During World War II the county of Lincolnshire was home to a multitude of Avro Lancasters - fittingly it is also home to Europe’s only two operational Lancasters, in the form of airworthy B.I PA474 at RAF Coningsby and taxyable B.VII NX611.
With the two historic aircraft just a short distance from each other, and PA474 often appearing in the skies over East Kirkby, it was thought fitting to honour the aircraft and the personnel of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight in this special feature.
PA474 is one of only two Lancasters that remain in airworthy condition out of the 7377 that were built – the other being Canadian B.X C-GVRA, operating as FM213 VR-A. PA474 was first flown in August 1945 as a B.I modified for Far East operations against the Japanese as part of the TIGER FORCE, however, the war ended before she could take part in any hostilities and she was delivered to 38 Maintenance Unit (MU) at Llandow for storage, with just three hours and ten minutes on the airframe. On 26th May 1946 PA474 was flown to Armstrong Whitworth at Baginton for further modifications which included the removal of the gun turrets, the installation of a second pilot’s position, the fitting of radar and the installation of two K17 cameras in the floor of the rear fuselage. The Perspex in the overhead cockpit canopy was replaced with metal panels, to protect against the high temperatures likely to be experienced overseas. Following completion of these modifications PA474 returned to Llandow during early August and remained there until delivery to Benson later in the year, for eventual service with 82 Sqn operating out of Takoradi in West Africa, where the Sqn was undertaking a comprehensive survey of East and South Africa.
In February 1952 PA474 returned to the United Kingdom with 2000 airframe hours. Following major servicing she ended her career with 82 Sqn and was loaned to Flight Refuelling Ltd at Tarrant Rushton, to be used as a pilotless drone. However, before the conversion process started, the Air Ministry decided to use a Lincoln aircraft and PA474 was transferred to the Royal College of Aeronautics at Cranfield, where she was modified to carry out aerofoil experiments, initially with the wing of a Folland Midge, and later with the Handley Page Laminar Flow wing.
After flying around 100 hours with the College PA474’s engines needed replacing, however suitable Merlins were difficult to locate, so the aircraft was replaced by Lincoln RF342. In April 1964 PA474 was adopted by the Air Historical Branch (AHB) for future display in the proposed RAF Museum at Hendon. Following the removal of all the experimental equipment she was flown to 15 MU at Wroughton for initial restoration and the application of a wartime camouflage scheme, though without any Squadron markings. During this period PA474 also took part in two films, 'Operation CROSSBOW' and 'The Guns of Navarone'. Later in 1964 she was flown to Henlow for storage and awaited the opening of the new museum.
The first unit to be equipped with Lancaster's was 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron and in 1964 the Commanding Officer of this unit, which was then flying another Avro classic, in the shape of the Vulcan from Waddington, gained permission from the AHB for PA474 to be transferred to the care of the Squadron.
An inspection found that the aircraft was structurally sound and permission was granted for PA474 to make a single flight from Henlow to Waddington on 18th August 1965. At Waddington the restoration programme swiftly got underway, with one of the first tasks being to stencil suitable wartime code letters on to the fuselage. The chosen markings were of R5508 KM-B; this aircraft was flown by Sqn Ldr John Nettleton VC on the famous low level raid against the Augsburg U-Boat engine factory on 17th April 1942. By 1966 work was progressing well and both the front and rear turrets were in place.
Permission to fly PA474 regularly was granted in 1967, although restoration continued and requests for additional parts met with positive responses from sources such as the aviation industry and Air Cadet Sqns.
Personnel from RAF Waddington went on to operate PA474 on a regular basis, with her first major appearance taking place at the Royal Review, Abingdon, in May 1968. However by the early 70’s manpower reduction started to cause maintenance difficulties and as a result PA474 was passed on to the Battle of Britain Flight, Coltishall, in November 1973 – this prompted the unit to revise its name to the current Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF).
During 1968 20,000 Lincolnshire residents had signed a petition, organised by the Lincolnshire Lancaster Appeal Committee, which was presented to the Ministry of Defence asking if PA474 could be based in their county, from where so many Lancasters had flown during the Second World War. Adoption by the City of Lincoln followed in 1975, and the city’s Coat of Arms and name was applied to the aircraft’s port forward fuselage. The petition proved successful and the previously re-named Battle of Britain Flight moved to its current home at RAF Coningsby on 1st March. A complete mid upper turret was sourced in Argentina and also installed during this time.
