On Thursday, 21 August, a unique formation of three Avro bombers will depart RAF Waddington for a series of flypasts. Bill Ramsey will be leading the formation in Vulcan XH558 (G-VLCN) with two Lancasters for company, and he spoke to Gareth Stringer about the exciting prospect of the trip ahead and his experience of flying both types.
Of all the current Vulcan display pilots, just one has also flown the Avro Lancaster, and that man is Bill Ramsey. It is fitting then that as Captain, with Kev Rumens and Phil Davies for company, Bill will be leading a formation of three Avro bombers when it departs RAF Waddington on Thursday – and that formation will be made up of Avro Vulcan XH558, the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster PA474 and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s (CWHM) Avro Lancaster KB726 “Vera” (C-GVRA).
With just eleven years between their first flights, but a huge technological gap in terms of design, construction, performance and capability, it still seems incredible that one man’s team of designers, namely that of Roy Chadwick, had such a big hand in the design of both the Lancaster and the Vulcan. Sadly, Chadwick died on 23 August 1947 in the crash of the Avro Tudor 2 prototype, and it was Stuart Davies, who had previously worked on converting the Manchester in to the Lancaster, who brought the Vulcan to life. Right now though it just seems incredible that we will get to see three of them flying together in 2014.
“I don’t think there is much doubt that this will be my favourite ever day in aviation, or certainly close to it. Opening the Farnborough Airshow in the Vulcan, with the Red Arrows, was memorable, especially bearing in mind my time with the Reds, but this is truly a once a lifetime opportunity. It’s going to be a very special day.” Bill tells me.
That much is most certainly true and, with the Vulcan only slated to fly until the end of 2015, and with no prospect that the CWHM Lancaster will return to the UK any time soon, there is no doubt whatsoever that this will never happen again.
“In four years of displaying the Vulcan I have never hassled Kev Rumens, who rosters our flights, for any trip in particular, but when this one came up, I certainly did! I am very excited, but it is also a little daunting as well.”
Bill’s first operational tour in the Royal Air Force was flying the Avro Vulcan, and it was that multi-engine experience, along with time spent on the Hastings and Jetstream as part of the CFS Exam Wing that, some years later, led to an invite from Dave Thomas, who displayed the Lancaster and the Vulcan for many years, to join the RAF BBMF.
“This was towards the end of 1998, and Dave invited me on-board, the plan being that I was going convert to the Lancaster and Dakota, get qualified for the left-hand seat and become an instructor and, at the end of the 1999 season, replace him as the RAF BBMF’s Bomber Leader.
“It was a lovely plan, but, in May 1999 we were displaying the Lancaster at the Southend Airshow when the supercharger on the No.3 engine failed, with plenty of smoke and flames, and we limped in to Southend Airport. That was the last time I flew the Lancaster, because there were no spare engines back in those days, and the only compatible Merlin powerplant they had was that in the Hurricane Mk.1, so a choice had to be made.
“In the meantime, out of the blue, I was offered a promotion by the RAF and a job in Saudi Arabia, so that was the end of the BBMF for me!”
He didn’t get to fly it for a long period of time, but what are Bill’s memories of flying the Lancaster, I wonder?
“A long time before all that, and to put it in to context, I had flown another four-engine tail-wheel aircraft, the Handley Page Hastings, so I do have something to compare the Lancaster with, as well as the Dakota of course. The Lancaster wasn’t my favourite aircraft to fly; I found it to be very heavy, especially the aileron controls, with a lot of adverse aileron yaw, and it was very difficult to land. It certainly wasn’t what I would call a pilot’s aircraft.
“However, none of that detracts from the fact that when you climb over that huge main spar, struggle your way up to the cockpit and look out of that bubble window, you’re in a Lancaster, and there is nothing that compares with that. So, I don’t mean to give out mixed messages, but in the end, and despite what I think the aircraft’s handling shortcomings might be, it is still a Lancaster, and that makes it very, very special. The Vulcan is an infinitely nicer pilot’s aircraft, which played its own significant part in post-war history, but I don’t think any Vulcan pilot would challenge the Lancaster’s vital importance in world history! There is no doubt that the jump from Lancaster to Vulcan was a huge one, despite their relatively close proximity in terms of time, and in a performance sense, there is very little comparison. It is worth noting though that were more than a few nods to its lineage though, and the radar we carried in the Vulcan for example, H2S, was the same as that used by the Lancaster, albeit in an updated form.
