Inspire- Hawk One's first Flight

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Above: The Hawk Five. Pilots of the Hawk One program who were inspired by the air demonstration pilots of the past like Fern Villenueve (red jacket), the first team lead of the Golden Hawks of the late 50s and early 60s. Left to right: Author Tim Leslie, Paul Kissmann, Hawk One Test Pilot, Fern Villeneuve, former Snowbird Lead Dan Dempsey (who remembers being inspired by the Golden Hawks), Steve Will, former Snowbird Lead and Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut. Photo: Peter Handley

Why celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Powered Flight in Canada? This is a question I have been asking myself quite often as of late. 

The world is experiencing economic challenges and upheavals of the like not seen in years.  Discontent in the Middle East and Africa continues to make headlines.  Russia and China are flexing their military muscle in a manner that makes us in the west rather nervous.  North Korea and Pakistan appear intent on becoming nuclear powers. Canadian men and women are being sent off into war zones and some are not making it back alive.

In the world of aerospace, airlines are presently experiencing low valuations and several aviation companies are on the verge of becoming insolvent.  The Space Shuttle is nearing the end of its useful life.  Soon the only vehicles able to attain orbit will be based somewhere else other than North America.

There does not seem to be a whole lot going on in the aerospace world that inspires one to feel like celebrating.  An anniversary recognizing a significant Canadian aviation accomplishment – no matter how important this accomplishment happens to be – strikes me as perhaps akin to a voice in the wilderness…perhaps. 

On the other hand, there was this weekend just passed.  

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Tim Leslie moves in to inspect Hawk One for leaks, hang ups and any problems with the Sabre that cannot be seen or determined by Paul Kissmann in the cockpit. Photo: DND Combat Camera

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Sliding beneath Hawk One to her starboard side, Tim Leslie looks her over as Kissmann "drops trou", throwing out the speed brakes and  hanging out the dirty laundry.
Photo: DND Combat Camera

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Sliding back, Leslie watches over Kissmann in the Sabre.
Photo: DND Combat Camera

A tremendous number of thoughts flowed through my head after I completed the ‘clean and dry’ check of the Hawk One Sabre for Paul Kissmann a few weeks ago. As I sat and watched from the Vintage Wings Mustang (doing a respectable 220 mph); Paul retracted Hawk One’s gear and peeled away toward the designated flight test area –  quickly becoming a dot on the horizon. Mike then moved into a tight echelon on me with the Spitfire and we waited together at 5,000 feet - standing vigil and listening out on the radios at the ready. Our mission was to be available on the outside chance Paul might need assistance… to perform top and bottom cover if required.

As the Sabre sliced away from me, the personal sense of gratification at seeing one’s idea become a reality went off the scale. It was an act of pure professionalism to remain focused on the task at hand.  I simply do not know how it gets any better.  I can only imagine what Mike must have been feeling as he sat in his Spitfire and watched in real time as his Mustang flew around his Sabre looking for defects - and discovering none. 

But there were only three of us at the controls during this storybook November afternoon.  What of all the others on the ground? Why did they show up and wait all day to see the Sabre take to the skies? Why was there such a commotion made when Paul taxied back in?  Why this overwhelming sense of impending greatness?

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Gear up and brakes coming in, Kissmann slides away to the north to run the Sabre through a series of test sdesigned to increase his confidence in the myriad systems of the Sabre.
Photo: DND Combat Camera

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Mike Potter, vintage fighter aircraft pilot and Founder of Vintage Wings of Canada, hangs his much-loved Spitfire off the port wing of Leslie in the Mustang. The master inspirer, Potter has built both a legendary enterprise in the software field and a legacy for all Canadians in the form of Vintage Wings. From the cockpit, he can see his Mustang and Sabre fly into history. 
Photo: DND Combat Camera

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On his way home after a totally successful test regime, Kissmann throws out the boards to allow Potter and Leslie to catch up. 
Photo: DND Combat Camera

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There may be three pilots aloft, but like an iceberg, the bulk of the endeavour lies beneath. The Hawk One team and Vintage Wings volunteers watch and wait.  Photo: Peter Handley

I must admit to being somewhat preoccupied these days by the question of why Vintage Wings is celebrating this 100th anniversary the way we are. In the big scheme of things, what does such an anniversary really matter? 

Is Hawk One bringing too much focus to our military aviation heritage? Are we then focussing it even more on the glory boys - the aerobatic demonstration teams? Though these entities are vitally important to our heritage, they do not represent the whole story of aerospace in Canada – not by a long shot! 

Such were my thoughts on Sunday morning flying Mustang over to the 412 Squadron hangar at Uplands with Mike Potter on my wing in the Spitfire - to pay our respects and celebrate the life of Charley Fox, a Canadian hero and veteran of the Second World War. Unlike chasing the Sabre on Saturday, I anticipated this event would be a significantly more sobering memorial service for an individual who epitomized everything Vintage Wings attempts to recognize. 

