Category Archives: Aviation

Explosive gases, useless children and a lot of hot air

I mentioned recently the 225-year anniversary of the first manned flight across the English Channel in 1785, following the first successful balloon ascents in 1783.

Plate showing first manned free-flight in a balloon, November 1783 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Plate showing first manned free-flight in a balloon, November 1783 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Some observers sceptically asked what use the new technology offered, failing to spot the opportunities it could afford. American scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin scoffed at their short-sightedness, retorting, ‘what is the use of a new-born child?’

Ballooning hit eighteenth-century society with a bang, quickly becoming a fashionable spectator sport with men and women routinely risking their lives for the experience. A thriving market in balloon trinkets sprang up, with everything from fans to delftware bowls to delightful decorative snuffboxes depicting the birth of flight:

Ballooning scenes on a fan, c.1784 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning scenes on a fan, c.1784 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning scenes on bowl and plate, late-eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning scenes on bowl and plate, late-eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning scene on snuff box, late-eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning scene on snuff box, late-eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This is just a tiny selection from our collection of balloon memorabilia, some of which is on display in our Flight and Making the Modern World galleries. But it isn’t all about the past. Ballooning is still a thriving sport.

If you’re interested, the Royal Aeronautical Society is hosting a free public lecture on 10 February by Janet Folkes, a materials scientist who, with Ann Rich, broke the world female flying duration record last year, covering the 1,100km from Geneva to Madrid in 70 hours using a hydrogen balloon. An amazing achievement.

Up, up and away!

Back in July last year, I kicked off this blog with a post about Louis Blériot’s historic crossing of the English Channel a century ago. Blériot’s journey is rightly considered a momentous event in aviation history, but it wasn’t the first flight across. That happened 225 years ago this week.

Whilst Blériot had a powered, heavier-than-air craft, on 7 January 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries were the first people to cross the Channel in a balloon.

Oil painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Channel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Oil painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Channel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This is a wonderful pair of oil paintings by E. W. Cocks painted in about 1840. The first shows the balloon leaving Dover, whilst the second depicts the triumphant arrival in Calais.

Oil painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Channel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Oil painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Channel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

If you look closely you can make out a paddle-steamer in the background of each picture. A bit of artistic licence, there. Whilst the first steamboat trials were indeed being carried out in the 1770s and 1780s, practical paddle-steamer services weren’t launched until the early nineteenth century (more on that at a later date).

Still, what a remarkable experience it must have been for the two men. The journey from England to France took about four-and-a-half hours, and came just over a year after Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier demonstrated the world’s first balloon flight in 1783. This model of the Montgolfier balloon is on show in our Flight gallery:

Model of the Montgolfier balloon used in 1783 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Model of the Montgolfier balloon used in 1783 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning became quite a craze, and spawned a whole new market in ballooniana – snuff boxes, fans, bowls and umbrella tops. More about our fine collection of these trickets another time…

Walking in a winter wonderland

As we navigate our way through the festive season, and possibly eat and drink a little more than is wise, it is always worth remembering the most basic transportation device of all: Shank’s pony, or going for a walk.

Maybe you’re a sporty type like these two, full of energy and ready to bound out of the house for a good stride across the countryside…

Hiking railway poster, c.1930s (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'Hiking' railway poster, c.1930s (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

You can even keep count of your paces as you march along using a pedometer…

Pedometer, eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Pedometer, eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But if that’s not sporty enough for you, you could always try wing-walking…

Mr Hearns wing-walking on an Avro 504K biplane, 1932 (Simmons Aerofilms / Science & Society)

Mr Hearns wing-walking on an Avro 504K biplane, 1932 (Simmons Aerofilms / Science & Society)

This fearless chap is wing-walking on an Avro 504K biplane. You can see one of these aircraft suspended from the ceiling of our Making the Modern World gallery, but I wouldn’t try climbing onto the wing if I were you…

Brooklands revived

I saw a splendid programme on BBC2 the other day. In his series, ‘Toy Stories’, James May is playing with old toys like Airfix and Meccano in an epic way. Last week, he revived the famous Brooklands motor racing circuit, opened in 1907 and closed in 1939.

