Not so long ago, I had an extraordinary experience. I sat in the pilot’s seat of an Avro Lancaster, a British four-engine heavy bomber from World War II, gazing through the windshield at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, England. The four Merlin engines were whirring and, when I felt ready, I allowed my right hand to drop down to the four throttles, pushed them forward, and then, feeling the metal of the control column in my hands and breathing in deeply that curious smell of oil, metal, and rubber, I watched as the big bomber started to thunder down the runway.

I was there because of an email that pinged into my inbox one day. Had I met Andy Sturgess, the writer wanted to know? If not, I really should, because Andy had created an actual Lancaster cockpit and fuselage on his farm and turned it into a simulator. I simply had to see it to believe it, my correspondent said. Well, truth be told, I was busy writing a book at the time and, although the suggestion piqued my interest, I didn’t get around to following up on it until a few months later.

Andy and his family live on a small farm only a dozen miles from me here in southwest England. As I turned off the main road and down a narrow track to the farm, I started wondering if I were in the right place. I was, though, and after a chat and a mug of tea, Andy led me out of the back of the farmhouse and toward an unremarkable modern barn. The moment he opened the door, however, I was transported into a different world. Steps led up to a briefing room—an office in which every artifact, from desk to telephone to maps, radios, paint, and a hundred other items, was historically perfect for an office on a wartime RAF base. Next door was another room in which there was a fully functioning Link Trainer, a primitive but still surprisingly effective wartime RAF simulator for pilot training. 

These two rooms were remarkable enough, but nothing had quite prepared me for what followed as Andy took me out into the corridor and opened another door. This led straight into the fuselage of an actual Lancaster. I saw the wireless operator’s desk, then the navigator’s desk. Everything was perfect, down to the low red light over the navigator’s desk, as well as the map, instruments, and flashlight. Beyond was the flight engineer’s dickey seat and the cockpit, and beyond that the curved windshield, a screen so large that all one could see out of it is what a pilot would have seen. Incredibly, every one of the controls in the cockpit was linked to a computer and the screen in front. That included throttles, control column, and all the dials and switches. For a moment, I just sat, open-mouthed, in a state of complete wonderment. Of course, I’d known Andy had created some kind of Lancaster simulator but not in my wildest imaginings had I expected the Aladdin’s cave in which I now found myself. 

Three waves of Lancasters crossed the North Sea at low level on the night of May 16-17, 1943. Eight of the 19 bombers would not return.
(Historynet Archives)

It has taken Andy some 20 years to create this. Almost every part of the Lancaster is original and the few things he could not source he has made himself. His simulation is 100 percent accurate and laid out as a wartime Lancaster, whereas the Lanc owned by Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF), the only one flying in the United Kingdom, is actually post-war. On the night of May 16-17, 2023, Andy, with the help of a former BBMF navigator, used his simulator to refly the Dam Buster’s Raid along the same timeline as the actual Operation Chastise from exactly 80 years earlier. “We got there to within two minutes of the original lead crews,” Andy told me. “It was a very special but humbling experience.” It was a very special and humbling experience for me, too, to sit at the controls of a real Lancaster. What an absolutely extraordinary thing Andy has created. It is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.

What he has created allows anyone to get as close as humanly possible to experiencing what it was like to actually fly a wartime Lancaster, and that’s quite something. Half closing my eyes, I really was transported back to 1943. I think Andy Sturgess is something of a heritage hero. 

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