Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a love for the Avro Lancaster that flies with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. This love is probably entirely my grandfather’s fault. He was an airframe mechanic in World War Two and in addition to spending several years in North Africa fixing aircraft, he was also based in Lincolnshire working on Lancasters. Pretty much every Christmas or New Year, he’d have a few beers and then sit me on his knee and talk to me about Lancasters, the harsh European winters of that period and the searing heat and conditions in North Africa where he was subsequently posted to, working on American Douglas A20’s.
But it was the Lancaster he spoke about with such emotion, so as I grew up, whenever I saw PA474 at an airshow, or heard it’s Merlins overhead, I always thought about him. The wish to sit in the Avro Lancaster cockpit never abated.
Fast forward a few decades and I’m working at RAF Leeming with a Lamborghini LP640 when the BBMF rolls in overhead for it’s display. All talking stops for a while as we stand with faces pointing skywards for the next ten minutes before a run and break to land, big Merlins gently popping and crackling as it flares to a perfect landing. The big aircraft taxis in and the engines cut to an aroma of hot oil and aviation fuel. I wonder… Just possibly… I guess you’ve got to ask…
I stroll over to where the Lancaster is parked, the flight and ground crew collecting their gear together. There’s a small queue of people near the tail waiting to climb inside. “So how do I get in there, then?”
“You going to give me a ride in that Lambo of yours?”
“That can be arranged.”
“Step this way, feller.”
We stroll around, under the wing, to the rear access door. Ahead of me, there’s an old gent with a crisp blue blazer, straw boater hat and RAF tie and the genuine silver moustache. It’s a bit of a stretch for him to climb the access ladder, but he manages. “I’m not getting any younger”
I follow and we both laugh as I bang my head on the way in.
“It used to be much easier when I was younger” He comments.
“Used to be?”
“The last time I was in one of these, I got shot down….”
We start chatting about the old crewman’s time as a Lancaster pilot as we climb upwards. He talked about how they been on a mission over Europe when things had gone wrong. Too low to use his parachute, he survived the forced landing and became a prisoner of war.
So up we climb, onwards over the huge main spar, across the bomb bay and upwards at what feels like a thirty degree incline before emerging into the sunshine of the Avro Lancaster cockpit. A final climb up and I’m in the pilot’s seat.
I just sit for a moment, taking it all in, looking out at either wingtip, across the big Merlins, exhaust stacks gently ticking as they cool. Breathe in and there’s a lovely aroma of old leather, hot oil and alloy. I can feel hairs on my forearms standing up.
The instrument panel looks vast, with a tiny archway off to the right leading down to the bomb aimer and front gunner position. This aircraft has dual controls and an extra seat for crew training. Originally Lancasters carried just one pilot and if he was hit, the rest of the crew had to remove him from his position and take his place. In the event of a bail out, the only practical way out was through the door we climbed in, way back down at the tail. Health And Safety Regulations were not high on the list when Lancasters were designed and the chances of a successful bail out from the front end must have been pitifully small.
The old pilot and I chat about his experiences and what happened to him as we take turns in the seat, me wishing I’d brought my voice recorder and cursing that I’ve left the Canon 1DS behind. Anything to capture his thoughts, mindful of the fact that none of us are getting any younger and the world moves on. As if to highlight this, looking out ahead over the nose is parked a Tornado jet, wearing the camouflage and colours of a German Luftwaffe squadron, here for the weekend to take part in the open day the Luftwaffe NATO allies for many decades now.
Eventually, we decide to climb out and both clamber back towards the tail, banging our shins and heads once again.
We climb down and the old guy melts away talking animatedly to his family and I stand there, ticking that mental box in my head.
Text Neill Watson Image via RAF BBMF