Motor racing at Brooklands, 1927 (NMeM / Kodak Collection / Science & Society)

Motor racing at Brooklands, 1927 (NMeM / Kodak Collection / Science & Society)

Malcolm Campbell (see my previous posts) was a regular racer at Brooklands:

Malcolm Campbell racing at Brooklands (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

Malcolm Campbell racing at Brooklands (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

It wasn’t just cars. Britain’s aviation industry arguably started here with the pioneering work of A. V. Roe and others. Roe’s company went on to make Avro aircraft elsewhere, including the famous ‘Vulcan’ bomber…

Avro Vulcan radar test model, 1950s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Avro Vulcan radar test model, 1950s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

…and our Vickers ‘Vimy’, used by Alcock and Brown in their first flight across the Atlantic, was built at Brooklands:

Vickers Vimy at Brooklands, 1919 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Vickers 'Vimy' at Brooklands, 1919 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

After the war, the site became a huge aircraft factory for Vickers and then British Aerospace (lots of Concorde was made here), and the old racing circuit was carved up, chopped off, built on and generally made into a non-circuit. Explore it on Google Maps.

How did May revive such a relic? With the aid of hundreds of  helpers, he laid three miles of Scalextric track round the route of the old circuit (flying over fences and factories, diving under roads and ditches, floating across ponds and cutting across housing estates) and, once built, pitted two tiny cars against each other in a nail-biting race to the finish. Top stuff!

You can watch it on BBC iPlayer here, and you can find out more at the excellent Brooklands museum website.

Flying into Wroughton – thirty years on

Earlier this week I was at our site at Wroughton, Wiltshire, where I met a very special visitor. Joe Wright, together with his family, came to see one of our aircraft, a De Havilland Comet 4B jet. But it wasn’t the first time Joe saw our Comet at Wroughton – he was the very pilot who flew it in, thirty years ago! I was thrilled to meet him and talk about his experience.

Captain Joe Wright, 18 November 2009

Captain Joe Wright, 18 November 2009

The final flight of the Dan-Air-owned Comet 4B number G-APYD was also the last ever flight of this particular type of aircraft, as by the late seventies they had reached the end of their working life. We jumped at the opportunity of buying one (at a knock-down price), and on 1 November 1979 Captain Wright took its controls for the last time to bring it from London Gatwick to Wroughton. The co-pilot, Bryn Wayt, now runs the Dan-Air Staff Association, and tells the story here.

De Havilland Comet 4B jet at Science Museum Wroughton (Science Museum / Science & Society)

De Havilland Comet 4B jet at Science Museum Wroughton (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Thirty years on, the Comet forms a key part of the National Aeronautical Collection alongside such iconic craft as the Douglas DC-3 and the Boeing 247D, which I mentioned in a previous post.

Seaplanes to the Spitfire

In my last entry Seaplanes and plump-bottomed angels, I introduced some of the people behind the Supermarine 6SB, a magnificent seaplane that won the Schneider Trophy. One person I didn’t introduce was the plane’s designer, Reginald Joseph Mitchell.

This statue can be seen in the fligth gallery

This statue can be seen in the Flight gallery

Hewn from dark grey slate, his statue cuts an imposing figure in our Flight Gallery as it stares at the two great planes that made Mitchell’s reputation: the 6SB and the Spitfire. Mitchell was born in 1895 and at 16 he became an apprentice at the Kerr Stuart & Co locomotive works. He joined the Supermarine Works in1917 and progressed extremely quickly to become Technical Director. He came across as a shy person but this guy didn’t suffer fools and grew very angry if interrupted while in thought. Eyebrows rose to the fact he was married to a headmistress eleven years older than him.

In the sixteen years Mitchell worked at the Supermarine Company he developed no less than 24 aircraft. The Type 224 aircraft known as the Shrew was rejected by the RAF in 1934 – a major set-back. But Mitchell was working on something else as well…

The Supermarine private venture Type 300 (an all metal mono plane) with a Rolls Royce PV12 engine eventually became the legendary Spitfire with its Merlin engine. The Spitfire, first tested in 1936 was a major defence in the Battle of Britain and was still used by the RAF in the 1950s.

Spitfire on display in the Flight gallery

And what did Mitchell have to say? Apparently when he heard what the plane was going to be called he grumbled “just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose” .

Travelling by Trident

Just a quick one today. Last time, I showed you our lovely Heathrow airline coach from the fifties. By the 1960s, these buses were transporting passengers to the latest airliners in the British European Airways (BEA) fleet - the Hawker Siddeley ‘Trident’.

British Airways Trident aircraft, 1971 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

British Airways 'Trident' aircraft, 1971 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These three-engined jets were built by Hawker Siddeley to BEA’s specifications. We acquired ours in 1987, at the end of its 16-year lifetime. By then, BEA had become British Airways and the new firm was re-equipping with American-built Boeing aircraft (although Tridents were in use elsewhere in the world into the 1990s).

Have you flown in a Trident? The three engines are all at the back, rather than slung under the wings – did this make for a quieter flight? What do you remember of the takeoff and landing? Love to hear any recollections.

