Lincolnshire’s Lancasters – NX611 & PA474

Undoubtedly one of the most popular wartime aircraft currently displayed in the United Kingdom is the Avro Lancaster. Whenever the distinctive sound of the aircraft’s four Rolls Royce Merlin engines are heard, the heads of both young and old alike turn towards the sound. The county of Lincolnshire is fortunate to have resident two active Lancasters, one airworthy (PA474) at RAF Coningsby with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the second taxiable (NX611) at the nearby Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, East Kirkby.

Although this article is not intended to be a complete history of NX611 or PA474, for the first time on the internet we will examine the various paint schemes worn by both aircraft over the past six decades. A more comprehensive history of NX611 and the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre can be found HERE and the museum’s informative website is HERE.

For the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight website please visit this LINK.

Lancaster B.VII NX611 'Just Jane'

The Lancaster that was to eventually become 'Just Jane' was built as NX611 at the Austin Motors Longbridge works in April 1945 - the third aircraft off the line  as part of an order for 150 Lancaster B.VIIs destined to join the RAF’s 30 Sqn strong TIGER FORCE, for operations in the Far East against the Japanese.

Following the Japanese surrender the TIGER FORCE was disbanded and the newly built Lancasters were consigned to storage at 38 MU, Llandow. NX611 remained there until April 1952, when she was sold for a reputed £50,000 as part of a batch of 54 Lancaster's to the French Government.

Under a Western Union agreement, the French Navy (L’Aeronavale) was to supplement RAF patrols of the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes. NX611 was converted to Maritime Reconnaissance standard by Avro’s at Woodford and collected by a French ferry crew on 30th May 1952. By now painted midnight blue and coded WU15, further modifications included the removal of the mid upper turret, the fitting of an airborne lifeboat and the provision of ASV radar.

For the next ten years WU15 served with a number of Flottilles (Sqns), such as 25F and 55S, operating from bases in Brittany and Morocco. In November 1962 WU15 underwent an overhaul and was repainted white prior to service in New Caledonia, a French Island around 1000 miles east of Australia. WU15 was operated by Escadrille de Servitude 9S from Noumeau, one of three Lancaster's carrying out patrols, air sea rescue, communications and liaison duties across a wide area of the south Pacific. Interestingly, during her time with the French WU15 also participated on bombing raids over Indo-China, a role not far removed from her original purpose.

After two years service the three Lancasters at Noumeau were withdrawn from service and replaced with the DC-4, due to high maintenance costs and a shortage of spares. Meanwhile, 13,000 miles away in the UK, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society (HAPS) had enquired about the possibility of acquiring one of these Lancaster's for preservation. After a lengthy wait without any response, the French authorities contacted the society - not only did they offer to donate a Lancaster, but they would also deliver it as far as Australia or New Zealand.

Hasty arrangements were made by HAPS and in August 1964, WU15 touched down in Australia at Bankstown, near Sydney. Before WU15 could be returned to the UK she needed a thorough overhaul followed by a test flight. At least £10,000 was required and financial aid was kindly provided by the RAF, the RAAF, the Hawker Siddeley Group, Shell Petroleum and Qantas (who loaned vital radio equipment for the flight to the UK). Funds were also donated by holidaymakers on Sydney’s beaches and from aviation enthusiasts around the globe.

Following the required overhaul and test flight, WU15 was repositioned to Mascot, also near Sydney, in readiness for the lengthy flight to the UK. Although still carrying the white paint scheme, roundels and badges from French service the registration was changed to G-ASXX. A 400 gallon fuel tank was installed in the bomb bay, adding to the usual 2,154 gallon wing tank capacity.

On 25th April G-ASXX took off from Mascot and started her 12,000 mile journey to the UK. The sponsorship badges and 'zaps' that appeared on the aircraft’s nose grew in number with every landing on the route to the UK – Coolangatta, Amberley, Darwin, Changi, Butterworth (escorted on departure by an RAF Victor and Canberra plus RAAF Sabres), Calcutta, Karachi, Bahrain, Akrotiri, Istres and finally Biggin Hill.

After 19 days and 70 hours of flying time, on 13th May 1965, the Lancaster arrived safely at Biggin Hill – fittingly her crew comprised of serving or retired RAAF members, many of whom had served as Lancaster aircrew during the war.

By this point total air time from new was 2,411 hours. The Air Registration Board promptly grounded G-ASXX; the number of flying hours allowed for one engine and propeller had expired, so restoration work commenced. All parts were carefully examined and where necessary restored to an airworthy condition. The white paint was stripped back to bare metal and a RAF night bomber black & camouflage scheme was applied. The original RAF serial NX611 was reapplied and the code letters HA-P added; an authentic WWII Lancaster unit code (218 Sqn) that also represented the owners, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society. The Lancaster was subsequently named 'Guy Gibson' and after two years of hard work her first post re-certification flight took place on 6th May 1967.

The RAF’s Lancaster, PA474 was by now airworthy and as a result HAPS were unable to find enough sponsors to keep NX611 flying. Prohibitive costs at an estimated £2000 - £3000 per hour finally resulted in HAPS handing over its assets to Reflectaire Ltd, which in turn was given notice to leave Biggin Hill. Since her return to the UK, NX611 had only flown 14 times, piloted by Neil Williams with Eric Hughes assisting as navigator. The 30th March saw NX611 relocated to the former USAAF airfield at Lavenham in Suffolk. Shortly afterwards the code letters HA-P were replaced by GL-C in honour of Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC DSO DFC who had recently visited the airfield, performing a taxi run in NX611 whilst there.

