Comment: The sorry story of the Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre's impending demise

Newquay Airport museum on the brink of closure as council refuses to budge

With time running out for the Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre, the only air museum in Britain’s westernmost county, the latest news seems bleak. As of writing, it looked set for permanent closure on 30 October following termination of its lease at Newquay Airport — the former RAF St Mawgan — by Cornwall Council. Since it opened in 2015, the centre has become a popular destination for tourists to the region, and a valuable local education resource.

The main building at the heritage centre is one of the RAF St Mawgan hardened aircraft shelters from the early 1980s. A broad line-up of UK military Cold War jets is exhibited outside, maintained by a force of 60 retired volunteers.
The main building at the heritage centre is one of the RAF St Mawgan hardened aircraft shelters from the early 1980s. A broad line-up of UK military Cold War jets is exhibited outside, maintained by a force of 60 retired volunteers. CAHC

Richard Spencer-Breeze, director of the centre says, “The Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre (CAHC) has been given notice to leave the premises and is not protected by the Landlord and Tenants Act as it was required to sign a waiver by Cornwall Council. Back in October 2021 the deputy leader of Cornwall Council (CC) asked for proposals for suitable relocation sites and committed CC to assisting CAHC to find a suitable site and to assisting CAHC to source funding to meet the costs of relocation. CAHC submitted four proposals for alternative sites within five days of the notice and five subsequent additional proposals, but CC has ignored or dismissed the proposals and requests to meet to discuss them.

“Cornwall Council states it gave CAHC an ‘extra’ 12 months to see an alternative, but this was only after originally terminating the tenancy with less than six months’ notice. Clearing the site of an aviation museum is a major undertaking, especially when many of the airframes will need to be scrapped on site. CC states that it will consider ‘credible and deliverable’ proposals but, as all of the proposals are on council land and the council will not discuss them, it is impossible for CAHC to demonstrate that they are credible and deliverable without engagement by CC. This is a Catch-22.

“CAHC only requires six to 10 acres of the 655-acre Cornwall Airport site. CC states that Cornwall Airport is reviewing its estate and wants to rezone and release the Aerohub 2 area — where CAHC is situated — to allow new tenants who require airside access. This stance is contradicted by the airside facilities/hangars that are already in existence but are currently occupied by non-aerospace businesses.

“Cornwall Council states that it wishes to attract ‘aerospace business’ with ‘highly paid professionals’ to Cornwall Airport. The council continually ignores the extensive and unique education facilities, resources and collaborations that CAHC provides to the county and has repeatedly failed to respond when it is pointed out that CAHC is inspiring, educating and creating the next generations of highly paid aerospace professionals from local young people, as is evidenced by the numerous successful work experience placements each year and the apprenticeships that have followed on.

“Time is fast running out for CAHC to find a solution. We have continually approached Cornwall Council with proposals for solutions that should be acceptable. We have repeatedly expressed our wish to work with Cornwall Council to develop a solution that will not just allow CAHC to continue to deliver the very important work it is currently doing, but to develop and become the national-quality aerospace heritage and education centre that Cornwall and the south-west deserves.

“It seems inconceivable that Cornwall Council does not grasp the opportunity for a privately funded aerospace education centre located virtually alongside the much-vaunted Cornwall Spaceport — this is a chance for Cornwall to step firmly forward into the arena of generating the UK’s future space and aerospace professionals and it does not have to cost the county a penny if CAHC can stay where it is. Alternatively, relocation to an alternative site on or adjacent to the airport would cost between £500,000 to £1 million, and CAHC has received indications that funding for such a move could come from the Shared Prosperity/Levelling Up Fund, as long as a suitable site for relocation is established. However, as it stands, Cornwall Council refuses to engage to seek a solution and the CAHC, despite its best ever year and unparalleled reviews, is now facing final closure at the end of October.”

Among the exhibits in the hangar is reconstructed Boulton Paul Balliol T2 WN149.
Among the exhibits in the hangar is reconstructed Boulton Paul Balliol T2 WN149. CAHC

As an indication of the strength of support for CAHC locally, by 26 September a petition to keep the centre open had attracted more than 20,000 signatures. Letters backing it include one from astronomer Dr Heidi Thiemann, project manager of Cornwall Space and Aerospace Technology Training at Truro and Penwith College, which is rated as outstanding by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), and is widely respected as being one of the best colleges in the country.