Apologies for the short couple of posts – I’ll be on my holidays when these get posted…

Heathrow coach-link, fifties-style

Ah, the half-term holidays. It was great to see so many visitors to the Science Museum last week – hope you had a good time!

Others may perhaps have jetted away with the kids for a relaxing overseas break. Did you use Heathrow Airport? These days there are several ways to get there: car, taxi, train, Tube or coach. But for many travellers back in the 1950s, coach was the only option:

AEC Regal IV airline coach, 1953 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

AEC Regal IV airline coach, 1953 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

That’s our AEC ‘Regal IV’ airline coach from 1953. Isn’t it just a peach? British European Airways (BEA) ran a fleet of 65 of these one-and-a-half-deck coaches in the 1950s to whisk travellers between the ‘West London Air Terminal’ (in Cromwell Road, not far from the Science Museum) and the airport.

The special body was designed by London Transport and featured a raised passenger deck over a large luggage compartment. They seated 37 people, and although owned by BEA, they were operated on their behalf by London Transport.

These coaches were still carrying passengers well into the 1960s, by which time BEA’s fleet included Hawker Siddeley ‘Trident’ aircraft. We have one in our aviation collection - more on that later. In the meantime, I’d love to hear comments from anyone who remembers using these Heathrow transfer coaches or the West London Air Terminal…

Seaplanes and plump-bottomed angels

Even though I’ve worked at the Science Museum for eight years, I still find the Flight Gallery stunning. It reminds me of my childhood bedroom ceiling, with one big difference: I had plastic kits hanging in dogfight freeze frames, the Flight Gallery has the real things! 

One thing that really sticks out is this crab incrusted trophy with the plump-bottom angel (supposed to represent the Spirit of Flight kissing the waves).

Schneider trophy

Schneider trophy

It’s the Schneider Trophy, which was offered from 1913 to encourage the development of seaplanes. 

The history of the trophy is packed with colourful stories. In 1919, Italy was the only team to get their plane up and around the course but they didn’t win, because due to the fog the panel couldn’t be sure that they’d completed the course.

Then in 1929 a broken piston head was found during a last-minute check on the British plane. They rallied up Rolls Royce engineers in the area but rumour has it that at that late hour the only available engineers were found in the local pub…

It flew the next day and won.

The British Government was slow to support the entries, but some colourful individuals came forward with the money. In 1922, Fanny Huston, an East End musical hall singer who had had a string of extremely wealthy husbands was a major investor.

The Supermarine S6B seaplane won this trophy for Great Britain in 1931, and is also in the Flight Gallery. It reached a top speed of 340mph and as it was the third consequtive win for the Brits we got to keep the trophy, bringing this bit of history to an end.

Supermarine Rolls-Royce S6B seaplane, 1931

Supermarine Rolls-Royce S6B seaplane, 1931

Incredibly, the first race for the Schneider trophy was held only ten years after the first ever flight. The top speed then was 45.75mph and within just 19 years that had increased to 340mph.

Concorde’s legacy

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Concorde’s first flight (as prototypes numbered 001 and 002), and the iconic aircraft served passengers from 1976 to 2003. A fatal Concorde crash in Paris in July 2000 temporarily grounded the fleet, and economically, it seems, the writing was then on the wall for Concorde’s supersonic service.

Our collections are rich with Concorde stuff. Top of the list is our own aircraft, prototype 002, on display at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton:

Concorde 002 at Yeovilton, 1979 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Concorde 002 at Yeovilton, 1979 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

In the Science Museum in London we’ve several displays, including some of our beautiful Concorde wind tunnel test models:

Concorde wind tunnel test models (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Concorde wind tunnel test models (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Back in the 1960s, we had a choice. We could have super-fast flight, which had the downside of being noisy and thirsty. Or, we could opt for high-capacity flight at lower speeds with more efficient and quieter engines.

We tried both, but only one has survived. Concorde was our dream for speed, but wide-body jets such as the Boeing 747 became our everyday experience. Today, the latest passenger planes (such as the Airbus A380) take the 747 to the next level of size and efficiency. Will passengers ever fly supersonic again?

We’ve got a Centenary Talk coming up on 5 October that might well be of interest to you. Hear Concorde captain David Rowland and mechanical engineer Professor Jeff Jupp talk about Concorde’s story and the legacy that remarkable supersonic plane has left in today’s aviation world. Hope to see you there, but if you can’t make it, check out our book, ‘Concorde: Story of a Supersonic Pioneer’, by Kenneth Owen, which is an absorbing and comprehensive account.