For an Australian, seeing even one Lancaster is something of an achievement. There are only two in the entire country – and they’re separated by some 2000 miles. So while I was in the UK in June 2010, managing to visit no less than three in about four days was pretty special. They were all around London – R5868 ‘S-Sugar’ at Hendon, DV372 ‘Old Fred’ at the Imperial War Museum, and PA474 ‘City of Lincoln’ at Biggin Hill. Each one inspired some sort of feeling, but not entirely as one might have expected.
Old Fred is the least complete of the three. In fact, it’s only the front cockpit section – forward of the main spar – that sits in majestic splendour on the second level of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth:
This is of course the Lancaster that was immortalised by navigator Arnold Easton’s book ‘We Flew Old Fred – The Fox’. It has a personal connection for me as well, appearing at least once in the logbook of S/Ldr DPS (Phil) Smith, who led my great uncle Jack’s 467 Sqn crew. Jack himself was not on this operation but the rest of the crew were. I’m told that, except for a great big sheet of perspex over the flight engineer’s panel, the cockpit appears more or less untouched from the way it looked at the end of the war.
There’s another great big sheet of perspex across the end that seals off the inside from the sweaty hands of the thousands of school children who were visiting at the same time that I was. It also, of course, carries out the same protective function against slightly emotional relatives of bomber aircrew… like me.
I was pressed up against the plastic for some time, gazing at a bucket seat that Phil Smith sat in… a navigator’s desk like those Jack Purcell worked at… the knobs on the radio sets that wireless op Dale Johnston fiddled with. Half the aeroplane is missing, but standing there looking forward it wasn’t hard to imagine the three of them, plus the hulking figure of Ken Tabor at the flight engineer’s station (without the perspex) and, beyond those yellow railings, right up the front in the big bulbous blister, bomb aimer Jerry Parker. The chatter of the schoolchildren became the drone of four Merlins as the Lancaster flew through the night. There was definitely a connection here.
S-Sugar is an aeroplane that should evoke similar feelings. It’s certainly an aeroplane that was on squadron at the same time that my great uncle and his crew were. In fact I can almost imagine their anticipation at the prospect of a party in the mess when Sugar approached its 100th operation. Sadly, they were not to enjoy any celebrations, being shot down the night before Sugar chalked up its ‘Ton’.
The first sight, once you enter the main aircraft halls at the RAF Museum at Hendon, is certainly impressive:
But as I approached the aeroplane I saw tape blocking off one side. The Museum was doing work to their Bomber Command exhibition and so half the hall was closed. I couldn’t even walk a full circuit around the Lancaster. One of my favourite things to do when in close proximity to a Lancaster is to just walk around it, looking up. I think it’s got something to do with realising how big the thing is.
But I couldn’t do that on this day.
I don’t know why, but Sugar just didn’t have the effect on me that I was expecting it to. I couldn’t walk all the way around the aeroplane. There was the sound of power tools over on the other side of the hall (the side that was closed off). There was the ‘beeping’ of a moving cherry picker. The atmosphere – that I think the Australian War Memorial has captured with their Striking by Night display using G-George in Canberra – just wasn’t there.
I realise that here was an aeroplane that was at Waddington when Jack’s crew were there – it was even on the same operation to Lille from which they failed to return. But I found nothing there. The collection of metal bits and pieces looked like a Lancaster but I detected none of the ‘something else’ that I found at Canberra. It just wasn’t there for me. S for Sugar was a bit disappointing.
One aeroplane that definitely still has that something special is PA474. Unique amongst those Lancasters that I’ve laid eyes on, this one still flies.
I spent three weeks on the Bomber Command trail in Lincolnshire last year. Despite chasing it half way across the county, I failed on that occasion to see City of Lincoln in the air.
There was no way it was going to beat me this time around!
I thought the Biggin Hill airshow would be a pretty safe bet. When I arrived – early in the morning – I could see the Lancaster in the distance, parked somewhat improbably behind an Me 109:
The anticipation began to build.
The airshow was fantastic. All sorts of aeroplanes that we just can’t see in Australia, displayed in professional and entertaining ways. The large crowd lapped it up.
In the afternoon, England was playing Germany in the game that would ultimately send the Poms home from the World Cup. The airshow organisers had thoughtfully provided a few very big video screens on which to show the match.
Every person on that airfield had their eyes glued to the old bomber. The football never stood a chance.
There is something about the sound of a Lancaster at take-off power. You can’t look away (even if a contentious refereeing decision just cost England any chance they might have had of reaching the next round). The aeroplane made several low, slow passes with the grace of a beautiful lady in her element, the Merlins purring as she swept past. That silhouette is unmistakeable.
The crowd’s attention was wandering back towards the football after the Lancaster made its final pass. I kept watching though, as it headed into the distance. The wings became stumps, then they disappeared altogether and the aeroplane became but a dot. I was still watching as the dot disappeared over the horizon, the throb of those engines finally fading away. A minute or two later I was still watching, still searching, but it was gone.
I’d travelled half-way across the world, and finally I’d managed to see a Lancaster in the air.
Satisfied, I turned my attention to the big screen to watch the rest of the match.
This post originally appeared on the Lancaster Archive Forum (http://lancaster-archive.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=2810&st=0&sk=t&sd=a&hilit=three+lancasters)
© 2010 Adam Purcell