Gary Parsons looks at the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and its planes and plans for 2007
Incredibly the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year - remarkable for the fact it is perhaps the unit with the longest period of unbroken service, now that 6 Squadron is to disband, and the fact that it still has most of its founding aircraft on strength. Its popularity goes from strength to strength, and fears that it would diminish as those its endeavours celebrate pass away, proven to be unfounded.
It's another year of minor changes to the team - most notably the Lancaster has received a major overhaul and a new coat of paint, ensuring another eight years of service at the very least. Two Spitfires have also received new colour schemes, celebrating former aces from Fighter Command.
Just twelve years after the end of the Second World War, the Historic Flight was formed at RAF Biggin Hill with one Hurricane (LF363) and three Mk XIX Spitfires (PM631, PS853 and PS915). Even the Hurricane was less than twenty years old - it's the equivalent of a historic flight being formed today with Tornados! But even in those austere post-war years, the realisation that the War had been a momentous time and that the number of wartime fighters was rapidly disappearing led to the vision of the Historic Flight being maintained to commemorate the fallen.
The Flight was nomadic in its early years - in February 1958 it moved to North Weald when flying ceased at Biggin Hill, but only stayed a few months before moving further east to Martlesham Heath. Three years later it was on the move again, this time to Horsham St Faiths for another brief stay before finding a more permanent home at Coltishall, where it would remain for the next thirteen years. It was at Coltishall that the Flight grew in both numbers and stature, culminating in acquiring Lancaster PA474 from 44 Squadron at Waddington in 1973. With the growth in the airshow scene in the seventies, the Flight really etched itself into the Nation's consciousness and was formally renamed the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight that same year.
With Coltishall introducing the Jaguar into service, space was at a premium so the BBMF moved to the more spacious airfield at Coningsby, where it has remained ever since. Working closely with Lincolnshire County Council, the Flight has become a visitor attraction with a gift shop and guided tours available daily, even though the base is now building up with the introduction of Typhoon into operational service. Lincolnshire has become its spiritual home - the Lancaster is the flagship of the Flight, and Lincolnshire was very much the front-line for Lancaster operations during the Second World War, from its introduction with 44 Squadron at Waddington in late 1941 through to the Grand Slam missions from nearby Woodhall Spa in 1945.
To celebrate the fiftieth year, the Flight held a commemoration service on 27 April, at which the three new paint schemes were presented to the press and invited guests. Sqn Ldr Al Pinner, OC BBMF, made the opening speech, but it was Ron Clark, former pilot of Lancaster EE139 'Phantom of the Ruhr' who had the invited audience spellbound. Despite his years, Ron climbed onto the dais and spoke with warmth and some emotion - a pause in his delivery took our thoughts to the comrades he made in wartime that didn't share his good luck in surviving. "It was at Waltham in 1943 we first met", he said. "We were a new crew and it was unusual to be given a brand new aeroplane. We thought it should have a name, so we named it after the musical 'Phantom of the Opera' that was on Broadway at the time. We had some trepidation about the task ahead, but we were well trained."
PA474 carries two sets of markings - the port side is as EE139 was for her first thirty missions with Ron and 100 Squadron (HW-R), while the starboard side carries her markings when with 550 Squadron for the remaining ninety-one (BQ-B). The nose art is as she completed her 100 Squadron duty, and the thirty bomb symbols include ice-cream cornets, used to represent bombing missions over Italy! The smell of fresh paint signified PA474 was fresh from her refurbishment, having arrived back at Coningsby on the evening of 25 April. "The guys at Air Atlantique did a great job", said Al Pinner, "but there was no Plan B if she hadn't been ready for today…"
Ron then performed the unveiling of PA474's new nose art - "She stands here today, like me", he remarked; "It gives me great pleasure to unveil 'Phantom of the Ruhr' Mark II." Ron then presented pilot Ed Straw with his original flying jacket from 1943 - Ed would wear it for the flying display shortly afterwards. In remarkably good condition, it fitted Ed perfectly, as if to ensure it flew with the 'Phantom' one last time. "This is what it's all about", said Ed, visibly moved.
The real EE139? As with so many other 'ton-up' Lancasters and Halifaxes, she was unceremoniously scrapped in February 1946, having survived the war.
BBMF day at Duxford - this weekend!
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight launches its anniversary season at Duxford on Saturday 5 May - the four original fighters, including Rolls-Royce's PS853, will be reunited in a thrilling tail-chase and all seven present fighters will fly in formation with the Lancaster, a sight not seen for many years. As part of the display, a Typhoon will fly with P7350, the oldest airworthy Spitfire. The RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team will make a very special appearance in the aerial displays, free-falling from Dakota ZA947. For more details click here.