One year ago today, Lancaster FM213 touched down at a grim RAF Coningsby to begin a busy UK-wide tour. The following is a reprise of that exciting summer for aviation enthusiasts.
The Avro Lancaster entered service with the RAF in 1942 and served the nation well, initially taking the fight to Germany as Britain remained largely on the defensive and up against the odds – as exemplified by the Dambusters raids. Bomber Command suffered heavy losses in playing its part in the eventual victory in Europe, with Lancasters hitting vital strategic targets deep inside enemy territory. After VE Day a ‘Tiger Force’ of Commonwealth-nation bombers – largely Lancasters – was planned to embark for a role in the invasion of Japan but that campaign ended before that force departed. With peacetime came a rapid reduction in force strength, abetted by the introduction of more modern aircraft such as the Avro Lincoln – an aircraft owing much to the Lancaster in its design – though some Lancasters did find themselves a new life when exported to Argentina and France. Although the drawdown of Lancasters in RAF service took place fairly rapidly the type did continue in a number of support roles through to the nineteen-fifties, with the last official RAF Lancaster sortie taking place on 15 October 1956. There has been some debate as to when two Lancasters may have last been seen in the air together over the UK, with possibilities including visiting French or Canadian examples and what would become the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s PA474, but the general consensus is that such an event hadn’t occurred since that 1956 retirement.
There are currently just two airworthy Avro Lancasters in the world; the aforementioned PA474 in the UK and FM213, which is a Lancaster Mk. X built in Canada and which served with the RCAF through to 1963. Having been saved for preservation FM213 was later restored to flight, once again taking to the air in 1988. It is currently operated by the Canadian Warplane Heritage and based at Hamilton, Ontario. The Lancaster has been painted to represent the aircraft flown by Plt. Off. Andrew Mynarski VC – leading to it being known as the ‘Mynarski Memorial Lancaster’. Mynarski’s wartime 419 Squadron Lancaster was attacked over France by a Luftwaffe Ju 88 night-fighter on 13 June 1944 which caused severe fires to break out and trapped the rear-gunner Plt. Off. Pat Brophy in his damaged turret. The crew were ordered to bail out but Mynarski stayed behind attempting to free the rear-gunner until the flames had set his own clothing and parachute alight. Finally beaten by the dire situation Mynarski jumped and survived the descent but sadly succumbed to his severe burns shortly afterwards. Remarkably Brophy, still trapped, survived the crash of the Lancaster, being thrown from his turret on impact. His report on the heroism of Mynarski’s selfless actions led to the award of a posthumous Victoria Cross. Mynarski’s Lancaster was serial numbered KB726 and coded VR-A, both of which are included in the paint scheme of FM213 and leading to it also being referred to fondly as ‘VeRA’.
In February 2014 the BBMF website broke the exciting news that the Canadian Lancaster was planning to visit the UK and would join PA474 in the air at airshows and events throughout the country – a sight that many thought would never be seen. After much detailed planning ‘VeRA’ departed Hamilton on 5 August 2014 bound for the UK via Goose Bay (Canada) and Keflavik (Iceland). The final leg was scheduled to see an arrival at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire on 8 August accompanied by the BBMF’s Lancaster with escorting fighters plus the RAF’s display team the Red Arrows, but sadly the weather on the day over the UK not only ruined the chances of putting these welcoming formations together but also put the arrival of the Canadian Lancaster at risk. The piloting crew had options to divert to other airfields should the weather they were flying into be beyond safe limits, but they managed to continue. FM213 broke through the overcast rainclouds and landed safely on the wet runway at Coningsby to be greeted by thousands of enthusiasts and locals lining the fences, various dignitaries and military personnel, the press, and most importantly many veterans and their families. It proved to be a very emotional day for all those present; feelings which would continue throughout the tour.
The focus of the UK tour would be to commemorate the wartime exploits of Bomber Command and their crews, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice. The general public took the tour to their hearts and every event at which the two Lancasters attended was sold out, with a noticeably high proportion of ‘non-enthusiast’ families. Coningsby village itself was adorned with Canadian Maple Leaf flags flying from the church, shop-fronts, pubs and people’s homes to welcome the visitors. Following a period of scheduled maintenance after the long trans-Atlantic flight the Canadian Lancaster carried out a test flight, and then, on the following day, 13 August 2014, the Memorial Flight’s PA474 joined FM213 to practice flying as a pair. Incredibly two Lancasters could be seen flying together over the UK for the first time in over half a century. It would be a sight soon to be witnessed around the UK in sometimes very emotional circumstances. On the following day the display routine was flown in front of Air Vice-Marshall Stuart Atha, Air Officer Commanding the RAF’s 1 Group, to gain his approval for the required Public Display Authority to allow for the two Lancasters to display at airshows. With the PDA granted the tour program could commence, and that it did immediately with their public debut at ‘Airbourne’, the seafront show at Eastbourne on that same day, Thursday 14 August. Having completed that display the two Lancasters and two Spitfires landed at the historic airfield of Biggin Hill in Kent which was intended to be their base for that weekend’s display commitments. The weather though intervened and the predicted high winds saw an early return to Coningsby and a cancellation for events on the 16th. This thankfully proved to be a rare occurrence on the tour.
Eastbourne’s second day:
The tour program focused on a number of airshows and also included various flypasts. The plans for most days would schedule multiple displays with flypasts over locations en-route with links to the Lancaster and Bomber Command.
Operating from Southend Airport, and giving the chance of a three Avros shoot:
Goodwood Revival (over three days):
Unlike the BBMF’s Lancaster the Canadian bomber is privately owned and receives no government funding so much effort had to be put towards securing finance to cover the cost of the tour. A major source of income would come from taking paying passengers for flights from Humberside Airport (from which wartime Lancasters operated when known as RAF Kirmington) and the tour also gained valuable sponsorship from Thwaites brewery who produce a Lancaster Bomber bitter. Amongst the locations visited one of the most poignant was Durham Tees Valley Airport – the wartime RAF Middleton St. George. This airfield was the operational base of Andrew Mynarski’s 419 ‘Moose’ Squadron and is home to a statue in his memory. Unfortunately the visit also witnessed the low point of the tour when one of FM213’s Merlin engines suffered a serious mechanical failure in flight. Thankfully the crew managed to land safely without further damage to the aircraft. The BBMF loaned a spare engine which took a few days to fit which resulted in a few airshows being missed and extra costs being incurred. This engine would be returned to Coningsby once the Lancaster was back home. Few will have failed to have been moved by the sight of two iconic wartime Lancasters together once again, and for the veterans it was most likely a final chance to do so. Most definitely ‘Once in a Lanc time’.