The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre – East Kirkby


 

With thanks to the kind hospitality of the Panton family, On-Target is able to offer special photographic access to NX611 at selected events during the year. The FORUM has all the latest updates on these events, plus look out for details of how you can win a taxi ride in 'Just Jane'. 

 

The Lincolnshire countryside is dotted with many disused airfields and associated memorials to those lost in the service of their country. At East Kirkby airfield, a 15 minute drive east of RAF Coningsby, can be found one place that acts as a living memorial to the fallen of Bomber Command, with a particular focus on one family’s loss.

Christopher Panton enlisted in the Royal Air Force in June 1942, having previously been a member of the RAF Volunteer Reserve. By August 1943 Chris was serving as a Flight Engineer with 433 (Porcupine) Sqn RCAF at Skipton-on-Swale, his fellow crew comprised of Pilot Christian Nielsen, Bombardier Leo Milward, Navigator Don Awrey, Wireless Operator 'Harry' Cooper, Rear Gunner 'Moe' McLaughlin and Air Gunner J Thompson.

The Nuremburg Raid of 30th/31st March 1944 was a disaster for Bomber Command - in fact it turned out to be the Command’s heaviest single raid loss of the war.

That night was a full moon and normally it would have been a stand down period for the Sqns, but the raid had been planned on the basis of an earlier weather forecast indicating there would be a protective blanket of high cloud on the outward flight, along with a clear target area. A weather reconnaissance Mosquito returned from the route with the news the weather was far from ideal, in fact the only cloud present was over the target area and there was a strong headwind.

Despite this news, the raid was to continue…. German night-fighters pounced on the bomber stream as it approached the Belgian border; 82 bombers were shot down well before the target area with a further 14 lost on the return journey home.

Chris was the Flight Engineer on board Halifax III HX272 'Nielson’s Nuthouse'. Just 19 years old, Chris was only hours away from completing his 30th sortie and first tour of Operations when the Halifax was intercepted by a Luftwaffe Me110 over Friessen, near Bamburg, Germany. Machine gun fire hit the petrol tank in the aircraft’s wing and the Halifax was quickly ablaze. The Captain ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft but in the few seconds between the order being given and the crew acting on it, another burst hit an empty fuel tank causing an explosion; the Halifax went into an uncontrollable dive. Three crew members survived; one was able to exit via a turret when the "abandon aircraft fast" instruction was given. Two others were blown through the side of the aircraft when it exploded at around 15,000 ft.

The crew of HX272 comprised of:

P/O N Christian RCAF (POW)
F/S W F Frost RCAF (KIA)
P/O C W Panton RAFVR (KIA)
P/O D MacLawrey DFC RCAF (KIA)
W/O2 L V Milward RCAF (KIA)
W/O1 H Cooper RCAF (POW)
Sgt J S Thompson RCAF (KIA)
W/O2 J G McLaughlan RCAF (POW)

P/O MacLawrey was an extra crew member flying as second pilot.

95 bombers and 665 aircrew were lost in total on this raid - 64 Lancasters and 31 Halifaxes; 11.9 per cent of the force dispatched (some reports suggest 96 aircraft were in fact lost).

Between entering RAF service in 1941 and the end of WWII 7,377 Lancasters were built. These went on to fly 156,192 missions, dropping 608,612 tons of bombs – more than all other British heavy bombers combined, but at a dreadful human cost - 21,750 airmen were killed on operations in the Lancaster.

The loss of Chris left a lasting impression on his younger brothers, Fred aged 13 and Harold aged 10 ½. This tragic event was to later bring together two families, the Pantons and the Chattertons; two names that will forever be associated with the Lancaster in Lincolnshire - for an aviation enthusiast or historian it’s a fascinating yet moving story covering over 70 years, but more of this later…



The Lancaster that was to eventually become 'Just Jane' was built as NX611 at the Longbridge works by Austin Motors in April 1945. The third aircraft off the line as part of an order for 150 Lancaster B.VIIs destined to join the RAF’s 30 Sqn strong TIGER FORCE for operations in the Far East against the Japanese.

Following the Japanese surrender the TIGER FORCE was disbanded and the newly built Lancasters were consigned to storage at the RAF Maintenance Unit, Llandow, Glamorgan.

NX611 remained here until April 1952, when she was sold for a reputed £50,000 as part of a batch of 54 Lancasters to the French Government.

Under a Western Union agreement, the French Navy (L’Aeronavale) was to supplement RAF patrols of the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes. NX611 was converted to Maritime Reconnaissance standard by Avro’s at Woodford and collected by a French ferry crew on 30th May 1952. By now painted midnight blue and coded WU15, further modifications included the removal of the mid upper turret, the fitting of an airborne lifeboat and the provision of ASV radar.

