Bruce Kelsey and I were considering over a cuppa whether to bother driving over to Coningsby on Wednesday night. It was already 6pm and we thought the odds were that Thumper and Vera would both be put away for the night already, and the weather didn’t look great anyway. Still, we decided to pop over, just in case we might spot one of the Lancaster’s on the apron or something, and just to be able to say we were there while both Lanc’s were in attendance. We took Matt’s little Mini Cooper for the blast, fully prepared to be disappointed.
As we drove into Coningsby, the only sign that anything was different was the bunting – almost every house and shop front was strung with little triangular Union Jacks, and more than a few with the Maple leaf of Canada. As we drove down the lane toward the base, suddenly there was a stack of people milling around, maybe 150-200 of them. The small car park opposite the apron was packed but we squeezed the Mini in on the end of a row and hurried across the road to the fence and picked up from the people walking with us that there had been something on the radio an hour ago about a training flight this evening.
Literally as we approached the fence Bruce spotted a Spitfire cruising down the runway behind a row of parked planes and pointed me to it. Because it was so impromptu neither of us had brought along our cameras, so all we had were our mobile phones. Worse than that, Bruce’s phone had hardly any bloody charge in it either. I remember overhearing someone ask a professional photographer once what the best camera was, and the reply of “the one you have with you”, but didn’t have the heart to tell Bruce! I had plenty of charge, and space on the memory card, but unfortunately the zoom on the phone was pretty dire so I resolved to just take any pics without zooming and crop them later.
We had literally just found ourselves a spot at the fence as the Spitfire took off, and I got the first video above. While I was panning Bruce nudged me and pointed back at the runway, where the Canadian Lanc ‘Vera’ was just leaving the tarmac. It’s amazing to see a Lancaster take off – you just can’t imagine that it’ll ever defy gravity and actually fly as it lumbers along the runway. Even a hundred yards away the noise is tremendous, you can actually feel the vibrations in the air as the Merlin engines get up to speed. Then the old girl simply lifts her skirts and she’s away, immediately transforming from an ungainly leviathan into a graceful, purposeful machine. The camera microphone doesn’t pick it up well but the noise amazingly gets even louder and literally goes through you. Moments later and they were all up – two Lancaster’s flying together, and an escort of a Spitfire and a Hurricane. ‘Vera’ had been up last night alone after a day of checks following the journey from Canada, but it was only today that they had permission to go up together. It was the first time that two had flown together since 1964. We both had goosebumps – it was that sort of moment.
For the first fifteen minutes or so, the Lancasters were merely in the same patch of sky rather than were flying in unison, and when they were talking afterwards the crew were saying how hard it was for the second plane to ‘fall in’ behind the first purely because they weren’t used to trying to fly in the turbulence the leading plane left behind! Of course since we had no idea how long the planes would be in sight – for all we knew they were off on their way somewhere and would just disappear – we were snapping the phone at anything we could, so in the galleries below there’s quite a few pics with just tiny specks in the distance. It soon became clear though that they were all going to stay close, otherwise they’d have been out of sight by now, and I was able to be a little more selective in pressing the shutter. Bruce’s battery inevitably gave up so he was pointing out shots to me, trying to get best advantage from the ‘burst’ mode which takes about ten shots in two seconds. Suddenly it all came together and the four planes got into a pattern that they were able to sustain. This was what the crowd, probably now 250-300 strong, had been waiting for and all the conversations died away as every camera pointed skywards and began clicking. Even the people without cameras were mesmerised. The two ‘smaller’ planes, not content playing second fiddle, were dogfighting with each other and playing up to the crowd.
After a series of formation flypasts, we wandered along the fence a little and struck up conversations with various small groups and individuals. It was quite fun – everyone had huge smiles and were thrilled they’d come out on the offchance. Finally the landing gear came down on Thumper and it turned into the wind, unfortunately touching down out of sight behind the hanger but soon taxiing back into sight in the distance. The Spitfire came in alongside the fence and Bruce came over all emotional, before eventually both Lancaster’s nonchalantly rolled into the foreground. Again it was the noise that stood out from everything else as the engine revs rose, starting from a low rumble like distant thunder and climbing to something that just blotted out everything else. You can’t imagine what it must have been like to be inside one of these things, surrounded by dozens more, for hours at a time, hoping for nothing else than that you make it back to Lincolnshire again after your run. The earthquake of noise is so huge that not only is talking to someone alongside you impossible, you almost can’t think either.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, the crew of all four planes ambled over to the fence to have a few words with us all. I’d exhausted all the space on my phone’s memory card, so was frantically deleting apps left and right to make room for just one more bit of video. I ended up deleting a couple of things I actually wanted, but it was worth it to get just a brief clip of the Spitfire pilot telling us all how amazing it had been. He said they’d just ‘had a go’ at setting the planes up to be an impromptu display for the crowd they could all see from the air by the fence, and seemed a bit embarrassed at the applause that broke out, followed by three cheers led by Bruce. The Canadian crew chatted briefly about where they were off next, Eastbourne and Biggin Hill, and then began handing out tiny lapel pins with the Canadian flag on them. Bruce and I managed to get one each as a hundred hands got held out!
In Coningsby village we stopped for a pie and chips and remarked to the girl serving us that they seemed remarkably busy for a Wednesday. Yes, she said, there must be something going on…