London show highlights role of air power in WWI

4th December 2014, Comments 0 comments

Allied and German planes hang side by side in a show opening in London on Thursday that charts WW1's role in advancing aviation, and spotlights the work of the staff behind the scenes.

"First World War in the Air" at the Royal Air Force (RAF) museum brings together 14 aircraft including a unique British FE2b night bomber, painstakingly reconstructed over the last 20 years.

A rudimentary early flight simulator, a balloon basket used for spying behind enemy lines, a steel bomb shelter and a shortwave tuner used to receive Morse code are also among the hundreds of exhibits.

The permanent exhibition, housed in a former aircraft factory, marks the centenary of the war's outbreak and was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II's husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.

"It is an important story that has to be told," said aviation historian Ross Mahoney, "It shows the importance that air power played in the final victory of WWI.

"That's not to say air power won the war, but it would have been much more difficult without it," he said.

- 'Change the nature of conflict' -

The exhibition traces the evolution of flight from the first crossing of the English Channel in 1909 to the Atlantic crossing in 1919 and looks at how the intervening war years fuelled engineering advances.

During 1914, fewer than 250 planes were built in Britain but by 1918 more than 600 were built every week, with the Hendon factory where the museum is housed playing a major part in production.

"You see this amazing change in five years between quite flimsy designs to what were the iPads of their day," Mahoney said.

One of the most iconic planes on show is the Sopwith Camel which hangs symbolically opposite a Fokker D VII, one of Germany's strongest warplanes.

"We wanted to tell both sides of the conflict: the Allied and the German side" said Ian Thirsk, the museum's head of collections.

"It was also an opportunity to showcase some of the rare aircraft in our collection," Thirsk said.

Pointing to the black-coloured night bomber, he said: "We managed to bring back from the dead an extinct aircraft and one which was very important in the First World War".

Completing the picture is an airfield beacon, used to guide night bombers back to their aerodrome in France, while at the other end of the hangar is a French Caudron plane flown by the Belgian air force before being acquired by an English collector.

Beyond the air power, curators said they also wanted to highlight the individual stories of the pilots and the support staff on the ground.

Uniforms and medals tell narratives such as that of air mechanic Frederick Barber, awarded a medal for bravery after jumping from his plane when the engine failed.

Photos show women working in the factories, taking on traditionally male roles such as welding, as well as sewing the linen outer skin of aircraft.

Karen Whitting, director of public programmes at the museum, said that the thousands of men and women behind the air campaigns played a role "that would change the nature of conflict forever".


© 2014 AFP

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