Farnborough Air Sciences Trust
The History of FAST
IMAGE: The original Balloon School building in 1908. The building remains in its original form and now houses the FAST Museum and Collections.
The Origins & History of FAST
Safeguarding Farnborough’s Unique Aviation Heritage
Farnborough has been deeply involved with aviation research since the earliest days of flight in this country – as this website well shows – and has influenced the progress of military and civil aviation throughout the world (and space). The history of aviation research, development and application at Farnborough has been well chronicled from 1905 to its closure as the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in 1992 and it was this closure which sparked FAST into life.
RAE was a Government funded research establishment but, after leading and supporting British aviation for close to 100 years and keeping the country ahead of the edge in two World Wars and a long Cold War, the Government decided that the UK did not need to support centrally funded aviation research and development. All the research at Farnborough was freely available to UK Industry (not only aviation) and the Commonwealth countries – as well as military allies world-wide.
On the 1st April 1991 the RAE therefore ceased to exist. The Establishment was renamed the Defence Research Agency (DRA) and remained an executive agency of the UK Ministry of Defence. The DRA was formed in 1991 from the amalgamation of the RAE and other UK Defence Research Establishments. Research, however, was no longer free for the military or civil customers, with obvious results.
The work continued with DRA and later DERA (Defence Evaluation and Research Agency) on the main (original) site in Farnborough and the Ball Hill site until the Government decided to privatise the Establishments under a Private Public Partnership scheme (PPP). This resulted in the closure, and potential total clearance, of the many buildings intimately involved with the complete aviation history of the country.
Due to this threat FAST was born, from a few people who thought that the unique history of Farnborough as a significant part of the UK’s history of world class excellence in aviation science and technology was worth saving. The destruction of this unique legacy was imminent. The MOD wanted a clear brownfield site to sell, free of encumbrance, and to that end had even applied to de-list the one and only listed historic building (R51 – the Foundry) on the Main Site.
By 8th August 1993 a draft report on “The Wind Tunnels on the Main Site at Farnborough” was produced and circulated. This succeeded in alerting various authorities and individuals to the severe risk to exceptional historic buildings, but, as to be expected, did not visibly sway the MOD. On 4th November the group of three campaigners, Fin Gordon, Lawrence Peskett and Charlie Fleming, agreed to form a charitable trust, both to enable funds to be raised and to gain credibility. It was clear that without formal recognition, it would be impossible to obtain permission from the MOD to carry out surveys and research within the DRA complex.
Guarded encouragement was given by Rushmoor Borough Council (RBC) and Hampshire County Council. The independent organisation SAVE Britain’s Heritage also advised and later helped enormously with the campaign. The Science Museum was sympathetic, but felt unable to help due to a conflict of interest, having been tasked by MOD (before FAST was formed) to remove the existing RAE private museum collection to London – where the majority remains in store. Numerous individuals and organisations were approached for help. Although many lamented the demise of the RAE and applauded FAST’s initiative, almost all were deeply pessimistic of FAST achieving anything on the Main Site. It could not be denied that every building was in dire need of maintenance and the cost of restoration would be colossal. Also, the extraordinary machinery had been declared obsolete, although with three wind tunnels still working, that statement could (and would) be challenged.
Fortunately, the publicity had alerted English Heritage to the historical significance of the site, and provisional listing was welcomed as an essential first step towards saving buildings. FAST was well aware, however, that listing could not guarantee protection, particularly for the machinery, against destruction by a determined developer.
Publicity for FAST’s aims, assisted by a grant from RBC, gained momentum at the 1994 Farnborough International Airshow. FAST mounted an outspoken display of what was threatened by the MOD, which contrasted with FAST’s alternative plan. One of the many visitors attracted to the FAST stand was Richard Gardner, whose numerous contacts with the aerospace industry were invaluable in securing support, both financial and moral; presenting FAST’s proposals to various bodies including at Parliamentary level and, two years later, reversing serious opposition from a sector within the aviation industry itself.
Meanwhile, in its unremitting efforts to save historic buildings, FAST was supported by the Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF), which gave its maximum grant and effectively started the fund-raising process for a major feasibility study which was completed in 1998.
One of the primary problems was obtaining listed building status for the large, complex buildings and the priceless machinery within them (the wind tunnels now externally restored but untouched internally). This was an integral part of FAST’s original idea for the site in this Feasibility Study. Over £60,000 was raised for the Study, including £25,000 from a European KONVER grant, to engage professional designers and consultants under lead consultants Arup Economics and Planning.
