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Come fly with me

Come Fly With Me

There was no foreign holiday booked for me this summer, yet in late August I boarded a plane at Gatwick that transported me far away – not in miles but years!

The time machine in question was an Avro Shackleton, one of the main attractions at the newly refurbished Gatwick Aviation Museum in Charlwood. As we were shown around this spectacular aircraft by ex. Shackleton pilot, Squadron Leader Mike Rankin, it wasn’t difficult to imagine what conditions were like for the 10-man crews that kept these beasts in the air as they protected the seas for 40 years from the 1950s to 1991. Mike’s vivid descriptions and reminiscences meant it was some time before our imaginations came back down to earth.

Whilst its neighbour Gatwick Airport is a place where visitors want to pass through as quickly as possible on their way to more exotic destinations, Gatwick Aviation Museum is a destination in
itself, somewhere to linger and learn. The impressive Shackleton has many fascinating stable-mates on display, and it was the task of museum manager, Ashley Colella, to show us around the rest of the exhibits.

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Ashley is the only paid member of staff at the museum, every other enthusiast working on site is a passionate volunteer who loves planes – their history, engineering, performance, and just their sheer beauty. I chatted to one young volunteer, Cameron, who helps out between his aerospace studies at Kingston University. His pleasure at being able to work alongside these icons of flight was evident, and it’s the sort of enthusiasm that would have delighted the museum’s founder, Peter Vallance. By collecting and preserving as many aircraft as he could Vallance aimed to encourage just this sort of passion in the next generation.

Peter Vallance started the museum in 1991 but died in 2013 having made arrangements for the museum to be run by a charitable trust. The very first plane that Peter collected was a Sea Hawk, which stood as Gate Guardian to the estate and is now the first aircraft that greets museum visitors on entry. Previously Peter’s aircraft were outside at the mercy of the elements and consequently, there is a massive on-going restoration/conservation programme. Manager Ashley’s favourite is a Buccaneer which he is looking forward to helping restore next year. Nicknamed The Flying Coke Bottle due to its shape, it is one of only 4 Buccaneers in museums worldwide, and is the only one to have an engine that still runs!

Other highlights on show are the Lightning (AKA ‘The Homesick Angel’ due to its ability to climb at tremendous speed), the Harrier Jump Jet, the Hunter T7, The Gloster Meteor (oldest plane on display and known as ‘The Meat Box’ due to its tendency to kill off its pilots!). The Sea Vixen, Sea Prince and the Venom. The bulk of the aircraft and artefacts were collected by Vallance and others are on loan. Many are currently out of sight and will go on show as the museum develops. This wonderful museum is a hidden gem, a must-see, and don’t worry – if you don’t think you’re very interested in planes – like me, you’ll discover that you are!

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The museum is open from Friday – Sunday (10.00am – 4.30pm)
Entry by donation – suggested £5 adult, £2.50 child
(Pre-arranged tours for groups/clubs/schools, etc. are free)

T: 01293 862417 Gatwick Aviation Museum, Lowfield Heath Road, Charlwood RH6 0BT
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By Sarah Ballingal

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