News last month that the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Avro Lancaster will be flying across the Atlantic this August to take part in a series of events with the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight truly set hearts a-flutter. For the first, and likely only, time in their remaining lifetimes the last two airworthy examples of the mighty ‘Lanc’ will be joining forces – for many airshow goers it simply couldn’t get better than that.
Until, that is, it was announced that the pair would be adding an extra date to their schedule when they fly over East Kirkby airfield, home of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre and residence of the other active Lancaster in Britain: the celebrated ‘Just Jane’.
The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is a privately owned and run museum that was founded by farmers Fred and Harold Panton as a tribute to their eldest brother, Christopher, who was shot down and killed as aircrew on a bombing raid over Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944. The Panton family farmed nearby the wartime Bomber Command station at East Kirkby and the young brothers,Fred aged 13 and Harold aged 10 ½ when their brother died, became accustomed to living cheek-by-jowl with the heavy bombers throughout the last three years of the war.
In his grief, their father forbade all talk of Christopher and the war for many years, in which time the boys became successful poultry farmers. In the 1970s the brothers finally visited Christopher’s grave and, in 1981, bought the former airfield at East Kirkby, which had remained an operational air base until the late 1950s and subsequently become a chicken farm.
The airfield was purchased not only for the useful extension of their poultry business but also as a home for the brothers’ other recent purchase – a Lancaster bomber.
Their Lancaster B.Mk.VII, serial NX611, was built at the Longbridge works by Austin Motors in April 1945 as the third aircraft of an order for 150 Lancaster B.VIIs destined to join the RAF’s TIGER FORCE for operations in the Far East against the Japanese.
TIGER FORCE was never required, and the Lancasters were consigned to storage until April 1952, when 54 of the aircraft were sold to the French government for £50,000 apiece to serve as maritime reconnaissance aircraft.
For the next decade the Lancaster was flown from bases in Brittany and Morocco. She then flew halfway round the world to New Caledonia, a French island territory approximately 1000 miles east of Australia, where she took part in bombing missions in the long war for independence in French Indochina. Upon decommissioning in 1964, NX611 was bought by the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society and flown back from Australia to the UK thanks to funding from the RAF, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Hawker Siddeley Group, Shell Petroleum and Qantas.
Upon returning to Britain, NX611 was restored to wartime configuration and flew regularly until 1970 when she was deemed to be beyond economic viability. The Lancaster was put up for auction – with the Panton brothers among the bidders at that time – but after much wrangling the Lancaster ended up on display at the gate of RAF Scampton, where she would remain for the next 14 years.
The Pantons had never given up on their dream of owning the Lancaster, however, and in 1983 their offer to purchase her was finally accepted – although she remained on duty at Scampton until 1987, when the long task of dismantling and moving her to East Kirkby for restoration would begin.
It was discovered that the airframe and engines remained sound, despite their long years out in the elements, and from 1990-95 she was overhauled one step at a time until she was able to taxi with all four engines bellowing.
With the airfield restored to its former glory and brimful of Bomber Command artefacts, the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Museum has subsequently become a Mecca for historians, enthusiasts and film-makers alike – including Peter Jackson and his Dam-Busters screenwriter Stephen Fry – for the past 20 years. In 2011, it was used in the filming of the BBC’s Doctor Who episode, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.
Fred Panton passed away suddenly in the summer of 2013, leaving a remarkable legacy in the care of his brother and their family. All the more remarkable for the fact that ‘Just Jane’ might yet return to the skies. The relentless determination of the brothers, allied to such fine fund-raising devices as ‘Taxi Rides’ for paying punters and a very fine line in charitable cheeses, has brought NX611 to the required standard to apply for a Certificate of Airworthiness – although both funding and the possible implications for the nature and character of the museum continue to keep enthusiasm tempered.
Within 24 hours of the announcement that the only two Lancasters currently flying in the world would be paying a visit to East Kirkby and the third airworthy example, all 5,000 tickets were sold out. On September 2nd there will be 12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engines thrumming across this perfectly preserved memorial to the men of Bomber Command – and the S&G will be there to record the occasion for all who cannot be there.
If the Canadian Lancaster’s twin displays with the BBMF are the airshow event of the decade, then this will undoubtedly be the defining moment. To find out more about the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, visit its website here.