Dr Thiemann says, “On behalf of Truro and Penwith College and the Cornwall Space and Aerospace Technology Training project I am writing to support the continuation of the CAHC... As part of the South-West Institute of Technology (SWIoT), we operate Cornwall Space and Aerospace Technology Training (CSATT), providing higher-level apprenticeships and training to space and aerospace businesses within Cornwall. Through CSATT and other projects, we have had a significant number of positive collaborations with the Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre over the years. Most recently, in July 2022, CAHC hosted 50 young future scientists and engineers from Truro and Penwith College’s Space Camp Cornwall. These students were able to access flight simulators, take part in hands-on activities, and meet experts in aviation and aerospace, something they would not have been able to do anywhere else in Cornwall.

“As Cornwall sets its sights on becoming the first place in Europe to launch satellites, the region will require a strong network of schools, colleges, universities, and learning centres to develop our talent pipeline to meet the skills needs of the growing aviation, aerospace and space sectors. CAHC is a unique facility within Cornwall which has already provided countless learners with a hands-on environment in which to gain real-life experience in these sectors and is well placed to continue to provide this training for the next generation. We would be extremely saddened to see the loss of unique training facilities that CAHC offers, and we are concerned that closure could reduce the number of opportunities for people, young and old. We therefore strongly support the continuation of the Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre and welcome the opportunity to work closely together in the future.”

The largest aircraft on site is VC10 K3 ZA148, which was ferried to Newquay from Brize Norton on 28 August 2013. It first flew from Brooklands on 21 March 1967, and on 17 June 2006, while being operated by No 101 Squadron, participated in the Queen’s 80th birthday flypast down the Mall.
The largest aircraft on site is VC10 K3 ZA148, which was ferried to Newquay from Brize Norton on 28 August 2013. It first flew from Brooklands on 21 March 1967, and on 17 June 2006, while being operated by No 101 Squadron, participated in the Queen’s 80th birthday flypast down the Mall. TONY HARMSWORTH

When, just over three years ago, this magazine assessed the challenges and opportunities facing the UK’s aviation museums, I canvassed the views of leading figures from across the sector. Looking back at that piece after the news of the troubles facing the Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre, certain comments stood out as especially prescient. Newark Air Museum trustee Howard Heeley highlighted one issue: “The long-term viability and security of collections. A lot of that is focused around whether you own your land or whether you lease it… I think lots of collections potentially need to be aware of that and mindful of protecting their future legacies”. From the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum, David Reid added, “I think at the last count there was a good bit less than half of the volunteer-run organisations that owned their site or had a decent lease.”

This issue is at the heart of the Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre’s impending closure, which could have very serious consequences for many of its aircraft exhibits. My thoughts turned immediately to Vickers Varsity WJ945, disposed of by the Imperial War Museum to what seemed like a good long-term home, but which now has a most uncertain future. Yet there are many others facing the same fate.

The CAHC is a museum that’s done more than many independent collections to develop a strong educational programme. With the region’s aerospace ambitions in mind, it’s forged direct links with local schools, colleges and employers aimed at bringing new blood into the industry. One is left wondering what more it could do, or what, precisely, the council has against the centre, the aims of which could scarcely be more laudable. Is this a case of old aeroplanes simply being viewed as unimportant and unwanted, even when they’re used for very worthwhile wider ends?

It might also be said that it’s not only the CAHC which has expressed dissatisfaction over Cornwall Council’s running of Newquay Airport. A statement by regional airline Loganair, announcing the suspension of its Newquay operations this winter and significant cuts next year, referred to “short-sighted and short-term decisions by the airport’s management to incentivise unsustainable operations by other airlines”. This was a reference to the revived Flybe. In a post on his LinkedIn account, Loganair CEO Jonathan Hinkles went further, saying, “it’s absolutely crackers to incentivise a new air service that will compete head-on with a route that the airport’s own sole shareholder — Cornwall Council — subsidises another airline to fly under a PSO [public service obligation] mechanism. How can that be a sensible use of taxpayer funds for Cornwall, or the UK more broadly?”

In much the same way, the eviction of the Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre is clearly not in the area’s best interests, whether in the short or the long term. If it does end up being forced to shut, and airframes scrapped, the blame will not be hard to apportion. Our aviation heritage deserves better. So does our aerospace future.