Flying in her prime.
Pride of Place in the Museum
The Avro Lancaster heavy bomber which dominates the service aircraft display at the Aviation Heritage Museum at BullCreek in Perth, Western Australia is one of only 17 of these famous aircraft which survive intact throughout the world.
A MarkVII, it was amongt the last of 7,377Lancasters built between October 1941 and December 1945. Their exploits included the sinking of the German super-battleship Tirpitz and the classic low-level raid on the Mohne and Eder dams, as well as the attack on the Bielefeld Viaduct with what was then the world's biggest and most destructive bomb, the 10,000 kg Grand Slam. Ten members of Lancaster aircrews were awarded the British Commonwealth's highest decoration for valour. the Victoria Cross.
The BullCreek Lancaster was not completed until May 1945, the month in which Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces in World War 11. The aircraft was to be one of 150 Mark VIIs specially equipped for Tiger Force, the Royal Air Force's Intended heavy bomber force against Japan.
A total of 30 Lancaster squadrons were to be flown from Europe to the Far East between August and November 1945, to raid the Japanese mainland from bases in Eastern India and Okinawa.
Their aircraft, designated F.E. (Far East) Lancasters. had modifications which Included more powerful Rolls Royce Merlin 24 engines of 1640 h.p.; Nash and Thompson rear turrets with two 0.5 Inch Browning machine guns instead of the earlier four .303 Brownings; a Martin dorsal turret with two more 0.5's and an additional 1800 litre fuel tank in the rear of the bomb bay.
With a typical 3,200 kg bomb load, this extended the aircraft's range from 4,200 to 5,300 kilometres. Special lifeboat-dropping Lancasters would be available for rescue operations on long oversea raids. Other Tiger Force Lancasters were designated to carry Grand Slam and the almost equally destructive 5,300 kg Tallboy bombs over shorter ranges against special targets, or to operate in tactical close-support roles with the British / Indian Army In Burma.
An overall contract for 180 Mark VIIs, which included the BullCreek aircraft, was fulfilled by Austin Motors of Longbridge, Birmingham, England, Allocated the serial number NX 622, the aircraft was delivered on completion to No.38 Maintenance Unit RAF at Llandow in Wales. After the sudden surrender of Japan In August 1945 it was sent back to its builders for modifications before being returned to 38 MU for storage.
With World War II over, NX 622 was among thousands of military aircraft which now languished unwanted. It flew only seven hours in RAF service in the following five years. Then in June 1951, it was sent to its designers, AV. Roe and Co. for conversion from a bomber to a maritime reconnaissance aircraft as one of 54 Lancasters to be sold to the French Naval Air Service. I:Aeronautique Navale.
The sale was under an agreement entitled Western Union, a forerunner of NATO, which involved co-operationbetween Aeronavale and the Royal Air Force in patrolling Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes. NX622 was re-numbered WU16 after modifications by AV. Roe and Co. which included the removal of the dorsal turret, provision for ASV radar equipment and lugs for an airborne lifeboat like those carried by some Tiger Force Lancasters.
Auxiliary fuel tanks were also fitted in the bomb bay which extended the aircraft's operating range to over 6.500km. The standard RAF camouflage was replaced by an overall blue livery.
The aircraft was handed over to a French navy crew on June 18, 1952. The reputed purchase price was about $110,000. Later the same day, WU 16 was flown across the English Channel to Lann Bihouee near the naval base of Lorient in Southern Brittany. From here, allocated to the air combat unit Flotille 24F, it flew regular long range patrols over the Atlantic.
In February 1954 it was transferred to Cuers naval air station. near Toulon, to have radar installed before returning to Lann Bihouee In April, this time to join Flotille 25F. It remained there until January 1957 when, after logging nearly 1,300 flying hours. It was flown to Le Bourget Airport, Paris, for a major overhaul by the French airline UTA
Back at Lann Bihouee, WU 16 was painted white and prepared for its longest flight yet across the world to the Pacific region, Its intended area of operations when it was built in England twelve years before. In May 1957 It was flown from Brittany to the French island of New Caledonia to join air support unit 9S at Tontouta with which it carried out many reconnaissance missions over the next two years.
