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Wings of Remembrance

The Wings Museum is a hidden gem in the south east of England, telling the stories of unsung heroes of the Second World War. Aviationphoto went to find out more about the museum and its latest project.

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Turning from the busy A23, having passed the bustling Gatwick Airport about ten minutes before, the pace quickly changes to farmland and quiet country lanes and soon I find myself entering the unassuming hangar-like building that houses the Wings Aviation Museum situated near the village of Balcombe in West Sussex. Run entirely by volunteers, the museum is the manifestation of a seed planted in the young minds of curators Daniel and Kevin Hunt by their late father Brian. Talking to Dan now, he shows me where it all started, a gun sight from a 0.50 calibre Browning machine gun they found at the site of Flixton Airfield. “When we were kids, we were walking with my dad on the old airfields in East Anglia and he found that and showed it to us. We went off looking for other bits and came back with armfuls of stuff and then in adult life, the collecting bug was there. You start collecting and you think, as collectors, what is the point of having it all in boxes and no one ever seeing it? So we always wanted a museum.”

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The brothers began by putting on one day exhibitions in the old Second World War air raid shelters at Reigate caves. The reaction from the public was very positive, making it harder to put everything back in the garages, sheds and lock-ups it had come from. This cemented the brother’s vision for something more permanent and in 2003 the Wings Museum was founded in the old gas decontamination block at Redhill Aerodrome, Surrey, the airfield’s wartime history being an added bonus. In 2007, the museum moved into Hangar 9, the first hangar to be erected at Redhill in 1934, becoming a registered charity at the same time. The hangar was in quite a dilapidated state and a lot of museum time and money was spent renovating it which unfortunately made it an attractive proposition for a helicopter company (and more recently for the popular Pilot’s Hub which was forced to close by the airport owners in February of 2023). Under pressure from the aerodrome, the museum took the decision to leave Redhill in 2011 and relocate to the current site at Balcombe.

A quiet memorial

The museum itself is a quiet, sobering memorial to the fallen airmen of World War Two, their stories told through the artefacts they left behind and from the remains of the machines of war in which they lived and so often died. That the artefacts take centre stage is entirely due to the brother’s collecting background as Dan explains: “I'm not the sort of person to sit down and read books on the subject. My understanding and experience comes from speaking to veterans, researching artefacts and things like that. The artefacts have provided me with a connection. I've never experienced war. I can't imagine what it was like. But one thing I do believe is that people need to remember the sacrifices that were made from all generations and I think the artefacts do that. They give that sense of reality to people which is why, when they look around the museum, one of the first things you see is a lot of damage. Its carnage and that is the essence of what it's all about. These were once war machines that were killing people. We don't glorify war. It's a massive waste of human effort and sacrifice.”

Lockheed F-5B Lightning 42-67326 Wings Museum.jpg

A typical display in the museum tells the story of the crash of Lockheed F-5B Lightning 42-67326 of the 13th Photographic Squadron, 7th Photographic Group, 8th Air Force on February 5, 1944 with the loss of pilot 1st Lt. Arthur S. Waldron. As well as items recovered from the crash site at Elcombe, near Swindon, contemporary photographs and writing tells Arthur’s story and the details surrounding his last flight.

From Russia with relics

There are five themed areas in the museum covering the bomber offensive, the fighter offensive, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz and D-Day and beyond. Perhaps the most fascinating though is the Ghosts of the Tundra exhibition displaying relics recovered from the far east of Russia in the early 2000s. In total, the brothers secured the remains of six Hawker Hurricanes, six Bell P-63 King Cobras, three Nakajima Ki43 Oscars, two Douglas A-20 Bostons, one each of a Mitsubishi Zero and Handley Page Hampden and a North American B-25 Mitchell cockpit section. While some of these have since been sold or traded, many items are on display. Dan explains the rationale behind the project: “We wanted to recover around a dozen aircraft, keeping one for ourselves. The money we made from the sale of those airframes would recover our costs and fund the restoration.”


A lot of items were coming out of Russia at the time but things were changing as Dan says: “We were at a crossover point where this stuff was still considered to be scrap. The internet was kicking off and they [the Russians] were beginning to see what these aircraft were selling for restored. They’d see a Spitfire for two million pounds and they’d think well a wreck is worth a million then. Of course it doesn't work like that. You’ve probably spent 2.2 million on getting that two million aircraft flying. It all became a little bit twisted after that. So we stepped out of it and called it quits. But I think looking back now we're probably lucky to get what we got. What we did get has certainly given us a pretty unique stance from the museum point of view because it's very varied.”

