Preserving Avro’s Aviation Heritage

 

In the latest edition of Aerodrome we are going to be taking a closer look at a relatively new addition to the aviation museum scene in the UK and how a committed and highly motivated group of volunteers are determined to maintain the heritage of an iconic British aviation manufacturer. With new exhibits being added all the time, we will see how many of the people behind the museum have years of aviation experience behind them and strong links to this manufacturing site in the North West of England. We will also see how they have ambitious plans to make any visit to their museum as memorable as possible, with many interactive displays and some rather unique opportunities available both now and in the future.

Following our museum review, we will be asking readers to help mark the passing of 2016 by sending us their favourite aviation related photograph of the year. We will be looking to publish as many of your pictures as possible, either in our Aerodrome end of year review edition, or in a special edition early in the New Year. We will give you all the details a little later, but as you start to review all your pictures from the year's Airshows and museum visits, don’t forget to keep that special image close to hand.

 

A Phoenix from the flames

As a young man with a passion for aviation, growing up in the North West of England had its benefits and downfalls. On the negative side, many of the museums and military bases in the UK were quite some distance from my home and with parents desperately trying to make ends meet on a daily basis, there was little hope of being whisked off to Coningsby or Wattisham to enjoy some fast jet action. On the plus side, the area was positively steeped in aviation history and hardly a week would go by without the local newspaper running a story about the production of aircraft in the factories of the North West, or the inspirational wartime exploits of aircrew who heralded from the area. The old Avro factory at Chadderton, which became the headquarters of the Company, was one of the largest manufacturing facilities in Britain at the time of its construction in the late 1930s and was located just a couple of miles from my home. Producing major components for such famous aircraft as the Manchester, Lancaster and Vulcan, completed sections of these designs would be transported twenty miles by road from Chadderton to Avro’s Woodford airfield facility in Cheshire for final assembly and testing. With almost 3,000 Lancasters being produced at Chadderton, there must have been plenty of opportunities for Avro traffic jams on the roads around Manchester during the war years.

 

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The wartime Avro Lancaster production line at Woodford

 

From a personal perspective, the old Avro airfield at Woodford holds more happy memories for me than any other aviation related venue in the country and was the place nearest to my home where I could get close to real aeroplanes. Not only did the airfield play host to a magnificent Airshow each year, which regularly attracted many aircraft that seemed far too exotic for a venue that could be reached by local bus, but it also held regular enthusiast days, where I could walk amongst the assembly lines, marvelling at the Nimrods, HS748s and 146 jetliners that were being constructed and tested. There always seemed to be something interesting going on at Woodford and you were certainly aware that you were visiting an airfield with a significant aviation heritage.

 

The old control tower at Woodford surrounded by the rubble of demolition

 

All good things must come to an end and as I got older, with work and family responsibilities becoming more important, my visits to Woodford became much less frequent – indeed, the airfield itself was going through significant change. Tighter legislation and even tighter belts meant that the open days I used to enjoy so much became extremely rare events and even the popular Woodford Airshow saw its last event in 2000. This was certainly not because of a lack of interest, as this was always a hugely popular event, but the final three shows were marred by extremely poor weather and the financial burden became just too great. In more recent times, the Government’s decision to scrap the Nimrod MRA4 project saw the Woodford site receive national press coverage, as these advanced aircraft were unceremoniously cut up and sold for scrap. With the end of the Nimrod project, aircraft manufacture at Woodford ended and this historic airfield site was sold by BAe in 2011 - in a development that came as little surprise to anyone locally, the airfield received approval for the construction of a housing estate in 2014. For many local people who had worked at or regularly visited the Woodford site, this came as a rather upsetting, if somewhat inevitable development, but a group of committed historians and enthusiasts were determined that the heritage of this famous site would be preserved for generations to come and they have achieved something magnificent – an aviation phoenix from the flames of destruction.

 

The Avro Heritage Museum

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The new Avro Heritage Museum is housed in a state of the art building

 

The aviation legacy of the Avro company is famous the world over and former employees, as well as air and ground crews that worked on Avro designs, have always been keen to preserve this history. The Avro Heritage Trust was formed to locate, secure and preserve as much Avro related material as possible and was originally housed in the modest surroundings of the old personnel block at Woodford. This tiny Heritage Centre was completely staffed by a small team of volunteers and was not usually open to the public – viewing the artefacts in the collection was by prior appointment only. The sale of the Woodford site originally caused much consternation amongst the original Heritage Centre volunteers, but a commitment by BAE Systems to fund a permanent home for the collection brought not only optimism for their future, but also the prospect of a much more appropriate facility – one which would preserve the history of the Avro company and its former Woodford site.

