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Thursday, 24 April 2014

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Will the Solway Air Museum ever be able to reach for the skies?

It occupies just under three acres at Carlisle Airport yet Solway Aviation Museum is packed with history.

For the past 50 years, a team of dedicated volunteers have painstakingly built up and preserved a remarkable collection of aircraft and aviation artefacts which have helped make the museum the fascinating place it now is.

As the airport edges ever closer to a new phase of expansion many are looking to the future and changes that should see the creation of a huge freight distribution depot and upgraded civil aviation facilities.

But the small band of volunteers who run the museum fear that their gems from the county’s aviation past may be facing an uncertain future.

Stobart Group chief executive Andrew Tinkler has publicly declared his support for the museum, saying that he is happy for it to remain on its current airport site.

But those involved in running the museum fear their hopes of expanding the museum operation may be restricted because they have no long-term security of tenure.

Campaigners who want to secure that long term guarantee from the airport’s owners this week won support from Penrith and the Border MP Rory Stewart.

After visiting the museum and meeting the management team and staff, he spoke warmly of its place in Cumbria’s aviation history.

“The Solway Aviation Museum is a real gem,” he said.

“Specialist aviation museums such as these are rare, and we should be especially proud to have one right here in Cumbria – not only celebrating Cumbria’s place in aviation history, but celebrating great British traditions of design and innovation.

“The museum survives thanks to the passion and dedication of its volunteer staff, and I will certainly do all I can to help them to continue operating in these uncertain times. The Solway Aviation Museum is a unique asset to Carlisle’s airfield, and so it would be very short-sighted not to ensure that it continues to operate here.”

The museum’s team is concerned at the potential impact of plans by Stobart Air to convert the site to a 394,000sq ft distribution centre, and restrictions on their lease that prevent the museum for applying for funding.

The airport’s owners have offered the museum a five-year lease with an option to give them notice to quit of six months should they ever deem it necessary.

That restriction, they say, means they are unlikely to ever win the funding they need to expand the museum.

It already attracts more than 4,000 visitors every year, but volunteers believe they could double that number if they can upgrade their facilities.

It is one of the few remaining airport museums in the country that is managed by a registered charity.

Mr Stewart has now pledged to help find a way to ensure that the museum continues to operate and thrive on the site, praising its “unique role in preserving a fascinating era in national aviation history.”

So how much aviation history is at stake? One man eminently qualified to answer the question is the museum’s communications officer George Kerr, a systems engineer who served in the RAF for three years.

He explains that the Solway Aviation Museum’s thousands of exhibits – which includes several rare and coveted aircraft – clearly reflect Britain’s position as a world-leader in aircraft design and innovation, from the dawn of the jet age through the dark days of the Cold War.

George, 73, lists some of the more impressive exhibits.

They include:

  • An impressive 52-ton B2 Vulcan bomber – one of only 16 left in the world – which was once synonymous with the Cold War and nuclear deterrence;
  • The awesome Phantom, built by McDonnell Douglas in the USA, though a large part of the FGR2 was British built;
  • An English Electric Canberra T4 WE188, a high-altitude, jet-powered medium bomber to replace the Mosquito.

But it is often the smaller exhibits – uniforms, photos, and letters from airmen – that reveal the more human aspect of Cumbria’s aviation history, says George.

“We have a lot of historic artefacts, and many of them are really fascinating.”

As an airfield, Crosby on Eden was important during the war because it was beyond the range of German bombers.

“It was known as 59 OTU (Operational Training Unit), and from 1940 airmen would train here on Hurricane fighters, and there was huge pressure to get the fighters back to the squadrons.

“During the Battle of Britain their life expectancy was just two weeks.

“It’s our hope to develop the museum as a centre of excellence. We have quite a few rare aircraft that we can’t even display.

“But before funding bodies such as the Lottery will even look at us we need to have security of tenure.

“If we ever did have to leave, we would have to scrap three of our aircraft – the Vulcan, the Canberra, and the twin engined Percival Sea Prince, which is reasonably rare.

“It would be disastrous.

“Rory Stewart’s support in Solway Aviation Museum’s 50th year is critical as it seeks ways to secure its future and expand its role as Cumbria’s only remaining aviation museum.”

Andrew Tinkler yesterday said that as far as he was concerned there was no issue with the museum staying on at the current airport site. Any proposed long lease for the charity would have to be approved by the Stobart Group board, he added.

In January, a Stobart spokesman said there were no plans to build on land where the museum is. “There is no reason for us to remove them,” he said.

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