Battle damaged Bostons

The recoveries on display are unique artefacts on their own right, exhibited in an ‘as found’ condition. Perhaps the most striking is the crash diorama containing the substantial remains of two Douglas A-20 Boston bombers that served with the Russian Air Force under Lend-Lease, the mechanism through which America supplied a huge amount of military equipment to its allies. A-20C 41-19393 served with the 114th Bomber Regiment of the 7th Soviet Air Force and was shot down by Luftwaffe Bf109s while returning from a patrol with eight Bell P-39 Airacobra fighters. Riddled by cannon fire, the bomber crash landed on the frozen Lake Memekyavr, burning on the ice for a short while before sinking through to the bottom. The crew of Lt Kykyshkin and Srg Voronov survived and were rescued the next day although Voronov was wounded. Recovered in 2003, the rear fuselage section on display still bears the damage from the cannon shells that caused its loss.

The second Boston is A-20G 43-21664, recovered near the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky region. That it saw action is in no doubt due to the numerous battle damage repair patches found on the aircraft. These tell their own story as Dan explains while showing one: “You can see the rivets on the repair really close to the edge. It gets worse because when you look on the inside, one of the rivets is just folded over in half. But when you think that the ground crew were possibly working in minus thirty conditions and it was such a ferocious war that it was highly likely it wouldn't come back again anyway then that was probably acceptable.”

The Boston was part of the Baltic Fleet, possibly serving as late as 1948. Dan says: “We've got photographs of it in the woods partially buried in sand, probably what used to be a river. In the fuselage there’s graffiti from various hunters and evidence they had a fire in there. The bomb bay was absolutely full of tree roots and mulch. We were literally standing on top of the bomb bay digging it out and we thought ‘I hope this hasn't got bombs in it!’ You just don't know what you might come across but luckily it didn't!”

Douglas A-20C Boston 41-19393 and A-20G 43-21664 Wings Museum 03.jpg
Douglas A-20C Boston 41-19393 and A-20G 43-21664 Wings Museum 01.jpg
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The remarkable crash diorama showing the remains of two Douglas A-20 Boston bombers that were recovered from Russia. The tail section is from A-20C 41-19393 and bears the scars of the 20mm cannon fire that caused its loss. The main section is from A-20G 43-21664 and hurried battle damage repair patches can still be seen on its skin.

King Cobras

The most intact looking airframe is a Bell P-63C-5 King Cobra, another American type supplied to the Soviets in large numbers. The King Cobras were recovered from the Kuril Islands which the Russians captured from the Japanese at the very end of the Second World War under ‘Operation Autumn Storm.’ Based there after the conflict, the P-63s, then on the strength of the 1st Squadron of the 821st Fighter Aviation Regiment, were damaged in an incident on October 8, 1950 when their air base was accidentally strafed by two USAF F-80C Shooting Stars from the 49th Fighter Group. Left to decay on the islands, the aircraft suffered greatly at the hands of the local militia until the first recoveries began in the early 1990s, primarily to the USA. The best example is now on display ‘as is,’ Dan explains the rationale behind this: “If there was ever a flyer out of the recoveries that we did, this would be the one, which is why we haven’t touched anything on it. We wanted to leave this in case somebody wants to restore it and put it back in the air. It could be in twenty years time and it probably won't be us but you don't want to take the best one and condemn it to being a static when a future generation might contemplate it to fly, which is the best thing to do in the interests of the aircraft.”

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The museum’s static restoration centres on 43-11137 and its complete cockpit section is on display. There have been some challenges and advantages. “If you're dealing with something like a P-63 then finding parts is very hard. But we're quite lucky that it's a reasonably intact airframe and all the drawings are there. Being an American aircraft, it's certainly easier to find hardware for than a British aircraft. You can still buy stuff off the shelf for an American aircraft like all the hydraulic fittings. If it's British, it's much harder. One of the problems that we have is that often the rivets and nuts and bolts we buy are all certified to fly, so you’re paying a lot of money for them but of course we don't need that,” adds Dan.    

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P-63C King Cobra 43-11137 Wings Museum 01.jpg
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Japanese rarity

The next sizeable piece of airframe comes from another extremely rare machine. This is Aichi built Nakajima B5N2 ‘Kate’ C/n 339 which served with the 553rd Kokutai on the Kuril Islands in 1944 and remained there in October when the bulk of the unit moved south to enter the Philippine campaign. When the Russians invaded at the end of August 1945, the unit, now renamed Hokuto (North Eastern) Kokutai, flew its last missions against the landings before being left derelict.  “We were very lucky and found the data plate in the bottom of the cockpit and so could extract quite a bit of information from it [including its likely manufacturing date of December 1942 - Author]. When you think it survived up until the last battles of World War Two it’s quite a unique survivor. You can see the bullet patches on it and it had these camera mounts fitted inside that technically the aircraft never had. But of course when it went out into the Far East, the Japanese did whatever they had to do to keep it in service and to keep it flying,” Dan explains.

