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According to Wikipedia there are 54 airworthy spitfires in the world (30 in the UK alone), yet there are only 2 airworthy Lancasters (Lancaster B X in Canada & Lancaster B I in the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight).

As far as I'm aware they are similar aircraft (in terms of technology, obviously different size and role) from the same era so why is there such a difference in the numbers?

Is there a fundamental issue with preserving the Lancaster or is it simply a financial/lack of interest issue?

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    $\begingroup$ There may be some hard facts on this but I would say this question is largely opinion based. $\endgroup$ – Dave Feb 17 '17 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Dave as mentioned in the question, I wanted to know if there were any hard facts, such as not enough surviving airframes etc or if it's just the way it is because that's what people invested in. $\endgroup$ – Notts90 supports Monica Feb 18 '17 at 8:37
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    $\begingroup$ For a moment there, I thought the title said: Why are there so few Lannisters flying :D $\endgroup$ – user19082 Feb 18 '17 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ Off the top of my head, it would just come down to the sheer size of the bombers. A Spitfire could be restored in a modest-sized barn by a single individual whereas a bomber would require a hangar and a team. $\endgroup$ – Richard Feb 18 '17 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Criggie - You might want to add the point about the relative numbers of people required. $\endgroup$ – Richard Feb 18 '17 at 21:38
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I can give you lots of reasons, but as with most things they all really boil down to one: MONEY.


Perhaps the first challenge with preserving any classic warbirds in airworthy "flying exhibit" condition is finding one, but let's assume you can locate a mostly-intact Avro Lancaster (in a field somewhere, or as a static display at a museum that hasn't done anything to it that would render it unflyable).

The next major hurdle is restoring it to airworthy condition economically: A side effect of their role in the military is that these aircraft are flown hard (they have to accomplish their mission and a little airframe stress or engine damage in the process is OK as long as you still get it back home in mostly-serviceable condition for repair), and of course they do tend to get shot at (9 out of 10 structural engineers surveyed agreed that bullet holes are a Bad Thing for airworthiness; The 10th wet himself and ran out screaming). They've also been sitting around for decades suffering the effects of time (corrosion).

Once you find the aircraft you have to determine what repairs it will require to render the airframe airworthy. You will probably be replacing skin panels, control cables, hydraulic and pneumatic lines, etc. at the very least. The longer it's sat, and the worse the environment, the higher the chance of more major repairs (structural corrosion requiring ribs or spars to be replaced/spliced), and as these aircraft are out of production there are some parts you can't just get off the shelf: Custom fabrication for skins, control surfaces, ribs, etc. adds to the price tag.

Once the airframe is addressed you can look to the engines, since an aircraft without a powerplant is still just a static display.
Much like with the airframe you may find engine parts are hard to come by (the two airworthy B-29s, Doc and FiFi, both required a lot of effort to get working engines).

Now that you have a working engine you need to outfit the cockpit -- Many of the instruments the aircraft originally shipped with were likely pulled by the military or intervening owners as service spares for other flying aircraft, so what's left in the cockpit may be non-functional or so obsolete as to be useless. If you want an aircraft you can safely/legally fly to shows you'll probably need to invest tens-of-thousands of dollars in outfitting it with instruments and radios that are some functional combination of "authentic" and "modern".

Finally once it's all assembled, airworthy, and navigable you still have to pay to operate and maintain it like any other aircraft. When you're talking about a Lancaster with 4 fat engines on it you're racking up quite a fuel bill (and burning a good amount of oil with it).
The engines will of course need routine maintenance (oil changes, etc.) and eventually things will wear out or break, requiring repairs and leaving you with the "out-of-production parts" issues again.


Most of the "big" flying warbirds like the two airworthy B-29s and the two airworthy Lancasters are maintained by organizations that do it as a labor of love & out of respect for the history of these aircraft, but they do not have unlimited funding and there aren't a large number of near-airworthy airframes to choose from for these projects (with the pool of available hulks ever-dwindling), so in that respect there's certainly a financial factor as to why there aren't more of these flying.

Psychologically there's also probably something about having "at least two" airworthy examples flying that may make folks look at restoring a different type as well: Having two flying examples of aircraft from this period provides a decent level of insurance in so much as if one is lost in an accident or develops a problem that can't be fixed at least there's still the other one flying. (When FiFi was the only flying B-29 there were some folks who felt it shouldn't be flown, as an accident would cost the only airworthy example. Doc joining the flight line has muted some of those objections.)

