Category Archives: Aviation

Chocks away!

Yesterday, I visited the former Croydon Airport as part of my London Open House perambulations. Croydon was home to London’s first proper airport, with the purpose-designed terminal building opening in 1928. It’s now a visitor centre and business park.

Detail of Airport House, Croydon (credit: David Rooney)

Detail of Airport House, Croydon (credit: David Rooney)

Increasing aircraft size, number of flights, and worries over proximity to a fast-growing London (sound familiar?) meant that Croydon’s days were numbered as an international airport after the Second World War, and the last flight left exactly fifty years ago, in September 1959. Heathrow took over.

In its day, though, Croydon Airport saw much pioneering flying. One of its most celebrated departures took place in 1930, two years after the terminal opened for business, as Amy Johnson took off to become the first woman to fly solo to Australia.

To get a true sense of her remarkable achievement (and those of every other flying pioneer of the early days), it is well worth seeing her aircraft, ‘Jason’, on show in our Flight gallery:

Amy Johnsons Gipsy Moth aircraft (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Amy Johnson's Gipsy Moth aircraft (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Such a small aircraft – such a long journey. Remember Johnson – and the diminutive Jason – next time you fly a Boeing 747 round the world. Alternatively, you could always remember the event by dining in Amy Johnson’s Restaurant and Bar, at the historic Aerodrome Hotel right next to the airport terminal…

Aerodrome Hotel, Croydon (credit: David Rooney)

Aerodrome Hotel, Croydon (credit: David Rooney)

Ninety years of commercial flight

Tuesday was the 90th anniversary of the first daily scheduled airline service. By today’s standards it was a pretty modest affair. The aircraft seated a grand total of two alongside packets of mail. But it was a start.

The service ran between Hounslow Heath (near today’s London Heathrow Airport) and Le Bourget, just outside Paris. It was operated by the Aircraft Transport & Travel company run by George Holt-Thomas, and 25 August 1919 saw its inaugural flight. Those first services used planes designed by Geoffrey de Havilland that were bombers converted to include a glazed cabin for the passengers. We’ve a model of the D.H.4 bomber, on which the airliners were based, in our Flight gallery:

Model of a de Havilland D.H.4 aircraft (credit: David Rooney)

Model of a de Havilland D.H.4 aircraft (credit: David Rooney)

And out at Wroughton we’ve got a wooden propellor from a D.H.4 bomber, but I haven’t got a picture, I’m afraid. Instead, here’s a nice atmospheric shot of a later Handley Page aircraft at Paris-Le Bourget in 1930:

Handley Page HP42 at Paris-Le Bourget, 1930s (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Handley Page HP42 at Paris-Le Bourget, 1930s (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

In those early days, passengers were reluctant to come forward. The flights were cramped, noisy and slow. In fact, it wasn’t really until pressurised airliners could fly above the weather (after the Second World War) that flying became remotely comfortable.

Fast forward to 2009: we have wide-bodied aircraft seating hundreds; turbo-fan jet engines combining speed with economy; and flights for a pound. But we also have climate-changing emissions, noise pollution and a nagging feeling that maybe the glamour has gone out of flying these days… here’s a great historic slideshow from the BBC.


I had a great day yesterday at the Science Museum Wroughton, recording a series of video interviews promoting the Festival of Innovation (12 – 13 September). I was there to talk about twenty transport icons that shaped the modern world.

One was a Moulton bicycle, the first significant design change to the bike since J. K. Starley’s ‘Rover’ safety bicycle hit the scene in the 1880s. The Moulton is a small-wheel, compact cycle with full suspension that is easy to ride, mount and store.

Rover safety bicycle, 1885, in Science Museum collections (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Rover' safety bicycle, 1885 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Raleigh Moulton Mk3 bicycle, 1970

Raleigh 'Moulton Mk3' bicycle, 1970 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

I’d never ridden one, so I arranged to use the Wroughton staff bike (which is a Moulton) to get from the entrance gate to the hangar I was filming in. Top fun – especially when I realised it had a coaster brake. I’ve never ridden a coaster brake before. I wondered why something seemed to be rubbing as I dawdled along the airstrip… I probably should have done my research properly first! Still, I did my bit for the planet.

