Collections: The Riches of East Fortune

Collections: The Riches of East Fortune

The grasses wave in the breeze among the partially abandoned buildings at East Fortune Airfield, nestled in the hills outside Edinburgh, Scotland. A walk, map in hand, among the rounded hangars, munitions storage bunkers, machine shops, and the solitary, block-like control tower takes you through decade after decade of early aviation history. During World War I, East Fortune served as a base for British airships patrolling the North Sea for German U-boats. It was also the site from which the Scottish-built airship R34 took off in 1919 on the first round-trip flight across the Atlantic. A generation later, pilots training to search the seas for warships boarded Bristol Beaufighters on these runways. After World War II, the British converted many military airfields to industrial parks, but East Fortune was preserved, and during the cold war it was used as a food stockpile for recovery after a nuclear war.

Today, some of the buildings house artifacts of the National Museums of Scotland’s Museum of Flight, though curator Adam Smith sees the old buildings as artifacts themselves. “Almost every single building is still intact,” he says. “It’s fascinating to get an old map of the field and find the old World War I sites.”

East Fortune is one of only two airfields in Great Britain awarded the designation “ancient monument”—surprising in a country dotted with medieval castles. Most of the field, which is now owned by two farmers, is protected from commercial developers by legislation. But, notes Smith, “when you’re neighboring a large city, nothing’s safe.”

As he strolls across the field, Smith would be easy to mistake for a college sophomore heading back to his dorm. But his youth belies a sophisticated understanding of museum stewardship and the vision he has for East Fortune. In addition to protecting the airfield from commercial development, Smith is determined to ensure the museum stirs passions for all things winged, especially among those who aren’t aviation fans—yet. East Fortune hosts yearly Festivals of Flight that feature a massive fly-in, demonstrations, and lectures, and beyond that, the museum fosters a broad examination of the subject. “The name is the ‘Museum of Flight’—the subject in its entirety,” Smith says. “We certainly don’t limit ourselves to the Scottish perspective. The upshot is the effect that aviation has had on human society.”

Smith, who didn’t have a background in aviation before becoming the curator, believes many aerospace museums cater too much to hardcore airplane buffs. “I feel there is an obsession with the Second World War and with military aviation in general that is sort of unhealthy,” he says. “We want to pitch ourselves to the 99 percent of the population that doesn’t know the difference between a Mustang and a Spitfire.”

Which is not to say that aficionados of military aviation will be disappointed in the museum’s collection. There’s a Messerschmitt Me 163—a rocket-powered aircraft designed to intercept Allied bombers during World War II, and a Vietnam-era U.S. Marine Corps F-4J Phantom. In East Fortune’s workshop, Derek Macphail and James Neil are restoring a Spitfire Mk 21. This example spent many years on display at a Royal Air Force base, where it was subjected to rough handling and countless rain and snow storms.

Resting on wooden jigs, the Spitfire is surrounded by several other aircraft waiting to be rebuilt or simply cleaned up for display, as well as engines and engine parts from the museum’s collection, including a Daimler-Benz inverted V-12 from the Bf 110 that Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy, flew to Scotland while seeking refuge during World War II. Visitors familiar with the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility, in which dusty aircraft and aircraft parts from various eras are anachronistically crowded together, will feel at home.

In keeping with the museum’s mission, the restoration of the Spitfire is extending beyond the nuts and bolts. “A part of this [effort] is also an oral history project,” Smith says. “We want to find the people who built it and maintained it.”

This is typical of the museum’s philosophy of keeping the focus on the larger story of aviation’s development. The museum displays the oldest aircraft in Great Britain, the 1896 Hawk glider designed by Percy Filcher, alongside modern jet fighters; “Within 60 years [of the Hawk] we can show people an airplane that can fly at two times the speed of sound,” Smith says.

Another representative of a notable aviation milestone is the nose section of an English Electric Canberra that made the first round-trip transatlantic flight within 24 hours. The Canberra’s return trip took 10 hours, three minutes; by contrast, when the R34 airship made its historic transatlantic round trip 33 years earlier, the two journeys took 108 and 75 hours.

East Fortune houses space hardware too, including a section of Blue Streak, the first stage of the Europa rocket, which was designed to launch nuclear weapons but was ultimately developed to boost satellites (a job it never got to do).

Outside, a de Havilland Comet, which is often open for tours, and an Avro Vulcan rest on a long-abandoned taxiway. The two aircraft serve as lonely sentinels, guarding the old hangars until next year’s Festival of Flight and fly-in bring the drone of engines back to East Fortune.

—John Sotham

** Editor's Note: Revised on 4/12/10 to correct Hess' flight destination from England to

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