Museum Review: The Helicopter Museum

Having to close its doors due to COVID19 it was great to hear on the 21st March that following 105 days the government was lifting restrictions on museums and other public venues. This meant that on the 4th July the museum was able to reopen, with the author visiting the following week. It is fair to say that over the years Elphin Ap-Rees has accumulated the largest dedicated collection of helicopters and gyrocopters in the UK. From the Cranfield Vertigo Manpowered Helicopter right up to the huge Aérospatiale SA.321F Super Frelon. For a number of years the Helicopter Museum has struggled for space in an attempt to keep 100% of the preserved collection under cover, something which they achieve very well. This does in turn bring its challenges, no more so than when trying to take good photos. The new requirements for social distancing has enforced a one way system around the museum, which does have one significant advantage in that it’s a lot harder to miss anything now with a clearly marked route. The new rules have also meant a shift around of a few exhibits and a number of the gyrocopters, including the McCulloch Aircraft Corporation J-2, which have been hidden away behind other exhibits

From a photographic perspective the museum requires a wide angle lens in the 10-20mm range and lighting can be tricky, with some parts of the museum being brighter than others. For this reason we leave the hard work to the camera and set the camera to auto ISO. Tripods are not permitted within the museum, however we would not say they’re necessary to take decent photos. In fact, the museum is a perfect location for the Instagram generation producing content with a mobile phone with the ability to get up close with the static exhibits can give for some interesting images.

 

The museum is full of unique examples, including the largest preserved collections of Westland’s Whirlwind, Wessex, WG.30 and the mighty Lynx, of which the highlight must be G-LYNX, the world record breaking specially modified factory demonstrator which flew at 216.5 Knots over the Somerset levels on the evening of August 11th 1986. Another locally produced highlight must be the AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin, one of only three in museums. It’s hard to believe that the museum’s example, G-EHIL / ZH647 which was used by Westland as a commercial development airframe, has now been here for over 20 years. With the SWAP admin team having such a fondness for the EH101, with previous trips to Yeovilton and Portugal, it’s great to see one preserved locally.

Moving away from the preserved Westland helicopters, the museum has several noteworthy airframes from further afield including the Canadian Piasecki HUP-3 Retriever, which has recently gone through a restoration program. HUP-3’s were in service with the Royal Canadian Navy in the search and rescue and utility role. The Vietnam and Gulf War veteran Bell UH-1H Iroquois is very well presented, with the cabin of the helicopter being used as a display cabinet for some Vietnam and Gulf War memorabilia and artefacts.

We couldn’t talk about the Helicopter Museum without a mention of the vast Soviet era aircraft that form part of the collection. With no fewer than seven individual airframes on display, one airframe has even starred in the blockbuster movie Black Widow, part of the Marvel series of films. The helicopter in question, an ex-Polish Air Force Mil-8PS Hip, still wears the temporary paint scheme from the movie.

As well as the vast collection of helicopters from around the world, the museum also boasts two large helipads, each capable of accommodating multiple medium support helicopters. These helipads are extensively used by the UK armed forces with Chinooks and Pumas frequently using the site for training in a built-up confined environment. The museum has hosted operational visits of two NATO allies in recent years, that of the French l’Armée de l’air Fennec and the Dutch Navy NH-90. But it is not just military aircraft which use the helipad, it is widely used through the summer months by general aviation helicopter pilots flying in in the likes of Robinsons, Cabris and Enstroms. Under normal circumstances the summer would be busy with pleasure flights operated by local Bell 206 Jetranger operator Polo Aviation, however due to COVID19 flight restrictions this isn’t currently possible. One of our admin team flew on one of these and found it great to see Weston-super-Mare from the air.

A recent addition to the museum is the original World War Two Pilots Block and Control Tower of the former Weston airfield where you can “Learn about the fascinating history of aviation around Weston-super-Mare” and includes the fuselage of a Slingsby T.8 Tutor, representing the long association with the airfield and air cadet gliding. Outside the Pilots Block a Bristol Bloodhound missile and two Westland WG.30s can be found. Whilst the block was not open at the time of our visit the museum team have since made this area COVID safe and it has now reopened to the public.
In a small corner of the museum is the restoration hangar where over the years the museum’s volunteers have restored Westland WS.58 Wessex 60 Series 1 G-AVNE, Westland WS.58 Wessex HAS.3 XM328 and a Kamov KA-26 to name a few. Currently being restored is Sud-Ouest SO.1221S Djinn FR108, Westland WS.55 Whirlwind HCC.12 G-RWWW (which was XR486 with The Queen’s Flight) and Fairey Ultra-Light Helicopter G-AOUJ. As well as the restoration hangar, the museum has a reserve collection located in an outside area to the rear of the museum. Over the years the number of airframes has reduced, however two ex-Danish Air Force Sikorsky H-19B Chickasaws and three Saunders-Roe Skeeter AOP.12s are amongst a number of airframes still present. Tours of this collection are normally available twice a year and it is hoped that these will be available again in the future.

Now for the domestics; priced at £7.50 for adults (valid for a year for UK tax payers on completion of a gift aid form) compared to £18.00 at the Fleet Air Arm Museum and £17.00 at Aerospace Bristol (previously reviewed here), the Helicopter Museum is certainly affordable for both the hardcore aviation enthusiast and holiday maker alike. The onsite café offers a wide range of hot and cold food and drinks at very reasonable prices, and make sure to look at their wide range of cakes. With many places having hygiene concerns during the pandemic it was good to see the toilets open and exceptionally clean during our visit.

At a time where many public attractions are in desperate need of revenue following months of closure during lockdown, and are still very worried about implementing a COVID19 safe environment, The Helicopter Museum was seen leading the way as we understand it to be the first aviation museum in the UK to reopen, giving the aviation photographer and general public a sense of returning to normality.  Let’s hope the quick work by the museum staff and volunteers to make the museum ready to accept visitors again will help alleviate some of the pressure from being closed for so long. 

To conclude we would challenge anyone to show us such a diverse collection of rotary wing aircraft anywhere in Europe. This museum is well worth a visit. 

South West Aviation Photographers would like to thank all at The Helicopter Museum for making this article possible.

Report by Matt Sudol & Kev Slade