Here at Southampton we love our historic past. Being the home of the Spitfire it’s pretty hard not to appreciate the sounds of a Merlin engine gracing the skies above the site of the old Supermarine works. One Merlin is a sound synonymous with grace but 4?! Perfect!
The 17th August will live with me for a long time as it’s the day I ticked off No 33 on my bucket list: “Sit in the left hand seat of a Lancaster.”
The BBMF based themselves with us for a few days whilst they attended a few air shows around the region and brought in their Lancaster (Phantom of the Ruhr) and Spitfire (PR XIX) “The Last.” This Spitfire is pretty special as it was built here in Southampton, although it was born too late to enter the war in a combat role. The Spitfire currently wears the livery of PS888 which was the last (Hence the name!) Spitfire to carry out an operational sortie for the RAF in 1954.
Appreciating the sight and sound of the Lanc, I thought I would take a wander down to Signature Flight Support after work to have a look round the outside of this magnificent piece of British engineering. Its also fantastic to wander around it without those annoying barriers they put up at air shows… lets call it a perk of the job!
As I got there, the BBMF flight engineers were luckily readying her for one of her displays. A chance not to be missed so I went straight in for the kill… “Please sir, can I have a look inside?!” (or words to that effect!) And he said yes! Great!
Clambering up the rear steps, the first thing that hits you is the space in the fuselage. Or lack of. It’s hard to imagine climbing into this beast fully kitted up and ready to go to war. First stop was the rear turret. A lonely part of the aeroplane with no real protection apart from your guns. I was told that the plexi glass wasn’t even bullet proof…
Next stop after clambering over the ammo trays (9 yards long – hence the phrase “give them the whole 9 yards.”) was the upper turret. Unfortunately due to the impracticality, I couldn’t get up there. Didn’t really look like a comfortable place to be anyway – the seat is an improvised sling suspended in the air, likened to sitting on a piece of dental floss. Make up your own mind!
After squeezing over the wing spar we got to the navigator and radio operator station. A plethora of dials left me slightly confused and in awe of how these guys managed to accurately navigate in the dark using basic instrumentation, a pencil and a map. Puts me and my GPS to shame!
Final stop – the holy grail. The magical left hand seat. The visibility was fantastic. 2 Merlins to the left and 2 to the right and 19m of sheet metal to the rear leading to those distinctive twin tail planes. I could have sat there for hours trying to imagine what those brave young men went through on a typical bombing sortie. The noise, the smell of cordite, the cold. Unimaginable. The last thing to strike me as I left the captains seat was a pang of sadness. Imagine trying to escape a burning Lanc wearing a parachute and a full flying jacket. I struggled to get in and out wearing the usual work attire. You can see why only a claimed 15% of Lancaster crews managed to escape…
So, onto bucket list No34 – Fly in a Lancaster!