The best laid planes

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Anne Cowan flies back in time with pupils on a visit to an historic airfield which is now an aircraft museum

East Fortune Airfield is a stirring place, evocative of dashing young pilots and "We'll Meet Again". The first airship to cross the Atlantic left from the East Lothian airfield in 1919 to fly to Long Island, New York (with its 30-man crew, it also made the return flight). While the atmosphere is redolent of Pathe newsreels and black and white films, the Museum of Flight is the real thing.

"The entire site is a scheduled ancient monument," says Adam Love-Rodgers, the museum's learning and programmes officer. "You can no more change any of the buildings here than you can knock down (nearby) Tantallon Castle."

Today, Mairi Blackie, Frank Gould and Eileen Brolls have brought classes 4a and 4b from Duddingston Primary School, Edinburgh. The theme is "building aeroplanes". The group heads for Building 17, the Nissen hut, which is now the Learning Centre. The children can leave their coats and bags in the cloakroom.

In the activity classroom, 4a starts on the practical work, making and testing paper planes. Meanwhile, 4b proceeds to Hangar 2. There are four hangars and the 21-acre site is dotted with underground shelters and those wartime huts which were known as temporary buildings. The runway, once part of RAF East Fortune, is still used for microlights and light aircraft.

Audrey Jones of National Museums of Scotland takes 4b on a guided tour in Hangar 2. There are names to conjure with - Armstrong-Siddley and De Havilland. It is exciting to be so close to the aircraft.

We stop at a biplane, the 1932 Dragon. What are the wings made of? Yes, wood and fabric. Guess the advantages. That's right, it's light, but what about disadvantages? Someone thinks that a bird could fly through it. "A woodpecker might peck a hole in it," suggests another.

We move on to discover that the 1960 Cheetah X has a plastic nose cone with a radar and radio inside. The children are fascinated and keen to tell of their own holiday flights. To round off this materials and structures tour, they draw designs for a flying machine inspired by what they have seen.

The morning and afternoon sessions take 75 minutes each. There is plenty of grassy space for picnicking and playing. The Museum of Flight offers three programmes for primary children. Building Aeroplanes may sound less nostalgic than the Second World War Draft Day and less glamorous than Concorde-Supersonic Streamlining, but the children love it. They look, listen, draw and make paper planes.

Lunchtimes are staggered. The two classes change over and it is 4b's turn to work in Hut 17. Adam Love-Rodgers describes the shapes and forces involved in flight. There is a chance to handle bits of planes, such as a light fuel pipe and a weighty nitrogen cylinder. Origami is absorbing. Each child makes a paper dart and a version of the more complicated Nakamura lock paper aeroplane.

Then they set off to test whose plane will fly farthest from a gallery in Hangar 1. It's a great setting with camouflaged planes below us and a bright yellow one suspended above. Oh look, there's an ejector seat!

As an extra, the classes take time at the end to see Concorde. It is a huge thrill. This star exhibit has a hangar and exhibition to itself. The children can walk under the plane, enjoy the exhibition, fun activities and 12-minute film.

lSchool visits to the site are free. Courses cost pound;1 per pupil. All visitors to the museum can see Concorde and the exhibition. There's limited access to the interior of Concorde for schools, from 10-11am some days.

Booking is essential

On the map

Museum of Flight

East Fortune Airfield

East Lothian

EH39 5LF

Tel: 01620 880308

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