In July 1959 it made Its first visit to Australia, when It was flown to Bankstown, New South Wales, for a 600 hour airframe and 200 hour engine overhaul by the Fairey Aviation Company. After test flying off the east coast of Australia. It returned to its base at Tontouta, Noumea four months later.
More marine reconnaissance work followed until, late in 1961. the aircraft underwent a 100 hour overhaul at Tontouta during which its four original Rolls Royce Merlin engines were replaced after ten years' service.
That period had seen a revolution in military aviation. With the advent of jet-powered bombers carrying nuclear weapons at twice the speed and height of the Lancaster, World War Il's most famous warhorse had become a fading memory and the number of surviving examples had shrunk to a mere handful. The Lancaster was becoming an endangered species.
It was these reflections which in January 1962 prompted the Western Australian Division of the Royal Australian Air Force Association in Perth to begin the hunt to seek out a Lancaster for preservation before the type became extinct.
The suggestion came initially from European Theatre Branch member Mr Ray King, one of the many ex-RAF and ex-RAAF members with wartime service in Lancasters. As an Australian pilot with 227 Squadron RAF he was shot down near Berlin on his 16th Lancaster raid. Encouraged by another Lancaster veteran, Mr Harry Smith, he wrote to AV. Roe's headquarters in England asking for information on any Lancasters which might still be available.
The company informed him that the aircraft was still in service with the Royal Canadian Air Force and the French Navy but when he wrote to the Canadian air minister the reply gave little hope of obtaining a post-service specimen.
However, Mr King's efforts had stirred the interest of the Association, and enthusiasm grew when another member, Mr A.H. (Bert) Young, reported seeing a French Navy Lancaster in transit in the Northern Territory town of Darwin. Furthermore, Mr Young was told, it was believed this aircraft, and others still in Noumea were nearing the end of their useful lives.
Mr Young passed this information to the Association state secretary Frank Purser. He immediately wrote to the French ambassador in Canberra, M. Philippe Monode, explaining the Association's search for a Lancaster as a tribute to Bomber Command aircrews, and asking whether the French Government would consider presenting one of its time expired Lancasters to the Association and providing a crew to deliver it to Perth.
In August 1962 Mr Purser received a reply saying that the request was under consideration. Seven weeks later the French air attache at the Embassy, Commandant Louis Radisson, wrote with the hoped-for news that a Lancaster could be flown by a French crew from Noumea. as far as Sydney on the east coast. but added that there were "some difficulties".
These it transpired, arose from the fact that the Lancaster spares stock at the Noumea base was diminishing after their long service. Because of this, said the Commandant's letter, the French authorities proposed to remove some equipment from the presentation aircraft including Its radar, radios. some cockpit Instruments and even its four engines, replacing these with obsolete engines as soon as the aircraft arrived in Australia.
The French asked that the cost of these replacements should be borne by the Association together with all the expenses associated with the return of the "good" engines and the crew to Noumea.
The Association's divisional committee considered the proposition but reluctantly decided the French conditions made the offer impracticable. Commandant Radisson was told 'Thanks, but no thanks" and the BullCreek museum authorities assumed that the matter was over.
However, the situation was revitalised after another six weeks when Commander Radisson telephoned from Canberra on November 24. A Lancaster, he said. could now be flown from Noumea to Sydney for the Association to take over without any conditions except the payment of the crew's airfare back to Noumea.
However. the Commandant emphasised, operational considerations required a prompt decision on the offer - in fact an acceptance or rejection within 48 hours.