In 2000, demolition began over the whole site and a most significant turning point came in February 2003 when the Secretary of State announced that the two most important wind tunnels (Q 121 and R 133) were to be promoted to Grade 1 listed status, and R52 would be included at Grade 2. The immense cultural importance of these facilities in the history of Britain’s aviation development had at last been recognised.
After this long and determined campaign, three of the most important wind tunnels were saved – the 24 ft tunnel from 1935 (Grade 1), the High Speed and Transonic Tunnel complex from 1942 (Grade 1) and R52 the low-speed wind-tunnel building which housed the first tunnels in 1917 and now housed the special 4 ft x 3 ft low-turbulence tunnel from 1944 (Grade 2). Other buildings were saved as well as the Grade 2* listed Balloon School building of 1906.
Upon demolition of two early buildings, the Forge & Foundry and Q65 Fabrics, the support stanchions, which had been re-used from the demolished portable Airship Shed in 1912, were re-united and the Airship Shed arose from the ashes to become a significant exhibit on the new site.
Meanwhile RBC, the local MP and others, recognising the importance of FAST’s archival work, had persuaded the developer to make Trenchard House (G1) – the original 1905/6 Balloon School – available as a more permanent home for the FAST administration, archive and Museum building. On 1st October 2003, FAST was proud to celebrate the formal opening of the building as a Museum accessible to the public.
So began the enormous task of: cataloguing and storing the thousands of items in the FAST Collection; displaying the best and most scientifically interesting; running the organisation with a dedicated band of volunteers; and ensuring that the wide range and type of the RAE records were not dispersed or destroyed in the rush to clear the site.
RAE had kept records of their R&D back to the beginning of the Great War in 1914 and photographic records before that. There had always been a comprehensive historical record library. The records comprised: reports and memoranda in both paper and microfilm form; glass plate and soft negatives; learned society journals from world-wide research (USA, Europe etc); physical artefacts; cine film & more modern formats; flying clothing – experimental and production; engineering and architectural drawings; photographic prints and all the paraphernalia that accompanies research, development and flight testing. After much effort the total collection was suitably stored and cataloguing begun to provide databases for inspection and provide access from individuals of the outside world.
The Trust then set up a science-based Museum in 2003, housed in the original Balloon School building. The Museum allows public access to the many saved artefacts and displays the wide range of technologies in which the RAE was involved from WW1 to the Cold War period. The building also provides access to the archive of stored records for researchers, journalists, enthusiasts and media companies.
Prior to the formation of FAST in November 1993 the contents of the original RAE Museum, run by Brian Kervell, was transferred to the London Science Museum, and many of the glass plate negatives to the Imperial War Museum for safe storage, but a large proportion of the total collection, much of it important and detailed science applications, was not wanted by the National Museums and was rescued by FAST as one of its first tasks on formation.
FAST achieved, in November 2013, official Arts Council Museums Accreditation in conjunction with the Science Museum (the Trust’s Curatorial Advisor) and Hampshire County Council and was later awarded the Queens Award for Voluntary Service.
The Trust, run entirely by volunteers, including the Trustees, continues to work towards making other historic buildings, including the wind tunnels, accessible to a wider public. To date this has included tours of the Q121 and R52 wind tunnels and the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine (RAF IAM) man-rated centrifuge.
FAST is also a Collections Trust with a duty to conserve and display the archive collection gifted to it by the Ministry of Defence on the closure of the Farnborough site – and subsequently many other donors of RAE scientific material.
FAST aims to continue the work of archiving and documenting the enormous volume of records, exhibits and artefacts and make it available in exhibitions and online. It also currently continues to collect further artefacts, records, photographs and memorabilia from local companies (QinetiQ etc) and from the local and wider community who have direct or family connections with RAE Farnborough and its outstations.
Public access is via the Museum and all of the scientific, technical, engineering and media records are available for public inspection. A high-quality FAST Journal, describing the range and depth of scientific, technical & engineering research & development and social interactions, is published and distributed to the many FAST Association members.
Farnborough Air Sciences Trust
85 Farnborough Road
Hampshire GU14 6TF
Tel: 01252 375050
(Office manned Tuesdays, Thursdays & Saturdays)
MUSEUM OPENING HOURS
Saturdays, Sundays and
Bank Holiday Mondays
10.00am - 4.00pm
The 2023 Wind Tunnel Tour Season is now CLOSED but the waiting list for 2024 is OPEN. The 2024 Wind Tunnel Tour Season runs from 31st March to 27th October 2024. Details at Wind Tunnel Tours>>