Planetarium welcomes oldest male vistor, wartime pilot Jimmy

Jimmy Birchal at the South Downs Planetarium
Jimmy Birchal at the South Downs Planetarium

The South Downs Planetarium has welcomed its oldest male visitor.

Wartime pilot Jimmy Birchal attended a public show at the Chichester based planetarium last week. Jimmy, who will be 96 years old this year, was a flight lieutenant who flew Lancasters in the Second World War. He has always had an interest in the night sky. A resident of West Street, Selsey, Jimmy was a neighbour of the late Sir Patrick Moore FRS, who flew as a navigator in the war.

Jimmy greatly enjoyed his visit to the planetarium, watching a show about the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis.

He recalled how he had often seen the Northern Lights while training as a pilot in Canada during the war.

Jimmy had an eventful wartime career, finally being shot down and ending the War as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft 3, the Luftwaffe-run POW camp which held captured Western Allied air force personnel.

The camp is best known for the escape plot by Allied POWs in March 1944, which was the basis for the film The Great Escape (1963).

Jimmy spent some time talking to the planetarium’s principal lecturer, Dr John Mason, and several of the keen volunteers who run the establishment.

One of these, Ray Howell, was a former Boeing 747 Captain with British Airways. Jimmy also met the waxwork of his former neighbour, Sir Patrick, commenting how lifelike it was.

Dr Mason said: “It was a great pleasure to welcome Jimmy to the planetarium. He has had an amazing life and it was fascinating hearing about his many experiences. As far as we know, Jimmy is our oldest male visitor out of the nearly 250,000 visitors we have welcomed since the planetarium opened in 2001.”

The planetarium’s oldest visitor was a 96-year old lady who had served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in World War Two.

The South Downs Planetarium is open for a range of public shows during the February half-term week and some of its volunteers will be participating in various outdoor events as part of the South Downs Dark Sky Festival this month.

Find out more about the South Downs Sky Festival here: Time to get moonstruck at South Downs Dark Skies Festival