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FEATURE – Stafford, home of the RAF Museum’s hidden treasures

Photo: Percival Proctor III Z7197 with a Hawker Afghan Hind to the left. DARREN HARBAR


Tip of the Iceberg

Ken Ellis visits Stafford to marvel at the Royal Air Force Museum’s hidden treasures

Every museum has a cache of items – some yet to go on display, others retired from the public gaze or awaiting use in exchanges. As might be expected, the RAF Museum has a vast storage facility which contains around 65,000 objects ranging in size from a Supermarine Seagull V amphibian to a marble fragment from Adolf Hitler’s desk.

The museum has occupied a portion of the site run by the Defence Electronics and Components Agency, to the east of Stafford, on a long lease for nearly 20 years. The multi-bay warehouse covers a floor area of 62,430sq ft (5,800m2). The majority of this is divided by row upon row of 30ft (9.1m) high shelving stacks.

An idea of the scope of the holdings can be gleaned from the complex operation mounted from March 1999, when the museum moved in. The transition lasted five months and required 160 lorry loads to complete.

The first storage site was at RAF Henlow in Bedfordshire. This existed long before the RAF Museum opened at Hendon in November 1972. As the idea of a national exhibition for the RAF crystallised in the late 1950s, Henlow become the major repository for would-be artefacts gleaned from RAF stations, the aviation industry and public donations. Fondly known as the ‘Pickle Factory’, it was not until 1990 that Henlow was completely cleared.

From 1975 the former Shortstown airship works at Cardington, Bedfordshire, became the home of RAF Museum storage and restoration. This was not – as is often thought – the gargantuan twin airship hangars, but the adjacent factory buildings.

As the RAF’s tenure at Cardington waned, the decision was taken to separate the deep store from the workshop. The latter temporarily relocated to RAF Wyton, near Huntingdon, from June 1999. Plans for what would become the Michael Beetham Conservation Centre (MBCC) were first announced in May 1996 and it was officially opened at the ‘northern’ RAF Museum, Cosford in Shropshire, on May 13, 2002.

The search for a long-term store settled on a sub-site of what was then the sprawling 16 Maintenance Unit at Stafford, just 12 miles (19km) to the northeast of Cosford. As noted above, the first trucks started rolling to the new venue in the spring of 1999 and Cardington closed its doors on January 1, 2000. Cosford also acts as a deep store for airframes and other items, under Stafford’s supervision…

The rest of this article is in the current issue of FlyPast, cover dated January 2019. It’s available in UK shops now or can be purchased via the website – Alternatively, you can download a digital edition from – simply search ‘FlyPast’.

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