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Flying through history in Cambridgeshire

British military planes on display
British military planes on display
Photo copyright David S. White

By David Stewart White

In World War II this corner of England was a beehive of military aviation. Dozens of airfields dotted the generally flat countryside near Cambridge, home to British, American and other Allied fliers. Only echoes remain. The occasional roadside memorial, a few noisy active Royal Air Force bases, some sleepy semi-active RAF facilities, and abandoned airfields.

At Duxford, just outside of Cambridge, the region’s air history is kept alive by Britain’s Imperial War Museum. Duxford is home to a large collection of historic British aircraft — from fragile Tiger Moth biplanes to a Concord supersonic jet.

A handful of quaint looking of British-built commercial passenger planes are parked along the tarmac, paint fading and their airworthy days long past. But inside Duxford’s hangers, predominantly military aircraft have been restored and displayed in pristine condition. A number of aircraft are in flying condition, including a B-17 bomber and a Spitfire fighter.

On a recent visit, a Spitfire buzzed the airfield and brave visitors signed up for short flights in a bright yellow biplane. When the museum hosts special events, the field and skies above are often much more busy. This is a field of dreams for aging warriors, young aspiring fliers, history buffs, and everyday visitors.

The Duxford facility is also home to the American Air Museum. A huge hanger showcases America military aircraft from biplanes, through World War II planes, up to a still-futuristic looking SR71 spy plane. Suspended from hanger ceilings and parked on the floor, aircraft sit tail-to-nose, wingtips overlapping.

The machinery of air warfare is here in all its glory. The price of war lies just a few miles away at the American cemetery in nearby Cambridge where nearly 4,000 tombstones testify to some of the lives lost during the Second World War.

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