Boy-propelled excitement

Emma Haughton and family touch down at the Fleet Air Arm, Somerset
Click to follow
Despite being a self-affirmed tomboy for much of my childhood, I never understood my brother's passion for military toys. Twenty years on I'm no wiser, and so embarked on a trip to the Fleet Air Arm naval aviation museum at Yeovilton without great enthusiasm. But with three young sons to entertain, it's any port in a storm.

I was in for a pleasant surprise: the six-acre museum, with its 40 aircraft and 250 model planes and ships, has enough to entertain anyone. Its pounds 1.6m flagship Carrier exhibition is an impressive and extensive simulation of an aircraft carrier, complete with a juddering helicopter "ride" out to the ship, an eerily convincing mock-up of a busy flight deck and the painstaking re-creation of the ship's interior. The sound and computer graphics of the Experience Chamber bring off the illusion of a flight deck in full operation.

The rest of the museum is a cornucopia of naval and aircraft history, with detailed and informative displays on the world wars and more recent conflicts in the Falklands, the Gulf and Bosnia, backed up by uniforms, historical documents and photographs. You can trace the evolution of the jump jet in the Harrier exhibition, explore a prototype of Concorde, or make yourself queasy in the Super X Flight Simulator. And for a bit of live action, the visitor gallery offers a panoramic view of RNAS Yeovilton going about its daily business.

The visitors

Emma Haughton is a free-lance writer, while Joff Rees combines child care with teaching. They took their three sons, Joshua, six, Nathaniel, four, and Zachary, two.

Josh: The Super X simulator was great. It moved around and made me feel dizzy, but it was a lot of fun. I was impressed because it really felt like we were in a helicopter, but I don't know for certain because I've never been in one. The Carrier bit was really good because the pretend people sounded like they were really talking. The flight desk was exciting and very noisy. I also liked the Concorde - it had loads of machines with dials and buttons so they could test it when it was flying.

There was one place which was like the inside of a boat where the men lived, and it had triple bunk beds. I've never seen those before. I liked them because I thought we could all sleep on them, me on the top, Nathaniel in the middle and Zach on the bottom.

Nathaniel: I couldn't believe the museum because it was so big and long. I liked all the buttons you can play with, especially the one which made the air balloon go up and down. There was a real helicopter you could climb in. I saw a real aeroplane engine with all these pipes and tubes.

The model people were good. I saw one working at an aeroplane and I looked quickly and looked back, but then I realised that it wasn't real.

Joff: The exhibits were impressive without being pretentious. It's fascinating to encounter planes and helicopters in the raw - they are so much more rough and chunky than you imagine - and to see the sheer complexity of what goes into something like Concorde.

There is an awful lot to take in, and I felt a bit guilty that I didn't really have time to do it all justice, but it caters well for casual visitors as well as the real enthusiast. I'm not sure the simulator was worth the extra money, but at least it gave me a fair idea of just how annoying it must be jostling about in a real helicopter. Overall there is a pleasing attention to detail, from the smells inside the aircraft-carrier to the opportunity to listen in on the airbase control tower from the viewing gallery.

Emma: The Carrier exhibition was great fun. The illusion that the Phantom was about to take off from the flight deck was so convincing that I ducked as it "flew" overhead.

Faced with such an overwhelming quantity of information, the temptation is always to skim over the surface, but the sheer physical presence of many of the exhibits is irresistible. Just a glance at all the components in the Concorde engine, for example, made me thankful I never pursued a career as an aviation engineer.

Inevitably much of the focus is on battles, and watching all the boys out with their fathers, and the clumps of veterans, I felt rather out of place with my female indifference to the mechanics. For me the real gems were more poignant: the last letters home from kamikaze pilots, with their oblique acknowledgements of the futility of their sacrifice, the enlistment notices, that brought a chill to my spine when I thought of my husband, and the medals with their beautiful rainbow ribbons which seem so out of character with military austerity. Occasionally a single cold fact brought back the horror of what so many endured; in April 1917, I found, the life expectancy of a pilot was just three weeks.

The deal

The Fleet Air Arm (01935 840565) is on the B3151, just off the A303/A37 at Ilchester, Somerset. Opening times: 10am-5.30pm, April to October, 10am-4.30pm November to March. Closed Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. Last flight to Carrier departs an hour-and-a-half before closing. Admission: pounds 6 adults, pounds 3.50 children, pounds 16 for a family ticket for two adults and two children. The simulator costs pounds 1.70 for adults, pounds 1 for children.

Wheelchair access to most of the museum, including restaurants and lavatories.

Two restaurants, picnic area, gift shop, adventure playground, lavatories, baby room.