A Busy Half Term Visit, Wireless Navigation and Unexpected Details

Our first guest post from blogger-in-residence Will Jarman gives a first-hand look of our half-term activities on a busy February day.

We set off for the RAF Museum Midlands for a new perspective on the collection, anticipating a busy day. As a dad, I tend to choose relatively quiet days to visit, but we had a ticket for my son to attend ‘Aircrew Needs You’ in the Lecture Theatre of the National Cold War Exhibition. So a half-term visit became a priority. It was nice to see how the hangar spaces managed to cope with significant crowds rather well.

A young boy visits the RAF museum

We arranged to arrive early for our visit. We spent the morning inspecting the undercarriage of the Avro York, noticing how it was an adapted design, an odd cross between an  Avro Lancaster and a generously proportioned railway carriage. This would become quite important later on.

Booked eagerly for the first show at 11am, we had a quick ‘pit stop’ for a drink in the adjacent café and met a friendly tour guide who confirmed that we were in the right place. The theatre is concealed beneath that more triangular Avro product, the Vulcan. The tour guide in turn was welcoming a guest, dressed as though he had stepped from one of the piston-engined aeroplanes in the hall. I half imagined he had arrived by Twin Pioneer. 

The Twin Pioneer is a favourite of both of ours, though I suspect my son loves it as it is ‘gate guardian’ to the well stocked gift shop.

The mysterious visitor also acknowledged my son’s presence as a likely ‘recruit’. It was all very exciting. In this brief encounter, the day was already above and beyond our more normal museum visit, quietly nodding at exhibits. 

A moment later, we were in our seats in the comfortable theatre. The mysterious visitor made himself known as the master of ceremonies. He was evidently the Chief Pilot in a squadron made up of my son, and the other young visitors in the room. His warm pilot persona, carefully crafted to engage the audience without slipping too far into ‘Flashheart’ caricature, soon had the parents, grandparents and anyone else in the room fully ‘on board’, and ready to wrestle imaginary control columns. 

The talk was cleverly paced and introduced the skills and qualities needed to be a Second World War Lancaster pilot or any one of the other crew members. The subject is a challenging one. As it tackles ‘life and death’ in the broadest and most daunting of scenarios. The tone of the presentation seemed to balance the genuine perils of the role(s) with an appropriate dark humour borne out of honest realism. 

The subject was made real, immediate and was never ‘sugar coated’. It is probably the perfect manner of storytelling for an audience who eagerly absorb ‘Horrible Histories’ and books like it. I’m not sure I could script it so carefully, there was an energetic edge, without ever creating a tone too threatening for an age appropriate trip to the museum. As for the audience, there were many smiles. 

The idea of manning a gun turret neatly led on to aircraft identification. This was my favourite subject in my youth. The Avro York, parked outside the lecture theatre, was a star element of this segment. It was explained that of all the potential silhouettes for mistaken identity, muddling a chunky Avro York for a German Heinkel could be the worst of a bad bunch. Especially if the Prime Minister was aboard his personalised York, LV633 ‘Ascalon’. My son revelled in spotting a diecast DC3 Dakota at several paces. A crew-mate, who had sat next to him screaming ‘Wellington’ had the right size of aeroplane, and fundamentally, the right choice of ‘friend or foe’. They had all been paying such close attention.  

An important element, from our perspective, was that of Wireless Operator, working closely with the Navigator. I had a Great Uncle I never knew, who lost his life while carrying out this very role due to enemy action. My son knows the very basics of this story, but I was glad to see the role dramatically explained and related. It is better to learn, as a child, the actual practicalities first. The ‘Aircrew Needs You’ presentation gave a warm but realistic evocation of what those young men had to do to complete a mission. This paints a richer picture than beginning such a tale with the tragic end. It is better to start a story with a broad introduction, rather than beginning with a full stop. 

As a happier historical note. My presence at the show was in no small part due to a wartime snowball fight in between the Hangars at RAF Cosford. Without one wayward 1940s snowball, which my grandfather got into enormous trouble for, my grandparents might well never have met. But this is a story for another blog. The trajectory and ballistics of that projectile had all manner of happy consequences. 

The idea of faint wireless signals informing the direction of a huge bomber was addressed cleverly. It is worth remembering that the audience are well accustomed to seeking out wireless ‘hot spots’ with various electronic devices. It was another theme in the talk that was spectacularly well pitched. 

The rest of the visit was rather fabulous. One Hangar had the bonus, in my son’s eyes, of some basic maintenance being carried out on the exhibits. The Chinook is clearly very well maintained. A couple of experimental jets were receiving some ‘TLC’. My son asked if an engine cover could be taken off one of them so he could see inside, the volunteer obliged and it was much appreciated. I think he had meant to take the cover off anyway, but that kind moment of theatre was one of many that added a smile to the day. 

The Royal Air Force Museum in Cosford

We both loved the way that the rear of the newly restored Wellington had been left open, it was a clever trick. By leaving an exhibit 99% complete, the viewer can see significantly more of what is inside. The tactile nature of the ‘geodetic’ panels, with keen encouragements to touch and investigate, were much appreciated. 

We finished the day with a visit to the ‘Flight Zone’ simulators in one of the Hangars. These were unexpectedly excellent, especially the ‘4D’ simulation of a Red Arrows formation. As I’d mentioned, it is my habit to wander, and wonder, about the displays in quiet contemplation. However this little adventure was great, and the simulator ‘ground crews’ were very welcoming.  

I have an odd habit. On seeing a much ‘hyped’ 3D movie, I think it was an ‘Avatar’ film, I was most impressed not with the three dimensional spaceships, but by odd little details like cinematic specks of dust on windows in the foreground. It was the three dimensional incidental details that for me, made a scene seem real.

Wearing some 3D spectacles that remind me of the Gerry Anderson ‘Brains’ character in Thunderbirds, I was put back in a familiar mindset. My son loved the view of Cyprus as we looped over the Mediterranean. He was wowed by the intricate changes of formation. I was amazed by the blades of grass and weather-beaten runway lights. While apparently hanging upside down in a barrel roll, I found myself examining the canopy explosive charges that trace wavy lines around the glass ‘bubble’ above. Sometimes delight, or odd fascination, can be found in the smallest details. Today was one of those days. 

About the Author

Will Jarman: Midlands Blogger in Residence

a man and his son stand in front of an aircraft

Will has enthusiastically taken on the role of Volunteer Blogger, chiefly as his son is a devoted visitor to the RAF Museum Midlands site, and it is an enjoyable way to record their visits.

Will has worked as an aerial photographer, aviation illustrator, test pilots’ assistant in civil aviation, and was once lucky enough to commute to a work meeting in an Armstrong Whitworth Meteor NF11. His young son aspires to one day be a museum designer, with so many exciting plans in place for the Midlands site, they are both keen to learn more and offer the diverse perspectives of two generations of visitors.