de Havilland Aviation Museum review part II
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular fortnightly look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. Well, I have to say it seems as if the popularity of the magnificent de Havilland Mosquito is showing absolutely no sign of abating and our de Havilland Aircraft Museum RAF 100 event review in the previous edition received tremendous support from Aerodrome readers across the world. Thank you to everyone who took the time to send in messages to say how much they enjoyed the feature and to my museum contact who kindly informed me that it had also been well received by everyone involved at this historic venue. As promised, we will be heading back to Salisbury Hall for the second instalment of our review, where this time we be taking a closer look at the site itself and how it is not only important from an aviation history perspective, but also in the preservation of classic aeroplanes. We will be attempting to steer clear of Mosquitos (even though this may prove a little too traumatic) and discover some of the other fascinating exhibits at the museum, before ending with details of the exciting future plans the de Havilland Aircraft Museum has, which we can all play our part in ensuring. Without any further ado, let’s get back to London Colney and some more de Havilland delights.
Much more than simply a Mosquito haven
This de Havilland DH88 Comet Racer replica is under restoration in the temporary hangar at Salisbury Hall
Of all the aviation related sites available to visit around the UK, the de Havilland Aircraft Museum at Salisbury Hall in Hertfordshire has to be considered one of the most unusual and equally, one of the most memorable. As you leave the B556, having safely negotiated the delights of the M25 and turn down the tiny country lane as directed by the brown museum sign, you are definitely left wondering if you have somehow managed to take a wrong turn in your excitement. Finding yourself in something of a rural paradise, all you can see whilst driving down this leafy country lane are fields and a selection of rather impressive houses – surely the only thing at the end of this road is an idyllic farmland scene. It is only when you make a left turn at the bottom of the lane that you can start to relax a little, with the reassuring sight of British Aerospace liveried DH.104 Dove Mk.8 (G-AREA) confirming that your direction finding skills are still functioning correctly. Once here, if you are making a return visit, you will quickly remember why this is such an enjoyable place to come and will undoubtedly head off for your latest helping of de Havilland aviation indulgence, however, if this is to be your first time, you had better prepare yourself to become infatuated.
The historic Salisbury Hall site has played host to a number of impressive manor houses since the 9th century, with the latest building being constructed in around 1668. Over that time, it has been the home of many farming families, as well as some slightly more noteworthy people, such as Lady Randolph Churchill and Sir Nigel Gresley, famous designer of the A4 class Pacific steam locomotives - it is reputed that the record breaking ‘Mallard’ was so named after the ducks which resided around the Hall pond.
Geoffrey de Havilland’s link to the Salisbury Hall site began in 1939. Frustrated by the Air Ministry red tape holding up the development of his radical new DH.98 design, he left the hectic surroundings of the busy Hatfield factory and set up a design office at nearby Salisbury Hall, where he continued the project as a private venture. Seen as something of a security precaution, the move ensured that his team could proceed with the development of the D.H 98 without fear of ‘official’ prying eyes and hopefully also avoiding the attentions of the Luftwaffe. A modest barn like hangar was constructed as protection for the craftsmen employed in the construction of the Mosquito prototype W4050, which once completed was dismantled and taken by road to the Hatfield site for flight testing, but of the five Mosquitos which were built at Salisbury Hall, three would actually be flown out of the site – more on this later.
Although there is much to see at the de Havilland Aircraft Museum, the prototype Mosquito really can’t be equalled for historic value
Having made such a telling contribution to Britain’s war effort, de Havilland left the Salisbury Hall site in 1947 and the uninhabited hall quickly began to fall into a state of disrepair. Fortunately, before too much damage could be done, the hall site was purchased by former Royal Marine Major Walter Goldsmith in the mid 1950s and a restoration project started, which also included research into the history of Salisbury Hall and discovery of its links with the de Havilland company and more specifically with the magnificent Mosquito. These links proved irresistible to the new owner, who slowly began to gather items which were connected to the site and its de Havilland heritage, including the return of the various component parts of prototype Mosquito W4050 and the construction of a new hangar in which to house them. In September 1958, the prototype aircraft made a triumphant return to the Salisbury Hall site where it had been built eighteen years earlier and became the founding aircraft of the Mosquito Museum, which has since developed to become the de Havilland Aircraft Museum. When it opened to the public on 15th May 1959, the de Havilland Museum became the first aviation museum in Britain, which in itself is reason enough for as many people as possible to come and discover this historic museum and its unique collection.