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That these airframes are unique records of conflict is beyond doubt but it does pose interesting questions about how to display them. Arguably they are more ‘real’ than an aircraft that has been fully restored. They provide a connection on a deeper level than something that has been returned to a pristine, factory fresh condition but which, in the process, may well have lost a significant part of original material and, dare I say it, its identity. “People like seeing them displayed as is, it’s reality, it’s heavily damaged, but that is war. We actually get people telling us, like our Boston, we love it, please don't restore it. Not that we're likely to, we've got enough work to do, but I think there is an argument that you need that mix of restored airframes and ones that are just left as time capsules,” Dan adds.

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The nose section and engines, complete with bullet holes, from North American B-25J Mitchell 43-36140 of the 77th Bomb Squadron, 28th Bombardment Group, 11th Air Force which crashed after being hit by flak during a mission over Shumushu Island on May 19, 1945. The crew survived the crash only to endure a harsh time after capture by the Japanese. Their story is told in detail first hand by the tail gunner, one of the three crew that lived through the ordeal.

Bedsheet Bomber

This balance is something the Hunt brothers still seek, with the desire being to centre the museum around a fully restored airframe. One option has always been the P-63 project but a more recent acquisition promises something more substantial. This is North American B-25J Mitchell 44-30861, more famously known as ‘Bedsheet Bomber.’ Neglected for many years, including sitting outside at North Weald in the late 1980s and early 90s, the aircraft was obtained by the Wycombe Air Park, Buckinghamshire in 2006 before being acquired by the Hunt brothers a few years ago for static restoration, although it’s a story that started for the brothers several years earlier as Dan recounts: “In 2005 we went to see it at North Weald. We were working on the Devon at the time, which is in the Yorkshire Air Museum now, and we went with a view to getting the Mitchell but we walked away from it because we saw the corrosion. That was in 2005 and now we have it!”

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The cockpit section of ‘Bedsheet Bomber’ in the workshop. For the full story behind the project please see the March 2024 issue of Aeroplane Magazine

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Corrosion has been one of the biggest issues for the restoration, caused primarily by the time spent outside exposed to the elements, the outer wings and production breaks being particularly badly affected. It was also found that the wing spars had been cut and then rejoined with angle iron creating further corrosion. To compound matters, accidents during previous transportation efforts led to damage to the nose and the trailing edge of one of the wings which has also had to be rectified.

The museum is lucky in that they have a dedicated team of volunteers working on the project with up to ten people in the workshop on a Wednesday. A lot of visible progress has been made, primarily on the nose, cockpit section and the two outboard wings. More recently, the inner wings and engine nacelles have been moved into the museum’s rear storage area ready for work to begin on them once the outer wings are finished.  Perhaps the most ambitious part of the project is changing out the damaged wing spar as Dan outlines:  “We have sourced a spar, essentially a non-airworthy one. That should answer a lot of problems rather than us trying to repair what we've got. It will set the dihedral and everything as this would be a mammoth amount of work otherwise.” With the plan being to finish the aircraft in 98 Squadron colours as flown from nearby RAF Dunsfold, the prospect of seeing the completed bomber is mouth watering. However, as with every project of this kind, it is impossible to put a timeframe on its completion. “We’re probably a few years away from tackling the spar at the moment. It will take as long as it takes!” adds Dan.     

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Museum co-curator and co-founder Daniel Hunt with cockpit items from B-25J ‘Bedsheet Bomber’ that have been restored and await refitting into the aircraft.

The outer wings of ‘Bedsheet Bomber’ in the process of being re-skinned

New fuselage attachment brackets alongside the corroded originals.

A section of remanufactured cockpit framing with an original, corroded part for comparison.

Bedsheet Bomber's restored throttle quadrant.

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Bedsheet Bomber's fuselage and mid section awaiting its turn in the workshop.

Looking ahead

Very much on Dan’s mind is the museum’s future, with the Covid-19 pandemic having caused obvious issues, while being a tenant always carries the risk that the landowner could change or decide that the museum is no longer something they want to support, the recent disastrous closure of the Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre being a case a point. One of the biggest challenges facing the museum at the moment is increased running costs as Dan explains: “We've put our entrance fees up to compensate for that but we're also facing some challenges which are expensive problems to resolve but they're difficult to raise funds for like our toilet block. It's on its last legs. It's not a glamorous thing but we're looking at prices of £25,000 plus which is a lot of money. More space is also a major thing. There are a lot of things that we have in store that we're waiting to display. Another big challenge is getting people here, getting them to know about the museum and where it is. We have a sign up on the M23 but the Council want that taken down.” This has led to the point that the brothers are now, “working on a succession plan which will see the museum with more display space in the future.”

