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.
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”.
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
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
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.