2011 Articles

JAN 11 2011
Legendary Lancaster Celebrates 70th

It seems incredible that there are only two airworthy Lancaster bombers remaining on this earth of ours. The same earth which, during WWII, witnessed almost half of all of those Lancasters delivered for the conflict lost on operations with the loss of over 21,000 crew members. Those are the most staggering statistics associated with this aircraft and it is of course fitting that those two remaining aircraft fly as an airborne memorial for all those who lost their lives serving between 1939 and 1945.

The Lancaster is arguably the most famous and the most successful of the WWII bombers. It dropped more than 600,000 tons of bombs in more than 150,000 sorties and, although primarily utilised as a night bomber, also excelled in numerous other roles including daylight precision bombing, gaining global fame as the "Dam Buster" used in the 1943 'Operation CHASTISE' raids on Germany's dams in the Ruhr Valley.

It is all the more extraordinary therefore that the Lancaster, a symbol now of the RAF's night offensive over Germany in the same way that the Spitfire and Hurricane represent victory in the Battle of Britain, was actually a development of an aircraft which to all intents and purposes was classed as a failure.

The Lancaster originated from a design submitted to meet a specification issued for a twin-engined medium bomber with the engine specified as being the Rolls-Royce Vulture. The aircraft which resulted was the Avro Manchester, which, although essentially a capable aircraft, struggled with the Vulture's unreliability as a powerplant. Only 200 Manchesters were manufactured and by 1942 they had all been withdrawn from service.

Roy Chadwick, Avro's famous Chief Designer (Lancaster, Lincoln, Vulcan, Shackleton), was already working on an improved Manchester design using four of the less powerful, but far more reliable, Rolls Royce Merlin engines and utilising a larger wing. The aircraft's original designation was the Avro Type 683 Manchester III but it was later re-named the Lancaster.

The prototype aircraft, BT308, was assembled by Avro's experimental flight department at Manchester's Ringway Airport and it was from there that test pilot H.A. "Bill" Thorn took the Lancaster for its first flight on Thursday 9th January 1941. The aircraft was a huge improvement on its predecessor and its three-finned tail layout, a result of the design being adapted from the Manchester I, was quickly changed on the second prototype and subsequent production aircraft to the now familiar twin-finned specification which, ironically enough, was also then used on the later Manchesters. The two aircraft were actually very similar in design terms with both featuring the same distinctive bulbous greenhouse cockpit, turret nose, and of course the twin tail.

Most Lancasters manufactured during WWII were built by Avro at their factory at Chadderton near Oldham, Lancashire, and subsequently test flown from Woodford Aerodrome in Cheshire. Other Lancasters were built by Metropolitan-Vickers and Armstrong Whitworth. Later on the aircraft was also produced at the Austin Motor Company works in Longbridge, Birmingham and, postwar, by Vickers-Armstrongs at Chester. A total of 7,377 Lancasters of all marks were built throughout the duration of the war, each at a 1943 cost of £45 / 50,000 (approximately equivalent to £1.3 / £1.5 million in modern day terms).

The Lancaster's extensive bomb bay was of course one of its most important features and at 33 ft long was initially carrying 4,000lb (1,820kg) Cookies as its heaviest weapon. Later bulged doors were added to some B-Mk1s to allow these aircraft to carry 8,000lb (3,600kg) and then 12,000lb (5,450kg) Cookies. Towards the end of the war however, and particularly for attacking special and hardened targets, the B I (Specials) could carry the 21ft (6.4m) long 12,000lb (5,450kg) Tallboy or 25.5ft (7.77m) long 22,000lb (9,980kg) Grand Slam bombs. By the end of WWII 42 Grand Slams had been dropped on targets such as bridges, viaducts and submarine pens.

The RAF's first unit to convert to the type was 44 Sqn in early 1942 and the Lancaster flew 156,000 sorties and dropped 618,378 tons of bombs between 1942 and 1945. Only 35 Lancasters completed more than 100 successful operations and 3,249 were lost in action with the most successful airframe surviving for 139 operations before being scrapped in 1947. The aircraft was normally manned by a crew of seven - pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator, mid-upper and rear gunners.

