Living the Dream

 Living The Dream: by Kent Beckham

I was commuting to Ottawa that early Friday morning. Pete Spence had slipped his beautifully restored Harvard II into my backyard, which so happens to be a grass runway, and was giving me a lift to Gatineau, PQ, a two hour blue sky downwind dash. Enroute at 9500’ I could see the 401 closed with traffic being detoured. Today I was not one of them. I was above all that and could see the big picture for once. Trusting the flying to Pete I was enjoying the sights. As an Airline Captain in my day job, I don’t allow myself to get this relaxed. With Pete things were different. He had earned my trust and respect over the years. We were on a mission. Pete was going to get a check out in a Supermarine Spitfire. I couldn’t let my friend, who hadn’t been in school in decades, suffer on this course alone so I too ended up with a seat in the ground school. The self study package was complete and we looked forward to a classroom environment with open discussion. A miserable chest cold was not going to ruin my weekend. Besides; for once, I didn’t have to fly.

I had done his initial check out in the Harvard many winters before. An exceptional pilot, it had made my work as a volunteer with the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association very easy. Years later I found myself teaching him the art of formation aerobatics. Again a quick learner. When it was all said and done, we three aerobatic team members had to decide which positions we were best suited for. I got left wing because nobody would touch it. Pete, who was a commercially licensed pilot with instrument rating and ran his own excavation company by day, had the gentle confident hands of a large equipment operator. It was a no brainer – he would lead. Dave Hewitt, his father and mine were the first generation Harvard drivers – we were keeping the very same planes in the sky, got stuck with right wing by default which secretly I believe he wanted all along. I could live with this, hopefully for a very long time. We’ve lost too many friends in air show accidents.

Thus was the rebirth of the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team.

You trust your formation leader with your life as a wingman especially while upside in formation at low level air shows. A certain bond develops that would allow you to not even flinch at the thought of him flying your family under the worst of conditions. You trust his skill, knowledge and judgment. Today’s pilot factories turn out graduates lacking this. The greenhorns have the potential, but many chips in the paint around the gas cap are required to make a good pilot.

Photos: The Canadien Harvard Aerobotic Team

We arrived uneventfully at the home of Vintage Wings of Canada, a not-for-profit foundation funded to acquire, maintain and operate vintage aircraft of significant historical importance to Canada and the world. Greeted by founder Michael Potter, he now had two authentically restored Harvards gracing his ramp, his very own Oshkosh award winner and Pete’s, plus two guests that were very qualified in formation flying and aerobatics. It didn’t take long after the tour and pizzas before we found ourselves committing aviation over the Laurentians in gusty winds and turbulence – ideal training conditions. With me as coach in Mike’s back seat and Pete doing the majority of leading Mike was soon living the life. Briefings, formation, aerobatics, debriefings, breaks and then do it all over again. I didn’t think it could get any better. Amazing how wrong you can be with hindsight.

Dinner at Mike’s residence (He appeared to be baching it this weekend like us!) in the company of some of the finest pilots in Canadian Aviation set the tone for some great conversations. Strange thing is… we all like to fly vintage mounts for fun. Vintage Wings is not an exclusive fraternity – anyone is welcome. They hold monthly open houses on the 1st Saturday of the month during flying season. My health quickly declining, I knew it was time to crash for the night and get as much regenerative sleep as I could. Tim Leslie provided accommodations in the form of his townhouse/airport crash pad and Rob Erdos hauled us to and fro daily. We were left not wanting, except sleep, which was negotiated away.

“Rooster’ Spence had me up with dawn for the first day of the ground school. Around the table in the library in the immaculate hangar were instructor/test pilot, Rob Erdos, team leader, Mike Potter and flt ops chief Tim Leslie doing recurrent training, Hawker Hurricane restoration leader, John Aitken, head of maintenance, Anrej Janik, Leon Evans of Russell Group Aviation of Niagara, and us two rural pilot guests from SW Ontario.

It wasn't long before we were bowled over. Not by the difficulty of formal learning again, but the awe inspiring effect of a truly world-class aeroplane collection, impecable facilities (the hangar ceiling is stained wood simulating a past era), thorough organization, dedicated employees and volunteers, all leaving us dumbfounded. The volunteers are recognized. They were served steak for lunch. That’s a class act. A quote from their website:

“Each trainee received a Spitfire Operations Manual that was developed in-house to teach the mechanical and procedural knowledge required to master the challenging machine. The course included interactive training software package, a self-administered exam and a series of operational scenarios designed to test the trainee's ability to apply their knowledge in a realistic context.”

Do you get the picture? They’ll put it on the screen for you in colour.

Andrej had the cowlings off the Spit Mk XVI and the plane elevated on jacks on the polished floor. We saw her inards and got real intimate cycling the British undercarriage lever with your right hand. The only thing wrong with the Spitfire is that it’s British. With a name like Kent Beckham, you’d think I’d be able to read the writing on the wall. Heck, I even fit comfortably in the thing and I’m 6’- 5”.

Photos:Kent Bekham (Far Left) listens intensly as Vintage Wings Maintenance Mananger Andrej Janik pints out the intricacies of the vaunted Rolls Royce Merlin

Class ended with the wind still rude at 90 degrees so… more Harvarding with Mike. I didn’t bring my Nomex flight suit as Pete was the one supposed to be flying. But here I was having a ball. Saturday night dinner was in downtown Ottawa with the gang. As I felt myself succumbing yet again to my cold I knew more sleep was in order.

