Lancasters Hit Civvy Street: Air Force, Part 39

June 19, 2010 by Hugh A. Halliday
Lancaster MN-976 handled various postwar duties. [PHOTO: JOHN FREDERICK McNULTY, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA209220]

Lancaster MN-976 handled various postwar duties.
PHOTO: JOHN FREDERICK McNULTY, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA209220

Many Second World War aircraft became object lessons in beating swords into ploughshares.  Once the Cold War developed, many such ploughshares were hastily reconverted to swords.  Such was the case of the Avro Lancaster in Royal Canadian Air Force postwar service.

There was no shortage of Lancasters in Canada in the summer of 1945. Victory Aircraft in Toronto had manufactured 430, of which the last 25 had never gone overseas. Eight RCAF squadrons—some quickly converted from Halifaxes to Lancasters—had flown back to Canada in June 1945. In preparation for RCAF operations in the Pacific as part of a Commonwealth Tiger Force, 664 Wing was formed at Greenwood, N.S. The war’s end led to disbandment of the wing, even before its flying training had begun. Air Vice-Marshal C.R. Slemon, the designated commander of the RCAF component, reported to Greenwood, thanked the men for having volunteered, and wished them well in peacetime, all in a single day. Most of the Lancasters were placed in storage, pending final disposition.

In all, 229 Lancasters passed through RCAF inventory over the next 19 years. Many wound up as scrap metal in 1947. Some were battle veterans from overseas with too much airframe time to make them attractive for postwar service.

Adaptation and alteration of Lancasters began almost immediately after the war. Starting in September 1945, the Test and Development Establishment at Rockcliffe in Ottawa experimented with propeller alcohol de-icers on KB739—the first of many Lancaster modification trials over the years. Lancs needed much modification before they could be used domestically. Even when adapted for military duties, such as anti-submarine operations, interior crew positions had to be changed while dorsal turrets were removed. Avro Canada, the successor to Victory Aircraft, did most of this work until 1951 when Fairey Aviation of Canada became prominent.

With one exception, all postwar RCAF Lancs were Canadian-built Mark 10s. They were designated according to their diverse roles and all were modified to some degree to meet the requirements of their tasks.

Lancaster 10AR: Specially adapted for Arctic reconnaissance, similar to the Mk.10P with extended nose and rear observation windows. There were three of these.

Lancaster 10BR: Maritime reconnaissance aircraft with added fuel capacity, radar torpedoes and depth charges.

Lancaster 10DC: Two only, to carry two under-wing Ryan Firebee recoverable target drones.

Lancaster 10MR and 10MP:
Maritime reconnaissance and patrol versions with nose and tail turrets, sonobuoy capacity, rear-facing F.24 camera, extra fuel tanks, depth charges, radio and radar navigation aids.

Lancaster 10N: Unarmed navigation trainer; five modified of which four were given “heavenly” names: Northern Cross, Polaris, Zenith, and Orion.

Lancaster 10O: Engine test bed; one only, modified by removal of two outer Merlins and replacement with two Orenda jet engines.

Lancaster 10P:
Photographic survey and reconnaissance, with no armament, multiple cameras, extra fuel, high- and low-level radio altimeters, and extensive navigational aids.

Lancaster 10S:
Standard postwar bomber with mid-upper turret removed.

Lancaster 10U: Unmodified wartime bomber.

The sole Mk. 3 in Canadian service was EE182. It arrived here in 1944 for winterization trials and stayed on until March 1948 when it was scrapped. EE182 was widely viewed in wartime North America. When not flying in sub-arctic conditions, it was visiting Victory Aircraft or taking part in public relations flights. It occasionally flew to the United States on demonstration missions at major bases. Squadron Leader Stanley O. Partridge flew it through much of this phase of its career, and checked out 84 American service and civilian pilots on the type, even without dual controls.

The first Lancs pressed into peacetime service were two operated by 7 (Photographic) Wing, Rockcliffe. The RCAF was about to resume one of its major prewar tasks—aerial mapping of the vast Canadian hinterland. Much had changed since 1939—aircraft, cameras, navigational aids. More than anything else, however, the techniques of aerial survey had been altered by wartime experience. Prewar Bellanca and Northrop aircraft had photographed relatively small areas from 5,000 to 7,000 feet. Lancasters and Mitchells could devour large tracts from 15,000 to 22,000 feet using combinations of vertical and oblique cameras.