For the next ten years WU15 served with a number of Flotilles (Sqns) operating from bases in Brittany and Morocco. In November 1962 WU15 underwent an overhaul and was repainted white prior to service in New Caledonia, a French Island around 1000 miles east of Australia. The ferry route was via Malta, Istanbul, Tehran, Karachi, New Delhi, Calcutta, Phnom-Penh, Singapore, Djakarta, Bali, Darwin and Townsville. Although total flying time was 60 hours, the journey actually took 23 days as a 50 hour inspection was carried out during a seven day stop at Phnom-Penh.

WU15 was operated by Escadrille de Servitude 9S from Noumeau, one of three Lancasters carrying out patrols, ASR, communications and liaison duties across a wide area of the south Pacific. Interestingly, during her time with the French WU15 also participated on bombing raids over Indo-China, a role not far removed from her original purpose.

After two years service the three Lancasters at Noumeau were withdrawn from service due to high maintenance costs and a shortage of spares. Meanwhile, 13,000 miles away in the UK, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society (HAPS) had enquired about the possibility of acquiring one of these Lancasters for preservation. After a lengthy wait without any response, the French authorities contacted the society - not only did they offer to donate a Lancaster, but they would also deliver it as far as Australia or New Zealand.

Hasty arrangements were made by HAPS and in August 1964, WU15 touched down in Australia at Bankstown, near Sydney.

Before WU15 could be returned to the UK she needed a thorough overhaul followed by a test flight. At least £10,000 was required and financial aid was kindly provided by the RAF, the RAAF, the Hawker Siddeley Group, Shell Petroleum and Qantas (who loaned vital radio equipment for the flight to the UK). Funds were also donated by holidaymakers on Sydney’s beaches and from aviation enthusiasts around the globe.

Following the required overhaul and test flight, WU15 was repositioned to Mascot, also near Sydney, in readiness for the lengthy flight to the UK. Although still carrying the white paint scheme, roundel and badges from French service the registration was changed to G-ASXX. A 400 gallon fuel tank was installed in the bomb bay, adding to the usual 2,154 gallon wing tank capacity.

On 25th April G-ASXX took off from Mascot and started her 12,000 mile journey to the UK via Coolangatta then Amberley, Darwin, Changi, Butterworth (escorted on departure by an RAF Victor and Canberra plus RAAF Sabres), Calcutta, Karachi, Bahrain, Akrotiri, Istres and finally Biggin Hill. After 19 days and 70 hours of flying time, on 13th May 1965, the Lancaster arrived safely at Biggin Hill – fittingly her crew comprised of serving or retired RAAF members, many of whom had served as Lancaster aircrew during the war.

By this point total air time from new was 2,411 hours. The Air Registration Board promptly grounded G-ASXX; the number of flying hours allowed for one engine and propeller had expired, so restoration work commenced. All parts were carefully examined and where necessary restored to an airworthy condition. The white paint was stripped back to bare metal and a RAF night bomber black & camouflage scheme was applied. The original RAF serial NX611 was reapplied and the code letters HA-P added; an authentic WWII Lancaster unit code (218 Sqn) that also represented the owners, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society. The Lancaster was subsequently named 'Guy Gibson' and after two years of hard work her first post re-certification flight took place on 6th May 1967. It was however the second flight, the following day that would be best remembered. The no.2 engine failed to feather resulting in the engine over speeding at 3,200 rpm. The fire warning lights came on and the extinguisher had to be operated before the engine was cut. The no.3 generator also became unserviceable, the intercom was dead and the port wing flap developed a two inch droop in flight.


43 minutes after take off the aircraft safely landed back at Biggin Hill, albeit on three engines. The next air test was also not without drama due to a complete hydraulic failure after take off, the emergency air supply had to be engaged to blow down the flaps and undercarriage. A detailed examination was performed by Field’s and Hawker Siddeley engineers and an uneventful 30 minute test flight was undertaken on 17th May.

On 19th-20th May NX611 flew to RAF Scampton for the 24th Anniversary of the Dams Raid. A number of the original 'Dambuster' crews were onboard and were welcomed to Scampton by none other than Sir Barnes Wallis, the inventor of UPKEEP, the bouncing bomb.

The RAF’s Lancaster, PA474 was by now airworthy and as a result HAPS were unable to find enough sponsors to keep NX611 flying. Prohibitive costs at an estimated £2,000-£3,000 per hour finally resulted in HAPS handing over its assets to Reflectaire Ltd, which in turn was given notice to leave Biggin Hill. Since her return to the UK NX611 had only flown 14 times, piloted by Neil Williams with Eric Hughes assisting as navigator.

The 30th March saw NX611 relocated to the former USAAF airfield at Lavenham in Suffolk. Shortly afterwards the code letters HA-P were replaced by GL-C in honour of Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC DSO DFC who had recently visited the airfield, performing a taxi run in NX611 whilst there.

