Despite being one of the most famous second world war 2 aircraft, and still stirring similar emotions to the Spitfire, there are only 2 flying Lancaster bombers in the world, out of 7,377 built. One, part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based in RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, makes regular appearances accompanied by a Spitfire and Hawker hurricane. The other is based in Canada, making a rare appearance in the UK in 2014.
Due to the unflagging personal efforts of two brothers in the village of East Kirby, Lincolnshire a third Lancaster may soon be joining them in the air. Just Jane, otherwise known as Avro Lancaster NX611, has spent the winter being completely stripped down and re-coated while receiving airworthiness inspections and, perhaps within a year, is expected to fly again.
Having not been repainted since 1974, the repainting has required a complete stripping back to bare metal throughout the plane, using chemical strippers to get rid of several coats and prepare it for a modern paint job which may last even longer than the original.
The recoat has now been completed, following a gap between stripping and repainting to allow for detailed inspection of the skin and rivets. The incpection was a success, with spars, skin, 4 Rolls Royce Merlin engines and airframe all passed as airworthy, bolstering hopes that a return to the air is within sight.
The story of the plane’s restoration is a family affair, and has been a private initiative throughout. It is the result of two brothers’ desire to honour their elder sibling, who was killed when his Lancaster was shot down by fighters near Nuremburg in 1944. Fred Panton was 13 when he heard his elder brother Christopher, aged 19, had been killed. Together with his brother, Harold – they are now aged 81 and 79 – Fred Panton has spent 34 years building their tribute, including a museum and recreation of an entire bomber command base complete with restored period ground vehicles.
Fittingly, even the repainting involved another, completely different, family connection: Tim Macdougald, Director of MAAS Aviation who have carried out the repainting pro bono, is the son of a wartime Lancaster pilot who served in the RAF Voluntary Reserve for RCAF 514 Squadron in Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire.
Home to roost
The Panton brothers, having made money farming chickens, first bought an old airfield and recreated it as it had looked under Bomber Command, gradually developing it into the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.
In 1983 they bought and began restoring an old but undamaged Avro Lancaster. The plane had been flown by the French in New Caledonia and Australia before being used as a stationery mascot at an RAF base. They nicknamed it “Just Jane” after the popular wartime pin-up and acquired four newly reconditioned Rolls-Royce Merlin engines at a cost of £130,000 each. While plans for the remaining steps to get the plane into the air continued, it has been used for fast runway taxi rides to help fund the restoration project.
Tim Macdougald of MAAS Aviation heard about the project and offered the company’s services for the recoating, while AkzoNobel Aerospace offered to provide the paint free of charge.
Tim MacDougald says: “The restoration project was a venture into the unknown, but it should be complete very shortly. The aircraft will be used at this stage for fast taxi rides down the runway for paying passengers but in the future it may well be able to fly again”.
MAAS aviation paint commercial aircraft for various owners and operators up to 737 size. The company started 35 years ago in Shannon, and now operates 8 paint shops: 2 in Hamburg, 3 in the Netherlands and 3 in Mobile Alabama. Amongst work for over 250 aircraft operators they carry out the coating work on all new Airbus aircraft. To date, the company has painted over 3,000 aircraft of all types.
The company has formal in-house training programmes and currently employs over 100 skilled and experienced paint technicians, who are highly trained on surface preparation and the application of the most advanced primer and paint systems using the latest spray equipment available.
Mark Gidman, Operations Director of MAAS Aviation continues: ”The aircraft was completely taken apart, everything bagged and tagged and laid out on trestle tables. We started by taking dft readings. There were lots of layers of paint, up to around 300µ. We removed this with chemical strippers. The roundels were considerably thicker, with about 4 or 5 layers of paint there.
“It took a 9-man team working 6 days a week 3 weeks to complete the stripping.
One particular problem was the many mushroom rivets, which could not be sanded for fear of damage. It was a pain =to get the paint off these with chemicals.”
The skin and spars of the aeroplane are all aluminium, along with the ribs, formers and longerons. They were originally were made in 3 fuselage sections and 3 wing sections, then ferried around the country on a Queen Mary trailer by road and finally assembled on site.
Mark Gidman explains that since this was the first time in over 60 years that the metalwork had been fully exposed it provided a good opportunity for detailed corrosion checks by aircraft engineers.
The painting was done on the body as a single unit, with all extra components being handled separately before reinstallation. Gidman continues: “We have used a paint remover supplied by DASIC International, a UK based supplier specialising in aircraft cleaners and paint removers. The peroxide based product (AEROSTRIP) is applied to the aircraft once all sensitive areas have been masked off using aluminium tapes and foils.
“The stripped airframe is then cleaned with an alkaline solution to neutralise the acid and provide a water break free surface to allow the subsequent primers and top coats to be applied.
“Following a final solvent clean to ensure all contamination from the surface has been removed an epoxy primer coating supplied by AKZO NOBEL is applied to the airframe.
The epoxy primer has corrosion resistance properties also is resistant to fluids associated with aircraft lubricants fuels etc.”
Gidman continues: “The next stage is to mark out the camouflage pattern using the original drawings to ensure complete authenticity. Once the pattern is marked out each individual area is masked off separately and the camouflage first colour is applied.
Following the initial cure phase the colour is then masked off and the second camouflage colour applied.
“The twin component polyurethane camouflage paint was commissioned specifically for this project and supplied by WITHAM. Once fully dry it gives a satin or semi matt finish which is exactly as it would have been when it rolled off the production line. The top coats have been applied with low pressure electro static equipment in modern military coatings.
“The Royal Air Force roundels and aircraft registration and nose art is then applied and the final finishing phase begins before completion of the project.
“The original paint jobs were standardised. The camouflage pattern we have applied is based on original specification drawings from the manufacturer, which we were lucky enough to obtain. The pattern has no solid edges.
“Originally the painting was done with large masks for each colour. The painters stand on the masks while rollering around the edges. We achieved the same effect by airbrushing over the edges of the different colours. Originally they would have been using cellulose paints.”
Just Jane motif
MAAS Aviation also has a graphics department, capable of manufacturing stencils, decals and stickers to airline livery requirements and complete technical marking sets for any aircraft type. They also produce large scale special event/promotional stickers which can be applied on location. An artist from the unit, more used to who usually decorating Airbus planes, was brought over to create the Just Jane motif.
Ian Macdougald says that no particular lifespan for the painting was specified, but it should last well: “The last paint jobs lasted the best part of 50 years, and we hope the new coating will last well. In the immediate future the plane will only be used for fast taxiing, then when it does fly it will only be in good weather and to a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet.“
“Just Jane” was built by Austin Motors at Longbridge near Birmingham, in April 1945. She was one of the first 150 B Mk VII Avro Lancasters intended to be part of the RAF’s Tiger Force in the Far East. However, Japan’s surrender meant these aircraft were surplus to requirements and, instead of seeing service, NX611 ended up in storage in Wales until 1952.
In April 1952 she was bought by the French Government. Painted midnight blue, she flew maritime patrol for the French Naval Air Arm. Then, painted white, she was used for air sea rescue and cartography. In 1964, the French presented her to the Historical Aircraft Preservation Society and flew her to Sydney where she was overhauled before being flown back to Britain, taking nine days and seventy flying hours to complete the 12,000 mile journey.
This year she will be available for high-speed taxi rides, but hopes are high that she will be able to return to the air in 2018.