Old Macdonald had a ..Lancaster! by Gary Parsons
On March 28th 1998, for the first time of the year in public, the crackle of Merlin engines echoed around East Kirkby, a former second world war airfield nestling in the river valleys south of the Lincolnshire Wolds. Lancaster BVII NX611, otherwise known as Just Jane and lovingly cared for by the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Trust, stretched her legs along the small piece of taxiway available, shedding her 53 years in a defiant gesture against age. Although space was limited to some one hundred yards of concrete, it seemed as if she wanted to carry on, past the control tower and taxiway to the wartime runways that sadly no longer exist in this intensively agricultural area.
Owned by a local farmer, Fred Panton, NX611 has had a chequered past, its survival due to various preservation groups and proposed museum organisations that never quite made it to fruition. One of the last Lancasters to be constructed, she rolled off the production line just after the end of the war and subsequently spent her former years with the French Aeronavale on the Atlantic Coast and South Pacific. On return to the U.K., she was to be centrepiece of a museum proposed by John Roast at the former USAAF 487th BG airfield at Lavenham, Suffolk, where the author first made her acquaintance at the tender age of seven. It was quite a thrill to sit in the rear-gunners turret and fry the other aircraft in the vicinity, but it would be some twenty years before we would meet again. The museum project at Lavenham never took off, so NX611 made her way to Squires Gate (Blackpool) and eventually to RAF Scampton.
Freds interest in aviation and bombers in particular stems from the loss of his brother, a flight engineer on Halifaxes, in combat during the second world war. As a memorial to his brother, Fred obviously longed for a Halifax, and shortly after the war had the opportunity to purchase one for the princely sum of £100; a substantial amount of money in those days, so his father vetoed the idea. That Halifax would today be quite invaluable, as the only complete example in the U.K. is the one now to be seen at the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington, near York, a fine example of restoration from several donor aircraft. Although Jane is not a Halifax, she represents the thousands of aircrew that flew alongside Freds brother from the bomber bases of Eastern England.
Constructed at Longbridge in April 1945 and owned by Fred since 1985, NX611 was rescued from decay and eventual dilapidation from the gate of RAF Scampton, the base from where the Dambusters launched their famous mission. NX611 had served as guardian for some fifteen years, standing idle in a small compound next to the A15 Lincoln to Brigg road, welcoming visitors and new military personnel to the base. Oddly enough the aircraft was not actually owned by the military, but by Lord Lilford who had generously loaned it to the RAF so it had a suitable reminder of Scamptons illustrious past. Time exposed to the elements had not been kind, years of hard labour by the dedicated band of enthusiasts at East Kirkby were needed before she took her first steps under her own power. Of course, dedication alone is not enough; money, lots of it, is needed to keep her engines in running order. To help with this, a museum has grown around the aeroplane and the old watch office to commemorate the crews and the aircraft of the last war, a small charge being made to view what is an excellent facility. The area on which the museum is located is also owned by Fred, as he knew he would need somewhere to house his eventual acquisition, so when the land around the disused control tower and adjacent buildings he took the opportunity. First task was the restoration of the tower, completed in 1984, followed by establishment of the Lincolnshire Air Museum who had to leave their former home at Tattershall, near Coningsby. Other gems can be found in the surrounding restored wartime buildings, presently a Handley Page Hampden mid-engined bomber is being painstakingly pieced together from what was little more than wreckage.
Throughout the duration of the restoration of Jane, help has been provided by the RAF, as the Battle of Britain Flight with airworthy example PA474 is just fifteen minutes away at nearby RAF Coningsby. Hence Lincolnshire can, at the moment, boast two active Lancasters, a fitting tribute to Bomber County where so many were based with the young men that flew them took off during those dark days of 1942 to 45, some never to return.
Just Jane is run on most Bank Holidays throughout the year and at other special occasions, such as reunions and book launches, the sound of the four Merlins providing an evocative backdrop, especially on a fine spring afternoon. Future plans are modest, as although everyone involved would love to her airborne once more, the cost is prohibitive without further sponsorship; about £1 million would be needed to strip and re-spar her. Also, if she became airworthy, the group may find themselves losing their baby to the commercial airshow circuit, something that is both attractive but alarming. The next practical step that is planned is alteration of the hanger to allow Jane to taxi along another part of the disused taxiways which lead to a post-war section of runway that still exists, a mile from her present location. This runway was a four thousand foot extension to the old east-west wartime one, constructed as part of an expansion programme in the fifties for potential USAF dispersion airfields, and is today bisected by a public road, the eastern half still remaining intact. If Jane could stretch her legs here, perhaps lift her tail, feel the hundred mile an hour slipstream beneath her wings, who would blame her if an inch or two gap appeared between her wheels and the asphalt?
The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is situated in East Kirkby village off the A155 main road between Coningsby and Spilsby, Lincolnshire, England and is open most days throughout the year except Sundays.