Moulton Major bicycle used as staff site transport at the Science Museum, Wroughton (credit: David Rooney)

Moulton 'Major' bicycle used as staff site transport, Science Museum, Wroughton (credit: David Rooney)

I made it in one piece and went on to spend time with hovercrafts, trucks, planes, cars and bikes of every description, including our Boeing 247D and Douglas DC-3 airliners:

Boeing 247D airliner flying into Science Museum Wroughton, 1982 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Boeing 247D flying into Science Museum Wroughton, 1982 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Douglas DC-3 airliner at Science Museum Wroughton (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Douglas DC-3 airliner at Science Museum Wroughton (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

More next week on the rise of the passenger plane, as there’s a significant anniversary coming up…

Biofuel for jets?

Back in January, a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 airliner successfully tested a camelina-based biofuel, prompting hopes that a non-petroleum-based jet fuel might one day power the world’s airline fleets (and maybe cars and trucks too).

At the Science Museum we’ve been tracking jet engine technology since it was first developed, back before the Second World War. Of particular note in our displays is the Gloster-Whittle E.28/39, Britain’s first successful jet aircraft:

Gloster-Whittle E.28/39 jet aeroplane, 1941 (credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

Gloster-Whittle E.28/39 jet aeroplane, 1941 (credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

That’s in the Flight gallery, and you can find out more about Frank Whittle and the invention of the jet in our curator Andrew Nahum’s book.

In ‘Making the Modern World’, downstairs, is a more domestic-looking vehicle. It’s a 1950 Rover motor car, but the registration plate gives away the secret under the hood (or rather in the boot):

Rover gas turbine motor car (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

Rover gas turbine motor car (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

It’s a car powered by a jet engine! Jets are also known as gas turbines, and you can find out more about how they work here, far better than I can explain.

The Rover jet car wasn’t much of a success, really, as gas turbines are better going at a pretty constant speed, whereas cars need to speed up and slow down a lot. There was a marked accelerator lag in the Rover, for instance — put your foot down and it wouldn’t start moving for a little while. Not ideal at the traffic lights. And it was very thirsty, so while it was a useful experiment, it was back to the internal combustion engine for cars.

Hidden amongst our older displays is this monster, by Metropolitan-Vickers, from the 1940s, in the Marine Engineering gallery:

The first marine gas turbine, 1947 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

The first marine gas turbine, 1947 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

It’s the first jet engine (gas turbine) ever used to power a ship – MGB 2009 (that’s Motor Gun Boat). Nowadays, many warships have gas turbines to drive the propellors. For instance, HMS Illustrious, a Royal Navy aircraft carrier, uses four Concorde engines. I found myself standing next to the turbine air-intake vents on Illustrious‘s deck a few weeks ago (I wangled a visit on board as part of the Royal Navy’s ‘Fly 100′ aviation celebrations) and boy, was it noisy!

Flying on a cushion of air

It’s a busy time for transport anniversaries. I’ve already mentioned the centenary of Bleriot’s flight across the Channel and the ninetieth anniversary of Alcock & Brown’s crossing of the Atlantic.

Today, I’ll talk about one more pioneering flight across water. The craft was called ‘SR-N1′ (Saunders Roe Number 1), and it too flew across the Channel, fifty years to the day since Bleriot first flew over. But this flight, in 1959, was very close to the water.

You guessed it: it was the first hovercraft crossing. Christopher Cockerell, the hovercraft’s inventor, accompanied by a pilot and navigator, made the crossing on 25 July 1959; the craft had previously been demonstrated in the Solent on 11 July. SR-N1 is in the Science Museum’s collection and is stored at our Wroughton site. Here it is at Calais, before the maiden crossing:

SR-N1 hovercraft at Calais, France, 24 July 1959

SR-N1 hovercraft at Calais, France, 24 July 1959. Credit: NMeM Daily Herald Archive

But Cockerell’s own hovercraft had flown some four years previously. Having acquired a small shipyard on the Norfolk Broads, Cockerell experimented with improvised kit before completing an experimental prototype model (using model aircraft-type construction of nylon or silk over balsa wood with a glow-plug model aero engine) which he tested by tethering it to a rowing boat at his yard and flying it round. This prototype is also in the museum’s collection and is on show in the Flight gallery.

Hovercrafts have never really fulfilled the promise held out for them in the ’50s, apart from some ferry routes and niche uses such as military assault vehicles. Owing largely to their aircraft ancestry they have high manufacture, maintenance and fuel costs, the latter of particular concern now as we look to cut down on fuel use in transportation.

