The North East Aircraft Museum (the NEAM), formerly the Northumbrian Aeronautical Collection, began life in 1974 as a small group of vintage aircraft enthusiasts meeting very informally at Sunderland Flying Club to exchange views and information on their chosen interest.
The History of the North East Air Museum
At this time, the North East was the only major area of the United Kingdom not covered by any form of vintage aircraft group. Indeed, the only enthusiast aviation group in the whole region was Air North which mainly indulged in aircraft spotting. As the number of people attending the informal group meetings began to swell the decision was taken to establish a more formal organization and thus the Northumbrian Aeronautical Collection was born.
The museum can be found very close to it`s original site at RAF Usworth, an airfield that subsequently became Sunderland Airport, and started life in October 1916 as a Flight Station for `B` Flight of No. 36 squadron and was originally called Hylton, although when being prepared it was known as West Town Moor. Due to an increase in German bombing raids and the heavier commitment of RNAS aircraft in France, the Royal Flying Corps took over the task of Home Defence, setting up a number of squadrons, with flights spread over the length of the British coastline. The Northeast was protected by No. 36 Home Defence squadron, which was formed by Capt. R. O. Abercromby at Cramlington on 1 February 1916. Plans for `B` flight were put in place in 1916 as a consequence of the recent Zeppelin raids on the area. An area of land just North of the river Wear between Washington and Sunderland was set aside for the new landing field.
The occupation of Hylton by No.36 squadron introduced the Wearsiders to the sight and sound of aircraft. However this introduction did not go entirely smoothly. On 24 May 1917, Lt Phillip Thompson took off from Usworth to air test a newly fitted machine gun, over the sea, in preparation for that evenings anti-Zeppelin patrols. On his return from the coast at 8:45 p.m. the pilot observed a crowd on the Green at Southwick. In order to gain a closer look the pilot brought his aircraft low over the Green. Unfortunately whilst flying towards the sun the pilot failed to observe a large flag pole on the center of the Green. The port wing of the aircraft was torn off by the impact, the aircraft falling to the ground at the corner of Stoney Lane. Remarkably the pilot survived the mishap, but unfortunately five people were killed and eight others injured on the ground.
By August 1918 Hylton was in use by `A` Flight and continued as such until the Armistice when it was just beginning to become known as Usworth. No. 36 squadron`s HQ moved here in November 1918, the main equipment now being Bristol F.2b`s. The Bristol F2b was one of the best fighters of the War despite being a two seater, it was used as a single seater with a sting in the tail. It was powered by a 275 hp Rolls Royce Falcon inline engine, with a top speed of 125 mph at sea level compared with the 90 mph of t he B.E. 12`s.
When the squadron was ready for its new role it moved once more in November 1918 to Ashington leaving a detachment at Hylton and with peace being declared, it was finally disbanded on 13 June 1919.
The only known reminder of 36 squadron remaining in the North East is a stone monument erected on Anfield Plain in memory of Sgt Pilot Arthur John Joyce (9935) who was killed when his F.E. 2b, A5740, crashed on patrol at Pontop Pike on 13 March 1918. Sergeant Joyce had started his fateful mission from Usworth that evening.
The Haunted History of the North East Air Museum
A man called Shaw, a pilot who was once based at RAF Usworth, is reported to wander around the museum and it`s hangers. His journey eventually leads him into the workshop, where his footsteps can be heard, and into the adjoining canteen where a cupboard containing the smashed up parts of an old engine can be found. Shaw, allegedly, died in action and when people retrieved his corpse from the wreckage of his crashed aeroplane, they found everything was present – except his boots.
Shaw can be spotted around the North East Air Museum – or at least his legs can. There have been numerous reports from witnesses claiming to have seen a pair of black-trouser legs (no boots) walking around the main hanger when people have looked underneath and through the aircraft stored there. It is also said that Shaw calls out for people asking for help – perhaps to help him find his boots? – and also is said to throw things at people to get their attention.
There is also a story of a woman and a man connected to the site from when it was a World War II airfield. Her husband was away fighting for King and country on some campaign during the war and the lady – sadly we have no name for her – was having an affair with another man based at RAF Usworth. She used to meet with him within the main hanger as previously there was a medical center attached to it – perhaps she was a nurse stationed there? Unfortunately, they both died in a car accident and they can be heard talking to each other as well as seen walking together throughout the hangers and are also said to be responsible for flashing lights in the hangers.
Another story told be the staff at the museum regards a spirit they call George. It is said that one hot summer during the war the man whom they call George, was sunbathing on the roof of one of the hangers, fell asleep and then woke with a start, rolled and fell to his death.
Finally, there is the story of Frank. There are 3 Franks associated with the site but the Frank we are interested in had an injured leg and used to get around with the use of a walking stick. There have been many reports of the click-click-click as Frank still walks around the hangers using his stick for support, today.