The RAF Museum has unveiled a new permanent First World War exhibition at its Colindale site, which opens to the public on 4 December.

Created with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, ‘The First World War in the Air’ features a collection of contemporary and replica aircraft along with personal belongings, kit and uniforms.

“The story of the service is not just about the aircraft, but the people,” Paul Hudson, Head of Marketing at the museum, told Pilot, “and not just the pilots.”

This sentiment is captured perfectly by the museum. Two walls at one end of the main factory hangar are covered with large images of RFC and RNAS personnel, and a pair of iPads allows visitors to search through digitised versions of documents such as Casualty Cards and Muster Rolls. The idea of being able to look up who died on the day of one’s visit and leave a virtual poppy for them is somewhat cheesy, but nevertheless a way of connecting with the stories of individual servicemen. (The Museum is also taking part in a project with counterparts in Germany and France to publish the experiences of three pilots. You can view the results at

The hangar is filled with iconic aircraft, including the Sopwith Camel, Fokker D VII and – an example of one built at Colindale – the Avro 504. A number of machines beautifully created by The Vintage Aviator in New Zealand sit alongside them. The organisers aimed to show a cross-section of those flown in both sides, even including the basket of an observation balloon (although, sadly, no airships).

Aside from the aircraft, the new exhibition contains some real gems – a surviving runway light, an electrically heated flying suit, Manfred von Richthofen’s tiny glass mascot, and numerous maps, letters and uniforms.

This is a place that brings WWI aviation to life in a way that young people can appreciate. A simulator – a seat with a stick perched on a pivot – has been recreated and the public can try their hand at ‘flying’ it (trust me; this is as much fun for big kids as smaller ones). Animations of tactics are projected onto a white ‘map’ on the floor and provide a colourful illustration of the roles carried out by those who flew over enemy lines. The Pilot team’s one bugbear is that the video displaying dogfights has used computer animations – why not use real footage? Or film shot from the cockpit of a Great War Display Team aircraft?

“100 years on from the outbreak of the First World War, the narrative of our ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition resonates locally, nationally and internationally. The Museum, therefore, looks forward to sharing this incredible story with both local visitors and audiences from across the globe. It is particularly fitting that we mark this anniversary in the approach to 2018, the centenary of the founding of the Royal Air Force,” said Karen Whitting, Director of Public Programmes at the Royal Air Force Museum.

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