6 May, 2003: Come friendly bombs

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So, on Sunday I went to the Air Show at Duxford, which was a nice day out which basically involved sitting around in the sun drinking wine and watching aeroplanes fly about. Which is nice, if you like that sort of thing.

It had been a very long time since I last attended an air show. There were a few things I had forgotten:

While I can see the logic for that last one, it's a bit annoying, since it means that most of the time you find yourself glimpsing aeroplanes between other peoples' heads:

Spitfire, Mustang, Corsair, heads B17, Hercules, heads

... though, obviously, many aeroplanes are capable of flying high enough to offer a better view:

Spitfire, Mustang, Corsair, no heads Spitfire, Mustang, Corsair, airliner contrail

To the previous points I should add,

... so I wasn't able to get decent photos of many of the things on show. In particular, they had a Harrier doing its whole hovering/flying backwards/generally taking the piss number, which was interesting to see, but too far away to photograph. (I had a brief go at taking photos through binoculars, which works fine with my camera, but in bright sunlight it's impossible to see the viewing screen, so I couldn't make this work.)

The Duxford Air Show isn't an arms market like the Farnborough or Paris ones, so the various stands and stalls are there to solicit recruits for the RAF and Army, and flog all manner of aviation-related tat. I guess I now know where publicans buy those prints of one or other sort of aeroplane without which no lounge bar would be complete.

I wonder how big the market for Second World War memorabilia actually is; judging from the number of vendors of books, videos, model aeroplanes, leather flying jackets and so forth, it must be pretty large. Needless to say none of the vendors looked old enough to have remembered the war, but so what?

The `theme' for this air show was the 60th anniversary of the famous Dambusters Raid on German hydroelectric plants. Personally I thought this was rather dubious. I wouldn't expect an air show in early August to celebrate the anniversary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; while the 1,200 civilians who died in the attack on the Ruhr dams were few by comparison with those killed in Hamburg, Berlin or Dresden, a celebration of the raid seemed to me in rather poor taste. My feeling was compounded by the fact that the discussion of the raid broadcast over the PA system, including archive interviews with surviving air crew, never once mentioned German casualties.

This, I think, is symptomatic of a more general problem with Duxford and probably with other museums of the same type. Weapons and other artefacts are presented without enough historical context to allow the uninformed visitor to understand them.

A particular example: a few years ago Duxford acquired a collection of US aircraft and built an annexe to house them. This is a large and rather pretty shed which is somewhat longer and somewhat wider than a B52 bomber.

Inside is an extensive collection of US aircraft from the twentieth century. There are some witty touches-- suspended from the ceiling is a U2, and beneath it on the ground is a Soviet SA-2 missile of the type used to shoot down Gary Powers -- but the centerpiece of the display is a B52.

B52 engine nacelle

This looks pretty much how you'd expect it to: it's big, hardly elegant-looking, and has a bunch of little pictures of bombs on the side indicating the number of missions it completed over North Vietnam. Next to the bomber is a little bit of blurb talking about it. I didn't take notes of exactly what it said, but the gist was, (dates may be slightly wrong -- sorry)

This is a B52. It was manufactured in 1956 and delivered to its unit in 1958. From 1966 to 1972 it was involved in air raids on Communist North Vietnam.

There's a really serious omission here. What was the aeroplane doing between delivery to its unit and its missions in Vietnam? Why was the United States building aeroplanes of this type in 1956, long before it became necessary to harrass the Viet Cong by dropping thousands of tonnes of bombs on them? What is this account of the B52 missing?

The B52 was designed to drop hydrogen bombs on Russian cities. As an instrument of policy, it exists because US governments of the 1950s had calculated that, one day, it might serve US interests to murder somewhere on the order of 50 million Russians in an afternoon. Happily, that didn't come to pass, and instead many B52s were used for conventional bombing in Vietnam. But it's impossible to understand the B52 -- to see why anyone would come to build such a thing -- without knowing this information. Presenting the aeroplane without this supporting explanation is dishonest, and reduces the museum to serving only the worst sort of aeroplane geekery, which is very sad.

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.