Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | June 13th 2016 | Updated June 10th 2017
The Gatwick Aviation Museum, located just outside the boundaries of the airport, showcases the very best of the ‘golden age’ of British aviation and it’s origin can be traced back more than twenty five years to when Peter Vallance started his private collection of aircraft.
Peter, like many of us, had a serious passion for aviation and wanted the world to see his special collection of British aircraft. As the number of airframes increased over a number of years, it quickly became apparent that keeping the aircraft outside wasn’t ideal and as such, Peter started a long campaign to get planning permission approved for a purpose-built structure to house the collection. This campaign went on for many years and planning permission was denied by the local council in 2011 due to it’s close proximity to the airport and it’s location within the Metropolitan Green Belt, and although Peter lodged a formal appeal against this decision in January of the following year, this was quickly dismissed once more just six months later.
Peter sadly passed away in 2013 and never got to see his vision fulfilled. The Gatwick Aviaton Museum has since been set up as a charitable trust and is now by a dedicated team of volunteers. Just when the team thought it would never happen, in 2015 planning permission was finally granted for a purpose-built structure and the museum was temporarily closed to the public while the new hangar was constructed. In April 2016, the museum was reopened and we went along to see what had changed.
A Museum Reborn
Arriving on site it’s instantly clear to see the transformation that’s taken place; where an old wooden building once stood, is now a brand new hangar and car park. We really couldn’t wait to get inside any longer!
Once you’ve stepped through the door and paid your entrance fee (we’ll come back to this later), you’re greeted with a small but extensive display looking back at Gatwick Airport’s history. The display contains an extremely interesting array of items from various airlines that used to operate out of Gatwick before they were all eventually merged into or sold to other airlines.
This first section of the hangar is split in two and houses the Gatwick Airport display above, a small shop and the Collection’s beautiful Hawker Sea Hawk. The Sea Hawk has been lovingly restored to static condition and looks as if it’s only just rolled off the production line back in 1951.
The main area of the hangar is where things really start to get interesting though.
The team at the museum have been really clever with the layout of the hangar and have kept things to an absolute bare minimum. The aircraft have been positioned with as much space around them as possible, moving nearly all engines and other artefacts to the walls either side of the hangar.
Add the very large skylights that run the width of the museum roof into the equation and you’re looking at one of the best museums in the country for photography (all shots inside the hangar in this article were shot handheld at ISO-400).
The front end of the hangar houses the Collection’s Gloster Meteor T.7 and de Havilland Venom F.B. 50 Mk1.
Both aircraft are ready to receive a new coat of paint in the coming months/years as many years of sitting outside has taken it’s toll on their original schemes; the Meteor in particular, which had been located at a number of museums across the country before Peter Vallance purchased it in 1988.
Taking centre stage right in the middle of the hangar is the superb and exceptionally good looking de Havilland Sea Vixen TT.8.
XS587 is a survivor of the 67 Sea Vixen FAW2 that were produced by de Havilland for the Royal Navy and having served her time aboard HMS Eagle and HMS Victorious, this example was converted for drone and target towing duties. The aircraft was initially acquired by a gentleman named Mike Carlton (check out a book called Hunter One if you’ve not heard of him) who registered the aircraft on the civilian register as G-VIXN and had the full intention of returning it to flying condition. Sadly this never happened and upon his death, the aircraft was sold at auction and joined the Gatwick Aviation Museum in 1990.
The rear of the hangar is home to three more legendary British aircraft; a Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR.3, Hawker Hunter T7 and English Electric Lightning F.53.
Having made her first flight in May 1969, Harrier XV751 spent much of her life with the Royal Air Force at RAF Wittering and was used in both GR.1A and GR.3 configurations before being handed off to the Royal Navy to be used as a maintenance airframe in the late 1980s. The aircraft was acquired by the museum in Royal Navy colours but it has since been extensively worked upon and now sits resplendent in it’s original RAF 3 Squadron colours.
The Collection’s Lightning is rather special. ZF579 is an F.53 variant, the export model based on the F.6 interceptor version that was popular with the Royal Air Force. There was a lot of export interest in the Lightning but at the time, the RAF versions in service were not entirely suitable. As a result, BAC developed a multi-role variant for foreign air forces, this particular example of which was purchased by the Royal Saudi Air Force in 1968.
After nearly twenty years of service with the RSAF, the aircraft was flown back to the UK and dismantled for long-term storage in a container. Unlike most other ex-RSAF Lightnings that were stored in water-damaged containers, ZF579 was in a pretty good state when it was purchased by the museum in 2000. The aircraft has been slowly restored to as close to original condition as possible and looks absolutely fantastic; if all goes to plan, this aircraft may make it’s first engine run at the museum later this year.
Due to the size of the building, there are still a number of aircraft outside including another Hunter, the beautiful Blackburn Buccaneer S.1 (another aircraft with planned engine runs later this year) and the mighty Avro Shackleton.
The volunteers were on hand all afternoon to give tours of the Shackleton. Our tour was given by a volunteer who just happened to be a veteran of Coastal Command and spent much of his time flying the Shackleton during his service with the RAF. We stepped on board and were instantly transported back to the 1950s and guided through each section of the aircraft, being told extensive first-hand stories every step of the way. Getting to experience something like this in a museum is incredible; clambering all over an old aircraft while listening to tales from someone who knows the aircraft inside out was an absolute honour and worth the entrance fee alone.
Value For Money
Visiting the recently re-opened museum was an absolute treat from start to finish and really should be on every enthusiasts’ bucket list for this year. With its minimalist layout, some of the best interior lighting conditions ever seen at a museum and access to a number of incredibly unique airframes (and people), the Gatwick Aviation Museum is a true winner.
With an adult ticket price of just £5, a visit to this place is a steal and even if the museum were to double their prices, you’d still be getting more than enough for your money!
Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | June 10th 2017
Following on from a successful ground run of the museum’s extremely rare English Electric Lightning F.53, the museum stayed open into the evening on Saturday 20th May and hosted their very first evening photo-shoot.
With this being the first event of it’s kind held at the museum since it reopened, it was a fairly small affair but this worked entirely to its advantage. The staff were more than happy for those attending to take control of the setup in order to get the images they required and were extremely accommodating with any specific requests.
The evening was extremely laid back, starting in the sunshine and ending under a dark sky, and allowed us to talk to members of the engineering team about what they’ve got planned for the future.
While the Lightning has now had it’s engines run twice in public, these have only been ‘dry’ and while that’s a fantastic achievement in itself, they’re not stopping there. The team plan to run each of the engines in reheat later this year but if the Lightning is to carry on with these ground runs then some further work is required. An extension of the current concrete area would make maneuvering the aircraft much easier and would also allow for greater distance between the aircraft and the hangar when these reheat runs are carried out.
The evening session was also the last chance to see the Blackburn Buccaneer S.1 all in one piece as she’s about to be completely stripped, repainted and rebuilt from the ground up; a restoration project that’ll be running for at least the next five years. Now that may seem like a long time but it sounds like it’s going to be well worth it!
The good news is that this was just the first of many events to come, so if you want to stay up-to-date with everything going on, head over to the museum’s Facebook page and hit ‘Like’!
Gatwick Aviation Museum is open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 until 16:00. To find out more please visit http://www.gatwick-aviation-museum.co.uk.