Twenty miles east of Lincoln lies a small village called East Kirkby. In fields nearby are the remains of a Royal Air Force Bomber Command station of the same name. It would be just one of many similar old airfields liberally scattered around Lincolnshire, except that in a corner of this one is the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre – the home of Avro Lancaster NX611, better known as Just Jane.
I went on a taxi run on Jane during my Bomber Command ‘pilgrimage’ to the UK in April 2009. It was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip. Sitting in the wireless operator’s seat (while the desk is still there, the navigator’s seat has been removed), feeling the vibrations as the aircraft moved and hearing the roar of the engines and the hiss of pneumatic brakes as we bumped our way around a small part of the old airfield, it was very easy to close my eyes and feel just a small taste of What It Was Like.
There has been some significant press coverage in the last couple of weeks about a possible restoration to airworthiness for Just Jane. Indeed, a report on BBC News was reportedly the most viewed and most shared video on the website the day it was released. The museum has secured four airworthy Merlin engines and is slowly gathering more parts, including an almost complete Martin mid-upper turret. Certainly it would appear that the Panton brothers are serious about getting their treasure into the air again.
But restoring another Lancaster to flying status will be a significant challenge. It took a decade to get Canadian Warplane Heritage’s Mynarski Lancaster airworthy. Just Jane is in quite good condition but there are far more regulations and requirements surrounding an airworthy aircraft than those relevant to one that stays on the ground – maintenance becomes instantly more expensive as it would need to be signed off by a licensed engineer, for example. The Pantons are reportedly planning to carry out the restoration on site at East Kirkby. As I discovered when I visited in 2009, they do already have some heroic if limited restoration work already underway on projects like a Hampden light bomber, but a Lancaster – to flying status – is in a whole new level of complexity. Obstacles like these can be overcome, given sufficient determination, but they also need piles and piles of cold hard cash. Taxi rides on Just Jane are by far the biggest attraction of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, and with Jane inaccessible for two seasons at the very least, that’s a large proportion of their revenue affected.
I don’t know the full story, and it is entirely possible (even likely, given the increase in news coverage recently) that the museum has planned and saved already towards the restoration. There are a number of static Lancasters around the world so I feel the risk of losing one in a crash, while very real, is not a reason to leave it on the ground – after all, an aeroplane’s natural environment is the sky. But there is another perhaps more philosophical reason that I think should be considered before any work is commenced.
At the moment, Just Jane provides the only opportunity in the world for members of the general public to crawl all over a Lancaster in something close to wartime configuration. Following the taxi run, you are given the complete run of the machine – sitting in each crew position (though the mid-upper turret is at the moment a shell only), clambering over the main spar, handling the bomb sight and of course manipulating the flying controls in the pilot’s seat. The point is that once the aircraft is certified for flight, it will need to comply with civil aviation regulations and as such this freedom will necessarily need to be curtailed. And having gone to the trouble and expense of returning the Lancaster to flying condition, it’s debatable whether the museum would then tolerate the additional cost and wear and tear of public ground runs.
As current EU regulations stand, flying paying passengers on the aircraft would be nearly impossible (inflexible security laws introduced in 2008 mandate things like bulletproof cockpit doors and escape slides in large aircraft carrying paying passengers, requirements that are impossible or at least extremely impracticable for vintage aircraft of this nature). And about 20 miles down the road is the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, with its own flying Lancaster, so people can already see one of the old bombers flying on a regular basis. If Just Jane does ever fly again, the very accessible opportunity for members of the public to experience being in a Lancaster with its engines running will probably be lost. As good as it would be to see two Lancasters in the air at once, I feel that, rather than simply watching another aeroplane fly past, experiencing one of Just Jane’s taxi rides is a far more effective way to give modern audiences a personal feeling of What It Was Like.
Which, for people like me, is the whole point of the exercise.
© 2013 Adam Purcell