Museum Review: The Helicopter Museum

Having closed its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic on the 21st March 2020 it was great to hear that the government was lifting restrictions on museums and other public venues. This meant that on the 4th July, following 105 days without visitors or income,  the museum was able to reopen with the author visiting the following week. It’s 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 man-powered helicopter right up to the huge Aérospatiale SA.321F Super Frelon. For several years the Helicopter Museum has struggled for space to keep 100% of the preserved collection under cover, something which they achieve very well, however this does in turn bring its challenges, no more so than when trying to take good photos. The new requirements for social distancing have enforced a one-way system around the museum which has one significant advantage; 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, meaning a number of the gyrocopters, including the McCulloch Aircraft Corporation J-2, which have been hidden away behind other exhibits are now easier to see.

From a photographic perspective the museum requires a wide-angle lens in the 10-20mm range on a crop body. Lighting can be tricky, with some parts of the museum being brighter than others, so 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 wouldn’t 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 Wessex, WG-30 and the mighty Lynx, of which the highlight must be the world record breaking specially modified factory demonstrator G-LYNX 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 G-EHIL/ZH647, which arrived in November 1999 and is one of only three of the type in a museum. 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 programme. This particular HUP-3 was in service with the Royal Canadian Navy in the search and rescue and utility role. A Vietnam and Gulf War veteran Bell UH1-1 Iroquois is very well presented, with the cabin of the helicopter being used as a display cabinet for a number of Vietnam and Gulf War artefacts and memorabilia. We couldn’t talk about the Helicopter Museum without a mention of the Soviet era aircraft that form part of the collection, with no fewer than seven individual airframes on display. One has even starred in the blockbuster movie Black Widow, part of the Marvel series. The helicopter in question, former Polish Air Force Mil-8PS Hip 07 Red, 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 helipad has hosted operational visits of two NATO allies in recent years; that of a French Armée de l’Air Fennec and a Dutch Navy NH-90. But military aircraft are not the only ones to use the pad as throughout the summer months general aviation helicopter pilots fly 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 COVID-19 flight restrictions this is not currently possible.

A recent addition to the museum is the original World War Two pilot block and control tower of Weston airfield where you can learn the fascinating history of aviation around Weston-Super-Mare. It also includes the fuselage of a Slingsby T.8 Tutor, representing the airfield’s long association with Air Cadet gliding. Outside the pilot block are a Bristol Bloodhound missile and two Westland WG-30s. Whilst the block was not open at the time of our visit, seven days later the museum team had made this area COVID safe and reopened it 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 Kamov KA-26 Hoodlum DDR-SPY to name just a few. Currently being restored is Sud-Ouest SO.1221S Djinn FR108, Westland WS.55 Whirlwind HCC.12 G-RWWW/XR486 and Fairey Ultra-Light Helicopter G-AOUJ. As well as the restoration hangar, the museum has a reserve and stored collection located outside to the rear of the museum, although 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 several airframes still present. Tours of this collection are normally available twice a year and it is hoped that these will return in the future.

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

At a time when many public attractions are in desperate need of revenue following months of closure, and are still very worried about implementing a COVID-19 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 aircraft anywhere in Europe or the world. It’s well worth a visit!

