Top 10 Criminally Overlooked Aircraft at RAF Museum London (formerly RAF Museum Hendon)

In an assuming suburb in North-West London can be found the fabulous RAF Museum London (though to Hush-Kit it will always be Hendon). As well as a wealth of A-listers including Spitfires, an English Electric Lightning and a Vulcan, it is home to world-class machines often criminally overlooked by more casual visitors. Hush-Kit asked Dr Peter Johnston, Head of Collections & Research at the museum, to share his favourite overlooked aeroplanes.

The Wild Goose project was developed to explore the advantages of variable-geometry or swing-wing aircraft. Sweeping wings backwards improved an aircraft’s shape for travelling at high speed. The aircraft was tested using unmanned models. These models were launched from a trolley and controlled by radio. Dr Barnes Wallis its designer who had previously invented the bouncing bomb reportedly claimed that more time was spent on designing the control system for the models than on the design for the aircraft itself. Wild Goose was never fully realised but its swing-wing concept continued to playa part in future aircraft designs. It is currently on display in the RAF – First to the Future exhibition in Hangar 1.

(Hush-Kit would like to thank Ajay Srivastava for his help in creating this article)

10. Bristol Beaufighter TF.X

The Beaufighter strike fighter, with its formidable armament, operated with distinction in North West Europe. Unlike the more famous Mosquito multi-role combat aircraft, it was also able to translate its success to different theatres, gaining a considerable reputation in the Mediterranean and the Far East. Operated by both the British and Australian air forces in the Far East it quickly became known to the Japanese as the ‘Whispering Death.’

This is a long way from the Beaufighter’s origins as a domestic night fighter. The prototype flew on 17 July 1939 and the first production Beaufighters were delivered to the Royal Air Force in the following April. The type was the first high performance night fighter equipped with airborne interception radar and successfully operated against the German night raids in the winter of 1940-1941. Later the Beaufighter was introduced into Coastal Command as a strike fighter. Its original formidable gun armament was retained but rockets and torpedoes were added giving it an even greater fire power.

5,562 Beaufighters had been produced by the time the last one was delivered in September 1945 and fifty-two operational Royal Air Force squadrons had been equipped with the type.

After its withdrawal from operational use many Beaufighters were converted to target tug duties and in fact the last flight of the type in Royal Air Force service took place on 17 May 1960 when a TT10 made a final target towing flight from Seletar.

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9. Hawker Hart II

First flown in July 1928, the Hart day bomber was one of the most advanced aircraft of its time with exceptional capability. Although designed as a bomber it had a performance superior to any fighter aircraft then in existence.

Over four-hundred Harts were built for the Royal Air Force and seven home-based regular bomber squadrons were equipped as well as eleven auxiliary and reserve units. Less than two years after its introduction into service at home, Harts were being used by overseas squadrons in the Middle East and India.

With such an exceptional basic design Sydney Camm and the Hawker team were able to develop later versions. The Audax, Demon, Hardy, Hind and the Hector all show clearly how important the Hart influence was on a whole era of British aircraft design. A number of these later types saw limited operational use in World War Two. So advanced was the performance of the Hart bomber and its derivatives that the Royal Air Force’s training aircraft were incapable of providing adequate experience to the Service’s pilots. A trainer version of the Hart was therefore designed in 1932.

Ultimately, the Hart was one of a series of similar Hawker aircraft which were the mainstay of the Royal Air Force during the 1930s, which is perhaps why it is overlooked. As an interwar aircraft, it also suffers from serving in a period that is too often overlooked in favour of the conlficts that bracketed it, particularly the Second World War given the famous Hawker aircraft that fought there. Yet the Hart, and its variants, were instrumental in enabling the Royal Air Force to operate effectively in some of the most inhospitable parts of the world.

8. Consolidated B24 Liberator

Although often overshadowed by the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator was built in greater numbers than any other US military aircraft and served with distinction in both war and peace.

The first B-24 Liberator made its maiden flight on 29 December 1939. It had been designed by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation to rival and improve on the Boeing B-17, the type proved an outstanding success, with 18,500 aircraft being built by Consolidated, Douglas, North American and Ford between 1940 and 1945.

The RAF was the second-largest operator of Liberators. 1,900 B-24s were supplied to the Royal Air Force via purchase and through Lend Lease, with some of the earliest aircraft having originally been intended for France and the French l’Armée de l’Air in 1940 that were never developed. Others were transferred directly in theatre, bringing the RAF’s total to just over 2,000.

