By By Joseph Ambrogne | September 1, 2015
|A donated Agusta A109 GdiF variant, previously operated by Italy’s Guardia di Finanza. Photos courtesy of The
The rotorcraft industry is, like all of aviation, forward-looking. Unless you count the early days of Chinese bamboo-copters and Leonardo da Vinci’s “aerial screw,” it’s also fairly young. But a lot has happened since Igor Sikorsky first coaxed the VS-300 into free flight 75 years ago, and as the adage goes, it’s not the destination that counts—it’s the journey.
|Two Squirrels from the U.K. Defence Helicopter Flying School, just some of the many museum fly-in visitors.|
For Elfan Ap Rees, that journey began in 1958, 18 years after Sikorsky’s first helicopter flight. But what started as an aviation enthusiast’s personal collection has grown unexpectedly into a valuable series of artifacts, records and more than 80 rotorcraft known as The Helicopter Museum. Funded by grants and supported by governments, manufacturers and volunteers, the museum in Weston-super-Mare, England (about 2.5 hr west of London), collects rotorcraft of historical significance from around the world. It restores them to like-new condition and displays them to chronicle the history of rotary-wing aviation. The Helicopter Museum has enough character to make even the most progressive technologist stop to appreciate how we got to where we are.
Ap Rees’ own career touches on a few historical aviation milestones. Long before AgustaWestland, there was Westland Group, previously known as Bristol Aeroplane. Ap Rees first started in Bristol’s technical publications department “in a somewhat lowly capacity.” Already a lover of helicopters, he grew bored with the clerical nature of that work and enlisted in the U.K. Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. He spent five years there as a pilot. He also wrote for aviation magazines and started his own publications—among them (in 1977) Helicopter International, the longest-running rotorcraft industry magazine produced in Europe. In his spare time, he collected aviation documents and artifacts.
The aviation writing led to Ap Rees’ first flight in a helicopter, a Bristol Type 171 Sycamore Mk.3. Only 15 were ever produced, but Ap Rees was able to purchase one in 1969 after it was retired from service.
|The record-breaking Lynx was recently loaned to AgustaWestland for Yeovil’s centennial celebrations.|
With a second purchase, of a Bristol Belvedere in 1974, Ap Rees discovered a higher purpose for his collection. “It was actually set to be burned at an RAF air station, because it was redundant, and I stepped in and saved it,” he said. “About the same time, I suddenly realized that nobody was really preserving rotary-wing aircraft. I discovered that there were a number of early helicopters sitting around in the U.K.”
In the next few years, Ap Rees purchased more helicopters while attracting volunteers to help restore them. By 1978, after repairing land and buildings at the Weston-super-Mare airfield, Ap Rees opened his museum (numbering nine helicopters) to the public.
Ap Rees said he had no idea that first purchase would lead to a lifelong obsession. “What I always tell people is—don’t start collecting things, because you don’t know where it’s going to end up,” he said.
The Helicopter Museum has gone through many changes since the 1970s and now encompasses some 4.5 acres of airfield property housing more than 80 aircraft, with many others undergoing restoration. In addition to its primary purpose of collecting, restoring and preserving rotorcraft, the museum hosts corporate events. It includes a café, gift shop, interactive zone, theater and grass helipad.
Ap Rees admits that many of the museum’s visitors aren’t fellow rotorcraft enthusiasts. With the airfield located in a large tourist spot, “quite a number of our visitors come along looking for something different to do,” he said.
“The usual reaction when they walk into the hangar is, ‘Good grief, we never knew that helicopters were so big,’” he said. Many people, Ap Rees has found, don’t have much up-close experience with airframes like the museum’s two largest: an early prototype of the EH Industries EH101 Merlin and a Sud Aviation SA321F Super Frelon with a 30-seat configuration. (As if to emphasize its size, the Super Frelon sits next to a two-seat, piston-powered Robinson Helicopter R22.)
|The Lynx family on display.|
For the savvy enthusiast, a bigger draw may be the museum’s one-of-a-kind Westland Lynx. Designated the “G-LYNX,” the former technology demonstrator was fitted with high-powered engines and experimental rotor blades under the British Experimental Rotor Programme. In 1986, it set (and still holds) the absolute world record of 216.45 kt for speed over a straight course of roughly 8 nm. “It went back to Westland in 2010, and the apprentices restored it in its original speed record color scheme,” said Ap Rees.
The main function of the museum’s helipad is for airborne tourists. Many interesting, sometimes very large, visitors pass through. “We’re a regular stopover for military helicopters,” said Ap Rees. “We get Chinooks coming in sometimes three times per week. Very often, they’ll land, come in for lunch and let the public have a look at the aircraft.” Other helicopters land simply to visit local businesses in the area.
The museum also hosts special “air-experience” flights with other organizations and has a few airworthy helicopters on display. But there is a caveat. “We don’t fly them unless we have a duplicate,” Ap Rees said. For one thing, he runs a museum, not a maintenance hangar. More importantly, almost all of the display aircraft are priceless—whether they are limited-production, retired, representing technological milestones or completely irreplaceable. “We don’t want to risk losing them.”
With a dedicated staff able to restore just about any rotorcraft, Ap Rees’ collection theoretically could expand to the limits of his imagination. With its planned expansion of an additional hangar, he said, space is no issue. Still, there are a few challenges when it comes to acquiring the next specimen for his menagerie.
|The bird that marked the start of the museum’s collection: the Sycamore G-ALSX, built in 1950.|
Cost is one ever-present hurdle. There are also challenges in acquiring rare helicopters, particularly those from the U.S. since that government will only donate helicopters to a foreign museum if it is government-run.
The number-one helicopter on Ap Rees’ wish list, the Bell Helicopter AH-1 Cobra, has been nearly impossible to obtain. “So far, we’ve just run into a brick wall every time,” said Ap Rees.
His ties to the industry may help; he’s asking Bell if it can acquire a Cobra and then sell it to the museum. His commercial contacts have paid off before, helping him save an otherwise doomed U.S. airframe. The museum acquired its Gyrodyne QH-50 DASH drone from a third-party manufacturer, and Bell helped save the landing gear from a scrapped Boeing Vertol XCH-62 before it was discarded.
Meanwhile, the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center near Philadelphia boasts the only V-22 on public display. The Osprey marks a rotorcraft milestone. Ap Rees doesn’t have one yet (because it’s of U.S. design). On that note, the resourceful collector advised, “Patience. One thing about history is that you don’t have to rush to it.”
The U.K.’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 2014 honored the Westland Lynx G-LYNX with its prestigious Engineering Heritage Award for its 1986 absolute helicopter speed record.
Presented at The Helicopter Museum, the award was the 99th bestowed by the professional society and the first given to a rotorcraft. Past honorees included the Concorde supersonic transport and the Jaguar E-Type auto. At the September 2014 award ceremony were Trevor Eddington, who piloted the modified Lynx on its record-setting flight, and AgustaWestland apprentices Brendan Burr and Benjamin Tooth, who restored the G-LYNX to its speed-record configuration in 2011. Eddington died in November 2014. The award also honored The Helicopter Museum team that began restoration of the aircraft and maintains it.