Based around the former Woodford airfield fire station, the new Avro Heritage Centre is now a permanent home for some of the most important artefacts in the history of British aviation. Rather than simply house the collection in a renovated version of the fire station, BAE Systems had something much more elaborate in mind and have managed to produce a stunning, purpose built museum building, which will not only allow the centre to preserve the heritage of Avro and their Woodford site, but also to serve as a resource and education centre for many years to come. This modern facility is now a permanent museum site, which will allow the Avro Heritage Trust to further expand their collection, whilst also displaying the unique and historic artefacts they already own. Importantly, the building is a warm and welcoming venue for anyone interested in discovering the aviation heritage at this former Avro airfield site, including enthusiast groups, schools and members of the general public.

 

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An elevated view of the Avro Heritage Museum main exhibit area

 

Opened to the public in November 2015, the Avro Heritage Museum is a self-funding registered charity, which relies on donations and support from their friends of the museum network, in conjunction with businesses and individuals who are passionate about preserving the Avro legacy. Unfortunately, the museum could not survive on revenues from entrance fees and their on-site gift shop/café alone, even though visitor numbers are increasing steadily. The impressive entrance to the building is half glazed, which allows a tantalising glimpse of one of their star attractions, the fully restored nose section of Avro Vulcan XM602 – we will have more on this later. As well as the gift shop and café we have already mentioned, the museum also boasts a storage and conservation area, a fully equipped conference and meeting room, a research room and space to house the thousands of artefacts collected by the heritage trust. The beautifully presented museum display area is dominated by a series of aviation murals, which whilst being impressive to the casual visitor, will be extremely familiar to many former Avro/Hawker Siddeley/British Aerospace employees, as they were taken from the canteen wall at the Woodford complex.

 

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The cockpit section of Canberra TT.18 WK118 is the first of many such artefacts to be displayed in the museum

 

The museum cleverly makes use of an ‘Avro Timeline’ applied to the wall of the building, which charts the history of the company and the aircraft that bore this famous name. Beginning at the left hand side of the building, you can follow the timeline and walk through the aviation developments of the company from its earliest days, viewing a selection of fascinating artefacts as you go. The central section of the museum is dominated by the restored cockpit section of English Electric Canberra TT.18 WK118, with similar exhibits destined to follow. Built at Woodford as a Canberra B.2 in 1952, the RAF service record of this aircraft is currently being thoroughly researched by museum volunteers, who would be more than happy to receive any information from former service personnel who operated her.

Breaking News – As I made my visit to the museum, news began to emerge that they had secured a fantastic Lancaster B.1 nose section, which had previously been stored at RAF Scampton. Featuring unusual ‘seven dwarfs’ nose artwork, the Lancaster nose section will soon be placed in the main exhibition hall, underneath the impressive Lancaster production line mural and underlines the museums determination to continually enhance their collection of Avro related artefacts – I am very much looking forward to a future visit to see this fantastic addition.

 

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The Hawker Siddeley/BAe Nimrod section on the Avro Timeline

 

Another one of the undoubted highlights within the main exhibition area is the fascinating Nimrod section, which not only allows visitors to view some of the incredibly valuable corporate display models produced by Hawker Siddeley/BAe to promote the aircraft, but also offers the opportunity to simulate the hunt for an enemy submarine, in a fascinating interactive display. With the help of an experienced museum volunteer, you may be allowed to sit at a genuine Nimrod MRA4 work station and gain some idea of the power and effectiveness of this impressive detection system. With a search area map on your screen, you are told that there is an enemy submarine somewhere in your patrol area and you must find it by dropping Sonobuoys to detect the vessel. On operations, the initial drop would clearly be down to intelligence information and the experience of the Nimrod crew, but for my novice first attempt, I had to drop three buoys before I could locate the intruder – once you find it, I defy anyone not to ask if they can go and blow it up!

