From a Moment of Great Clarity - our Founder reflects

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Photo: J.P.Bonin

By Mike Potter, Founder of Vintage Wings of Canada

If Vintage Wings of Canada were an aircraft, it would be approaching “Vy” (best rate of climb speed). The pace of growth and change has been breathtaking and, even for those who know us, the degree to which this enterprise has evolved over the past couple of years may not be fully comprehended.
 
A typical Saturday at our hangar at Gatineau can offer one a glimpse of the excitement: A large group of air cadets is listening attentively to their tour guides; a team of volunteers work together to rib-stitch the fabric on our Lysander, now under restoration; several of our pilots sit in the library working through ground school for the newly arrived P-40 Kittyhawk, and through the open hangar doors, the  gorgeous Robert Hampton Gray FG-1D Corsair is rumbling through a ground run by maintenance staff in preparation for its departure for DND’s Bagotville International Airshow.
 
Looking at all this, it is hard to believe that less than seven years ago Vintage Wings of Canada was nothing more than an idea.
 
Today the Vintage Wings of Canada foundation brings together a collection of 18 historically significant aircraft, over 150 committed volunteers, hundreds of supporters, sponsors and donors of all kinds, into a world-class facility at the Gatineau Airport in Quebec, near Ottawa, Canada – all dedicated to the mission of celebrating Canada’s aviation heritage and helping Canadians discover how much we have to be proud of in the field of aviation.

But at its very beginning, the idea was little more than an expression of my own interest in aviation – a personal indulgence, if you like. After a lifetime of recreational and business flying, in a moment of madness, I acquired a Spitfire Mk XVI. After all, I thought, how much fun would it be to fly a Spit in one’s “retirement years”?
 
I certainly had no full understanding of the power of that beautiful and legendary airplane to unleash so much passion from so many people.

Being the only airworthy Spitfire in Canada at the time, I decided in 2003 to repaint her in Canadian markings – specifically 421 Squadron, an RCAF unit operating Spitfires from airfields in England and eventually France, Belgium and Holland during the Second World War. I was proud of the result and I asked the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa to provide their facility for an unveiling of the “Canadian Spitfire”.
 
To my amazement, two or three thousand people came – the parking lot overflowed, there was standing room only in the museum. Many air combat veterans were seated in the front rows for the short ceremony. Then, after a flying display  which brought the unique growl of a Merlin powered Spit back to the former site of historic RCAF Station Rockcliffe after decades of absence – many of those veterans climbed onto the wing and settled into the cockpit of Spitfire SL721. Memories were revived, tears flowed, families looked upon grandfathers with renewed admiration, and thoughts turned to the brave young men from Canada who flew in combat, many of whom lost their lives in the fight.
 
That day in August of 2003 was a moment of great clarity. A beautiful and historic airplane like a Spitfire has a history. It has stories to tell – great stories of sacrifice, heroism, adventure, victory, defeat and service to one’s country. It speaks of the extraordinary men and women who could design and build such a machine as well as the men who flew it and fought with it.
 
How could anyone regard such an artifact as simply a personal possession?

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The power of the Supermarine Spitfire to tell stories of great Canadians became evident to Potter the first time he demonstrated it in public. Today it remains his favourite flying machine because of its beauty and the stories it can tell. Photo: Peter Handley

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When veterans like former Second World War Corsair ace Lieutenant Don Sheppard climb into the cockpit of one of our fighters, they are transported back in time - remembering old friends, lost comrades and events of global importance.  These are the greatest of all moments for Vintage Wings of Canada. Photo: Eric Dumigan

A plan started to take shape. Create a registered charitable foundation with a mission to educate and inspire Canadians about our aviation heritage. Acquire a collection of classic aircraft historically important to Canada and place them in that foundation. Build a facility to serve equally well as an operating hangar and a display centre for visitors to enjoy this collection and to learn from it. Assemble a core group of world-class maintenance engineers, restoration specialists and pilots. And finally, attract a large group of volunteers, supporters and partners who share our vision.
 
Even for the dreamer and the optimist – and I am both – the results have been well beyond expectations. Let’s look at some recent examples of the work of Vintage Wings.

As Vintage Wings’ contribution to Canada’s 2009 Centennial of Powered Flight, we have provided our beautifully restored Canadair Sabre 5 (F-86), painted in the markings of the fabled RCAF Golden Hawks display team from the 1950’s, to fly with the Snowbirds on Canada Day and many other key Snowbird appearances across Canada. This program has been developed in close partnership with DND, but primarily funded by the private sector through a variety of major corporate sponsorships.