Attempts to lease the airfield were in vain so once again NX611 was forced to move, this time to Hullavington in Wiltshire on 7th February 1970. Richard Todd, the actor who played Guy Gibson in the 1953 film 'The Dambusters' was onboard recording commentary for a TV programme.

Once at Hullavington a re-paint was in order and an inspection was carried out by Rolls Royce and Hawker Siddeley. A fault was found in the starboard inner engine, resulting in the engine being removed and repaired by a specialist engine company. An X-ray of the airframe revealed only one fault – a small crack in an engine bearer. This was not a significant problem and after undercarriage retraction tests and engine runs NX611 was cleared on a special certificate of airworthiness for one three hour flight. On 26th June 1970 NX611 took off from Hullavington for her very last flight – to Squires Gate Airport, Blackpool, where an aviation museum was being planned with the Lancaster as the main attraction. A former 617 Sqn bomb aimer, Ron Valentine, sat in the Lancaster’s nose as a passenger. He was treated to a low level, high speed run over Lake Bala in North Wales, one of the lakes used in training by the original Dambusters, with the whole flight lasting one hour twenty minutes.

It was hoped to maintain NX611 in flying condition but in the end this was not achievable. During October 1971 the guns were removed (deemed a security risk) by a specialist from the BAC’s factory at nearby Warton. The museum attracted much interest, however revenue was not sufficient and liquidation followed. NX611 was put up for auction, as lot 63, on 29th April 1972 but was withdrawn because she failed to draw enough interest and bids were too low. However two days later she was sold privately to a bidder, the Rt. Hon Lord Lilford of Nateby, who hoped to keep her in Britain. The engines had been run up for the auction and there were hopes that it might still fly again. However, having stood out for two years in Blackpool's salty sea air, without care, events had to move quickly to prevent her from ending up as scrap.

It is at this point that Fred and Harold Panton make a return to the story…the brothers had been seeking a way to commemorate their brother’s memory and also honour all those that lost their lives serving with Bomber Command during WWII. An advertisement was seen for an auction at Squires Gate, including a certain Lancaster…

The day of the auction arrived and the Lancaster failed to meet its reserve price. Fred had made the long journey to Squires Gate and returned home despondent, with his dream just out of reach.

Eventually the name of the buyer was released and the brothers made contact, explaining their interest and asking for first refusal should NX611 ever become available for sale again.

Lord Lilford had brought the aircraft with the intention of keeping her flying, however when he discovered her airworthiness certificate had expired, and that the cost of restoration to a suitable standard for re-certification was prohibitive NX611 was put up for sale again. Fred put in an offer which was accepted. A way now had to be found of moving the Lancaster to East Kirkby. Through local Air Training Corps contacts an introduction was made to Sqn Ldr Willis, the Station Commander of RAF Scampton. A deal was eventually brokered where the RAF would dismantle NX611 and transport her to Scampton, where she would act as the airfield’s gate guard for a five year period. Whilst there a team of RAF Engineers would restore the condition of her fabric and at the end of the five year term the RAF would deliver and re-assemble her to the Panton’s property.

A meeting was arranged with the seller’s agent to conclude the purchase. Business proceeded smoothly and after some discussions Fred inadvertently revealed the deal he had struck with the RAF. To his dismay Fred was told "if they’ll do that for you, then they can do it for us". The sale was off.

The deal was to be re-negotiated with reluctant RAF Officers who had understood and supported Fred’s motives behind the purchase. Eventually it was agreed the Lancaster would still be moved to Scampton for Lord Lilford, but it would have to serve as the gate guard for ten years instead of the original term of five years.

The task of dismantling NX611 and moving her to Scampton took until the Spring of 1974 to complete. During April she was re-assembled and secured into position near the gate by concrete and steel supports onto which the axles of her main undercarriage and tail wheel would be attached.

Fred kept in touch with both Lord Lilford and the Scampton personnel. In readiness for the day when they would eventually own an aircraft, NX611 or another, he and Harold searched for a suitable home for it. When land came up for sale in 1981 that included part of the disused East Kirkby airfield including the remains of wartime buildings they decided to purchase it. Much of the airfield had returned to agriculture and a number of buildings, including the ATC tower, needed renovating. A new T2 hangar was also erected.



East Kirkby originally functioned as a decoy airfield and its wooden Whitley bombers were targeted on several occasions by the Luftwaffe, however construction of the airfield proper began in 1942. Located 11 miles north of Boston and directly south of the A155 Coningsby to Spilsby Road, it became one of the county’s most southerly bomber bases.

Built as a heavy bomber station with a trio of paved runways and three large T2 hangars, the station was completed during August 1943 and allocated to 5 Group; 57 Sqn and its Lancasters arrived from Scampton during August 1943. 630 Sqn formed here from B Flt of 57 Sqn in Nov 1943 and along with 57 Sqn stayed for the duration of the war; the last operational sortie being flown on 25th April 1945.

