This week, our intrepid Golden Retriever explorers, Sawyer and Stirling, take to the skies to explore an amazing aviation wonderland- the National Museum of Flight. While they technically stay grounded, they will guide you on a tour filled with planes and aviation history spanning the decades. So, please fasten your seatbelt, and make sure your seat and trays are in their full upright position, as we prepare for take off to East Fortune Airfield!
Before we take you on a tour of The National Museum of Flight, we thought it would be helpful to give you a brief history. Situated about 20 miles outside of Edinburgh, East Fortune Airfield first saw action just before the start of the First World War. According to the Museum, the Director of Naval Air Services gave approval for an air station to be opened at East Fortune in September 1915. Less than one year later, on the night of 2 April 1916, two German Navy Zeppelins attacked Edinburgh! One of them was seen over the coast near St. Abbs and they sent an Avro 5014C single-seat fighter to intercept, but he wasn’t able to find the Zeppelin.
The Royal Naval Air Station, East Fortune, was officially commissioned on 23 August 1916. It proceeded to grow in size during the years of the First World War, housing airships and airplanes.
Now, we tend to mostly talk about dogs here at Wee Walking Tours as we have a strong canine crew that supports our Edinburgh walking tours and explorations around Scotland. However, there is a story that we would like to share about East Fortune Airfield that has a fascinating feline twist. In between the World Wars, Airship R.34 took on quite a journey. According to the Museum, “on a cold misty 2 July 1919, at 1.42am, R.34 and her intrepid crew of eight officers and 22 men, one stowaway, two carrier pigeons and a kitten set off on the first direct flight between Britain and the United States”.
The tabby kitten, named ‘Wopsie’, had been “smuggled aboard by one of the engineering crew and became the ship’s unofficial mascot for the journey, returning aboard R.34 as the first feline to fly across the Atlantic! R.34’s flight from East Fortune to Long Island, New York and back were the longest journeys flown by an aircraft at the time”. Sounds like quite a journey for a wee kitten to undertake, and I'm pretty sure Sawyer and Stirling are jealous. The photos below (starting from left) show an airship mooring block, a memorial plaque honouring the R.34's transatlantic journey, and a model of the airship:
In June 1940, East Fortune Airfield was “requisitioned by the Air Ministry as a satellite field for nearby RAF Drem. Throughout the Second World War, the Royal Air Force Station, East Fortune served as an operational training base”.
After the World Wars
After WWII, the airfield was no longer used by the RAF, and a tuberculosis hospital was set up again (there had been one in the early 1920s) which remained open until 1997. During the Cold War years, a runway extension for American bombers was set up (but never used), and sections of the airfield were requisitioned for storage of civil defence equipment.
The airfield was used again for flying from April to August 1961 when the main runway was opened while Edinburgh’s International Airport was being redeveloped.
From Airfield to Museum
The National Museum of Flight officially opened to the public on 7 July 1975 and has grown to become one of Scotland’s top visitor attractions. With several hangars, the Concorde Experience, and a few other planes that can be explored, there is an incredible amount to see. Therefore, this article will cover some of the highlights from our visit, but we highly recommend you go see it in person to get the full experience.
While only assistance dogs are allowed inside the hangars and buildings, we’re happy to say that all dogs (on lead) are allowed on the grounds. Therefore, our Golden Duo- Sawyer and Stirling- were thrilled when we told them they were going on their latest ‘explore and discover’ mission (our Black Lab, Finn, decided to chill at home and rock out to some AC/DC).
As soon as you step out of your vehicle and take in the landscape, you realise just how vast of an area the National Museum of Flight covers. The map below provides more context and a handy overview:
Your journey starts of with a bit of luxury in the ‘Concorde Experience’ in the Jet Age Hangar.
For those of us who remember the age of the Concorde, it’s pretty amazing to see one of the iconic planes up close and personal. I certainly never thought I would be able to do so thinking back to its heyday.
It’s fascinating to read about the history of how the Concorde started and the decades it took to get off the ground. They have various prototypes on display including the ‘Rolls-Royce Olympus Prototype Concorde Engine’ pictured below.
The age of supersonic commercial jet travel began on 21st January 1976. Throughout the exhibition, you see various memorabilia and artefacts related to Concorde’s history that demonstrate the high standards and level of luxury passengers experienced.