Following the 1979 display season, PA474 was flown to Lyneham, where it was given the code AJ-G of 617 Sqn’s ED932. This was the Lancaster famously flown by Wg Cdr Guy Gibson VC DSO* DFC* during the ‘Dambusters’ raid of 16th-17th May 1943.
After major servicing at Kemble during the winter of 1983-1984, PA474 was re-painted to represent SR-D, a Lancaster B.I from Ludford Magna based 101 Sqn.
PA474’s next major service was scheduled for the winter of 1987-1988 and was contracted out to Exeter based West Country Air Services. The code of PM-M2 was applied, to represent 103 Sqn’s ED888. During its service with 103 and 576 Sqns, this aircraft completed 140 Operations – more than any other Lancaster. To accommodate the numerous 'Ops' symbols, the 'City of Lincoln' Coat of Arms and name was reduced in size and moved closer to the nose turret.
The next major repaint followed PA474’s servicing at St Athan, over the winter of 1993-1994. The Lancaster emerged in the markings of 9 Sqn’s famous W4964 WS-J with its distinctive 'Johnnie Walker' nose-art and 'Still Going Strong' slogan; the size of the nose-art resulted in the 'City of Lincoln' Coat of Arms and name moving to the Lancaster’s starboard side.
Following a second major servicing at St Athan, for the 2000 display season PA474 received the markings of 61 Sqn’s EE176 QR-M 'Mickey the Moocher'. EE176 operated from Skellingthorpe and was one of only 35 recorded Lancaster Centurions – aircraft that flew, and survived, in excess of 100 missions. 'Mickey' is thought to have flown somewhere between 115 and 128 missions against targets such as Berlin (15 missions), Cologne, Dortmund, Brunswick and the Allied post D-Day break-out at Caen. The nose-art features Mickey Mouse pulling a bomb trolley and 112 bomb symbols, as captured on a wartime photograph of the aircraft. Four poppy symbols were also added by the BBMF, denoting PA474’s poppy drop flights during the VE-Day and VJ-Day anniversaries in 1995, the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004 and the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII in July 2005.
Lancaster profiles provided courtesy of Flying Art.
After major servicing by Air Atlantique in Coventry during the winter of 2006-07, PA474 appeared in the markings of EE139, the 'Phantom of the Ruhr', a Centurion Lancaster that flew her first 30 Ops with 100 Sqn based at Waltham, before completing a further 91 Ops with 550 Sqn at North Killingholme. Marking a change of policy, PA474 carried the markings of two different Lancasters – HR-W of 100 Sqn on her port side and BQ-B of 550 Sqn on her starboard, suitably commemorating the crews of both Squadrons.
2012 witnessed one of the aircraft's most recent, and indeed most poignant poppy drops, when on 28th June PA474 overflew the unveiling of the new £6 Million Bomber Command Memorial by HM the Queen in London's Green Park.
Moving on a few months to early September, PA474 arrived back at RAF Coningsby following a week long mid-major service repaint at Humberside Airport. The aircraft now wears the markings of Woodhall Spa based Lancaster B.I DV385/KC-A of 617 Sqn in early 1945 and the nose-art 'Thumper Mk III'.
The 'Thumper' nose-art features the cartoon rabbit from the 1942 Walt Disney cartoon ‘Bambi’ holding a foaming pint of beer. DV385 was one of the batch of aircraft delivered to 617 Sqn to replace the 'Provisioning' Lancasters which had survived the Dambuster Raid of May 1943. The nose bomb log includes 35 mission marks (from a total of 50 Ops) and one with a 'D' to denote a D-Day chaff dropping mission (the "spoof" Operation TAXABLE) and a Swastika to note the destruction of a German fighter. The original 'Thumper' participated in two raids against the Tirpitz in Tromso Fjord on 28 October and 12 November 1944, with one hit claimed. During her wartime career 'Thumper' dropped a total of 15 Tallboy bombs and five 12,000lb HC blast bombs. With some unfortunate haste DV385 was Struck off Charge at No 46 MU in April 1945 and scrapped.