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A few months after it was assembled at the Victory Aircraft manufacturing facility at Malton Airport, near Toronto, Lancaster Mk. X bomber FM104 made its way to Europe, intended as part of Canada’s contribution to the Second World War.
It never saw active service in the war, and spent most of its working life as a maritime patrol and search and rescue aircraft with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), based initially in Nova Scotia and later in Newfoundland.
But it is one of only 17 complete Lancasters left in the world, an important artifact from a pivotal time in Canadian aviation history.
“FM104 is a rare and significant object,” noted Mike Williams, general manager of economic development for the City of Toronto, in a report to the city’s economic development committee.
“FM104 is also a large and unusual object … these considerations should inform any decision made about FM104.”
Toronto is weighing the possibility of permanently removing the aircraft from its historical collection, noting an inability to store the Lancaster on city property and no budget to restore it.
Williams has recommended transferring FM104 to the British Columbia Aviation Museum (BCAM) in Sidney, B.C., for continued restoration and public display.
If negotiations with the BCAM fail, he recommends transferring the aircraft to the Edenvale Aviation Heritage Foundation near Stayner, Ont., for the same purposes.
The move would save the city about $25,000 a year in storage costs, but has raised considerable concern from Toronto-area groups that want to see the aircraft remain in the city where it was manufactured and later placed on public display.
“People who lived in Toronto built it, maintained it and flew it,” said Dan Grant, a retired airline captain and co-founder of #SaveLancasterFM104, a group lobbying to keep the aircraft close to its original home.
“I grew up with that airplane down on the waterfront … and when I was a teenage air cadet, in the summer we used to go and clean it up and touch up the paint.”
Grant noted another personal connection to the Lancaster program: His cousin, Francis Archibald Randall, was a captain in the Royal Australian Air Force who died at age 21 in a Lancaster on Dec. 16, 1943, he said.
After it was retired from the RCAF, FM104 was mounted on a plinth and placed on outdoor display at Coronation Park, on the Toronto waterfront, in 1965.
But the plinth mounting technique undermined the aircraft’s structural integrity and caused corrosion, according to a city staff report.
Exposure to lakefront weather, bird infestations, and ongoing vandalism also threatened the aircraft’s long-term survival. City council approved the transfer of FM104, along with other military objects, from Coronation Park in 1998.
FM104 was loaned to the newly established Toronto Aerospace Museum, later known as the Canadian Air & Space Museum (CASM) and now known as Toronto International Aerospace.
The aircraft moved to the museum’s facility in Downsview Park, and volunteers began restoring it to its 1945 configuration, supported by a $100,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, according to the report.
CASM left Downsview Park in 2012 and placed the Lancaster in storage at two locations at and near Toronto Pearson International Airport, the report said.
The aircraft remained in CASM’s care until a private operator asked the museum to vacate the storage location holding FM104’s main assemblies in 2017. It was subsequently moved to a private aerodrome near Stayner.
“No facility could be identified within the Greater Toronto Area with sufficient headroom and storage space clearances to hold the Lancaster,” noted the city staff report.
Once the Lancaster’s wings, tail unit, landing gear, and power plant have been reattached to its fuselage, it will have at footprint of 102 x 70 feet, requiring 7,400 square feet of indoor space, with headroom of at least 21 feet, according to the report.
The city received five proposals from organizations willing to acquire the Lancaster, and staff identified the British Columbia Aviation Museum as having the strongest. Its aim is to interpret the aircraft as a post-war maritime patrol and rescue aircraft, according to the report .
Toronto’s economic development committee is scheduled to consider the matter at a meeting on April 13, 2018. If it approves city staff’s recommendation, the decision would not sit well with some in the local community.
“I would be devastated if it went out there [to B.C.],” said Lynn Berry, a Brampton, Ont., resident whose uncle, Pilot Officer Robert John Westgate, was a tail gunner in a Lancaster shot down over Poland during the Second World War. Westgate and his crew all perished in the incident.
