‘Copter nerds say helicopters are 10,000 spare parts oscillating in vague formation. Airplane pilots regard helicopter pilots with equal parts scorn and incredulity. Helicopters are… well, they’re weird. Like bumblebees, they look like they shouldn’t be able to fly at all, and yet, they do. Usually quite well.
Though the idea of rotor-powered vertical takeoff-and-landing aircraft has been toyed with for decades, centuries if you count da Vinci, helicopters really came into their own in the second half of the 20th century. There are helicopters in pretty much every air museum, but few dedicated solely to this bizarre form of transport. In southwest England, such a museum exists, appropriately named the Helicopter Museum.
With dozens of rotorcraft ranging from record breakers to infamous Soviet attack choppers, it’s a rare celebration of this strange-but-incredibly-useful machine. Here’s a look around.
Rotors to land, rotors to fly
One of the first exhibits you see upon entering the museum is a Westland Lynx, and not just any Westland Lynx. This is the one that broke, and still holds, the speed record for helicopters at 249 mph, or 401 kph. It’s a good way to start.
Because helicopter chassis aren’t particularly large, and their rotors are easily removed or angled in a storage-convenient way, there are a lot of aircraft packed into the relatively small hangars of the museum. Adjacent to the record-setting Lynx are several other Westland helicopters, including the big Wessex.
But it’s what’s just past the Wessex that, I think at least, is the real star here: a Mil Mi-24D Hind. As a child of the ’80s, this was the Soviet ‘bad-guy’ helicopter. Even today, over 50 years since its launch, the Hind looks mean and modern. And also big. Designed as an attack helicopter and a troop transport, it has a menacing bulk even tucked inside with its rotors folded. You can peek into the pilot’s and weapons officer’s canopies, and even have a look inside the main cabin. There are other Mil helicopters here too, including a Mi-4 Hound and Mi-8 Hip transport.
There are a wide range of other helicopters here too. A Sud-Ouest Djinn is one of the only tip-jet helicopters to make it to production, where instead of an engine spinning the rotor, exhaust gas is piped through the rotor and ejected at the end. There’s the oddly-shaped Kamov Ka-26 with its big engine pods and exchangeable cargo pod. There are also big choppers like a Sud/Aérospatiale Super Frelon and prototype EH101, as well as little ones, like a Robinson R22 and the triple-tail Air & Space 18A gyroplane.
Depending on the day, sometimes you can get inside some of the larger helicopters and have a look around, though which are open will vary. During my visit, I got to sit in the cockpit of a Westland 30 while one of the volunteers worked on the instrument panel. Very cool.
Being in the far west of England, the Helicopter Museum isn’t a day trip from London. However, if you do make it to the West Country, there are several museums in the area you might want to check out, including the Morgan Factory, and the excellent Fleet Air Arm, which we’ll have a tour of soon.
The Helicopter Museum is open every day during the summer, and Wednesday to Sunday for the rest of the year. Adults are £7.50/.50USD/3AUD. According to the museum, they’re in the process of expanding and updating the facilities, but the helicopters themselves are all still accessible.