Frustrated fly-boy Phil Anderton visits the Solway Aviation Museum at Carlisle Airport and discovers a unique collection of historic aircraft and aeronautical memorabilia…
In previous issues of Read Me I’ve been looking at RAF Spadeadam’s role in the post-war Blue Streak rocket project that was supposed to give the UK its own nuclear missile. Though Blue Streak was cancelled in the early 1960s, North Cumbria continued to play a vital role in Britain’s defence thanks to RAF Carlisle. Beginning in 1938 with a grass airstrip, known as RAF Kingstown, the base was re-designated RAF Carlisle during the 1950s and expanded to incorporate a number different sites housing maintenance, observation, storage and research facilities (including Spadeadam).
During World War II the original runway at RAF Kingstown proved to be too short for the latest bombers, so a new airfield was built at Crosby-on-Eden. Today this part of the former RAF Carlisle complex is home to the civilian Carlisle Airport and the truly fascinating Solway Aviation Museum.
Founded in 1961 by former members of the RAF’s Observer Corps, who’d been stationed in the area, the original Solway Aviation Enthusiasts Society acquired its first historic aircraft in 1962. This was a rare 1920's Hawker Hart biplane (recovered from a Wigton school’s loft) and in lieu of rent for the meeting room used by the club, its members worked as unpaid baggage handlers for the airport!
Though the Hart has since been donated to the RAF Museum in Hendon, the club soon acquired another aircraft, a de Havilland Vampire, which was Britain’s frontline jetfighter in the late 40s and early 50s. The twin-tail Vampire was also restored to flying condition, making the Solway Enthusiasts the only unpaid volunteers to have successfully restored a jet fighter to airworthiness. Though this aircraft was later swapped for an Armstrong Whitworth Meteor airframe, the museum is currently restoring another Vampire, T11 WZ515.
Pride of place among the outdoor exhibits goes to the Avro Vulcan B2 XJ823. As part of Britain’s long range V Bomber force, this exquisite aircraft was designed to deliver ‘buckets of instant sunshine’ (as the crews called their nuclear bombs) to targets in Soviet Russia. The V Bombers were supposed to be a temporary stop-gap until Blue Streak became operational but, with the cancellation of Britain’s rocket programme, the Vulcans were retained and were still serving with the RAF into the 1980s.
Most famously, the Vulcans took part in the 1982 Falkland’s War carrying out the Black Buck raids that stopped Argentina’s air force from using Port Stanley’s runway. Ironically, the crews practiced at the Spadeadam Electronic Warfare Range before flying out to the RAF’s forward base in Ascension Island but nothing could prepare them for the incredibly arduous 15,000 mile round trip to Port Stanley. The Black Buck raids took 16 hours and required the Vulcans to refuel in mi-air up to 7 times on the way out and twice on the way back.
The Black Buck raids were the longest in the history of aerial warfare until the US bombing of Baghdad during the Gulf War of 1991 but the RAF’s achievement is the more remarkable because much of the technology in the Vulcan dated from WWII - but don’t take my word for it. Unlike many museum Vulcans, you can actually go inside the cramped cockpit of the Solway’s B2 (just mention you’d like to do this when you buy your ticket) and see everything from the chemical toilet to the electric food heaters!
Besides this exceptional aircraft, the Solway Aviation Museum boasts examples of an English Electric Canberra and a Lightning as well as a Hawker Hunter, an Armstrong Whitworth Meteor, a McDonnell Douglas Phantom, an early Sikorsky helicopter and several training aircraft including a Percival Sea Prince used for teaching navigation. These fascinating survivors of the early jet age would be worth the trip to Carlisle in themselves but there’s so much more to see in the seven indoor galleries.
• Room 1 tells the story of the wartime Crosby-on-Eden airfield and includes a German reconnaissance photograph taken in 1943.
• Room 2 is the engine room (literally) displaying the museum’s collection of aerial power plants ranging from a Rolls Royce Avon to a propulsion unit from a Whirlwind helicopter.
• Room 3 has a wealth of objects and photographs from Blue Streak including two giant exhaust nozzles and a pump taken from a Nazi V2, the granddaddy of all modern rockets.
• Room 4 charts the history of No.14 Maintenance Unit who were the principle tenants of RAF Carlisle until the base closed in the 1990s. This room is also home to a rare ‘Flying Flea’ kit plane created by a French manufacturer in the 1930s and which still holds the record for the smallest ever general production biplane.
• Room 5 is devoted to avionics, ejector seats and survival equipment..
• Room 6 records Carlisle’s development as a civilian airport.
In the corridors between these rooms, there are displays explaining such things as the aforementioned Black Buck raids and the founding of the museum. Other facilities include a conference room with full Audio-Visual facilities, a small café serving hot and cold refreshments and very well stocked gift shop that sells such goodies as replica Red Arrow flight suits (unfortunately only made in children’s sizes) and a dazzling array of aeronautical Airfix kits.
In short there’s everything here to interest the plane-crazy and even non-aero enthusiasts can enjoy the breathtaking views of the Lake District. So the next time you’re looking for a fabulous day look no further than the Solway Aviation Museum.
The Museum is open every weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday and English Bank Holiday Mondays) from the 31st of March until the last weekend in October. Admission is ADULT £6.00, SENIOR CITIZEN £4.00, CHILDREN (Aged 6-16) £4.00, FAMILY (Max 2 Children) £15.00. The museum receives no official funding and as it is entirely staffed by volunteers from the Solway Aviation Society new members are always welcome. For more information and/or to volunteer, go to: