With the sun slowly sinking and its last light picking out the features of Lincolnshire’s flat plains, AeroResource’s Jamie Ewan made his way into the heart of ‘Bomber County’ for an evening with an aeroplane that needs no introduction – Just Jane.
To say that Just Jane needs no introduction is by far an understatement, and justifiably so! When it comes to the Avro Lancaster, Just Jane is one of the most famous of the type in these modern times – even more so since the news that ‘her’ return to flight has taken on numerous hurdles and is heading in the right direction.
The fact that East Kirkby still reverberates to the rasping growl of the Avro Lancaster’s four mighty Rolls-Royce Merlin engines is something else. Yet with the news that the Civilian Aviation Authority has approved and recognised the ‘Lancaster Restoration Company’ (the purely engineering side of the LAHC) as the outfit responsible for the planned restoration, the thought that one may eventually take back to the air from the airfield is spine tingling. Normally held on the first Saturday of November, this year saw the culmination of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre’s 2017 season fall on the last Saturday of October with their usual celebration – Just Jane performing three ‘runs’ over the day including one under the cover of darkness, followed by a spectacular fireworks finale.
That said, as I was heading up the road towards East Kirkby, it occurred to me that I had made this same journey countless times before on my way to the same event – the same roads, close enough to the same date but more so, the same event none the less. Or so I thought until I thought about it some more. It may well be the same event per say, but a lot about it has changed, especially in terms of the photography, but more on that later.
Arriving a couple of hours before the planned night run and clearing a ‘bag search’ – a sign of the times sadly – the star attraction for many was sat on the dispersal. While a constant hive of activity buzzed around the aircraft, including a number of period dressed re-enactors who were happy to pose and chat, it was a recent arrival in the hangar that caught the attention of many. An aeroplane I first cast eyes on nearly 20 years ago, and in fact, the first of the type I had ever seen.
Having been used to seeing Tony Agar’s de Havilland Mosquito NF.II [HJ711] in the rather tight confines of the Yorkshire Air Museum, it was quite a stir to see the aeroplane in a hangar some 80 miles away! Tony has recently moved the aeroplane to the Lincolnshire airfield where he plans to continue his painstaking labour of love in returning the aeroplane to taxiing condition. Arriving at the back end of July, the next goal is to finish work on the engines before undertaking their first runs in over 70 years, before progressing towards taxi trials. Although the aeroplane is actually a night fighter variant of the ‘wooden wonder’, the thought of a Lancaster and Mosquito running up and ‘heading out’ together on a wartime airfield that based both types is quite incredible, almost akin to a Pathfinder leading the main force out on a strike.
The aeroplane itself sits close by to the nose section of the type essentially designed to replace it, the Canberra. No matter how many times I make the trip to ‘EK’ that nose section calls out to me – my Grandfather having flown it while it was on strength with 249 Squadron, that personal pull.
Walking through the hangar, I passed the faces of Bomber Command, more appearing with every step begging the question, how many of those faces were never seen again after climbing into the dark skies of the very county their pictures now sit? With so many paying the ultimate sacrifice during the dark days of the Command’s offensive, it is always hard to focus on just one name, one aircraft or squadron. Especially when you consider that 160 of the 12,330 bombers lost were in fact from the very airfield you are stood on – equating to 1,120 men… 764 of them were killed in action. Take that into context and it is easy to see the LAHC’s ethos – ‘If one person goes away with a better knowledge of Bomber Command, their losses and what they gave for our country, we are one step closer to repaying our debt to them’. A debt that has until recently been often overlooked, however, that’s for another time.
Anyway, back to Just Jane, after all, it was ‘her’ night.
Sat out on the dispersal, it was the first time I had seen Jane since she was given a fresh lick of paint and ‘her’ new bomb tally which now shows the wartime operations flown by Flt Lt Chris Panton, the brother whose story is synonymous with how the LAHC came about and one told the world over. While wandering around the aeroplane, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of ‘clean’ shots to be had – something that was never an issue a few years ago when the event had a ‘photography’ feel about it. A tractor sitting at the back of the aeroplane limiting that classic ‘up the backside’ shot with a set of giraffe steps being used for cockpit tours ruling out most shots of the starboard side, unless you are a post-processing wizard that is! In fact, as I was looking for any kind of shot I actually found myself spending more time dodging out of the ways of families and people taking selfies than people with cameras!
