The May Meeting 2019

The RAF Museum in London

David Keen

President John Turner introduced the speaker David Keen, an aviation historian, who, until he retired three years ago, had been a Primary School Head Teacher.     He has been associated with the Hendon Museum for the past 20 years and has long held an interest in both engineering and flying.

Hendon Aerodrome was an important centre for aviation from 1908 to 1968.       

 The founder, Claude Grahame-White, built and manufactured rally bikes, horse drawn carriages and then motor cars in nearby Colindale, and also became interested in balloons which proved difficult to steer or navigate.

Inspired by Louis Blériot’s flight across the channel, Everett Edgecumbe and Co began, in 1908, to experiment with an aircraft which they called Grasshopper.    Graham-White and the French aviator Louis Paulhan entered a competition to fly from London to Manchester choosing a field on the future aerodrome site as their point of departure.       Here the countryside was flat and contained many sheds which could be converted to the needs of aviation.  


    In 1910 Grahame-White together with Major Woods tried to interest the military in fighting aircraft and he created a new company The Grahame–White Aviation Company which took control of about 200 acres of land.      This land was converted and became recognised as a proper modern airfield.        On September 9th 1911 the first official U K airmail was flown between Hendon and Windsor as one of the events marking the coronation of King George V.      

  At this airfield Gustav  Hammel,  famous as one of the ‘daring young men in their flying machines’, flew commemorative flights and later Winston Churchill learned to fly there.    

    Air racing and flying by night were slowly introduced and most races were held within the confines of the flying field as the pilots did not like to stray.      All of this provided a popular entertainment and people turned out to watch from all over London.  


   A number of flying schools were located at the airport including Grahame-White’s and the American aviator George Beatty in partnership with Handley Page Ltd.        All this however came to an end at the outbreak of the First World War when the facilities were taken over by the Royal Naval Air Service.      Grahame-White took a commission but soon discovered that his ideas of aerial combat did not coincide with the official military approach and he returned to the full time manufacture of aircraft. He  also employed women who draped Irish linen over the wooden frames and applied daub to stiffen up the outer skin.

Reconstruction of Grahame-White's Factory

At the end of the War the flight arms of the Royal Navy and the Army combined to form the Royal Air Force and in 1918 the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was formed with women becoming  active in both non-combatant duties and the process of casualty evacuation.       The Air Ministry took over the site in 1922 when it became RAF Hendon.

         However, the organisation had to fight for survival and Hugh Dowding who later put on spectacular air shows said “there was more strain in organising the air shows than in running the Battle of Britain”.       The airfield was now coming under increasing threat, and even though concrete runways had been laid, they could not cope as the aircraft were becoming heavier with formations of heavy bombers in use as well as the prototype Spitfires introduced in 1936 by R V Mitchell.       The load was further increased with the introduction of post war jets and the faster aircraft put more strain on the facilities offered by the airfield.

The last flying unit left Hendon Airport in November 1957.   The RAF continued to argue the case for the military use of the complex but the Hendon Borough Council and the London County Council insisted  that the need for houses was paramount and the airfield closed in 1957.  Grahame-White died in France in 1959.    

Today, the Hendon site houses the London Branch of the Royal Air Force Museum which shows the role taken by the Royal Air Force in the development of aviation and avionics in the United Kingdom.        It consists of several buildings containing a range of permanent exhibitions.    The first of the original buildings, formerly the control tower, has been Grade II listed.      The developers wanted to demolish the building but it was taken over by English Heritage who rebuilt it.        The Museum’s approach has been to use original materials when available.  

    The Museum was opened by the Duke of Gloucester and the forecourt of the  World War One hanger, which was replicated  from an original photograph, now forms the centre of the Museum.         The Spitfire is the first aircraft to be seen along with The Duke of Cambridge’s Sea King Helicopter surrounded by 1920 trophies.       

The Milestones of Flight Hall contains, among the other exhibits on view,  a WWI  1915 drone which carried no weapons but which was used for reconnaissance and the first known fighting machine the Vickers FB5.   

  The innovative Sopwith Triplane was the first to have a fuselage mounted machine gun which was synchronised and able to fire forward through the revolutions of the propeller, and the Sopwith Camel was equipped with a superb rotary engine.     This aircraft was uniquely flown by Major Jack Savage for sky writing purposes.   The Westland Lysander, equipped with a Bristol Mercury air cooled Radial  engine, was also used in many roles and was one of the special mission planes used during World War 2.



Another building house aircraft from World War II including the Fokker  D7 which had welded tubular steel under its wings  and the Typhoons and Jaguars together with  the Avro Lancaster Bomber which fully laden was bombs were capable of reaching Germany and its cities.      There is also The Battle of Britain Hall containing a range of exhibits relating to ’Our Finest Hour’.  

Elsewhere are 500 works of art including a stained glass window and a picture by aviation artist Michael Turner showing Windsor Castle.

Question Time included comments by Derek West that there appear to be no Mosquito fighter aeroplanes flying today in the U  but that there might be one flying in America.        The speaker thought there might also be one flying in New Zealand where there is a continuing interest in this multi role aircraft.    


John Demont referred to the Fokker-Wulf 190, a training aircraft, which first flew in 1939, whose P4 cylinder two row radial engine was instrumental in the development of the radial engine.    


    David Richardson showed much interest in the Roundels found on the wings and fuselage where there were variations on the theme of red and white depending on the Flight Command and particularly the colour red which in a certain light could appear black and be confused with German markings.   

     In answer to David Field, David Keen replied that there is a Vickers Armstrong Aircraft Gunbus in the museum but it is a reconstructed version rather than an original.       David went on to explain that his reason for asking was that in the late 50’s he was an apprentice at Vickers and while working in the Drawing Office Modifications Department he was aware of a small section still working on drawings of old aircraft including the Gunbus.       

John Turner thanked David for a fascinating and highly informative  talk about the history and development of the museum.


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