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  • $\begingroup$ The Commemorative Air Force put out a video on FiFi a couple years ago. They mentioned that it costs roughly $10,000/flying hour to maintain.... Definitely not cheap. Not sure how much a P-51D is. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Feb 17 '17 at 23:49
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    $\begingroup$ There's a third Lanc being restored to flying condtion in the UK. They have got to the stage of funding the project by offering taxi rides along the runway at £300-£400 a head (and the approved emergency drill in case of brake failure is to take off, which says how close they are to completing the project). There is certainly interest, especially for events like both airworthy Lancs flying together in the UK in 2016. lincsaviation.co.uk $\endgroup$ – alephzero Feb 18 '17 at 3:16
  • $\begingroup$ +1 So from that I take it there are simply less airframes available than the Spitfire and because of the size, more parts are required which makes it significantly harder/more expensive, with less interest it's rather inevitable there's a big difference. Also I imagine a private investigator is more willing to spend money on a solo aircraft than one requiring a crew. $\endgroup$ – Notts90 supports Monica Feb 18 '17 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ A number of Lancasters were converted to Lancastrians for civil use - and used until 1960. No doubt many were cannibalised to keep them flying, too. Same thing happened to Halifaxes. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avro_Lancastrian $\endgroup$ – Magoo Feb 18 '17 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ Pretty much all the Lancasters built were either scrapped or used until their life expired - both the RAF and CWHM Lancasters have had significant structural parts replaced during their lives. $\endgroup$ – Moo Feb 18 '17 at 17:13
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Another point that decreases the life of items constructed in wartime, is that raw materials are in particularly short supply and that one must make-do with what is on hand.

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Consider that the British were offering up their metal garden railings for scrap to make armaments, bones for explosives, rubber and paper too.

This is one of the reasons the De Havilland Mosquito was make from wood and cloth, because both was available in better quantities than steel and aluminium.

An airframe thrown together quickly to plug a gap in the lines is not going to be built to last. Metal parts that would have benefited from galvanising or wooden parts that should have been pressure-treated simply weren't done.

Consider the rated service life of a Wileys Jeep in the front lines was 30-50 hours (that's measuring the engine running time) or 90 days. Its hardly worth changing the engine oil!

Size In a physically larger aircraft like a bomber, there's simply more parts to fail compared to a smaller and simpler fighter craft.

Storage A bomber is larger and will take up a lot more space for storage over 75 years. A fighter with wings removed might fit in a large car garage, but a bomber would need a full-sized barn or proper hanger to be stored for minimum deterioration.

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Most relevant faactors have been covered, but a summary may help newcomers.

While the service life may have been short (I recollect a figure of 42 hrs as the average service life of a Lancaster) this did not mean they were thrown together. They were built to the best standards of the day, often better than today's GA aircraft, -BUT- The long-term behaviour of some of the materials used was simply not known. Any alloys containing magnesium present a corrosion problem - I've broken P-39 spars by hand when they have been exposed to the weather. So all-mag rivets must be replaced. Fatigue was also not understood, many alloys even in the Canberra were prone to cracking after a relatively short service life.

The standard of work required is the same as in a modern plane, so your workforce is likely to be predominately retired tradesmen. Training willing volunteers is necessary and time-consuming, on top of the time factor for the sheer quantity of work. Some of your workforce will probably die before completion!

The alternative is, as usual, money. American restorations seem to be able to fund full-time rebuilders amd engine overhauls. Price of a Merlin overhaul 20 yrs ago was $US110,000.

Operating costs can run away with any budget. 4 Merlins means about 200 gal/hr of 100/130, when you can get it, and 10 gal/hr of Aeroshell oil. And good luck sourcing the heavy grade of oil you need. Rule of thumb for operating cost is to multiply the direct cost of fuel, oil, insurance, etc. (you did think about insuring your crew, if not the a/c?) by a factor of at least 3 for a simple a/c, maybe 5 or more on a Lanc.

Then you need a crew, and where do you find a pilot current on a 4-engine tail-dragger with piston engines? Not to mention a flight engineer.

It just gets too hard for most, on top of the other factors of availability etc already covered;

Having been involved with warbird restorers and operators for about 30 yrs, including rebuilding a Spit XVI, I take my hat off to anyone with the commitment, and deep enough pockets, to tackle a large a/c project.

bleeding knucles.

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The Longest Day (1962) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) featuring Spitfires each grossed about \$50m while the only significant film featuring the Lancaster, The Guns of Navarone (1961) only grossed about \$30m.

So we can estimate that the general public has had about 3x more exposure to the Spitfire than the Lancaster, perhaps explaining the disparity in interest.

