20th August 2016 | Nanton, Alberta, Canada. A large, orderly crowd had quietly assembled outside the large hangar at Bomber Command Museum of Canada (BCMC) in Nanton, Alberta. The congregation, which consisted of politicians, volunteers, directors and media representatives, was anxiously awaiting a periodic event: a nocturnal running of the facility’s exquisite Lancaster (Royal Canadian Air Force Serial Number #FM159) heavy bomber.
The adult congregants were as anxious as the youngsters for the powerful Packard Merlin engines to cough into life. Those who had previously seen the spectacular spectacle knew what their companions would be seeing and were excited for them. Soon the combined exclamations of joy would be audible even above the roar of the license-built Rolls Royce Merlins.
The evening’s run-up proved to be the climax of what had been a very enjoyable and educational day for members, visitors, and media. Performing the process in darkness would make the experience more memorable for viewers and especially meaningful for historians of the Second World War.
Once all the powerplants were running at high revolutions, lights that had been strategically position on the tarmac in front of the Lancaster were switched on. The light reflected off the whirling disk-like propeller arcs causing more than a few in the audience to gasp in awe at the stunning sight. For the academics present, the strangely beautiful, blue, flickering exhaust flames, which appeared to continually alternate fore and aft, added an eerie feel to the spectacle. The ghostly glowing also demonstrated why enemy night fighters were so successful seven decades ago in locating and shooting down so many Bomber Command aircraft and therefore why so many Canadian (and Americans serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force) lads were killed.
The next day the big, proud and stately bird was again started. Karl Kjarsgaard, a director of BCMC and Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada), arranged for media to be aboard the bomber. Ms. Kendra Davis, a reporter who works for Vulcan TV, Nanton Aviation Station (NAS) and 20th Century Aviation Magazine, and a photojournalist acquaintance, were handed small video cameras and told to board FM159.
Kendra and her associate scrambled lithely up the metal ladder, squeezing up through the narrow access hatch adjacent to the bomb aimer position under the nose. Seconds later she emerged behind the pilot and her companion folded out a seat beside the BCMC aviator. From that location Ms. Davis captured unique views as the engines roared and the Lanc briefly taxied.
Not unexpectedly, Kendra and her colleague were thrilled upon exiting the aircraft. A member of the groundcrew, who was moving past, jovially pronounced the following: “You’re no longer Lancaster virgins!” Both were proud to have the labels applied to them and to be associated with such an historic flying machine.
The Nanton Lancaster’s story is an interesting one. Detailed information is contained in Dave Birrell’s informative book titled FM159: The Lucky Lancaster. A Crown Corporation named Victory Aircraft was formed to construct Avro Lancasters at Malton, Ontario, and in August 1942, a British-built example (R5727) was flown across the Atlantic to be utilized as a pattern. Birrell reports (page 16) that BCMC’s Lancaster is believed to have been constructed in May of 1945. It is known that she was unit 360 of 430 Lancasters built by Victory Aviation, Ltd. Notably, the Merlin engines were produced in the United States by the Packard Motor Company, and all flight instruments and radio equipment were of Canadian and American origin.
Although FM159 was closely patterned after Avro-produced R5727, one especially significant change was made to FM159 and the other Victory Lancasters beginning with aeroplane number 186: The American Martin mid-upper gun turret with two .50-calibre heavy machine guns replaced the British Fraser-Nash turret that held twin Browning .303-calibre weapons.
FM159: The Lucky Lancaster provides the aircraft’s pedigree, a brief synopsis of which follows. FM159 arrived in the United Kingdom on 31st May 1945, was posted to No. 20 Maintenance Unit at Ashton Down, and on 19th July went to No. 32 Maintenance Unit in Wales. Several weeks later, the war in Europe being over, FM159 returned to Canada (RCAF Station Scoudouc, New Brunswick) on 1st September. Subsequently she flew to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Eventually FM159 was modified under RCAF directive for Maritime Reconnaissance/Maritime Patrol work and service during the Cold War. In 1953 FM159 briefly became a snowbird and flew with two 404 Squadron mates to U.S. Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida.
FM159’s final flight with an RCAF aircrew was on 5th December 1958, and the last time she was airborne was on a ferry flight to RCAF Vulcan on 12th February 1959. A group of civilians from Nanton offered the Crown Assets Disposal Corporation $513 (Canadian) for FM159. The tender was accepted on 4th August 1960. Thus the aeroplane had been successfully rescued from the Grim Reaper’s cutting torch and rubbish disposal at nearby RCAF Vulcan, a former Second World War British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base. The reprieved bomber was towed to Nanton on 28th September.
By 1985 hardly anyone had been inside the Lancaster since it had arrived, and very little was known about the particular airplane or the history associated with it. Nevertheless, a number of officials were of the opinion that an organisation should be formed to care for FM159, which had been by that time on outside display and subject to weathering and vandals for the past twenty-five years. The Nanton Lancaster Society was formed following the Town of Nanton’s suggestion in the autumn.
Now known as the “Bazalgette” Lancaster, the plane is named in memory of Ian Bazalgette. Bazalgette was a Lancaster pilot who earned the Commonwealth’s highest award for valour and the only Albertan to be so recognized during World War 2.
FM159 is a mechanical hero. Although her service life has ended, she remains alive for the thousands of visitors to Bomber Command Museum of Canada every time her powerful Merlins come to life. She serves and will continue to serve as a living history lesson for current and future generations. Furthermore, FM159 will continue to inspire Royal Canadian Air Cadets to explore civil and military aviation careers.
The author (John Stemple) thanks Bomber Command Museum of Canada, Nanton Aviation Station, Vulcan TV, Dunrobincastle.com and Kendra Davis. Furthermore, the 20th Century Aviation Magazine staff wishes to thank General Manager Andrea Townshend (and staff members Andrea Ramsay, Cara Gray and Mercedes Brentnall) of the High River Ramada Hotel and Kathryn of the Auditorium Hotel in Nanton for their exceptional hospitality and customer service.
BCMC Firing Up 4 Part 1
Bomber Command Museum – Firing up 4
Battle Stations: Lancaster Bomber – Target Germany (War History Documentary)
In Search Of RAF Bomber Command
Sources and Suggested Readings
A Lancaster For Nanton
Bazalgette Lancaster FM-159
Birrel, Dave. FM159: The Lucky Lancaster. Nanton: Bomber Command Museum of Canada, 2015.
Last Call for the Avro Lancaster: From Tiger Force to Derelict on the Alberta Prairie
Peden, Murray. A Thousand Shall Fall: The True Story of A Canadian Bomber Pilot in World War Two. Toronto: Stoddard Publishing Company Limited, 1979.
The Canadian Built Avro Lancasters