With the possible exception of a well-chosen book, I reckon nothing complements a good vehicle simulator or digital wargame better than an apt museum. Prior commitments meant I couldn't spend International Museum Day surrounded by game-illuminating exhibits, but a few days later I made the short trip to a local museum knowing I'd return enthused and educated.
Recently reopened after a 2.6 million pound revamp, the Army Flying Museum nestles on the edge of an active Army Air Corps airfield in central southern England. While it's a lot smaller than better known English aviation museums such as Duxford, Cosford, and Hendon, it tells a fascinating story that none of its larger peers tell, and does it with a collection dotted with exhibits you won't find elsewhere. Whenever I visit I always seem to emerge with a head full of game ideas, and a slight feeling of surprise. The game industry's obsession with the RAF, the Battle of Britain in particular, means some of the most interesting chapters in British military aviation have yet to be ludologised!
The sun was out and the skylarks ebullient on the morning of my latest visit. Arriving half an hour before the doors opened, I toured the museum's small selection of outdoor exhibits (a Beaver, Scout, and Iraqi Army Shilka, all rather weather-beaten) and inspected a relatively new memorial to Army fliers, before heading inside to exchange £14 for an annual pass.
Unveiled in 2017, the striking sky-ceilinged memorial consists of a torc-shaped wall of remembrance embedded in a small tumulus. Perhaps 75% of the 5127 names on the wall belong to Royal Flying Corps aviators - unfortunate individuals who fell to earth in stricken aircraft before or during the Great War. The rest are members of the Glider Pilot Regiment who perished during WW2 operations like Market Garden and Varsity, Air Observation Post pilots, and Army Air Corps personnel lost since 1945. Captain Eustace Lorraine and Staff-Sergeant Richard Wilson have the dubious honour of commencing the curved catalogue of casualties. On July 5, 1912, they were returning to Larkhill Airfield when their Nieuport stalled and crashed close to Stonehenge. The accident was one of a number involving experimental monoplanes that year and helped prompt an RFC monoplane ban which influenced military aircraft purchasing/design in Britain for decades to come.
I made for the museum proper with a sense of trepidation. Having heard that “audio-visual improvements” were a major part of the refurbishment, I was slightly concerned I was going to find favourite exhibits replaced by giant screens, contemplation-conducive quiet compromised by strident sound effects. I needn't have worried. Thoughtful decluttering and reorganisation has given the museum sharper focus and a more logical layout. It has allowed its stars - 30-odd aircraft - more room to shine. Interactive 'oral history' listening stations that let you pick and choose veterans' stories, and touchscreens that allow you to explore aircraft interiors as if they were simulator mounts, enrich without intruding.
Speaking personally, the gems of the Army Flying Museum's collection remain its WW2 aircraft. If you're interested in the gun- and engine-less aircraft that carried Allied “airlanding” troops to dangerous destinations like Sicily in 1943, and Normandy and Arnhem in 1944, then there's nowhere quite like Middle Wallop. Space constraints* mean that the museum's two largest gliders, a Horsa and Hamilcar, have missing limbs, but the amputations aren't completely out of character and are, arguably, a price worth paying for having basically the entire history of British military gliding together in one place.
* I presume
Star of one of the best WW2 FPS mission intros ever, the Horsa is represented by an almost complete (one wing missing) example displayed in a tilted post-landing pose. Thoughtfully, the door has been removed so visitors can lean inside and take in the internal structure and claustrophobic longitudinal seating arrangements. Compared to the nearby Waco/Hadrian, a canvas-skinned featherweight that looks like it would lose an argument with a molehill let alone a fence post, the tubular Airspeed machine appears positively robust.
One of the museum's most memorable experiences is standing inside the cavernous wooden belly of a General Aircraft Hamilcar. Salvaged in 1983 from the grounds of a Wiltshire pub where it was serving as a chicken shed, the giant tank porter is missing its Lancaster-sized wings, tail and nose, but is still the most complete example of the type in existence and a very impressive thing. A unique Hotspur and a Kirby Kite complete a glider line-up that whispers “40 years' worth of games and still no Glider Pilot Regiment title!” to me every time I visit.
The gliders share their hall with a plethora of excellent related displays, a new attack helicopter area (Cobra, Lynx Mk 7, Scout, and Argentinian Huey) with attendant AV show, a selection of look-but-don't-touch training sims (Lynx Cockpit Procedure Trainer, Link Trainer, Pilot Aptitude Tester...) and some coin-activated sims that, sadly, appear to have come through the modernisation largely untouched. No VR glider landings on hot LZs yet, I'm sorry to say.
Close to the mighty Hamilcar there are three extraordinary flying machines guaranteed to snag your gaze and strew your imagination with screenshots of unmade Battlefield 1942 add-ons. The Hafner Rotachute was an experimental strap-on autogyro intended for use by paratroops. Prompted by silk shortages early in the war, it handled far better than the machine next to it, the Hafner Rotabuggy, but like it was overtaken by advances in other fields. By the time both projects reached fruition, chutes were being produced in materials other than silk and vehicle-carrying gliders like the Horsa were in service.
The third oddity is the brainchild of one of the Fairey Swordfish's designers, Marcel Lobelle. The Inflatable Wing Mk 1 was designed in the mid-Fifties as a cheap/portable communications and recon tool for company commanders, and, potentially, a utility aircraft for people living and working in wilderness areas. A small prop-pushed gondola suspended under an inflatable delta-shaped wing, it underwent several years of testing but ultimately failed to find a niche in either military or civilian life.
