Sopwith Pup aircraft at Imperial War Museum | Photo by Sue Martin
Sopwith Pup aircraft at Imperial War Museum | Photo by Sue Martin

Step into Aviation History at IWM Duxford

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Europe

The familiar drone of propellers and roaring engines springing to life greeted us on a warm and unusually cloudless Sunday morning in the Cambridgeshire farmlands. Shiny, vintage aircraft were patiently lined up for takeoff a faded yellow Tiger Moth biplane soared overhead. Welcome to Imperial War Museum (IWM) Duxford, home of the U.K.’s largest military aviation museum.

History of RAF Duxford

Built near the end of World War I in 1917, Royal Air Force (RAF) Duxford was once a premier flight training and fighter air station. Before the outbreak of World War II, the majestic Spitfire aircraft made its very first voyage in 1938, landing at the installation. During the war, Duxford would become instrumental in the aerial assaults against the Luftwaffe. In 1943, the U.S. Army Air Forces brought in the P-47 Thunderbolts and based the 78th Fighter Group there through the end of the war.

The air station remained operational through the height of the Cold War era; however, the location became almost too isolated to be of use to the RAF. In 1961, the last military mission was flown and the site was nearly abandoned. In 1976, the IWM realized they needed a much larger site to house future aviation exhibits, as their primary location near central London was not adequate in size. Stumbling upon the empty hangars and airfields, the IWM and Cambridgeshire Council came to an agreement and RAF Duxford was transformed into the behemoth museum of today.

IWM Duxford Today

As you make your way to the museum, several large, gleaming hangars pop up from the countryside. Many of the buildings used at Duxford are original historic buildings, some of which have been painstakingly renovated to their former glory. The hangars are divided into different categories: Land Warfare, American Air Museum, Battle of Britain and so on. The exhibits are incredibly detailed. In one particular section, desert vehicles rest upon the sand and are cordoned off with barbed wire. In another, remnants of brick houses are exposed, with shelves and furniture askew.


British Corporation Concorde at Imperial War Museum | Photo by Sue Martin

Visitors can stroll through the hangars and see current restoration work being done on newly acquired planes, or check out various British aircraft once belonging to the RAF such as a Harrier and Toronado. Be sure to visit the hangar nearest the visitor center, as guests can walk through one of the test versions of the Concorde. American aviation buffs won’t want to miss the actual Buff (B-52 Stratofortress) and F-15 Eagle suspended from the ceiling in the American Air Museum. The SR-71 is one of the only ones on display outside the U.S.

Know Before You Go

IWM Duxford is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with closures Dec. 24-26. The museum is located approximately 50 miles north of central London, and 45 minutes from both RAF Lakenheath and RAF Alconbury. For more information or to purchase discounted tickets online, visit www.iwm.org.uk.

 

 

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