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The Australian Aviation Heritage Centre is home to an amazing collection of aircraft and artefacts and myriad stories of courage, adventure and lucky escapes. You don’t need to be an aviation buff to appreciate this unique attraction. It is impossible not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the volunteers who have been working to preserve Darwin’s aviation history since 1976. The last century was a difficult one for Darwin. First it was bombed during World War II then just over 30 years later the city was flattened once again, this time by Cyclone Tracy.

Australia’s northern most capital has since been rebuilt and has several excellent museums dedicated to its tumultuous history. The Museum & Art Gallery of NT has a poignant Cyclone Tracy exhibit and the Darwin Military Museum is home to the high-tech Defence of Darwin Experience. However, a short drive from the city you will find a somewhat less famous museum that is just as good if not better.

Climbing into the belly of a B-52 bomber
Climbing into the belly of a B-52 bomber

You won’t find any touch screens or fancy interactive displays here but unlike most museums, visitors are encouraged to handle the exhibits and ‘feel’ their history. Holding a bomb fragment from the famous Japanese World War II raid is deeply moving but this museum is far from sombre. Listening to tall tales about the aircraft and clambering into the cockpit of a real B-52 is nothing but fun. When visitors enter the enormous hangar housing the collection, all eyes are drawn to the B-52 bomber. The huge plane dwarfs the F-111 sitting under its tail and is one of only two on public display outside the USA.

Touch the exhibits and feel the history
Touch the exhibits and feel the history
Darwin was honoured to display this aircraft
Darwin was honoured to display this aircraft

Darwin has the most northerly airport that is RAAF owned and controlled and B-52s were frequent visitors. It was a great honour when Darwin was selected to display this mighty aircraft. On open cockpit days you can climb up into the body of the B-52 and explore the crew areas. It has been over 20 years since this one was in service but the smell of oil and hot metal still fills the cockpit. When the aircraft was flying, six men would have been crammed into this tiny space for up to 32 hours at a time. Visitors who are unable (or unwilling) to climb into the plane can watch the action from the historic Qantas air stairs set up alongside. These are permanently in place so even if you can’t visit on an open cockpit day, it is still possible to get a good look inside the plane.

Sitting in the cockpit of the B-52
Sitting in the cockpit of the B-52

Every exhibit has a story to tell and the volunteers are accomplished raconteurs. In one corner of the museum there is a Mitsubishi Zero which was shot down during the raid on Darwin. It remained largely intact due to some impressive flying by the Japanese pilot who had the dubious honour of being the first soldier captured on Australian soil. The Zero was one of the most agile fighters of the day and the allied forces were desperate to get their hands on one so they could exploit its weaknesses. When a Zero was finally captured in Darwin it was a highly significant moment in Australia’s war history.

The B-52 dwarfs the other aircraft around it
The B-52 dwarfs the other aircraft around it

Not all of the exhibits came to be here as a result of skilful flying. The dashing Mirage jetfighter virtually landed itself on the Ludmilla mudflats just outside Darwin after the pilot ejected due to engine failure. Despite its relatively smooth landing it was no longer fit for active service so the plane was refurbished and put on display at the museum.

View from the cockpit of a Sabre jet fighter
View from the cockpit of a Sabre jet fighter

The Heritage Centre also has numerous exhibits with a connection to Cyclone Tracy. One of the most significant is a Westland Wessex helicopter which assisted in the cleanup of Darwin. It was damaged during a Defence exercise in the late 80s and presented to the museum as their first major exhibit. New attractions are still being added to the collection. One of the latest arrivals is a sleek F-111 which originally flew in Vietnam.

Westland Wessex Helicopter
Westland Wessex Helicopter

After exploring the exhibits for a couple of hours we stop for a break in the air-conditioned gift shop attached the museum. Along with the largest range of aviation history books in Darwin, the shop also has some excellent aircraft-themed souvenirs. Even if you are not an aviation enthusiast when you arrive at this museum, you will be by the time you leave.

Disclosure: The writer received complimentary entry to the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre. Her family paid and were equally impressed.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.