Museum Classics: The American Air Museum In Britain, part of the Imperial War Museum.

I have referred previously on CC to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) aircraft and military vehicle collection at Duxford, near Cambridge in England, and personally I cannot recommend it enough as by far the best aviation and military vehicle museum I have been to, probably the best in Europe, and without any doubt a world class collection and presentation.


The museum includes the American Air Museum in Britain, and serves also to record and commemorate the servicemen and women who served with the US Air Force in England from 1942 and in the invasion of Europe in 1944-45, and indeed still serve here. It is both a museum in Britain of the USAAF and US Navy air service, and a museum of the USAAF in Britain.

American Air Museum

The American Air Museum is housed in a truly spectacular Norman Foster building, now almost twenty years old, and which has just re-opened after a major refit and update. I went  there the day it re-opened – one of the advantages of living very nearby is free entry for “Neighbours of Duxford”. (The other is sitting in the garden, watching Spitfires overhead and saying to visitors “Don’t worry, it’s one of ours!”).

The refit was partly driven by a need to inspect some of the installations of the aircraft, suspended from the structure, and partly by a revision and extension of the display. All that glass came down (carefully) and all the exhibits moved out and re-installed  Overall, this is still one of the most impressive museums, of any sort, you’ll ever visit. The range of exhibits, many on long term loan from the USAAF and the Air Force Museum, is actually quite breathtaking, going from a Boeing B-29 Super Fortress of the type used to drop the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 and an SR-71 Blackbird to a second world war Dodge ambulance and a section of the Berlin Wall.


Let’s take a walk round.


The Lockeed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane is perhaps my favourite exhibit, a product of the famous Lockheed “skunk works”, capable of Mach 3 and the ability to out pace any guided or cruise weapon aimed at it. “SR” denotes strategic reconnaissance, and although it was known as the Blackbird, it is actually a very dark midnight blue, for camouflage in the night sky. These aircraft were stationed in eastern England for many years, at RAF Mildenhall, 30 miles or so from Duxford.


This McDonnell Douglas F-15A Strike Eagle, which looks quite current for something that dates back to 1976, was in service until 1994, when it was transferred to the United States Air Force Museum, and subsequently loaned to the IWM in 2001.


It has moved indoors during this refit, and is very strikingly displayed above the other exhibits.


The General Dynamics F-111E is perhaps best seen from this angle. This aircraft is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and was based in the UK with the USAAF until 1993.


The Lockheed U2-C was also operated from Cambridgeshire, being stationed at RAF Alconbury. This example was operated by the USAAF from 1956 until 1992, and of course, the U2 gained world wide fame with the downing of Gary Powers at the height of the Cold War.


This Consolidated Liberator B-24M was actually the last Liberator operated by the USAAF, as it was used for ice research until 1993. It is now painted in the markings of 392nd Bombardment Group, which was based at RAF Wendling in Norfolk, in eastern England.

liberator 2

It was built by Ford Motor Company at Willow Run and, in a neat piece of CC planning, was donated to the museum by Ford in 1999.

liberator 3

The lady on the display board behind gave long service too: she trained in California as a riveter during the war and worked until the age of 95!


Like car shows and Morris Minors, no aircraft museum is quite complete without a Douglas DC-3 or C-47 Dakota. The museum’s example is painted with the broad black and white invasion stripes added to all Allied aircraft for D-Day to avoid friendly fire incidents and is in the colours of 316th Troop Carrier Group, based at RAF Cottesmore in 1944.


The DC-3 dates from 1935, and examples are still flying today in service in roles such as crop spraying, sight seeing and as skydiving platforms, and in airshow service of course. Perhaps this is the Ford Model A of the air?


Perhaps the most thought provoking aircraft in the collection is the Boeing B-29A Superfortress.


This will always be known as the aircraft that dropped the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.


This example was recovered from the range at China Lake in 1979 and restored to a flying condition before being flown to England in 1980.


The prize for the ugliest aircraft has to go to the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, which was flown to Duxford from RAF Alconbury when it was retired in 1992. No wonder it was nicknamed “Warthog”.

Diodge ambulance

Here’s the 1943 Dodge T214-WC54 ambulance. This example has a six cylinder engine, with around 90 bhp and was capable of crossing most rough ground. It is painted to represent the ambulances that would have served at Duxford during the war, when the museum site was RAF Duxford and a base for Spitfires and Hurricanes and also housed the 78th Fighter Group, flying Thunderbolts like this one. Around 23000 editions of the Dodge were built and they saw service in Korea as well..


The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt (known as the ‘Jug’) was one of the main fighters of WW2, and served with numerous Allied forces as well as the USAAF. Almost 16,000 were built, and it was powered by the P&W R-2800, an immensely successful 18 cylinder radial that powered a number of other fighters and bombers in the war, and went on to have a very long life post-war, powering the DC-6 , among other commercial planes.

B-25 Mitchell

Another aircraft from WWII – the B-25 Mitchell. Thsi example was retired from service as a TB-25J trainer with the United States Air Force in 1957 and is now being presented to represent B-25J 43-4064 “LI’L Critter From the Moon” of the 488th Bomb Squadron, 340th Bomb Group of the USAAF’s Twelfth Air Force in the latter stages of World War Two.


There are other aircraft there too, notably a B-17 Flying Fortress and a Grumman Avenger painted in the colours of the aircraft flown by President George H W Bush during his US Navy Service.


Whilst this is a truly excellent collection, and the curation of it by the IWM is very impressive, I do have one rather niggling concern. The museum has a problem, one that many museums might consider a nice problem to have, but with aircraft it is not an easy problem to solve.


You will seen in the background of several of these photographs a Boeing B-52, at the same time one of the most fearsome, influential and significant aircraft since the war, but not a photograph simply of the B-52.


The museum has too many exhibits, and is trying to show them all as best it can. The exhibits are without exception of good quality and relevance, but when you cannot really see a B-52 you know it is a very full gallery. Clearly, even if the B-52 could be moved elsewhere, all the other exhibits would still make this a true world class destination, and viewing them would be easier. Of course, that is very easy to say, and a lot harder to do. Duxford has nowhere else to present a B-52, except outside with the inevitable deterioration of the aircraft.

Within the refit, several additional smaller displays have been added, all valid and individually well done, but which also serve to create a more congested space. I doubt any one could honestly say after one visit that they had seen it all, but also they may well not be able to say what they hadn’t seen.


So come over, and tell me what you think. I’ll meet you at the gate, underneath the Hurricane gateguard!