However, the Concorde wasn’t a wonderful experience for everyone. It was an age of flying that catered to the elite, and wasn’t something that most travellers could afford. Furthermore, residents living along its flight path in New York had to deal with a great deal of noise and air pollution that the Concorde jets created daily.
The tragic crash of an Air France Concorde at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on the 25th July 2000 was the beginning of the end for supersonic commercial jet travel. I still remember seeing the horrific news coverage about the crash that saw one hundred passengers, nine crew, and four people on the ground killed. It was stunning as Concorde’s safety record had been impeccable up to that point.
Concorde tried to make a comeback with a safety refit in 2001. However, the horrific events of September 11th changed air travel for years, making the continuation of Concorde commercial flights unsustainable. Concorde made its last flight in 2003, with the last Concorde landing in Scotland at Edinburgh Airport on 24 October 2003. The Museum’s ‘Alpha Alpha’ Concorde plane arrived in East Fortune in April 2004. However, as flying wasn’t an option at that time, her last voyage was via land and sea.
Walking all around the exterior and interior of the ‘Alpha Alpha’ Concorde, you get a real sense for just how sleek and compact she is- something that photos and video footage don’t quite convey.
It must have been incredible to travel inside the supersonic jet that only took 3.5 hours from London (Heathrow) to New York (JFK). However, if I’m honest, the seat area looks a bit cramped considering that that the British Airways flight cost around £8,000 ($13,200)! I just don’t think that kind of mark up is justified to save a few hours. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating opportunity to see the ‘Concorde Experience’ at the National Museum of Flight, and it is a must-do part of anyone’s visit. Click on the black arrow in the photo below to take a mini tour inside the Concorde:
Also, located in the Jet Age Hangar is a part of a BOAC Rolls-Royce 707 which you can climb aboard and learn about the story of the birth of jet travel.
There is a great deal of amazing aviation history to see and learn about throughout the various hangars at the National Museum of Flight. For example, you can see the Piper Comanche, ‘Myth Too’, that Shelia Scott flew solo around the world in 1966. According to the Museum, “she completed the epic 41,890km flight in 33 days, breaking the round the world solo speed record”. She was “dubbed Britain’s ‘Queen of the Air’ and she broke 104 records for speed, endurance and long distance flying during the 1960s and early 1970s”. By the way, as you look at the photos of her plane below, please note that Shelia didn’t crash the ‘Myth Too’- that was done by another owner afterwards.
Various military aircraft are also on display including the famous Hawker Siddeley Harrier (aka the ‘jump jet’) which was the world’s first vertical take-off combat airplane. I’ve seen them in action in person and they are quite an impressive sight to see!
To the pleasure of Sawyer and Stirling, you can also explore aircraft history on the grounds of the Museum (although only the exterior for dogs). Below, our Golden Duo are modelling in front of a 1961 'de Havilland Comet’.
The Comet (pictured as well below) was the world’s first jet airliner and made its inaugural flight on 2 May 1952 from London to Johannesburg, South Africa.
You can also go aboard a BAC 1-11 airplane whose exterior was once again modelled by Sawyer and Stirling.
According to the Museum, it was “designed as a short-haul airliner to replace the Vickers Viscount turboprop...and had capacity for 80 passengers. It made its first flight in 1963 and entered service with the British United Airways in April 1965”.
You can sure work up an appetite with all of the aeronautical explorations to be done at the National Museum of Flight. Fortunately, they have you covered with the aptly named Aviator Café. They have a delicious variety of drink and food options whether you are looking for a wee snack or something heartier for lunch. There is plenty of indoor and outdoor seating- we obviously chose to take our break at an outdoor picnic table with Sawyer and Stirling.
Here are some more photos from our visit:
Well, that brings our visit to The National Museum of Flight to an end and Sawyer and Stirling hope you have enjoyed the tour. However, we have only skimmed the surface with this article, and there is so much more to see and do. Therefore, after you take one of our Edinburgh walking tours, we highly recommend that you make the brief trip to East Fortune Airfield. We also suggest that you give yourself a full day of exploration if possible so that you can take your time and see all the Museum has to offer. Head over to their website for more information on how to best plan your visit.
Until next time- Explore & Discover!