It was quite funny actually, with an aviation event I normally bump into faces I know when pulling up in the car park but this year was different. It wasn’t until there was a slight glimmer of a sunset that I found the usual suspects – all inching in for that clean angle in the incredibly brief ‘golden hour’ before disappearing into the dusk. Photographers eh? Just following the light…
With a couple of angles shot – including the nose against a deep blood red sky, the whole silhouette of the machine against it being marred by the aircrafts positioning – and darkness falling, I took the opportunity to take in one of the talks, Bomber crew and their flying kit being the subject. Oddly enough, this gave me one of the best ‘photo ops’ of the night with the ‘bomber boy’ being on show standing over a spotlight while the rest of the crew milled around in darkened background almost ghost-like. Thank god for decent ISO and noise reduction software.
Like previous years, the LAHC’s 60cm German searchlight unit, adding to the atmosphere as the ground crew went through their various tasks and moved the aeroplane into position to start up, pierced the skies over the airfield. Now begs the question, do you find a spot on the fence to catch the start-up – about half way up the dispersal – or do you hang about at the bottom, where the aeroplane has to come back to after its trundle in the dark and normally ‘runs up’ before shutting down and the light is far better? I opted to stick around at the bottom – and set the tripod up through the fence.
Before long, the cold air was broken by Jane’s snarl accompanied by the hypnotic spits of blue flame from the exhaust stubs. Creeping forward into the night, the only clue of the Lancaster still being there was the steady crackles and pops of the pulsating engines from the darkness – one can only imagine the sound of a Bomber Command station as a squadron taxied out for a strike, followed by another and quite possibly another. Emerging from the dark, the Lancaster stopped on ‘her’ way back to the dispersal to allow the crowds the chance to admire this creature of war and the photographers enough time to fire off a couple of long exposures. After another sharp burst of power, Jane moved slowly to her final spot for the night, the brakes squeaking ever so slightly.
Sadly, unlike previous editions of the event which has seen the each of the engines taken up to 2,000rpm – for what to many is always a highlight of the night run and a sheer spectacle of 1940s power – the four Merlins fell silent almost immediately.
Shutting down for the final time that evening, silence once again prevailed over East Kirkby only to be broken by the rapturous applause from the smiling, albeit cold crowd – a few irks coming from some of the photographers close by expecting ‘a little more’. A quick check of the camera and I had managed two three second exposures – better than nothing. It may have been brief but where else can you stand that close to a Lancaster while the ground rumbles under a chest thumping heavenly growl?
What followed was one of the biggest fireworks displays in the country courtesy of Jubilee Fireworks, bringing to an end to the evening’s entertainment with a bang. And all for just £10!
So as I made the journey back home I asked myself the question, what is the pull from the event, year in year out? Is it the chance to get that close to an aviation icon while running at night? Is it the sheer sense of pride, history and atmosphere that pours out of the event? Something to do during the ‘offseason’? On the other hand, is it something else, maybe a family connection? A chance to support the return to flight project or capture a moment in time? Or just a family night out?
For me personally, having gone with that sole intention of photography in the ‘offseason’ I soon realised that I had been missing the bigger picture – remembering Bomber Command. Coming away with a number of facts and a better understanding of what it was like for the crews doing what they did (most of which were younger than me now!) was a result of the apparent change in the attitude toward the photography side of things.
One wonders if events like this that once offered photographers a certain degree of access are now more so a thing of the past, especially when you consider the number of ‘dedicated’ photoshoots catering for that pure photography need. Let’s face it, the event has pretty much always been a family one that photographers have taken advantage of if you like – after all, of the 5,000 odd people there, how many were there for the sole purpose of photography. A game of swings and roundabouts…