Liberators were used by RAF bomber squadrons in the Middle East, and from January 1944 became the principal RAF strategic bomber in the Far East. Liberators were also deployed by RAF Coastal Command, playing a key role in the war against Germany’s submarine fleet. Liberators also saw service as transports; indeed, (AL504 Commando) became the personal aircraft of Prime Minister Winston Churchill for a short time. While the Liberator is often overlooked in favour of the Lancaster and Halifax, and it’s public recognition undoubtedly suffers from the greater public attention given to the role of bombers in the strategic air offensive against Germany, it played a major role in the RAF’s war.

Liberators continued in use until December 1968 when the Indian Air Force retired its former RAF machines, and the Liberator on display in the Hangar 5 in London was presented to the Museum by the Indian Government in 1974.

7. Sepecat Jaguar GR.1

The Sepecat Jaguar was a tactical support and ground-attack aircraft, and the result of a joint Anglo-French design programme. As well as serving with RAF, it also served with the French and Indian air forces. Eight first-line RAF squadrons were equipped with the Jaguar from 1974 and was a major element in RAF Germany’s Cold-War era air capability until supplanted by the Tornado in 1985.

The biggest user of the Jaguar was RAF Germany where it was operated by five squadrons. Four squadrons were based at RAF Brüggen, the first of which, No. 14 Squadron stood up in April 1975, where Jaguars began replacing Phantoms in the strike/attack/reconnaissance role thereby releasing Phantoms to replace Lightnings in the Air Defence role; and it was to No. 14 Squadron that the Museum’s XX824 was delivered in late 1975. The fifth Squadron, No. 2 Squadron, stationed at Laarbruch operated Jaguar in the Tactical Reconnaissance role.

Of 400 Jaguars built 203 were delivered to the RAF. Jaguars of the Coltishall Strike Wing performed sterling work in the Gulf War of 1991 destroying Iraqi artillery and missile positions during Operation Desert Storm.

Jaguars were due to be used again in the skies over Iraq during the 2003 invasion, but the Turkish government forbade coalition aircraft based in Turkey from participating in the invasion and despite the recent upgrades, a Defence White Paper in 2004 brought forward the retirement of the type by two years with an out of service date of October 2007. With only five days’ notice this date was brought forward to 30th April 2007.

This rather hurried timetable meant that the Jaguar was slipped rather unnoticed into the pages of RAF history. But it had played a significant role in the RAF. For ten years from the mid-1970s it was the lead strike/attack aircraft of the RAF, and it was also the first aircraft in RAF service to be produced by an international partnership – a model which is now common in military aircraft design and production.

6. Sopwith Triplane

The world of First World War aviation is dominated by certain ideas and aircraft types. Thanks to Biggles, there is an enduring affection for the Sopwith Camel, and even for the S.E.5 of Wilks. When it comes to triplanes, few people look beyond Richthofen. Yet few realise that the Sopwith Triplane on display in Hanger 2 is both British and also played a major role in Richthofen’s rise to enduring fame.

The Sopwith Triplane prototype appeared in May 1916 and was found to be highly manoeuvrable with a phenomenal rate of climb. Both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service ordered the type but policy changes led to the Triplane only being used by the Royal Naval Air Service fighter squadrons on the Western Front.

Several of the Royal Naval Air Squadron pilots scored many victories while flying the type and it made such a profound impression on the Germans that a specific request was made to their aircraft manufacturers to design and produce triplane fighters. Only the Fokker Dr1 was built in quantity and it gained fame as the aircraft frequently flown by Richthofen. The triplane concept had a brief life and in less than two years it had been eclipsed by the new and more powerful biplane fighters on both sides.

5. de Havilland Vampire F3

The Vampire was a first generation jet fighter which saw service in the immediate post-war period with Royal Air Force front-line fighter squadrons in the United Kingdom and Germany, followed by further service with the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

Work on the design of the DH100 began in May 1942 and the prototype made its first flight on 20 September 1943. Originally called the Spider Crab it was re-named Vampire when ordered into production for the Royal Air Force. The first aircraft did not become available until 1945 and the Vampire did not enter service until the early summer of 1946.

The Vampire F3 was a long-range version of the basic F1, with a re-designed tail unit. On 14 July 1948 six Vampire 3s of No.54 Squadron became the first ever jet aircraft to fly across the Atlantic under their own power.

This small unsophisticated aircraft, of relatively unusual design, was viewed with great fondness by many pilots who nicknamed it the ‘aerial kiddy car.’ Unassuming – almost comical in appearance – and as part of that transition from piston to jet engine, it is often overlooked.

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4. Bristol Belvedere HC1

Before the Chinook cam the Belvedere. The Belvedere was the Royal Air Force’s first twin engined, twin rotor helicopter to enter service. It was designed to carry supplies and freight – up to 2,720kg – in support of the British Army.