Not a chance. Rooster had everyone doing Java to the sunrise. After all nighters at work flying into a sunrise was just painful. Spencey now had me cursing the darn yellow ball on my days off. I wonder if I’m part vampire?

Sunday saw Pete sitting in the Spit doing drills, checks, what ifs, starts, and eventually taxi followed by shutdown into wind to aid liquid cooling on the ground before overheat. (She’s designed to warm up rapidly and go flying, not ground run.) The only way our training could have been more complete was if there was a two seat Spitfire in Canada.

That afternoon the moment came and I saw him slowly feeding fuel to the V12 merlin, gaining speed and lifting off. Spencey was living the dream. Any pilot worth his salt has admired the Spitfire. Then there are those that dream of someday flying one. Spencey is the only farm boy that I know who actually bought Spitfire parts through the years. He’s married and has two great young girls so the parts had to go, but the dream slowly flickered on. At times it smouldered, but was never snuffed. I called his wife Louanne on my cell and told her where he was – overhead. She was ecstatic. Mike watched him with me for an hour like a dad watches his daughter leaving home on prom night. You’ve done all you can. The ball is in another court now. Mike didn’t have to do this. But as I learned from Tim and Rob that weekend, he’s one of the good guys. Blue jeans, T-shirt and sneakers on the weekend. What else would you wear to somebody elses dream?

Photos: Kent Beckma, Mike Potter, and Pete Spence on Solo Day

Pete shot several good landings before calling it quits. He was better trained, more experienced and mature than the the wartime pilots. There was no rush. He was not doing this for God and Country, but out of passion for aviation. He made us proud. We rewarded him with 5 gallons of ice cold water while he thought he was getting his picture taken in front of the Spit. The picture is priceless. True inner joy is quite something to be caught on a still.

It was late Sunday afternoon of a perfect weekend. It doesn’t get any better than that, or so I thought. Mike said he'd been discussing it with his professionals (you should see their credentials) and it was my turn.

My turn! I thought there was something wrong with my hearing! No, I was hearing everything just fine despite my cold. You could have pushed me over with a feather. What do you say at a time like this. I’ve been to Oshkosh in a tent over 30 times – dragged my wife during pregnancies, pushed the baby strollers through the diaper stations like an Indy pit stop. I’m a die hard aviation enthusiast with a love for Spitfires. The realist level headed Captain in me never allowed me to buy a part. I bought an airport and built my home on it. I literally live at the airport!

My turn!!! Trust is not something given lightly, it is earned over time. The Vintage Wings group have flown with us and watched us perform through the years. I now new how hard they had been analyzing. This trust was as thrilling as the message. I told Mike I wasn’t ready. I too needed to sit in the Spit and do some ground practice. Mike told me daylight was burning. Pete said we’re spending another night, take your time.

That evening the crowds were gone, the wind had swung to the west as I eased open the tap to the merlin with the sun in my eyes. Wasn’t wearing a baseball cap cause it blocks the view looking straight up when you’re upside down. I broke ground passing through 3 pounds of boost on my way to my target of 6. Throttle quadrant locked, tap the pneumatic breaks with your right pinky on the spade grip on the stick, switch hands, energize hydraulics, smartly retract the undercart, hydraulics snap to idle, green down light out , red up light on, 4 pounds boost and 2400 RPM on the altimeter style tach. Rad temp decreasing, airspeed increasing, canopy closed, after take off checklist. I was working, but totally in my element. Pete, on his cell, asked my wife Jill to listen to sound of the merlin going by on take off. She almost dropped the phone when he said that’s your husband in the Spit.

Loops, rolls, wingovers, cuban eights, 2 pt., 4 pt. 8 pt. rolls, barrell rolls all effortless for the first time ever. A couple of landings and my hour was done. Late dinner at Mike’s. A loaner Audi convertible, then a L and Rover. Even my text message to my youngest teenage son bridged the generation gap and proved dreams can come true. “ Mk XVI AEROBATICS 59 MIN” I’d been elevated to hero status. Could it get any better? I gotta stop asking myself these stupid questions. Mike asked if we wanted to do it again early tomorrow morning.

What do you think happened Monday morn? You can spot us pretty easily now by the permanent silly smirks on our faces. I was up before the dawn and lovin’ it. We hit the road before my alarm even went off.

I bet Reginald Mitchell and Joseph Smith never imagined that the colonials would muster the British Commonwealth Training Plan nor would they still be turning out competent pilots for their beloved design in the new millenium.

Do you think I’ll be visiting Vintage Wings in the future? I think it’s the development of a beautiful friendship between the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team and them. If I won the lottery, I doubt that I would be able to afford to own and operate a Spitfire. Buying solo time on a Spitfire is unheard of. Somehow, someway, something even more incredible happened that weekend. My Spit came in and I was at the airport. I’ve experienced pilot heaven.

Photos: Vintage Wings maintainer Marty Perland lets loose with a well placed and surprisingly large bucket of icy water on Pete Spence in a time-honoured ritual

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