Flying Like Arch - A Kittyhawk Flight

 Dear Arch

Dear Arch

It is a Monday and late in the afternoon out on the ramp at Vintage Wings of Canada’s hangar along the Ottawa River. It is one of only a handful of glorious afternoons we have been granted this summer. For months now, we have been buffeted by winds, slammed by cold rains and cantankerous flying conditions, squeezing in flying hours between rainsqualls and maintenance problems.  

But this afternoon is perfect. The hangar doors are wide open and barn swallows flash and dive in and out of its cool, cavernous darkness. The sky above is blue as sunlit cornflowers, populated with volumes of snow-white cumulus clouds like floating soufflés, the infield grass is rainforest green - New Guinea green. Out on the ramp stands an icon of my childhood imagination – a P-40 Kittyhawk, your old airplane Arch.  She’s beautiful and purposeful at once, from her big red spinner and gaping maw to her piscine tail. I can only imagine how you must have felt the first time you walked out to her on Kiriwina Island. Fear and love, pounding heart, headlong into your dangerous future, you walked – up to her.

She looks the same as she used to Arch, though when they found her, you could barely tell that she had been so beautiful. She wears different colours now, to celebrate one of our great Canadian pilots, but she is still all yours Arch. She belongs to us now, but she knows you Arch, remembers you, longs to see you again. She remembers in her mechanical soul (and they do have souls don’t they Arch) those days sixty-five years ago when you sat between her wings and behind her pulsing heart, held her close and danced with her in Pacific skies. She remembers she was sort of temperamental at first, forcing you to return to base twice with problems. Perhaps it was because she was Jim’s Kittyhawk and yours were unfamiliar hands. After that she settled down for you. She remembers that flight over the seas to Nadzab, sweeping the beaches and treetops to find the Japanese.

Dear Arch

The dark curve of the Vintage Wings of Canada hangar frames the sky on Monday, 20 July.  Seeing the blue sky, warm sun and popcorn cumulus just adds to the excitement.  Photo: Peter Handley

Today I will fly in this P-40 you once knew as “Come in Suckers!” and if I am a lucky man, I will be given a chance to hold her heart in my hand.  She is surrounded by our people now, attentive to her every need, checking her systems, looking after her. Angela has just installed a new belly tank for her long journey overland to Oshkosh in Wisconsin. John mans the fire extinguishers, Austin the tow bars. Tim Leslie smiles and shows me the way to get into the back seat. Peter sweeps around her taking photos, and Dave Hadfield, her pilot, plans her test flight.

Dear Arch4

No one at Vintage Wings of Canada knows more about the P-40 Kittyhawk than AME Angela Gagnon. Angela installed the belly tank for today's flight and with the help of Martin Hedley from Pioneer Aero, assembled the Kittyhawk after its arrival and changed out a damaged Allison in time to get her ready for Oshkosh. Photo: Peter Handley

I am very excited Arch. Soon Dave will turn over her lovely Allison engine and I will smell and feel just a little of what you felt. Just a little I must admit… but just enough.

To get into the back seat, the scalloped panels that make her look like a single-seater are removed, the heavy pilot’s seat is tilted forward and latched to the top of the canopy rail. Then I must squeeze my six foot, four inch, 250-pound body into the gap behind. Surprisingly there is plenty of room. I forego the parachute as it leaves me more room to get out if we need to exit quickly on the ground and more comfort aloft.

Dear Arch

Tim Leslie (right), Chief Pilot at Vintage Wings of Canada shows author Dave O'Malley how to climb into the back seat - a feat managed by tilting the forward seat and clipping it to the canopy rail. The back-seater's basic flight instruments are mounted on the back of the seat.

While it is roomy and the view is exceptional from the back seat, it is damn hot. But I think of what it must have been like in New Britain in January of 1944 when you last flew her. It would have been the height of a southern hemisphere summer then, close to the equator, the air sweltering and leaden, your equipment far heavier than my jeans and David Clarks. So I smile and sweat joyfully. I sit in the back for another twenty minutes or so, damp and happy. Tim Leslie brings me a fresh white towel soaked in ice water. I reach forward for it gratefully, but I think to myself “I bet Arch never felt the sweet sensation of ice water on the neck during his South West Pacific war.” You would like Tim… he is our squadron commander here... looks after his people - pilots, mechanics and me. Tim and Dave and Angela are what Vintage Wings of Canada is all about – skill and kindness and a sense of history.

Presently Dave straps in and the Kittyhawk’s attendants jump from her wings to the asphalt. Time to get a little closer to heaven.

