British Airways’ Speedbird Centre is perhaps one of the least known aviation museums in the country… yet it is home to some absolute treasures.
Sure, there are no actual aeroplanes or lumps of decaying metal with historical significance, Instead, there is memorabilia, models, uniforms, medals and a wealth of historically significant objects that will fascinate, educate and enthral.
The ‘museum’ itself is housed in the architecturally stunning Waterside building, which has been home to British Airways headquarters since 1998.
The design has won countless awards and is comprised of six limestone-clad four-storey horseshoe-shaped sections, all of which back on to an internal ‘street’ that runs inside a giant glass-roofed atrium. Overhead bridges link the individual sections, while below, the street is paved with cobblestones and features an intermittently visible stream that mirrors the picturesque surroundings outside. The building has its own bank, supermarket, restaurants and cafes, a health centre and even a beauty salon! There’s also a 400-seater auditorium and the entire site is littered with memorabilia and unusual objects — such as undercarriage legs and aircraft wheels.
Waterside covers an area of 97,000sq ft and 4,000 workers are based in the complex -so it goes without saying that public access is not normally permitted. However; prebooked visitors to the Speedbird Centre are more than welcome and the friendly team will arrange the necessary passes and car park permit to allow you to visit the site -thus offering the chance to view both the heritage of the airline ‘and’ its uber-modern headquarters.
It’s also possible to travel to Waterside by public transport and it is recommended that pre-booked visitors’ head to British Airways’ purpose built Terminal 5 at Heathrow and then catch the BA Staff Shuttle Bus to Waterside (the museum staff will be able to arrange a permit to do so).
Uniforms & More
The British Airways Heritage Collection has existed since the formation of British Airways in 1972 and was formed to preserve the records and artefacts of its predecessor companies such as BOAC, BEA, BSAA and the pre-war Imperial Airways Limited, as well as British Airways Ltd.
Today the collection comprises an extensive document archive, recording the formation, development and operations of these companies and British Airways, as well as memorabilia and artefacts.
Over 400 uniforms from the 1930s to the present day are preserved, as well as a large collection of aircraft models.
Just a fraction of the artefacts are on display at Waterside and these include a wonderful variety of costumed mannequins wearing uniforms from much missed airlines such as BEA and British Caledonian — the tartan ‘Caledonian Girls’ uniform being particularly striking.
Perhaps the most unusual uniform on display is a ‘paper’ dress issued to stewardesses flying to the Caribbean in the 1960s; this delicate relic of a bygone era demonstrates both the fashion of the day and the impractical attire staff had to endure.
Equally impractical was the Kimono worn by one member of cabin crew on BOAC flights to Japan. It gave the poor stewardess such limited mobility that fellow crew were instructed to treat her as a passenger in case of an emergency evacuation!
The story of British Airways and its predecessors is ably told by a first rate collection of models. These range back to the de Havilland DH.4A that flew the world’s first scheduled international service in 1919 through pioneering types such as the Handley Page HP42 and the Empire Class flying boats to successful airliners such as the Viscount, VC-10 and Comet. The current BA fleet is also represented in full and, needless to say, Concorde is not forgotten.
Interesting stories abound and one can’t help but get drawn into the minuitiae of the story. That DH.4A, for example, is the spiritual ancestor of the modern day airliners — yet its first scheduled service carried just one passenger along with a consignment of leather; several brace of grouse and some jars of Devonshire cream!
The models and memorabilia are displayed against a background of fascinating images from the company archives, but again these are just the tip of the iceberg. Curators will happily pull open drawers on the filing cabinets produce a wealth of fascinating and rarely seen photographs, timetables, posters and leaflets. The centre welcomes researchers, although a modest charge is made for the facilities.
There is no charge to visit the centre, but donations are obviously most welcome. The only other income stream available to the collection is to sell copies of photographs and posters — and a selection of these are now available to order via the BA website at www.britishairways.com/travel/museum-collection/public/en_gb
Last year was a phenomenally successful one for British Airways with the airline relishing the ‘Best of British’ atmosphere that accompanied the Queen’s Jubilee and the London Olympics.
Of course, the national carrier was at the forefront of Olympic sponsorship and even flew the Olympic flame to these isles in a specially painted Airbus A3I9 jet dubbed ‘Firefly.’ Further Airbus jets were painted in special ‘Dove of Peace’ colours for the season and large models of both are on display at the Speedbird Centre, alongside memorabilia such as the canister the flame travelled aboard the aircraft within.
Visitors can also watch a variety of films and even try out the different classes of seats that will appear in the new Airbus A380 when it enters service.
This really is a fascinating addition to Britain’s aviation heritage and British Airways should be applauded for not just preserving its history but also sharing it with the public.
If you’ve got a few hours spare at Heathrow, you could do a lot worse than pop across to Waterside to see for yourself.