Hamilton's Lancaster bomber marks 25 years back in the sky

The Lancaster bomber played a key role in turning the tide of the Second World War, and only two are still flying. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of its restoration, Hamilton's aging plane is a handful for the volunteers who work to keep it airworthy.

Volunteers, donations keep WWII bomber airworthy

“She’s my mistress, she’s my passion, my love. And she’s got an attitude like anything – she’s a high-maintenance girl.”

That’s how flight engineer Craig Brookhouse sums up his relationship with the Hamilton Warplane Heritage Museum’s Lancaster, one of only two in the world still flying.

It might seem an odd sentiment to hold for an aging WWII bomber, but Hamilton’s Lancaster, which today celebrates the 25th anniversary of its restoration and return to the skies, is no ordinary aircraft.

Lancaster bomber flight engineer Craig Brookhouse is an engine-builder who runs his own automotive business in Ancaster, Ont. He and started volunteering with the Lancaster flight team as a hobby in 2003. (Ian Johnson/CBC)

“That plane is a Canadian national monument, it’s my girl and it’s Canada’s girl,” Brookhouse says, adding that its cachet goes far beyond the heroics of the air crews and the role the aircraft played in turning the tide of World War II.

“It represents Canada’s aviation heritage at its peak, it was a masterpiece for us to build. Besides the legacy of the Avro Arrow, the Lancaster is one of the most amazing things that Canada pulled off.”

His feelings are echoed by people like David Francis, who journeyed from the UK to Hamilton with a friend just to take a short flight on the bomber this past Sunday. “It was just amazing,” Francis said. “We came here to fly on the Lancaster because it’s the only place in the world you can still do it – that was the reason for our trip.”

John McClenayhan, a commercial pilot who is one of the handful of people trained to take the controls of the Lancaster, feels much the same way.

“My first solo flight, my first helicopter flight, my first jet flight, they were all things I’ll never forget. But nothing I’ve done in the past 20 years of my aviation career compares to flying the Lancaster,” he says. “It’s the plane itself, but it’s also thinking of the people who flew Lancasters during the war and what they went through.”

11-year restoration

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 flying tribute

The Hamilton museum’s Lancaster is dedicated to the memory of Pilot Officer Andrew Charles Mynarski of 419 (Moose) Squadron, 6 (RCAF) Group, who won the Victoria Cross for his bravery. In the early morning hours of June 13, 1944, the Winnipeg native's Lancaster was shot down. Instead of bailing out, Mynarski – his clothes burning – tried to free the trapped rear gunner. The gunner survived the crash, but Mynarski died from the burns.

The museum bought it in 1977 for about $10,000. A team of volunteers led by Norm Etheridge spent 11 years restoring the bomber, and it returned to the air on Sept. 24, 1988.

“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 adds. “The Lancaster is the heart of the museum, and our volunteers do what it takes to keep it going.”

Expensive exhibit

The public’s support for the aircraft is what has kept the plane in the air. Less than one 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 Lancaster, seen here without its WW II-replica paint job, was transported to Hamilton by helicopter for refurbishing in 1978. (Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum)

The Lancaster is an extremely expensive flying exhibit. It costs about half a million dollars a year and requires countless hours of maintenance.

As a result, the plane only spends about 50 hours in the air a year. The museum has put roughly 1,000 hours on the plane in the past two and a half decades.

“This plane flies and it’s a big part of the museum, but we’re also about the restoration and the preservation of the Lancaster,” Brookhouse says. “It’s not a carnival ride. We try to do anything we can to make the plane better, to prolong the life of the aircraft.”

For every 50 hours of flying time, he estimates it takes about 5,000 to 10,000 hours of work behind the scenes.

And that work is done almost exclusively by volunteers.

Most of the maintenance work on the Lancaster bomber is done by volunteers at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton. The plane flies about 50 hours per year, but requires between 5,000 and 10,000 hours of work from the maintenance crew. (Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum)

Brookhouse, for example, runs his own automotive business in Ancaster, Ont. About a decade ago, he got out of auto racing and got involved with the Lancaster flight team as a hobby.

“After CASCAR, I swore I’d never get involved with anything ever again that took all my spare time and Saturdays and weekends away. I walked in here with no expectations and somehow here I am 10 years later.”

He calls it a hobby that turned into a second career.

