‘I LIKE to think of myself as chief storyteller,’ says Maggie Appleton, whose real job title is chief executive officer of the newly revamped Air Force Museum in Hendon, north London. It’s a huge field of a place littered with hangars and buildings, and a vast array of military aircraft.
‘The museum was becoming a bit of an aircraft and technical panel,’ Maggie, pictured below, says. ‘Our job was to put the stories of the people who serve in the RAF back at the centre of everything. Especially this year, which is the centenary of the RAF.’
And those stories start from the minute you walk into the museum, through a wall of headgear, from helmets and nurses’ caps to turbans, which shows the diversity of the RAF.
‘Every day, you hear another story from someone who wore one of these hats,’ she says. ‘Some heart-breaking, some hilarious.’
Inside, there are life-size cut-outs of some of the characters who have become part of the RAF’s history: Lawrence of Arabia, who became an RAF boat technician post notoriety; Stuart Robinson, the Afghan veteran who made the decision to have both his legs amputated after being blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device) so he could forge on with his own recovery; and Ayla Holdom, the first openly transgender pilot who served alongside Prince William, flying an Air Sea Rescue helicopter, like the one shown above.
This place is rammed with hardware, from planes that pre-date the First World War — huge things you can’t believe ever got into the sky and look like they are held together with Pritt Stick and spit — to the massive Sunderland flying boat, with its Dalek-like gun turrets, that you can have a cup of coffee under. There’s also a life-size model of the most expensive fighter plane ever built, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will be flying from the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.
‘As a museum geek, whenever I took my own kids to a museum, I would be into reading everything that was on display,’ says Maggie, ‘And they would be going: “Mum, can we go to the play area”, so we’ve put things to play on throughout the museum.’
When she says things to play on, she doesn’t mean only for kids. There are little planes to get in, wooden aircraft to assemble, some random buttons for little ones to play with, uniforms to try on, hi-tech flight simulators, aeronautical design programmes where you can invent your own plane, and CSI-style touch-screen tables where you can debate moral issues surrounding the RAF.
Although, the huge aircraft hanging over you are fascinating and awe-inspiring, Maggie is aware of the darker subtext of war. ‘We tell the stories through different people’s eyes,’ she says. ‘And we have ethics meetings because it’s important not to sugar-coat the stories’.
The museum reopened last week, with a flying visit — quite literally — by Prince Edward, but what was most thrilling to Belgian-born Kris Hendrix, a military historian, was that the place was filled with RAF personnel, past and present, and no doubt future. ‘We love that three generations of a family could come and all have a great time,’ he says. ‘Whether you’re looking at aircraft, getting into the tech or just sunbathing out there on the green.’
Even as someone unimpressed by technology, you can’t help but marvel at these aircraft, some slick, some beaten-up, all with a story to tell. And after some time on the flight simulator — something that computer game-savvy youngsters are unsurprisingly brilliant at — you think, maybe you could have been part of this yourself.
‘We’re not here to recruit,’ says Maggie, pointing out a display on Noor Khan, a Muslim woman dropped behind enemy lines during the Second World War to support the French resistance, and one of her personal heroes. ‘But we love that everyone is represented, because with the RAF, it’s not who you are or where you come from, it’s always been what you can do that matters.’
■The RAF Museum, admission free, Grahame Park Way, London, rafmuseum.org.uk