Southampton Hall of Aviation

Albert Road South, Southampton, Hampshire SO1 1FR
Tel: 023 8063 5830

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The fact that Southampton has an aviation museum at all is largely due to the Cadets of 424 Air Training Corps who set up the R.J. Mitchell Memorial Museum in the 1970's. Southampton Council approved the use of a redundant hall in the town, the ATC cadets supplied the workforce, and with the main attractions the S6A Seaplane and Mk24 Spitfire the Museum - opened in 1976 - operated successfully for eight years. Indeed, so successful was the venture that a purpose built building was erected in the present location of Albert Road South and the museum took on a larger role - to tell the story of the history of aviation in the Solent area. At this time the Science Museum had purchased the Short Sandringham Flying Boat "Beachcomber" and it was decided that Southampton was the only logical place to display it. The new museum - with Beachcomber at the heart of the display - opened it's door to the public on 26th May 1984. The following twenty or so years have seen many of the original exhibitions decrease in size in order to house new exhibits, but even then there is not enough room to house everything!

R.J. Mitchell

26 aircraft companies - from Supermarine, British Aerospace, A.V Roe and Westlands - have been active in the Solent area since the dawn of aviation, and their story is told in the range of storyboards which cover the walls. All of the aircraft on display reflect the wide-ranging nature of aviation in the region with perhaps the most famous example being the Spitfire, designed by Supermarine and which first flew locally at Eastleigh Aerodrome in 1936. The museum has it's own Spitfire (a Mark F.24), a plastic replica of the prototpye K5054, mounted on the wall and painted in the original colour scheme, and a wooden full size replica of the same aircraft which - in a clever spirit of enterprise - the museum hires out to anyone wanting to have a Spitfire in the background to impress at corporate events!

The roots of the original R.J. Mitchell Memorial Museum are evident in the Hall of Aviation with the Spitfire F.24 taking pride of place in the centre of the main display area and the S.6A is just behind. This S.6A, by the way, was built for the Schneider Trophy Contest in 1929 and was disqualified when the pilot - Flying Officer RLR Atcherley - turned inside one of the marker pylons. It did, however, set a world air speed record of 332mph. Near to these exhibits, a statue of R.J. Mitchell has pride of place.

Beachcomber's cockpit

To the left of these exhibits - and effectively dividing the museum into two halls, is the Short Sandringham 4 "Beachcomber". This aircraft was originally built as a Sunderland III in 1943 and converted to a Sandringham in 1947. She was based for many years in New Zealand and in 1974 was sold to Captain Charles Blair of Antilles Air Boats. Blair was the husband of Hollywood Actress Maureen O'Hara, and both logged many hours in this aircraft - with Maureen O'Hara having an extra seat built on the flight deck for her. It is more than apt that this aircraft is displayed here, for Southampton was the only port in the UK from which Flying Boats operated. "Beachcomber is very much the pride of the museum's collection and - like all of the aircraft on display here - has been immaculately restored both inside and out. It is possible to gain access to the passenger area, galley and cockpit - well worth doing if you have the time!

Move to the left hand side of Beachcomber and you will see that the Museum is now on two levels. The ground floor is dominated by jets, with the de Havilland company well represented by the Vampire and Sea Vixen. There is also a Folland Gnat and the sole surviving example of a Saunders-Roe SR.A/1. This, the first of three prototypes, was built in 1947 to satisfy an Air Ministry requirement for a high performance single seat twin engine jet flying boat. Tests were carried out on the Solent with the aircraft achieving a maximum speed of 516 mph. Accidents involving the first two protoypes probably influenced the dampning of Air Ministry enthusiasm, and the project was cancelled.

Upstairs the emphasis changes to World War One with two replica aircraft - the Avro 504J and Wight Quadraplane. Not a great deal is known about the Quadraplane, except that three examples of the type were built by J. Samual Wright and Company on the Isle of Wight in 1916 for evaluation by the Royal Navy - the first two crashed and the third survived until 1918. This replica was built by the Wessex Aviation Society.

Also on this level is an example of a Mignet HM.14 Flying Flea (I don't know of a local connection for this though...), SUMPAC, built in 1960 at Southampton University and the first British Man Powered Aircraft, and the Airwave Hang Glider, whose presence represents a thriving industry in the area. Local company Saunders-Roe is once again represented by the Skeeter, and de Havilland (who had a factory in Christchurch in Hampshire) by the Tiger Moth and cockpit section of a Chipmunk T.10, which is awaiting restoration. A large area of this floor is reserved for an exhibition about 424 Air Training Corps, without whom the museum would not exist and whose efforts have restored much of the museum's collection to such high standards.

Although the Southampton Hall of Aviation is small by the standards of Duxford or Hendon, it has a great deal of aircraft well worth seeing - some unique - and the displays and information panels as well as a small but impressive engine collection (unfortunately they were redoing the exhibition when I was there so there was not much to see) will keep an aviation enthusiast happy for hours. Allow plenty of time for your visit! A mention must be made of the friendly and enthusuastic volunteer staff who were only too happy to answer questions. An entrance fee is charged - the museum's website (see above) carries full details of these and opening times

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