Dear Arch5

The back seat of the Kittyhawk affords considerable room, even for a giant like O'Malley, and even greater visibility. Twenty minutes in the confined space where air does not move will, however, cause one to sweat like a Finnish sauna. Photo: Peter Handley

Dave tests the clearance for the stick and slaps it around the inside of my knees and thighs and back hard into my crotch. Fully aft, it just misses turning me into a castrato - by a centimeter. Dave said it would be a pretty tame flight, but I am glad my body parts won’t be in the way if he needs to move quickly. Dave dons his leather helmet and we switch to a hot mike and I listen as he talks out loud to your old airplane Arch. He is very good to her. Gentle. He won’t forget a thing she likes – or the order she likes it in. You would be pleased. Presently, he calls “Clear!”, sees that all have backed away and turns over the brand new Allison up front. I watch over his shoulders, staring into the spewing end of the six exhaust stacks on the port side. Jim’s old airplane shakes like a wet dog, coughs and catches immediately, blowing hot, dirty gas right past Dave, around his shoulder and straight into my face.  

My rear cockpit turns to an oven in a second, but I smile because I love the stink of burned fuel mixed with oil. There is a certain scent a cockpit needs to feel right – like a dressing room after a pick-up game of hockey. I know you understand what I mean Arch. It’s part of the whole experience. This cockpit is new after her rebuild and it has none of the sweaty smells of aviators yet, just the sun aroused scent of paint and lubricants.  I think about what Come in Suckers! must have smelled like after you and your mates sweated out hours and hours of Pacific flying and the jungle rot had set into her nylon and canvas. They say that smells are the most powerful triggers of memory. I think you know what I mean Arch.

Soon, the slipstream is set up and the majority of the exhaust is not, after all, driven into my little space behind Dave.  I am excited to hear the sound of a V-12 Allison wrapped in the skin of a Kittyhawk – from inside her body. It is truly… how can I put it… American - like a wheat combine on the prairie spouting a stream of grain into a waiting hopper, like a Hudson Hornet coupe with the hammer down.  The hammer down – that’s the sound I am thinking of Arch. Rumbling, run-away and loose as a freight train on the long grade down into Cleveland – or a Kenworth triple road-train blowing through the dusty outback, with a load of lowing cattle bound for Darwin. The kind of sound you would expect from an airplane made in Buffalo, New York.

Every now and then, she misses, the wings shake and the prop blur darkens as the Allison ingests a bubble of air while sucking fuel from her new belly tank. Dave is patient above all and he lets her run, not rushing, waiting until the air is out of the system, waiting for a gap between burps that means her indigestion is done. After five minutes, he feels it is time to pull chocks and head out. Maybe she is acting just like she did for you back in January of ’44 Arch. Maybe she still thinks she is Jim Harvey’s date.

Out by the runway, Dave toes the brakes and lays the throttle on rapidly to full take-off power. The engine burps ominously at the top end. Dave pulls back, then pushes up again; she coughs at just the wrong time. Seconds later we are taxiing back to the hangar. The air ingested with the fuel makes take-off on the belly tank fraught with problems. I am sure Arch, that you ran into this from time to time in the Pacific.

Back at the ramp, Angela leaps onto the wing while the engine ticks over. She has a confabulation with Dave over the din - Dave lifting his earflap up to catch her advice. This time he tests the Kittyhawk’s power response using onboard tanks and all is well – saving the belly tank for the air at 6,000 feet.

Dear Arch6

Dave Hadfield taxies out to the run-up for a second time. Photo: John Davies

It isn’t long before Dave is back-tracking down the runway to the threshold of the single runway. At the end Dave brakes hard on the right bar and we swing 180 degrees to line up for the take-off. To my right rises a fifty-foot ridge parallel to the entire length of the runway and covered in lush trees and bush. I look at them for a moment and think of how you landed in the jungle with trees much closer on both sides and without the luxury of asphalt. I see jungle Arch. I think of Buna and Tadji and imagine that out there lies the Kokoda Trail and that we are off to Port Moresby. I have an active imagination dear friend.

We are not long holding. Not long at all. In a heartbeat the throttle is up, the tail is up, with the Kittyhawk, your Kittyhawk, tracking true, west and fast down the centerline towards the sun. The acceleration is smooth and robust like I had imagined. Dave keeps her arrow straight against the torque and in a few seconds we rise from earth and climb. My immediate thought is of you Arch.  

