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The Imperial War Museum first began to operate at Duxford in the mid 1970s.  The historic site and growing collection were immediately of interest to the many American veterans who flew from East Anglia and who revisited their old bases and the surrounding area in large numbers.  Lasting and warm relationships with these American visitors rapidly developed and the Museum installed temporary and then permanent exhibitions illustrating the role of the 8th Air Force and recording Duxford’s time as a USAAF fighter base from 1943 to 1945.  A particularly close relationship grew with the 8th Air Force Historical Society and 8th Air Force Memorial Museum Foundation, which consistently supported exhibition and restoration activities at Duxford.

Duxford's B-17 Flying Fortress 'Mary Alice' now on display in the American Air Museum
In the same period, the Imperial War Museum aircraft collection was growing apace and a number of important American examples joined the displays.  The B-17, subsequently restored as “Mary Alice” of the 401st Bomb Group, joined the Museum collection in 1978.  The B-29 flew in to join the collection in 1980 and the B-52 arrived in 1983.

In the mid 1980s, plans began to develop for a more ambitious commemoration of the role of American air power in the Second World War and subsequent years.  An initial group of distinguished American supporters was formed who enlisted the help of Norman Foster, the leading British architect, to prepare outline plans for a new building.

Roof construction commenced in February 1996
The design brief for the American Air Museum was to house Duxford’s American collection in a building striking and economical, practical for its purpose of preserving and displaying aircraft and other exhibits, but of great distinction appropriate to its memorial and educational roles.

Great stress was laid on minimising maintenance and running costs, and the design team’s solution was a stunning piece of architecture and engineering, providing 6,400 sqm (nearly 70,000 sq ft) of exhibition and ancillary space, with a huge glass front 90 metres (295 ft) wide and a great domed concrete roof.

Roof complete and scaffolding removed
The building was to be carefully positioned in the existing Museum complex, alongside the preserved First World War hangars.  A raised entrance line would give a dramatic impact on entering the building, level with the cockpit of the giant B-52 and give a panorama of the whole collection.  A perimeter ramp around both sides of the body of the collection would connect the mezzanine with the ground level.  This would enable visitors to view the aircraft first as a collection and then as individual exhibits at close range.  Additionally, the ramp and mezzanine would maintain a constant view of activities outside on the airfield.

Major Stokes, wearing part of his Second World War uniform, cuts the ceremonial turf.  Jim Stokes flew P-47 Thunderbolts from Duxford with the 83rd Fighter Squadron from June 1943 until February 1944
1987 saw the start of a ten-year fundraising campaign, during which Duxford acquired a huge constituency of US friends and supporters.  The recruitment of Founding Members began in 1989, over the signature of General Jimmy Doolittle.  The first US events, in Houston (1989), Washington (1991) and Los Angeles (1992), greatly raised the profile of the American Air Museum project.  The contribution of $1 million from Saudi Arabia, secured through His Highness Prince Bandar, the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, in 1993, enabled the Museum to go on with the detailed design of Norman Foster’s brilliant concept.  The £6.5 million awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1995 meant that the dream of many years could come to fruition.

The project reached another milestone on 8 September 1995 as Major James E. Stokes, former P-47 pilot with Duxford’s wartime 78th Fighter Group, broke ground for the new building.  The event took place in front of around five hundred guests including 300 American Air Museum Founding Members who travelled from the United States for the ceremony.

Following the Opening Ceremony The Queen met many of the Second World War veterans who had served in Britain
With the building project started, there was a massive increase in Duxford’s restoration activity.  At the same time detailed planning of the exhibitions got under way.  The American Air Museum in Britain was opened by Her Majesty The Queen on 1 August 1997, before an audience of over 5,000, many of whom were drawn from its generous Founding Members in the United States.  The project cost a total of £13.5 million including design, building, exhibit restoration, exhibition research and installation.

Since that day, the Museum has gone from strength to strength.  Subsequent developments have included the construction of a Museum shop and café and the creation of a Founders and Friends Room, which was generously supported by AAM’s US Co-Chairman Georgia Frontiere, South Cambridgeshire District Council and Rotary International.

The design and building soon won several awards; the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize and the Royal Fine Art Commission/British Sky Broadcasting Building of the Year Award in 1998, the Civic Trust Award in 1999, the Concrete Society Award for 1999-2000 and Regional Winner of the Celebrating Construction Achievement Awards in 2000.