Each November, the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre stages its Avro Lancaster NX611 (G-ASXX) night run and photoshoot, an event which includes a number of Lancaster taxi runs and the county’s largest fireworks display. Kieran Lear reports for GAR.
Lincolnshire is affectionately known to the public of today as “Bomber County” due to the amount of Royal Air Force bases housed within it that saw tremendous service by RAF Bomber Command during the World War Two. One such station that garnered action over Nazi Germany was East Kirkby, an airfield situated right in the heart of the tranquil, picturesque county.
Officially declared an RAF station in 1943, East Kirkby saw the first arrival of squadrons and aircraft almost immediately. 57 Squadron was the first to set up home at the airfield and it flew Bomber Command’s own symbol of oppression: the Avro Lancaster. In November 1943, 57 Squadron was expanded to form 630 Squadron.
Following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, East Kirkby shifted its sights to the War in the Pacific and immediately set plans to aid its allies against the intense might of the Japanese. The renewed war effort was known as ‘Tiger Force’, proposed as an amalgamation of Allied aircraft to assist in the Pacific theatre. The need for Tiger Force ceased after the atomic bomb drops which abruptly forced Japan’s surrender, and on 18 July 1945, 630 Squadron officially disbanded.
From 1951, East Kirkby airfield then changed into the hands of the USAF, operating the base with its 3931st and 3917th ABG Douglas C-47 transport aircraft. East Kirkby officially closed as an RAF station in 1958. Fast forward to 2013 and East Kirkby stands as a reminder of sacrifice made by crews that made Lincolnshire their home during the war. Indeed, some remnants of its past are still much in evidence with the control tower, chapel and hangars still housing a demeanour of intrigue and mystery. You walk into the control tower and you can’t help but think of the frantic activity that this small building must have encountered during those dark days of war.
Whilst it’s always fascinating to get the chance to reflect on life during the World War Two (and this is something East Kirkby does well to provoke), the true reason why the airfield is regarded as a jewel in the crown of the warbird scene is because of the aircraft it now houses: Avro Lancaster B.VII NX611 Just Jane – owned by the Panton family. It’s a very humbling story as to how NX611 managed to find her way to East Kirkby. Fred and Harold Panton initially set up the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre as a tribute to Bomber Command and personally, as a tribute to their eldest sibling, Christopher Panton, who was tragically killed on a bombing raid over Nuremberg on 30/31 March, 1944.
Due to the anger and frustration felt by the Panton’s father after the war cost the life of his eldest child, it was not until the 1970s that Fred saw the grave of his eldest brother. However, this sowed the seeds for Fred, who grew more and more fascinated by the exploits of Bomber Command. Soon after, Avro Lancaster NX611 came up for sale and the two farming brothers purchased the aircraft and brought her to East Kirkby. Originally intended to be a private affair for the family, it was suggested that the aircraft be used as a public exhibition to help the future generations remember their forefathers and what they stood for. Thus, the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre was formed in 1988 with NX611 Just Jane acting as the face of the organisation.
The museum is open all year round and it isn’t unusual for the Lancaster to be taxying under her own power across the compound. East Kirkby also has several events throughout the calendar year, such as its own airshow in August as well as themed events that always include a close look at Just Jane herself. The first Saturday of November is traditionally a day where the Lancaster performs three taxi runs, including one at night, concluding with a large fireworks display.
It was, shamefully, my first time attending East Kirkby and I wanted to get to the airfield at a reasonable time to allow myself the opportunity to look around the museum and its artefacts at my own pace. I had recently moved to Norfolk, so setting off at midday would give me sufficient time to explore East Kirkby in depth. Ultimately, I arrived three hours after setting off due to a flat tyre on my car, and those old words of “gently drive so the tyre can get used to the road” were firmly cast off the A17 carriageway as I floored it towards the airfield, hoping I’d make it just in time for the afternoon taxi run.
