Technically, an impossible view of the Air Bomber’s compartment of NX611 ‘Just Jane’. Spacious and claustrophobic at the same time.
I decided to delay this post until today, as its the 2nd anniversary of Dad passing away.
This time last year, I was utterly overwhelmed to receive a taxi ride voucher for ‘Just Jane’ as a wedding anniversary present from my wonderful wife Bev – made slightly embarrassing I must confess, by the small fact that I totally forgot the anniversary. I have to admit that my initial elation was tempered by the realisation that I was going to have to wait a year and a day to do it………..
Across a year, you remember and forget appointments and I have to confess that I occasionally forgot or put to the side this event, however as it got closer, I began to have mixed feelings about it. I never thought I didn’t want to do it, though perhaps, guilty of over-thinking things as is sometimes my want, I began to mix up the visit to East Kirkby with my thoughts about the loss of Dad and my frustration with knowing so little about his time with the Squadron, apart from all that I have discovered myself. It’s not as if I was expecting him to materialise next to me, but in some respects, the opportunity to sit in the Air Bomber’s nacelle, were he sat and see the view from it, as he had, made me feel like I was closer than I had so far been to a part of him that I never knew. I had no idea how I was going to feel or react to this and perhaps the fact it was going to occur in a very public setting, with others in the aircraft and smiling throngs outside waving at me, made me feel increasingly uncomfortable about it – I suppose I was having difficulty reconciling what might be a deeply personal and emotional experience with what, perhaps to others was a bit of a joy ride.
On arrival at East Kirkby on Saturday morning, my mood was not helped. Just as I arrived, Jane was taxiing back after her first run – I was met with her facing me, Merlins at 18,000rpm, sounding utterly magnificent – I had to blink the wetness from my eye and try to swallow the lump in my throat……..
Having registered, it was just a case of kicking my heels till the rest of the family arrived and it was time for the pre-taxi briefing.
Bev and the family arrived and I think it was clear that I was anxious and distracted, we spoke, but it felt to be honest as if I was killing time a little.
At 12.15 it was time for the pre-taxi briefing and although inevitable, it felt a little strange to be having a health and safety lecture prior to getting into a Bomber – but there we are. Suddenly our hosts moved onto the matter of the crew positions we would be occupying – my heart was in my mouth – I WAS going to be in the front of the aircraft, but now sat with other people, not knowing their motivations for being there that afternoon, I had no idea what right or priority I might have. Thankfully and perhaps based on experience and sensitivities understood, the first question was simply
‘Is there anybody here today that had a relative in Bomber Command?’
I and an other chap put our hands up. I am, perhaps in hindsight a little ashamed to admit that at that point I suddenly felt a sense of superiority – I was here for a ‘proper’ reason. I despise people with this sort of attitude, but I have to be honest I did feel it. We were asked what positions our relatives flew and whether we wished to take them – my colleagues father was a Wireless Operator – and yes, we did thank you very much……..
Once the remaining positions had been agreed we walked out of the briefing room and onto the hanger apron – going closer to Jane than I had ever been allowed to before.
As ‘Air Bomber’ I get in first – the simple explanation being that the inside of the aircraft is so small we have to literally get on in the linear order of positions we will occupy – there is little easy chance to move around each other once in – I consider this and find it difficult to believe – but having walked up 5 steps and stepped into the rear fuselage, it actually feels like a massive understatement – the fuselage is stupidly narrow and as my eyes grow accustomed to the darkness I realise that not only is it tight where I am stood, it actually funnels up to what seems the very distant bright pool of light inside the cockpit.
Making my way gingerly through the aircraft I realise that almost immediately I am climbing up a series of steps in the floor – progressively reducing the distance between floor and ceiling. I am aware of the issues associated with traversing the main wing spar, but when I get to it, its even more ridiculous than I imagined. I had thought it would be perhaps a thinnish girder running across the floor. In fact, its more like a small coffee table – it’s not about stepping over or through the space, its actually about rather inelegantly sitting, sliding and pulling yourself over it. First in and dignity intact, but only just, I stand in the cockpit and immediately am struck with its bright airiness and also it’s terrifyingly exposed feeling. We take it in turns sitting in the pilots seat and feeling the controls – surprisingly light and I find it amazing since the linkages to the control surfaces are all mechanical. With my heart pounding, I negotiate the small opening at the right hand side of the cockpit control bulkhead and slide down into the Air Bombers compartment.
