In a huge aircraft hangar, tucked out of sight and amid a jumble of incomplete engines and propellers, tangled wires, spanners, repair manuals and a bright orange Seventies’ space hopper, sits one of the deadliest weapons of war.

Named after the comforting glow of the North Star, the ghostly Polaris missile rests on special rails to prevent its huge 12.6 tonne weight crushing the hangar’s concrete floor.

Of course, it is minus its fearsome nuclear warhead. Yet it still has the power to stop those who see it in their tracks.

“You find yourself just staring at it,” says Steve McLean, General Manager of the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian.

“It has this strange draw for people who come in. It’s sobering to look at it and just think of what it was for and the devastation that it could have caused.”

The Polaris missile, which in its Cold War peak would have been armed with an H-bomb and deployed on board one of the Royal Navy’s nuclear ballistic submarines, is just one of a vast range of rarely viewed objects stored in the normally locked museum’s Conservation Hangar.

Now its enormous doors are being slid open, to give visitors who arrive to see Concorde and an eclectic collection of flying machines, the chance to also set eyes on this more daunting example of engineering and design prowess.

Alongside the Polaris missile are other dark reminders of the perils of nuclear war, including a 24m Blue Streak intermediate-range ballistic missile, destined to be part of the UK’s nuclear deterrent programme but cancelled before it went into operation, and an air-to-surface Blue Steel missile.

The Herald: National Museum of Flight curator Ian Brown beside a Percival Provost aircraftNational Museum of Flight curator Ian Brown beside a Percival Provost aircraft (Image: National Museums Scotland)

They sit side by side with broken down bits of aviation history, most of them  stuck in the slow, laborious process of repair, restoration and conservation.

That is a particularly daunting challenge for the museum’s small team of conservators and devoted volunteers, who, it transpires, often have to turn detective in the hunt for spare aviation parts, missing bits of planes and even dog-eared, well-thumbed decades old repair manuals to help them figure out what they’re doing.

“Maintenance manuals,” says Steve, “are handy to have when putting something like a plane back together.”

Some of the sights that lurk within the usually locked hangar may take visitors by surprise: the incongruous appearance of an orange space hopper is just one.

It will soon be stuffed in the window of one of the museum’s outdoor exhibits, a 1952 de Havilland Comet, which is waiting to undergo intensive conservation repairs.

The space hopper will be used to prevent moisture seeping into the aircraft while its windows are removed: just one example of the everyday ingenuity of the aviation conservation team.

“We discovered by chance if you take an orange space hopper and put it in the window and blow it up, it seals the window,” explains Steve.

“Yes, you have an orange space hopper sticking out of a Comet, but it makes a perfect seal. It’s simple but effective.

“The volunteers and conservators are very good at coming up with wonderful solutions with strange problems - that is their key strength.”

Similar examples of how the conservators make use and mend will feature in the new guided tours of the Conservation Hangar, including insight into how the team maintains the museum’s two other outdoor displays, a 1963 Avro Vulcan bomber, and 1968 British Airways BAC-11.

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“It’s a never-ending battle to keep up,” he adds. “We want to put them indoors to preserve them because it’s difficult to maintain them outside. We have a two-year programme for some heavy conservation so they don’t deteriorate anymore.”

The decision to throw open the doors of the conservation hangar, built in 1941 when the East Fortune airfield was used by a night fighter operational training unit, followed queries from visitors intrigued as to why such a huge space at the heart of the site seemed out of bounds.

Now unlocked, they are being given a unique ‘behind the scenes at the museum’ glimpse into the massive tasks faced by the team of two professional conservators and around half a dozen keen volunteers as they tackle full size aircraft needing cockpits repaired and nose cones replaced, to the numerous tyres that need inflated weekly.

Some are a glimpse into a different world of flight: a BOAC Vickers Viscount 701, the world’s first turboprop jet airliner has an interior that features an elasticated string hat rack instead of overhead lockers.

Its wings are lying on the ground with its engine and various other parts alongside.

Fixing it up again is a pet project for the conservation team: “The Viscount airliner flew from here at East Fortune,” says Steve. “When they were upgrading Turnhouse in the 1950s and Sixties, East Fortune became Edinburgh airport.

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“We’re hoping to rebuild this and put it all back together.

“There’s also a Bristol Beaufighter that we acquired a few years ago,” he continues. “It’s taken a long time to fix because quite a lot of bits are missing.

“There’s been a lot of research and acquisitions involved with this one.

“It flew from an RAF base during the Second World War and is a project waiting to happen - it needs to be rebuilt.”

Work for the conservation team ranges from the smallest of paint repairs to the mammoth task of refitting entire engines, often involving worldwide searches for parts that mean consulting counterparts at other museums in the hope they have a spare rivet or handy cockpit or scanning online sales sites.

While alongside aircraft in need of repair are exhibits waiting to find a permanent home, among them a Phantom F4 jet – the type which served during the Vietnam War – and objects from the Cold War era.

There’s a 1966 Buccaneer jet, designed to land on an aircraft carrier, which currently sits in the hangar with its huge wings folded like a bird’s, and the front section of an imposing Nimrod patrol aircraft,

“The hangar is usually used for looking after aircraft and a place for the conservators to work on them indoors. While our other hangars are display spaces, this is a workshop full of aircraft, engines, propellers and ordnance.

“People were asking if they could see inside, we thought it might be nice to let them.

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“Plus, there’s not any more space available to display what we have.”

The museum’s plan to create a £15m visitor centre was thrown out by Scottish Ministers in 2020 amid concerns over the loss of up to 300 trees necessary to enable the movement of planes into a new hangar.

While the museum needs new indoor space, changes to the East Fortune site also have to be handled with sensitivity; its role during two world wars has made it a scheduled monument.

As a result, some of the aircraft and objects within the Conservation Hangar are ‘stuck’ while they wait for a new home.

They include the Polaris missile.

“It's difficult not to look at it and not think of what it was for,” adds Steve.

“Aviation is full of history and stories. There’s Concorde, which is just seats and tiny windows, nothing else, and the 707, which I remember flying in as a young boy on my way to visit my auntie in America for the first time.

“Our job is to tell all of those stories.”

Spaces on the National Museum of Flight’s Conservation Hangar tours are limited and can be booked via the National Museums Scotland website or on-site (subject to availability).