Aviation cabinet makers
Before we move on to look at some of the other non-Mosquito related de Havilland delights at the museum, we can’t leave the ‘Mossie’ without first looking at the fascinating story behind the production of this important aircraft and how its construction owed more to cabinet making than aeronautical engineering. At a time when the latest modern aircraft designs were adopting all metal construction, the Mosquito would utilise de Havilland’s expertise in wooden laminate construction, which would prove significant once the prototype aircraft were released for full production. With Mosquito production using non-strategic materials and requiring the support of non-strategic tradesmen, work could carry on without diverting valuable resource from the production of Spitfires and Wellingtons, which were already crucial to Britain’s ability to continue waging war. Had that not been the case, it may have proved more difficult for de Havilland to proceed with the project as a private venture and would certainly have delayed the service introduction of the magnificent ‘Wooden Wonder’, which went on to make such a telling contribution to Britain’s war effort.
A rare concrete mould used in the production of the DH103 Hornet, but similar to the ones used in Mosquito production
The sleek de Havilland Hornet was one of the fastest production piston engined aircraft ever produced
One of the many fascinating exhibits at the museum is situated on the grass, outside the main hangar and if you didn’t know any better, would probably dismiss it as nothing more than a pile of old concrete which the volunteers will eventually get around to moving. In actual fact, this is a significant piece of British aviation history and helps tell the story of how de Havilland shaped the wooden fuselage of the Mosquito so efficiently. This is a concrete ‘male’ mould and whilst this particular example was used in the production of the later DH.103 Hornet, it shares the same manufacturing technique as the one used in Mosquito production. Although it can be quite difficult to imagine, considering the reputation of the Mosquito as a feared and highly effective bomber/fighter bomber, the aircraft’s construction proved to be a relatively quick and easy process for the skilled tradesmen de Havilland employed and utilised a ply-balsawood-ply bonded construction method. The fuselage was built in two halves, using either mahogany or concrete moulds to accurately shape the laminated and glued balsa and ply sheets around – clamped in position, the mould would eventually yield two fuselage shell sides, into which much of the internal equipment and wiring could be fixed, before finally joining the two halves together using more glue and screws. The entire fuselage would then be lowered onto the one-piece wooden wing, which was held in place with just four large bolts, before engines, undercarriage and bomb bay doors could be attached. It is interesting to note that the undercarriage legs themselves used a simple rubber block internal arrangement to provide shock absorption on landing and taking off, which seems to be a rather rudimentary, although effective, solution for what is regarded as such a highly capable and rather advanced aircraft.
The Mosquito airframe was then covered completely in cotton fabric and stretched Irish linen and given a generous coating of dope, which once dry was completed with the camouflage paint finish associated with WWII RAF aircraft. Rather than producing something of a flying sideboard, this construction method proved to be incredibly strong and helped the Mosquito to become one of the most successful aircraft of the Second World War, operating in some of the most demanding conditions – this wooden aircraft proved to be as tough as they come! Unfortunately though, the aircraft were not particularly intended to last much more than a few years, with the bonded, laminated wood construction method not being particularly suited to long term stability in our relatively damp climate. This is certainly one of the reasons why so few aircraft survive to this day and those which have require careful handling.
An enigmatic picture of the wartime Mosquito production line at Hatfield
Although the majority of Mosquitos would make their first flights from established airfields away from Salisbury Hall, three of the machines built there would actually take off from farmland surrounding the hangar. With little available space and no permanent runway in place, these flights must have been rather hair-raising affairs for the pilots and a spectacle for anyone lucky enough to witness them. All three were positioning flights to Hatfield and removed the necessity to dismantle the aircraft and transport it by road, clearly saving much time and effort. The first such flight was made by Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. and used a relatively small grass strip parallel to the B556 and taking the aircraft over the small country lane visitors now have to use in order to access the museum. The other two flights took off from a similar starting position, but in a direction approximately 45% to the first flight, seeing the aircraft passing in front of the hangar doors – these second and third take-offs were conducted by company test pilot George Gibbins. It has been reported that some of the local farmers were less than enthusiastic about these flights and they purposely ploughed their fields to prevent this becoming a regular occurrence, although it is difficult to corroborate such details – if only they had realised how historic the events they were witnessing actually were.