In common with many other airfields, East Kirkby had its share of Luftwaffe raids and accidents. A USAAF B-17 crashed nearby on 30th December 1944, whilst attempting an emergency landing after a raid on Germany, all on board were killed. Another unfortunate incident saw a Lancaster with a full bomb load explode on take off. The blast wave was recorded to have broken windows as far east as Skegness (15 miles away).

On 17th April 1945, 57 Sqn Lancaster PB630 N-Nan was being bombed up in preparation for a Group raid against railway yards at Cham in south east Germany. A fire broke out and as the station fire tender arrived two 1000 high explosive bombs detonated, killing two men instantly. As more rescue workers arrived further bombs exploded nearby, killing two more and setting alight three Lancasters. Further explosions rocked the station as more bombs exploded and the flames spread to other aircraft. Six Lancasters were totally destroyed and a further 14 damaged, almost the entire strength of 57 Sqn. Due to the extensive damage the airfield suffered, it was to be a week before operations resumed, just in time for the final operations of the war. This incident also resulted in nearby Hagnaby Grange being wrecked (see below for more of the relevance of Hagnaby Grange).

East Kirkby's worst night of aircraft losses was 21st June 1944 when 11 aircraft were lost in a single attack. In total, 212 operations were carried out the airfield, from which 121 Lancasters failed to return. Another 29 were lost in operational accidents.

On 20th July 1945, 460 Sqn arrived from Binbrook. Originally destined to be part of the TIGER FORCE destined for operations in the Far East, it disbanded during October 1945. 

August saw 57 Sqn becoming the first unit to be equipped with three of the new Avro Lincoln for service trials. The Sqn disbanded in November, reforming the next day at Elsham Wolds. 460 Sqn had disbanded during October and East Kirkby was closed to flying by the end of the year.

The airfield was re-activated during August 1947 for use by a detachment from Coningsby based 139 Sqn with Mosquitoes. East Kirkby ceased flying once again in February 1948 and it was placed under Care & Maintenance. During the 1950s the airfield was designated as a reserve airfield for the USAF and its basic facilities were improved. The Cold War resulted in runway 08-26 being lengthened at the 26 end by 1266 yards. In June 1954 RAF East Kirkby re-opened with C-47s from Strategic Air Command Air Rescue operating from here until 1958 when the airfield was handed back to the RAF and once again declared inactive. 

The Ministry of Defence finally disposed of the site in April 1970.


Squadrons based at East Kirkby

57 Sqn
August 1943
November 1945
630 Sqn
November 1943
July 1945
460 Sqn RAAF
July 1945
October 1945
3917ABS/7AD SAC USAF
August 1954
1958

 

Personnel based at East Kirkby KIA

 
57 Sqn
630 Sqn
RAF
349
301
RAAF
40
29
RCAF
43
43
RNZAF
8
11
SAAF
1
1
USAAF
3
1
RNorAF
3
0

 

A number of non-aircrew station personnel also lost their lives during the same period.

By early 1983 the Lancaster’s ten year period at Scampton was coming to an end and Lord Lilford was ready to sell her. The purchase price had risen however, now to a six figure sum. Fred and Harold were faced with a very difficult decision, there was a lot of heart searching but it was realised this was a one time only opportunity to obtain the Lancaster.

An offer was made and accepted – by September 1983 NX611 was finally the property of the Pantons. It later transpired that during the re-negotiations between Lord Lilford and the RAF ten years previously the RAF had instructed that the Pantons were to have first refusal. 

NX611 remained at Scampton for a further four years until July 1987, to allow her new home to be prepared for her arrival. Dismantling and re-assembly took 13 weeks by a team of 11 men from RAF Abingdon. It was now 16 years since Fred had first seen NX611 at Squires Gate but the arrival of the Lancaster at East Kirkby airfield was the start of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre. Fred and Harold’s long held wish to commemorate their fallen brother and Bomber Command colleagues had arrived.

During 1990 NX611 was surveyed and found to be in excellent condition with both the airframe and engines appearing sound. The name 'Just Jane' was applied to the port side, inspired by a popular 1940s newspaper comic strip character. The title ‘City of Sheffield’ is carried on the starboard side in honour of the City’s steel works that provided many parts for the Lancaster, its Merlin engines and the weapons it would carry.

'Just Jane' wouldn’t be taxiing today without the hard working engineering team comprising Ian Hickling and Roy Jarmain. In December 1993 the decision was taken to restore one of the four Rolls Royce Merlin engines; Ian and Roy, ex-RAF engineers, were recruited to carry out the task. The restoration project began on 10th January 1994 – 728 man hours later and at a cost of £7,000 number three engine was finally ready to run for the public.

