Last week at Vintage Wings of Canada, the hangar door klaxons sounded their incessant blare, the massive steel doors cracked open and the thin, cold light of an early spring day on the Ottawa River split the hangar like an axe. Crews scurried around a tall silver bird with broad sweeping wings of strange configuration. Her bullion-silver paint glittered in the new light as she was pulled from her warm lair to out to the ramp where she would re-enact a day like this some 71 years previous.
The strange and quirky Westland Lysander had languished for two years of unattended repose at the back of the hangar but last year she was handed over to the experienced hands of Restorations Coordinator Deryck Hickox... and magic began to happen. Over the next twelve months, the Oxydol-striped Harry Whereatt Lysander Target Tug was stripped of her wings, her feathers, her legs, her skin and her sinews and taken down to her skeleton. Her engine had been worked on in England over a protracted and agonizingly slow two year period and was scheduled to return soon. Before her heart was to be reunited with with her body, she would undergo a full refit and a bones-up rebuild. Over the winter, the Bristol Mercury engine finally made it back home and the momentum doubled to ready the bird for the 2010 flying season.
Steve MacKenzie, the heart and soul of Vintage Wings of Canada's volunteer brigade, stands ready at the fire extinguisher should it be needed. After thousands of hours of breaking down and reassembling the complex parts of the Lizzie, there was no guarantee that she would start and that she would run fault free.... but she damn well did! Huge stacks of gratitude and 44 gallon drums of kudos go out to the men who, under Deryck Hickox's tutelage, created a masterpiece and a resource of skills at the same time. Photo: Peter Handley
71 years ago the original 416 underwent her first engine test while engineers and mechanics stood by with excitement at the Malton factory of National Steel Car. On April 13th, 2010... nothing had changed (except the original 416 had a Bristol Perseus engine while the new 416 thunders to the beat of a Bristol Mercury). Photo: Peter Handley
The Lysander project was a "build" of another stripe as well. Simultaneous to the building of 416 - the airplane, we were building a team of experienced aircraft restorers. Prior to 1939, National Steel Car was a manufacturer of rolling stock for the railroads, but like many large-scale North American manufacturers during the Second World War it retooled and retrained its skilled heavy industry workers to become the "high-tech" aerospace constructors of their day. In much the same way, Deryck Hickox took a group of volunteers, whose mechanical skills ranged from zilch to master, and Obi-Wan Kanobied them into a band of brothers who dedicated every single Saturday and often weekdays to listen, learn, apply and create.
Hickox, the team leader and coordinator of restoration work, bears a strong resemblance to a certain mustachioed balcony-based Muppet heckler by the name of Waldorf and he is lovingly referred to as such. He is everywhere on the restoration floor, quick with retorts, good-natured barbs and back-handed compliments and he is immensely proud of his team. He is fond of telling people he has the best job in the world and he expresses his pride in his team at every opportunity. In fact, it was originally intended that he be called Manager of Restorations, but he insisted on Co-ordinator instead - perhaps a subtle shift in meaning, but one of great inportance to Waldorf.
The sign on the hnagr wall over the area where all our restorations take shape. The only difference is that Hickox usually has a smile on his face. Photo: Peter Handley
Pilots and staff at VWC chat with Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum's pilot Rick Rickards about the Lizzie's still warm engine at the side of her landing gear - while back in 1939 National Steel Car staff discuss problem's with 416's gear. Photo: Peter Handley
Some people thought it couldn't be done - take a vintage warbird down to parts and then rebuild and refinish her inside of a year... all with so-called inexperienced volunteers. Well, they were wrong indeed. Under the direction of the rascallion Deryck 'Waldorf" Hickox (4th from right), the second Lysander in a year has come to life in Canada. Photo: Peter Handley
Vintage Wings of Canada has chosen to paint its newly restored Westland Lysander in the colours of No. 416, the first prototype airframe off the assembly line at National Steel Car's Malton, Ontario factory in 1939. It would be the first of hundreds of Lysanders to roll of that line and into BCATP and overseas service. We are always proud to honour the sacrifices of our airmen and women during the Second World War, but by painting this Lizzie in the overall silver paint and factory test markings we are celebrating something very unique in warbird operation - the collective genius, manufacturing innovation and massive industrial contribution of Canadian civilians in the design and manufacture of war machinery, the highest expression of which is the military aeroplane.