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The stunning success of the Hawk One venture proves the concept that individuals, corporations and the public sector will step up to support similar creative and commemorative endeavours. Photo: Peter Handley

Our Stocky Edwards P-40N Kittyhawk restoration project, which has been underway at Pioneer Restorations in New Zealand for the past three years, was completed this past spring. This magnificent aircraft recreates the fighter flown by Wing Commander Edwards, Canada’s highest scoring living ace, in his days as a flight leader in 260 Squadron, North Africa in 1942. The Kittyhawk has recently arrived safe and sound at our facility in Gatineau, thanks to the assistance of DND, and Stocky will be reunited with his aircraft at a ceremony later this summer.

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This summer Vintage Wings of Canada will reunite Wing Commander James "Stocky" Edwards with the P-40 Kittyhawk he once flew. Photo: Gavin Conroy

Vintage Wings now has trained dozens of tour guides to assist the many visitors who make their way to our facility every day. These guides – men and women who often have backgrounds as air force veterans, highly experienced pilots and engineers, or a deep interest in aviation history – are conducting tours for as many as 200 visitors per week who arrive at the Vintage Wings hangar.

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Eager volunteers line up to register at the Vintage Wings Volunteer Training Day in May. Photo: Peter Handley

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Don MacNeil, Vintage Wings historian (standing centre) talks to a group of experienced and novice tour guides during a training session. The quality of the program put together by MacNeil and his team ensures that visitors understand the importance of each aircraft to Canadian history. Photo: Peter Handley

Under the co-ordination of our Senior Restorations Engineer, Deryck Hickox, teams of volunteers – men and women and youths  ranging from 14 year old air cadets to retired expert machinists – are side by side, hard at work, each week on our in house restoration projects,  the Hurricane MK XII, Westland Lysander, and Fairey Swordfish.

A partnership has been put in place between DND with the Comox Valley Air Museum Association and Vintage Wings under which we provide the funding and management of their Spitfire Mk IX “Y2-K” project. This work will continue to be done at the Comox museum, where it will continue to be an attraction for visitors, and will be displayed for a season in the Comox area before joining the Vintage Wings collection at Gatineau. This aircraft has been given the identity of the “Roseland Spitfire”, in the memory of Arnold Roseland who flew Y2-K on 65 operational flights with 442 Squadron and who, in 1944, lost his life over France in a Spitfire.

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Mike Potter met with officials of the Comox Valley Air Force Museum in January to finalize details and present the plan which will enable the museum to bring their Y2-K project to flying status. Photo via CVAFM

On June 6 of this year, we opened our doors to visitors for a D-Day celebration, complete with a Transport Canada sanctioned air display. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 visitors were on hand to  enjoy and learn from the Vintage Wings collection, and view dozens of other classic aircraft flown in for the occasion. While admission was free, the majority of visitors generously made donations for the support of Vintage Wings of Canada – a testament to the importance of our mission to Canadians.

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Of the thousands of visitors to our first Open House of 2009, no two were more important to us than Squadron Leader Trevor Southgate and Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae, both veteran pilots of the Second World War who saw action on D-Day. Southgate flew Dakotas dropping paratroopers and towing gliders for the airborne assault behind the beachhead while McRae flew Spitfires over the D-Day landings. They were given a place of honour at the Open House and their stories were then presented by Vintage Wings pilot Rob Kostecka. Photo: Peter Handley

Each of these examples speak to how Vintage Wings has evolved into a Canadian institution with a mission of public outreach, broadly supported by hundreds of individuals contributing their time, expertise and financial support simply because they believe in what we are doing – celebrating our heritage, recognizing our heroes, and bringing to our fellow Canadians some of the stories of our remarkable history in aviation.

Although we are almost entirely funded from private sources – and do not seek or rely on government grants to do our work – no one today could fairly describe Vintage Wings as one man’s private domain.
 
Our donors, supporters and volunteers are the stakeholders in this enterprise – and its heart and soul. Together they are raising awareness of Canada’s remarkable aviation heritage and, in so doing, are awakening a powerful sense of pride from coast to coast. They have my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation.

Mike Potter, pilot.

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At our Open House, Potter and Vintage Wings of Canada were awarded the President's Award from the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association for their contribution to Canadian aviation heritage. Here Potter accepts the award on behalf of all the volunteers at Vintage Wings of Canada from president Kevin Psutka and two young boys whose futures have no limits. Photo:  Peter Handley

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