Hardware of the heavens

Laurence Alster

Laurence Alster finds there is much to learn at the Air Museum in Duxford, including some cold truths and some historical surprises

For sheer dramatic effect, few others beat your first sight of the interior of the American Air Museum at Duxford in Cambridgeshire. Emerging from a tunnel entrance into the new, purpose-built exhibition hall, only a low wall stops visitors from bumping into the nose cone of a now inactive, 160-foot long Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber.

Once a part of the attack force at the Anderson air base on the Pacific Ocean island of Guam, the B-52 flew more than 200 missions against the enemy in the Vietnam War. With its five-storey high tail fin and 165-foot wing span, it dominates a space filled with military aircraft, support vehicles, engines and information points.

A raised walkway gives a sweeping first view of the entire hall, while a glass wall opposite provides not only welcome natural light from the adjacent airfield but also a sense of almost limitless space. At floor level, there are no restrictions on walking under or around exhibits - mind the propellers! - and some are set alongside special platforms so that visitors may peer inside. Suspended from the ceiling are eight more machines of various vintages, while all about are film screens, television monitors and often superb displays. It all makes for first-class visitor convenience.

And the aircraft are magnificent. Chosen to represent four major theatres of war - the Second World War in Europe and the Pacific, the Cold War and the Gulf War - the machines evoke feelings of mingled excitement and aversion. Smaller planes like the Second World War Grumman Avenger (as flown by former United States president George Bush, as the colours indicate) and the replica P-51 Mustang have a vague air of romantic individualism about them, but the big killing machines of the era - the B-17G Flying Fortress, for example, or the B-29A Superfortress - are manifestly designed more for dropping bombs on people than for close-quarter aerial duelling.

These and the other machines make the museum a hardware heaven. Yet non-technical types are not expected just to gawp (or yawn) at the gear. More than in most other museums, the designers are at pains to point out the political and tactical significance of each major exhibit.

So, in the Cold War section a U2 reconnaissance plane evokes memories of 1960, when U2 pilot Gary Francis Powers plunged towards Russian soil after being hit by a Soviet missile similar to the one here placed almost directly beneath the U2. The resulting row between the US and the Soviet Union led to the cancellation of a summit conference scheduled later that year. That didn't stop the U2 from being deployed with rather more success two years on, when high-altitude photographs taken over Cuba showed Russian missiles on the island. The result was the Cuban Missile Crisis, a stand-off between the two Superpowers that brought the world to the brink of atomic war. Throughout the confrontation, 70 B-52 bombers were airborne at all times, each awaiting the order to unleash nuclear Armageddon. You read this, look at the B-52, and shudder.

Lucky for us, then, that Cold War leaders from Churchill to Stalin to Reagan and Gorbachev felt content to fire off insults rather than missiles, an extended spat nicely illustrated by a video essay on Cold War rhetoric. Caught up in any of several proxy wars around the globe, millions of others suffered from far more than mere hot air.

Another video clip shows a small Vietnamese girl running naked along a road, her flesh bubbling from napalm attack. The sequence endows a nearby Phantom II fighter, a plane regularly used to drop such bombs, with an extra level of consequence.

The Gulf War section is equally absorbing. Prominent among the exhibits are the lethal Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, a Cruise missile and launcher, and a section from the mercifully aborted Iraqi "Supergun", a 500-foot long tube with immense destructive potential. Most commentators agree that the British designer, Dr Gerald Bull, met his end in 1990 at the hands of Israeli Secret Service agents, never ones to hang about in the interests of national security. Not that the caption says so; political discretion perhaps dictated otherwise.

A like consideration arguably determined the stress laid by the Gulf War visual presentation on the efforts of all the coalition members, however minor. Genuine egalitarianism, or a partial payback to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for financial support for the museum project? Students might think about it. They mind think harder about the press briefings given by the US military - part of a fascinating series of video clips of war news from around the world - that highlighted the "surgical" precision of laser-guided weapons. Subsequent reports suggest that these weapons were far less precise than professed at the time Disinformation, or just an honest mistake?

Many such questions are inspired by an exhibition that, apart from some near-inaudible video commentaries, is in most other respects superb. History teachers especially will find the American Air Museum an inspiring venue. Which is not to ignore the learning opportunities offered by the rest of a site that is made up of five more immense hangers, each filled with exciting exhibits, plus a land warfare hall and a Battle of Britain operations room.

Get there early; there is much to see, and far more to learn.

The American Air Museum in Britain, Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield, Cambridgeshire CB2 4QR. Tel: 01223 835000. Fax: 01223 837267. Open daily. Pre-booked school party rate Pounds 2; one teacher free with every 10 students

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Laurence Alster

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