Lancs took part in some of the most significant events of WWII including the devastating raids on Hamburg during Air Marshall "Bomber" Harris' 'Operation GOMORRAH', the orders for which were signed on May 27th 1943. Action commenced on the night of July 24th 1943 with the bombing continuing until August 3rd and destroying a significant percentage of the city of Hamburg, leaving over a million residents homeless and killing in the region of 40,000 / 50,000 civilians. The campaign was the first to feature coordinated bombing between the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force, with the British bombing by night and the Americans conducting precision strikes by day, with Bomber Command deciding to debut two new additions to its arsenal as part of the campaign. The first of these was the H2S radar scanning system which provided bomber crews with a TV-like image of the ground below. The other was a system known as "Window". The forerunner of modern chaff, Window was bundles of aluminum foil strips carried by each bomber which, when released, would hopefully disrupt German radar.

The most famous Lancaster bombing raid was the 1943 mission, codenamed 'Operation CHASTISE', to destroy the dams of the Ruhr Valley. The Möhne and Edersee Dams were breached which caused catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr valley and of villages in the Eder valley, while the Sorpe Dam sustained relatively minor damage. The operation was carried out by 617 Sqn in modified Lancaster Mk IIIs carrying special drum shaped bouncing bombs designed by Barnes Wallis (Wallis also designed the Grand Slam incidentally).

The story of the operation was of course later made into a film and Sqn Ldr Guy Gibson (617's first CO) led the raid and was awarded the Victoria Cross. Also significant was a series of Lancaster attacks using Tallboy bombs against the German battleship Tirpitz, which first disabled and later sank the ship, with arguments as to which RAF Squadron was responsible still rumbling on to this day!

Lancasters from Bomber Command would also have formed the main strength of the Tiger Force, the Commonwealth bomber contingent scheduled to take part in "Operation DOWNFALL", the codename for the planned Allied invasion of Japan in late 1945. Missions would have been flown from bases on Okinawa but the invasion was made unnecessary by the Japanese surrender.

The Lancaster was further developed as the Avro Lincoln bomber, initially known as the Lancaster IV and Lancaster V with these two marks then designated as the Lincoln B.1 and B.2 respectively. A civilian airliner was also manufactured based on the Lancaster, the Lancastrian. Other developments were a transport variant, the York, and, as a development of the Lincoln, the Shackleton. This particular aircraft soldiered on for many years of course and provided airborne early warning capability for the RAF until its retirement in 1991.

In addition to the UK the Lancaster also saw military service with Argentina, Australia, Canada, Egypt, France, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden and the Soviet Union with civilian usage also seen in the UK, Canada and Argentina.

It was civil conversions that really continued apace in the postwar years and in 1946 four aircraft were converted by Avro for use as freighters by British South American Airways, these proved to be uneconomical however and were withdrawn after just a year in service. In addition, four Lancaster IIIs were converted by Flight Refuelling Limited as tankers and receiver aircraft for in-flight refuelling development. In 1947, one such aircraft was flown for 3,459 miles, non-stop from London to Bermuda and the two tanker aircraft were subsequently joined by another converted Lancaster and saw service in the Berlin Airlift, achieving an incredible 757 tanker sorties.

All of which brings us to the survivors and there are just 17 largely complete Avro Lancasters remaining with, as already mentioned, just two of those in an airworthy state. One of them is based in the UK of course, operated by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the other is in Canada, operated by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.

The BBMF's Lancaster, PA474, was built in Chester in mid-1945 and was earmarked for the 'Tiger Force' in the Far East. However, as the war with Japan ended before she could take part on operations she was instead assigned to recon duties with 82 Sqn in Africa. On return to the United Kingdom PA474 was loaned to Flight Refuelling Ltd at Tarrant Rushton to be used as a pilotless drone but, before the conversion started, the Air Ministry decided to use a Lincoln aircraft instead and PA474 was transferred to the Royal College of Aeronautics where she was used for trials.

