Ian Brown, Assistant Curator of Aviation
National Museum of Flight
“If my job was a song, it'd be 'If I Was' by Midge Ure...it perfectly represents all the different roles of aviation personnel.
Modern flight data recorders (like EF.2018.74) and cockpit voice recorders (like EF.2018.75) come from a Boeing 737 and are both known as an aircraft ‘black box’. They continuously record the orientation of the aircraft in yaw (rotation around the vertical axis), pitch (rotation around the side-to-side axis) and roll (rotation around the front-to-back axis), inputs on the cockpit controls, as well as the speech and other sounds audible in the cockpit.
This information allows investigators to piece together what happened in the event of a crash. You'll notice that these ‘black boxes’ are not black but are in fact painted orange. This is so they are easier to find following a crash. So why are they called ‘black boxes’?
The technology was developed by Australian engineers following a series of crashes to British-built de Havilland Comet airliners in the early 1950s. Investigators had to arrange for wreckage to be recovered from the bottom of the Mediterranean to try and work out what went wrong and it was realised that black box recorders would have provided the necessary data. The engineers had all worked on radio and radar during the Second World War, like RAF radio transmitters (such as EF.1986.31, EF.1993.28 and T.1982.227).
All this equipment was in black-painted metal casings, known as black boxes. When the flight data recorders were developed, they also became known as black boxes because they were just another piece of aircraft electronic equipment (even though they were not in black cases). The name stuck and came to mean all aircraft data recorders instead of the radio and radar equipment it had originally referred to.
The four-cylinder, in-line, air-cooled aero engine (T.1987.281) was built by de Havilland around 1932. This particular example came to the museum from the son of the founder of Midland and Scottish Air Ferries. This company operated scheduled services from Renfrew Airport in Glasgow between April 1933 and September 1934.
One of their pilots was a young woman called Winifred ‘Winnie’ Drinkwater. Winnie was born in East Renfrewshire on 11 April 1913. She gained her pilot’s licence in 1930 aged 17, following this with her engineer’s licence in 1932, aged 19 (even though the minimum age was normally 21). She followed this in May 1932 with her commercial pilot’s licence. In March 1933 she started work as a pilot and engineer with Midland and Scottish Air Ferries, thus becoming the world’s first female commercial airline pilot.
This engine is from one of the Airspeed Ferry airliners operated by Midland and Scottish Air Ferries and powered one of the aircraft flown by Winnie Drinkwater during her time flying with the airline.
This propeller (EF.2002.32) has been signed by the pilots who made the first air mail flights in the UK. These were from Hendon to Windsor on 9 September 1911 and then from Windsor to Hendon on 17 September 1911.
Although originally believed to be the propeller from the aircraft that made these flights, at least two other identical propellers exist, so they cannot all be from the aircraft, Instead, it is thought they were made as presentation pieces to commemorate the flights, and probably presented to the Postmaster General and other similar dignitaries.
The Griffon was developed from the famous Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and was fitted to later marks of the Spitfire. Griffons were the last V-12 (twelve-cylinder engine, with the cylinders arranged in a ‘V’) engines designed and built by Rolls-Royce with production ending in 1955.
This example (T.1980.119) was built as a Mk 57 and later upgraded to a Mk 58 and fitted to the Avro Shackleton aircraft. These were fitted with contra-rotating propellers, with each engine having two sets of propellers, each set rotating in opposite directions to cancel out the torque.
The Spitfire is arguably the most famous aircraft ever built. It is best known for its role in the Battle of Britain in 1940. More than 22,000 were built in total.
The example in the museum (T.1971.20) was built in July 1945, by which time the Second World War in Europe had ended. It was used to give refresher flying training in Yorkshire for pilots and then spent several years as a ‘gate guard’ displayed at the entrance to an RAF airfield in Northumberland.
In 1971 it was given to the museum and was stored at East Fortune until this opened as the Museum of Flight in 1975.
The Fritz X guided bomb (T.1987.304) was used by the German Air Force in 1943 and 1944, primarily to attack ships but also against land targets, It is the first guided bomb (free-fall, as opposed to rocket-powered weapons) to be used operationally.
After release from the aircraft, it would fall under gravity, but using radio control it could be guided by an operator in the parent aircraft. The weapon could therefore be guided towards its target. Fritz X was first used in Sicily in July 1943 and later sank an Italian battleship in September 1943.
The Paveway II Laser Guided Bomb (IL.2015.44) is a modern smart bomb, although this version is obsolete. It uses an ordinary ‘dumb’ bomb fitted with a laser-seeker head. This picks up the reflected laser energy from a target marked by a laser designator. Using this reflected laser signal, the Paveway guides itself towards its target.
Concorde is probably the most famous airliner ever built and the world’s only successful supersonic airliner. Concorde entered service with British Airways and Air France in 1976 and the aircraft in the museum, G-BOAA, made the first passenger-carrying flight on 21 January 1976 from London Heathrow to Bahrain. Carrying 100 passengers Concorde was in service from 1976 until 2003 when the aircraft were finally retired to museums worldwide.
The decommissioned aircraft have gone on public display at museums around the world. G-BOAA (Golf-Bravo Oscar Alpha Alpha) (IL.2004.7.1) takes pride of place at the National Museum of Flight in East Fortune.