Aviation. Ever since the Wright brother’s first flight in 1903, it’s played a huge part of our heritage. Whether it be commercial, or war, or pushing the limits of science, it turns out we as a society owe a great debt to mechanical flight. Here, at the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum, you’ll find out all about the marvellous mechanics of famous aircraft and the role they played in key world events. But you’ll also find the older, more forgotten about aircraft, the ones that paved the way for these modern wonders. Here, we can really celebrate our aviation heritage.
Here at South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum, Doncaster, we celebrate all things flying. If you think about it, aviation plays a big part of our lives: passenger planes taking us to and from holiday destinations; cargo planes taking shipments from abroad; heck, even helicopters for rescue operations and delivering troops. Well, it’s certainly played a big part in Doncaster, and this museum is perfectly placed to honour this town’s aviation heritage.
This museum opened here in Doncaster in 1999 under the name ‘aeroventure’, after moving from its home in Firbeck. And what a fitting location! These buildings are the last surviving buildings of RAF Doncaster. In 1934, the site was opened up as an aviation centre. Two years later, an international flight to Amsterdam was established. But, this was to change very soon. War was imminent. In 1939, the RAF took over the site. RAF Doncaster served as a ‘scatter’ station throughout the Second World War, before returning to civilian flights until its closure in 1992.
It’s undeniable that Doncaster has never seen the sky as the limit, with its own RAF base, airport, and aircraft museum. But, the town’s aviation history stretches before the Second World War - before the First World War, even! You see, Doncaster - the racecourse, specifically - was chosen as the location for the UK’s first ever air race, all the way back in 1909.
Not six years after the Wright Brother’s first flight, flyers from across the globe flocked to Doncaster to show off their skills. It lasted from the 15th until the 26th of October, attracting nearly 160,000 visitors. Originally, it was only meant to last until the 23rd of October . However, owing to poor weather, officials ended up extending it until the 26th. Whilst there were many contenders, there was only really one stand out aircraft at that race - the Bleriot XI monoplane.
There is a replica of the plane here at the museum. First produced in January 1909, it was manufactured by French inventor Louis Bleriot. Whilst looking like any old plane, this is actually the oldest flying aircraft in the world. And in 1909 alone, this one-propeller wonder shook the world… twice.
On the 25th of July, 1909, aviation history was made. Louis flew this, the Bleriot XI, 21 miles. The starting point was Calais, France. He took off at 4:41 am, with a brisk wind blowing. 36 minutes later, he landed at Northfall Meadow, in Dover. Yes - that was the first aeroplane trip across the English Channel. It only takes an hour to get from Doncaster to Paris nowadays, but back then: this was massive.
Speaking of Doncaster, the Bleriot helped a different pilot break another record right here at the 1909 air race, not 3 months after this plane crossed the channel for the first time. The pilot in question was Leon Delagrange, another French aviator. The date was October 26th, 1909, two days into the races. The odds were stacked against him, with it being an infamously stormy day - and yet, he managed to break world record. He flew this Bleriot 6 miles in 7 minutes and 36 seconds. That was 50 miles per hour. 50 mph may not seem like much now, but then, that was enough for Delagrange’s career to take off - if you’ll pardon the pun.
He was regarded a celebrity, and even awarded a medal. Sadly, Leon’s career was cut tragically short - and, in cruel irony, it was because of the Bleriot XI monoplane. On the 4th of January, 1910, he was piloting his Bleriot over Bordeaux, France. It was terribly stormy - and he was not to have the same luck that he had at the air race. The wings collapsed, and Leon came crashing to the ground - with his skull crushed by the motor.
Despite this tragic end, it’s indisputable just how amazing a pilot he was. Equally, it’s undeniable just how amazing this old plane actually was too. It really paved the way for the aircraft to come and the ones we use today. Even though it’s not as famous as, say, the concorde or spitfire, it’s like the grandfather of aviation. Speaking of spitfire, this museum also holds it’s own little warbird, but one not so famous as the spitfire - an Auster Mark 1.
When we think of Second World War aeroplanes, we tend to think the usual: spitfires, lancaster bombers, hurricanes. However, the Auster here played a very different and yet very vital role in the aerial theatre of war.
Auster was a British aircraft manufacturer with a short but important life. They began production of aeroplanes in 1938, yet ceased only 23 years later. During the war, around 1,600 of these little beauties were built. Their role was as an AOP - an Air Observation Post.
AOPs were highly manoeuvrable aircraft that were flown by pilots of the Royal Artillery. Their task was to fly high above the battles, and behind enemy lines, to direct the artillery below and locate the targets that were needed to be bombed. They were used in North Africa, Italy, and even the Normandy Landings. But this was no easy task. In fact, it was incredibly dangerous.