Personnel service the outer starboard engine of a Lanc in 1948. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA065859]

Personnel service the outer starboard engine of a Lanc in 1948.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA065859

Initially, few Lancs were used; the machines had to be adapted to their new non-belligerent roles and changes often begat new problems requiring more tinkering. Removal of the rear turret, for example, required its replacement with 600 pounds of ballast. Early experience with 13 Sqdn. (later 413 Sqdn.) revealed alarming characteristics. One pilot reported having to apply full elevator trim and to push the stick fully forward to maintain a standard landing approach. Other defects had to be overcome, from camera lens fogging at altitude to navigational anomalies in the proximity of the North Magnetic Pole.

The Lancs were called upon to perform other duties. On Aug. 14, 1948, FM218 of 413 Sqdn. figured in a rare piece of high drama. From Goose Bay, Labrador, it was “scrambled” when a TCA North Star, en route from Britain, reported double engine failure. The Lanc met the airliner one hour after takeoff and provided escort back to Goose Bay.

The Air Navigation School Lancasters were equipped with long-range fuel tanks which enabled them to remain airborne for 18 hours—almost triple that of a wartime bombing mission. This made them useful long-range training and research aircraft. On May 2, 1949, Zenith (Lancaster FM211) was employed in a historic mission—the first RCAF flight over the North Geographic Pole. Starting from Whitehorse, it alighted on an ice airstrip at Kittigazuit, N.W.T., close to the Beaufort Sea. Although the pilot, Flight Lieutenant John Moss, was an RAF exchange officer, the mission commander was the chief navigator, Sqdn. Leader William L. Gillespie. After servicing and refuelling, Zenith flew a track down latitude 133 west to the North Geographic Pole and returned to Kittigazuit, having been airborne 14 hours.

The onset of the Cold War did not immediately affect Lancaster deployment in Canada; the formation of NATO in April 1949 had a greater impact. Concern for a possible Soviet submarine threat led to formation of three maritime reconnaissance squadrons. The first—405 Sqdn.—formed at Greenwood on March 31, 1950. It operated Lancasters until November 1955 when the type was finally superseded by the Lockheed Neptune. No. 404 Sqdn. was formed at Greenwood in April 1951 and flew Lancasters until September 1955. Just over a year later, 407 Sqdn. was formed at Comox, B.C., operating Lancasters until May 1959.

Retrieval of Lancasters from storage and rapid modification to the maritime reconnaissance role may have been rushed, at least in the case of 405 Sqdn. Engine failures were frequent, often at remote places. On Aug. 19, 1950, FM221 had both port engines fail on final approach to Resolute Bay and crashed just short of the runway. Fortunately, there was only one injury.

The most publicized postwar RCAF Lancaster accident had nothing to do with technical problems. On July 31, 1950, KB965 was detailed to drop two batches of supplies from 1,000 feet to the Canadian forces station at Alert on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. One parachute caught on the port elevator and fouled the controls. There was no room to recover and the Lanc crashed, killing Wing Commander D.T. French and seven others. Other tragic Lancaster accidents involved FM102 of 404 Sqdn. It crashed on July 22, 1952, following a collision with a Vampire jet. Seven died, including the fighter pilot. KB914 of 405 Sqdn. crashed in Labrador on Feb. 1, 1952, killing six; KB940 of 407 Sqdn. crashed Nov. 24, 1952, eight died, including a civilian; KB966 of 103 Search and Rescue Unit, Greenwood, went down on April 20, 1953, six died; and KB995 of 407 Sqdn. crashed May 26, 1953, 10 killed.

Lancaster squadrons on maritime reconnaissance and ice patrols faced a variety of climates. Atlantic coast crews might find themselves operating in Greenland, where fierce winds were known to blow aircraft out of their chocks. By way of compensation, the men might shortly afterwards be engaged in joint exercises with British or American forces around Bermuda. Likewise, Pacific coast crews, following detached duties on arctic reconnaissance, might be sent to California for manoeuvres.

At one time or another, all three maritime reconnaissance squadrons dispatched Lancaster detachments to Britain to train alongside Coastal Command units; stations like St. Eval or Londonderry sometimes had upwards of 35 RAF and RCAF Lancs present, reminding some veterans of the Bomber Command bases in 1945.

Postwar work for Lancaster MN-207 included aerial surveys. [PHOTO: NATIONAL DEFENCE—PL102456]

Postwar work for Lancaster MN-207 included aerial surveys.
PHOTO: NATIONAL DEFENCE—PL102456

An example of such operations was 405 Squadron’s deployment to Britain in May 1951 for one-month attachment to RAF Coastal Command. The unit took part in three exercises—Progress, June 3-7; Turner Way, June 12-19; Velox, June 25-27. Progress was especially intense. The exercise was at the behest of the French navy, with ships provided by Britain, Denmark, France, Holland and Norway and aircraft by the French, British and Canadians. The objective was to test communications in an air/sea multinational and multilingual context. The Lancasters flew 23 sorties, shared among the three squadrons and each lasting eight to 10 hours. They made 26 submarine sightings—seven by 405 Sqdn., all of them using Eyeball Mk. I rather than radar.

