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Reach for the sky

Children can investigate the miracle of flight and make a balloon that might hit the roof at the RAF Museum in north London. Chris Fautley reports.

You can see some impressive flying machines at the RAF Museum in Hendon, north London, but if you want to make your own, all you need is four neatly folded sheets of tissue paper, four paper clips and a pot of glue.

The flying machine in question is a balloon, and a party from the reception classes at Coteford Infant School in Pinner looks on in the cavernous hangar as Chris Hogg, the museum's head of education, shows the children how it's done. He launches straight into a demonstration by taking what appears to be a large cumbersome pink and yellow bag made of plastic (similar to the material from which supermarket bags are made), and holds its flaccid form over a hot-air fan.

Gradually, the formless plastic takes shape. The cumbrousness metamorphoses into the shape of a bishop's mitre; the flaccidity is substituted by a burgeoning tautness until, finally, the balloon is some six-feet tall.

Little hands are placed over ears, anticipating a large bang which never comes.

Slowly, carefully, Chris releases his grip and, as 54 necks crane upwards, the balloon floats elegantly towards the rafters. There it hovers, before silently descending towards the young audience and a sea of outstretched hands.

Chris then produces a smaller balloon - about one third the size of its cousin. Made of blue and yellow tissue paper, it is the type of balloon the pupils will be making.

He explains that a flight halfway up to the rafters is good; three-quarters, excellent, and "If it hits the roof, it's a miracle!" But on this occasion "good" is the best he can manage.

Carefully laid out on each table is a balloon-making kit. Chris demonstrates how to glue the sheets of tissue together before the work begins in earnest. Chris, his colleagues, teachers and school helpers lend a hand, and any prospective visitors should bring plenty of helping hands for this workshop, not least because you need long arms to check inside the balloon for holes.

Within 20 minutes the balloons are finished. A paper clip is added to each corner of the base to stop the balloon toppling over and the hot air spilling out. On the return to the hangar, Chris flies each of the balloons before their goggle-eyed makers. A countdown accompanies the last one, before it slowly soars to the rafters: a "miracle".

The 15 aspiring balloonists then swap places with a group who have been exploring the museum. Amid all the excitement, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that there is still an entire museum to explore.

Whoever would have thought that a balloon made of tissue paper could almost (but not quite) upstage a Wellington bomber? Add to that a Phantom, a Spitfire, a Lancaster and some helicopters - and still you have barely scratched the surface.

But be warned: if you venture into the aeronauts interactive gallery, you may not get to see any other exhibits. Here, more than 40 absorbing gadgets, games and demonstrations are waiting to be tried.

If you want to know how an aeroplane takes off, how fibre-optic cables work, why jets fly better where the air is thinner, and how altimeters function - or to sit in a cockpit and try the controls, or even try your hand at hang gliding -then this is the place where knowledge and understanding will soar - up, up and away

* Admission to the museum is free, but school parties must book in advance.

Balloon-making workshops pound;1 per child (maximum 15 children per session)

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