Victoria Neumark discovers London's RAF Museum is more than a collection of old planes, offering lessons from physics to social history
Whee!" A small boy flies his model aeroplane inside the Royal Airforce Musuem at Hendon. He is one of more than 200 satisfied customers at Steve Midson's "Mid-air" workshops run by the museum on school holidays.
In the huge exhibition halls, once home to aviation pioneer Claude Grahame-White's 1910 flying school, the museum's latest exhibition, Higher, Further, Faster, traces how resourceful engineers and pilots broke speed, altitude and distance barriers time and again in the two decades between the wars.
Although parts of Grahame-White's aerodrome have long been built over, something of the grandeur of those pre-War notions of flight being at the frontier of human endeavour lingers around the gleaming machines.
The new exhibition focuses on the Schneider Trophy, an annual contest at the end of the 1920s which awarded prizes for the fastest flight. The final flight, in 1931, was won by Britain, breaking the 400mph speed barrier.
The only surviving member of that RAF team, Stan Hall, now aged 92, said they suddenly realised they were putting Britain on the map. "We had never seen anything like it before, watching aircraft evolve from being simply land planes on floats to specialist, one-off, high-speed machines, the fastest objects on earth."
That sense of wonder and patriotism infuses not only the display but the whole museum, evoking an era when half a million people would watch a record-beating plane take off; when the daring adventures of pilots were fed quickly back to the drawing boards of those developing the design of aircraft; when a 24-hour journey was likely to see ice forming inside the cockpits.
The RAF Museum, largely funded by the Ministry of Defence, attracts many visitors from the forces and those who lived thorough the wars. They want to see the wonderfully ingenious machines, like the Southampton wooden-hulled flying boat rescued from its existence as a houseboat in Suffolk, the prototypical Spitfire fighter and the menacing Lancaster bomber.
For forces visitors, the collections of medals and explanations of engines are meat and drink. But there is much for others too. The summer flight activities week, which features RAF recruiting displays, model aircraft flying and making, and flight-related computer games, is especially well attended.
The museum is not restricted to aeroplanes. There is an awesome collection of war art and photographs. For less sensitive souls, a flight simulator runs different programmes throughout the year. You can accompany Raymond Briggs's Snowman floating through the air, or fly a Tornado fighter. At Pounds 1. 50 a go, this is understandably popular.
For those interested in social history, the Battle of Britain display, with talking heads, bomb sites, bomb shelter, searchlights and command posts, is a vivid mixture of realia and reconstruction, even if its analysis of Hitler's rise to power is simplistic. For those who are drawn to the technology of aviation, interactive displays help to explain basic principles.
You can walk through a Sunderland flying boat and see how cramped and terrifying it must have been to fly in combat. The Sunderland, which was used against submarines, came to be known as the flying porcupine by the end of the war because it boasted so many guns.
School visits are encouraged by the museum, which has special pricing for large groups. These must, for security reasons, be booked in advance, and are particularly popular with key stage 2 pupils, but can be tailored to all ages from nursery children to A-level physics students.
Tony Pope, the education officer, whose background is in science and primary teaching, welcomes any educational enquiry, though social history and basic principles of flight are the most commonly requested topics.
Visits, which can take up to four hours, usually begin with an introductory talk and workshop, possibly looking at evacuation or Bomber Command, and draw on oral history resources as well as the exhibits. A mock-up of the Spitfire is used to illustrate flight principles. These are further demonstrated through paper-plane making and a series of prepared experiments, which illustrate such basics as the Vanouli effect (differing air pressure makes air move faster on one side of a moving wing, forcing the plane into the air). Visitors are guided through the galleries with trails and worksheets. Lunch can be eaten in a mock bomb shelter.
As a day out, the museum is an absolute winner. The combination of huge machines ranging from the fragile, boxy frames of the earliest flyers to the sleek outline of the most modern RAF Harrier jump-jet which flew missions in the Gulf War is compelling.
There is also the enduring romance associated with those whose mission was to go higher, further, faster and the extraordinary progress made in refining engine design for maximum performance. Inspecting these sophisticated machines close up, is to see the care and attention that was lavished on the most minute details: a care which children learning to bend the wings and flying surfaces of their gliders quickly pick up. "Whee! It looped the loop twice that time!" Royal Aircraft Museum, Hendon, London NW9 5LL. Tel: 0181 205 2266. Open10am-6pm daily. Entry prices from Pounds 2.85 to Pounds 5.70