The reason for this dramatic change of mind was never explained. Mr Purser mused later on whether it was related to negotiations between the French and Australian governments at the time over the purchase for the Royal Australian Air Force of a sizeable number of Mirage jet fighters.
Whatever the cause, the Association State Executive snapped up the offer, despite some qualms about the possible ultimate costs.
Some of these qualms were allayed by a quick solution of how to get the presentation Lancaster the 3,500 kilometres from Sydney to Perth. The Association asked the Royal Australian Air Force if they could help to overcome this formidable hurdle.
They wrote back to say that the French Embassy in Canberra had agreed that the French crew would deliver the aircraft to Perth, in response to an Air Force offer to fly them back to Sydney en route for Noumea.
After those frustrating initial delays, matters were now progressing at almost bewildering speed. The French announced that the Lancaster would arrive at Kingsford Smith Airport. Sydney, on November 29 - only five days after Commandant Radisson's telephoned offer. It would make an overnight stop there and another in Adelaide, South Australia, before the final leg to Its ultimate destination.
Hurriedly, the Association in Perth contacted the New South Wales and South Australia divisions, asking if local members could meet the Lancaster, welcome its crew and accommodate them - hospitality which was readily and heartily given.
The West Australia division also arranged credit facilities to meet the old bomber's heavy refuelling costs and enlisted the aid of a staunch supporter of the Association, Federal parliamentarian Mr Fred Chaney, to help with the French crew's customs, health and immigration procedures.
On Saturday December 1 1962 an excited crowd of Association members and well-wishers assembled at Perth airport. Soon the nostalgic sound of four Merlins could be heard as WU 16 came in over the Darling Range to the east of Perth.
The Lancaster, escorted by a light aircraft carrying a full complement of Association members. made a slow circuit of the city, passing over the Perry Lakes athletic stadium to provide thousands of people with an impressive finale to the Commonwealth Games' closing moments. The veteran provided a dramatic contrast to three Royal Air Force Vulcans, the latest bombers from the AV. Roe stable. which had also taken part in a ceremonial flypast that same afternoon.
Soon after one pm, the Lancaster touched down at Perth International airport, ending the last flight of its long and varied career. It had flown a total of just over 2,600 hours since, 17 years before, it was wheeled from a Birmingham assembly plant 16,000 kilometres away.
Association members, television crews and newspaper representatives invaded the tarmac to welcome the delivery crew. Strangely, the fuselage door did not open nor was there any sign of life aboard the aircraft for some little time.
The reason for this delay finally became apparent when the crew door opened and the delivery crew, Capitaine de Corvette Henri Martini and Lieutenant Albert Guilleton, pilots; Gerard Charmouf, radio operator; Jan Pierre, navigator and Charles Tanguay, flight engineer - emerged in their full dress uniforms! The long haul from Noumea had been trouble-free. they said, but very tiring and they were glad it was over.
'They revived somewhat at a convivial lunch at the airport restaurant before leaving with Association members who had volunteered to billet them overnight. They were also entertained at a function at the Association's then Headquarters, Memorial House in Adelaide Terrace, Perth before, laden with souvenirs from well-wishers, they joined their RAAF hosts to be flown back to Sydney.
Meanwhile. a close inspection of their new acquisition by Association engineers and technical experts had delighted them. WU 16 was travel-stained and showed signs of its long service; but it was in sound condition and complete with every item of equipment and armament.
As it had been used by the French for air search duties it did not normally carry guns; but even these had been re-mounted at Noumea to ease the task of restoring the veteran to World War 11 condition.
All In all, the Association's priceless acquisition had cost £620 ($1,240); and even this was reduced by $400 when BP Australia gave a rebate for the fuel still remaining in the tanks.
The Perth airport authorities gave permission for the Lancaster to remain at the airport indefinitely, and the big bomber was towed to a grassed display area near the terminal building to join the Mosquito bought by the pioneer airman Jimmy Woods for the 1953 London to Christchurch air race, but never used. Protected by a wire fence, It was available for inspection by the public at weekends, with Association volunteers collecting a small admission fee.