Commanding officers shamelessly used the Lancaster’s fame for public relations and indoctrination of service pride. On Feb. 21, 1958, 407 Sqdn. mobilized 12 Lancasters for a flypast on the departure of a popular base commander.

Photographic and maritime patrol Lancasters were occasionally diverted to mercy missions, such as evacuation of sick Inuit from northern communities. However, search and rescue were the main tasks of specialist flights across the country employing a variety of aircraft. Mercy and SAR flights were sometimes dramatic, but most were routine affairs. Occasionally an incident stands out from the official record by virtue of courage displayed or peculiar circumstances.

The latter category includes an incident on Oct. 10, 1954, when FM213 of 107 Rescue Unit, Torbay, Nfld., was detailed to drop plasma at night to a vessel. The pilot, Flying Officer J.K. Vincer released the package on his third pass. His accuracy was phenomenal, for although the plasma package was lost, the parachute and a marine marker were recovered on the deck of the ship. The following day, Flying Officer J.P. Davies in FM104 found the ship in zero visibility and made another plasma drop. This time the package was retrieved from the sea by a lifeboat.

The Lanc’s range was its best asset. It greatest drawback was its weight. Nothing demonstrated this more than a dramatic mission flown on March 3, 1950. Its object was the evacuation of a 10-year old Inuit boy from Clyde River on the Northeast coast of Baffin Island. The officer commanding 103 Search and Rescue Flight, Sqdn. Ldr. W.A.G. McLeish, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, undertook the task in FM228. Only a Lancaster had the necessary range. However, no previous attempt had ever been made by the RCAF to land an aircraft of this size on an unknown and unprepared ice surface.

Ice is notoriously unreliable; even Arctic ice is tricky, for it may be weakened by currents or pressure shifts; a dusting of snow can hide jagged ridges and deep fissures. The snow itself is difficult to gauge in terms of depth or texture. In these circumstances, the Lancaster crew risked everything from being marooned with the patient to a serious crash.

Lowering the aircraft’s undercarriage, McLeish made two passes over the intended landing area, dragging his wheels in the snow to test its depth. Having elected to land, he brought his aircraft down literally an inch at a time, prepared to take off again if the snow drag on the undercarriage became too great. He did not close his throttle until he felt solid ice under the wheels. The ice surface was rough, however, and as the aircraft lost speed, it was subjected to violent jolting. Once down, McLeish had to apply more than 50 per cent power to taxi. The patient was emplaned and a direct flight to Goose Bay was uneventful. The incident capped a series of rescues by this officer, and McLeish was awarded an Air Force Cross. None of his crew received similar recognition, although they must have sat with white knuckles as he touched down at Clyde River.

The two Firebee-toting Lancasters were part of an armament testing and development program relating to the CF-100 Mk. 6. The work, directed by the RCAF’s Central Experimental and Proving Establishment, moved at a glacial pace from June 1955 to February 1957.

Another unusual aircraft was FM209. It was modified to take two Orenda jet engines in lieu of the two outer Merlins. The first flight was on July 13, 1950, the Mk.10O logged some 500 hours from then until July 1954, often using the Orendas alone. It was destroyed in a hangar fire at Malton, Ont.

On April 8, 1964, the Lancaster was ceremoniously retired at Station Downsview. Surviving machines were dispatched as static display machines. Preserving them has since proved a challenge. Lancaster FM104 spent 30 years on display near Ontario Place in Toronto. Deterioration was well underway when it was removed from its plinth and transferred to the Toronto Aerospace Museum for restoration. In 1977, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum near Hamilton acquired FM213 and by 1988 had restored it to flying condition. Its original identity has been literally “painted out” by applying the serial and markings of KB726, the aircraft associated with 419 Sqdn. and Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski’s Victoria Cross heroism. It is now a frequent visitor to air shows. Lancaster FM159, retired from maritime patrol in 1958, was acquired two years later by citizens of Nanton, Alta., who paid $513 to save it from the scrapyard. Restored to wartime configuration, it is now the centrepiece of the Nanton Lancaster Society Air Museum. Although not a flying example, at least two of its engines have been reconditioned to running order.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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