Aviation enthusiast’s Sweet Ride The Bomb!
A friend-of-Roadstories takes to the skies over southern Ontario …
The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum just outside of Hamilton, Ontario provides an opportunity unique in the world: to take to the sky in a restored 1945 Lancaster bomber and relive the experience of Canadian aircrews flying for Bomber Command in World War II.
“To bring the war to the Nazis”, 430 Lancasters were built at Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ontario. Restored with great care for over 11 years at the museum, this Lancaster, named “Vera” for its side markings of VR-A, celebrates its 30th anniversary of flying aviation enthusiasts from around the world, as a fund-raiser for the Museum.
My father was an RCAF Lancaster navigator during the war. Like many veterans, he rarely discussed his battle experiences and I had always wondered about what it must have been like to fly on a bomber run. By making a donation to the Museum, I now had my chance.
The experienced crew on my flight took up two “loads” of four “visiting bomber crew” (read Museum donors), each for a 60-minute flight on that sunny Saturday.
As our real and “visiting crew” headed out on the tarmac to climb aboard, a modern jetliner was parked close by. It dwarfed the Lancaster, which in its day carried the largest bomb load of any aircraft of the War. However, standing looking up at our “ride”, you could not help but be impressed. The two front tires looked like massive black donuts, taller than the average male. The rest of the aircraft felt dominating and powerful, with its four Packard engines (replacing in North America the Merlin Rolls-Royce power plants installed in British-built Lancasters).
As we climbed into the plane from the back, its proportions seemed more human. Up the five-foot ladder and into the back hatch, I was reminded of the black humour of the ground staff as they handed parachutes to a Lancaster’s crew before bombing missions …
“If it doesn’t work, just bring it back”
VR-A only has four “after-market” seats for passengers. These are installed on the left side of the plane with small slit windows added to provide a view that would not have been needed in wartime. As each of the engines was started in sequence, the noise and the vibration inside the plane ramped up, in keeping with our expectations. Even with the noise-cancelling ear protectors, you could feel the raw power of the plane. This real time experience of the engine roar and plane vibration was enhanced by the distinct smell of aviation fuel-exhaust.
Once in the air, we headed south for a “bombing run” over Niagara Falls.
The flying crew consists of the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer, all with years of experience in Canadian aviation before contributing their skills to flying this unique piece of history. A fourth crew member directs the visiting bomber crew who, two at a time, make their way to the cockpit. The cockpit canopy was large and gave a spectacular view skyward. That view would have been less scenic during the war: providing visibility to keep the plane in a bomber stream which could have up to 600 or 700 aircraft, 8 to 10 miles across, while crew kept an eagle eye out for German night fighters.
The only part of the plane not accessible was the tail gunner bubble in the back and the bomb-aimer bubble at the front of the aircraft.
Throughout the flight, I was reminded of the fact that the original seven-member crew were a tight self-reliant team looking out for each other. One of the critical support teams was the ground crew for each aircraft that took great pride to ensure that everything mechanical was in A-1 shape, for “their boys”.
While I was glad to return to terra firma (whatever the minor inconvenience of smell and noise), I was thrilled to have had this opportunity. Two of the “visiting crew” were in fact the adult children of different RAF members who had come all the way from Britain just to take this flight (one of them for the 2nd time!). As we took a picture with our crew outside VR-A after the flight, smiles all around confirmed the priceless shared feeling of being a part of Canadian aviation history.