Attempts to lease the airfield were in vain so once again NX611 was forced to move, this time temporarily to Hullavington in Wiltshire on 7th February 1970. Richard Todd, the actor who played Guy Gibson in the 1953 film 'The Dambusters' was onboard recording commentary for a TV programme.

Once at Hullavington a re-paint was in order and an inspection was carried out by Rolls Royce and Hawker Siddeley. To mark the aircraft’s 25th birthday a silver '25 years' motif was added behind the bomb-aimers blister. On 26th June 1970 NX611 took off from Hullavington for her very last flight – to Squires Gate Airport, Blackpool, where an aviation museum was being planned with the Lancaster as the main attraction.

It had been hoped to maintain NX611 in flying condition but in the end this was not achievable. During October 1971 the guns were removed (deemed a security risk) by a specialist from the BAC’s factory at nearby Warton. The museum attracted much interest, however revenue was not sufficient and liquidation followed. NX611 was put up for auction, as lot 63, on 29th April 1972 but was withdrawn because she failed to draw enough interest and bids were too low. However two days later she was sold privately to a bidder, the Rt. Hon Lord Lilford of Nateby, who hoped to keep her in Britain. The engines had been run up for the auction and there were hopes that it might still fly again. However, having stood out for two years in Blackpool's salty sea air, without care, events had to move quickly to prevent her from ending up as scrap. NX611 was dismantled and moved to Scampton, where a deal had been struck for her to serve as a gate guard for the next ten years. The task of dismantling NX611 and moving her to Scampton took until the spring of 1974 to complete. Operating alongside 617 Sqn at Scampton during this period was 230 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), and as 617 Sqn was mentioned on the port side, the OCU crest was added to the starboard side.

The Lancaster was well looked after at Scampton, and displayed with wartime weaponry such as the famous UPKEEP bouncing bomb, the 12,000lb TALLBOY and 22,000lb GRAND SLAM. The Station Flight YF code was added, along with red painted propeller spinners.

By early 1983 the Lancaster’s ten year period at Scampton was coming to an end and Lord Lilford was ready to sell her. The purchase price had risen however, now to a six figure sum. Fred and Harold Panton made an offer – it was accepted, however NX611 remained at Scampton for a further four years until July 1987, to allow her new home at East Kirkby to be prepared for her arrival. Dismantling and re-assembly took 13 weeks by a team of 11 men from RAF Abingdon.

During 1990 NX611 was surveyed and found to be in excellent condition with both the airframe and engines appearing sound. The name 'Just Jane' was applied to the port side, inspired by a popular 1940s newspaper comic strip character. The crest of Bomber Command was initially worn on the starboard side, with the ‘City of Sheffield’ crest appearing later in honour of the City’s steel works that provided many parts for the Lancaster, its Merlin engines and the weapons it would carry.

Word spread quickly of developments at East Kirkby; the sight and sound of a 'live' Lancaster brought praise from many appreciative Bomber Command veterans who valued this link to the past. A few months later the second engine was successfully restored and started. The gathered crowds were thrilled to hear the sound of a flying Lancaster heading in their direction, and PA474 from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flew over to salute its new neighbour.

Following the success of running 'Just Jane' on two engines, it was time for another exciting step to be taken – a short taxi run on three engines. Saturday 22nd April 1995 was the day chosen to celebrate Just Jane's 50th birthday – and the first public taxi run.

The fourth engine was restored and started on 13th July 1995 – East Kirkby now had an operational Lancaster representing the wartime era. It had taken just 13 months, albeit 13 months of hard work, to turn a static airframe into a living memorial to the 55,000 fallen of Bomber Command.

In February 2001 NX611 performed her first fast run, with the tail wheel lifting clear of the ground for the first time since 1971. This was also the first time a Lancaster had been seen on one of East Kirkby’s runways since around 1946!

This amazing sight took place on behalf of the BBC who featured the Lancaster in the two part drama 'Night and Day' – starring Christopher Plummer and Edward Woodward as WWII veterans whose memories of Bomber Command Operations still haunted them. The fictitious Squadron codes CM-V were applied to NX611 and the 'Just Jane' nose art was temporarily taped over whilst filming was underway.

The latest changes to the paint scheme took place during 2006, when the nose art was revised; previously 'Just Jane' had worn a red one piece bathing suit, but the this was revised to show a WWII era bikini clad 'Jane', as worn by the original Daily Mail newspaper comic strip character. The Sqn codes commemorate East Kirkby’s two wartime Lancaster Sqns, with the 57 Sqn DX represented on the starboard side and 630 Sqn’s LE on the port side - were also outlined in yellow. In tribute to Christopher Panton, a skull and crossbones motif was also added to the rear turret, as originally carried on his Halifax during WWII.

For the record, 57 Sqn's DX-C was LM517 and became the longest serving Lancaster with the Sqn; LE-C with 630 Sqn was ND554 'Conquering Cleo'.

The authors would like to express their gratitude to the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, Terry Senior and Michael Screech for providing invaluable NX611 photographic reference material.

Lancaster B.I PA474

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.

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 now carries the markings of two different Lancasters – HR-W of 100 Sqn on her port side and BQ-B of 550 on her starboard, suitably commemorating the crews of both Squadrons.




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