I assumed this would be a sad occasion. On the contrary!  It was a pure, respectful and sometimes humourous celebration of a life well lived. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I experienced somewhat of an epiphany during Charley Fox’s memorial service on this second consecutive sunny afternoon in November. 

Two speeches in particular caused me pause.

Mike Potter spoke of Charley’s extraordinary courage under fire, and in particular, the significance of a Distinguished Flying Cross and what it takes to earn not only one…but two of them.  He then shared with the audience some of the efforts Charley made in his later years to tell the stories of our Veterans. Mike then displayed a bit of courage himself during his eulogy. He chose to take the opportunity to express what some might consider a ‘politically incorrect’ opinion.  Mike suggested that, though the teaching about our Veterans and what they did during those wars they were sent off to fight on our behalf might be offensive to some… perhaps it was time to offend a few people.  He is right.  We don’t like war – it is an uncomfortable subject.  Some things, however, are worth fighting for.

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Mike Potter slides away to watch history being celebrated and history being made. Photo: DND Combat Camera

Freedom is not free.  It never will be.

The Chief of the Air Staff, Lieutenant-General Angus Watt, took to the podium. What General Watt had to say resonated in a way I am still trying to fully comprehend. The speech began simply and predictably enough with a Wikipedia definition of what a “hero” is.  The General spoke about the classic military definition of the term…courage under fire. He then spoke of our everyday heroes… Search and Rescue Technicians who jump into Arctic waters to rescue others as well as firefighters who risk their lives walking into burning buildings to save others. General Watt then made a special point of recognizing our teachers, and their devotion to enlightening others – heroes in their own right.

He then spoke of the need for ‘everyday’ heroes and touched upon the trials and tribulations of daily life and how we all can get distracted by the challenges of the moment. Those challenges can be of the worldly magnitude I alluded to at the beginning of this discourse… or the challenge of commuting to work and having your car break down. 

No doubt we all have a myriad of lob balls coming at us from left (right and centre) field on a daily basis. Life is hard. We all know this through experience. There are the constant daily reminders that there is no free lunch. I am sure all of us could write a book about those things in life that slam us into the boards just as we thought we were on a breakaway [an ice hockey metaphor for all those in warmer climes]. 

The General’s next thoughts on the subject of heroism were startlingly insightful. Heroes are needed, not only in comprehending our history and putting it into context (like Charley Fox); but in our present lives as well, and perhaps most profoundly, our future endeavours.  General Watt spoke of Charley Fox and this individual’s planting of seeds of heroism  - devoting his life to reminding us what heroism is all about. And not just courage under fire - but the courage, humility, and giving we can offer as a parent, a teacher…a human being.

Therein lies the reason we celebrate our heroes. Therein lies the reason we celebrate our accomplishments as a free society.  Therein lies the reason why we will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Powered Flight in Canada. 

The message to us is two fold. 

The intent of any national celebration is of course to recognize the efforts of our predecessors and the great things they were able to achieve under challenging circumstances. In the case of aerospace, we will do just that with Hawk One. 

However, buried in this recognition, during all the planned celebrations in 2009 with this jet, the message will be conveyed over and over again to all Canadians, of all ages - that we as country and as a people have endless opportunities to achieve great things.

Ultimately, it does not matter in what field those great things are achieved.  Armed with our hard earned freedoms granted to us by people like Charley Fox; each and every Canadian has the potential to achieve anything we want…to be the hero of our own lives.  We enjoy the freedom to do so - freedom being our most precious commodity as Canadians.  In celebrating our aviation heritage we celebrate our collective ability to reach for the stars.

A group of people stood on a frozen lake at Baddeck and witnessed a great thing on February 23rd 1909.  Perhaps at the time they did not realize its significance for this country.  Perhaps they did.

Max Ward started a flying operation in Yellowknife armed with not much more than a Fox Moth and a dream.  He finished up with a fleet of 747s.

Arthur Fecteau helped open up Quebec’s northern frontiers with his Fox Moths and Beavers .

Russ Bannock and George Neal test flew some of Canada’s most amazing aircraft…notably the Beaver and the Twin Otter.  Ironically, a new batch of Twin Otters is being resurrected by a company in British Columbia.

Polish Canadian Jan Zurokowski took Canada’s Avro Arrow to the skies for the first time on March 25, 1958. 

Uncounted pilots and crewmen slept in tents with their engine oil - drained from their Norsemen, Fairchilds, and Beavers to keep it warm at night. They still do so with their 205s, and Jet Rangers during northern winters. Some of our early intrepid aviators even carved makeshift propellers and wing struts in order to repair their damaged bird to facilitate flying themselves back to civilization and survival.

A Canadian Twin Otter flies to the South Pole from Alberta to medevac a researcher who has cancer.

Globemasters and Hercules transports based out of Trenton provide around-the-world/around-the-clock support to our Canadian soldiers and United Nations missions.

