Late in February of this year it was announced that a very rare ‘window of opportunity’ was available to bring together the worlds remaining airworthy Avro Lancasters – PA474 of the Royal Air Forces Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and C-GVRA of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum – for one last never to be repeated salute to the heroes of Bomber Command. Dubbed as a ‘Once in a Lanc Time’ event, AeroResource’s Jamie Ewan was at RAF Coningsby for the arrival of the ‘Mynarski Lanc’ at the end of her mammoth transatlantic journey.
With just 17 examples of the Avro Lancaster remaining in the world, including both PA474 and C-GVRA, the chance to see the last two remaining airworthy examples of the type in the same piece of sky is something many aviation enthusiasts, old and new, have only ever dreamt of. First taking to the air in August 1945, the story of how Avro Lancaster X FM213 became the heart of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum is one of jinxes, luck, inspiration and sheer determination.
The relationship between the United Kingdom, Canada and the Lancaster started back during the Second World War with huge numbers of Canadians flying and fighting with Bomber Command, and such was the scale of their involvement some 18% of all of the Bomber Command losses were Canadian. As well as the brave airmen who joined the war effort, Canada was also chosen to locally produce the Lancaster along with other Allied aircraft, with the first example rolling off the production line just over 70 years ago – August 1st 1943. The Royal Air Force’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum (CWHM), being the only two operators of airworthy Lancasters, have worked in conjunction with one another since the late 1980’s when Squadron Leader Tony Banfield of the BBMF flew over to Canada to test fly C-GVRA after an 11 year restoration.
Planned to depart Ontario on the 4th August with domestic stops en-route in Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, then flying through Narsarsuaq in Greenland and Keflavik, Iceland before the final leg to RAF Coningsby, the aircraft is due to take part in some 80 UK appearances both alone and with the BBMF Lancaster during the 6 week stay.
With a huge task in order the volunteers at the CWHM involved with the aircraft have worked tirelessly to ensure C-GVRA was fit for the flight ahead including changing the aircrafts tyres and fitting brand new propellers. Other tasks included updating and fitting a brand new radio system to meet UK airspace requirements, and double checking each and every system on the aircraft was in working order. The work was completed just 3 days before the scheduled departure and the aircraft flew a short test flight on July 31st.
Flying for the first time this year on May 18th, “VERA” as the aircraft is affectionately known, will undergo a period of maintenance upon arrival before the Canadian crew starts a short training programme alongside the BBMF in preparation for the upcoming airshows and events – which are due to commence on August 14th. The displays themselves will commemorate the huge sacrifice and dedication of the Commonwealth Bomber crews during the dark days of the Second World War.
One of the special events scheduled to take place whilst the Mynarski Lancaster is across is the very rare chance to see 3 Avro Lancasters singing in unison, albeit one sadly on the ground. During two events at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre at East Kirby the museum’s centre piece, Avro Lancaster B.VII NX611 ‘Just Jane’, will perform a taxi run as both ‘Thumper Mk.III’ and ‘VERA’ let their Merlins growl with a flypast over the top during the unique salute .
As well as the overall commemoration, the aircraft will also pay homage to Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski, who was awarded the Victoria Cross after being killed saving a friend and crewmember flying a raid from RAF Middleton St George, now Durham Tees Valley Airport. Like the story of VERA, the story of how Andy was awarded his VC is one of sheer terror, bravery and sadness. Adorned in the colours of Avro Lancaster X KB726/VR-A when it and P/O Andrew Mynarski were lost on that fateful night in 1944, VERA will take part in an event at the spiritual home of Andrew Mynarski with a fly past over the memorial raised in his honour during the historic visit.
With months of planning and work behind the scenes to make the trip go as smoothly as possible the aircraft was set to depart on August 4th. After a small ceremony to send the aircraft and crew on there way , the aircraft was towed onto the runway at Ontario for start, to save wear on the aircraft’s brakes due to the full fuel load onboard.
As the 10:00am local departure time neared,, the aircraft was slowly brought to life by the crew of 8 – including 3 pilots to share the flying, ready to make history. Sadly an issue with the number 2 engine led to a delay in the departure – initially for an hour or so. Due to the nature of the fault – identified to be an issue with the magneto leading to a flooded motor – the aircrafts departure was pushed back by 24 hours. Towed back to the Hangar, the crews worked into the early hours of Tuesday to get the aircraft ready, including an engine run. Thankfully, during the planning stages of the trip a window of some 24 hours had been added in to the schedule in case of such a problem arose.