In 1964 she was adopted by the Air Historical Branch (AHB) for future display in the (then) proposed RAF Museum at Hendon and was flown to Wroughton where she was painted in a camouflage scheme. During this period PA474 also took part in two films, 'Operation Crossbow' and 'The Guns of Navarone'. Later in 1964 she was moved to RAF Henlow in preparation for display at the RAF Museum. The first unit to be equipped with Lancasters was the aforementioned 44 Sqn and in 1965 the Commanding Officer of this unit, which was by then flying another Avro bomber, the Vulcan, from RAF Waddington, sought permission from the AHB for PA474 to be transferred to the care of the Squadron. An inspection found that the aircraft was structurally sound and permission was granted for a single flight from Henlow to Waddington.

At Waddington a restoration programme on PA474 began that would take several years to complete. By 1966 work was progressing well and both the front and rear turrets were replaced having been removed in Africa during her time with 82 Sqn. Permission to fly PA474 on a regular basis was granted in 1967 and the aircraft eventually joined the Battle of Britain Flight as it was then called in November 1973, prompting the change of name to the 'Battle of Britain Memorial Flight'. Restoration work on various parts of the aircraft has actually continued ever since and a mid-upper turret was discovered in Argentina and brought to Britain aboard HMS Hampshire and fitted in 1975, the same year that the aircraft was adopted by the City of Lincoln. During the winter of 1995/6 PA474 received a brand new main spar, extending her life for the foreseeable future.

Flt Lt Bill Ramsey, now a QFI with 1 EFTS at RAF Cranwell, flew the Lancaster with the BBMF in 1999, although he also told GAR the story surrounding an earlier close encounter with the aircraft during his time as the RAF's senior Hawk examiner:

"It was the 20th of May 1994 with the 50th Anniversary of the D-Day landings fast approaching. It had been decided that the Lanc would fly across the Normandy beaches dropping poppies. I believe the first trial had not gone too well with the poppies hanging up in the turbulent air around the bomb bay, so now the poppies had been packed in paper bags which it was hoped would carry them out of the aircraft before shredding in the airflow and delivering the (now) familiar bloom from the aircraft.

"A second trial was to be flown this day, at low level, over the Wainfleet range in Lincolnshire, and would be filmed from a chase aircraft. Some genius had decided to use a Hawk for the job! So, as the RAF's senior Hawk examiner at the time the task of flying it fell to me. We met and briefed on a pretty miserable day at RAF Coningsby and even at that point, when I knew the very low airspeed of the Lanc, the penny hadn't dropped that I would have to fly the Hawk only a few knots faster than its landing speed which meant I would have to have full flap lowered, which in turn meant that the landing gear would have to be down. This meant that the Hawk would not be very maneuverable and that if the engine stopped for any reason I would have no choice but to eject immediately (as would the photographer of course).

"So we took off individually and finally rendezvoused in the murk. Breathtaking - the Lanc from 20 feet away or so is simply beautiful (I once did a similar photochase with Concorde which was not as stunning). So we turn towards Wainfleet and start descending to very low level and I finally realise I must configure the Hawk as described - yep, it was truly uncomfortable. Anyway no time to dwell on it over the all-too close sand, the Lanc's bomb doors grind open and I focus on maintaining the steady close formation required by the photographer. Eyes glued to the bomb bay, tension all round - then in a flash, the rapid red bloom and all those famous photographs became possible. The moment of elation was shattered as from the corner of my eye I saw the biggest seagull in Lincolnshire haphazardly flash past my canopy and engine intakes. No more Lancaster reverie - full power, gear and flaps up, climb, 360 knots, safety. One for the experience bank for several reasons!

"I feel a bit of a fraud jotting down a couple of my memories of actually flying Lancaster PA474 from our all too brief time together in 1999 (I was invited into BBMF to take over from David Thomas but the dream was dashed by promotion and the loss of the Number 3 engine during our Southend display that year).