None of this takes away from what the museum is now and what this means to Dan, Kevin and all volunteers as Dan says: “I think the museum has become almost like an experience. It connects to the next generation as well as the past. So you get school children and Beavers and Scouts in and they can get close to things and even handle them and we’ll do a talk for them. I think it provides a connection to the reality that you can't get if you're just looking on a computer. It's very easy to take everything for granted on the computer screen. But when you're looking at a bullet hole in a piece of aircraft and you're also looking at a photograph of the pilot who was trying to get the aircraft back. It helps the new generation. And people like it. Sometimes we are working in that workshop and we'll see a family and the kids walk in and they'll go, ‘Wow!’”

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A fully restored Anderson shelter, complete with beds and a lantern, part of ‘The Home Front, the Blitz and the Battle of Britain’ exhibition.

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The ‘Dora’ exhibition room tells the story of the prisoners of war in the notorious concentration camp of the same name. During the Holocaust, thousands were forced to work underground in munitions factories, assembling V2 rockets. Their tragic story is told in images and artwork surrounding a V2 rocket motor.

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A searchlight, Nash & Thompson FN-4A gun turret and C-47 greet visitors as they begin to explore the museum.

Memorials to the many

The artefacts described are just a small part of what the museum has to offer and even after my visit I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of the many stories that are told. I will let the final word come from one of the exhibits which typifies what the Wings Museum is all about. In one quiet corner of the museum sit the shattered remains of three Rolls Royce Merlin XX engines recovered from the crash site of Handley Page Halifax MkII JD150 DY-A of 102 Squadron which was shot down near Rensburg on the night of July 27/28, 1943 while on a raid to Hamburg. The crew of seven were only on their third operation and all perished, the youngest being the pilot who was just 19. This in itself is a moving exhibit, yet the fourth engine has been restored to ground running condition as a memorial engine, with as much of the original structure, including the piston rings, being used. This one story epitomises the museum’s approach to the history that it safeguards and is a fitting tribute to these brave, unsung heroes and the sacrifices they made.

Recovered Merlin engines from Halifax MkII JD150 DY-A Wings Museum.jpg
Restored Merlin from Halifax MkII JD150 DY-A Wings Museum.jpg

With thanks to Daniel Hunt.


The Wings Museum is situated near Balcombe, West Sussex and is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10.00am to 5.00pm between mid-February and mid-November and most weekends otherwise from 10.00am to 4.00pm. For further information visit

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The remains of two coupled DB605 engines and the propeller hub recovered from the crash site of a Heinkel He177A-5 from 4/KG40 shot down by a 410 (RCAF) Squadron Mosquito night fighter on June 13, 1944. All the crew baled out before the doomed machine impacted near Bolbec in France. Several artefacts were recovered and are the only substantial parts from a He177 on display in the UK.

The restored cockpit section of a Bristol Beaufighter MkIF night fighter painted in the colours of 219 Squadron which flew from RAF Redhill during the latter stages of the Battle of Britain. On the night of October 30, 1940, Beaufighter R2065 took off from Redhill for a patrol but crashed at Balcombe Place while trying to locate the airfield in bad weather. Both crew perished and a memorial was unveiled by the museum at the crash site on October 30, 2010.

The cockpit section of A-26C Invader 43-22649 that served in England with the 391st Bomb Group, 9th Air Force during World War Two. After the war, the aircraft was converted into a B-26K, being given the serial 64-17657, and served in the Vietnam War. Written off after a crash landing in 1978, the cockpit found its way to the UK in the 1980s, being acquired for restoration by the museum in 2009.

The cockpit section of a Bristol Beaufort recovered from Papua New Guinea in the 1970s and imported into the UK by the museum in 2021. The plan is to clean it up and likely lacquer it before re-installing the internal fittings, leaving the exhibit ‘as is.’ Visitors will then be able to see the original paintwork and other items such as the bullet hole repair patch by the nose glazing on the left hand side.

Central to the ‘D-Day and Beyond’ display is the fuselage and cockpit of a C-47 Dakota that visitors can walk inside to get an idea of what it was like to be a paratrooper on D-Day. The cockpit section is from C-47 42-100611 used in the filming of Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers television series. The fuselage, from C-47 43-49240/FL586, is also a film star having been used to depict a crash scene in Sword of Honour.

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