Lancasters at Biggin Hill
Meeting the final airworthy Avro Lancasters and those fortunate few who fly them.
The two monstrous machines thunder towards the waiting group of veterans, enthusiasts and press. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s (BBMF’s) Hurricane and Spitfire – normally the stars of the show – sit quietly at one side, and when the Red Arrows decide to take off in the background, they are all but ignored. The two Lancasters demand attention.
The visit to Biggin Hill by the two remaining airworthy Avro Lancasters – the first time such aircraft have been seen together in the UK since the filming of The Dambusters during the early 1950s – on 14 August is part of a two month-long tour.
Avro Lancaster PA474 was constructed at the Vickers Armstrong Broughton factory at Hawarden Airfield, Chester on 31 May 1945. Following a period in storage it was converted for photo reconnaissance work, before serving in East and South Africa until 1952.
After returning to the UK PA474 was earmarked for use as a pilotless drone, which would have likely lead to its loss. Fortunately, a different type of aircraft was selected for the programme and the Lancaster was transferred to the Royal College of Aeronautics at Cranfield. Here it was used to test experimental aerofoil sections.
In 1964 PA474 was adopted by the Air Historical Branch with a view to putting the aircraft on display as a static exhibit in the proposed RAF Museum at Hendon.
Thanks to its Commanding Officer - Wing Commader D’Arcy - the aircraft was transferred to 44 Squadron in 1965 and a restoration programme began. It was given permission to fly regularly in 1967.
The Lancaster joined the BBMF in November 1973. PA474 is currently painted to represent Lancaster DV385, “Thumper Mk III” of 617 (‘Dambuster’) Squadron, with the code letters ‘KC-A’.
C-GVRA ‘Vera’ was built at Victory Aircraft, Malton in July 1945 and was later converted to a RCAF 10MR configuration. In 1952, it suffered a serious accident and received a replacement wing centre section from a Lancaster that had flown in combat over Germany. It served as a maritime patrol aircraft, with No. 405 Squadron, Greenwood, NS and No. 107 Rescue Unit, Torbay, Newfoundland for many years and was retired from the RCAF in late 1963. With help from the Sulley Foundation in 1977, it was acquired from the Royal Canadian Legion in Goderich, Ontario, where it had been on outside display. Eleven years passed before it was completely restored and flew again on September 24, 1988.
Currently based at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum near Toronto, Vera arrived in the UK on 8 August, before going through maintenance checks with the BBMF. The flight took twenty hours to complete and included stop-offs at Goose Bay, Canada and Keflavik in Iceland
Randy Straughan, a volunteer at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum has over 300 hours on the Lancaster and says he never tires of flying in the machine. Speaking about the ferry trip he said: “It was cold. We flew twenty hours over three days and the aircraft has no heating!”
Taking a tour
Randy Straughan kindly invited me to step into Avro Lancaster C-GVRA. For such a large and imposing aircraft, the Lancaster feels surprisingly cramped inside. Light seeps in from the bubble of glass in the centre of the fuselage. The metals walls are painted green and peppered with rivets, the ceiling low and arched (“mind your head!”). Most of the original contents of the Lancaster have been removed. The crew’s suitcases are stored to one side, and a series of chairs and a table have been installed. In order to get from the hatch at the rear to the cockpit one has to scramble over the strut that joins the two wings together. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for crews operating in such machines under enemy fire.
The avionics in Vera are all new, with the exception of one dial depicting the aircraft’s flaps that has a phosphorescent coating in order to allow pilots to read it at night. Whilst the original aircraft were flown by a single pilot, this one has two men at the controls, and a foldable co-pilot’s seat is located just in front of the entrance to the forward gunner’s placement. It being a taildragger, there is very little view over the nose of the aircraft.
Turning away from the nose, one comes face-to-face with the Canadian team’s mascot – a small toy moose, the symbol of the squadron of the pilot to whom the aircraft is dedicated. P/O Andrew Mynarski, was awarded the Victoria Cross after June 13, 1944, when his Lancaster was shot down in flames, by a German night fighter. As the bomber fell, he attempted to free the tail gunner trapped in the rear turret of the blazing aircraft. The tail gunner miraculously survived the crash, but sadly Mynarski died from his severe burns. C-GVRA is painted in the colours of his aircraft KB726 – VR-A, which flew with RCAF No. 419 Squadron.
Flying the Lancaster
Sqdn Ldr Tony Banfield, a former test pilot who has had the good fortune to fly both Lancasters says of the aircraft: “It’s a bit like driving a Bentley compared to a modern car. Exciting to fly, but in a different way to a modern aircraft. It would be very difficult to fly on your own.
“It pays to land it on three points rather than wheel it on. In wartime they’d fly with bombs on board, so when we take off they are very light. You don’t need much engine power to take off. In flight, the controls are nicely harmonic.”
He adds: “It was an honour and a privilege to be allowed to fly the Lancaster and it’s something I’ll always remember. However, it wasn’t until I started to go airshows that I realised the effect the Lancaster had. People almost had a reverence for it. Perhaps it was because of how many people died flying them.
“When I climbed – or should I say, crawled - into the fuselage I used to think ‘what a terrible way to go to war.’”
The pair of Lancasters will be touring the UK until 22 September. For more information on where they’ll be appearing you can visit warplane.com/lancaster-2014-uk-tour.aspx