‘Highball’ delivery platform
One of the two ‘Highball’ bouncing bombs recovered from the depths of Loch Striven
Another unusual exhibit at the museum, which this time needs a little more determination to find is an example of the ‘Highball’ bouncing bomb which was the brainchild of famous British inventor Barnes Wallis. As we find ourselves in the month which will mark the 75th anniversary of the ‘Dambusters Raid’, it is interesting to note that Wallis was responsible for the development of five special bombs for use by the RAF, including ‘Highball’ which was the military codename for a weapon developed in parallel with the ‘Upkeep’ mine. A smaller, spherical mine, ‘Highball’ was a naval version of the weapon used by the Dambusters and was intended to be used by aircraft attacking the German battleship Tirpitz, using a similar delivery method to the one perfected by the Lancasters of ‘Operation Chastise’. Using RAF No.618 Squadron Mosquitos, the spinning bombs were designed to skip across the surface of the water, hitting the side of the target ship and using the spin to remain in contact with the hull, whilst moving underneath the vessel to where its armour was at its thinnest. Detonation of the ‘Highball’ would then inflict maximum damage on the ship targeted.
The RAF were fully aware that Tirpitz was usually moored in a Norwegian Fjord, which would be particularly difficult for aircraft to mount an effective attack, let alone using an unusual new weapon and requiring a defined delivery procedure. For this reason, the Mosquitos of No.618 Squadron were sent to use a training area on Loch Striven in Argyll and Bute, which had similar geography to that they could expect during any operation to attack Tirpitz – equipped with the ‘Highball’ bouncing bombs, the Mosquitos would attack the former French battleship Courbet (later replaced by HMS Malaya) which had been moored in the Loch. All the practice bombs used were inert and filled with concrete but they allowed Mosquito crews to gain valuable experience in executing one of these specialist missions. Never actually used operationally, around 200 of these bouncing bombs were tested in Loch Striven during the Second World War.
On this picture, you can clearly see the flat section where this successfully delivered ‘Highball’ struck the side of the target battleship
Aware of this interesting WWII story, a team of divers from the British Sub-Aqua Club and the Royal Navy managed to locate several of the dropped ‘Highball’ bombs on the bed of Loch Striven and mounted an operation to salvage two of them. They were ultimately successful in raising them to the surface and one was donated to the Brooklands Museum, with the other coming to the de Havilland Aircraft Museum. Currently, the bomb is resting in a freshwater bath, in an effort to remove some of the debris which built up on the weapon during its many years on the bed of the Loch – museum staff will drain the tank periodically to allow any sludge to be removed, before re-filling the tank and allowing the process to continue. It is hoped that the bomb will go on public display at some point in the future, but even though it is currently lying in its protective tank, it is still possible to view this fascinating piece of Mosquito memorabilia. Fascinatingly, the bomb is flat at one section, where it struck the steel hull of the battleship in Loch Striven, clearly marking this as a successfully deployed ‘Highball’.
The DH88 Comet Racing aircraft was developed for speed and endurance, taking part in a demanding England to Australia race
One of the other cultured de Havilland aircraft designs on display at the museum is the beautiful DH88 Comet Racer, even though the museum’s example is a scale replica, currently in the process of being completed. The Comet was designed specifically to take part in the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race, an international event intended to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the Australian state of Victoria and to be contested by aircraft flying from England to Australia. The aircraft incorporated an innovative design, with the stressed-skin cantilever monoplane making use of a fuselage constructed from laminated plywood and balsa, using a process similar to the one later employed in the manufacture of the Mosquito. Built for range and speed, the aircraft also featured retractable undercarriage, landing flaps and variable pitch propellers.
This is the actual aircraft which won the MacRobertson Air Race back in 1934, now in the care of the Shuttleworth Collection
It may be some time before the museum example looks as handsome as G-ACSS ‘Grosvenor House’
The design proved so impressive that three orders were received straight from the drawing board – one from Jim Mollison, to be flown by him and his wife (Amy Johnson), one from A.O. Edwards, managing director of London’s Grosvenor House Hotel and the third from motor racing enthusiast Bernard Rubin. The race began from Mildenhall airfield at dawn on 20th October 1934, with the aircraft all hoping to make the significant flight to Australia’s Flemington Racecourse in the fastest time possible. Two of the three DH.88 Comets competing managed to complete the race, with G-ACSS ‘Grosvenor House’ crossing the winning line first, in an official time of 70 hours 54 minutes and 18 seconds. The aircraft secured a handsome prize of £10,000 for its owners, but even more than this, earning its place in aviation history and further enhanced the growing reputation of the de Havilland Aircraft Company. This extremely historic aircraft has been restored to flying condition and is part of the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden aerodrome. It can be seen thrilling spectators at their regular Airshows and must be considered one of the most significant British aircraft still flying.
