My son Thomas was born January 9th, turning my little world upside down! So obviously for the past few days my fatherly duties have taken precedence over working on Sharpe Eye projects such as the UAV design & twin PT-6 propulsion concept, never mind my 'featured aircraft' for this blog. But I sit now, holding my sleeping 3 day old son in my left arm, typing with my right!
Now you might think that January 9th isn't a very significant date, and historically there aren't many notable events which mark it. So aside from being my sons birthday, and coincidentally my mother-in-law's too, what's special about January 9th?
Well, a quick google search reveals that it's Richard Nixon's birthday as well, it's also the date that UK prime minister William Pitt introduced income tax to help fight the Napoleonic war in 1799, it's also the date that Sir Humphry Davy tested his first 'Davy lamp' for miners in 1816.
But this being an aviation-themed blog, what we're really interested in are aviation milestones on January 9th in history, and there were three very interesting ones.
- January 9th 1793, Jean-Pierre Blanchard becomes the first person to fly in a balloon in the United States.
- January 9th 1923, Juan de la Cierva makes the worlds' first auto gyro flight.
- And in 1941, during World War II the first flight of the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber occurred on January 9th.
The Lancaster is an instantly recognizable aircraft in the UK, as beloved there as the B-17 Flying Fortress is in the US. (Though we think those are pretty cool too!)
The Lancaster formed part of the former three-ship Battle of Britain Memorial flight which displays at airshows and special events around the UK along with a Spitfire and Hurricane - but annoyingly the Hurricane has now been sold to India, making BBMF a two-ship routine for now.
Even though technically the Lancaster did not play a role in the actual 'Battle of Britain' which was the air superiority fight over the channel and repelling of the german bombers, the wartime contribution of the Lancaster and those who flew in it is considered legendary, earning recognition in its night-bomber role, and of course earning fame as the aircraft of the 'dambusters', utilizing Barnes Wallis' ingenious bouncing bomb.
The Lancaster was designed by renown aircraft designer, Roy Chadwick - previously a personal assistant of Alliot Verdon Roe who was the founder of Avro aircraft, Chadwick ultimately became Avro's chief design engineer, responsible for most of their aircraft designs.
The origins of the Lancaster began with development of it's predecessor, the Avro Manchester - a twin engined bomber designed to meet the air ministry specification P.13/36.
The Avro Manchester fell out of favor when engine reliability problems befell its Rolls-Royce Vulture engine powerplant due to underlying issues with the Rolls Royce Peregrin on which it was based, but Chadwick was ahead of the game, already working on a four engined version using the less powerful but proven reliable Rolls Royce Merlin engine, this new aircraft was designated Avro Type 683 Manchester III, and later re-named the Lancaster.
The decision to use the Merlin is what created such a great aircraft in my opinion - the Merlin's fame precedes it, developed from the Rolls Royce Kestrel Engine which was a power plant for some of the RAFs more sleek-looking inter-war year biplanes like the Hawker Hart, Audax and Demon, the Merlin powered some real superstar airplanes like the Spitfire, Hurricane, Mosquito & Mustang.
Also, though less powerful than the Vulture, it's worth noting that the Merlin was by no means wimpy! It's a supercharged 27 litre V-12 that makes 1100hp. Four of those, 4400hp on tap.
Other things which set the Lancaster apart are its dimensions and payload, as shown in the illustration above, the Lancaster was a more compact aircraft than both the Sterling and Halifax which were the two other major 4 engined heavy bomber types in service with the RAF during the war.
Evidently the Lancaster was quite maneuverable for an aircraft of it's kind, demonstrated when test pilot Alex Henshaw barrel rolled one on a test flight.
To compare the Lancaster with some other bombers I created the table below.
If you can make out my fuzzy .jpg excel screenshot you'll see that the Lancaster competes well against equivalent aircraft of the era. Though the B-17 Flying Fortress clearly beats the Lanc in the altitude and defensive armament areas, the Lancaster has the greatest range, a high cruise speed (although 'cruising' velocity always varies with flight planning and payload) and a whopping bomb capacity. These aspects were the makings of a great night bomber.
I dropped in the B-29 at the bottom, being a newer aircraft, it's interesting to note that the Lancaster could carry just as much payload as the B-29, meaning it could have even carried the heavy atomic bombs delivered to Nagasaki and Hiroshima aboard the Enola Gay & Bocks Car.
Aspects of the Lancaster design were advanced for the day, like the hydraulically powered landing gear, modular wing and fuselage assembly but fundamentally the development of the Lancaster didn't contribute any real advance in aircraft technology. However it clearly made a huge contribution (608,612lbs of high-explosive contribution) to the war effort, securing a free and democratic Europe which endures today.
The legacy of the Lancaster was continued in subsequent designs, evolving into the Avro Lincoln and then the Avro Shackleton. (The Shackleton is sort of like a trike-gear Lanc but with Griffon engines driving counter-rotating props! Pretty cool I think...)
There was even a civilian development of the Avro Lincoln - the Avro Tudor, but it was never a commercial success, and sadly one even crashed on a test flight due to reversed aileron control cables, claiming the life of it's designer - Roy Chadwick.
In summary, it's clear to see why the Lancaster is such a celebrated aircraft, even though only two airworthy examples remain flying today, and because my son now shares a birthday with this magnificent machine, I'm nicknaming him 'bomber' in honour of the Lancaster - hence, 'Bomber Tom!' I look forward to being able to explain where the nickname comes from one day in the future...
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