National Treasure

A startling realisation is that I last visited this place over 20 years ago with my Dad. 20. Years. I was calculating it on the way home in the car. Must have been 10 years, I reasoned, before counting back on my fingers what 10 years ago would have aged me. Nope. Further. 15? Nope. Ok.

What has happened in that 20 years then? Well I remember there used to be a space themed hanger. That’s gone. Probably 10 years ago. I arrived early as I wanted to get the most out of my trip there. I wanted to research what East Fortune is most famous for, yet least remembered for; airships. This was the place that the first transatlantic, non-stop crossing by air was launched back in 1919 with the R34 Airship.

It’s a pretty big place, East Fortune, and used to be home back in the WW1 days to 3 absolutely gigantic hangers, within which housed 3 airships. In the small barrack block which now houses the “Fortunes of War” exhibition, there’s a bunch of interesting things, not least of which is a map in the middle of the floor. When I arrived here, later on in the day, it was empty and the lights clicked on as I entered. The map was dark. Around the edges are buttons relating to different eras in the airfield’s history, starting with WW1. I push the first button and a glorious bright blue glow blasts from beneath the ground, illuminating the parts relating to that point in time. I audibly gasped, and then thanked the fact I was alone for saving my blushes. It was simple but really effective. I went around this wee table pushing the buttons just to see what would illuminate next.

You start off the day going through the shop; a reconnaissance pass for children whose parents are now quickly hustling them through. I arrived at an inopportune moment as 3 aeronautical history boffins were penetrating the depths of the man stationed in the shop at that time. I stood for a while listening to them asking which colour the wing-tips of a de Havilland Tiger Moth were painted in the late 60’s, before raising my hand and asking if I could pass through. They all apologised in unison, which was funny but unnecessary. It was interesting but I had places to be.

You are then ushered immediately into the glorious Concorde hanger where you are immediately met with the towering majesty of the late, great G-BOAA. What a beauty. I walked around all the wee info boards and learned that the fateful flight of Air France AF-4590, which infamously rose from Charles de Gaul with flames licking out its arse, was caused by a rogue piece of metal from another plane (a Continental Airlines DC-10 lost a long thing strip of titanium from an engine cowl, so there you go). This was hit by one of the main, gargantuan tyres, bursting that and sending pieces flying up and into the fuel tank area; the shockwave rupturing one of the many, sending fuel all over the place and bringing about the death of 114 people and ultimately an end to the Concorde dream.

What a beautiful and elegant design. Luckily for me, the East Fortune Concorde Experience includes a free, at your own pace wander around the cabin. I was texting my uncle (of previous Sailing fame) and he just so happened to now be on his way down to his France tour (lucky bastard) and had stopped at the Brooklands Museum. A fortuitous happenstance, but unfortunately for him he had to pay £5 to get a 35 minute tour around that Concorde and, as a true Scotsman, weighed up the benefits of that £5 and decided that it could be better used elsewhere. Probably on a pint of Jarl.

Not me though; I got in this place so early today that I had basically the hanger to myself and, at a leisurely, inquisitive pace wandered the length of the Concorde interior and revelled in the thoughts of what it would have been like, had I been incredibly rich and able to fly on one of these during active service. Oh the luxury. Oh the excitement. Oh the dent in the bank balance. The cockpit looked really cramped, old and dirty. The visibility must have been shite, honestly. The controls looked like they were out of a Sopwith Camel and not at all in line with the cutting edge engineering I would have expected.

A few other cool bits and bobs and we’re done here. Off out towards the next hanger, which as it happened was the Military Aviation hanger. In here I found the usual suspects; a Spitfire dangling from the roof; a Tornado, Lightning, Harrier et al.  There was some interesting little nick-nacks from each of the main wars throughout the 20th Century; a couple of gauges, a radio thingy, a radar. Then on to the cold war era and some more interesting gauges, some radar bits and bobs. Usual stuff really, but really fascinating.

Then there was a generously sized glass cabinet within which rested examples of the bombs used over the ages. I didn’t look at and cannot remember anything in this display with exception to one thing; a small pencil sized length of metal, shaped pointedly at one end, fluted at the other. They call this thing a Flechette. Say one was floating above a trench, filled with many an enemy soldier; what do you do to remove said enemy from your path? You have a gun, sure enough, but tell you what would be even more dastardly; dropping many little metal darts, letting the forces of gravity take hold and propel this spike to a speed that would cause it to pierce armour and flesh. Let these metal shards of death rain from above. So that’s what they did. Some darts even had inscriptions on so that once the deed was done, or not, there would be a final rub of salt. Not nice at all.

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Off I went after a few pictures of a gloriously laminated wooden propeller. I love this stuff. Around the block comes a sight not unfamiliar to me, and probably most other people there; the delta-winged, robust yet elegant Avro Vulcan B.2 Bomber. I’ve seen this thing in action a few times and each one has been a memorable experience. I’ve not seen one up this close though, for some reason. It’s a beauty, so it is. However I guess the unforgiving Scottish weather has taken its toll on this retired beast, for it was looking exceptionally haggard today. Paint peeling, faded by the sun. It looks like it should be a big aircraft but up close it feels smaller than it looks, which is a bit of a paradox. I can imagine it was a difficult thing to fly as the cockpit has almost no window action. Some boys were there with a staff member, measuring the undercarriage for what I assume was a school project. I had a good look around then headed off towards the Comet, which in its round window’d variant looked particularly rough. The entrance doors were so small I had to stoop to get in to the bloody thing – I imagine many a passenger whacking their head off the rim of the door as they entered – “would you like a hot towel to stem the blood that’s now flowing freely from that horizontal gash, Sir?” The cockpit looks almost war-time with its fabric lined ceiling, drooping unceremoniously to match the time-served seat covers.

Then it was on to the final few hangers; the Fantastic Flight section allowing the earlier ages to appreciate and understand how things actually end up in the air. It was really cool! I had a look about at the Wright Brother’s design, beautifully recreated to scale. Then the airship simulator, which was interesting. Then how technically things work – a rudder, lift etc. Then off to the parachute experience where they’d refurb’d the room back to how it would have looked in the war, complete with singer sewing station, massively long tables and a voice-over that cranks itself up as you enter. “I haven’t seen you before, you must be new” booms the voice, before barging headfirst into the virtues of parachute design. I made an exit towards the cafe as it was approaching lunchtime, I had a headache from lack of water and I wanted to beat the droves of pensioners who had all turned up in unison. I sat in the sun listening to the birds tweeting and thought about the history of this place and how it rests here now as a brilliant monument to man’s ability to surmount the perceived impossible.

Then a quick hop back up to the airship exhibition and do some research; the whole reason for me being here today. It was a lovely exhibition with lots of artefacts and knick-knacks. A German POW’s personal effects; a tin of chocolate and some shoe polish. Research done, the last hanger was the Civil Aviation display with some fairly interesting but not exciting aircraft, with exception of some fantastic propellers and a plane with half its shell missing revealing the structural elements.

It was really nice to be back here. I have an affinity with aviation and I would love to be more involved in it but learning more of the history of it, and East Fortune’s role in that history was more than enough for me to part ways satisfied. At a journey totalling 3 hours round trip, it’s not local by any stretch, but I would seriously consider going back again soon if only to stand around these giants of a bygone era. I do wish that the airship hangers were still standing though, as the sheer scale of such a building would have been quite overwhelming to witness.