Baljit and Brendan were two of the first people I met at the RAF Museum back in November 2014 in the early days before the ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition opened to the public. On the press preview day they helped me climb in and out of a replica Albatros D.Va. Sitting in the cramped cockpit and listening to them talk about the planes I realised they had an appreciation for these beautiful machines that went far beyond their current incarnation as museum objects.
Brendan told me how hard it was to get in and out of the Sopwith, I looked at these young lads and realised they were of an age with those early pilots of the First World War. Albert Ball, the flying ace who was awarded the Victoria Cross, died at the age of 20 in 1917. My two new acquaintances are apprentices at the museum, they are not fighting for their country but studying engineering at Barnet and Southgate College. Their hands on day-to-day experiences are not on cars at the local garage, but on the care and conservation of the vast array of planes, vehicles and even the few boats at the museum.
On a return visit I arranged to spend some time with Baljit and Brendan on their ‘normal’ day job to see what they got up to when not kitted out in full WW1 regalia. They were out and about on inspection duties when I arrived and I sat in their small office looking at the complex master plan on the wall. All 103 planes and aircraft in the museum require three monthly safety checks. Wires, cables, bolts, wings and wheels are rigorously checked. Safety is crucial not just for the public but for the objects too.
When they returned I quizzed them on their studies, what it is like to work at the museum and what they enjoy about their jobs. Baljit tells me it was not an obvious career choice for him. Working in the museum was not something that was discussed at school, but he is now hoping to stay on after his apprenticeship ends.
I loved listening to them talk about the planes, Brendan tells me about ‘cockpit diving’, going in head first to reach bolts and check wires. He loves the simplicity of the WW1 planes, they are like Airfix kits, it is easy to see how they are put together. He shows me pictures of the Fokker on the day they removed the wings in order to move it from the “Milestones of Flight Gallery” to the Graham-White Factory for the ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition. The pictures show how light the frame is, it makes you realise how incredibly fragile and insubstantial these planes were and the risks the early pilots took.
I talk to John O’Neill, Senior Aircraft Technician about the apprentices and how they fit into the museum. It is clear in the way he talks that these two young men are ambassadors for the museum. He reels off a list of events and experiences that they have been a part of, meeting the Duke of Edinburgh at the opening a great example of how their work behind the scenes marries with public engagement work in the museum and beyond.
John talks so highly of their commitment, enthusiasm and professionalism, he is like a proud father. I am kind of blown away at this respect and admiration. So often the stories coming out of museums for young people are negative; it is impossible to get a job, you have to work for free as a volunteer to get experience, degrees are expensive and don’t help you get a foot in the door. Here at the RAF Museum the apprentices are an integral part of the team.
As I leave I get them to show me what they have been working on, they have been checking the helicopter in the children’s gallery, I am glad they are doing a good job as my kids were in there just the week before. As we laughed and took pictures it struck me that Brendan and Baljit are not so different from the technicians who worked on planes in WW1. I mentioned that weight of responsibility, fixing up a plane not just to sit and be admired but to soar high up in the sky. I don’t think they had really thought about that connection before.
The RAF Museum has just won a National Lottery Award, the First World War in the Air exhibition has triumphed in the Best Heritage Project category. I am so glad they have won, because I have seen how these two young men have been a part of that process. The Museum is supporting and nurturing young talent and sadly it is not as common as you would wish. But I can’t help but think what better way to learn is there? I am not just talking about on the job skills but learning about our past and our history.
As Baljit and Brendan work on the planes, take them apart and put them back together, they are as close as anyone can be to those technicians and pilots of 100 years ago, keeping history alive not just by preserving but active hands on experiences and I can tell from their faces that they love every minute of it.