Word spread quickly of developments at East Kirkby; the sight and sound of a 'live' Lancaster brought praise from many appreciative Bomber Command veterans who valued this link to the past. A few months later the second engine was successfully restored and started. The gathered crowds were thrilled to hear the sound of a flying Lancaster heading in their direction, and PA474 from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flew over to salute its new neighbour.

The pilot of PA474 was Mike Chatterton; Son of the late John Chatterton, a WWII Lancaster pilot who completed 31 Operations with 44 Sqn, including eight to Berlin and the disastrous Nuremberg raid. John went on to fly with 57 & 630 Sqns from East Kirkby. He had been a regular visitor to the museum and in fact he was born in 1920 at Hagnaby Grange, alongside the farmland that would later become East Kirkby airfield. As a child John would have walked across the farmland on his route to school. The two men wholeheartedly supported the Panton brothers and their endeavours with the Lancaster. Could John and Mike be the only father & son team that have flown and Captained Lancasters?

Despite nine busy years flying PA474 with the BBMF Mike managed to find the time to pilot the early taxi runs at East Kirkby and is in fact now one of four pilots who regularly assist with these popular events. How many other pilots at the end of the 20th century could claim to have handled two different Lancasters on the same Day?!

Following the success of running 'Just Jane' on two engines, it was time for another exciting step to be taken – a short taxi run on three engines.

Saturday 22nd April 1995 was the day chosen to celebrate Just Jane's 50th birthday – and the first public taxi run.

Talking of the first trial run on 24th March 1995, Mike Chatterton says "I can still clearly remember the look on Fred and Harold’s faces when I released the brakes and for the first time in more than twenty years NX611 rolled forward, about 30 feet, under her own power".

Mike’s father was also present for the occasion and had flown from East Kirkby exactly 50 years before. As noted above, John Chatterton was also flying on the fateful Nuremberg raid and 433 Sqn records indicate that John’s aircraft was in the bomber stream less than one minute ahead of the Halifax in which Chris was flying. John’s tail gunner would probably have witnessed the explosion that ripped apart the Halifax. The Panton and Chatterton families have a history covering 70 years, and are an integral part of the history of East Kirkby and 'Just Jane'.

The fourth engine was restored and started on 13th July 1995 – East Kirkby now had an operational Lancaster representing the wartime era. It had taken just 13 months, albeit 13 months of hard work, to turn a static airframe into a living memorial to the 55,000 fallen of Bomber Command.

Will she fly again? This is the question often asked. The simple answer is it’s never been discounted by the Panton brothers. The decision to operate a flying Lancaster is obviously a major one to take. The airframe would have to be stripped back and pass rigorous testing and inspection before an airworthiness certificate could be issued. Achieving flight status would involve great expense and resources, but could be done. The factor holding back a return to flight is 'Just Jane' flying would change forever the nature of the museum. The whole museum is centred around 'Just Jane' in her current ground status, providing visitors with the opportunity to experience a WWII bomber in a very intimate environment. A return to flight would also effectively end the opportunity to participate as a passenger during the taxi runs. CAA regulations are unlikely to allow passengers on flights and even if possible the expense of joining these flights would result in far fewer people experiencing at first hand the sound, smell & sensation of sitting in a taxiing Lancaster bomber.

Although the author would relish the sight of two Lancasters flying in the UK, having spent time at East Kirkby with 'Just Jane' and her crew and volunteers, it would be regrettable to see the nature of East Kirkby change to such a degree.



The author was kindly invited to sit in on a taxi run, the price of which is quite affordable and a "must do" for any aviation enthusiast. The thought of future generations losing this opportunity to experience at first hand a WWII bomber in such a unique manner is surely not worth losing?

Climb up the steep red ladder and through the rear crew access hatch on the starboard side and once inside the fuselage your eyes are drawn to the right and the steepness of the climb up to the cockpit. You next note all the obstacles in your way including the rear spar and dreaded main spar further forward…how wartime crew dressed in inner and outer flying suits with a Mae West life jacket and parachute harness on top managed to operate in this claustrophobic and dark environment defies belief.

It would appear the Lancaster was designed to:

A. Carry a bomb load

B. Carry equipment to facilitate delivery of the bomb load

C. Carry the crew (almost as an after thought) to fly the aircraft to deliver the bomb load.

A taxi ride presents more than just a visual experience, it’s a real assault on the senses; first you notice that distinctive "old aircraft smell" shortly to be joined by the odour of high octane fuel and engine oil. Strong vibrations shake the airframe as the four Merlin engines each run to 1200 rpm, a simply glorious sound!

As you taxi you notice the audience waving and hundreds of cameras pointed in your direction; the veterans and their families seem to stand out from the crowd as you edge slowly forward….