“My mom lives in Toronto and it’s sort of a tangible piece that keeps her close to him,” said Berry. “This is my whole reason for doing this. I’m my mom’s voice … it was a tangible way for me to try and preserve my uncle’s memory.”
Museum members are also pushing back against the proposal to move the Lancaster away from Toronto.
“Tens of thousands of people in the Toronto area contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars and tens of thousands of hours of labour to the restoration of Lancaster FM104 during the 12 years it was on display at the Toronto Aerospace Museum at Downsview Park at no cost to the city,” said aviation writer Kenneth Swartz, who became a museum board member in 2002.
“They deserve to have their voices heard and the time to organize a new aircraft restoration team to ensure the future display of this historic aircraft in the Greater Toronto Area.”
“Ultimately, a home for Lancaster FM104 should be found within the Downsview Aerospace Innovation and Research hub, which is bringing together all aspects of the local aviation and aerospace industry,” he added.
“Or in the historically significant Bombardier Aerospace factory at Downsview, if this should ultimately close.”
An experienced restoration crew is also located in the Greater Toronto Area, which has been cited as another reason to keep the Lancaster nearby.
“They acquired a lot of equipment, and some with their own personal finances,” said Vince Malfara, a long-time volunteer with the Toronto museum.
“A lot of equipment, spare parts, etc., so everything is here and ready to go. All you need is a location to do it.”
Berry said #SaveLancasterFM104 has found a location in the GTA to store the Lancaster temporarily, with plans to build a museum large enough to house the Lancaster.
The group intends to speak at Friday’s economic development committee meeting, hoping to keep the Lancaster close to home.
“We’re not giving up,” she said. “The deal’s not done.”
UPDATE (April 13, 2018):
Toronto’s economic development committee has deferred a decision about the fate of Lancaster Mk. X bomber FM104 to give city staff the chance to consider other funding opportunities for the project.
The decision came on April 13, 2018, after presentations from groups interested in acquiring the Lancaster, including #SaveLancasterFM104, the Edenvale Aviation Heritage Foundation, and the British Columbia Aviation Museum
#SaveLancaster104 told the committee it is eligible to receive funding for up to 40 per cent of the cost of a museum building that could house the Lancaster in Toronto.
“We have a plan, we have a team, and we can deliver,” said Lynn Berry, who co-founded the group with Dan Grant.
“It is a Toronto treasure, and it would be a travesty to let it go.”
Richard Banigan, a former RCAF pilot who said he flew FM104 with 107 Rescue Unit in Torbay, N.L., also spoke in favour of keeping the Lancaster in Toronto.
“This is Toronto’s airplane, it’s my airplane, and we’d be crazy to give it up,” he said.
Murray Conley, general manager of the Edenvale Aviation Heritage Foundation, noted the Lancaster is already being stored at Edenvale, and he lobbied to keep it there.
“It cannot be emphasized enough that we are fully funded to carry out this restoration–to the end of the restoration, and beyond,” said Connolly.
“This advantage means that we can devote all of our efforts and finances to the restoration process.”
John Lewis, president of the British Columbia Aviation Museum, also spoke, saying the museum is in a solid financial position, with cash reserves close to $200,000.
The museum has a quote to move the Lancaster to B.C. that is well within that range, he said. Its goal is to restore the Lancaster to flying condition.
“It would be an honour to welcome this iconic aircraft to our collection,” said Lewis.
“I find it, personally, extremely offensive that only the citizens of Toronto are worthy of knowing about Lancasters and the sacrifices of Lancaster aircrew during the war.”
Toronto Coun. Michael Thompson, chair of the city’s economic development committee, suggested a deferral to allow city staff to work through the new funding opportunities cited in the April 13 meeting.
“What I’m actually buoyed about is that there are two groups of Canadians who are wishing to save Canadian history,” said Thompson.
“Whether or not it’s located in Toronto or Vancouver, for me it really doesn’t matter,” he added.
“If a group from Toronto is not able to realize the opportunity to enhance it and do what needs to be done, then I think another group from elsewhere in [the] country should have that opportunity.”
The committee is scheduled to revisit the issue on July 9, 2018.