By Michel Hell
If your aviation interests include the evolution of the aircraft from WWI through to the Cold War then you owe it to yourself to visit England.
There is just so much to see, from small private collections to world-renown Imperial War Museums.
This year the third Aviation Heritage Tour of England was held from Sept. 15 to 25. The tour was sponsored by the Toronto Aerospace Museum and was organized by Group Tour Consultant Dale Sherwood of Canadian Gateway, located in Toronto.
After expressing interest to Sherwood last year on going on such a trip, I was offered the fortunate task of hosting this year’s trip. Well, I had never been to England before except for a 30 minute refuelling and crew change in Manchester en route to Greece, so how could I refuse such an amazing offer!
Our group of 12 met for the first time at Pearson International Airport just prior to boarding a British Airways 747-400. Eight of us are from Ontario, two from Alberta and two from British Columbia. All but one of us shared an interest in aviation, and luckily for the one, there were plenty of non-aviation activities on our itinerary to keep everyone happy.
For example, our first stop was the Roman Baths and Pump Room in Bath, but aviation was the theme of the tour, and there was plenty to see, starting the next day with Royal Navy’s Yeovilton International Air Day.
The Yeovilton Naval Air Station is located south of Bristol, our home for the first two nights.
The five hour air show featured Tornados, Jaguars, Harriers and an amazing demonstration by a South African Airlines pilot who flew a 747-400 around the patch like it was a Cessna 172. Also featured were the Red Arrows Display Team (the British version of the Canadian Snowbirds) and a fantastic finale featuring a Commando Assault Demonstration.
The airport is also home to the Fleet Air Arm Museum, one of four Royal Navy Museums in the U.K. which features an award winning Aircraft Carrier Experience, the Concorde and the largest collection of Naval aircraft in Europe.
From there our guide Alan Forbes and our coach driver Enrico took us north to the Royal Worcester Porcelain Museum where some of us aspiring artists had the amusing opportunity to paint our own designs on pre-fired porcelain plates. Then it was off to Shropshire to visit the RAF Museum at Cosford. Dinner and accommodations were in nearby Wolverhampton.
From there we went on a long cross country tour into the Bomber County of Lincolnshire. On the way we stopped for refreshments in Buxton, a small town which claims to be the highest town elevation-wise in the U.K. Note the country side scenery was purely spectacular.
When we arrived in Lincolnshire it was time to visit the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre where the Panton Brothers established the centre as a memorial to their brother who did not return from WWII.
The centre is home to the Lancaster MkVII NX611 nicknamed “Just Jane,” one of only four Lancasters remaining in the UK. Of the 7,000 Lancs which were built during WWII only 22 can be found worldwide and of those only three can move under its own power.
That night we settled in the beautiful Petwood Hotel. This elegant old hotel was built at the turn of the century for Lady Weigall. It’s surrounded by 30 acres of mature woodland, rhododendron walks, extensive lawns and gardens and has a feature lake stocked with a variety of wildfowl.
During WWII the hotel was requisitioned by the RAF and in 1943 it became the Officers Mess for 617 Squadron – the famous Dambusters. Today its Squadron Bar is dedicated to this famous group of men.
After dinner at the Petwood we were treated to a special Dams Raid lecture by Jim Shortland, a 617th Squadron Dambusters expert. Shortland’s lecture included rare wartime archive film and a lively question and answer session in the Squadron Bar.
The next day we were off to visit the City of Lincoln and tour its beautiful Cathedral and Castle. In the afternoon we found ourselves at the Newark Air Museum and then to Bedford where we spent the next two nights.
There’s many interesting sights and history to be found in and around Bedford. For example, just about a mile away from our hotel we found the two huge hangars where the Airships R-100 and R-101 were built. One of the two hangars has been restored and both are apparently still in use by the British Government.
About five miles in the other direction we visited Clapham Airfield, known to many as historic RAF Twinwood Airfield and Glenn Miller Museum. It is where big band sensation Glenn Miller was last seen getting into a Norseman before disappearing over the English Channel.
Every year near the end of August, Twinwood attracts about 9,000 people to its Glenn Miller Festival. Amazing!
From there we went to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. Simply a truly mind boggling museum. Many of the aircraft on display still fly and perform at Duxford’s many air shows.
Duxford boasts four hangars, the American Air Museum, Land Warfare Hall and several outside static displays, including the Concorde which in 2007 will be moved into a new 12,000 square metre building currently under construction which will be dedicated to AirSpace.
Our group rushed through Duxford in three and a half hours. My advice is you allow yourself an entire day to see all the sights.
Next we visited The Shuttleworth Collection. Much smaller than Duxford but equally as impressive as Duxford. Here you’ll find the most unique collection of aircraft found anywhere, from a 1909 Bleriot Type XI to the famous WWII Hawker Sea Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire.
What’s truly amazing about this collection is all the aircraft on display are still flown today! Shuttleworth is located in Biggleswade just south east of Bedford and is supported by more than 2,500 members of the Shuttleworth Veteran Aeroplane Society. This is a must see collection.
The next morning is the beginning of day number eight and our destination is London. But before we get there we make a stop at the de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre which is the actual secret location of where the prototype Mosquito was designed and built.
As a matter of fact, the actual prototype is on site and the volunteer staff are more than happy to help you climb into it. The prototype is currently in the early stages of a 10-year-restoration program.
Also on display are a variety of other de Havilland aircraft, ranging from the DH Moth to the modern military and civil jets. The centre is located just outside London in London Colney. It too is a must see. The staff can easily keep you there for hours explaining each and every piece in the collection in great detail.
Hendon, the RAF Museum in London is another spectacular museum to get lost in. There are five large buildings, Battle of Britain Hall, Milestones of Flight, Bomber Hall, Historic Hangars and the Grahame-White Factory which features the oldest aircraft in the collection – Vickers Vimy, SE5a and the Bristol Monoplane.
You should all recall the Vickers Vimy. A replica was flown this past summer by adventurer Steve Fossett across parts of Canada and across the Atlantic to commemorate
the historic Trans-Atlantic crossing by the original Vimy in 1919.
The museum also features a full scale model of the Eurofighter “Typhoon” and a perfect example of the German Messerschmitt Me262.
Anyway, so much to see, too little space to describe it all.
In London that evening several of us went to the pub for a pint and then, breaking out of tradition had dinner in an Italian restaurant.
The next morning was spent touring around London and in the afternoon visited Winston Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms and then the Imperial War Museum. All very fascinating indeed.
On our last full day of the tour we went to Chartwell, the home of Sir Winston Churchill in Westerham followed by an appreciation lunch for our guide and driver at the Grasshopper Inn which is also in Westerham, Kent. The food was superb, to say the least.
Afterwards it was time in get into the sky… sort of, on the London Eye. A great way to say goodbye to a city you just know you’ll have to come back to.
Overall this was an exceptional tour with a great variety of content. The tour guide was a real pro and the driver sure knew how to navigate the narrow and confusing roads of England.
The entire group got along famously, but then, of course we would. After all, we’re all pilots or interested in aviation.
If you and 19 of your family members or flying buddies want to arrange a similar trip for next year, I highly recommend it. For more information contact Dale Sherwood at Canadian Gateway: Tel.: 905-660-110 ext. 20 or 1-888-879-8515 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org