Fleet Air Arm Museum, Somerset – experiencing aircraft carrier life

Usually when my family and I are out visiting heritage sites they tend to resemble crumbled buildings, hidden earthworks or museums with galleries dedicated to local history.

However, a Father’s Day family visit to Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton was more of a nod towards my ‘day job’ in an engineering company (see my alter-ego Twitter feed @awhiting0307).

Fleet Air Arm Museum, part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (alongside sides in Portsmouth including HMS Victory), claims to have “Europe’s largest Naval Aviation collection” and will clearly appeal to those with an interest in 20th Century military history.

Buzzing the air above the museum before we entered was a Fairey Swordfish –  a biplane fondly remembered in British naval aviation circles as the plane responsible for the sinking of one and damaging two battleships of the Italian Navy in the Battle of Taranto and the famous crippling of the Bismarck during the Second World War. This treat may not be the norm as it is likely that the pilot was practicing his/her display for July’s popular Yeovilton Air Day.

Once inside, after parting with £40 for a family ticket (2 adults and 2 children over 5) ,the museum comprises four large exhibition halls telling the stories of naval aviation from seaplanes, bi-planes and the carrier borne aircraft of WW2 to iconic modern Sea Harriers and the Sea King helicopter. Slightly out of context with the other exhibits, but still a valuable part of the visit, is the second prototype Concorde (002).

The museum provides plenty of chances to get close to the exhibits allowing you to study the rivets on the Corsair, pop your head in the engine intake, or runs your hands over the Spitfires famous Merlin engine.

There is a mix of interactive and static information panels around the museum, all containing interesting information about the planes and their context. The trails and activities for schoolage children are good at keeping them moving whilst allowing parents to concentrate on points of interest. Perhaps more could be done to cater for younger children, though my three year old son was content marvelling at the mixture of vehicles he was seeing.

The major exhibition at the museum is the Aircraft Carrier Experience.

This differentiates it from any other aviation museum I have visited. You ‘land’ on the HMS Ark Royal aircraft carrier flight deck – a very busy and dangerous place! – via a short simulated helicopter trip. On the flight deck mock-up there is a variety of static aircraft including Phantoms and Buccaneers. Via a well sized projection of a video on the rear wall you experience a landing (‘recovery’) of a jet onto the flight deck, and via cleverly timed simulations at the forward end you witness a catapult take-off (‘launch’). As an adult this seemed a little far-fetched but the children were enthralled, if a little bit concerned.

Following on from the flight deck walk-round you are invited to tour the carrier’s ‘Island’ superstructure where you witness major carrier operations centres such as the Bridge and Flyco. This section, which takes approximately 45 minutes, is a unique experience and the museum has done a great job to make it as realistic as it is, with doors and corridors designed to convince you that you are indeed within the ship’s structure –

This exhibition may need a refresh when the QE Class Carriers come into service over the next decade as it will begin to seem outdated!

I believe that the Fleet Air Arm Museum will appeal to a wide range of people, not solely aviation and naval enthusiasts, and that it is well worth a visit.

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