The edges of the runway drop swiftly out of sight, leaving the green meadows and second growth forest to the north where I am looking. Dark shadows spot the lush landscape, a chevron of Canada geese make their way over the treetops and we rise steadily to 5,000 feet, just below the bottoms of the cumulus. I look out over those deep, curved and camouflaged wings edged in forest; I listen to the thunderous music of the Allison; feel the sun on my face, the slight rock of the wings riding invisible currents. The one clear thought taking shape between the pads of my David Clarks is that I am experiencing the sounds, the sights and the smells that were your world so long ago. Quebec becomes New Guinea, the sparkling edge of the broad Ottawa River plays the part of Milne Bay, the Canada geese become tropical egrets. For a few moments while we rise to the clouds, I savour the sensations, roll them over on my tongue like one of your marvellous Australian reds. It is a good vintage, this Kittyhawk, 1944.  Powerful, smoky, hints of oil and sweat, displaying the sharp tang of excitement and clear thought. The perfect memory when served with beef.  

Dear Arch 7

Dave Hadfield lifts the Kittyhawk from the runway streaming heated exhaust. In the background rises the heavily wooded escarpment running parallel to the single runway. Photo: John Davies

I think about you and your mates and all the other Kittyhawk pilots of the war – Canadians Stocky Edwards and Arnold Roseland, Tuskegee Airman Eugene Richardson and thousands more. I sense through my nostrils, my eyes, my ears and through the seat of my pants much of what you felt so long ago – except of course, there is no danger, no chance of bad weather, no lurking enemy, no lurking mountains, no certainty of death in the jungles below should we have to crash land. That is the difference Arch, and it is a big difference. It is not something I can ever experience, so I let it go… focusing on the joys of the Kittyhawk that Dave is sharing with me.

We level off momentarily just under the cloud base. Lovely mountains of cumulus range across the Ottawa Valley and sail in squadrons over the Gatineau Hills. Dave tests her stability with the new belly tank – alternately yawing and pitching. Everything is normal with the attachment arms of the belly tank offering only slight vibration in the yaw – an imperceptible shake only Dave is sensitive enough to notice. Presently, we are offered a higher altitude by the Gatineau Tower – not above 7,000, not below 5,000. Dave climbs. We move up past the inverted horizon of the cloud base, through a big gap. The sky above is blue beyond description Arch, but you must remember these days. Off our right wing stands the snowy, rolling face of a massive cloud, brilliant in the sunlight. As we climb parallel to and a thousand feet from this canyon wall, straggling wisps of mist fly by us like ghosts, sunlight beams like a William Turner painting from behind a silver edged cloud on our left.

Dear Arch 8

The sky this afternoon was calling us. Photo: Peter Handley

Dear Arch 9

Shadows cross the back of Dave Hadfield as he banks the Kittyhawk over a wooded and cultivated Quebec landscape. Heavy rains throughout the summer have made everything below Papuan green and lush as jungle. Photo: Dave O'Malley

Dave’s voice crackles in my ears.  He says something that, at first, does not register through the static and my reverie.  I ask him to repeat it. “Tumbling mirth”, he says “laughter’s silvered wings and all that… ” words from Magee’s High Flight poem. I can’t see his face, but I know he is smiling and we share the same thought.

After a couple of shallow dives and subsequent climbs, Dave switches to the belly tank and we sail along. In a moment there is a slight gasp as another bubble of air is sucked into the Allison. Dave asks me if I have any paper to write on. I don’t so he asks me to take the stick for a moment. He nods to the horizon line to the north and its relation to the exhaust stacks and says “Just hold it there… you have control”.  And just like that I become Dave’s autopilot, holding her steady, feeling her pulse in my right hand, wings level only, but feeling though I am flying none-the-less. And then Dave points to a canyon about a kilometer wide between two large clouds and says “Take her through there.” And so it begins Arch. For the next 14 minutes I make a series of tentative, banking turns through the wide canyons between white clouds, looking out over the sweep of her wing - with Dave writing down times and notes about the air ingestion.  While there is plenty of headroom, the rudder bars are much too close to the seat to allow me to coordinate my turns. She flies on - at the throttle setting Dave has selected, without attention to her rudder, but by my own hand – something I would never have dreamed of – at least not since I turned 16.  

