Canada's WWII Lancaster bomber will soon be heading across the Atlantic to join the only other airworthy plane of its kind for a series of special flights over the U.K.
The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton revealed Monday that it plans to fly its vintage Avro Lancaster to England in August. Together with the Royal Air Force's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) Lancaster, it will be involved in a month-long flying tour in the U.K. before returning home to Hamilton in September.
“To see these two aircraft flying at events together will be a unique sight, and also the opportunity to truly commemorate those who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” said Squadron Leader Dunc Mason, the officer commanding the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
The last time Lancasters flew together was 50 years ago over Toronto, at RCAF Station Downsview. The RCAF flew a special formation of three of the bombers in April 1964 to mark their retirement from service.
The sight of two Lancasters flying in formation once more is a "once in a lifetime opportunity, something that will never happen again," said Al Mickeloff, spokesman for the museum in Hamilton, which owns the Canadian Lancaster. “We don’t expect to ever do another trip like this.”
Hamilton’s WWII bomber, known as the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster, is an Avro Mk X built in 1945 at Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ont. Used to train air crews and later for coastal patrols and search-and-rescue work, it was retired in 1963. The museum bought it in 1977 for about $10,000 and a team of volunteers restored it and returned the plane to the air on Sept. 24, 1988.
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (PA474) was built in 1945 at Chester in the U.K. It was stored after the end of WWII, and didn’t return to the air until 2005. It is a military aircraft operated by the RAF.
Museum president and CEO David Rohrer said he and the RAF have talked about the possibility of bringing the planes together for more than a decade, but serious discussions started just a few months ago - partly because both groups wanted to do something to mark the 100th anniversary of WWI and 70th anniversary of D-Day this year.
The RAF wanted to arrange a formation flight before its own Lancaster is grounded next year for a planned overhaul. The Hamilton Lancaster was at a perfect point in its maintenance cycle to take on a trip like this, so the museum sent a planning team to the U.K. in January.
"A window of opportunity was identified to bring the last two flying Lancasters in the world together in tribute to the crews who flew it, the people at Victory Aircraft who built it, and all the veterans of the war,” Rohrer told CBC News. “We always would have regretted it if we hadn’t tried our best to make this happen when the window presented itself.”
The last Atlantic crossing by a Lancaster was in May 1975, when the aircraft registered as G-BCOHtraveled from St. Albert, Alta., to Scotland’s Strathallan Airfield.
The Mynarski Memorial Lancaster is scheduled to leave Canada Aug. 4. The five-day transatlantic trip to England is being done in four- to five-hour hops, with refuelling and rest stops in Goose Bay, Labrador; Narsarsuaq, Greenland; and Keflavik, Iceland.
The flight legs are actually shorter than those flown on the plane’s last major trip, to western Canada in 2010.
There’s no oxygen system aboard the unpressurized aircraft, so the entire flight will be done at less than 10,000 feet.
When the Lancaster arrives at Royal Air Force base Coningsby on Aug. 8, a maintenance crew will check the aircraft over. It should start a busy series of special flybys and appearances with its U.K. twin and a number of WWII fighters on Aug. 14 and will be based mainly out of Humberside Airport.
The trip will mean changes to the Lancaster’s maintenance schedule. The museum usually flies the aircraft about 50 hours per year before it goes in for regular maintenance, and it expects the trip to Europe to add about 75 to 100 hours of flying time to the plane’s schedule this year.
Rohrer said the museum is seeking sponsors to help with expenses, but adds that a share of the proceeds from the Lancaster’s involvement in events in the U.K. should help cover most of the costs. The museum is also negotiating a deal for a documentary covering the flight and tour.
To prepare for this summer’s flight, the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster is undergoing its regular winter maintenance at the museum’s hangar in Hamilton, including a scheduled engine swap. Special equipment is also being installed, including an HF radio, a satellite phone system, improved navigation and GPS equipment, and a number of other avionics upgrades.
Mickeloff said the museum has carefully assessed all the factors involved with taking the 70-year-old Lancaster across the Atlantic. The timing was chosen for the best weather, the flight legs are short, the aircraft can fly for up to eight hours fully fuelled, and can maintain altitude on as little as two of its four engines in an emergency.
There will also be three pilots and a flight engineer aboard, using the latest in modern avionics.
“The aircraft is old but is in top condition and flying very well, or we wouldn’t be undertaking this trip,” Mickeloff said. “We have the most experienced Lancaster pilots in the world, and they’re also pilots with commercial experience who have crossed the Atlantic many, many times.”
Rohrer added, “We have weather delays built into our schedule and will only fly under ideal conditions.”
Mickeloff said big audiences are expected at appearances in the U.K., pointing out that the BBMF is a military plane and off-limits to the public, whereas the museum's Lancaster is a flying exhibit that people can get up close to and even book a flight on. “We are going to give the general public that same access in the U.K. – access that they’ve never had to a Lancaster before. They’ll be able to get right up to it.”
“It’s a real honour to be invited to fly with the Royal Air Force,” Rohrer added. “It’s a recognition of the confidence they have in the museum, and in the talent and dedication of the staff and volunteers, that they’re willing to be our host.”