Prose & Photography: Robert Griffiths
South Wales Aviation Museum
“To most people, the sky's the limit. To those who love aviation, the sky is home” - Jerry Crawford
To many in aviation, the above is true, but there is also somewhere where everyone’s journey started in aviation; be it an airshow, a flight with a friend or family member, or just a strong part of your upbringing. For myself, it was an airshow at an RAF Maintenance base in South Wales just outside of Cardiff: Royal Air Force St. Athan. Then just 18 months old, little did I, nor my parents, realise the trajectory it would launch me on. RAF St. Athan would, for me, be where it all started, where the aviation bug bit and never let go. Unfortunately, the last show was held in 1991, and we moved onto other shows to sate my appetite for aviation.
In that time, aviation in South Wales has gone through a pretty tough and turbulent time, with Cardiff airport being bought by the Welsh Government after years of deterioration. But RAF St Athan itself has had trouble, from the RAF passing maintenance to public companies, pulling out most of its personnel in recent years. What has been a pleasure to see is companies moving into this former RAF base and making it their own. It is now home to Horizon Aircraft, GJD Services, Cardiff Aviation (set up by Iron Maiden’s singer Bruce Dickinson), along with Aston Martin.
The real clincher for me in the revival of aviation in South Wales, was an aviation museum celebrating not just the UK’s aviation heritage, but that of South Wales itself. It was the one thing that I always felt was missing when I was growing up aviation wise, with the nearest aviation related museum being in Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, over two and a half hours drive away. So you can imagine my excitement when I learned on a local facebook group that there was to be an aviation museum opening at RAF St Athan. Named the South Wales Aviation Museum (SWAM), it was to finally satiate decades of yearning, not just for myself, but apparently for many in Wales itself.
SWAM is the brainchild of Gary Spoors (GJD Services) and John Sparks (Horizon Aircraft) who want to make this a very much hands-on aviation museum. Both have a long history of aviation and it seems both have taste for collecting airframes of those going out of service or rescuing rare airframes from destruction. There are many more airframes due to the museum over the coming months, and if they are of the quality of what is currently in the hangar, then this will be a museum to watch. Their initial plan was to open on Easter weekend for maximum impact on opening for people to visit, and I am glad to say they nailed it and opened on time for that weekend.
On the day, they were supported fantastically by the local 2117 Air Training Corps Squadron from nearby Kenfig Hill. I was diligently directed by Cadets to ample and clearly designated parking just outside the hangar. On the hangar door was a huge SWAM logo in its resplendent colours of the Welsh flag with a Tornado topside silhouette. On entering, I was greeted by happy, smiling volunteers of the museum who give you a brief overview and hand you an information leaflet with all necessary information on the exhibits. There was also a donation box aptly made from a Hawker Siddeley Harrier canopy on the same table. There is a suggested £5 donation on entry which will go to support the museum in everything it is hoping to accomplish.
At this point, one has two options, either straight into the hangar for planes galore or off the side in the many rooms they have turned into exhibitions with everything from parachute history to local WWII history. They have many exhibits that have been generously donated by volunteers at the museum, with anything from uniforms through to shell casings found on and around St. Athan. The volunteers in these areas are immensely knowledgeable and are more than happy to answer any questions and talk about these local treasures. The museum also sports a very nice cafe and museum shop above these rooms and also gives a fantastic bird's eye view of the aircraft in the museum itself.
On walking into the hangar itself, you’re instantly greeted face to face by a de Havilland Vampire and thus starts your journey around these incredible machines. The inventory on opening day included the following:
Phantom FG.1 XV582 ‘Black Mike’
Black Mike is well known in the aviation community for its stark black paint scheme and its record for flying from Land’s End and John O’Groats in just 46 minutes and 44 seconds in February, 1988. She also became the first RAF Phantom to reach 5000 hours and would keep her scheme up to her last flight in February 1992. Her new home will be SWAM where she will be open for all to see.
Panavia Tornado GR.1P
Painted in the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) ‘raspberry ripple’ colour scheme, this particular Tornado was to be used as a trials aircraft throughout its career, being used in the development of many systems that would be used in the Tornado fleet. Last flying in 2005, it has since moved to private hands and was kept at Bruntingthorpe before moving to SWAM. The team currently have systems working and the goal is to get her to start up and move under her own power.
Fairey Gannet AEW.3
I believe this was the first time I have ever seen a Fairey Gannet let alone been able to touch it. SWAM’s Gannet is former Royal Navy XL500 and has moved about quite a bit, from RNAS culdrose, to HMS Victorious, to Boscombe Down to Brawdy and even Lossiemouth before she was put in storage in 1983. She is now undergoing restoration at SWAM with the ultimate hope being that she can once again grace our skies in the UK.
There are many other airframes in the museum with interesting stories and these are detailed nicely on papers that are numbered for your leisure. There are more due over time and the museum is set to expand substantially. Other airframes at the museum include:
de Havilland Sea Devon C.20
Percival Sea Prince
Canberra Nose Section WK128
Boeing 737 fuselage section
Jet Provost (outside exhibit)
de Havilland Vampire T.11
Folland Gnat T.1
The museum is definitely a must for any aviation enthusiast to visit, especially as more and more airframes turn up, but this is also going to be a great experience for children and could easily get them involved in aviation in the future; something sorely lacking in South Wales which I hope will be rectified over time. I would like to thank SWAM and the team for the effort they have gone through to make this museum a reality and I wish them all the luck in the future, you’ve made a childhood dream come true.