Who the hell are VeRA, Thumper and Jane? Good question. A lot of people don’t know and when I explain to them they don’t always care. I do and I have the best 4 weeks of my life. Let me tell you why.
My great grandfather was an Aircraftman second class. You can read about his life here. To cut a long story short amongst his roles in the RAF he spent a short time working as ground crew and got to work on Lancaster Bombers. I always knew there had to be a reason why I was so addicted to this aircraft and a reason for travelling the length and breadth of the country to see ‘Thumper’ fly with the BBMF during airshow season.
So, you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that the worlds only other airworthy Lancaster, ‘VeRA’ of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum was flying over here from Canada to display with our Lancaster during the season of air shows on a special tour. I was beside myself. The worlds only two airworthy Lancaster’s flying together. It was simply a once in a lifetime opportunity. I tracked her all the way as she flew from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada on Flight Radar and willed her to come down safely at RAF Conningsby as thunderstorms raged all around her in the skies above the north east. I was so relived when she landed. Dunc Mason of the RAF BAttle of Britain Memorial Flight puts it better in this amazing post he’s written about VeRA’s arrival.I watched as others got to see VeRA and Thumper close up at various events and at RAF COnningsby and formulated a plan. I wanted to created an enamel to go on my great grandfathers memorial with a photo I had taken of the two Lancasters together. It was going to be my tribute to him. I got myself all ready for the Eastbourne Airshow but work got in the way of the saturday so I planned for Sunday instead. I then watched the weather. Right on cue the weather changed and so did the flights plans. Off back to Conningsby they flew to avoid getting stuck at Bournemouth airport. I was devastated. At this point in time I was struggling with big projects at work that I was also giving time to at weekends and it looked like that was my one chance to see the Lancasters together gone.
Then I was lucky enough to get some free time for Wings and Wheels weekend at Dunsfold in Surrey not 20 minutes from where I live. Off I went and stalked my crowd line place at 8.30am on the saturday morning.
Later that afternoon the announcer said they were on their way. I kept a look out to the right where they were heading from and waited (dressed resplendently in my newly acquired Lancaster Hoodie and T-shirt from the merchandise trailer). I didn’t have to wait too long. Two dots appeared on the horizon and my arm shot up and pointed with a cry “There they are!”. Thousands heads looked in the direction I was pointing and gazed into the distance. Then the crowd erupted into a spontaneous round of applause. I couldn’t join them. I was crying my eyes out at the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. I managed to compose myself after the first pass and take some more photos of these beautiful birds together. Then, when they had gone, I sat and composed myself with my ears ringing with the sound of eight Merlin engines.
On Sunday I did it all again and this time my photos were even better.I had taken some of my prints from the Saturday and wanted to give them to the folks at the merchandise trailer to say thank you. They were simply amazing. I got to go inside the trailer and tell them the story of my great grandfather and present them with my photos. One of the crew even gave me her ‘Lancaster Tour 2014′ crew pin badge, it was a lovely gesture and I was glad to have given them something back for the pleasure they had given me. They told me my prints would fly back in VeRA to Canada!
At the end of a great weekend I had the shot I wanted for my great grandfathers memorial and I considered it mission accomplished. Or so I thought.
I then got a chance to go to Bournemouth Airshow but once again things conspired against us. VeRA decided that she didn’t want to leave Humberside Airport where she had been giving private flights and her number 4 engine packed up. Lots of frantic running around by lots of people and a spare engine was dispatched from the RAF and loaned to the Canadian team to get her back in the air. The weekends air shows were cancelled and again I thought that that was that and I was destined to see her again before she left. I did spend a throughly enjoyable day at Bournemouth watching Thumper parade up and down the beach and over the cliffs at Old Harry Rocks and over the Isle of Wight. It was still a Lancaster Sunday. At the end of the show i headed down the cliff to the merchandise trailer and spent what I thought would be my last spend on Lancaster goodies. I bought a corgi 1:44 model of VeRA. I was at least going to be able to see here every day again in some form
So I thought that that was me done. I had seen them together and that was it, back to normal humdrum life. It seems that the powers that be had other plans for me though and the next couple of weeks went a ‘bit’ mad. Despite being a Lancaster fan for many many years I had not joined any of the Lancaster pages. I didn’t know they existed! So I joined a few and started to chat with other Lancaster fans. I created some of my aviation art composites of the Lancaster’s together but this didn’t go down well with some purists and a couple attacked me for it quite personally. It was very upsetting at the time. What I wasn’t prepared for was the reaction of people to defend me. When I have been trolled before (you can find out about that on this site if you look) I was left to deal with it alone. This time I had a full Lancaster army defending me. I was quite taken aback. What was more astonishing was that people loved my artwork and wanted me to do more. People even wanted to buy it. I started formulating a plan.
I created some more aviation artwork and asked my printer for costs to make A3 prints. He did me two of ‘Beachy Head’ seen here but we never managed to sort out the rest of them and still people wanted them. I was a bit lost.
I’d been loving all the photos coming up on the Lancaster pages and a week or so after Bournemouth a special event was coming up on the 2nd and the 7th September. THREE Lancaster’s at East Kirkby in Lincolnshire. VeRA and Thumper were going to fly over ‘Just Jane’ our other Lancaster (who can’t fly yet bless her) in two once in a lifetime events. I hadn’t got tickets sadly but I was looking forward to seeing the photos from everyone else albeit with a tinge of jealousy and sadness!