"So what still sticks in the memory? What an absolute pig to taxi or to land in a crosswind. How utterly unresponsive in roll without huge rudder input. The nightmare of pneumatic brakes. The fantastic view through the huge canopy - especially when it included the Spitfire and / or Hurricane on the wing. The simple pleasure of using the callsign "Lancaster". The responsibility of being part of a crew operating this priceless national heirloom. How short the runway at North Weald seemed! How very difficult it is to move along the fuselage even in a modern, lightweight flying suit. How very unsettling it was at Southend to see and smell the smoke and flames from No 3 just outside my window (not a modern jet experience). What a tiny and lonely place the rear turret is.

"But above all, the sense of wonder at how the heroes of Bomber Command managed to fly this beast night after night, at much heavier weights than BBMF ever do, with very little training, whilst facing the near certainty of an imminent, unpleasant death. It was a frequent event in 1999 to go to the aircraft to find an elderly gent, usually in RAF blazer and tie at what had been his crew position surrounded by his younger relatives. Invariably he would be in tears questioning, no doubt for the ten thousandth time, why he was the sole member of his crew to have survived being shot down. God bless them all. So in sum, it wasn't really my favourite aeroplane - to be honest I thought the Dakota was a much better handling (albeit smaller) aircraft. But in the end, it was the mighty Lancaster."

The second airworthy airframe is Lancaster B X FM213 which was retired from active duty with the Royal Canadian Air Force on 6th November 1963. She was then stored at Dunnville, Ontario with a total of 4,392.3 hours on the airframe when she was handed over following her retirement. She would probably have been sold for scrap metal had it not been for the intervention of The Royal Canadian Legion in Goderich and the aircraft was acquired by Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in 1978, underwent a 10-year restoration, and has remained airworthy since 1988.

The aircraft is flown in the paint scheme of KB726 VR-A, depicting an aircraft of No.419 Squadron RCAF, and is known as the "Mynarski Memorial Lancaster" in honour of Canadian Victoria Cross recipient Andrew Mynarski. The aircraft was grounded due to corrosion found in the propeller blades but after an appeal for funding she flew again in May 2009.

One of the most famous of the Lancaster survivors in working order is Lancaster VII 'Just Jane', based at East Kirkby in Lincolnshire under the ownership of local farmers Fred and Harold Panton. Now maintained as the centrepiece of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, 'Just Jane' was one of the first Mk VII variants of the Lancaster, built at Longbridge in April 1945. NX611 was initially designated to join the RAF's Tiger Force in the Far East; however, these plans were soon shelved following the surrender of the Japanese armed forces that rendered 'Just Jane's' military career over before it had even begun.

The aircraft was put into storage at Llandow until 1952, when the French Government gave her a new lease of life as a maritime patrol aircraft for the Aeronavale. In 1962, the Lancaster undertook a mammoth ferry flight to the small French island of New Caledonia in the South-West Pacific Ocean where the aircraft undertook air sea rescue duties. After two years of service over the Pacific, NX611 was ferried to Sydney, Australia, for overhaul, before eventually returning to the UK in 1965, arriving at Biggin Hill on May 13th following a journey in excess of 12,000 miles. 'Just Jane' made few appearances upon her return to the UK, with the aircraft grounded until 1967 due to the excessive hours flown during her operational career with the Aeronavale. In 1972, the Lancaster was put up for auction in Blackpool where it was purchased and given a new lease of life as a gate guardian at RAF Scampton.

In the meantime, Lincolnshire farmers Fred and Harold Panton had purchased part of the old RAF aerodrome at East Kirkby, where they began preparing an exhibition marking the sacrifices of the men of Bomber Command. This was a particularly personal project for the Pantons, as their brother, Christopher, had been lost on the Nuremberg Raid in 1944. Their Bomber Command exhibition would be their way of paying tribute to their brother and the 55,000 other Bomber Command aircrew lost in combat over Europe. After several years spent pursuing NX611, the Pantons finally purchased the Lancaster in September 1983, some 16 years after they had first scouted the aircraft at the aforementioned Blackpool auction.

