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Spreading their wings

Aspiring engineers prepare for career take-off during an Engineering Challenge day at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset. Sarah Scally watches them in action

As the 18 students from Yeovil College arrive for their Engineering Challenge day, I can't help marvelling at the location. The Fleet Air Arm Museum stands alongside the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton, where you can hear helicopters taking off and landing and see military personnel wandering around. It may surprise many people to know that the Royal Navy always has been one of the world's largest and most technically advanced air forces: the museum houses the largest collection of naval aircraft in Europe - including 14 historic aircraft that cannot be seen anywhere else.

We are given a short briefing before exploring the museum, guided by Tony English, one of the volunteers who takes visitors round. Eighty Year 12 students have come from across Dorset and Somerset to take part in the challenge, run in conjunction with the Royal Navy, Durham University's Input project and AIM Higher, an initiative from the DfES to help students make career decisions.

The students have one day to build a stabilised platform for an aircraft carrier, a model plane and a launching mechanism to fire the plane off the back of the platform. The day has been designed to bring together students interested in science and engineering, and is just one of the educational days run by the museum throughout the year.

After the initial briefing, the students set off in smaller groups to explore the museum. It is divided into zones including the First and Second World Wars, Korea, the Cold War, and more recent conflicts such as the Falklands War. As part of the tour you can go in a Wessex helicopter for a short simulated flight, exiting onto a replica deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.

Enormous projection screens at both ends of a large hangar put you at the heart of the action as powerful jet fighters land and take off. The runway lights up under your feet and, with the realistic noises, makes you feel you are on board.

In the Experience Chamber you stand looking at a huge screen, feeling as if you are looking down at the carrier. You can watch as planes land and take off and experience the thrill of an emergency rescue when one plane breaks free from its securing chains and falls into the sea.

Walking past a Sea Vixen plane, Tony explains that, as an apprentice, he had been involved in its design. He is a mine of information, which he readily shares if anyone quizzes him further. In the main hall the impressive number of exhibits includes Concorde 002, which you can board.

Tony says that one of his favourite visits is when primary children come to the museum to learn about the Second World War, as part of their studies of Britain since the 1930s: "The children dress up as evacuees and spend time in the morning making gas-mask boxes, which they have to wear for the rest of the day to get a feel for what it was like during the war. We explain about rationing and how we had to have coupons for everything; quite often the children don't believe us."

Teaching is designed to be hands-on and evidence-based. As Julia Hodson, the museum's head of visitor services and learning, explains: "Learning is a core function of the Fleet Air Arm Museum. We offer programmes for schools and colleges that meet the needs and expectations of all learners.

The museum's education department has a proven track record for excellence in delivering science, technology and history programmes, and we welcome the opportunity to provide new and innovative programmes in response to requests from visiting groups."

* Pre-booking is essential: pound;4.25 each pupil, 1 teacher free per 10 pupils

On the map

Fleet Air Arm Museum RNAS Yeovilton, Near Ilchester, Somerset BA22 8HT Tel: 01935 842620 Email:

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