Damage to instruments and equipment later caused visitors to be barred from the cockpit, but during the aircraft's stay at the airport, public collection fees were sufficient to repay all initial costs and to provide a reserve to meet maintenance and other preservation expenses.
Soon after the move to this display area, volunteers from No.25 (City of Perth) Squadron, Citizens' Air Force, undertook the task of restoring the old bomber it to its original Royal Air Force appearance. The French overall white was replaced by the brown, green and black camouflage of Bomber Command, and WU 16 was replaced by its 1945 serial, NX 622. Straddling its fuselage roundels were the fictitious squadron code letters AF-C chosen to embody the initials of the Australian Flying Corps and the Commonwealth Air Forces.
The Lancaster remained a prime attraction at Perth Airport for almost 17 years; but inevitably, in the aircraft's completely exposed situation, Perth's scorching summers and monsoonal-type winters continued to take their toll and its condition, together with its vulnerability to vandalism, began to give cause to increasing concern.
Matters were brought to a head in 1978 by a warning from the Department of Civil Aviation that the aircraft would soon have to be moved elsewhere because of planned extensions to the airport terminal. The outlook became so discouraging that there was even a suggestion the Lancaster should be disposed of, resulting in an advertisement in the For Sale column in Flight International. This produced an offer of $115,000 from a British collector; but after a change of heart by the Association this was not taken up.
Salvation came with the announcement by the State Government of forthcoming celebrations and memorial projects to mark the 150th anniversary in 1979 of the foundation of the colony of Western Australia. Among the projects approved (after extensive lobbying by the Association) was an aviation museum adjoining the Association's Veterans' Residential Estate in the Perth suburb of BullCreek, to accommodate most of the dozen or so aircraft it already had under restoration.
Ironically, the generous $100,000 grant contributed by local industries was still not enough for a building capable of housing an aircraft as large as the Lancaster. But the importance of the project made it unthinkable to dispose of the bomber which, as soon as the museum could be extended, would obviously be a prime exhibit; that is, if it could be moved in the meantime to the museum site where, though still in the open, it could be better protected from vandals.
This proposal was daunting to say the least; it would involve transporting the aircraft 16 kilometres along Leach Highway, a major traffic artery flanked by traffic lights. pylons and other obstacles. A request to the Royal Air Force for information on how to move the Lancaster by road provided no real comfort.
The reply, comprising 19 pages of wartime instructions on dismantling, concluded by stating that the aircraft components would require eight five-tonne low-load vehicles to transport them - an impossible project for civilian volunteers.
Instead, and with considerable misgivings, it was decided to remove only such portions of the Lancaster as would provide a traffic hazard, and then tow it from the airport to its BullCreek destination.
Luckily a decision had been taken in 1964 to install steel supports for the mainwheel axles to take the load off the tyres. An examination showed that both tyres and tubes had remained in good condition and were quite adequate for the proposed tow. More difficulty was experienced in obtaining special tools needed to dismantle the bomber.
But after more correspondence with Lancaster sources at the National War Memorial and overseas, reducing the aircraft to a towing width of nine metres (compared to an overall wingspan of more than 30 metres) emerged as a practical proposition.
The task involved removing not only the outer wings and engines together with all four propellers, but the "amputation" of the tail assembly with its widely-spaced fins. The entire operation took six months by the Association's Historical Group members working at weekends under a retired aircraft engineer among their number, Mr Bill Gimson. They were helped greatly by the loan, and where necessary the fabrication, of specialised equipment by Qantas, Ansett and Trans Australian Airlines workshops at Perth airport.
Meanwhile arrangements were being prepared for the 16 kilometre tow from the airport, which had the potential to be one of the most disruptive as well as the most spectacular events of its kind in Perth's transport history.