 

Home of the Mighty Vulcan

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Famous Avro Vulcan B.2 XM603 pictured at Woodford in 2011

 

For many local people and aviation enthusiasts around the UK, the most famous resident at Woodford airfield over the years has undoubtedly been Avro Vulcan B.2 XM603. Built at Woodford during 1963, the aircraft first flew wearing a smart all-over white anti flash paint scheme, before being delivered to RAF No.12 Squadron at Coningsby at the end of the year. The aircraft was to see extensive service both in the skies above Britain and during overseas deployments, operating in the colours of Nos 50, 101 and 44 Squadrons during her service career. Reflecting the changing mission profile for RAF Vulcans, XM603 was forced to shed her high altitude anti-flash white scheme for the low level disruptive camouflage more familiar with late service Vulcans, as these aircraft were required to operate at much lower altitudes. She was retired from RAF service in early 1982 and did not see service during the Falklands War, although she continued to provide invaluable service to her country.

No longer required by the RAF, Vulcan XM603 was sold to British Aerospace and earmarked for preservation at their Woodford airfield site – she arrived back at her birthplace in March 1982. Although no longer in service, the aircraft continued to do sterling work in support of RAF operations, serving as a trials mock up aircraft for Vulcan K.Mk.2 tanker conversion – the Falklands Conflict saw the Victor Tanker fleet required to operate in the South Atlantic and the converted Vulcan tankers were needed to provide air to air refuelling cover in UK and European skies. She was also forced to act as a spares aircraft, relinquishing vital components to allow the RAF’s Vulcan fleet to continue flying.

 

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Woodford’s Vulcan began to look decidedly shabby in recent years

 

After her arrival at Woodford, XM603 was soon returned to her original and highly distinctive white anti-flash scheme and was maintained by volunteer members of the Heritage Trust, with the support of BAe Systems. Always appearing to be kept in extremely good order, the aircraft became something of a local aviation celebrity, visible from the airfield perimeter and a star attraction at the annual Woodford Airshows. Indeed, many local enthusiasts will have happy memories of sheltering under the wing of XM603 during the Airshow day, either from the effects of a rare appearance from the sun, or more likely avoiding the latest heavy rain shower – without doubt, the most enigmatic umbrella in the North West. With the engines still in serviceable condition, there were ambitious plans to taxi the Vulcan at the Airshow in 2000, but this did not materialise and heralded a significant downturn in the fortunes of XM603.

 

A dirty looking XM603 in position at her new home, before the museum opened in 2015

 

With increasing regulatory pressures and access to the Woodford site becoming more and more restricted, the Heritage Trust members were unable to care for their Cold War leviathan and the aircraft began to slowly fall into a state of disrepair. Still visible from the perimeter of the airfield, pictures began to emerge of the aircraft looking in an increasingly sorry state, at one time seemingly being condemned as unsafe and having metal fencing erected around it, to prevent anyone from getting too close. Indeed, at one stage, it looked as if the aircraft would inevitably fall to the scrapman’s axe and another significant piece of Britain’s aviation heritage would be lost forever. Thankfully this did not prove to be the case and with the sale and development of the Woodford site came the promise of a permanent home for Vulcan XM603 and despite her distinctly shabby appearance, her future now seemed much more attractive.

 

Facelift for an aviation icon

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A proud reminder of the heritage at Woodford – Avro Vulcan B.2 XM603

 

With the new Avro Heritage Museum now open to the public, serious discussions began to take please regarding some much needed TLC for their most distinctive exhibit, Vulcan XM603, but there would be a serious stumbling block – cost. Preparing and re-painting this 30 ton monster would be a logistical nightmare and would come with a hefty price tag. Fortunately, the work of the museum and this particularly famous aircraft has attracted some influential admirers and a small number of local business people stepped in to completely fund the project. By the end of April this year, the intricate scaffolding arrangement around this delta monster was nearing completion and once everything had been successfully safety checked, the entire structure was effectively shrink wrapped to protect the aircraft and volunteers working on her from the elements.

With regard to volunteers, a request was made on the museum's social media sites for people willing to sign up for some hard Vulcan labour and they were astounded at the response they received – clearly illustrating the affection the British public still have for the Vulcan and local people for this aircraft in particular, they had no shortage of offers and a small army of people began the task of sanding, stripping and filling the vast area of XM603’s delta profile. After this intense period of effort, the aircraft was ready to receive its new coat of gloss white paint, similar to the scheme the aircraft wore when she left Woodford for the first time back in 1963. Once again, the significant cost of this work was met by a local business, without whom this exciting project could not have been completed and certainly not in such a short space of time. With the paint now dry and the markings and stencilling applied, it was time for the team to begin dismantling the scaffolding and admire what they had achieved.