Once the run is finished you’re offered the opportunity to sit in the pilot’s seat. As you look out over the wings or gingerly move the rudder pedals and control column, your thoughts drift to all those that have sat here before you. The vulnerability of the crew is especially obvious; taking a moment to look around you think of the trauma experienced by young aircrew in these aircraft, along with the sacrifice many made and I’m not ashamed to admit that it was a very emotional experience.



Mike Chatterton describes a day in the 'office' . . . .


"I am one of the four lucky pilots who are allowed the privilege of taxiing NX611 'Just Jane' for the benefit of the public watching outside and those that have paid to have a ride inside.

On days when I am fortunate to be the one driving I try to turn up about an hour before the first run; I find Ian and Roy who are normally skulking in the hangar somewhere, unless they are having a well deserved cuppa of course with the rest of the lads who help out on these occasions. I ask Ian about the state of the Lanc, and if there have been any problems recently. Invariably the answer is "No, Top Notch!" and I wonder if the question was really necessary. I check with Roy, who always marshals me that we are going to go for the usual procedure, so that we both know what to expect. And I see who is going to come along in the back, so I know who to introduce at the Passenger Briefing.

I consider that we are in the Entertainment Business when we give these taxiing demonstrations, so I like to give a Passenger Briefing that hopefully adds to the occasion for those joining us in the Lanc. 

As Ian and the rest of the lads get ready for the run by making final preparations of the aircraft, and moving the safety ropes, all the passengers usually assemble near the front of the hangar. Sometimes everyone will turn up straight away but usually it takes several calls to get them all together. Whilst we are waiting for the last ones to arrive I like to see if we have anyone with special Lancaster connections in the party. Often there are people who have had fathers, uncles, or grandpas who worked with Lancs either as aircrew or ground crew, and sometimes we are honoured with the presence of one of the old warriors themselves. Then I try to find out about which squadron, and when, and where, because I am so fascinated by these people. They are usually very modest about their achievements but we all love to hear of their stories.

When we are all gathered together I start off with some introductions. I explain that I am in the RAF with a few words about my current role, and that the reason I am here is because of my time on BBMF. I also like to explain why East Kirkby is so special to me, and the connections my Father had with the airfield; I also explain that Fred and Harold opened the Museum in memory of their brother Chris who was killed in the War flying in a Halifax. Next I run through the procedure we will follow for the taxi run. I try and answer any questions there may be at this stage and then leave the passengers with Mark or Pat to sort out where in the Lanc they will be positioned, and to run through the all important safety aspects of the event.

If there is time I like to put my special East Kirkby flying suit on to cover my civvy clothes, then gather up my Father’s old wartime leather helmet, climb into the Lanc, and clamber all the way over the wing spars up to the cockpit. Ian is always there before me and has got the rudder pedals adjusted to my leg length, and an extra leather cushion to make up for the lack of parachute that I used to sit on in ‘The City of Lincoln’ so that I can see forward over the nose.



First I have to throttle back the outboard engines to idle and reduce the inboards to 1000 RPM otherwise there is far too much power. I release the brakes and slowly move forward and then test the brakes are working properly by just squeezing the brake handle and check the retardation. Then following Roy’s marshalling signals we slowly move towards the concrete square. In good weather we can see fairly well from the cockpit, but at night or in poor visibility Roy’s signals are vital to keep us on the right track. At the furthest point away I will turn the Lanc back left to face towards the crowd.

Then, as I have often said, "the sight of an engine running Lanc is fantastic, the Music of the Merlins is even better!" and I run the engines up in pairs to about 2,000 RPM. This is still a fairly low power setting but the sound of the engines and the vibration inside is sensational. After about 30 seconds I bring the inboards back to 1200 RPM again and push up the outboards for a while. Then having set the engines for taxiing again, I release the brakes and head back towards the hangar. We usually repeat the engine runs again abeam the old fire engine building, so the public can have a closer look. Then slowly we continue forwards, lowering the flaps on the way, to stop just outside the NAAFI. I open the bomb doors and sit there for a while with 1200 RPM set to allow people to take photographs. Ian and I will then close all four Master Fuel Cocks at the same time and the engines will become silent again. The chocks will be put against the wheels and I will release the brakes.



That’s the easy bit over. I then invite all the passengers to come in turn, and sit in the pilot seat - the best chair in the world! I try and answer all their questions and tell them a bit about what the aircraft was like to fly, and how the Lanc was operated during the war. Depending how enthusiastic they are, this can take a few minutes or over an hour. These people are of all ages, and come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they all share one thing in common - the love of the Lancaster. I find it fascinating to talk to them all, and listen to their own particular stories. While I am doing this Mark or Pat will be doing something similar down at the back of the fuselage.

At the end of the day, before we leave, I will pop into the office to say goodbye, and check to see when I can come back, and do it all over again".