But after a long series of suggestions and counter-suggestions, the traffic police and other road authorities gave the project their blessing; possibly not unconnected with the fact that the senior Main Roads Department officer concerned had a wartime career in Lancasters!
The final problem of cartage was solved when a local heavy haulage company, Bellway, generously agreed not only to provide the towing vehicle free of charge. but to donate the use of cranes and all other necessary heavy moving equipment as well.
The climax came on one of Perth's wettest winter weekends for years - that of August 18 and 19, 1979.
Early on Saturday a big squad of volunteers braved the downpour to dismantle the chain fence surrounding the Lancaster to admit a Bellway slewing crane to its enclosure. This slowly lifted NX 622's rear fuselage and swung it onto a specially-prepared dolly, which was then attached to a turntable on a Kenworth prime mover. Semi-trailers were then loaded with outer engines, wings and tail sections before the convoy, accompanied by the crane, two service vehicles and a radio liaison van from the Department of Civil Aviation, trundled off towards Leach Highway en route to its BullCreek destination.
The first part of the journey necessitated crossing the airport's main runway which had been closed to air traffic until the convoy was clear. The procession did not pass unnoticed by traffic on other runways. When the pilot of a Boeing 747 of South African Airways radioed the control tower to ask what was happening below, he received the straight-faced reply 'The aircraft you see below is being prepared for a tourist flight to Capetown". The pilot's response was not recorded ...
Meanwhile, the convoy was meeting initial problems. To traverse awkward bends it had to desecrate immaculate ornamental lawns as well as negotiate airport gates. When these proved too close-set to let the Lancaster through, the crane was pressed into service to remove the gateposts bodily from their foundations.
Eventually, at the stipulated speed of eight kilometres per hour, the procession reached the far side of the airfield and parked for the night just inside the perimeter fence.
The relentless rain eventually stopped in the early hours of Sunday. By 7 am. the convoy had moved through a dismantled section of the fence onto a crash access road to await a police escort of two cars and three motorcycles, together with a Main Roads Department vehicle. After a final safety check of each vehicle and its load, the procession moved out on to Leach Highway.
From there on, much to everyone's relief, the operation went without a hitch. On some stretches, even with its reduced width of nine metres, the stripped down Lancaster had to straddle the highway's centre islands, its rear guns pointing menacingly at following traffic; but otherwise the long tow had no problems and one and a half hours later the convoy arrived at BullCreek. There the aircraft was installed on a specially-made concrete base, in just under three hours both wings were back in place and the Lancaster was again recognisable.
It took several more weeks to complete the reassembly of the detached components. But all was complete by November 17 1979 when the first wing of the adjoining aviation museum was due to be opened by West Australian aviation pioneer Sir Norman Brearley KB CBE DSO MC AFC, who had served in the RFC and RAF in the first World War and the RAAF in the second. Sadly, Sir Norman was unable to be present due to Illness, and in his absence the ceremony was ably performed by Captain Cyril Kleinig of MacRobertson Miller Airlines.
The Lancaster, together with another outsize exhibit, a Dakota troop transport, was parked on a concrete pad near the museum entrance for a further five years before the construction of a larger hangar in 1984 at last enabled both aircraft to be housed permanently under cover.
Among other World War II vintage aircraft awaiting them in what was classified as the museum's military wing was the Association's first acquisition made back in the 1950's - a Spitfire Mk 22 which had been a gate guardian for some years outside the Association's nearby main headquarters, but had then been replaced on its pylon by a specially constructed and highly accurate fibreglass Mk XVI replica.
With the Lancaster's protection at last assured, volunteers set about the task of repairing the ravages of 22 years in the open. The first contingent was a group of students from the Midland Technical School. Led and instructed by their British teacher, Derek McPhail himself a pilot, they replaced hundreds of rivets, which had disappeared or rotted, thereby gaining on-the-job experience and trade qualification points.
