A year has passed since I began volunteering as the Blogger in Residence for the ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition at the RAF Museum in Hendon. This is my 11th and final blog and it has been great fun to look back to my 1st blog written on the 8th December 2014. I clearly remember my excitement at being able to see the exhibition in the final stages of completion before it had opened to the public.
Highlights such as seeing mannequins being dressed in original World War 1 uniforms, meeting the relatives of Manfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron and going to the Royal opening with Prince Philip will stay with me for a very long time.
My most memorable moments have been meeting fantastic staff who have always been more than happy to share their expertise. I have enjoyed talking to Nina in the archives, Brendan and Baljit the young apprentices, Ellen and David in the learning team and Adam in collections.
It has been a year when I have learnt so much about the sacrifice of those brave men and women who faced such uncertain times and took such risks in those early planes at the birth of the aviation industry.
The year was perfectly finished off with the ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition winning an National Lottery Award, I felt very privileged to be invited to attend the awards ceremony which was filmed for television. With so many staff and volunteers spending so many hours on the exhibition, I felt rather guilty taking a spot.
It was a wonderful evening but rather than dwelling on Peter Andre’s singing or our exuberant dancing I want to dedicate this last post to the volunteers who work at the RAF Museum. This blog is about Mike Sullivan and John Richardson and a WW1 airfield beacon.
I first met Mike and John at the press opening of the exhibition, I had been told they had a story to tell and they did not disappoint. Dressed in their matching blue overalls and brimming with enthusiasm they told me about the Barbier gas beacon (or lighthouse). It was one of four used to light the Rennington Night Emergency Landing Ground in Northumberland during 1917-18. The lighthouses where set out in an L-shape and provided No.36 Squadron (Home Defence) with a safe place to land during defensive night patrols against hostile aircraft.
The real story comes from the fact the beacon had been sitting in a farmers shed from the end of the War through to the 1970s. The farmers land had been requisitioned during the War and whether he decided to keep the light as compensation or purely by accident we are not entirely sure. The light was accessioned in 1979 and has sat in storage ever since.
It was Mike and John who have carried out painstaking research and restoration into the rare light. Tracking down original designs for it in a 1922 copy of Flight Magazine, they shared with me their drawings and described how they made their own key to open the casing. Their ingenuity in reverse-engineering the clockwork mechanism allowed them to discover the full potential of the light, working out the timed rotation and returning this once forgotten piece of World War 1 history to its former glory.
Whenever I see that beacon it sends tingles down my spine thinking of what it would have meant to those young pilots up in the night sky, the relief at a familiar sight in the dark, the thought of home, safety and a hot cup of tea (or something stronger).
What I really love is how it sits in the very heart of the Grahame White Factory, wherever you are you see its flash. It is the beating heart of the ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition and it is a symbol of how important volunteering is to the RAF Museum. Mike and John have saved and restored this beautiful piece of history integral to the story of the First World War, and as volunteers are just as important to the story of the RAF Museum. Meeting them and seeing their work is why I have been so proud to be Blogger in Residence, why I have enjoyed my year so much and why I am sad to say goodbye.
To find out more about the First World War in the Air exhibition please visit the RAF Museum website – http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/london/whats-going-on/events/opening-of-first-world-war-in-the-air-exhibition/