“On the RAF BBMF we used to fly the Lanc at a maximum all-up-weight which was probably half of what they did in wartime, and we did so from pristine paved runways and during the day. Seventy years ago they were flying them at night, having had little training and with hardly any experience, at huge weights, off short grass runways and being shot at, with every prospect of not returning. I would sit there, in the ‘lightweight’ Lancaster and wonder, how did they do that?
“The aircraft remains a focal point for the families of those who served on the Lancaster and in Bomber Command and we would often show veterans and their relatives around the aircraft. Sitting people in the crew positions they had sat in during the war, or showing their relatives, would frequently result in tears, and often you found yourself in tears too; it’s still a very emotional subject.”
Bearing his Lancaster experience and all that emotion in mind, what did Bill make of the journey completed by the CWHM simply to get Vera to the United Kingdom?
“I’ve crossed the Atlantic in a Hawk, using a very similar route and at a very similar time of year, albeit using one extra stop along the way, and I simply cannot emphasise enough what an epic adventure they’ve had. Even during August the weather could have turned very nasty, and it’s rather ironic that it got so bad when they reached Lincolnshire – but hats off to all those involved.”
The aforementioned differences in performance have made for some interesting planning ahead of the trip on Thursday, and on the day of this interview Bill had just returned from a lengthy meeting with Sqn Ldr Dunc Mason (OC RAF BBMF), Flt Lts Tim Dunlop and Roger Nichols (RAF BBMF Bomber pilots) and the CWHM crew, among others.
“The first thing that is slightly unusual is that we have three aircraft all owned by different people and governed by different authorities with slightly different rules and regulations. That is why we won’t be taking this formation to a public display / airshow, as we would need to display in front of the RAF BBMF’s Air Officer Commanding in order to secure a PDA (Public Display Authorisation), and that would be time consuming and prohibitively expensive.
“In terms of the relative power of the aircraft, I will be leading the formation with the two Lancasters behind me, because we think that will be the most aesthetically pleasing way to do it. It also means that the most powerful aircraft is at the front, and you would normally have the aircraft with the most power at the back so they can do what they need to do to stay in formation.
“That means I am going to have to consider those two aircraft, that I won’t be able to see, every single time I move the throttles, especially as whoever is on the outside of the turn needs most power to keep up. It’ll be fine; we just need to think about every move very carefully.”
The route itself, starting at RAF Waddington, will see the three aircraft departing and then flying a box pattern to the south-west / west of Lincoln to allow them to form up. They will then fly over the turf-cutting ceremony for the new Bomber Command Memorial and on to Metheringham, RAF Coningsby and then a straight line on to RAF Marham.
From there the Vulcan will push on to Clacton for its display slot, and it will be followed by the Lancasters, which will have met up with the BBMF fighters by this time, for their own slot at the airshow.
The Vulcan will return home to Robin Hood while the Lancasters head to Southend to prepare for a weekend of airshows in the south of England.
The whole thing will be photographed by John Dibbs from the back seat of a 100 Sqn Hawk T1 – and capturing the formation on camera, for posterity, is one of the most important elements of the trip.
The PAVE at RAF Waddington will be open to the general public (see this link for more information) and, bearing in mind the size of the formation and the distance it is covering, hopefully many people will get to see it, although there is no provision for a direct overflight of Waddington once the aircraft have departed.
“It is very exciting, but as I said earlier, it is quite daunting. I know everything that we need to do, though, and I honestly believe that as far as aviation events go, it doesn’t get too much bigger than this.”
I think we’d most likely agree with him.
Gareth Stringer would like to thank Bill Ramsey.