Most of the missing or defective rivets were inside the fuselage at the transport joints, where right-angle flanges join in Meccano- fashion the prefabricated sections which enabled Lancasters to be dismantled into components small enough to fit into five ton trucks.
Constant flexing while exposed to the weather had apparently caused stress at these joints and had literally 'popped' the rivets. Some obvious minor corrosion was treated at the same time, but it was not until 1986 that a detailed inspection by the museum's restoration team yielded a full report on both interior and exterior problems.
This survey revealed serious corrosion in the main spar between the starboard inner and outer engines, where metal was defoliating ie. it was just flaking away. Corrosion had also eaten holes in both wings, affecting upper panels just forward of the flaps and ailerons, and had damaged the junction where the cockpit canopy frame met the fuselage above the instrument panel.
However, considering the aircraft's long exposure, corrosion and other damage was surprisingly light, due no doubt, to the aircraft's tropicalisation back in 1945 when it was built. This, including the special preservative paint and the varnishing of all electrical systems, had evidently resisted the weather far better than a standard aircraft built for European operations.
Heavily involved in restoration throughout this period were a husband and wife team from Kenya, John and Wendy Harris. John, a printer by profession, took a year's airframe course at a night school to equip himself for the task. Wendy, on the principal "if you can't lick 'em join 'em" also made herself proficient in removing and treating corrosion, and replacing even more defective rivets as they came to light.
In a seemingly endless campaign which continued through the 1980's and the early 1990's the shabby cockpit with its unusual dual controls was stripped and its instruments restored by John to almost factory appearance.
Although airport vandals had ripped away the navigator's table and other equipment further aft, cockpit switches and instruments had survived almost unscathed - possibly because the BA spanners needed to remove them are relatively rare in Australia. The few which were irreparably damaged or destroyed were replaced by the Royal Australian Air Force base, Pearce, near Perth.
Sections of the cockpit frame were repaired or replaced - those aft of the flight engineer's panel proving to everyone's surprise to be wood and not metal. Volunteer Don Crane removed and restored the rear turret with its two 0.5 Brownings before it and the cockpit were re-glazed with acrylic plastic - two of the panels being specially blown for the pilots side window bubble and the bomb aimer's blister.
The most onerous task of the whole restoration project proved to be getting at the main spar corrosion in the starboard wing. This involved removing the under-panels and, with only minimum equipment available, lowering the main starboard fuel tank, which occupies almost all of the interior of the wing between the inner and outer engines. With part-time volunteer labour, that alone took nearly nine months before the spar was repaired and the fuel tank replaced.
With the restoration project almost complete, authentic repainting was the next objective. Since both other Australian Lancaster squadrons which fought in Europe already had aircraft preserved - 467's S-Sugar at the RAF Museum at Hendon and 460's G-George at the National War Museum In Canberra - it was decided that the BullCreek Lancaster should commemorate 463 Squadron with its motto "Press On Regardless".
For complete authenticity, another industry benefactor, Courtaulds Coatings, provided brown, green and black matt finish to the correct Royal Air Force colour standards.
Museum curator Al Clarke, once a flight lieutenant in the Air Training Corps, used his service connections to enlist the help of reservists of 25 (City of Perth) squadron to undertake the repainting, culminating in the identification of a particular aircraft of 463 Squadron.
The aircraft was not too difficult to choose. As well as achieving the impressive total of 93 raids, JO-D (D-Dog) had also been crewed on operations by several members of the Western Australian division of the Royal Australian Air Force Association, including Des Sullivan, Gus Belford and John McKenzie.
Immaculate as on the day it was completed back in 1945. with its squadron letters outlined in yellow which, after D-Day in June 1944 distinguished squadrons from 5 Group, Bomber Command, the years have rolled back for NX 622.
It has survived a difficult and varied half-century. Now assured of better protection and maintenance than has been provided for decades, there seems no reason why it cannot go on to celebrate its century.
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