“I don’t golf, I don’t play sports, I haven’t had holidays since 2007. This is my life, absolutely, and there are days when I’m exhausted from working on the plane, but then I just can’t wait to get back here again, I really can’t. This is a passion for me and a lot of people here.”

The problem with the Lancaster is that with only two flying planes, it’s not like we can network with a lot of other people for expertise and parts, the way they can with 737s and 767s.- Craig Brookhouse, flight engineer

Those people include a crew of more than 20 regular volunteers - people with day jobs as well as retirees - who are at the museum several days a week in some cases, maintaining and troubleshooting.

“The problem with the Lancaster is that with only two flying planes, it’s not like we can network with a lot of other people for expertise and parts, the way they can with 737s and 767s,” Brookhouse says.

As a result, the team is constantly on the lookout for talented people willing to put in the years of commitment necessary to learn about the plane and carry that knowledge from the previous generation to the next.

“They’re all doing what they can,” says Brookhouse. “They have different skill sets, everything from cleaning parts to organization, to people relentlessly searching for parts, to guys like myself and the other flight engineer who do the mechanical and engine work.”

There are manufacturers and companies that get involved, too, from hydraulic shops to fuel line suppliers.

“And there’s the kid who sees the plane and sends us a letter with a $5 donation. So it’s not just the volunteers here, there are lots of people outside the museum that see the dedication and want to help out.”

Endless challenges

Even with that help, the Lancaster’s team has faced major challenges over the past 25 years.

The most severe was a 1993 hangar fire that destroyed the museum’s engineering records and all ground and maintenance equipment, along with five planes including a Spitfire and Hurricane. The Lancaster was damaged by falling debris from the flaming roof, but was saved by the efforts of firefighters.

Then there are the inevitable mechanical issues with an antique aircraft:

  • In 2009, the museum had to track down new propellers and raise $100,000 to cover the bill.
  • In April 2012, a wingtip failed in flight and the Lancaster had to make an emergency landing.
  • In 2013, premature engine wear forced the museum to accelerate its engine overhaul schedule and appeal to the public for funds. Rebuilding the four Packard Merlin 224 engines costs about $500,000 and the museum is still trying to raise $125,000 to cover the last of that work.

The most recent hurdle was simply getting aviation fuel when the airport’s regular provider decided it was no longer economical to supply the relatively small amount needed by the museum each year.

A disastrous 1993 hangar fire destroyed the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum's engineering records and all ground and maintenance equipment, along with five vintage planes including a Spitfire and Hurricane. The Lancaster was damaged by falling debris from the flaming roof, but was saved by the efforts of firefighters. (Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum)

“We plan ahead where we can on things like maintenance and parts, but there always seems to be something unexpected to deal with,” says Mickeloff.

The Lancaster team’s latest worry is rather mundane, next to things like engines and propellers, but no less pressing: Tires.

They get two to three years from a set of tires, and they're on their last set now.

“We can’t just go out and buy new ones because they’re not made anymore," Brookhouse says. "There are only two flying Lancasters left, and it doesn’t pay the tire companies to make tires for them.”

He says the museum is hoping it can team up with the UK’s Royal Air Force to persuade a manufacturer to produce a new batch of custom tires.

Like an angel

Even if the tire issue gets solved, Brookhouse admits that at some point age will inevitably force the Lancaster to become a permanent ground exhibit.

"It’s an amazing, amazing, amazing feeling when you look out at the four Merlins buzzing away - she’s got a soul, she’s got her wings wrapped around you," says flight engineer Craig Brookhouse, describing what it's like to fly in the Lancaster bomber.

“What’s the life expectancy of a Lancaster airframe? Nobody knows … in some ways I kind of hope I’m on the last flight crew on it, because I don’t know if I'll be able to just hand it over to the next crew. But I’m sure the last crew said exactly the same thing,” he laughs.

Either way, Mickeloff says the museum’s volunteers will continue to do what they can for as long as they can to keep the Lancaster airworthy.

“They couldn’t pay me for this, and I feel I should be paying them. I mean, look what I’m doing,” Brookhouse adds.

“It’s an amazing, amazing, amazing feeling when you look out at the four Merlins buzzing away - she’s got a soul, she’s got her wings wrapped around you. She’s like an angel and she’s hanging on to you and she’s going to get you there. And you’ve got the 60 per cent of Bomber Command that didn’t make it back - they’re on your wingtips as well.”


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