendon is indeed in the Bomber Command hall. I went to a lecture there in about 1983/4 given by one of the team that recovered it from a Norwegian Lake.