More than seven thousand Lancaster bombers were built, and almost half survived the war. Yet today, only two of these iconic Lancaster bombers are still flying – one of them right here in Canada.
Let me say this up front – I’m no aviation expert. My admiration for the Lancaster is strictly that of a layman. But even with my limited knowledge I can still appreciate the power and beauty of this aircraft, the heaviest of all bombers, a four-engine warhorse beloved by the men who flew in it.
And it did the job. The head of RAF Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, referred to the Lancaster as his “shining sword.” The mighty Lanc flew the most famous missions in history, including the Dambusters raid.
Manned by a crew of seven men (or boys, in many cases), the Lancaster was the only aircraft with the power to carry the gigantic 20,000-pound Grand Slam bomb that created craters the size of small lakes.
But even loaded to the hilt, the Lanc could fly 280 miles per hour, and it handled like a charm. No wonder the crews loved it.
Here’s a photo of Alberta pilot Ed Kluczny and his crew in front of their Lanc. You can read my previous blog post about him by clicking: The Reluctant Bomb Aimer.
What happened to more than three thousand Lancasters that survived the war? They were picked over for scrap, or doomed to decay. For an excellent article by Dave O’Malley on the fate of the Lancasters flown back to Canada, found on the Vintage Wings of Canada website, click: Last Call for the Avro Lancaster.
About two dozen incomplete Lancasters are displayed at museums in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Europe.
But fortunately, four Lancasters with operational engines still exist. Two of them are flying, while it is the fondest hope of many that the other two might find their way into the air again someday.
Here is my layman’s guide to the four last, best Lancasters.
1. Mynarski Memorial Lancaster, FM-213, Hamilton, Ontario
This beauty is found at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. It’s one of two Lancasters still flying, and the only one in the world that offers flights for paying passengers.
(Photo Credit: Classic Aircraft Photography)
A one-hour flight costs $2,500, but that’s a bargain basement price for what is truly a unique experience. Who wants to fly the space shuttle when they can board a real live Lancaster instead? For full details, or to book your flight now, click: Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.
And here’s just one example of the fantastic view from up there!
(Photo Credit: Mynarski Lancaster Facebook Page)
The FM-213 was built here in 1945, one of four hundred and thirty Lancs built in this country. It served as an RCAF maritime patrol aircraft until 1963, was displayed at Goderich, Ontario until 1977, and was then restored to flying condition again in 1988.
When featured at air shows, the sight of the Mynarski Lanc regularly brings tears to the eyes of those present, and especially to those Canadians who flew in the legendary aircraft.
The FM-213 is painted in the markings of Andrew Mynarski’s Lancaster as a memorial to him. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for bravery in battle.
(This 1947 portrait by Paul Goranson hangs in the Canadian War Museum.)
The story of Andy Mynarski is worth repeating.
Born in Winnipeg to Polish immigrants, he joined the RCAF and was assigned to No. 419 Squadron. On June 13, 1944 during his thirteenth operation as a mid-upper gunner, his Lancaster was attacked by a German fighter over France and caught fire.
The pilot ordered his crew to bail out, and then bailed out himself. He didn’t know that the rear gunner, Pat Brophy, was trapped in his turret.
Andy, the mid-upper gunner, was about to jump when he spotted the rear gunner. He crawled toward him on his hands and knees, through a patch of blazing hydraulic oil that set both his uniform and parachute on fire. Yet he grabbed a fire axe and tried to smash the turret free, then tore at the doors with his bare hands.
In the rear gunner’s own words: “By now he was a mass of flames below his waist. Over the roar of the wind and the whine of our two remaining engines, I screamed, ‘Go back, Andy! Get out!’
When Andy finally realized he could do nothing to help his trapped comrade, he crawled backwards to the escape hatch through the flaming fluid.
Said the rear gunner: “When Andy reached the escape hatch, he stood up. Slowly, as he’d often done before in happier times together, he came to attention. Standing there in his flaming clothes, a grimly magnificent figure, he saluted me!”
Then he jumped. He was spotted by French people on the ground, but was so severely burned that he died of his injuries.
Somehow Pat Brophy survived when the Lancaster crashed, to tell the tale of his friend’s gallantry. It is a fitting tribute that our Canadian Lancaster is named for him.
* * * * *
Now a new and exciting development has aviation buffs in a frenzy of anticipation, and who can blame them? Our Mynarski Lancaster will cross the Atlantic Ocean in August to join its British counterpart for a month-long visit.
Just getting there will be a challenge. The Lancaster will fly at an altitude of 9,000 feet, with three scheduled stops along its nineteen-hour flight path: Labrador, Greenland and Iceland.
When it arrives, it will be met by much fanfare in Lincolnshire. Together, the two Lancasters will draw crowds from around the world who want to see the mighty pair in the air.
It hasn’t happened in fifty years, and it will never happen again.
(Note: Since this post was written, the union of the two Lancasters took place. It was a huge success, viewed by hundreds of thousands of Britons).
2. Avro Lancaster PA-474, RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire
The Mynarski Lanc will join PA-474, owned and operated by the Royal Air Force as a tribute to all members of Bomber Command, from all countries.
Built in 1945, too late to see active service, it was used for photographic reconnaissance in Africa. The aircraft also appeared in a movie, Operation Crossbow.