As a preview of the forthcoming tail up fast runs on 1st September, at which Cottesmore Aviation Group members have been granted additional access, Mike Chatterton discusses the last run that took place on 16th Sept 06:

"Ever since we did the Tail Up Taxi Runs in 2001 for the BBC Drama "Night Flight" people have been asking me when we were going to repeat the event for the benefit of the general public. So I was delighted when, in the late Summer of 2006, Fred and Harold told me that they were going to try again, this time on the grass, and asked me if I would like to do the driving again! A date of 16th September had been chosen, so, with all our other commitments, we didn’t have a huge amount of time to prepare.

The Heritage Centre had acquired the use of the field behind where we normally do the Engine Runs. Grass seed had been planted and the field had been levelled and rolled several times to leave a large smooth operating surface. As well as Lancaster Taxi Runs, it was intended that the field could be used for Take Off and Landing for aircraft up to the size of the Spitfire.

We quickly decided upon a plan of action. Those involved would need to sit down together and go through every aspect of the display, and we would need to have at least one day of practice runs before the big event.

We all spent a lot of time walking over the grass, digging our heels in and stamping about trying to gauge if the surface was firm enough to support the Lanc. Cars and tractors could drive over it ok, and even the big fire tender didn’t sink in, but could it take the weight of the aircraft? We all felt fairly confident, but the only way to really know was to give it a try! So before one of the routine Saturday afternoon taxi runs with passengers, Fred, Ian and I decided that we should have a go. Instead of turning around in the usual place on the concrete we taxied off the edge onto the field and did a gentle right hand tear drop turn to come back onto the hard standing at the same place. Ian was keeping a careful eye on the tyre tracks and to my relief told me that the grass was being flattened, but the wheels were not sinking in.

As we approached the edge of the concrete again, I slowed the Lanc down so as not to go over the edge with too big a jolt. Mistake! The recent rain had run off the concrete and made the soil around the edge of the concrete quite soft, the big tyres started to sink in.

After a few agonizing moments during which she seemed reluctant to budge, by judicious use of asymmetric power, we managed to get the left wheel, and then the right back onto the concrete, but it involved the needles on the RPM gauges rotating clockwise further than I had ever seen them do so before! Afterwards the passengers seemed blissfully unaware of our nearly very embarrassing predicament, they must have thought it was standard procedure! We learnt that it was not just the grass surface we had to worry about.

About two weeks before the planned display, Ian, Andrew and I met up and discussed every possible detail we could think of. Safety, always number one riority, where would the Firemen and vehicles best be situated? – Communications, how could we co-ordinate everyone?, - the Technical aspects, was the old girl up to all this manhandling?, - Marker boards to show the distance from the starting point, - Insurance, would this be outside the normal cover?, and Crowd Control, we could expect a lot of people to turn up and they would be going to an area of the museum not normally used by the Public. At the end of the meeting we had along list of Actions to be taken and a date for the Practice Runs.

Five days before the big day, we met up on a lovely sunny morning, with a plan to do five or six practice runs, three before, and the rest, after Lunch. We had a very thorough brief, so that everyone knew exactly what they were required to do, and discussed all the what if’s.

The grass runway lies East - West, with the large American square to the East, as a good overrun, and a solid earth bank beside a small lake beyond the Western end. I wanted to try practice runs in each direction to explore both possibilities. Ian and I discussed the technique we would use. We decided to leave the flaps up to reduce drag, and agreed on the power settings before and after the tail came up. When we did the film work in 2001 we reduced the power once the tail was up to avoid going too fast! The big question was where to cut the power and let the tail down before we ran out of space ahead of us. The specially manufactured marker boards were spread out by the side of the runway and the distance we travelled with the tail up would be measured and timed.

The handheld radios confirmed that everyone was in place so we started up the mighty Merlins and taxied off the concrete, over the now well compacted edges onto the grass.

Two things struck me straight away. The first was expected; we needed a lot more power to taxi on the grass compared to a hard surface. The second was the odd sensation of having so much space and freedom of movement around us. I had always been constrained to narrow taxiways or a runway in the past, even with ‘City of Lincoln’, and this new found freedom was quite exciting. 

Even though the grass looked really flat the Lanc bounced up and down quite a lot on our way down to the end of the runway. As we lined up with the runway stretching away in front of us, the first gremlin struck. The intercom developed a loud howl such that Ian and I couldn’t hear each other. We decided that as there were only the two of us on the aircraft we could manage without it, so we both unplugged.

