From the air to the earth
It’s not really fair to include the FAS Expo in a series of “weird museums” such as we are running this month. But it made the cut for two reasons. One: it is, shall we say, “quirky”. Two: it is impossible to find, and, once you do get there, you have to beg to be let in.
A museum of flight is hidden away in an old German bunker in West Flanders
The FAS, which stands for Flanders Aviation Society, is not particularly interested in money or fame. It simply wants to educate groups of Flemish school children and other locals about the strategic use of Wevelgem International Airport during the World Wars and about the history of air travel in Belgium.
Wevelgem, just west of Kortrijk in West Flanders, seems like an unlikely spot for an airport, but the Germans found it a strategic location and built the airfield in 1916. This led to a number of air battalion war heroes being based in the area, and the museum leads the tour with an installation dedicated to Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, whose squadron was based at Wevelgem during the First World War. You’ll find newspaper articles, photos and several models of his world-famous all-red fighter tri-plane.
The museum goes on to introduce the history of flight in Belgium, from the country’s first balloon flight by Prince Charles de Ligne in 1783 clear through to recent articles on Frank de Winne, the Flemish astronaut set to command the next expedition to the International Space Station.
However, the museum’s best pieces – and the 20 or so Flemish school kids who were there with me would agree – are the cockpits and ejector seats out of combat planes from the Second World War and later decades. The ejection seat is especially effective, with photos nearby showing how the pilot remained seated in it while parachuting onto enemy ground – a rather terrifying prospect brought to life.
The museum also has seating from a modern passenger airplane, which looks like it has been sliced right out of the plane and plopped down here – another big crowd pleaser, especially for kids who have never been in a plane.
First-class airplane seats also await in the museum’s excellent little cinema, where they show a 20-minute film on the history of the airfield at the beginning of the tour. After the First World War, the airfield was home to a military flying school until 1940, when it was again occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. After that, the UK’s Royal Air Force controlled operations, until the Belgian military took it over in 1946. Finally, in 1970, it became the civilian airfield it remains today, with about 100,000 passengers coming through every year – mostly business travellers. There is also a flight academy on site.
Though it helps to have an interest in air travel or Belgium’s part in the World Wars to enjoy the FAS Expo, there are other aspects that make a trip worth it. The museum is housed in the airfield’s former medical bunker, a creative use of historical space that, until the founding of the museum, was still being used as storage by the Royal Air Force. “Anything they didn’t need, they dropped in here,” says Etienne Vanackere, who, together with other local members of the Flanders Aviation Society (FAS), opened the museum about 10 years ago.
Vanackere is the other reason to visit FAS Expo. Together with another volunteer, he spins tales of the wars and the museum’s collection – all pieces culled from his own and other FAS members’ private belongings. Vanackere was 16 when the Second World War broke out and used to watch the planes come and go at this airport in his hometown. He later learned to pilot gliders at the same spot. He has penned two books about the airfield and its pilots and every year leads a memorial service for British airmen who are buried in the local veterans’’ cemetery. “Because I know about every single pilot who was shot down,” he says.
But how can I visit this place? you might reasonably ask. You have two options: Find at least 19 other people and arrange a group tour or call and join an already booked group. Visits come with a tour in Dutch (and a smattering of English if you please). To find FAS Expo, park at the Wevelgem Airport and ask one of the police officers stationed inside the terminal to point the way.