Rescheduled for departure at 10:00am local the next day (Tuesday August 5th), the aircraft was again readied and prepped for the start of its Trans Atlantic journey. The sound of four Merlins soon filled the air around Hamilton, Ontario, as the aircraft slowly climbed out at 10:20am local after a last minute runway change. Escorted by the collections North American B25J Mitchell MKIII C-GCWM, with Dave Rohrer the Museums CEO and President on board, the aircraft was soon flying alone as the Mitchell parted ways and left the Lancaster on its sentimental journey. Arriving at Goose Bay, New Foundland and Labrador, after a 6.5 hour flight the aircraft had completed the first leg of its journey with a number of flypasts over the airport. Scheduled for departure to Keflavik, Iceland at 10:00am local, the aircraft was soon back in the air for the trickiest part of the flight – crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Whilst it may have been the most risky leg of the journey, after 7.5 hours of flight and temperatures reaching -8c in the cabin, the Lancaster arrived safely in Keflavik on August 6th. The next day saw the aircraft and crew take a break from the long, tiring legs with a short hop across to Reykjavik with some VIPs aboard before getting ready for the remainder of the journey on Friday.
With the last leg of C-GVRA’s journey scheduled for departure from Keflavik at 0715 (Local), the aircraft was due to arrive at RAF Coningsby at 1330 (Local). Planned en route, and over the airfield, were a number of flypasts in mixed formation with the BBMF Lancaster ‘Thumper MkIII’ and two of the BBMF’s fighter fleet – Supermarine Spitfire Mk.LF XVIE and Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIC PZ865. Planned to form up over Royal Air Force Kirton-in-Lindsey, the formation was to fly over RAF Scampton, Lincoln Cathedral, RAF Waddington and RAF Scampton before the big arrival at Coningsby, which would be followed up by a Red Arrows flypast over the top of each location. The Reds would also have flown past over the top of VERA after she landed at RAF Coningsby, the home of the BBMF. Sadly, due to severe weather in the area – which had been kind to the crowds during the morning – the planned big arrival slowly fell apart.
Delays in the aircrafts estimated time of arrival (ETA) as well as strong adverse winds encountered over North Scotland after making landfall over the Isle of Lewis, caused a slip in proceedings (the Red Arrows were delayed from departing by 50 minutes). The weather in the local area turned rather nasty with a large storm front passing through; leading to the BBMF fighter contingent having to scrub their part in the flypast, and understandably were placed back in the safety of their hangar. With the wind picking up and swinging direction, the Lancaster was pulled from the arrival party due to the crosswinds limits at Coningsby passing the stringent safety margins applicable to the type. As the weather worsened the flypasts fell through and the arrival time slipped again, the call of ‘HERITAGE1’ over the scanners of the hundreds assembled to greet VeRA was all most needed to realise that they were about to witness history. Flying from the North the aircraft flew a straight in approach for runway 07 at Coningsby. Floating down the centre line, VeRA’s Dunlop tyres touched down with a slight squeak and the aircraft slowed to a stop. Slowly taxing down the airfield towards the waiting crowds of media and special guests – including some 100 Bomber Command Veterans – the aircraft stopped for a brief pause almost as if contemplating the success of eight months of planning, and over 20 hours of flying as the crew unfolded and presented both the Union Flag and the Maple Flag out of the cockpit. VERA had arrived!
The sight of a 70 year old bomber battling through the winds, rain and murk was simply awe inspiring and brought up provoking images of the heroes of Bomber Command doing it on a nightly basis in a fight for freedom that so many never saw.
Now that both Lancasters are safely at Coningsby, VeRA will undergo a period of maintenance with the BBMF before beginning formation and display training in preparation for their first displays. The first training flight is expected to be Tuesday 12th August, with the first display being at Eastbourne on Thursday August 14th. Enthusiasts are advised to follow the BBMF press releases and flying schedules to find out up to date information on when the Lancasters are next likely to fly together – or visit the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Lancaster UK Tour page.