Arriving as the Lancaster was taxying, I could hear the cacophony of Merlin engines roaring away and channeled Usain Bolt, sprinting through the museum entrance so as not to miss the run, completely overlooking the “£10 entrance fee” kiosk that was situated right next to the entrance! After managing to be a mere feet away from the bomber at full whack, I then sheepishly walked back into the museum to pay the volunteers my fee before continuing to walk around the historic confines with my friends; including GAR’s own ‘Laurel and Hardy’, Greg and Elliott Marsh, and Huw Hopkins. £10 for three taxi runs, fireworks and access to the museum – as well as very reasonably priced food and drink – seems like a tremendous bargain and is only £3 more than the standard entrance fee to the museum on a non-event day.
Situated in the main hangar where Just Jane and C-47 Skytrain Drag-em-oot are kept are significant historical reminders of East Kirkby’s dark past. Indeed, there’s burnt out wreckage of a Spitfire fuselage that is plagued with sadness; the pilot of the Spitfire had requested to land at the airfield but was denied on multiple occasions, before being forced to ditch the aircraft into fields nearby. It’s little artefacts like these that really do make you think how courageous these young men and women were facing fear and death like an everyday chore.
After a quick look at the model flying, including a P-47 outside turning (ooh-la-la, you wouldn’t see that at IWM Duxford!), we took the time to wander around the control tower and also sit in the chapel, which played a rather rare, lovely choral version of George Fenton’s main Memphis Belle theme, which itself is based on the famous song Amazing Grace.
The volunteers and staff definitely tried to make the day more comfortable for its visitors who had flocked in their thousands to support the museum. I found it very surprising to see how busy the event actually was, considering the sky was unsettled throughout the day and the night sky brought a chill to the air that would even bring a tear to an Eskimo’s eye. A multitude of refreshment stands and the museum shop were all on hand for the public, as were several re-enactors dressed in World War Two period dress. A highlight was sure to be the hog roast but due to the queue ending somewhere in Norfolk, I decided against attempting to sample it! There was also a search light demonstration which further added to the atmosphere.
As advertised, Just Jane was moved into position ready for a taxi run at 1900 and, sure enough, one by one, the four glorious Merlin engines roared to life and the Lancaster was ready to show to us why this bomber has the best sound in the world. Marshalled carefully by volunteers with glow-sticks, the Lancaster continued to taxi gently across the compound; the darkness blending in perfectly with the bomber. It was unusual but brilliant to see a Lancaster under her own power in her natural habitat. We lost sight of the Lancaster as she went further into the darkness, but you could still hear the sound of the Merlins in the distance, just as if she was returning back from a sortie over occupied Europe.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, she emerged looking directly at us, the sound reverberating from the hangars and buildings. The ghosts were alive and they were all watching something that would have been commonplace during their era; people stood waiting for the bombers to return. Taxying back to her position, the Lancaster was then wound up with the four huge engines deafening the crowds, who all had huge smiles on their faces. Let me assure you this, if you’ve never experienced a Lancaster at full whack on the ground, a few feet away, you haven’t lived. Sure enough, the Lancaster then powered down and the crew was met with a huge round of applause, and quite rightly so.
Shortly after Just Jane returned to her hangar, the event finale began, with a lengthy and very impressive firework display – the largest in the county – rounding off an excellent afternoon in style. The large crowd certainly seemed to go home happy!
The amount of care and attention NX611 receives is second to none, and it’s a testament to the dedication of the Panton family that we can still be reminded of our proud heritage, and the exploits and sacrifices made by Bomber Command, who were unfairly forgotten post-war when compared to Fighter Command. It’s without doubt the Avro Lancaster is one of the most important RAF aircraft to ever be designed, and we are so lucky to have the benefit of seeing one operated by the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (PA474), which can be seen all over the UK during the summer seasons; but we also have the more intimate privilege of having NX611 deafen us with the chatter of her Merlins a mere feet away from her audience at East Kirkby.
I would urge anyone who reads this review to attend East Kirkby and support the legacy of the Pantons. It was my first time, but it will certainly not be my last. Please keep an eye on the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre website for details of events they will be hosting in 2014, and please keep this crucial reminder of sacrifice, bravery and courage alive for our successors.
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