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    $\begingroup$ Fighters are also sexier than bombers: Ask any kid who wants to join the air force if they want to fly the F-22 or the B-52 :) $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Feb 17 '17 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ You have touched on demand, but you forgot the corollary: cost. Both have to be balanced to figure out if a venture is worth it. Sure people know more about Spitfires than Lancaster, but Spitfires are also much cheaper to maintain. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Feb 17 '17 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ Also consider that a moderately wealthy and motivated individual could actually fly a Spitfire, Mustang, or other WWII fighter craft, but would have to have a crew for a bomber. I expect fighters are a lot more fun to fly, too, which adds to the motivation :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 18 '17 at 1:15
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    $\begingroup$ "the only significant film featuring the Lancaster" - maybe "The Dambusters" (1955) is too old for some people to remember. Or maybe it's because it didn't involve the US military in any way ;) $\endgroup$ – alephzero Feb 18 '17 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ While we're drifting a bit here, in the UK /Dambusters/ had and has a massive cultural impact (not among film buffs). References to it are still everywhere, many of its themes are sung at football terraces, for example, and it's often used without need of introduction in advertisement spoofs, etc. Just the sort of thing to keep the Lancaster in popular imagination. $\endgroup$ – Dan Sheppard Feb 18 '17 at 11:44
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This is just my personal opinion, but I think bomber aircraft have more ethical issues associated with them than fighter aircraft, and so are probably less popular. Spitfires are strongly associated with defensive actions like the Battle of Britain, so it's easy to see Spitfires as a good thing.

Explaining to a child at an airshow what a Lancaster was sometimes used for, such as the WWII bombing of Dresden is more difficult. "Bomber" Harris who was in charge of Lancaster forces remains a controversial figure.

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Another factor to consider:

The Lanc is not alone in being produced in large numbers, but having few flyable examples. The US B24 was produced in great numbers, but there are only two flyable examples of a bonafide B24 today, plus a couple of navy variants that were used as water bombers until they were retired. The B17, on the other hand, has around 12 flying examples today, with more under active restoration.

Postwar, a flying Lanc wasn't all that useful in commercial aviation, although the design was morphed into the Lancastrian airliner and York freighter. Lack of pressurization was a factor in commercial aviation, as the pressurized Lockheed Constellation airliner could operate more efficiently with less weather interference at high altitude.

The UK doesn't have the huge forests that justify water bombers to fight fires, while the US and Canada do... quite a few US WW2 bombers ended up in that role, as they could be had for peanuts, and were kept flying into the 1970's.

The smaller B25 was found to be fairly useful in civil aviation as a transport aircraft, so many flyable examples of it still exist today, while the faster but more difficult to operate B26 didn't adapt well to civil aviation and the only flying example was crashed a few years ago. The B17 was also found to be more adaptable to postwar military and commercial uses than the B24, which is one reason that so many more examples of the B17 still exist. You may remember the B17 that was used to pick up Sean Connery at the end of the film Thunderball... they were still being operated commercially in 1966.

Consequently, there are fewer examples to restore, and a much smaller pool of spares to assist in the restoration. A primary reason so many B17's have been restored is the much larger pool of restorable examples, and especially the larger pool of spares that were preserved to keep postwar and commercial B17's flying.

In my garage, I have a crate of brand new electrical switch boxes that my father bought from an electronics warehouse in the late 1960's. It wasn't until I rode on the Collings Foundation B17, that I found out what those boxes were: they are the switch boxes for the intercom on a B17, one for each crew station. That's why they have a big fat paddle for the switch: to be used while wearing heavy gloves.

Same for P51's... kept operational into the 1980's by a few air forces, so a good pool of spare parts can be had. Also true of the F4U Corsair, more flyable examples of it exist than the more numerous F6F Hellcat, because the Corsair was kept operational into the 1950's as a ground attack aircraft. The Grummman Avenger torpedo bomber was also found to be useful as a crop duster and transport aircraft, so quite a few flyable examples exist today.

Spitfires were widely distributed to other nations after the war, which may account for the high number of flyable examples. Egypt kept a number of Spitfires operational in the 1950's, that clashed with the Israeli BF109's that Israel had concocted in a Czech factory. The Hurricane wasn't widely distributed postwar, so it, like the US P47, has few examples operating today.

WW2 aircraft use up spares at a frightening rate. If they aren't available, they have to be made by hand... very expensive.

Because the Lanc, like the B24, B26, and F6F wasn't efficient in a civil or military application post war, a large number of them and their storehouses of spares were scrapped quickly. The warbirds that fly in the greatest numbers today also happen to be those that were found to be useful postwar.

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I know the Lancaster in Hamilton (Canada) is only flown occasionally (once or twice a year), due to the very high cost involved. I've had the privilege of crawling through it in the hangar, and it's special for sure. Although it's part of a fantastic museum of restored aircraft, there are never many people touring through (and generating revenue), very unfortunate.

I live about an hour away, and a couple of times over the years I've heard a deep rumble approaching in the sky, and instantly knew it was the Lanc out for a flight. Can only imagine what a few squadrons of these together would have sounded like.

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