Friday, 21 August 2015

Battle of Britain Memorial Visitor Centre

Our summer vacation this year took in a quick visit to the BBMF visitor centre which is adjacent to Royal Air Force Coningsby, Lincolnshire. Over the years the wife and I have seen the BBMF - or at least some of it's star aircraft - fly over during air displays and remembrance anniversaries, so when we realised the home of the flight was on our route we couldn't pass up the chance to drop in for a visit!

On entering the Coningsby air base - to the accompaniment of some RAF Typhoons streaking overhead if you are as lucky as we were - you are met with the display board...

This board indicates which aircraft of the flight are 'at home' on any given day. Be sure to note that the aircraft are are usually very busy at displays and events on weekends and Bank Holidays, so be sure to plan your visit carefully if you want to see a particular aircraft. Our visit was on a Tuesday so we were treated to nearly a full house - though, sadly, one of the Hurricanes (my favourite aircraft) was away for some major work.

You cannot simply stroll around the flight hanger - this is a working RAF base after all - and every visit is conducted as part of a guided tour. But this is the best way to get the most out of the visit as the guides (all ex-RAF) are charming characters and very knowledgeable about the history and specification of all the aircraft in the flight.

Our guide began with a brief introduction to the legendary Rolls Royce Merlin and
Griffin engines. Did you know that the Merlin was also built by Ford and Packard?

 The tour is strictly 'hands off' and conducted from behind a barrier, but this is for your own safety as much as anything as it is a real working hanger with full maintenance work going on while you are visiting. Personally I find this fascinating, watching the RAF mechanics and engineers going about their work as we get a very informative history lesson from our guide.

As I mentioned above, there is a set 'cast', which on the day of our visit was made up of the following aircraft types; a Dakota, four Spitfires, one Hurricane, two Chipmunks and the Avro Lancaster.

Practically all of the aircraft (aside from the Dakota and Chipmunks) were in varying stages of disassembly for maintenance or repair. The Dakota and the Chipmunks are the flight training aircraft so are - I guess - most often in a flight ready state. Though the Dakota is also a display aircraft as it has been the mount of parachute display teams as it is equipped with authentic period 'para seats' and is used in commemorative parachute drops.

The unsung heroes of the flight are the two de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunks.
While these provide the single-engine training for would-be flight pilots they are
unique in their own way, one famous as having been fired on by Soviet troops!

Of course the planes we really want to see are the aircraft we most associate with the Battle of Britain itself, the Spitfires and the Hurricanes and you will not be disappointed with the range of types that are on view. The BBMF has models of the famous fighters dating from the early versions which took part in the battle to later and more advanced or more specialist examples of these legendary warbirds.

Our guide introduces us to an early a Mk.IIa, which originally flew in the Battle
of Britain in 1940, with 266 and 603 Squadrons.

While, over at the other side of the hanger, was a Mk IIc Hurricane and despite
being in a state of disassemble you can still recognise the distinctive 'Hump'!

Each aircraft has it's own story which is related to you by your guide. They also have particular paint schemes which illustrate each aircraft as it was historically during World War Two or to commemorate a particular pilot who served in that type. For example, the Spitfire Mk. IIa is painted in the 41 Squadron code 'EB-G', which represents the aircraft flown by Pilot Officer Eric Lock who, on 5 September 1940, destroyed three aircraft in a single sortie.

Spitfire Mark XVI

Griffon 66 engined Spitfire Mark XVI photo reconnaissance aircraft.

While the purpose of the flight is principally to act as a memorial to those that defended the country during the Battle of Britain - hence the flight's name - one of the three iconic aircraft which flies alongside the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters is not a veteran of that battle at all. None the less the legendary Avro Lancaster heavy bomber was a crucial part of the British campaign in the air during World War 2 and as such is a central member of the team.

This huge bomber is the grand finally of the hanger tour and like all the other aircraft in the flight it is unique and has it's own very interesting history. Aside from being one of the last two remaining flight worthy Lancasters in the world she appeared in two films: Operation Crossbow and The Guns of Navarone!

While the hanger tour ends - sadly - with the Lancaster we then adjourn to the small bomb display outside to get a idea about what the Lancaster was capable of. Aside from the plain old 500 Pound bomb - normally the Lanc was capable of carrying up to 14,000 Pounds of bombs - the display features the enormous 'Tall Boy' (12,000 Pound) bomb and the even bigger 'Grand Slam' (22,000 Pound) bomb. I was particularly interested in looking at the 'Tall Boy' as I had recently watched a documentary on the sinking of the German pocket battleship Tirpitz by several of these devastating bombs.

Three of the stars of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

It was a wonderful visit and I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in history of aircraft. It's really important that these aircraft are kept flying as a reminder of the sacrifice that was made in order to keep this country free of Fascism. It's also important to remember that this is a part of the RAF, whose pilots and ground crew volunteer to serve as part of the historic flight.

Related Links:

• BBMF Visitor Centre, official RAF web site:

Wikipedia entry for Battle of Britain Memorial Flight - includes details about all the aircraft.

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