Her entrance was unmistakable.
Hamilton's Lancaster bomber, nicknamed Vera because of its flight initials, VRA, displayed on the fuselage, swooped from behind the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum right at noon Sunday to signal she was home. Hundreds of people gathered for the plane's homecoming whooped and cheered, eager for the 1940s-era bomber to be home after a seven-week trip to the U.K.
"It sounded like a bridge too far when we first started talking about it," said museum CEO and today's pilot, David Rohrer. "Challenges logistically, financially, the weather, accommodations, the team we needed to put together — it sounded like it might be too big a project for us. But in true Canadian style, here we are!"
Rohrer said the trip has been full of emotion and significance throughout its journeys through the U.K., with stops in Iceland and Greenland and in Labrador and Quebec on the way home.
"But there was nothing like getting the Hamilton altimeter setting," he said Sunday afternoon. "I said, 'Hamilton, boys! We're home!'"
The plane is one of two airworthy Avro Lancasters in the world. The Canadian plane went to meet up with the U.K. Lancaster to tour British air shows this summer.
The last time Lancasters flew together was 50 years ago over Toronto, at RCAF Station Downsview. The RCAF flew a special formation of three of the bombers in April 1964 to mark their retirement from service.
Hamilton's Mynarski Memorial Avro Lancaster Mk X bomber was built at Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ont., in 1945. Used to train air crews and later for coastal patrols and search-and-rescue work, it was retired in 1963.
A symbol rebuilt
The museum bought it in 1977 for about $10,000. A team of volunteers led by Royal Navy aeronautical builder Norm Etheridge spent 11 years restoring the bomber, and it returned to the air on Sept. 24, 1988.
Etheridge, who lives in Milton, Ont., was at the museum Sunday to watch its landing.
The plane has even more special significance for him. His wife, Mary Etheridge, died in March. He sent her ashes with the plane to be spread in the U.K.
"In a way, I feel I'm responsible for all this," Etheridge said. "Because I was the one in charge, you see? It was my job."
After the flight, Etheridge handed a big manila envelope to Rohrer. It had plans inside for the rebuilding effort.
"You've flown the airplane, but you don't know how it was built," Etheridge said. "Here you go."
The journey home
The homeward journey has taken a few days, including a couple of delays in Iceland due to weather. The plane arrived in Labrador Friday and in Quebec Saturday. Thousands of people have seen Canada's Lancaster throughout the tour.
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The Lancaster was grounded in the U.K. after an engine was shut down mid-flight. Plumes of smoke billowed along the fuselage as it landed at Durham Tees Airport in northern England.
Repairs were done at the airport before the plane flew to Coningsby, 250 kilometres away. Hamilton's Lancaster rejoined the other airworthy Lancaster Bomber.
The bill for the repairs, the borrowed engine and getting it back to the U.K. is likely to be between about $180,000 and $200,000.
Fresh off the plane, Rohrer said he's not too worried about finding a way to cover the bill.
"We'll find a way; we always do," Rohrer said.
The plane's significance
Sunday wasn't the first time a crowd has shown up to see Vera.
"On the day of that first flight, we thought we'd get a couple of hundred people at the airfield to watch," says Al Mickeloff, spokesman for the museum. "About 20,000 showed up."
"Some people thought the Lancaster would never fly again, and when we made it happen, it changed our whole organization," Mickeloff said. "The Lancaster is the heart of the museum, and our volunteers do what it takes to keep it going."
Rohrer said he expects it will take a few days for the trip to sink in. But in the meantime, the experience has reinforced some of his Canadian pride.
"We have values, we have beliefs in this country that we hold dear," Rohrer said. "That act of service and commitment and duty and valour when required is something we should never forget."