I lean forward, my knees on the cushions that cover the emergency escape hatch and rather self consciously peer out of the bombing nacelle – I’m not religious at all, but it strikes me the position is similar to kneeling in a church and the irony in this realisation is not lost on me…….
The compartment feels cramped, yet spacious all at once. The front gun turret is directly above me and having never thought about it before I realise (perhaps obviously) that by standing and dropping the gunnery seat, I am in the operating position – again, realising this I consider the contradiction of size and space in the Lancaster – having almost crawled to get to this place, I can now theoretically stand up in this part of the aircraft and the Pilot is still (relatively) above me.
The time comes for the Merlins to be fired up and this is the bit that I have been looking forward to and dreading in equal amounts. Numerous trips already to see Jane have always given me a lump in my throat when I hear the 4 engines running – now I am amongst them – part of the aircraft. The silence is broken by the starboard outer banging, stuttering and finally winding up into life – the airframe begins to vibrate discernibly and the noise is already excessive as starboard inner repeats the start up process and adds to the developing symphony. Port inner and port outer join the chorus and suddenly I am there on an airfield somewhere in Cambridgeshire – really, it doesn’t matter what I can see outside – the sound, the smell the vibrations and movement of the aircraft still stationary remove it from a point in time now and places it back at a point now distant – for the first time that afternoon I am aware of a broad grin spreading across my face – this is UTTERLY FUCKING FANTASTIC………………
A massive hiss from, I assume, the hydraulics of the brakes, the rpm drops and we move forward, turning once and then again until we leave tarmac and roll onto the grass airstrip – the first significant bang of my head on the paraphernalia of the front turret above me…….
The Pilot guides Jane through a series of slow arcs till we sit out of view of the assembled crowd. We stop and I sit crouched, looking out ahead of me, the grass stretching out in front. The roar of the Merlins begin to climb and I suddenly realise perhaps what it feels like to be airborne in a Lancaster. The sound is suffocating – I shout and cannot even hear my voice in my head. We sit still for what seems like an eternity – my eyes begin to wander over the interior of the compartment and I realise suddenly how exposed I feel – the inner surfaces of the airframe paneling is barely 2 mm thick and the bubble in front of me is perspex – actually being in the thing, in the air, thousands of feet above the ground is incomprehensible – to have flak exploding nearby and be constantly waiting for the call from one of the gunners that a fighter is approaching strikes me simply as suicidal………….
Sat in Bob’s office.
I am jolted, literally, back to the present as Jane lunges forward, feeling just as she would as she built up speed for take off all those years ago. While in truth this forward burst of movement lasts only maybe 3-5 seconds, its the same all enveloping feeling of acceleration you get in a modern airliner, however my mode of transport this afternoon makes it feel rawer and more poignant.
All too soon our taxiing is over and we return to the crowd across from the hanger. I find it a little uncomfortable to be sat at the front on our return, fully visible, but I manage the necessary smiles and waves to the onlookers. The Pilot brings Jane to a halt, runs those amazing engines back up and then kills them. Silence and its all over………….
Was Bob with me in the Lancaster? – yes and no I think. He was in the sense that he has been with me every day since he left us, but at the same time, I got no further in understanding the man that flew over occupied Europe during 3 years of the war. I think in hindsight, my mistake was that I didn’t realise that I was looking too closely into a picture – to the point that I only saw Bob as a single pixel – pulling back to see all those brave boys of Bomber Command, each one a pixel, all forming a bigger picture, I realised I now understood a little more of what they as a group had experienced and felt every time they climbed into a Lancaster regarding the claustrophobia, the noise and the exposed place they were in – I can understand no more than that, because beyond this I would have had to have flown with them – and as I didn’t have to to, I am eternally grateful to those that did……….
Robert Douglas ‘Jock’ Sommerville DFC.
1st November 1922 – 29th August 2011.