The trio of Austers that occupy a section of the museum's smaller hall are, from a game design perspective, perhaps the most exciting machines at Middle Wallop. AOPs (Air Observation Posts), the primary job of their crews was to identify targets for and direct the fire of artillery batteries...
“Observation was carried out from 6000 feet or above, using 8x binoculars. The pilot most frequently spotted a tank first while it was moving. He then watched its movements closely and reported them in detail; when it halted he reported its exact position, direction in which the gun was pointing, etc., for the benefit of our tanks. Once a tank had halted it was engaged as a single-gun destructive shoot, preferably with a 7.2. The tank would often be half behind a house, and the house had then to be knocked down before the tank could be dealt with. On one occasion a tank took up a position between two haystacks. It was engaged with 105mms firing WP smoke, which set on fire both the haystacks and the tank. A tank would often move off to another position just when the bracket had been verified; then the whole process had to be started again. In this way, though the pilot might never destroy the tank, he had harassed to such an extent, that it could never get any rest, nor a chance to concentrate on the job it had been sent to do.”
But AOPs did much more than spot for big guns.
“A catalogue of some of the less normal jobs carried out by 654 Squadron [while operating in Italy in 1944]: the spotting of flak positions during close support bombing attacks, and the engagement of these positions later : the reconnaissance of Division and regimental gun areas, roads and tracks : the taking up of Infantry and other Commanders to see the actual ground over which they were to operate : information sorties to confirm the positions of our own troops and those of the enemy : the taking up of Artillery pilots to show them the Corps front prior to their being briefed : the supplying of information about landing grounds to the RAF communication flights : the carrying of maps and operational orders to outlying formations : the transmission of a 'running commentary' by R/T direct to Corps HQ on the progress of an operation as seen from the air : the collection of air photographs, the night observation of fire, and the observation of smoke screens and their adjustment for position and density.”
Slow and unarmed, the Army's eyes in the sky tended to operate from primitive improvised strips close to the frontline, and had to rely on guile and manoeuvrability in brushes with enemy fighters...
“A further example of new tactics was the use of ground for protection. It occurred a day or two later when Captain MacGrath, observing for a battery in the Robaa Valley [Tunisia] was set upon by five F.W. 190s. He took violent avoiding action and flew to a hollow in the hills which he had earlier noted as being a useful bolt-hole in emergency. Flying inside this basin of hills in a series of steep turns which his more highly loaded and much faster opponents could not execute, he remained like a fly in a jam pot until the frustrated fighters made off.”
It's impossible to read about the AOPs (the texts above are from “Unarmed into Battle” by Major General H. J. Parham and E. M. G. Belfield) and examine them at close quarters without wishing that a game studio - REMEX perhaps? - would champion their cause. Awash with WW2 fighter recreations, it's about time Simulatia got an AOP sim!
Before the refurbishment the Austers rubbed wingtips with an Edgar Percival EP9. The 'Prospector' along with a Magister, and several artillery pieces have been put into store to give other exhibits more elbow room, and create space for new, more relevant aircraft like a Britten-Norman Islander and an Agusta Westland A109. It's hard to fault the curatorial logic.
The temptation in a museum wot-i-think like this is to focus on the bigger exhibits, but on Wednesday, as per usual, I spent more time loitering by display cases and reading labels in side galleries than wandering amongst the airframes in the main halls. The Army Flying Museum does some of its best storytelling through small exhibits arranged in a series of chronologically sequenced spaces on the NW side of the building. Thankfully, the high-tech revamp hasn't swept away the host of captivating dioramas and tableaux. You can still ogle life-size weapon-strewn dug-outs, admire miniature recreations of far-flung battlefields and airfields. Small artifacts that stopped me in my tracks on the 22nd included a section of Beaver wing holed by an IRA bullet, a 3D map of Ouistreham prepared for D-Day by the model-making geniuses at Medmenham, and a “determinator” - a scales-like gadget designed to ensure Horsas were evenly loaded.
Singling out a favourite exhibit would be bally hard but that didn't stop me asking the museum's curator, Susan Lindsay, to do just that when I fell into conversation with her by chance during my visit. With little hesitation Susan selected XG502, Wallop's on-the-face-of-it not especially rare Bristol Sycamore. The persuasive reason?
“It came from the Joint Experimental Helicopter Unit that was based here at Wallop. It was one of the first aircraft owned by the Army since the First World War (because even if you're looking at the intervening units of the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Air Observation Post squadrons those aircraft actually belonged to the RAF). And also our example was involved in the first opposed helicopter assault, Suez, a game changer in terms of how helicopters were viewed for military purposes.”
Naturally, I also asked about possible future acquisitions. At the top of the museum's wishlist at present is one of the giant green robber flies that, from the terrace of the attraction's appropriately titled café, can be observed going about their business most days. Susan wouldn't be drawn on how close they were to getting an Apache – apparently, negotiations are ongoing - but the refurbishment has been executed with the possibility in mind.
Shortly after that interesting chat I had another encounter that emphasised why museums are such splendid environments for daytripping sim users. Striking up a conversation with a visitor in the process of snapping XX153, one of the Westland Lynx prototypes, I discovered that the photographer had actually worked for Westland, heading its Future Projects section from 1980 to 1991. A retired aeronautical engineer and prolific aviation author with stick time in over forty aircraft types, Ron Smith regaled me with a series of mesmerising stories (hedge-hopping in a Gazelle in Germany, flying the Sioux, the development of the NH90...) before we parted company keen to enjoy a few more of the Army Flying Museum's myriad delights.
If there's a museum near you that feeds your ludological passions and inspires game designs the way Middle Wallop does for me, I'd love to hear about it.
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