Sywell Aviation Museum Re-opens for its 22nd Season

P-51D Mustang "Tall in the Saddle" at the 2023 grand opening event for the Sywell Aviation Museum. (image via Sywell Aviation Museum)


by Charlotte Bailey

The UK-based Sywell Aviation Museum celebrated the ‘grand opening’ of their 22nd season on April 8th, 2023; turnout that, in the words of Treasurer Keith Breadmore, “far exceeded last year!” 

Located on the grounds of Sywell Aerodrome in Northamptonshire, a collection of five Nissen huts – three of them once belonging to the US Army Air Forces during WWII – host an important collection of local, aviation-related history. With exhibits spanning several areas (including the Home Front, the RAF, the Cold War and the American Hall), the volunteer-run organization hopes that their collection of personal and aeronautical artifacts will “help transport you back in time to reveal long-lost stories.” 

Eyes up! A model Hawker Typhoon keeping a watchful eye over the Home Front exhibit. (photo by Charlotte Bailey)

In 1938, when German spy Gosta Caroli parachuted in to land at nearby Denton, he was knocked unconscious by his own radio before being handed over to local police. (photo by Charlotte Bailey)

Sywell itself has a fascinating history, dating back to 1927, when it opened as the home for the Northamptonshire Aero Club. During WWII, as RAF Sywell, the airfield initially served as a training station, but later became a major maintenance base for repairing Vickers Wellington bombers. Furthermore, roughly a hundred, Bristol Hercules-powered Avro Lancaster B.II bombers were constructed on site as well. Presently, Sywell is also the home of Richard Grace’s aircraft restoration workshop, Air Leasing, which has refurbished a number of significant, vintage military aircraft, as we reported HERE.

Freshly-minted pilots graduating with their wings at RAF Sywell during 1938. (image via Wikipedia)

Fighter Aviation Ltd.’s P-47D Thunderbolt coming in to land at Sywell during 2018. While not in attendance at this year’s Sywell Aviation Museum grand opening event, it spent a fair amount of time at the airfield during its refurbishment at Air Leasing. (image via Wikimedia)

Visitors, estimated to be in their thousands, made their way to the museum’s annual Easter Saturday re-opening event to enjoy the vintage vehicles, living history and re-enactment groups, live music and stalls on offer. Joining the additional attractions which the museum laid on, some 35 visiting aircraft also made the most of the day’s beautiful weather. And for those arriving by road, a constant queue of vehicles stretching an hour down the road was testament to the popularity of this annual event. 

Visiting aircraft included the oldest flying North American Navion in the UK, N4956C, owned and operated by Simon Tilling. (photo by Charlotte Bailey)

First opening in 2021 as an “award-winning volunteer-run, non-profit charitable trust dedicated to preserving aviation history in Sywell, Northamptonshire and surrounding counties,” the museum is entirely dependent upon volunteer support. John Jones, the organization’s president, is keen to emphasize that the museum is adamant in maintaining its free entry policy to provide somewhere everyone can afford to take their family, regardless of their means. 

A variety of vintage vehicles were in attendance, alongside a number of interesting stalls. (photo by Charlotte Bailey)

And for a relatively small space, there’s certainly a lot to see inside. Immediately opposite the door, the Chipmunk Cockpit experience – unlike the visiting Portuguese example on the flightline during the opening event – allows visitors the chance to get up close and personal with the controls of the primary trainer.

The de Havilland Chipmunk ‘Clare’ (WG419) used to fly from Sywell, and now forms an informative cockpit experience. (photo by Charlotte Bailey)

Continuing the de Havilland theme, the museum features the fuselage pod from a Vampire T.11, which they rescued in a dilapidated state from South Wales during 2004. The aircraft had served as gate guardian, not a role which any aircraft can sustain for long without constant attention in the UK. Another recent addition to the museum is a Packard-built V-1650 Merlin engine from a P-51 Mustang, the working counterpart of which could be heard outside as the twelve cylinder-monster powering Peter Teichman’s P-51D Tall-In-The-Saddle roared into life.

A working example of a Link Trainer. The sign inside the door reads: ‘This machine is only to be used under a qualified RAF instructor’s supervision of at least NCO rank’. (photo by Charlotte Bailey)

External exhibits include the last complete Hawker Hunter Mk.2 in the world, rescued from MoD Waterbeach Barracks (where she’d been a gate guardian) and transported to Sywell in 2012. Nearby the Hunter sits Handley-Page Jetstream G-RAVL, the third-oldest example extant. Once the winner of the 1971 Daily Express National Air Race at Sywell, this Jetstream moved on to become an instructional airframe at the Cranfield College of Aeronautics in 1986. The organization, since renamed Cranfield University, donated the Jetstream to Sywell during March 2021.

The world’s only complete Hawker Hunter F.2 is on display at the Sywell Aviation Museum. (image via Wikipedia)

Given the thronging crowds in attendance, it is clear that the Sywell Aviation Museum’s opening day was a grand success indeed. The museum is open every weekend and Bank Holiday from now until the end of October, as well as Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the summer; they can accommodate groups on other days by request.

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