The original event on the 2nd went ahead but without the two Lancaster’s flying overhead. The weather had again stuffed things up for people and the poor Panton family at East Kirkby were trying to reschedule the event. Then something happened. Tickets started appearing for the event on the 7th. I contacted a lovely lady who was looking to sell her tickets and she kindly agreed to let me have them! I couldn’t believe it. I was going to ’3 Lancasters’ on the 7th. It meant I would have to leave Woking at 5.30 am and drive a 300 mile round trip to East Kirkby in Lincolnshire – further than I had ever driven in my life. The day came and off I went. Me and my new car on our adventure with cameras all packed in the back of the car. I met my friend Steve, a lovely chap who had been in the forces took great offence at the way I had been treated by certain people in the forums. He got my day off to an amazing start by presenting me with a 1:44 scale model of Wing Commander Guy Gibsons Lancaster, a hurricane and a spitfire. I now pretty much had the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight on a table in my hallway with my other tour memorabilia.
I continued up the A1(M) towards Lincolnshire with a smile on my face. As I crossed the county border into Lincolnshire and saw the sign my bloody iPod in the car (which was on random) started playing the Dambusters Suite. I swear I nearly had a coronary and KNEW that fate was playing a serious hand in my adventure as well as my Great Grandfather looking down on me. As I entered Conningsby at just after 9 i heard a sound outside the car. I pulled over and stopped and there over my head were the departing Thumper and VeRA on their way to their next airshow commitment. I stood at the side of the road like an idiot and just waved at them. I knew they couldn’t see me but I could see them.
I carried on to East Kirkby and met up with Paul who I had given my spare ticket to via a lottery. I wanted the spare to go to someone who had not seen them before. It turned out that Paul had a very personal connection to the Lancaster too so it seemed totally fitting that he had the ticket.
Arriving at Easy Kirkby was like stepping back in time to the 1940′s. It really us a proper old airfield. I loved the atmosphere. At 10am the opened the gates and whilst there was lots to see, the first I saw when i walked in the gates was the massive frame of Just Jane sat on the grass awaiting her audience. I could feel the tears welling up already and the day hadn’t even started. Paul and I stalked our place on the crowd line and took turns to have a look round. I hit the merchandise stand and bought one of everything from the ’3 Lancs’ table and a lovely print of the 3 sisters together which I was going to frame.
The day flew past. A day filled with people coming and talking to me about my artwork, multiple taxi runs from Just Jane and blowing grass clippings in my face (I didn’t care a bit) and then just around 4pm in the afternoon the sight of two familiar dots coming from behind me approaching the East Kirby airfield and their reunion with their sister in the skies above Lincolnshire. I confess I utterly lost it.I was overwhelmed with emotion as were the 4,999 people around me. Before I knew what had happened it was over and VeRA and Thumper were off back to Conningsby for the night.
I stood with Paul near Just Jane after lots of people had left and just admired her. We were both quite emotional and to just stand there and look at Jane was an incredible honour. I felt closer to my great granddad than I had ever done before. As were talking we got speaking to LAHC photographer Martin Keen. We both talked about our Lancaster relatives and I mentioned that one day I was going to come back and do a taxy ride as my dream on my bucket list was to touch a Lancaster just so I could feel close to Great Granddad. The next thing I knew, Martin told me to “wait there” and then walked off. He then came back and said “come through”. I stood there dumbfounded like an idiot. I was about to meet Jane up close and personal and I couldn’t believe it after the day I had already had.
I went through the gate and Martin took me right under Jane and her impressive airframe. I looked up (with a crick in my neck) to the beautify lady in front of me and said hello as if I were talking to a person. Martin then walked me to the bomb bay doors and talked about all the things my great granddad might have done as ground crew to keep her in the air. I confess I had my hands all over her, even the undercarriage and when it was over I smelled of Lancaster oil and had a smile on my face (captured by Paul in this photo) the likes I have which I have never seen in any other photo of me. As I left the security cordon I said to the assembled LAHC centre folks who were grinning at my amazing experience (they could see what it meant to me) “Excuse me while I now goand lose it” and thats exactly what I did. I stood on my own and cried my heart out. I had achieved a lifetime ambition and felt an instant connection to Great Granddad. My life at that moment was complete!When Paul and I finally said goodbye in the car park we had a head full of memories that neither of us would ever forget. But my day wasn’t done!
I’d been told to drive to the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa. For those that don’t know this was previously the officers mess of the Dambusters, 617 Squadron. When I pulled up in my car, still mind blown from the day I’d had I had no idea what to expect. As I walked into reception with my two copies of Beach Head (one for the Canadians and one for me) there was VeRA’s pilot Don Schofield at reception. He introduced VeRA as his mistress and then I got to meet his wife Loretta. They were so lovely and Loretta made sure I got a photo with Don and my print and then the whole crew signed it for me and I had a group photo too. I was utterly mind blown. The hotel then let me have a wander around to look at all the Lancaster and Dambusters memorabilia before I left.
I drove home that night with a head full of precious memories, three memory cards full of images, a boot full of memorabilia and a smile on my face. I drove through Lincolnshire sunsets and a bombers moon and 3.5 hours later was back home in Woking looking at my photos feeling like I had had the most incredible dream.
But the adventure wasn’t over just yet………….. READ PART 2