A glimpse into some of Farnborough Aerodrome's high-flying achievements
PUBLISHED: 10:32 19 May 2015 | UPDATED: 10:39 19 May 2015
Not so long ago, Farnborough Aerodrome was home to some of the government's most top-secret aviation projects. Now, thanks to a group of historic buildings enthusiasts, it's possible to get a glimpse into this Hampshire site's achievements. Viv Micklefield checks-in
For many people, it’s the biennial International Airshow, the burgeoning business parks and the super-sleek Aviator Hotel that sum-up Farnborough Aerodrome. However, this hasn’t always been the case. With many buildings still identified by their original names, clues remain to an altogether more hush-hush past. One in which behind closed doors, some of the 20th century’s most remarkable aeronautical engineering feats took place - and which continue to leave their mark.
Take R52 and Q121, the former wind tunnels for instance. Installed between 1917 and 1935, those lucky enough to have been inside these normally prohibited spaces have likened the double set of gigantic wooden and metal fan blades which sucked-in air from outside in order to test a plane’s aerodynamics, to something akin to a sci-fi movie.
The trailer to what actually went on here under turbulent skies is provided by the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST) Museum.
“This site was once a secret establishment and we see it as our job to give Farnborough the credit it deserves,” says Dr Graham Rood who leads the effort at FAST to give public access to previously confidential records. “From an armed services point of view, Hampshire must be one of the most densely populated counties for military sites. You’ve got the home of the British Army in Aldershot and the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, while in Farnborough we’ve got the birth of flight.”
It’s a rise to prominence that owes much to the maverick flying pioneer Samuel Franklin Cody, who piloted the UK’s first powered plane from here, in 1908. Today, a statue and permanent exhibition with a replica of the famous Cody ‘Flyer’ honour his achievement - although the somewhat romantic picture of early aviators is a far cry from the technical hothouse Farnborough would become. Indeed, by the time the Army Balloon Factory and the Royal Aircraft Factory that succeeded it, re-emerged as the Royal Aviation Establishment (RAE) in 1918, this marked not just a change of name but a new focus. And for the next 70 years, the RAE’s work would prove vital not just to the UK and the Commonwealth, but in NATO too.
Graham, himself an apprentice at Farnborough Aerodrome, observes: “Being Government run, the RAE wanted to keep aviation at the forefront of technology, and built national testing facilities here in Farnborough. At its peak up to 8000 people were employed here, and from 1935, having laid a proper runway, they were flying almost 10 hours a day. The Cold War kept everyone busy until 1992 but with all the technical information having been passed on to the aircraft companies, the Government decided that it no longer wanted to centrally fund research. They were going to flatten the whole site and develop it, so that’s when the Trust was set up to try and save the wind tunnels.”
Their perseverance certainly appears to have paid-off with four of the original 20-plus wind tunnels, the 1912 airplane shed, a man-carrying centrifuge and the museum building (one-time HQ of the Royal Flying Corps), amongst those listed for their historical importance.
According to FAST’s David Wilson, it’s well deserved.
“The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics has named seven heritage sites in the world: one’s on the Moon, there’s Kitty Hawk in the USA and Farnborough’s another. The people behind the Trust are building enthusiasts,” he explains. “The museum came about almost by accident because individuals kept coming to us with boxes of scientific and engineering artefacts they wanted us to have.”
The museum has a good reputation for the quality of its military and civilian collections, and volunteers work closely with both the Science Museum and the National Archives office. Although the former RAE’s technical library of reports, photography and film footage outweighs everything else, on display there’s plenty to entice the inner geek. Early examples of flight data recorders and GPS jostle for attention alongside a Whittle jet engine - and there’s a Hunter aircraft’s restoration-in-progress. Simulators demonstrate some of the flying skills needed, and the test pilots’ memorial book provides a salutary reminder of the risks taken by those working at Farnborough between 1912 and 2008 - Cody himself was killed in 1913 over nearby Ball Hill.
It’s the aircraft model room however, with its row upon row of scale replicas that really brings home the site’s importance to so many flying machines - and there’s more hidden from view.
“We have one of the biggest collections of wind tunnel models in the world,” says Graham. “Storage is a problem, but it’s a nice problem to have because this work was so central to what the country achieved. The BBC’s Antiques Roadshow came here a few years ago and presenter Fiona Bruce came across some aerodynamic models made for Concorde – they were tagged as ‘priceless’.”
So what does the future hold for Farnborough’s wind tunnels? Apparently, one is still used by Boeing and Airbus Industries, but although another was dusted down during the 1990s for tests on Michael Schumacher’s Grand Prix racing car, they remain largely redundant. Graham remains confident however that there’s a fresh wind blowing. “The listed tunnels are beautiful buildings and it’s one of our major plans to give everyone access to these on a more regular basis,” he says.
Farnborough’s world-beating aeronautical achievements during the 20th century include:
• The first powered flight
• Research and testing for Concorde’s wings and engines
• The invention of carbon fibre
• Pioneering clothing and helmet design
• Airborne camera development
• The idea behind the Harrier Jet’s ‘ski-jump’ launch
• Technology on the Skynet satellite, since considered for the Mars One project
Exclusive: Wind Tunnel arts project
Following last summer’s hugely successful première, which attracted over 4,000 visitors, another sound and light spectacular will be staged to coincide with next year’s Farnborough International Air Show (16-17 July).
Speaking to Hampshire Life, project organiser Artliner has confirmed that two of the listed wind tunnels are to be transformed by Arnold Chan’s cutting-edge lighting design, and by the work of other international artists. Inspiration will be taken from the local heritage, including archive material kept at the FAST Museum.
“Walking through the site you are touched by the spirit that produced some of the greatest developments in aeronautical engineering. It’s not a question of saving these historic buildings, but of giving them a function again - to make an impact for the long-term. With the help of local councils, and the aviation and arts world, we’d like to establish the wind tunnels as a destination in the area,” says Tatiana Ojjeh, Artliner’s founder.
There are also rumours of the project being extended with a new collaboration between artist Anish Kapoor and the Red Arrows. Watch this space!
Pay a visit
• Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum, Trenchard House, 85 Farnborough Road, Farnborough
• SatNav: GU14 6TH; free parking
• By public transport: Farnborough Station and buses to south Farnborough
• Open: Weekends and Bank Holiday Mondays 10am-4pm; schools and groups by arrangement
• Admission: Free; for enquiries call 01252 375050 or visit www.airsciences.org.uk
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