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AirSpace takes off!

Gary Parsons looks at Duxford's latest building project, due to open on 29 August

After nearly four years of construction, Duxford's new Airspace building is nearing completion and will open its doors to the public for the first time on 29 August in readiness for the following weekend's September airshow.

Fitting out of the Imperial War Museumís new £25 million Airspace exhibition, created to commemorate British and Commonwealth aviation history and the contribution of aircraft manufacturers over the years, won't be fully complete until July 2007, but the IWM will allow access to certain areas over the next few months so that visitors are not denied the opportunity to see the aircraft positioned in the vast new hangar, such as Concorde, Vulcan and the Lancaster.

The culmination of a ten-year £40 million capital programme that commenced with the Land Warfare Hall, followed by the American Air Museum, visually Airspace is much different to that of the old Superhangar on which it is based - indeed the new building uses the steel structure of the old Superhangar, as it was found that the steelwork was more than adequate to use to suspend the planned aircraft from. The 6,600 square metre floorspace the old Superhangar is now effectively the main exhibition hall, and the extra 5,400 square metres of space created by the 'skin' of the new building has been used to create extra exhibition areas, a conference centre and, most importantly for the aircraft, a 'conservation area' where large aircraft can be worked on under cover. Indeed, the original Superhangar doors have been retained to form the back wall of the conservation area - this will enable future rotation of aircraft to be behind an 'airlock', so that the weather won't affect the stability of the aircraft suspended, something that has to be considered when rotations are made in the American museum building. The construction of the building is something of a world-leader too, the northern wall using materials similar to that used in the Cornwall Eden project but modified to eliminate certain bandwidths of UV light.

Airspace will portray the past, present and future of aviation through a series of interactive exhibits and a timeline display demonstrating how Britainís aviation companies came together to form what is now BAE Systems, the company being a major sponsor of the Airspace project. The main hall showcases a total of twenty-eight restored aircraft, all of which can trace their roots back to BAE Systemsí predecessor companies. From the mezzanine gallery, visitors can view all the aircraft display in the main exhibition hall, especially those that are hung from the ceiling - a controversial move to some people, as it means types such as the Mosquito and Canberra are now 'out of reach', but it is a necessary move simply due to the large number of aircraft now on the Duxford site. It is hoped that all of Duxford's aircraft will be able to be under cover once Airspace is fully finished - the first aircraft destined for the conservation area are the Shackleton and Victor, which will be stripped and assessed for future conservation work. Long-term they will have to return outside, but hopefully after adequate sealing and weatherproofing can be done post restoration.

In the air tonight

The Airspace building is much more than simply a hangar - it provides a climate-controlled environment in which to preserve the aircraft, as well as plenty of exhibition space, including conference and educational facilities. It provides Duxford with a world-class museum building in which visitors will feel comfortable (something the old Superhangar failed to do on a cold winter's day!) and a facility for interactive displays about aircraft, how they fly and how they are made. This first phase, due to open on 29 August, has been partly funded by the Millennium Commission and the Wolfson Foundation through the 'ReDiscover' science centre and museum renewal fund - 'What is an aircraft?' examines what an aircraft is (and isn't) and considers the basic aim of an aircraft - to lift off the ground and fly. A series of interactive displays demonstrate how different aircraft achieve lift, from a balloon to a missile. 'How do aeroplanes fly?' leads visitors through the concepts of lift, drag and thrust. It allows visitors to investigate aircraft mechanisms, control surfaces and instruments and gives everyone the opportunity to find out if they have the skills and aptitudes to be a pilot.

Once the complete exhibition is finished in July next year, visitors will find out how different aircraft are designed and adapted to carry out many different roles. They will get to know aircraft designers, test pilots, ground crew, fighter pilots, engineers and factory workers from the past to the present. Visitors will also have an opportunity to consider how aviation impacts on their lives and to find out what its future holds through a mix of video and sound displays; 'hands-on' displays; items to handle; computers; words and pictures; and historic objects. Engines, vehicles, weapons and other objects from the Imperial War Museum collections will support the aircraft displays. The IWM Duxford's Director, Richard Ashton, explained: "Airspace will commemorate the outstanding achievements of British and Commonwealth men and women over a hundred years of aviation history. It will serve as a focus to educate and inspire the pilots, engineers and designers of tomorrow. It will ensure the long-term preservation of aircraft, both civil and military, which helped to shape the world. It will promote an understanding of the role and impact of aviation in all our lives. It will preserve a key part of our cultural heritage for future generations.

"This tells only part of the story. Such bald facts cannot hope to convey the spirit of AirspaceThis spirit reveals itself in many ways, and is indeed evident across the entire Duxford site. It is seen in the sheer enthusiasm and dedication of those involved in the project, their eagerness to see that Airspace does justice to its theme. The countless hours of painstaking work by the aircraft conservation teams - including 650 volunteers - who continue to produce the astonishing results, which set the standards throughout the world. The work of the people here who have developed innovative concepts for creating displays in which apparently basic questions - such as 'How do aircraft fly?'- are answered in an imaginative and thought-provoking style. There will also be considerable marketing effort to disseminate the appeal of Airspace and attract visitors to come and share the experience.

"It is a team effort of magnificent proportions, an effort which I know will achieve the stated aims and, moreover, make Airspace a place which hundreds of thousands of visitors will, quite simply, enjoy!"


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