Dear Arch 10

Dave skirts around tall popcorn cumulus. Photo Dave O'Malley

Dear Arch 11

Desert camouflage, Type "B" Roundels, magnificent skies - what more could be asked? Photo: Dave O'Malley

All the while that I have my hand on the stick, I am aware that I have history in my grasp. I feel the barely perceptible thrum of the ailerons, the headlong pull of the propeller, the buzz of the airframe under my shoes. All this collective high speed oscillation is transferred to the base of the control column where it rises as a harmonized, somewhat gentle sensation up the 16 inches of column, through the Bakelite grip and into the palm of my hand.  This nervous electrical charge of history blends with my pulse and I feel it Arch. In a small way, I feel part of what you might have felt. The sound, the smell, the sight, the feel, even the taste of it.  I know that there is much more to this that I will never feel, or even Dave for that matter - the important bits - the stress of battle, bad diet, impending disease, sadness, homesickness, loss, the ulcerous taste of fear. We can never know these things. These are things only you can bring to mind Arch, that you share with your mates and only your mates. But today's joy Dave and I would like to share with you Arch.

Dear Arch 11

Dave Hadfield and Dave O'Malley fly past towering cumulus en route to a beat-up of the Vintage Wings of Canada hangar. Photo: Peter Handley

During this ramble through the clouds, Dave comes to the conclusion that the air was not residual after the fill up, but continuously being drawn in around the clamp in the fuel line connection.  It's a fine line - not clamping so tight that the tank will not fall away when jettisoned. Perhaps a second clamp would solve the problem. Presently Dave waggles the stick and takes back control, descending to the pattern - setting up for a high speed pass down the runway at 200 feet. Dave executes the classic curved approach of a taildragger fighter with an engine between the pilot and a good view forward. Like all great pilots I have flown with, Dave talks to himself throughout all this - not in the demented loner sort of way, but speaking his thoughts so that he recognizes the myriad of tasks as they are done and to let me in on his every action. Far from disturbing, pilots who talk to themselves are reassuring and safer. I wonder... were you taught to be so vocal in the cockpit Arch?

Dear Arch 12

With the Allison thundering, Dave Hadfield takes the Kittyhawk down the runway at 200 feet.  Photo: Peter Handley

After ripping down the centreline and pulling up, we enter the circuit and prepare to land. A Cessna is taxiing for take-off and we are asked to extend the downwind for a few miles - much to my delight. In time, we are given permission to turn base and final and we make a long straight in approach (the curved approach being preferred), touching down without so much as a chirp from the rubber. No left to right jerk of the tires as they catch the tramac - they simply roll out straight and true. The tail comes down like like a sigh. Dave Hadfield is smooooth Arch. He loves this airplane, loves flying beautiful curving lazy eights in her. Dave gives up much of his precious spare time to be with her - travelling 250 miles from his home for each flight. He's ready to take her all the way to Oshkosh, Wisconsin next week for her coming out party. A happy pilot makes this airplane look even more beautiful.

Dear Arch 14

Dave Hadfield rolls out after a most enjoyable test flight with the new belly tank installation. Something about the towering forested hills beyond remind the author of the jungles of Papua New Guineau.  Photo: John Davies

As we taxi up to the hangar I see Tim and Angela each carrying two frosty brown bottles of beer out from the hangar doors and I suddenly realize that I am thirsty. My last thought of this trip was - "I wonder how a beer must have felt after one of your long flights across the sea and the jungle into danger". You know Arch, perhaps this is a little maudlin, but I have often thought Vintage Wings of Canada has many qualities that are like a squadron in the war - excellence, commitment, pride, love of the team.  Of course there is no danger from an enemy, and only a remote possibility of a mishap, but we all - pilots, maintainers, ground handlers and even communications people - do nothing short of our utmost to ensure our success. No one here Arch can do anything but give one hundred percent. No one wants to let the side down. And we all, every man and woman, care about each other. I think that is exactly how you thought of your mates - Billy, Jim and the rest.

Well Arch, the day ended with me and my "mates" sitting at the picnic table, quaffing icy beer, talking and joking with the sun lowering to the horizon on its way to wake you up. I told you a while back I would be doing this, and after such a wonderful experience, I just couldn't wait to tell you about it.

Your friend Dave O'Malley

Dear Arch 15

Here's to you Arch! One hour in the greenhouse of the Kittyhawk's back seat leaves an indelible smile on the author's face.  Upon landing Tim Leslie and Angela Gagnon bring ice cold beers for the relaxed debrief at the picnic table. There is no better beer than a post-flight beer. Right Arch?  Photo: Peter Handley

Dear Arch 16

Former RAAF Kittyhawk fighter pilot Arch Simpson. Though he was at the antipodes, the connection to this wonderful man was visceral for the author throughout the flight. 




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