BOMBER TRIBUTE TO LOST BROTHER
Two farming brothers, a World War II plane and a disused airfield are drawing visitors to the Lincs village of East Kirkby. Mike Stones tells their story
MORE than 50 years ago the flat fields of Lincolnshire thundered to the throaty roar of Rolls-Royce Merlin aero-engines. Powering fighters and bombers, the sound of a Merlin stopped people in fields and streets, drawing upward glances and gasps of admiration.
Four more Merlins can now be heard in the county, thanks to the efforts of two Lincs farming brothers. The engines are mounted aboard a 53-year-old Avro Lancaster bomber which the brothers have restored to taxiing condition.
Poultry producers Fred and Harold Panton have a special personal reason for restoring the plane immortalised by wing commander Guy Gibsons Dambusters raid. Their story starts with a tragedy one March night 53 years ago. On that night their elder brother Christopher, a flight sergeant with No. 433 squadron, was killed when his Halifax bomber was shot down during a raid on the German town of Nuremburg.
Nearly 30 years later, Freds father asked him to visit Christophers grave near Durnbach, Munich. It was that visit and a chance remark in their broiler house that started the brothers on their quest to buy a piece of Britains aviation heritage.
"Someone showed me a newspaper article about the sale of a Lancaster bomber that was to be sold at Squires Gate airfield outside Blackpool. That gave us the idea of buying the bomber as a tribute to Christopher," says Fred.
But it was another 15 years before they managed to buy the bomber. Meanwhile, the brothers devoted their time to building their poultry farming partnership which started with 100 day-old Blackleg Horne pullet chicks and five Rhode Island Red cockerels. Eventually the business, centred on the disused East Kirkby airfield, expanded to include 300,000 broilers.
During those years the bomber never left their thoughts. Eventually they managed to buy the plane which had been a gate guardian at RAF Scampton, home of the Dambusters squadron. "It was a great day when it arrived dismantled on a road transporter," remembers Harold, grinning with pride.
At first there were no plans to restore the aircraft to taxiing condition. "We were just pleased to have the bomber," continues Harold. But wouldnt it be a challenge, they thought, to restore just one of the 50-year-old engines?
Taking up that challenge were vintage aero-engine specialist Ian Hickling and Roy Jarman. Ian, who learnt his trade with the RAFs Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, recalls their daunting task. "It was a mammoth job restoring an engine, the port inner, that had not run for 20 years. One slip with the fuel system could have torched the aircraft."
After reconditioning the cylinder block, reduction gear and super charger, the great engine was ready to run. They expected restoration to take six weeks. In the end it took three months.
But it was worth it when the big three-bladed Hamilton propeller began to spin. "It was terrific when a Lancasters Merlin was heard on this airfield for the first time in nearly 50 years," says Harold.
After succeeding with one engine, they couldnt resist pressing ahead with the other three Merlins. Months of painstaking work on the engines and undercarriage came before Just Jane taxied for the first time in 23 years. Fred remembers the day with undisguised pride. "I just cant express what it was like to see Just Jane roll under her own power for the first time in 23 years on the 50th anniversary of VJ day in 1995."
She will fly one day
Asking Fred and Harold whether Just Jane will fly again makes their backs stiffen. Fred answers slowly for them both. "We havent made our minds up yet. Im certain she will fly one day. But it will take much more work to restore her old air frame."
For now, watching Just Jane taxi is enough. Both brothers acknowledge the unstinting support their families have given them.
"Its been a big commitment, not just for ourselves but for our families too," says Fred. "We could have retired or taken several world cruises with the money weve poured into Just Jane. But its worth it as a memorial to all those young men who died to give us 50 years of peace."
Poultry farmers Fred and Harold Panton bought the Lancaster bomber in 1989 and set about restoring the engines.
The 53-year-old wartime bomber has been restored to taxiing condition. Making it airworthy will be a huge task, though, admit the brothers.
"It was terrific when a Lancasters Merlin engine was heard on this airfield for the first time in nearly 50 years," says Fred Panton (right).
Lancaster B MK V11 "Just Jane" key facts
Engines:Four Rolls Royce Merlin 24 engines
each delivering 1640hp and driving
three-bladed Hamilton constant speed
CrewSeven, including pilot, navigator,
flight engineer, wireless operator,
bomb aimer, mid upper gunner and
ArmamentFront turret: two Browning .303
machine guns, rear turret four .303s
and mid upper position two .303s.
DimensionsSpan 102ft, Length 69ft 11in. Height
20ft 6in. Wing area 1300sq ft.
WeightTare weight 37,330 lb (with dorsal
turret removed). Max all up weight
72,000lb. Max landing weight
60,000lb. Max bomb load 18,000lb.
Number built7377, including 430 in Canada
Number still airworthyTwo