‘The Birthplace of the Wooden Wonder’- The de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre, London Colney, Hertfordshire
Aircraft are one of those technological creations that can stir strong emotions and reactions in people. Indeed the history of the aircraft industry simultaneously evokes a strange sense of nostalgia, heroism and glamour often shrouded in its own myths and legends as well as perpetuating them. No doubt that children’s magazines such as Modern Wonder, Eagle and Look and Learn with their intricate cross-section diagrams and action laden shots of aircraft and rockets did much to capture the imagination, particularly of boys, from an early age. In fact, the subject of the aircraft industry continues to spawn a whole host of documentaries and literature with titles such as Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World (2011) devoted to celebrating and preserving the memory of Britain’s glory days in the aircraft business with its host of fearless and glittering test pilots to match.
Behind some of the aircraft and the companies that produced them were men from typically privileged backgrounds such as Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, who used his name for the aircraft company he established in 1920 at Stag Lane, Edgware, and which later moved to Hatfield in Hertfordshire. Geoffrey de Havilland began his training at the Crystal Palace Engineering School followed by appointments designing and testing aircraft at the then Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough as well as heading design work for the Aircraft Manufacturing Company Ltd. (Airco) formed by George Holt Thomas. He later recalled his motivations as an aircraft designer in his memoirs, Sky Fever: ‘When I started on my first aeroplane the desire to do everything was almost fanatical and I felt almost a fierce resentment against outside help…I do know that the design and production of good aeroplanes has always been to me infinitely more important and rewarding than just making money’. The museum itself is located next to Salisbury Hall, a rather quaint looking country house where various personnel from the design, aerodynamics and stress departments worked on the wooden warplane, the Mosquito, otherwise affectionately known as the ‘Wooden Wonder’. Additionally, Sailsbury Hall had another role to play- it was also once the location for the De Havilland Aeronautical Technical School, the training centre for the company’s engineering and trade apprentices.
In contrast to the rather serious tones conveyed about the practice of making aircraft by Geoffrey de Havilland, the back pages of the company magazine, the De Havilland Gazette, often took to lampooning the designs and names of many of its aircraft through cartoons and jokes. One such joke revealed all the names for the business jet the DH 125 which had been turned down including Deadbeat, Dither and Delinquent. We can be rest assured that this was a Company that could ‘manufacture’ a certain degree of humour as well as aircraft and aero-engines! Visitors can also be sure to view the majority of de Havilland’s most prominent aircraft which are spread across the site. A smaller hanger is solely dedicated to displaying pre-war aircraft whilst the larger hanger houses aircraft ranging from the Mosquito to the post-war jet fighter, the Vampire, often noted by its pilots for resembling an ‘aerial kiddy car’. A further two buildings contain various de Havilland aero-engines, (a subsidiary company was established in 1944 to produce aero-engines based at Stag Lane), alongside an exhibition dedicated to detailing the history of the de Havilland Company.
Most interestingly, the fuselage of one of the early versions of the first commercial passenger jet airliner, the Comet, is also on display which became infamous during its service due to a series of high profile crashes as a result of metal fatigue caused by the shape of its cabin windows. Furthermore, visitors can climb into the cockpit of a simulator from a later adaption of the Comet replete with memorabilia from former airline operator British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C.). The Comet perhaps epitomized the ‘jet-age’ with its sleek and glistening metal exterior whilst it was also regarded as a prestigious hallmark of British aircraft design. The aviation weekly, Flight, even amusingly recorded: ‘the Comet has caused the American housewife to choose English China; her husband bought a Jaguar automobile, and her son asked Santa Claus for a Raleigh bike for Christmas’.
Aircraft museums certainly raise interesting questions about how aeronautics is presented to the public especially when they form one of the most archetypal museums. Like many small scale aircraft museums, it serves a mostly didactic purpose aimed at enthusiasts as well as carrying out restoration projects on aircraft. In comparison, the presentation of aircraft in national museums such as the Science Museum have long taken into consideration the need to keep a balance between providing a historical narrative about aviation and the scientific principles behind flight. It has also made sure to interweave these aspects with the aircraft and aero-engines on display. Often missing from aircraft museums, however, are aspects which deal with the design and production processes of aircraft and the amount of people this typically involved, particularly when De Havilland also extended its manufacturing operations to Canada and Australia.
The de Havilland Company started to come to an end as it merged with the Hawker Siddeley Group (1959) whilst its engine division went to Bristol Siddeley (1961) as a result of rationalization measures taking place within the aircraft industry. Nevertheless, the de Havilland name continues to live on around the world and it has certainly left its mark in areas such as Hatfield. Many of the road names as well as a hotel are named after de Havilland and its aircraft whilst the University of Hertfordshire also has a campus named after the Company. The de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre is just one of many aeronautical museums where you feel as if you have somehow embarked on a weird and wonderful journey to witness the continued homage to Britain’s aircraft industry and its many creations first-hand.
‘Comets- and Transatlantic Psychology’, Flight, February 1954, p. 176
‘De Havilland Signature Page’, [Cartoon], De Havilland Gazette, No. 123, June 1961, p.120
Braun, Hans-Joachim. The Science Museum’s Aeronautics Gallery Redisplayed, Technology and Culture 36(3) (1995): 625-629. For a comparison with the Science Museum’s Aeronautics Gallery.
de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre website: http://www.dehavillandmuseum.co.uk/index.html [Accessed 28 May 2013]. Provides more information about the museum and the aircraft on display.
de Havilland, Geoffrey, Sky Fever. (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1979)
Edgerton, David, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation. (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991). For an overview of the organization of the aircraft industry during the war and post-war periods.
Hamilton-Paterson, James. Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft ruled the World, (London: Faber and Faber, 2011)
Sharp, Cecil Martin. DH: A History of de Havilland. (Airlife, 1982). On the history of the de Havilland Company and its aircraft.
Address: De Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre, Salisbury Hall, London Colney, Hertfordshire, AL2 1BU
Location: The museum is located next to Salisbury Hall at Junction 22, M25.
Website (includes opening hours): http://www.dehavillandmuseum.co.uk/