A celebration of aviation

Words by:
Kate Chapman
Featured in:
May 2024

Kate Chapman hears the story behind the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, home to some of the rarest aircraft used in World War II.

It started life as one family’s personal memorial to a fallen relative and Bomber Command. Now the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is home to some of the rarest aircraft used in World War II and serves as an important reminder of the sacrifices made during the conflict.

The centre, based on the old RAF East Kirkby airfield, near Spilsby, was opened by brothers Harold and Fred Panton in 1988, after it was suggested their collection – which includes Avro Lancaster NX611 ‘Just

Since then, the museum has grown in size and popularity and now features rarer and amazing vehicles and memorabilia from the period, giving visitors a real insight into what life on a World War II airbase was really like.

As well as looking at the exhibits and displays, which also include a fuel bowser, a David Brown airfield tractor, crew bus, a 1930s civilian bus and a rare Bedford OX and Queen Mary used to collect crash recovered aircraft, visitors can also book a variety of unusual aircraft experiences. These include interior tours and the rare opportunity to taxy along the runway in Just Jane or a Mosquito HJ711.

“Sadly, visits by World War II veterans are few and far between now, instead we are finding that we are getting a lot more of their family members coming along, to find out what their relatives did during the war,” says the museum’s general manager Andrew Panton, grandson of founder Fred.

“We’re going back down the generations now and getting their grandchildren in for visits, I think at a certain age people start becoming more interested in their family history and we’re certainly seeing that here.

“As the war goes out of living memory, people are relying on being able to come here, to places like our museum and other memorials to find out about their families.

“For us, it’s all about reminding people what happened, so the same things don’t happen again and that, more importantly, people’s sacrifices are remembered.”

Living memorial
Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is a privately owned, family-run museum. It was set up by the Panton brothers in tribute to their eldest brother Christopher, who was shot down and killed during a bombing raid over Nuremburg on 31st March 1944, and is a living memorial to the 55,573 airmen of Bomber Command who lost their lives during World War II.

The brothers bought Avro Lancaster NX611 when it came up for sale, and then land which had formerly been RAF East Kirkby complete with the control tower.

Andrew said the intention was to keep the Lancaster and their private collection at the airfield for family and friends to visit, but it was suggested they make the site a public exhibit.

The museum officially opened in 1988 with the aircraft and the control tower as the centrepieces.

Andrews says: “It was very small-scale initially, but things have snowballed. Over the years the family has bought more items to grow the collection, including several vehicles, and other people have made donations too, including veterans who wanted to leave their items to us.

“We had a Spitfire on site for five years between 2005 and 2010, then a Dakota until 2017 and then the Mosquito arrived, and it is still with us. Last year the RAF museum was disposing of a B-25 Mitchell, an American bomber plane, so we bought that as well.

“The rarest piece we own is probably a Fordson WOT1 crew bus. It’s the only one known to be in existence and used to take crews to their aircraft ready for operations.

“The museum has grown over time and now it’s just like walking onto a World War II airfield.”

Family affair
Andrew explains that the museum is built around RAF Bomber Command and the aircraft used in its missions, including earlier makes such as Hampden and Blenheim.

Displays also cover other areas of wartime life, including the Home Front and escape and evasion, to help give people a wider perspective on wartime Britain and the trials its people faced.

The museum is very much a family affair with Andrew’s parents, wife and cousins also involved. It employs a team of 27 people, including many skilled engineers and technicians who work on restoration projects and maintenance of the unique collection. They are also assisted by a dozen volunteers.

One of the biggest restoration projects currently underway is to make Just Jane airworthy again. The iconic Avro Lancaster is the most famous and successful RAF heavy bomber of World War II and the aircraft at East Kirkby is just one of only three working Lancasters worldwide.

Andrew says it is currently in taxying condition, but is being restored to airworthy condition, thanks to a project that will take more than 10 years to complete.

“We do not receive any grants or government funding, reduced rates or VAT, we pay the full cost for everything, and it’s all self-funded,” says Andrew.

“Annual running costs go into six figures to keep the museum operational, so we raise our money through donations, visitor fees, our café and shop. Our aircraft experiences, the taxy rides, go towards the restoration costs of Just Jane, which is estimated at around £4million. It’s a 10-year project which we’re currently halfway through.

“Most of the restoration work is carried out during winter, and this year the port wing will be removed and restored, and the rear fuselage will be refitted, while next year will see the mid-fuselage removed for restoration.

“As well as restoring her to an airworthy condition, we also want to keep her accessible for the general public to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and atmosphere created by a Lancaster.”

The centre is open all year round, apart from three weeks over the festive period, and is closed on

Other facilities on site include the wartime NAAFI building, which is home to a café serving hot and cold food, a souvenir shop and offers free parking.

largest independent air show, in August, and its own fireworks display held in November, when night taxy runs also take place.

To find out more, or to make a donation, visit www.lincsaviation.co.uk

Photographs: courtesy of Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre

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