Reach for the sky

A Lancaster Bomber
A Lancaster Bomber
Have your say

Some called it the ultimate flight of fancy when a couple of Lincolnshire aviation enthusiasts invested in a Lancaster Bomber – which last flew here in Blackpool in 1970 – to take up temporary residence in a resort aviation museum.

But Fred and Harold Panton, who run the Aviation Heritage Centre at East Kirkby, near Skegness, have proved them wrong.

The Lancaster has been restored to near-pristine condition and has been cleared to taxi ... only one step away from flying once more.

Just Jane is already kitted out with four mighty Merlin motors and for sheer oomph they are hard to beat – as anyone who recalls the heartstopping roar of the one remaining airworthy Lancaster bomber over Blackpool (and Southport) air shows in recent years can testify.

And now, for around £250 or more, depending on the scale of the experience, visitors can ride in a beautifully crafted period piece of aviation history – and know they are raising funds to get the old bird airborne for the first time in more than 40 years.

Passengers ride in the rear or middle turret, radio operator’s seat, navigator’s seat, cockpit or bomber aimer’s position. More taxi runs are planned in March.

The only currently airworthy Lancaster is kept at RAF Coningsby, in Lincolnshire, and was last seen in Blackpool airspace during last summer’s Southport Air Show.

The Avro NX611 Lancaster Just Jane was at one time housed in a museum here at Britain’s most historic airfield, Squires Gate. The last time it flew was in June 1970 – over Blackpool.

The Gazette archives include a picture taken in October 1971 which shows Sgt R Riley, of South Shore police, watching as Browning machine guns, considered a security risk by the Home Office, were removed by Ken Hillman and (in the cockpit) Frank Hartshorne, from the armaments section of BAC Warton.

The death knell sounded for Blackpool Aviation Museum on Squires Gate Lane when the council took court action against the owners for unpaid rent and a separate winding-up notice was also served.

The NX611 Lancaster was the centrepiece of the short-lived museum.

It seemed destined for scrap until it was bought in 1972 by Lord Lilford of Nateby after failing to reach its £20,000 reserve at auction.

The Panton brothers swooped when it came up for sale again in 1983.

The story of the Lancaster was documented by former Blackpool bank manager Brian Goulding, who was on board the aircraft on what was to be its final journey from RAF Hullavington, Wiltshire, to Blackpool, complete with an extended circuit over the resort. The book, Story of the Lanc, co-written by Dick Taylor, is now in its fifth edition, and on sale at the Lincolnshire heritage centre.

Fred and Harold see their museum as a tribute to Bomber Command and the elder brother they lost in the Second World War.

Chris was 19 when he died in March 1944, one of 55,000 Bomber Command crew to lose their lives in the conflict.

The average age of air crew, each man a volunteer, was 22.

For years Fred and Harold’s father refused to let them visit the crash site in Germany where Chris perished on the Nuremberg bombing raids.

Their father eventually relented and asked for a picture of his son’s grave.

On a more recent visit to look at artefacts unearthed at the site Fred admits the “wartime memories flooded back – I knew I was standing about 6ft from where my brother had died.”

Building their very own aviation museum has been a labour of love but the brothers acknowledge a debt of gratitude to the ill- fated museum in Blackpool for keeping NX611 safe when many Lancasters have been lost in the mists of time.

Fred says a friend of his spotted an advert in a Sunday newspaper reading Lancaster Bomber for sale, Squires Gate.

He added: “I looked and told her – you couldn’t have given me this at a better time. I will see if I can’t buy that.”

Unlike the Manchester licensee who, some years later, purchased the Vulcan aircraft which had pride of place at Blackpool Airport for many years, Fred knew just what they were taking on.

The heritage centre opened in 1988 has become a family affair, Fred’s grandchildren Andrew and Louise helping out.

Andrew organises events and also pilots the Lanc.

Louise oversees the Lancaster taxi rides and museum and edits a magazine. Harold’s daughter Frances runs the Naafi for refreshments.

It’s to be hoped Just Jane one day does a flypast of the Fylde, which has such an immense aviation heritage.

Air pioneer AV Roe came here for the first UK aviation meeting in 1909 on Squires Gate land.

The intrepid aviator’s name lives on in the Avro Lancaster and in place names on Blackpool Business Park nearby. His company ran pleasure flights here.

Wellington Bombers were also built here in Blackpool by Vickers.

And last summer a Spitfire took up permanent position aloft over Fairhaven Lake, in recognition of St Annes campaign to raise funds for a plucky little fighter aircraft during the war.