The Volunteer - George Mayer and a life in the air

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George Mayer at the controls of a DC-3, Inset: George making a presentation in his inimitable manner.  Photo: Mayer Family Archive

From an aviation world heavily populated by former military aviators with Hindenburg egos comes a humble and big-hearted bomber pilot by the name of George Mayer who found Vintage Wings of Canada to be the perfect outlet for his skills and passion for teaching. In his own, sometimes humourous and self-effacing words we hear how his aviation career has taken on new life and meaning - long after retirement.

My wife Joy and I attended the Battle of Britain flypast at Rockcliffe two years ago, and what a fateful occasion it was for both of us. Upon arrival at the former Royal Canadian Air Force base-turned museum, much to our pleasant surprise, we were escorted to seats in the VIP section.  I wondered out loud if it was because I had my military medals remounted or was it because I was wearing a brand new pair of Bass Weejun loafers with my gray flannels and blazer complete with the mandatory RCAF Squadron crest on the pocket.

We were aware that a flypast of Second World War aeroplanes was planned and it was eagerly anticipated.  The program stated that the Spitfire, Hurricane, and Mustang were provided by Vintage Wings of Canada and one of the world's only two flying Lancaster bombers was coming from Canadian Warplane Heritage in Hamilton.  I asked myself under my breath , "Who or what is Vintage Wings of Canada?".  I was familiar with the Canadian Warplane Heritage organization because, as a former Civil Aviation Inspector, I had conducted flight tests of their Douglas Dakota pilots (C-47/ DC-3) and issued an F-4 U Corsair type rating to one of their other pilots many years ago.

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George ended his varied 37 year flying career with Department of Transport flying the Cessna Citation business jet. Photo: Mayer Family Archive. 
 
There are no words to describe the sudden appearance of those wonderful Second World War aeroplanes doing a low level pass over the parade. Their Merlin engines growled out a unique salute to all those past and present to whom we owed so much.  For me, as it was for everyone in attendance, it was a very emotional moment.

We enjoyed the parade, the plethora of great speeches long and short, and in the end, relief from the awfully uncomfortable folding chair!  The reception was very nice and peaceful until someone whispered in my good ear (the other ear is a casualty of a 37 year flying career) that the Vintage Wings Spitfire, Hurricane, Mustang and, of all things, Harvard were parked between the hangars and that the public was allowed to look at them up close and talk to the pilots.  It was at that moment that my wife realized she had suddenly become a VWC widow!

I swallowed the triangular tuna sandwich whole, washed it down with a single four-ounce gulp of white wine, excused myself from the group and headed for the closest exit to the ramp.  Stepping out onto the tarmac, I was greeted by a scene right out of the film Battle of Britain!  There were, of course, no Messerschmitt Bf 109’s strafing the field but there was a big, fat, shiny, yellow Harvard (affectionately known to those of us who have flown them as the Hazard) at the end of the row of parked aeroplanes.

I could not believe that we would be allowed to get close enough to these magnificent flying machines to smell the hot oil and see the bug splats on their canopies!  Standing beside the Harvard in a light brown flight suit, was a distinguished looking pilot by the name of John Aitken.  I did not suspect for a moment that this intrepid flyer, a volunteer from VWC, was about to change my life forever. I introduced myself, we chatted about our flying careers and, this “smoothy talkin mon” as he would be called in Jamaica, talked me into sending Carolyn Leslie an email introducing myself and requesting information about becoming a volunteer. Bang! 

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George had a varied career in the Canadian Air Force - flying everything from Beech Musketeers to helicopters to the massive Canadair Argus patrol bomber. Here George, an instructor pilot at Portage La Prairie, poses for an official DND photographer as he steps onto the wing of a Musketeer basic trainer. Photo: DND

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Perhaps taken the same day as the shot on the wing of the Musketeer, George pulls the pitot cover from a Bell Kiowa helicopter in 1972. Photo: DND

My email was short and to the point – "Hello, this is me, and how do I become a volunteer?". An anxiously awaited reply arrived in the astonishingly short time of a few days - a harbinger of things to come!

I was invited out to VWC to meet Carolyn, have a quick tour of the hangar, and find out if I had the right stuff to join their ranks.  I was greeted at the main entrance by this gracious lady named Carolyn Leslie, escorted to the library where we exchanged pleasantries, and then entered the hangar for the quick tour.  Two steps inside the hangar, I ran straight into the tail of the Hurricane, I could see the Spitfire next in line and the Mustang appeared to be begging me to come over and say nice things about it.  My eyes watered, my legs felt weak, and I suddenly found myself on my hands and knees kissing the hangar floor.  I have no idea what Carolyn, two paces behind me, thought about my strange antics.  However, she immediately questioned me in a soft but authoritative way, as to what I was doing.  Hoping to get back the few brownie points I thought I had to this point, I said "I have just entered aviators’ heaven." 

