On the northern edge of Montrose stands an important piece of aviation history. In February 1913 the Royal Flying Corps established Britain's first operational military airfield on a nearby farm before moving it to a more permanent location in December of that year. It was the first of many hundreds of military airfields that would be established throughout the length and breadth of the UK by 1945: including 94 in Scotland alone. Today a surviving part of the large military airfield that developed here is home to the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre.
There are two ways into the Heritage Centre. A road running south east from very close to the junction between the A92 and the A937 on the northern edge of Montrose leads you directly onto the site. An alternative brown tourist signposted route takes a slightly more southerly approach that brings you through the Broomfield Industrial Estate now occupying much of the old air station. The less direct route has the advantage of taking you past the three "Major Burke's Sheds", modified Indian Army pattern sheds that were erected here at the end of 1913. These may be the oldest military aircraft hangars still standing anywhere in the world, and while two have been reclad to look like remarkably modern industrial units, the third looks much as it would when originally built.
The Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre is located in and around the old Station HQ building. What you find when you arrive is one of the very best aviation attractions in Scotland. Yes, you can find Scottish air museums that are larger, and have more aircraft: but we've never been anywhere that offers visitors such an enthusiastic welcome, nor anywhere that gives such a strong sense of evolution. We have visited twice, in May 2008 and September 2014, and the amount of development between our visits was remarkable. And much more is planned.
On arrival you are greeted by three of the Heritage Centre's most striking exhibits. Most immediate is the yellow mobile radar unit, with the name of the Heritage Centre emblazoned across its dish. Nearby is one of the centre's complete aircraft, Gloster Meteor T7, serial number WF825. It's highly appropriate that this particular aircraft should be at Montrose as it has local links. On 7 June 1951 the aircraft was delivered by the manufacturer to 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron, which was based at RAF Turnhouse, now Edinburgh Airport.
It is fair to say, however, that you will probably only take real notice of the radar unit and Meteor after you've had a good look at the Heritage Centre's prize exhibit, Supermarine Spirfire Mark Vb "Red Lichtie" sitting on the grass in front of the old station headquarters building. The aircraft is a magnificently built full size replica. The original aircraft, serial number EP121, was paid for with £5,000 from the Arbroath Spitfire Fund: money raised by the people of Arbroath, traditionally known as "Red Lichties" after the red light displayed in the high circular window tower at Arbroath Abbey to guide fishing vessels into harbour. EP121 was delivered on 24 May 1942 and served with a number of squadrons, including, briefly, 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, before being damaged beyond repair in a landing accident on 29 June 1943 at RAF Digby in Lincolnshire. On 13 February that year, fighter ace Squadron Leader J.E. Johnson had probably shot down a German Fw190 fighter near Boulogne while flying EP121.
Your visit starts in the building housing the reception and shop, where you will encounter for yourself the infectious enthusiasm which seems to mark out everyone associated with the Heritage Centre. In the rear of this building is a recreated room from a 1940s house. The main exhibitions are housed in the old station headquarters building, and here you can watch a video on the history of Montrose Air Station before moving through a series of rooms. These include one fitted out as a pilot's bedroom, and another telling the story of Montrose Air Station. This includes a wonderful, and large, model of the air station as it would have been during World War II.
The range of exhibitions also look at the more sombre side of flying, especially in wartime. While the dangers of flying in combat are obvious, many would-be pilots failed even to survive their training, especially during World War I. The hazardous story of flying at Montrose is also remembered in another way. By some accounts this is the most haunted place in the UK. Ghost stories began to circulate at Montrose Air Station soon after the first fatality here, of Lt. Desmond Arthur, who died in a controversial training accident on 27 May 1913 at nearby Lunan Bay. After the start of World War II, stories of ghostly apparitions grew in both number and variety. Many inevitably involved the appearance of figures dressed in flying clothing, of both first and second world war styles, but stories also began to circulate of mysterious biplanes circling the airfield at night.
Beyond the confines of the old station HQ building, the Heritage Centre offers a range of other attractions. A separate building is home to the remarkable aviation collection of the late Richard Moss, previously housed in the Kirriemuir Aviation Museum he established. Visitors to the Heritage Centre can also find out just what life would have been like inside an Anderson Shelter, the corrugated iron shelters issued to families throughout the UK during the Blitz; and inside a concrete pillbox, complete with internal wooden partitions and equipment.
Towards the rear of the site are three modern hangars. One of these is a workshop and store not open to the public, but the other two are home to some real aviation treasures. The most modern addition when we visited was a galvanised building in which it is intended to house a series of exhibits about World War I, including a replica of the first Royal Aircraft Factory Be2 biplanes flown to France by Montrose-based No.2 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps at the very beginning of the war. This replica is being built by the Heritage Centre.
Already on view is a full size replica Sopwith Camel. These aircraft achieved a fearsome reputation during the latter stages of the first world war, both as highly effective fighters and as seriously unforgiving aircraft to fly. One pilot once said of the Camel: "It gives you three choices: Victoria Cross, red cross, or wooden cross." It is sobering to think that trainee pilots were let loose in Sopwith Camels at a fairly early stage in their training at Montrose, and still more sobering to consider how many failed to survive the fairly common occurrence of an engine failure on take-off.
The David Butler Building, which had doubled in length between our visits, houses the learning centre, a space especially designed for the school groups who are frequent visitors. The most imposing exhibit in the building is a 1950s era De Havilland Sea Vampire T.22 twin boom jet fighter, serial number XA109, while other attractions include a collection of jet engines, a biplane in a German World War I scheme, and a Link Trainer.
Montrose Air Station was established less than ten years after the world's first flight by a powered aircraft, made by the Wright brothers on 17 December 1903. In 1912 fears about German military ambitions led to the decision to build twelve "air stations" for the Royal Flying Corps. Montrose was picked because aircraft based here would be able to protect Royal Navy bases at Rosyth, Cromarty and Scapa Flow.
On 13 February 1913 five aircraft of No 2 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, took off from RAE Farnborough under the command of Major C.J. Burke. The epic 450 miles journey north took 13 days and the air station was initially established at Upper Dysart Farm, 3 miles south of Montrose. The site was far from ideal, and by the end of 1913 the move was underway to the new location at Broomfield, where you find the Heritage Centre today.
In August 1914, No.2 Squadron was the first RFC unit to fly to France, and during World War I the Montrose Air Station undertook an ever more important training role, which culminated with the working up of three US Army Air Service squadrons from March 1918. RAF Montrose, as it was by now known, closed in 1920, only to reopen on 1 January 1936 as No.8 Flying Training School.
During World War II, a number of RAF and Royal Naval Air Service units served at RAF Montrose, and Commonwealth, Polish, Czech, American, Russian, Turkish, Free French and other Allied nationals all trained here. The airfield was also used operationally by fighter squadrons defending Scotland, despite never having paved runways built. RAF Montrose closed on 4 June 1952. In 1983 the Montrose Air Station Heritage Trust was formed, and in 1992 the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre opened its doors to the public.