After her factory tests in 1939, No. 416 flew to RCAF Station Rockcliffe, just across the Ottawa River from our airfield here at Gatineau, to be evaluated by the test establishment there. There is no doubt that the original 416 flew right over our heads on her downwind tracks during her stay across the river. It was a natural to paint ours this way and fly her home to Rockcliffe, her first operational base, this summer.
416's first duty as our new emissary, will be to fly to Prince Edward Island this summer where she will be dedicated in the name of one of Canada's true living heroes - Cliff Stewart of Charlottetown, PEI who, during the war, was a clandestine operative behind enemy lines. Stewart, a still-fiesty ninety-year old, was flown in and out off Nazi-occupied France on more than one occasion (he could tell you how many times, but being still sworn to life-long secrecy... he'd have to kill you afterwards). Landing by moonlight when it was available, the all-over black Lysanders were tricked out for long range and rapid deplaning of passengers and cargo. In a recent interview, Cliff Stewart, with a twinkle in his eye, referred to the Lizzie as his "Spy Taxi". The name sort of stuck with us, and this is what we are calling her for her debut flying season. Now, before you fire off a nasty e-mail, you should know we are are fully aware of the discrepancy between her silver factory paint scheme and the specialized night operations scheme of clandestine ops and we know that she carries no equipment that would make her a true Spy Taxi... but were doin' it for Cliff, so save us the recriminations on the forums please. And on the other side, we also know that the original 416 was a Lysander II with a Bristol Perseus powerplant while ours is a Mark III with a Mercury. But... it's a cool paint scheme and an even cooler story.
The two pilots, Rick Rickards and John Aitken chat with ground crew from the heights of the Lysander's wing. Photo: Peter Handley
Pilot to pilot, Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum Lysander pilot Rick Rickards shares his knowledge with Vintage Wings of Canada's John Aitken, who will be taking the aircraft down to Prince Edward Island this summer. Photo: Peter Handley
Last week, the thousands of hours of skilled and patient work, the thousands of rib stitches and rivets, the lessons learned, the friendships made and the team built all came to a sweet conclusion with the first engine start. It went off with out a hitch, with the engine running smooth and only a few tweaks needed.
Reviewing the photos by Peter Handley taken that day, I was struck by the powerful resemblance they had to a series of photos taken at Malton back in 1939. Take a look at the first title photo in this story - the same hangar at the left, the engine running hard, the drums in the background, the landscape in the distance. It was as if time had stood still for 71 years and Lizzie had
Mike Potter (No. 08 in your program, No. 1 in our hearts) chats with Rick Rickards (facing), John Aitken and Deryck Hickox immediately after shutting down the big Merc. Photo: Peter Handley
The Big Merc thunders in the bright sunlight. Nearly everything about the first engine start was satisfactory, with only a few tweaks needed and noted. Photo: Peter Handley
The long and lanky John Aitken, a highly experienced test pilot, strides up Lysander Mountain. Aitken has thousands of hours on exotic aircraft like the YF-17 and CF-18. Photo: Peter Handley
Shouting over the thunder of the Mercury, Rick Rickards tells ground crew what's going on from the cockpit point of view. Photo: Peter Handley
Top, the press was on hand in 1939 to capture the excitement of an early engine test on 416 with this photo appearing in the Toronto Star Weekly. 71 years later, a film crew was on hand to capture the Second Coming of Lysander 416. History repeats itself. Photo: Peter Handley
All gussied up for her debut at the VWC 2010 Flying Season Kickoff Gala at the hangar - WOW! Photo by Steve MacKenzie