 

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Pride of the Avro Heritage Museum – the stunning Avro Vulcan B.2 XM603

 

Following a triumphant unveiling ceremony just days earlier, Avro Vulcan XM603 was allowed back on public view for the first time since the completion of the refurbishment work on Friday 28th October, looking resplendent in her new coat. As if majestically standing guard over the legacy of her birthplace, she is currently the only surviving Vulcan preserved in this distinctive anti-flash white scheme, which was to prove so synonymous with Britain’s nuclear deterrent force during the Cold War years. She also stands as a poignant reminder of the rich aviation heritage of the North West and the name of Alliot Verdon Roe and his aircraft.

The Ultimate Vulcan Experience

Even though the magnificent Avro Vulcan XM603 is reason enough to visit the impressive Avro Heritage Museum, they also boast an additional feature that will help visitors to gain a better understanding of what it was like to fly in these mighty delta bombers. The museum building itself houses the beautifully restored front fuselage and cockpit of Vulcan XM602 and allows visitors to climb the distinctive yellow ladders and sit in the pilots seat of one of Britain’s most famous aircraft. This really is an experience and will leave you with huge admiration for the men who flew these aircraft operationally and is a must do feature of the museum. Your guide will regale you with tales of Vulcan operation and is available to answer any questions you may have about the aircraft and the crew positions you will see – you may even come away with a unique photograph of you as the pilot of a mighty Vulcan.

 

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A familiar view for anyone attending the Woodford Airshow – the Vulcan umbrella

 

The Avro Heritage Museum is an impressive new venue on the UK aviation scene and is well worth a visit for anyone with even the slightest interest in aviation. With ambitious acquisition plans and an already extensive collection of aviation artefacts and memorabilia, it is looking like a museum that is already becoming a regular destination for people all over the UK, as well as attracting an international audience for its extensive collection of Avro research material. For more information about the museum and its exhibits, or to plan your visit, please head for the museum website.

Hit us with your ‘Best Shots’

As we are fast approaching the end of the year, it is time for all self-respecting aviation photographers to catalogue and safely store their pictures, but rather than hide them away on your hard drive, why not showcase your talents and send us your best effort of the year. What we are hoping is for Aerodrome readers to send us their favourite aviation image of 2016 so we can compile a special edition of our blog to display your work. The only stipulations are that the picture must have been taken by the person sending it in, it must have been taken during 2016 and it must feature an aviation subject, however tenuous this may be.

 

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It’s time for Aerodrome photographers to showcase their talents

 

This really is a fantastic opportunity to let your creative juices flow and I am sure fellow Aerodrome readers will very much look forward to seeing your work. Please send your Best Shot of 2016 to aerodrome@airfix.com or aerodrome@corgi.co.uk so that we can end the year on something of an aviation high. We will let you know in the next edition of Aerodrome if our Best Shots of 2016 special will be published on Friday 30th December, or in one of our first editions of the New Year – that will give me time to think of a suitable prize for one lucky contributor. Please don’t wait though … start sending those stunning images straight away!

I am afraid that is all we have for you this week.  As usual, if you would like to join in with all the latest social media discussions regarding Aerodrome and aviation matters in general, please head for either the Airfix Aerodrome Forum or our Corgi Aerodrome Forum and have your say. If you have any specific comments, questions or suggestions for future editions of Aerodrome, please do feel free to let us know by using either the Airfix Facebook or Corgi Facebook pages, our Airfix Twitter or Corgi Twitter accounts, using #aerodrome.  If e-mail is more your style, then please use our usual addresses shown above.

We are always looking to appeal to aviation enthusiasts all around the world and continue to increase readership of our Aerodrome blog. We would be most grateful if you would mention us to anyone who may be interested in joining our numbers and direct them to either the Airfix or Corgi websites, where they will be able to find all our previous blogs and receive notification of the latest editions - http://www.airfix.com/uk-en/news/aerodrome or http://www.corgi.co.uk/news/aerodrome. You can also pick up Aerodrome on both the Corgi and Airfix Facebook pages.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read our latest blog and I look forward to bringing you more aviation related content in two weeks’ time.
Michael

 

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