In 1993, work began on restoring the Lancaster's engines and 'Just Jane' soon became a functioning, taxiable hallmark of the Pantons' Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre. NX611 has, since 1994, been maintained in ground-running condition, where it has been enjoyed by the public at numerous day and night taxi events from 1996 to the present day, which has enabled the Pantons to bring to life the multi-faceted personality of the Lancaster for countless visitors of all ages. One cannot underestimate the importance of keeping 'Just Jane' active, as Andrew Panton explains.

"We view the operation of the Lancaster as a way of educating men, women and children about the aircraft and the hardships of the Second World War. We hope to be educating people for many years to come.

"Our Lancaster NX611 'Just Jane' is a living memorial and tribute to Bomber Command and all of the men and women who lost their lives operating them. There is never a day goes by when someone around the world does not talk about a Lancaster and that shows to us its importance in keeping the memory of the Second World War alive."

Until recently, the prospects of a third airworthy Lancaster joining those in the UK and Canada have seemed slim; after all, we are talking about a multi-engine heavy bomber. The sheer cost of bringing another aircraft back to flying condition has always appeared too astronomical to make such a project practical. Thankfully, through the determination of the Panton family, the once impossible dream of seeing multiple Lancasters in the same piece of sky in the 21st century may one day become a reality, as Andrew Panton explains.

"It is fair to say that we have been considering making moves to fly Avro Lancaster NX611 for some years now; in fact, it has been the ultimate ambition of Fred and Harold to complete their fabulous contribution to aviation history and the memory of Bomber Command… There are quite a few static Lancasters in museums that will never be able to fly again, so it seems a great waste not to fly a Lancaster that has the ability to be made airworthy.

"It has been our ultimate ambition to be able to restore NX611 to an airworthy condition but also keep her accessible for the general public to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and atmosphere created by a Lancaster. For us to keep NX611 as a credible 'people's memorial' to Bomber Command available to many people, no matter their background or financial situation - after all those that flew with Bomber Command came from every imaginable background - we must strike a healthy balance between keeping her in a good condition but also allowing the public to experience her. The end goal would be to be able to see NX611 take to the skies once more, but it will by no means be a short road to that end. We are currently building up a large stores and parts stock ready for the possible 'push' for airworthiness. The moves we are making - sourcing four airworthy engines, acquiring parts from all over the world, undertaking feasibility studies, sourcing APs and the relevant paperwork - are all working towards enabling us to 'push the button' and let the Lanc feel air under her wheels once more."

There have been many concerned voices raised since the announcement that 'Just Jane' would return to flight was made. Andrew is quick to assuage the fears that restoring NX611 may, should the project be unsuccessful, lead to the aircraft's demise and the loss of a powerful and hugely important memorial and he summarises perhaps the most important reason for bringing a third Lancaster back to flight.

"Rest assured that we have the aircraft's best interests first and foremost in our minds. We have not striven for many years to sacrifice our achievements in one fell swoop. NX611 will always remain as a living memorial to Bomber Command; that is the most important duty we perform.

"Both the sight and sound of the Lancaster are enormously evocative and have different affects on different people. For some it evokes the feelings of respect and reverence, for others it symbolises sadness and great loss and for others it evokes pride and patriotism. But however great you view the Lancaster to be, it must be understood that it will never be as great as the men who flew them."

We've used the word icon a lot recently on GAR, especially with relation to the Harrier which, in aviation terms, certainly fits the bill. It can however be overused in modern culture so I've just checked exactly what the definition of the word states. It says:

"A name, face, picture, edifice or even a person readily recognised as having some well-known significance or embodying certain qualities."

I think you'd be have to be pretty hard-nosed to deny the Avro Lancaster the tag of icon in all honesty. It symbolises not just one of the most successful and significant aircraft of its generation but the significance of all those who lost their lives during the dark days of WWII.

For more information on the three principal survivors discussed in this article, please visit the websites of The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum and Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.

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2011-02-19 - IAN
Three airworthy Lancasters: it's an acheivement that is something worth striving for. Aviation history is such a worthwhile subject . Wouldn't it be nice to see the Hampden AE436 sharing some of that glory....?

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