Marc Garneau became Canada’s first astronaut, Chris Hadfield the first Canadian to walk in space.

The list of our aerospace accomplishments in Canada is astonishing… and this is why we are making the effort to celebrate.

Canada is a place where dreams can be fulfilled.  Each of us has the enviable opportunity to do great things and to exhibit heroics in our own particular chosen fields.  General Watt’s message is clear. You don’t have to be a Spitfire ace or a CF-18 pilot to be a hero. You don’t have to jump out of airplanes or walk into burning buildings to be a hero. Rather, a hero is simply someone who rises above the challenges of day to day life and becomes more than they were.  To find something you love to do and do well at it is to inspire others to rise above the mundane.

Gerald Haddon touched upon the same theme when he quoted his grandfather’s (J.A.D. McCurdy) words during the unveiling of Hawk One:

“There is nothing noble in being superior to someone else.  True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.”

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Gerald Haddon, grandson of Douglas McCurdy and friend of Vintage Wings of Canada speaks at the roll-out of Hawk One in September. Reflected in the skin of Hawk One behind him stands Tim Leslie - listening intently to the direct descendant of the man whose accomplishment and whose legacy we celebrate. Photo: Peter Handley

Each member of the Hawk One team tells their own story of accomplishment.  Perhaps a few examples off the top of my head might support this hypothesis:  Paul Kissmann is the son of German immigrants who came to Canada shortly after WWII.  Paul helped out in their hairdressing shop before joining the military.  In a weird twist of irony, Paul went on to become the Commanding Officer of the same Squadron that during the war had participated in the bombing raids of the town in Germany his parents came from. 

Steve Will is a kid from North Bay, Ontario; an air cadet who joined the military right after high school and went on to become Snowbird Lead and the Commanding Officer of a CF-18 Squadron.  Dan Dempsey shares a similar theme…albeit he is from Alberta and flew Starfighters.

Chris Hadfield started out life picking corn on the family farm alongside his two brothers.

These are the pilots of Hawk One with whom I have the privilege of working.

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Chris Hadfield, test pilot, astronaut and just about the best spokesman possible for the Centennial of Flight. Photo: Peter Handley

The point in celebrating our achievements is to remind ourselves of the great things we can accomplish no matter where we start…and of the great things still to be done by others.

Last Saturday after the Sabre landed, as I taxied to the Vintage Wings hangar with the Mustang (the last to get back to the ramp) I had the solitary privilege of seeing from a distance the crowd gathered around Hawk One and clapping as Paul climbed off the step.  Many took the opportunity to shake Paul’s hand or slap him on the back.  Paul received the prerequisite soaking down…an Air Force tradition we at Vintage Wings have chosen to keep alive.

The words of one of our most stalwart Volunteers at Vintage Wings came to mind.  Despite this person’s physical challenges he shows up week in and week out to clean aircraft, sweep floors, and keep the books.  Why?  He stated he does so as he vicariously lives through the exploits of our pilots and feels privileged being a part of our team.

The scene unfolding in front of me as Paul talks with the crowd is reminiscent of the black and white footage I watched of the crowds gathered in Malton, Ontario to witness Jan Zurokowski fly the Avro Arrow for the first time.  The heroic welcome this Polish immigrant received as he climbed down from his first flight in this Canadian aircraft was not unlike what I witnessed as Paul Kissmann, the son of German immigrants, received while stepping off of Hawk One - two proud Canadians at the height of their profession. 

The goal of Vintage Wings is to inspire, educate, and commemorate.  So the answer to my initial question about why we are about to embark upon celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Powered Flight in Canada becomes obvious. 

This time next year we will be looking to Hawk One and trying to determine if we achieved the aim. We simply won’t know in the short term.

For you see, as General Watt alluded to, when you plant those seeds of heroism in others you can never predict if those seeds have firmly taken root – or if the soil is fertile enough to promote growth.  But you must endeavor to plant these seeds no matter the risk of not all those seeds flowering - some will - we just can’t pick which ones. 

Perhaps someday a Canadian will stand on Mars.  When asked what inspired them to become an astronaut and make the journey they will talk about hanging off an airport fence and watching this magnificent golden airplane landing and stopping for gas.  They will talk about the pilot in a tailored blue flight suit disembarking and walking to the terminal building for a quick bite to eat before continuing on.

Perhaps that twelve year old future astronaut will jump down from the fence and say to herself…“I am going to be like that one day!” 

Ultimately, for me anyway, the idea of this possibility is enough to justify our efforts putting Hawk One into the sky and flying it across Canada celebrating our 100th Anniversary of Powered Flight.

Per Ardua Ad Astra.

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Fire up your imaginations! - that's the message we want to deliver in the year ahead. The dragon that is Hawk One's Orenda engine lets loose a lick of inspiration expiration. Photo Peter Handley

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The Journey begins right here, right now.

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