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On the northern edge of Montrose lies an important piece of aviation history. In 1913 the Royal Flying Corps established Britain's first military airfield here. It was the be the first of hundreds established over the length and breadth of the UK by 1945: including 94 in Scotland alone. Today a surviving part of the large military airfield that evolved here is home to the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre.
You find the Heritage Centre by following brown tourist direction signs from near the junction between the A92 and the A937 on the northern edge of Montrose. Parts of the rest of what was once the air station has become an industrial estate (though some of the original 1913 hangars survive) and the Heritage Centre is located in and around the old Station HQ building.
Here you can browse an extensive range of displays covering topics from the origins of flight though the beginning of the involvement of the RFC at Montrose, the two world wars, and broader displays about aviation toys and aircraft art and military airfields in Scotland. Models on display include those of the Luftwaffe aircraft that bombed Montrose in October 1940.
Specific displays also cover individual units who either formed at Montrose or operated from here. These include four squadrons formed during the first world war: 25 Sqn, 43 Sqn, 83 Sqn and 108 Sqn, two of which have survived as fighter squadrons right into the modern era. Units which served here such as 111 Squadron, now based at RAF Leuchars, and 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron, which gained early combat experience here before taking part in the Battle of Britain, are covered, as are a number of the training units which played such an important part in the history of Montrose Air Station.
The range of exhibitions also look at the more sombre side of flying, especially in wartime. While the dangers of flying in combat are obvious, many would-be pilots failed even to survive their training, especially during the first world war. This harsh reality is reflected in a memorial in the form of a broken propeller in front of the main Heritage Centre building. Elsewhere there are other reminders of the dangers of flying, such as the memorial to the five man crew of Whitley bomber LA837, of 19 Operational Training Unit based at RAF Forres. On 31 January 1943 the aircraft simply flew into high ground near Grantown on Spey during a training flight: a very common occurrence across Scotland and a fate shared by a number of aircraft based at Montrose.
The hazardous story of flying at Montrose is remembered in another way. By some accounts this is the most haunted place in the UK. Ghost stories began to circulate at Montrose Air Station soon after the first fatality here, of Lt. Desmond Arthur, who died in a training accident on 27 May 1913. After the start of World War II, stories of ghostly apparitions grew in both number and variety. Many inevitably involved the appearance of figures dressed in flying clothing, of both first and second world war styles, but stories also began to circulate of mysterious biplanes circling the airfield at night.
Beyond the confines of the old Station HQ building, the Heritage Centre offers a range of other attractions. The new Butler Building is home to a number of exhibits, most notably a full size replica Sopwith Camel. These aircraft achieved a fearsome reputation during the latter stages of the first world war, both as highly effective fighters and as seriously unforgiving aircraft to fly. One pilot once said of the Camel: "It gives you three choices: Victoria Cross, red cross, or wooden cross." It is sobering to think that trainee pilots were let loose in Sopwith Camels at a fairly early stage in their training at Montrose, and still more sobering to consider how many failed to survive the fairly common occurrence of an engine failure on take-off.
Elsewhere in the Heritage Centre you find signs of ambitious expansion plans. These include establishment in a new building to house of the remarkable aviation collection of the late Richard Moss, previously housed in the Kirriemuir Aviation Museum he established.
Dotted around the Heritage Centre a number of vehicles share outside space with a radar unit, an anti aircraft gun, and two aircraft the Heritage Centre plan to restore when resources permit, a Sea Hawk and a Vampire. Visitors to the Heritage Centre can also find out just what life would have been like inside an Anderson Shelter, the corrugated iron shelters issued to families throughout the UK during the blitz; and inside a concrete pillbox, complete with internal wooden partitions and equipment.