During its operational service Great Britain began the slow and sometimes painful task of withdrawing from its Empire and this aircraft was involved in many of those operations in the Middle and Far East. In 1963 the Belvederes of No. 26 Squadron based in Aden (now part of Yemen) operated against rebels in then-Tanganyika, now Tanzania, and then saw service in support of the Army in the Aden Emergency of 1963-67. It’s heavy lift capability proved crucial there.

In the Far East, belvederes of No. 66 Squadron were active in support of Army operations during the Brunei revolt of 1962-66. It was in this campaign that the aircraft received their nickname (which passed to the Squadron) of ‘the Flying Long-houses’, as the indigenous people had no word for helicopter in their language.

Unfortunately, the Belvedere suffered a number of problems, including a propensity to catch fire, and for this reason its service life was cut short. It’s relative short service period of just 8 years, and its involvement in the retreat from Empire, means it is not a recognisable as a type, and as such is sometimes neglected in a visit to the museum.

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3. Lockheed Hudson IIIA

The Lockheed Hudson was a military version of the American Lockheed 14 Super Electra airliner and was ordered for the Royal Air Force in June 1938. Hudsons entered service with Coastal Command in 1939. Used extensively over United Kingdom waters on anti-submarine and general reconnaissance duties, Hudsons were also used overseas. In total, the RAF received just over 2,000 Hudsons, 800 of which were purchased, the remainder supplied under American Lend-Lease contracts.

When Hudsons reached obsolescence in the maritime role they were stripped of their armament and re-employed as transports. Some of these aircraft were used in the very hazardous task of carrying Allied agents into and out of Nazi-occupied Europe.

The Hudson can claim an impressive list of firsts including being the first Allied aircraft to shoot down an enemy while operating from the British Isles. It was also the first aircraft to capture a U-boat when U-570 surrendered to a No.269 Squadron Hudson on 27 August 1941.
A Hudson was also the first aircraft equipped to carry airborne lifeboats for air sea rescue duties.

However, it was never in the forefront of wartime publicity, and the role of Coastal Command is likewise neglected in public recognition in favour of Bomber and Fighter Command. As such, the Hudson is often overlooked by our visitors, despite its significant history.

2. Fiat CR.42 Falco

Designed by Celestino Rosatelli, the Italian Fiat CR.42 was the last single-seat biplane fighter to be manufactured by any Second World War combatant. CR.42s took part in the invasion of Southern France, where early success gave a misleading impression of its combat performance and Italian tactics, and later fought against the RAF in the Battle of Britain.

While it was the best biplane in service in 1940, the CR.42 was completely outclassed by RAF fighters in the Battle of Britain. Those that were committed suffered many losses. Its armament of two machine guns was no more than a First World War fighter and it was unable to inflict major damage on its opponents

In October 1940, this CR.42 served with the ‘Corpo Aereo Italiano’. It force-landed at Orford Ness on 11 November 1940 during an Italian air raid on Harwich. The pilot, Pietro Salvadori, was taken prisoner and his aircraft was later repaired and tested by the RAF. It is one of only two intact, original CR.42s in existence and forms part of the Museum’s ‘Fighter Four’ display, a unique collection of the four principal single-seat fighters engaged in the Battle of Britain, each a genuine survivor of that conflict.

Yet because the role of the Italians in the Battle of Britain is not generally as well known, the casual museum visitor might see the biplane and think it belongs to a different era, and overlook its remarkable history

  1. Supermarine Stranraer

The Supermaine Stranraer was the final development of the Southampton flying boat to be put into production and was one of the world’s last biplane flying boats.

A production contract was placed in August 1935 for seventeen aircraft. The first joined No.228 Squadron at Pembroke Dock in early 1937. Two units were equipped with Stranraers during the early part of the Second World War. Withdrawn from operational service in March 1941, they continued to serve in a training capacity until October 1942.

Curiously, the Stranraer was built in greater numbers and had a longer service life outside the United Kingdom than with the Royal Air Force. Selected by the Royal Canadian Air Force, the type was put into production by Canadian Vickers who built forty. The Stranraer at the London site was built by Canadian Vickers at its St. Hubert, Montreal, Quebec Plant, using British equipment

Eight were in service with the Canadians at the outbreak of war. Hese aircraft were used for patrol duties both on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They were finally retired from service in February 1945.

After retirement from service use, several Stranraers were registered for civil use. Queen Charlotte Airlines continued to use Stranraers into the 1950s, operating from Vancouver and providing a service along the pacific coast of British Columbia.

The Stranraer is the only aircraft at the RAF Museum site that has never moved, remaining in the same place since the museum first opened 50 years ago. While many visitors many be drawn to the Fighter Four from the Battle of Britain, or the Lancaster, they risk missing a key component of the Museum’s collection.

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