In 1964, it was adopted by the Air Historical Branch and restoration work began. It was refitted back to wartime standards and in 1973 became part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, operating from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.
The PA-474 was painted as the Phantom of the Ruhr, in honour of an original wartime Lancaster that performed a heroic job and completed an astonishing 121 raids. The somewhat macabre nose art shows the grim reaper scattering bombs with skeletal hands.
(Photo Credit: Keith Wilson)
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight is the name for a group of wartime vintage aircraft used for ceremonial events such as the Queen’s birthday and air displays throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.
Here’s the RAF Lancaster in splendid form, soaring over Buckingham Palace, flanked by a Spitfire and a Hurricane. What an incredible sight for the lucky crowds below!
(Photo Credit: Crown Copyright/SAC Scott Robertson)
Besides the two airworthy Lancs, another two have operational engines. In both cases, a devoted group of volunteers hope that someday, these aircraft might return to the skies.
3. Bazalgette Lancaster FM-159, Nanton, Alberta
The FM-159 arrived for battle after the war in Europe ended, and enjoyed a fulfilling career with the Royal Canadian Air Force, travelling widely from bases on both coasts to play a valuable role during the Cold War.
It escaped the scrap yard in 1960 when it was purchased and brought to the small town of Nanton, Alberta. It was mounted and displayed, and become a community landmark for more than two decades.
In 1985 a society of volunteers was formed to take care of the bomber, and gradually it is being brought back to life. A building was erected to house the bomber in 1991, and FM-159 is now the centerpiece and “shining sword” of the Bomber Command Museum in this community.
I was lucky enough to visit this Lancaster, and it was a surprisingly emotional experience to be inside one of the aircraft where so many thousands of our boys risked their lives.
It has been painstakingly restored, and the crew successfully has all four Merlin engines running at once. To see a quick eighteen-second clip of all four engines running, click Lancaster Engines.
Here’s a museum photo showing the four propellers spinning.
(Photo Credit: Peter Cromer Photography)
FM-159 is dedicated to the memory of Ian Bazalgette, a Lancaster pilot who was awarded the Victory Cross, the only Albertan to be so recognized during World War Two.
“Baz” was born in Calgary, educated in Britain, and joined the Royal Air Force. After completing a tour of operations, he volunteered for the Pathfinder Force.
On August 4, 1944, Bazalgette’s Lancaster was hit by flak while approaching a V-1 rocket site in France. Both starboard engines were knocked out and fires started. Baz marked the target for the remainder of the force, but then the aircraft went into a violent dive.
He regained control but soon the fire spread and a third engine stopped running. He ordered four of his crew to parachute but chose to remain on board in an attempt to save his injured crew members who could not jump.
Baz landed the aircraft, but it exploded and all aboard were killed. The crew members who had parachuted to safety told the story of their brave pilot.
In 1990, the Bazalgette Lancaster was dedicated in a touching ceremony at Nanton, attended by Ian’s sister Ethel Broderick, along with two of Ian’s surviving crew members. Since then the aircraft has played host to thousands of aircrew and their families as they visit the museum to learn and to remember.
Since 2014 is the seventieth anniversary of Bazalgette’s fatal flight, there will be special events at the museum; an expanded new edition of Ian Bazalgette’s biography titled Baz, by Dave Birrell; and a visit by museum directors to the twinned community of Senantes, France where Ian is buried.
Visitors also have an opportunity to see all four mighty Merlin engines. For more information, including the museum’s opening hours and special events, click here: Bomber Command Museum.
And please remember, all donations are gratefully accepted!
4. Lancaster NX611 Just Jane, in Lincolnshire
The only other Lancaster in existence with operational engines is surrounded with historic wartime atmosphere. It is located on the old airfield of former RAF East Kirkby in Lincolnshire, complete with original control tower.
NX611 was built in 1945 and stored until 1952, when it was purchased by the French government and flew maritime patrol. It changed hands several times but in 1983 it was finally acquired by two brothers, Fred and Harold Panton, to commemorate the death of their brother Christopher who was killed on the Nuremburg Raid in March 1944. The Pantons already owned the ideal home for it, the former RAF East Kirkby.
Just Jane doesn’t fly, but it is the only Lancaster in the United Kingdom that hosts passengers in a “taxy ride” around the runway.
According to the museum’s website: “The Taxy Ride gives you the chance to experience the Lancaster from a completely different point of view. You get to experience the vibrations, smells, sound and atmosphere of a real Lancaster Bomber operating on a real Bomber Command airfield in front of an original Control Tower providing you with the ultimate WW2 aviation experience.”
That sounds like an absolutely fabulous experience.
Here’s a wonderful atmospheric photo taken by Silksheen Photography at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, showing a re-enactment of a bomber crew preparing to set out on a mission.
And here’s another shot by Silksheen Photography of Just Jane, sitting on the grass with all four of her mighty engines roaring.
For more information about this museum’s activities, and to book your visit, please click: Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre. And again, the museum welcomes your donations!
There’s something very moving about this model of aircraft. And that’s why there’s an image of a Lancaster on the cover of my wartime novel, Bird’s Eye View. I just can’t help loving the Lancaster!
* * * * *
STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a beautiful colour illustration appeared on the cover each week with a wartime theme. Here’s is an image showing a Canadian Air Gunner dated May 2, 1942. To see my collection of covers, click Star Weekly at War and scroll to the bottom of the page.