Donations will keep North America's only airworthy Lancaster bomber flying

Public support from across the country means Hamilton's Lancaster bomber will keep flying. The Warplane Heritage Museum has raised enough money to begin overhauling engines.

Support from across the country means Hamilton's Lancaster bomber -one of only two still airworthy in the world - will keep flying

Engine overhauls for the Lancaster engines are underway, thanks to a fundraising campaign. (Ian Johnson/CBC)

Fundraising efforts to keep Hamilton's Lancaster bomber in the air are ahead of schedule.

The Warplane Heritage Museum faced a key deadline this week, needing $150,000 of a $500,000 target for pay for engine overhauls of the historic World War II bomber. The museum has already raised $200,000, putting it ahead of schedule on repairs.

 "We're doing very well," said Dave Rohrer, president and CEO of the museum, based at Hamilton's John C. Munro airport.. "We're really pleased with the program."

The fundraising success means the bomber — one of only two of the vintage craft still airworthy — won't miss any flying time during the upcoming flight season. It costs the museum about $500,000 a year for the regular maintenance to keep the aircraft flying. Every few years the engines need an overhaul which costs an additional half million dollars.


That is the money the museum is in need of now. It needs to be able to cycle all of its engines through an overhaul in the next year or so. The first has been done and work is about to begin on the second. "The program is on schedule and on time, but we do need it to continue for the next 14-18 months," said Rohrer.

Grassroots donors

The museum says the support has come from grassroots donors in the Hamilton area and aircraft buffs across the country. "Most of the money is coming from individuals, writing cheques for $1,000 or $1,500," said Rohrer.

"They are coming from our local community, from across Canada. "These are people who have decided there is value in what we do and are backing it up with money."

The largest single donation was from an individual for $15,000, he said. There has been some small corporate support, but Rohrer said the museum is disappointed there hasn't been more from Canada's larger corporate sector.

That is something it hopes to improve.

The fundraising campaign was launched over the winter when the bomber was found to need more extensive repairs. "Each engine on the aircraft has an 800 hour flight time before it requires a major overhaul," Rohrer told CBC Hamilton.

 That works out to an overhaul about every 15 years, based on the roughly 55 hours the museum currently flies the aircraft annually. The museum has one spare Packard Merlin 224 engine for its four-engine Lancaster. As part of the overhaul schedule, the museum swaps out one engine at a time and sends it to a specialized shop in San Jose, Calif., for service. When the engine is rebuilt and returned, it's swapped for the next engine. This process continues until all four engines are finished.

Premature wear

The museum identified some premature metal wear in the No. 1 engine, Rohrer said, which was why it was the first one removed from the aircraft for servicing, but all four engines were due for an overhaul. The Lancaster in Hamilton is one of just two of the famous World War II bombers in the world that are still airworthy. The other is in the UK, owned by the Royal Air Force and flown out of Royal Air Force Coningsby in Lincolnshire.

The costs of keeping the venerable bomber in the air have soared in recent years, making the Lancaster an extremely expensive flying exhibit. Less than 1 per cent of the museum's budget comes from the government. The rest is a combination of private memberships, corporate donations, and money raised through everything from airplane rides to renting out the museum for weddings.

The cost of refurbishing the Lancaster's engines has outstripped the museum's ability to fund the work through regular donations, so it has turned to the public. Tax deductible donations can be made through the museum's website.

With files from the CBC's Ian Johnson.