Here’s one Science Museum visitor, Lukas Esser, telling us his own very personal relationship with the hovercraft:

Hovercraft and ferry

Still, it did lead to the hover mower. It’s said that lawnmower technician Karl Dahlman saw a picture of SR-N1 in flight and had the idea of applying its principles to lawncare. You can see a 1970s hover mower in the museum’s ‘Making the Modern World‘ gallery:

Flymo Super Professional 47 hover mower

Amelia Earhart on time wastage

Last time I was recalling Louis Blériot’s historic crossing of the Channel a century ago. That got me thinking about other memorable sea crossings.

Ninety years ago, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown were the first people to cross the Atlantic by air, non-stop. Their Vickers ‘Vimy’ craft, pictured here, is on show in our Flight gallery:

Alcock & Brown's Vickers 'Vimy' aeroplane, 1919

The first solo crossing was by Charles Lindbergh eight years later.

Then there was a flight of the Friendship in June 1928 which carried Amelia Earhart, who thereby became the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air (she made the first female solo crossing four years later).

I picked up Earhart’s autobiographical account of her crossing. She was an accomplished aviator, and in her sparkling account she speaks eloquently of the state of flying in America in the 1920s – and the role of women in flight.

It’s a great read, and one passage made me think about the choices we make today about transport, time and distance.

She wrote, “Nothing, perhaps, is more appealing than the sense of quick accomplishment – of getting somewhere, sooner. Aviation means an approach to the elimination of time wastage, and seems to point the way to further increase in the world’s leisure”.

Time and motion. The shrinking of the world. This was the period of the Efficiency Movement, waging war on waste. But now, perhaps, it’s time to rethink some of Earhart’s ideas. Sometimes, slow is good, and doesn’t mean wasted time.

Could we fly less by taking trains and ships more? I’ll return to this theme in future.

For Amelia Earhart, time ran out in July 1937 in a Lockheed Electra airliner, as she attempted to circumnavigate the world. The plane went missing over the Pacific Ocean and neither it nor Earhart have been seen since. You can see an Electra up close in the Science Museum’s ‘Making the Modern World’ gallery. Here it is at our Wroughton (Wiltshire) site before it went on display in London:

Lockheed Electra 10A aircraft at Science Museum Wroughton

Louis Blériot crossed the Channel a century ago

Flying over to mainland Europe this summer on holiday? Last Saturday (25 July 2009) was the centenary of Louis Blériot’s historic flight across the Channel – the first ever successful flight across a major body of water in a heavier-than-air craft.

It took a little over half-an-hour, and it won the French aviator the Daily Mail’s coveted prize of £1000 (about £60,000 in today’s money) for doing so, beating rivals Charles de Lambert and Hubert Latham.

Here’s Blériot posing for photographers on 30 June 1909, three weeks before the successful flight:

The Mail reported the achievement under the headline, ‘England is no longer an island’. At the time, the headline alluded to impending military threat. Now, with hindsight, we can see the start of a century ending with cheap package holidays, one-pound flights and a new era of internationalism.

We must also now ask questions about the sustainability of aviation as it is currently fuelled and as it is currently expanding worldwide. Is it time we came back down to Earth a little bit? Here’s Adam Becker at the CO3 blog talking about a possible long-haul levy.

We’ve got a fair bit of Blériot-related stuff on display. All the permanent galleries are free so if you’re passing the Science Museum you can pop in to see the actual objects in context. It’s in the Flight gallery on the third floor. The photos below are a mix of ones I took in the gallery (they’ll be the bad ones) together with some I found in our historic files and some already available on our website.

A scale model of the Blériot flyer (one of dozens of finely-detailed and exquisite model aircraft on display):

Model of Bleriot's monoplane in the Science Museum's Flight gallery

A section of fuselage and cockpit from a Blériot plane that was first to cross the Irish Sea, in April 1912:

Control mechanism of Bleriot monoplane, c 1909

An Anzani engine of exactly the same type that powered Blériot’s plane a century ago (if you’re into aircraft power plants you really have to visit this gallery):

Anzani aero engine

An Antoinette monoplane of the same type Hubert Latham was trying to cross in:

Detail of Antoinette aeroplane in the Flight Gallery at the Science Museum

And a full-sized copy of the Blériot aircraft, made by JAP-Harding – an example of industrial espionage, it seems, as Harding probably brought (possibly stolen) drawings of Blériot’s successful plane back from Paris.

JAP-Harding monoplane in Science Museum flight gallery c1930s

I should have introduced myself. I’m David Rooney, the Science Museum’s transport curator. More transport stories to come…