NASM’s Great British Fly-in: Show Report

A glorious shot of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum's Avro Lancaster shortly after arriving at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in preparation for the Great British Fly-in celebrating the RAF's Centenary on the following day. Note the large yellow decal just below the cockpit. It is honoring the 75th anniversary of the famous Dambuster raid of May 16/17th 1943. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)

RAF Centennial Celebration

by A. Kevin Grantham

The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) kicked off its centennial celebration in the Washington, DC area on Sunday, April 15, 2018. The National Air and Space Museum (NASM), Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located in Chantilly, Virginia, hosted the event which featured hundreds of smartly dressed Royal Air Force personnel, historical artifacts and informative lectures,  and, of course, some very nice British aeroplanes.  

The U.S. Navy sent a P-8 Poseidon to the Great British Fly-in. While this may seem a little incongruous, considering the NASM show was celebrating the RAF’s Centenial, this aircraft was flown in by a Royal Air Force crew. The RAF is scheduled to receive the first of their Poseidons in 2019. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is uniquely situated on the grounds of Dulles International Airport, making it an ideal location to host live aviation events. Planning for the celebration began several weeks back as an impressive lineup of attending aircraft began to take shape with the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Avro Lancaster and at least seven Spitfires booked to attend. Unfortunately, mechanical issues and a strong cold front pushing east kept many of the warbird owners from bringing their airplanes to the celebration. The Collings Foundation’s Spitfire was the last to cancel, but Rob Collings and his family flew down from Massachusetts to support the event anyway. 

The Lancaster continues her march towards the Udvar-Hazy Center. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)
RAF re-enactors posing beside a jeep with the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Avro Lancaster B.X FM213 standing in the background beside the Udvar-Hazy Center. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)

The first aircraft to arrive was a Boeing P-8 Poseidon, operated by a British Royal Air Force crew. The  Lancaster was next, along with a PT-17 Stearman biplane, piloted by Heather Penny, and Tim Trimble’s P-26. John Sessions’ B-25, named Grumpy after the Snow White character, managed to navigate through the cold front and arrived at Dulles Airport late Saturday evening. It took Richard Wilsher two days and nights to fly his de Havilland Chipmunk across the country as well, but by Sunday morning, all of the aircraft were on display. 

John Sessions poses in front of his Mitchell. Sessions flew Grumpy all the way across the country specifically to be at this event. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)
RAF re-enactors standing in front of the Historic Flight Museum’s B-25D Mitchell at the Great British Fly-in outside NASM’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia on April 15th, 2018. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)
The Kaydet and Cornell shortly after arriving at the Great British Fly-in. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)
Richard Wilsher standing proudly in front of his deHavilland Chipmunk. It took two days for Wilsher to fly the Chipmunk in. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)

The museum opened at eight o’clock. NASM volunteers, along with men and women from the RAF, greeted the visitors with small British flags, informational flyers, and all sorts of event swag. Noted historians and official participants held lectures around the museum highlighting 100 years of RAF history. The lines to tour the display aircraft on the ramp outside the museum stretched a good distance. Crew members from each aircraft were on hand to answer spectator questions and to hand out information cards. One group of reenactors also brought an RAF Jeep and Hillman Staff Car to help enhance the historic nature of the event. Children and adults alike were fascinated by the Hillman’s right hand steering column. Inside the museum, the Royal Air Force Band entertained the public with choreographed marches and British aviation movie scores from films like The Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, 633 Squadron and The Battle of Britain. Also, the Queen’s Colour Squadron demonstrated precision marching drills at various times during the day.

96-year old RAF Lancaster bomber pilot Flight Lieutenant Richard Boyd DFC was on hand at the Great British Fly-in to talk about his experiences during WWII. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)
The Royal Air Force Band playing inside the National Air & Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center during the Great British Fly-in to celebrate the RAF’s Centenary. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)

Veteran World War II pilot Flight Lieutenant (Flt.Lt.) Richard E. Boyd (retired) DFC closed the event. Flt.Lt. Boyd flew the Lancaster bomber during the war and related some of his interesting experiences during that time. He flew 33 missions (11 in the day and 22 at night) in the course of his wartime career. He described the reliability of the Avro bomber and its 22,000 pound bomb capacity. The duration of most of his missions was 4 to 6 hours, with the exception of the flight to bomb Dresden, Germany. “On that mission,” said Boyd, “we could only carry about a 4,000 pound bomb load. We needed the extra weight for fuel as the mission was 8 to 9 hours long.” Flt.Lt. Boyd flew 33 missions without a casualty. “Well, I did have one,” recalled Boyd. “On one mission, my radio operator needed to go to the toilet. I had a rule about knowing where my crew members were at all times. So, my radio operator was required to plug his headset when he got to the toilet. He reported in, and all seemed OK until we heard screaming over the interphone. The toilet in the Lancaster has a metal seat, and at 12,500 feet it is frozen. When the radio operator sat down, he became stuck. The resolution was—he had to sit until the seat warmed enough to release his skin leaving behind a telltale mark of the incident!” 

The RAF Centennial Celebration was a resounding success, despite the small number of flyable airplanes on display. It was evident throughout the event that both the RAF and NASM staff members followed the World War II slogan Keep Calm and Carry On. 

The author would like to express his sincere thanks to Pat Robinson, David Schwartz, and the entire NASM staff for making this article possible.  


A gallery showing the aircraft during their arrival at the Great British Fly-in on the much sunnier Saturday afternoon…

A gallery showing images from the Great British Fly-in…


WarbirdsNews wishes to express our thanks to Kevin Grantham for his excellent report and images, and also to NASM’s Pat Robinson and Dave Schwartz who facilitated our great access to the event.

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