Everyone else was in place so we got ready to go. Ian brought all the engines up to zero boost and checked the temps and pressures were ok. Everything was fine so as he pushed the inboard throttles further forward I released the brakes and eased the stick all the way towards the instrument panel. Despite having full right rudder on I still needed to just squeeze the brakes a little to keep straight. We seemed to accelerate quite well but the tail felt very reluctant to come up which was odd because it came up almost straight away when we did the film work. The marker boards flashed past quickly and we soon got to the point where we had agreed to cut the power. There was then a lot of inertia to overcome and we seemed to carry on a long way. As soon as the tail was definitely down again I commenced braking hard but we still trundled with a bit of a bump onto the American square beyond the end of the grass. Once we had stopped Roy came over to check the wheels and brakes. They had briefly locked up on the grass causing us to skid a few yards but Roy gave us a thumbs up, so we turned around and went back to the start point for another run.

This time we tried a little more power on the inboards but there was not much difference. Ian surprised me by cutting the power slightly earlier, but when I glanced over to the right I could see why. A white mist was streaming out behind the starboard inner. Ian knew what it was straight away; a coolant pipe had become detached, so he promptly shut the engine down. The firemen responded very quickly, the mist must have looked a lot like smoke from a distance but we didn’t need any help. We limped back to the museum on three engines and decided it was a good time to stop for lunch and analyze what we had learnt from the two runs we had completed.

Ian quickly had the cowling off to investigate the problem and got to work on the repair. It wasn’t long before the cowling was back on, and we prepared to do some more practice runs. Unfortunately when we started up again there was still a leak from somewhere on the No 3 and Ian said that he would need to investigate more fully and so we wouldn’t be able to do any more practices that day.

Even though we had only done two runs I felt we had learned enough to be able to confidently perform in public on the 16th.

Because the powerful brakes caused the wheels to skid on the grass I would wait until we were on the concrete before starting to brake, and we could delay the point at which the power was cut.

For the same reason it would be unwise to attempt a run in the opposite direction with the earth bank and pond beyond the end of the runway.

We would use 20 degrees of flap, to see if it helped to lift the tail. The big day dawned misty but dry, so the grass would be OK for us. I was confident that we would be able to provide quite a spectacle for the enthusiastic crowd just as long as 'Just Jane' could keep the gremlins at bay. I had never seen Fred so nervous before. It was going to be a big day for the Heritage Centre and he was understandably concerned about the safety of his very precious lady, (and Ian and I of course!).

As we taxied out to the end of the runway, I was very aware that an awful lot of people had done a huge amount of work to make this day possible. The army of parking and crowd control attendants, the volunteer firemen, the bevy of ladies in the NAAFI, the management team and the stalwart ground crew were all waiting for Ian and I to perform. We didn’t want to let them down!

As several thousand photographs would show, everything worked out perfectly, the 20 flap certainly got the tail up more quickly and the NX611 behaved faultlessly. The crowd loved it and Fred had a huge smile across his face!

Afterwards, amongst the congratulations and TV interviews we had an impromptu gathering with some of the ground crew in front of the Lanc for the hundreds of photographers; I was pleased they could share in all the glory.

On my way home that evening, feeling rather euphoric, I wondered how long it would be before I got to see any photos of the event. I need not have worried, within a couple of hours I was re-living the events of the day whilst looking through some excellent collections of photos on the Internet.

What a day to remember!"

The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre has comprehensive displays of well presented wartime artefacts. The wartime control tower has been restored and re-equipped. As one of a small number of survivors from 162 built to this design, it became a listed building in December 2005. The museum shop offers a good selection of relevant books, videos, models, clothing and prints with a NAAFI next door offering a warm welcome with sensibly priced meals in a pleasant memorabilia filled environment.



Other aircraft resident at East Kirkby include:

The wings of Wellington IA L7775, presenting the largest remains of the type outside of the museum collections at Hendon and Brooklands. 

The Lincolnshire Aircraft Recovery Group are also based at East Kirkby and have on display the substantial remains of Spitfire V BL655, in addition to memorials to the crews of Lancasters ME473 and ND572, as well as the crew of Albemarle V1610, shot down over Lincolnshire.

The Lincolnshire Aviation Preservation Society is undertaking a painstaking restoration of Hampden I AE436 and Proctor IV NP294.

Canberra E.15 cockpit section, WH957, which serves as a 'hands on' exhibit.

Wartime vehicles can be found around the site, adding to the atmosphere and photographic opportunities. A fire tender, oil bowser or Queen Mary lorry and trailer are often parked outside the restored control tower or alongside the Lancaster or Spitfire.


Some of the team take a break during a busy day at East Kirkby - from left to right Pat, Louise, Fred, Ian, Mike, Andrew & Roy


On Target extends its sincere gratitude to Andrew Panton and Mike Chatterton for their patience and most generous assistance in making this article possible.

The author would like to dedicate this article to the memory of all who served in Bomber Command, in particular Christopher Panton and John Chatterton.

 

Lincolnshire's Lancasters

 

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© On Target Aviation 2008