After the Spitfire, the Lancaster is arguably Britain’s most famous aircraft of World War II and NX611 features one of the most iconic and well-known painted ladies adorning its nose…Miss ‘Just Jane’, yet she didn’t always grace this elegant warbird.
As one of the first 150 B Mk VII Avro Lancasters destined to take part in the RAF Tiger Force deployment in the Far East, NX611 was the third off the line produced by Austin Motors at Longbridge near Birmingham in April 1945. However due to Japan’s early surrender the Tiger Force was disbanded and the newly built Lancasters became surplus to requirements so instead of fighting the war on the front in Japan she was consigned to storage at 38 MU in Llandow. She remained in her solitude until 1952 when her life and career really began. She was bought for a reputed £50,000 by the French Government over the next 12 years enjoyed a varied career in maritime reconnaissance and air rescue throughout the Atlantic and the Mediterranean with a selection of paint jobs before returning to the country of her birth. Having decided that Lancaster’s were too expensive to run the French government took the decision to replace them Douglas DC-4’s.
Around this time back in Blighty the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society had been hoping to acquire a Lancaster for preservation and after a lengthy wait for a response, had entered into talks with the French government. The French decreed that not only would they gift a Lancaster to the HAPS but would also deliver it as far as Australia.
Hasty arrangements were needed and next followed a series of flights to return her home to Britain, first travelling to Sidney, Australia for an over-haul. She touched down in Bankstown in August 1964 and after the £10,000 over-haul (kindly donated by the RAF, RAAF, the Hawker Siddeley Group, Shell Petroleum, Qantas and even holiday-makers) she was ready for her test flight before beginning the 1200 mile journey home which took 9 days to complete with total of 70 hours in the air before finally landing at Biggins Hill on May 13th 1965. She was promptly grounded as she had exceeded her airtime allowance and underwent further restoration with all her parts being checked over and worked on as necessary.
Again she was to receive a make over, or under in this case as her paint was stripped back to bare metal before a RAF night bomber black and camouflage scheme was applied. Her original code was re-applied and the letters HA-P added. This new code was an authentic WW II Lancaster unit code in 218 Squadron and also represented its owners at HAPS. She was now named ‘Guy Gibson’. By May 1967, after considerable work she received her re-certification and was again able to take to the skies, however even public appearances were brief due to the extensive costs. As the RAF now had an airworthy Lancaster (PA474 ‘Thumper’) HAPS was finding it hard to get enough sponsors to keep her flying. Due to these costs (£2000-£3000 per hour in flight) and lack of sponsorship she was flown on to the USAAF airfield at Lavenham in Suffolk where she resided for a few more years before being put up for auction in 1972. Not long after her arrival at Lavenham the letters HA-P were replaced with GL-C in honour of the renowned pilot and member of the Dambusters, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC DSO DFC who had recently visited and performed a taxi run in NX611.
(Group Captain Leonard Cheshire)
Meanwhile over in Linconshire another story was unfolding, the story of two brothers Fred and Harold Panton, a story which would soon become intertwined with that of Just Jane. The Panton brothers were determined to commemorate not only their beloved brother who had perished in the Nurembirg raid of 1944 but also all of the young men who served in Bomber Command, with many ultimately giving their lives for the cause. To this end the brothers, after much discussion had come to the decision to purchase a Second World War Bomber. Unfortunately their dad put the kibosh on their idea of buying a Halifax when he decreed that they could not keep it on his farm land…a little too close to home maybe. With their dreams still very much there but put on hold, the years past until eventually the brothers become co-owners of their own farm and bought land which included part of the by then defunct East Kirkby airfield. Renovations began including the building of a new hanger in the same place one had stood during the war years. Now with not only the space but the hanger in place the dream of owning an exhibition aircraft must have felt much more within their grasp.
The brothers attended the aircraft auction and found the lovely Lancaster alone, unloved and looking forlorn. Despite the attention she received she didn’t reach her reserve and was removed from auction to later be sold in a private auction to the Rt Hon. Lord Lilford before the brothers were finally able to make a deal with the Lilfords agents. So finally in 1983, when I was just a little lass of 2 and 16 years since Fred had fallen for her at the Blackpool auction the brothers acquired their very own war-time bomber.
It wasnt until the 1990’s that the restoration began, they bought two ex RAF engineers in to complete the work and although she had been grounded and idle for previous 22 years they were confident she could be resuscitated and bought back to life. 700 man hours and £7000 later the engine was finally complete and they finally had her at fully operational taxing standard. The name ‘Just Jane’, inspired by the 1940’s comic strip character was added to the port side with the crests for Bomber Command and the City of Sheffield (in honour of the steel works which provided many of the Lancaster parts, it’s Merlin engines and the weapons it would have carried). Word quickly spread of the Lancaster resurrection and drew praise from Bomber Command veterans and anyone else who valued this link to the past. Just Jane’s 50th birthday, Saturday 22nd April 1995, was a day of celebration and was honoured by a short public taxi run on 3 engines.
In 2006 the red bathing suit worn by Jane was changed to a WW II era blue bikini and in tribute to Christopher Panton a skull and crossbones was added to the rear turret as originally carried on his Halifax. Sadly in 2013 Fred passed away and the family added a joint tribute to the brothers who had saved Just Jane and maintained her for future generations to appreciate the sight and sounds of a living Lancaster. The aircraft code letters were changed to ‘F’ on the starboard and ‘H’ on the port.
Now with the third generation of the family involved in the project the dream is to see her fly again! She is a big draw for aviation enthusiasts who want to experience the thrill of the aircraft and the sound of the roaring Merlin engines, and at £300 per head she certainly earns her keep. The problem though is if she is to have the £3 million engineering work done she won’t be able to work for a while and as such would lose her current ‘wage’. Obviously the Heritage lottery fund would be an option to help raise the funds however the family don’t want to lose control of their family project.
So how can the man on the ground help the family achieve this monumental project? You can donate to the upkeep and maintenance of Just Jane via the link below. Or even better book a taxi ride in the illustrious lady, feel the power of her mighty strength whilst also supporting historic aviation.