Posts Tagged 'Avro Lancaster'

Just Jane to fly again?

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.

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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.

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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

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Motivations

Daily life at a Bomber Command airfield could not exactly be described as ‘calming’.

I learned what the target was about midday, and for the whole afternoon I wandered around with a feeling of having half a pound of cold lead in the pit of my stomach. – Bill Brill, 467 Sqn skipper and later CO – C07-036-142

In an effort to explain their feelings about what they were to do, some airmen turned to thoughts of sport – as Hank Nelson wrote in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, for many airmen “sport was one place where their capacity to perform at their best under stress had been tested”. Nelson quotes Arthur Doubleday comparing the lead up to an operation to waiting to go into bat in cricket: “You know, the fast bowler looked a lot faster from the fence, but when you get in there it’s not too bad” (C07-036-142).

But as tours dragged on, as airmen witnessed more and more empty places at the Mess tables, it would have been only natural to begin to feel the cumulative tension of one operation after another. On his eleventh operation, Bill Brill was ‘getting a little accustomed to being scared’ (C07-036-159). And there is no doubt that airmen knew very well exactly how low their chances of surviving a tour were. Gil Pate wrote to his mother in November 1943 (A01-409-001): “It seems an age since I last saw you all + I guess I’ll need a lot of luck to do so again, the way things happen.”

So why did they go on?

Much has been made of the ‘stigma’ of being branded ‘LMF’ (Lacking Moral Fibre), a fate seemingly worse than death. And certainly there were instances of aircrew who had gone beyond their breaking point being publicly stripped of their ranks and their aircrew brevets, and given humiliating menial duties for the rest of the war. The loose stitching and unfaded spots left on their uniforms were a cruel reminder of what they once were. Certainly the threat of being branded LMF was a big motivator for some aircrew to carry on. But despite how much it was feared by the aircrew, a very low number of verdicts of LMF were ever officially handed down – Leo McKinstry quotes about 1200 in all, or less than 1% of all airmen in Bomber Command (C07-048-225).  There were also instances of compassionate squadron Commanding Officers recognising an airman at his limit and quietly moving him off flying duties, without the humiliation of accusations of cowardice. One veteran I know told me of the case of a mid-upper gunner who had been so traumatised by discovering the mutilated remains of his rear gunner comrade after an attack by nightfighters that he was clearly not in a state to continue flying. He was given a month’s compassionate leave on return to base, and on his return from leave was transferred to the Parachute Section of the same Squadron where he worked for the rest of the war (C03-021-051).

One of the most significant motivators, in my view, was the bonds shared by the crews themselves. Dennis Over – a 227 Sqn rear gunner, writing on the Lancaster Archive Forum in December 2010 – says “our greatest fears may well have been not wanting to let our crew down”. When I visited Dennis in June 2010 he said that he could not remember feeling fear while actually on an operation. That, he said, came later.  He had instead, he told me, “a sense of complete concentration on my duties, for the benefit of my entire crew”. No matter what the enemy could throw at them, no matter the hazards of weather or mechanical failure, their crew came first. That bond carries on today with many veteran aircrew still very close to surviving members of their crews. It’s one of the unique aspects of the Bomber Command experience and goes a long way to explaining why, in the face of dreadful odds, they pressed on regardless.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Painting Complete!

Here is the completed painting, now framed and hanging on my wall. I reckon it looks pretty damn fine:

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Avro Lancaster LM475 PO-B for Baker, of 467 Sqn RAAF, sits on its dispersal at RAF Waddington on 11 April 1944. Its crew has just arrived for a bombing raid on the German city of Aachen.

This painting serves as a tribute to the crew of this aircraft:

S/L DPS Smith

W/O RW Purcell

Sgt KH Tabor

Sgt J Parker

F/Sgt AD Johnston

Sgt ER Hill

F/Sgt GF Pate

These men were shot down in this aircraft on an operation to Lille, France, on 10 May 1944. Only the pilot, Phil Smith, survived.

The painting, by Steve Leadenham, was specially commissioned by Adam Purcell, the great nephew of the navigator.

Steve advises that prints of this painting will be available in the future – details on how to get one will be posted here in due course.


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