Austers were almost invariably used for AOPs, but they were quite slow. They had a speed of around 120mph - to put that in perspective, Spitfires had a speed of nearly 370. This was good for getting information and a clear image of the battlefield - but as you could imagine, made them fairly easy targets. However, one of the biggest causes of losses was actually friendly fire. On their return trip, AOPs were sometimes hit by the artillery they had called in.
Austers were considered perfect choices for this role. Their slow speed was actually a bonus, and they were small and light, making them easy to manoeuvre. Plus, because AOPs had to take off sometimes from makeshift runways, which included nearby fields and the like, the Auster’s short takeoff and landing proved them invaluable on the battlefield.
This Auster at the South Yorkshire Aircraft museum is actually right at home here. You see, this one was actually based at RAF Firbeck in 1942, where this museum used to be stationed before moving here. So, at 78 years old, you could say this AOP is a bit of an OAP. But this museum doesn’t just have collections of aircraft from decades ago, oh no - it also has, most notably, helicopters.
Take this one for example. This is a Westland Wessex HU.5. Wessexes were first used by the Royal Navy in 1961, before being used by the RAF. It’s British built and turbine powered, with later models using a pair of Rolls-Royce Gnome engines. It’s most recognised for its use as a Search and Rescue helicopter. And it’s also recognised for it’s frequent use in a very recent recent war: the Falklands War.
The Falklands War was a conflict between Argentina and England, lasting from 2nd of April 1982 until the 14th of June It was fought as a result of Argentina invading the English colony of the Falkland Islands. Argentina had claimed sovereignty in the 1800s, and thought England would not retaliate with force. They did. By the end of the war, 3 Falkland citizens died, with 255 British approximately 650 Argentinian servicemen killed.
This type of helicopter, the HU.5, was heavily used during the Falklands War. With a capability of holding 12 fully armed men, this aircraft was renowned for being a reliable piece of machinery, even in harsh weather conditions. One of the main uses of the HU.5 in the war was the transportation and insertion of special forces, including the SAS. Approximately 55 HU.5s served during the Falklands War. Of those, 8 were destroyed.
Two HU.5s crashed during an attempt to get SAS from South Georgia on the 22nd of April. Due to the horrific snow storm, the helicopters crashed into the Fortuna Glacier. Then, on the 25th of May, the British merchant navy ship, the SS Atlantic Conveyor, was hit by two Argentinian missiles. 12 sailors lost their lives. Three days later, the ship sunk whilst under tow. With it, so did 6 HU5 helicopters. This Westland Wessex here is, of course, not one of the wrecked helicopters. There is, however, a real life wreckage here at the museum. It is the wreckage of a Nimrod R1, or, as it was unofficially known, ‘The Beast’.
This is a Nimrod plane. Well, the wreckage of a Nimrod plane. Well, the wreckage of a cockpit of a Nimrod plane. It’s serial number, XW666, of course gave way to its unofficial nickname, ‘The Beast’. To me, there’s a bittersweet irony there, considering what happened to it.
The Hawker Siddeley Nimrod is a UK built aeroplane, that first flew in 1967, and was retired in 2011. It was 39m long, making it about a third of the length of a football field. Used as a maritime patrol aircraft, it sported a Rolls-Royce Spey engine, and had a top speed of around 573mph.
On the 16th May 1995, this XW666, or ‘The Beast’, departed from RAF Kinloss in North-East Scotland. Ironically, that was 666 hectares big - a lot of 666 here. The Nimrod, only thirty-five minutes into its flight, suddenly received a warning light in engine 4. Then, before long, a warning light for engine 3 illuminated. One of the 7 crew members on board checked out the aircraft, confirming the worst: the plane was on fire.
The fire was causing serious structural damage - so much so, that the crew member saw panels falling off the starboard wing. In mid-flight, the plane was falling apart and on fire. Not a pleasant surprise! It turns out that engine 4 received some damage before the flight, and an oil leak was ignited, perhaps by the high engine temperature. In order to save the plane, the captain had to ditch the plane in the Moray Firth, an inlet of the North Sea.
Despite such bad damage to the plane, the captain’s plan worked. Even better, all 7 on board the plane survived the ditching. Now, 25 years later, this cockpit is all that remains of a plane that could’ve been the end of 7 lives.
Whilst this cockpit is all there is to the Nimrod, there’s certainly more to the museum than just these few aircraft. And much like the Nimrod, there are so many stories that have been preserved here.
Aviation. It’s played such a huge part in our nation’s heritage. And South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum, and many museums like it, all play a vital role in preserving that heritage. With Doncaster having such a strong connection to Britain’s aviation, it seems only fitting that this museum is situated here to celebrate that strong connection. A connection to a side of history where we can really say the sky isn’t the limit.
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Joshua Daniels is a Yorkshire based public historian and documentary maker. He studied a Master’s in Public History at Royal Holloway, and has a particular interest in the history of journalism.