They say that a picture tells more than a thousand words and in this section of our review, we will feature a selection of photographs from our recent visit, looking at some of the other exhibits on display at the de Havilland Aircraft Museum. I have to admit that the main reason for my visit was the opportunity to see the magnificent Mosquitos on a rare excursion outside of their hangar and this, combined with the poor weather experienced during my visit, may have resulted in me not covering the museum as effectively as I usually would. One thing that I would certainly recommend is that if you have the opportunity to pay a visit to Salisbury Hall, you will not be disappointed – it is a magnificent experience. I would also say that if you have the opportunity to speak to one of the museum volunteers, please do so because they will certainly enhance your visit experience. Their knowledge and enthusiasm is infectious and you will learn much more about de Havilland aircraft than you could from reading a guide book alone.
Here is a final selection of museum images:
The Airspeed Horsa glider is certain to be a popular exhibit during next year’s D-Day 75th anniversary commemorations
An unusual view looking through the cockpit of the Horsa towards the Mosquito FB.VI
A rather poignant exhibit for this RAF centenary year
One of the more unusual museum exhibits is this Cierva C.24 Autogiro
Anyone fancy taking pot-shots? The DH82B Queen Bee was a radio controlled gunnery target aircraft
Classic de Havilland aviation, in the form of this Chipmunk T.Mk.10
Into the jet age with this Vampire FB.6 in Swiss Air Force markings
The Vampire T.11 is still not ready to shed its winter covers, especially under these menacing skies
Not a complete airframe, but you can see enough of this Sea Venom FAW.22 to recognise it as one of Britain’s most attractive early jets
As one of the largest exhibits at Salisbury Hall, this mighty Sea Vixen is hoping the hangar appeal goes well, so it can make its way indoors to receive some long overdue aviation TLC
Bringing up the rear, this beautiful Heron feeder airliner must have been an extremely cultured way to travel. It was previously operated by BEA, before being purchased by Rolls Royce
Play your part in preserving de Havilland aviation history
There can be no doubting that the de Havilland Aircraft Museum at Salisbury Hall is one of the most important historic aviation sites in the UK and a totally unique place to visit, but one thing you will become quickly aware of if you do, is the fact that many of these important exhibits are displayed outside and at the mercy of the elements. In order to protect more of the aircraft under their charge and provide a more engaging experience for visitors, the museum are attempting to raise funds to build an impressive new hangar, but as it relies on volunteers and public funding, they are going to need help in achieving their aim. There are a number of ways in which we can all help, playing our own little part in helping to preserve British aviation history at this fabulous place, but money is certainly going to be the key. Making a purchase from the museum shop will certainly help, but individual donations from as many people as possible are going to be essential if this project is to succeed. Full details of how you can help are available on the de Havilland Aircraft Museum website and I certainly hope that my next visit to Salisbury Hall will be to cover the opening of their new hangar facility.
I would like to thank all the museum staff and volunteers for making my recent visit such a memorable occasion and to Mr Martin Bull in particular for his help in the production of this second instalment of my review. If you have yet to discover the delights of the de Havilland Aircraft Museum, could there possibly be a better time than in the centenary year of the Royal Air Force?
French Air Force to light up Duxford
The French Air Force solo Rafale is set to steal the show again at this month’s Duxford Air Festival
This coming weekend marks the start of the 2018 UK Airshow season and with it, the flying commemoration of the RAFs centenary year. By way of underlining that this could quite possibly be one of the most significant years in the history of British Airshows, Old Warden will be the destination for many on Sunday 6th May, with a stellar line-up of historic aircraft promised and the prospect of reasonable weather encouraging many to start their Airshow season early and in some style.
May is already shaping up to be an exciting month for Airshows, with the second annual Duxford Air Festival taking place over the weekend of 26/27th and promising a programme to rival that of last year’s event, which met with such overwhelmingly positive feedback. Helping the show to mark the RAFs centenary year, the French Air Force will have a strong representation at the show, with the thrilling Dassault Rafale displaying on both days of the show and the ever popular Patrouille de France (Sunday only) and Equipe de Voltage also helping to light up the Cambridgeshire skies. With an interesting cross section of Duxford show regulars, some more unusual acts and the Imperial War Museum’s collection to enjoy, this is already promising to be an early season highlight of this significant year. Tickets for all Duxford shows must be purchased in advance and with a number of options available, the IWM Duxford website is the place to go for all the information you need and your chance to be part of this fantastic aviation occasion – I may see you there.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back with more aviation related news in two weeks’ time, as we march inexorably towards our own significant centenary – the 100th edition of Aerodrome, currently scheduled for publication in early August. This might be a good time for readers to let us know what you think of our blog, how it could be improved and what you would like to see covered in future editions. Please send any suggestions to our regular contact e-mail addresses at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, where we will be only too pleased to hear from you.
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