Weston-super-Mare’s Helicopter Museum is a great place to fly to, rotorhead or not
7 November 2022
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of flying to Old Warden, you’ll know what a gem the Shuttleworth Collection is. I was reminded of this fact on the annual Take Flight Aviation pilgrimage down to the Shuttleworth Flying Proms this summer. I flew one of several PA28s full of pilots, prosecco and picnic items for an overnight stay, taking full advantage of an evening of aerial displays by the likes of the Spitfire, Avro Anson and DH.88 De Havilland Comet, all set to music performed by a live orchestra.
The Collection’s famous ‘Edwardians’ – such as the Blériot XI (the world’s oldest airworthy aeroplane) and replica Bristol Boxkite – sadly didn’t make an appearance, but we enjoyed their company on a potter around the hangars the following morning.
Which brings me to the one problem with the Shuttleworth Collection: the only Westland you’ll find here is the mighty Lysander. There’s not a helicopter in sight! Well, unless you count ‘Little Nelly’, the gyrocopter used in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (you can’t hover a gyrocopter, so I don’t).
But the good news for rotorheads like me is that this amazing collection has a helicopter equivalent, and it goes by the name of The Helicopter Museum.
The Helicopter Museum occupies a series of hangars on the site of the former Weston-super-Mare Airport on the Somerset coast, and you can, of course, fly in by helicopter. I first did this three years ago, on my first land-away with passengers in the R44, for a small picnic fly-in.
This April, I was back for the Helicopter Club of Great Britain (HCGB) spring fly-in, and my machine of choice was a Bell 206 JetRanger.
Irrespective of the destination, flying a JetRanger was a dream come true for me, my early interest in helicopters having come from watching Anneka Rice flying around the country in one on Treasure Hunt.
My friend Alex and I hired the aircraft from Heliflight at Gloucestershire Airport, under the supervision of Heliflight owner Jon Lane, with Alex flying us there and me flying us back. It’s a half-hour flight from Gloucester to Weston-super-Mare, so even in a more expensive machine it was a much more budget-friendly journey than it had been for me in the R44 from Wellesbourne previously.
The route was straightforward, the only consideration being to avoid Bristol airspace (keeping them on a listening squawk, as they apparently don’t want to hear from you). Being on a former airfield, there’s plenty of space at the Museum to make your approach.
My previous visit had necessitated a high hover taxi over the fence into the parking area, but this time the fence had gone, the whole space having been opened up to provide parking for a great many more helicopters at a time.
We landed the JetRanger alongside the decent assortment of other helicopters that had been flown in by HCGB members, not least a Gazelle, EC120 and Alouette.
After tea in the recently expanded museum cafe, we were treated to a fascinating tour of the collection by its owner, Elfan ap Rees, who first began collecting helicopter-related paraphernalia in 1958. The museum has had a couple of iterations since, the most recent being officially opened in 1989 by Prince Andrew, who arrived for the occasion in a Wessex HC.4, which is now in the museum.
Today, the Helicopter Museum is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of rotary treasures amassed through a mix of acquisitions, donations, diplomacy and a sprinkling of luck. There are machines you’ll recognise even without a passing interest in helicopters: there’s an Agusta 109 in Italian law enforcement livery, a JetRanger and even a humble R22. There’s a Westland Wasp and Scout, of course, and lots of other Westlands. But there’s a whole lot more that even the seasoned helicopter enthusiast probably won’t have seen before.
Among the first machines to greet you as you enter the hangar is the Bristol 192 Belvedere – Britain’s answer to Boeing’s Chinook, designed and built in Weston-super-Mare and serving with our armed forces 18 years before it.
At the other end of the size spectrum is the nearby tip-jet driven Fairey Ultra-light (a reminder that we once had ultralight helicopters in this country – perhaps we will again?), and the bizarre-looking Saunders-Roe Skeeter, the first helicopter to serve with the Army Air Corps and the forerunner to the Scout.
There are also a few helicopters famous for a particular role or achievement. There are two of the Queen’s Royal Flights, and G-LYNX, holder of the speed record for helicopters. There’s the Mi8 featured in the Scarlett Johansson film Black Widow.
And, more than giving ‘Little Nelly’ a run for her money, there’s a Cierva C-30A. It’s thought to be one of the oldest gyrocopters in existence, and it’s displayed here in the decrepit condition in which it was found in a Tewkesbury garage.
In short, there’s a lot to take in, and whether you fly or drive it’s a marvellous collection that’s well worth a visit. Having journeyed through the history of helicopters, my own visit ended with the fulfilment of that (more or less lifelong) ambition to fly the JetRanger.
I’d previously flown the new version of it, the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X, but never the iconic original. Jon talked me through my first JetRanger engine start – a fairly involved procedure that I had to perform under the pressure of an audience of museum visitors! – and I then lifted into the hover to be marshalled sideways away from the museum building and departed out towards the sea.
I loved every minute of that flight back to Gloucester: the sound of the helicopter, how simple it was to fly, the feeling of being at the controls of something a little more substantial than the R44.
Landing back on the concrete outside the hangar, I had a sneaking suspicion that a type rating may be on the cards at some point. It may not be quite as exciting as some of the choppers we’d seen in the museum, but it’s a little more accessible.