A short burst of laughter was, mercifully, followed by an offer for me to come out to the hangar for a repeat visit and shadow one of the experienced guides, slowly work up to going solo.  In preparing for the shadow experiences, I read everything on the web site, Googled things I wanted more information about, and started to prepare notes on such mundane things as the rate of fire of the Browning 303 calibre machine gun installed in some of Vintage Wings aeroplanes, or the number of rivets in the Mustang elevator - just in case some 10-year old on tour would ask me.

The telephone rang not one week later and it was Carolyn sounding a little desperate.  It is no secret that if her conversation starts with “I am in a little bit of a pickle”, you know your skills are about to be challenged!  She had booked a tour for 90 public school kids and did not have, at this late date, anyone to make a presentation on the Merlin aeroplane engine to include a short explanation of how the massive four-stroke internal combustion engine works.   I could hear a huge sigh of relief over the phone part way through my answer when I stated that this is what I taught at my Air Cadet Squadron every Sunday and that I already had a prepared lesson plan.  The school kids had a great day, and thanks to Carolyn, everything went like clockwork.  My red Low Level Beer light was on as a result of making six identical, twenty-minute engine presentations, but I felt wonderful. 

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They may be young, but they are a tough audience. George Mayer, in full tour guide battle dress (Weejuns, Flannels and Blazer) talks to a class of elementary school children at the Vintage Wings hangar. George's friendly and open manner makes him the perfect guide for all ages.

It was several weeks later when I received the next call to shadow a tour.  No sweat! As Murphy’s Law would have it, one of the three guides had to cancel at the last minute and I was asked to guide his guests on the standard tour.   Unless you had Winston Churchill’s mastery of the English language, you could not describe how inadequate I felt.  I managed to muddle through heavy on the flying stories, a few Mother Goose Rhymes, and a smattering of war stories. 

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Even early in his career, George showed a natural inclination to guide and explain.  Here George and UN (United Nations Emergency Force - UNEF) brass plan a flight from the hood of a jeep in Gaza. In the background stands Mayer's de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter - a Canadian Air Force utility aircraft in the livery of the United Nations. UNEF was created to supervise and provide security for the disentanglement of British, Egyptian, French and Israeli forces in Gaza.  Photo: DND

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George pilots an Canadian Air Force de Havilland Canada Otter over the desert hills of Gaza in the early 60s as part of the United Nations Emergency Force.  Photo: DND

Just when I began to feel a little confident about guiding, Carolyn told me that VW was negotiating with the Canada Aviation Museum to borrow a cut-away model of a Merlin engine.  The catch was that it had to be returned to them in better shape than we received it. She asked me if I was interested in taking this on as project manager.  I replied yes – who could resist the smoothie talking man's wife?

The Merlin engine arrived in VW hangar without ceremony and was put into a quiet corner of the hangar to await its’ fate.  My first look at this marvellous piece of engineering from the thirties brought tears to my eyes.  To describe the condition of this long neglected icon of power is to say that it looked like me having a bad hair day!  Carolyn assembled a diligent team of John and Pierre who set about to restore this beast back to the patina of original new condition.  Thanks to them, it is now an example of the VW professional pride and workmanship and is ready to meet the public with valves held high.

This past year, I was proud to guide many guests through our collection of beautiful, functional aeroplanes. I attended one staff day, one open house, helped Paul remove the Spitfire canopy and fell in love with Miranda, the VW mannequin in a flight suit. I shot 2,117 digital photographs, brought my three year old grandson Liam out to see his favourite aeroplane, the Spitfire, and met some of the nicest folks you could ever meet – our hangar guests.

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At a recent volunteer training day, Mike Potter presented George with an award for his distinguished service as both an educator and an ambassador for Vintage Wings of Canada. His citation reads: "George’s great gift to Vintage Wings of Canada has been his indomitable spirit and his willingness to share a lifetime in aviation with our visitors and friends. As a tour guide, George displays the same delight and excitement for aviation as he did before his 10,500 hours in the cockpit - and it’s contagious!" Photo: Peter Handley

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A beaming Mayer holds up his Distinguished Service Award for Vintage News. Photo: Peter Handley

I have only one request for my Vintage Wings friends.  If I should expire during a hangar tour, just drag me off into the paint shop, bronze me, and sit me in the hangar next to my beloved Merlin engine and let me spend eternity in aviation heaven. Vintage Wings of Canada is experiencing an exponential growth and looking forward to a very successful year in 2009, the 100th anniversary of powered flight in Canada.  I am so very proud to be a volunteer in an organization staffed by professional, dedicated people who are, without exception, passionate about aviation.  Our goal says it all – We exist to inspire and educate the next generation about the historical significance of our aviation heritage and to demonstrate that these aeroplanes are more than just metal, fabric, and wood artifacts.

George E. Mayer

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Looking like a true bush pilot, George relaxes at the open cockpit door of a Transport Canada Twin Otter during his flying days. Photo: Mayer Family Archive

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One of George's delights is meeting the Second World War aviators who had such a key role in inspiring him to join the air force. Here he shares a moment with formerRCAF  Spitfire pilot Chris Preston.


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