G-BXZNAdvanced Technologies CH1 ATIOn Display
G-TIGEAerospatiale AS332L Super PumaOn Display
F-BTRPAerospatiale SA.321F Super FrelonOn Display
F-WQAPAerospatiale SA.365N Dauphin IIOn Display
A41Aerospatiale SE.3130 Alouette IIOn Display
MM81205Agusta A.109A Mk.IIOn Display
MM80927Agusta-Bell 206C-1 JetRanger IIIOn Display
G-BVWLAir & Space 18A GyroplaneOn Display
G-ACWMAvro Cierva C.30AOn Display
G-BWCWBarnett Rotorcraft J4BOn Display
G-AZYBBell 47H-1On Display
66-16579Bell UH-1H IroquoisOn Display
BAPC.212Bensen B-6 GyrocopterOn Display
BAPC.289Bensen B-8M Gyro BoatOn Display
BAPC.264Bensen B-8M GyrocopterOn Display
G-BIGPBensen B-8M GyrocopterOn Display
81+00Bolkow 105MOn Display
D-HMQVBolkow Bo-102On Display
G-ATFGBrantly B2On Display
G-OAPRBrantly B2BOn Display
XL829Bristol 171 Sycamore HR.14On Display
G-ALSXBristol 171 Sycamore Mk.3On Display
G-BRMBBristol 192 Belvedere HC.1On Display
XG462Bristol 192 Belvedere HC.1On Display
G-BAPSCampbell Cougar GyroplaneOn Display
G-AXRACampbell Cricket AutogyroOn Display
G-BYMPCampbell Cricket Mk.1 AutogyroOn Display
G-ARVNCierva CR.LTH-1 Grasshopper 1Stored
G-AWRPCierva CR.LTH-1 Grasshopper 3On Display
G-AXFMCierva CR.LTH-1 Grasshopper 3Stored
G-AZAUCierva CR.LTH-1 Grasshopper 3Stored
BAPC.213Cranfield Vertigo Man Powered HelicopterOn Display
F-WGTZDragonfly DF1On Display
G-EHILEH Industries EH101On Display
XE521Fairey RotodyneOn Display
G-AOUJFairey Ultra-Light HelicopterOn Display
BAPC.10Hafner R.II RevoplaneOn Display
G-ASTPHiller UH-12C RavenOn Display
67-16506Hughes OH-6A CayuseOn Display
BAPC.339Husband Modac 500 Hornet GyroplaneOn Display
D-HOAYKamov KA-26On Display
G-HEKYMcCulloch Aircraft Corp J-2On Display
SP-SAYMil Mi-2On Display
9147Mil Mi-4On Display
618Mil Mi-8POn Display
96+26Mil Mi-24DOn Display
BAPC.60Murray M.1 Homebuilt HelicopterOn Display
N6699DPiasecki HUP-3 RetrieverOn Display
7PZL-Swidnik SM-1/300On Display
5PZL-Swidnik SM-2On Display
G-OTEDRobinson R22 HPOn Display
XP165Saunders-Roe P.531 Scout AH.1On Display
XL736Saunders-Roe Skeeter AOP.12Stored
XL811Saunders-Roe Skeeter AOP.12On Display
XM557Saunders-Roe Skeeter AOP.12Stored
XN345Saunders-Roe Skeeter AOP.12Stored
S-881Sikorsky H-19B ChickasawStored
S-887Sikorsky H-19B ChickasawStored
FR108Sud-Ouest SO.1221S DjinnOn Display
G-AVKEThruxton Gadfly HDW-1 GyroplaneStored
FR41Vertol CH-21C ShawneeStored
BAPC.128Watkinson CG.4 GyroplaneOn Display
G-BGHFWestland 30-100On Display
G-BKGDWestland 30-100On Display
N5840TWestland 30-100On Display
G-ELECWestland 30-200On Display
G-HAULWestland 30-300On Display
ZE477Westland Lynx 3On Display
XX910Westland Lynx HAS.2On Display
XP886Westland Scout AH.1Stored
ZB686Westland WA.341 Gazelle AH.1On Display
XT443Westland Wasp HAS.1On Display
BAPC.446Westland WG-25/WR-06 WispOn Display
BAPC.445Westland WG-25/WR-07 WideyeOn Display
BAPC.451Westland WG-25 SharpeyeOn Display
BAPC.153Westland WG-33 (Full Scale Model)On Display
XW839Westland WG.13 LynxOn Display
G-LYNXWestland WG.13 Lynx 800On Display
G-BRMAWestland WS.51 Dragonfly HR.5On Display
5N-ABWWestland WS.51 Widgeon Mk.2On Display
VR-BEUWestland WS.55 WhirlwindStored
XG596Westland WS.55 Whirlwind HAR.7Stored
XK940Westland WS.55 Whirlwind HAR.7On Display
XD163Westland WS.55 Whirlwind HAR.10On Display
XP404Westland WS.55 Whirlwind HAR.10Stored
G-RWWWWestland WS.55 Whirlwind HCC.12On Display
G-ANFHWestland WS.55 Whirlwind Srs.1Stored
G-ANJVWestland WS.55 Whirlwind Srs.3Stored
G-AODAWestland WS.55 Whirlwind Srs.3On Display
G-ATBZWestland WS.58 Wessex 60 Series 1Stored
G-AVNEWestland WS.58 Wessex 60 Series 1On Display
XM330Westland WS.58 Wessex HAS.1On Display
XS149Westland WS.58 Wessex HAS.1Stored
XM328Westland WS.58 Wessex HAS.3On Display
XR526Westland WS.58 Wessex HC.2Stored
XV733Westland WS.58 Wessex HCC.4On Display
XS486Westland WS.58 Wessex HU.5Stored
XT472Westland WS.58 Wessex HU.5Stored
XT190Westland-Bell WB.47G-3 Sioux AH.1On Display
G-WBATWombat GyrocopterOn Display

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

Report by Matt Sudol and Kev Slade

© South West Aviation Photographers 2020