Just down the road, away to the south and a bit to the west, is a hive of activity, a buzz of circling planes marking flat grassy fields nestled into the rolling Cambridgeshire hills. From the ground, dark Constable clouds meet Monet meadows at a distant horizon. There’s a hum of activity as tractors move vintage craft, fliers wave to get attention from the fuelers, and biplanes swoop through soft, slow touch-and-go maneuvers.
This is the Duxford Air Centre (more properly, the Duxford Imperial War Museum), about ten minutes drive SW of Cambridge along the M11. The museum is a large, living space, with vast hangers full of restored vintage aircraft, shops for conserving and reconstructing planes, and club space for private groups that fly historic aircraft. It’s not unusual to see a pilot to take his restored Spitfire through a tight turn overhead, or a white-haired veteran among the exhibits in his original flight jacket.
The museum is fairly pricy, £16.50 entry, but has five large hangers of original aircraft, descriptive text, and first-person accounts. It can feel like a jumble of machinery, but wandering among the planes imparts a tangible feel for the history of flight and a real appreciation for the crews that took these craft into war. There are civilian planes as well, the Concord and Catalina, but most are historic planes from the Battle of Britain and the Belgian fields of WWI. A separate American hanger holds a gigantic B-52, F-15, and SR-51 Blackbird, along with a memorial wall for the hundreds of US planes lost over Europe during WWII.
For me, its almost more of a tour of national myths than of technologic ascendency.
For the British, its a singular occasion for the national sport of ‘Spotting and Naming”.
The British aircraft seem to turn over astonishingly quickly: plaques tell when the plane was introduced, that tens or hundreds were made, and then, seven years later, how they were phased out. Sometimes it was a better model, sometimes a change in mission, but they never lasted long. In contrast the American planes all last 30 years and tens of thousands were produced. In one respect, it speaks to the magnitude of supplies that the US pitched into the wars, on the other, perhaps the durability of designs (even though we often think our products are transitory).
The biggest driver of aircraft evolution is clearly the engine. There was always a quest for stronger, lighter engines, and each improvement enabled a wave of larger, faster, better-armed planes. Transition from the 1920 biplane to the 1930’s warplane happens amazingly fast, and the parallel display of engines really tells the story.
One building holds a collection of land warfare artifacts, artillery and vehicles, set amid realistic displays of them on imagined battlefields. It’s disconcerting to see a tank surrounded by broken household articles or nestled within a ruined storefront: what is the intended message?
The vehicles don’t change much from trench wars to gulf wars: they just get bigger and more heavily armored. It makes me wonder if sheer bulk makes leaders think that their war will be different than previous ones? When you line them all up, they don’t look much different from one another.
A basement of one building honors “The Forgotten War”: it turns out to be the War in the Pacific. In the US, this is on equal WWII footing with the War in Europe: ‘strange to see it getting second billing here, although I understand the perspective.