Boscombe Down Aviation Collection

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | February 28th 2016

The Boscombe Down Aviation Collection (BDAC) was opened in 1999 as a museum that showcased the incredible history of British aviation at Boscombe Down. The museum was originally housed on site at and like much of the area, was shrouded in secrecy with very limited public access to the collection.

In 2012, due to increased on-site rental charges brought into effect by the Ministry of Defence, keeping the collection at Boscombe Down became unsustainable and the team started looking for a new home in the local area.

Thankfully an agreement was reached with Old Sarum airfield and Hangar 1, an original 1918 Belfast Truss hangar, was converted so that it could house the collection and a small shop.

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Entry to the museum costs just £8.50 and for that incredibly reasonable price you get to wander around the collection for as long as you want, with the rare privilege of being able to touch and get as close to the exhibits as is physically possible.

The museum houses a few complete airframes, countless cockpits and important aviation artefacts from Boscombe Down’s past; there really is something for everyone.

‘Restoration’ Defined

Before you even enter the museum, you’re greeted by a beautifully restored Hawker Hunter F6A (XF375) which is displayed in its original Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS) red and white paint scheme. After a lengthy time in service with both the ETPS and RAE, XF375 was acquired by the OFMC at Duxford where it was hoped that she’d be restored to flying condition. Things didn’t work out and as a result she was once again put up for sale. BDAC acquired the airframe in 2007, a fitting tribute to her time spent at Boscombe Down.

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The first thing you notice when you step inside Hangar 1 is the diversity and quality of the collection. A number of airframes take centre stage inside, the first of those being Gloster Meteor WK800.

In 1953, this aircraft joined the Royal Australian Air Force as A77-867 and deployed to Korea a year later with 77 Squadron. Having made a significant contribution to the war efforts in Korea and assisting with training duties back in Australia, A77-867 finally returned to the UK in 1971 and was registered once more as WK800 and converted to a U16 (designated D16) variant. WK800 was later used for calibration flights and as a drone to train Jindivik controllers before she was finally retired from active service in 2004.

Sea Harrier XZ457 is another great example of the hard work that goes on at BDAC. The airframe was donated to the collection in a dreadful state in 2001 when the Sea Harrier Fleet was retired and XZ457 was deemed surplus to requirements.

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At the time of acquiring the aircraft, BDAC were very much unaware of its historical significance but after a little research it was discovered that XZ457 had four confirmed ‘victories’ during the Falklands Campaign; two A-4Q Skyhawks, one with Sidewinder and one from 30mm canon, and two Grupo 6 Daggers, again both with Sidewinder missiles. Having been converted from an FSR1 to FA2, XZ457’s life in service came to an unfortunate ending when it suffered an engine failure at RNAS Yeovilton in 1994.

As I visited the museum, Jaguar XX734’s restoration to static condition was 99% complete with just the finishing touches being applied and two weeks ago the project was finished.

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XX734 was recovered from the Gatwick Aviation Museum back in May 2013 and at the time was nothing more than a wreck; much of the bodywork and tail was missing and/or broken. Over the last three years the team at BDAC have put countless man hours into getting this aircraft back up to scratch and I have to say, they’ve done an exceptional job of it. XX734 is perhaps one of the most comprehensive museum restoration projects I’ve ever seen.

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There are currently two other major restoration projects underway.

The Bristol Sycamore was the first British-designed helicopter to be put into production and this example, XJ380, was acquired by the museum in June 2007 having being moved between many locations during it’s post-retirement life. Restoration started the following year and has been ongoing ever since.

XJ380 has recently been moved to the end of the main hangar, down where the Jaguar was being worked on, so that the team can put the finishing touches to the bodywork.

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Jet Provost XR650 was delivered to 7 FTS at Church Fenton in 1963 and saw active service with the RAF right up until 1976. She was later moved to Boscombe Down for ground instructional use before being donated to BDAC some years later.

Like many of the aircraft that BDAC have acquired, XR650 arrived at the museum needing much attention. The aircraft is mostly complete now and when I visited, was coated in primer ready for it’s paint scheme to be applied. It’s my understanding that this Jet Provost will eventually wear the red, white and blue training colours applied to it during its time with 3 FTS.

As well as the complete airframes that BDAC have worked so hard to restore, the museum also houses a fascinating collection of cockpits, most of which can be opened up for people to sit in; the museum prides itself on its ability to provide hands-on interactivity with it’s collection.

The biggest cockpit section (by some margin) is the BAC 1-11, registration XX919. The BAC 1-11 was one of the most successful British-built airliners of its generation and later played an important role with Qinetiq in the testing and development of many of the latest avionics systems.

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The final BAC 1-11 retired from service with Qinetiq in 2013 and was donated to the Classic Air Force Museum in Newquay. XX919 was acquired by BDAC in the early 2000s and is a fine example of the type. The entire front section is pretty much as it was when it would have been in service and to sit in the cockpit of such a special aircraft is a real treat.

As well as the 1-11, there are also around 20 other cockpits all restored and on show for the public to interact with but three of them really stood out for me: Tornado F2 zd936, Harrier GR3 XV784 and Lightning F2A XN726.

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Both the Tornado and Harrier were open during my visit and I simply had to take a seat in both to get an idea for what it must have felt like to be at the controls of two key aircraft from the RAF’s past. I have to say I’m not sure I’d make a great pilot because even with the canopy open I felt a little claustrophobic; how people manage to get in and out of these aircraft in such a hurry amazes me!

A Trip Worth Making

The Boscombe Down Aviation Collection really is a phenomenal museum that’s truly dedicated to educating us on the importance of Boscombe Down and the vital part it continues to play in the testing and development of aviation, not just in the UK but on an international scale.

If you’re looking for a great day out then BDAC is an absolute must. I completely lost myself in the collection, I found the hours ticking by without even realising it! As with most museums, one of the best things about this place was the friendly staff who seemed to know just about everything there is to know about the subject. Also, if you’re like me then you’ll be glad to know that the museum is extremely ‘photographer friendly’ which is always a massive bonus!

I can guarantee I’ll be back at the museum before the year is out!