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Just Jane: The 70-year-old, 16 tonne, flight of fancy

By Greig Watson
BBC News

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  • World War Two
image copyrightneil smith
image captionIt may weigh more than two elephants but the Pantons are determined Just Jane will fly

With the spotlight on a pair of World War Two Lancaster bombers touring the UK, a farming family are trying to restore their own bomber so it can take to the sky.

The Panton family have a dream, A very expensive, very laborious but incredibly precious dream.

They have a Lancaster - after the Spitfire, arguably the most famous aircraft Britain has ever produced - and they want to make it fly.

It is no piece of whimsy or ego - the Pantons want Just Jane to take to the skies as a tribute to the men who flew in World War Two and especially Christopher, the brother who did not come back.

image copyrightLincolnshire Aviation Heritage Museum
image captionChristopher Panton was shot down and killed on a bombing raid over Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944

His younger siblings Fred and Harold grew up on stories of the war and when they saw a surplus Lancaster for sale, bought it almost on impulse.

Fortunately part of the family's Lincolnshire farm included the old East Kirkby airfield, including a derelict control tower and other buildings.

image copyrightLincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre
image captionAircraft NX611 spent much of the 1980s outside RAF Scampton but was kept in relatively good shape

Fred died last year but Harold keenly remembers the early days.

"We had the hanger to keep it in but we were busy with the farm so we just came to look at it on wet days," he said.

"Then one time, years later, this chap came up and said he had just retired from the RAF and he had heard we had a Lancaster and could he have a look?"

The first engine ran four months later. Then, hour by hour, piston by piston, room by room, life returned to the airfield and the aircraft. The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Museum opened in 1988.

As well as the bomber, the control tower was restored, a cafe built, displays assembled and a chapel dedicated.

"We keep it looking nice for the visitors," says Harold. "Its about respect. For the men that flew, the men that served on the ground and the people who come today to remember them."

Almost all of the centre's 40,000 visitor are stopped in their tracks by Just Jane, weighing 16 tonnes and with a wingspan of 102ft (31.09m), almost the length of three tennis courts.

image captionAndrew Panton jokes the aircraft is a 'reverse Tardis' - huge on the outside but tiny on the inside

In the hangar, surrounded by the smell of oil and rubber, Andrew Panton, also stares at Just Jane.

As the third family generation to be involved in the project, he knows better than anyone the scale of the task. But he has a surprise.

"It will fly," he says. "It is in a mechanical condition to fly, the engines are good, all the flight controls are connected up.

"For filming in 2001 we got the plane going fast enough to have the back wheel leave the ground and the emergency plan - if we couldn't stop - was to actually take off.

"So you could, in theory, just pull back on the stick and go.

"The problem is you would have no guarantee of how long it would last before something important broke. And you would have a lot of difficult questions to answer when you got back."

image copyrightPaul King
image captionTaxi runs are one of the main attractions for the privately owned and run aviation centre

What they need is a Certificate of Airworthiness.

To get this, the aircraft has to be taken apart, everything cleaned, visually checked, any broken bits fixed, key components screened with x-rays and ultrasound for internal weakness, everything put back together and then tested. And they need lots of spares.

But all of this costs, so Just Jane has to earn her keep. The balance - which Andrew admits is "tricky"- is between restoring the Lancaster and earning the money to do so.

The main money-spinner is thunderously loud, bone-shaking, taxi rides down the runway. Marketed as an unmatched experience for the aviation enthusiast, the £300 a head trips happen twice a week.

image copyrightAir Frame Photography
image captionVisitors get a view they may have only ever seen before in movies and books

In between, a steady stream of visitors get to poke about inside. While all this happens, work on the engineering stops.

Andrew says they have spent £750,000 so far and estimates it will take another £3m to make Just Jane airworthy.

Facing bills like that, surely the Heritage Lottery Fund is an option?

Andrew pulls a face: "This is our project, I want us to see her take off and say 'we did that'.

"You go for funding and you lose a lot of control - as well as filling out a lot of forms."

image captionEvery one of Just Jane's countless components has to be inspected to make sure it is safe to fly

So, playing Fantasy Aircraft Restoration for a second, if they had bottomless pockets and no pesky public to worry about, when would Just Jane fly?

"18 months," he says, with a promptness which suggests he mutters it to himself on a regular basis.

And back to reality, with the practicalities imposed, how long before those tyres leave the ground?

"We have been keen not to set a timescale because if you give a date you are held to it and that creates a lot of pressure."

The Lancaster bomber

image copyrightSAC Adam Fletcher

The next problem, Andrew says, is finding the bits: "It is very difficult to track parts down but it is surprising what someone can have in their garage."

Building a Lancaster bomber took an estimated 500,000 manufacturing operations. A Merlin engine alone has 11,000 parts, there are about 30,000 rivets just in the external bodywork.

"It's the best job in the world," says Keith Brenchley, one of the lucky two full time engineers tasked with rebuilding the plane.

"Yes, when you walk in the hangar and see it towering up, you kind of gulp at the scale of the job, but what a job."

image captionThe centre employs only two full time engineers but also has a number of volunteers to work on restoration

Stood together, looking at Just Jane, Andrew and Keith glow with pride. With all the time, effort and emotion that goes into the aircraft, is it difficult to let people climb all over it?

Andrew nods: "When you seen a bit of panel flex as it gets stood on, you can't help but wince."

Keith jokes: "When someone climbs in and bangs their head - when we say 'Mind your head', we really mean, 'Mind the aircraft'."

And the museum team is to shortly host a moment not seen in the UK for nearly 60 years.

The Canadian Lancaster, visiting the UK for the first time, and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Lancaster, will fly over the airfield as Just Jane taxis down the runway - apparently the first time three Lancasters have run together in Britain since the filming of Dam Busters, released in 1955.

Is Andrew disappointed Just Jane will not be joining them in the skies?

"Of course," he says. "But who is to say the Canadian Lancaster will not come back one day?"

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