Reach for the sky – Bournemouth Aviation Museum
Pete London visits Christchurch to find a very different kind of museum, one which encourages a hands-on approach
Published in November ’15
Dorset’s south coast is home to a museum with a genuine difference. Opposite bustling Bournemouth Airport, take the B3073 Hurn to Merritown road until you spy a huge 1950s Vulcan jet bomber nose, high above the hedgerows. You’ll find no sharp-eyed attendants, waiting to pounce lest your hand moves toward some dusty relic …
Bournemouth Aviation Museum prides itself on encouraging visitors to explore its exhibits. Touch the old passenger airliners, helicopters and jet fighters: climb into them, investigate their cockpits, soak up the experience. The place is truly hands-on, offering a chance to actually sit inside the aeroplanes.
For the museum’s organisers, it hasn’t always been blue skies. Told to leave their previous premises, they feared the precious aircraft would have to be sold off or even scrapped. Happily though, after efforts from enthusiasts, councillors and volunteers, today the venture is very much in business on its new open-air site.
Bournemouth Airport has an important place in aviation history. Opened in 1941 as RAF Hurn, it’s seen manufacture of airliners and even parts for Concorde; today, passenger flights connect with destinations across Europe and beyond. The museum reflects this heritage, and several of the main exhibits have local links.
Museum trustee David Shore comes from a long background in the aviation industry. ‘We’re delighted to have acquired the fuselage of the Boeing 737 passenger jet once used by Palmair, our local tour operator until quite recently. For years it carried holidaymakers from Bournemouth Airport; many Dorset people will remember it.’ Now open to the public, the Boeing’s beautifully-restored cabin hosts Palmair memorabilia while you can also view the fully-equipped cockpit.
It’s not the only exhibit with local connections. ‘Our BAC 1-11 jet cockpit section was rescued from Boscombe Down airfield, around 30 miles away,’ explains David. ‘But she was built much closer to home, just across the road from us in a factory on the airport, back in 1973.’ The 1-11 has been neglected, and its restoration will be a major undertaking.
Many of the museum’s aircraft date from the 1950s and 1960s. One of the oldest complete airframes is a Meteor jet night-fighter built in 1954; access is via sturdy steps up to its cockpit. Alongside is a sleek Hunter fighter which once flew with the RAF’s Black Arrows aerobatics team, while the Jaguar ground-attack aircraft arrived at Bournemouth during autumn 2009.
Several aircraft nose sections are also open for viewing. The Viscount propeller-driven freighter cockpit wears a vivid red Parcel Force scheme. Two fast jet noses sit nearby: a Canberra photo-reconnaissance plane, and an ex-Royal Saudi Air Force Lightning fighter. High in its specially-built cradle is the Vulcan nose section; to see the cockpit you climb up through a narrow access hatch. The Vulcan is rather like a reverse Tardis, big on the outside but pretty cramped within!
Recently arrived is a Wasp helicopter which flew with the Royal Navy. Its bigger Westland cousin, a bright yellow Wessex, once tested flight control systems and radios. Flight refuelling probes, engines and pilotless air targets are also displayed, while indoor galleries house collections of artefacts and models.
A viewing platform allows you to watch activities across the road on the airport; alternatively, check out the museum’s unusual lorry-mounted runway caravan. David’s proud of the rare orange-and-white exhibit. ‘Inside is an electronic flight tracker fixed on Bournemouth, so you can observe airborne movements displayed in real time, and then see the actual planes arrive. As well as restoring the caravan we kitted it out. Some people spend all afternoon there, especially if it’s raining – and it’s free!’
An outside seating area is provided, where you can enjoy refreshments. As David says: ‘People like to have picnics while they watch the airport planes come and go. We also have an old yellow double-decker bus you can make use of; sometimes parties break out on board!’ A recent and popular addition to the growing vehicle collection is a 1980’s Dodge fire engine.
The museum’s staff includes several women, dispelling once and for all the idea that aviation buffs are exclusively male. David’s wife Grace works in the shop, a real goldmine of books and gifts. ‘For enthusiasts we have regular talks on aviation themes, but we’re also keen to keep our appeal as wide as possible.’
‘We cater for private functions such as wedding anniversaries, and take bookings for children’s parties; the kids love to climb over the aircraft and play in the cockpits.’ For younger visitors too there’s the ‘Jet Set Go’ aviation activity trail, with prizes donated by local companies.
Social media is important for the museum, adds Grace. ‘We have a Facebook page and our website advertises special events, particularly our annual vintage transport days which include classic cars, military vehicles, fashion from the past and live period music.’
So today, the sky’s the limit for the collection. It’s a welcoming well-run place, with absorbing exhibits for enthusiasts and room to let the kids play. If you want a fun time where you can fiddle, poke and prod while pretending to be Biggles, Bournemouth Aviation Museum is the place to visit! ◗
Bournemouth Aviation Museum, Merritown Lane,
Hurn, Christchurch BH23 6BA.
Tel: 01202 473141
Satnav: BH23 6BA
To 28 March 2015, open daily, 10 am to 4 pm (last entry 3 pm); closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day. 29 March 2015 to 25 October 2015, open daily, 10 am to 5 pm.
Parking is free.