Photo by Peter Handley
Sixty-five to seventy years ago, an entire generation of young, virile men and strapping naive boys would forgo the futures they were planning for to join the fight against tyranny around the world. With full knowledge of the odds and penalties, they would lay down upon the roulette table of all-out war a wager that would represent all the days of their lives not yet lived - possibly 70 years more, 24,000 sunsets, love, children and grandchildren. The stakes were supreme and many would lose this terrible gamble, forfeiting their lives, their limbs or their souls as payment. For those who found themselves still standing at the end of the war, the price was still high - the best an airman could do was to get his stake back.
For the most important and wholesome years of their lives, they faced unimaginable stress, deprivation, disease, homesickness and the acidic destruction that fear and loneliness brings to the body and soul. Some survivors came home whole, many came home weakened, aimless and broken.
Most men recovered from their nightmares, faced down the new reality of peace and their place in it and went on to resume their lives, to create children, opportunities and in time to distance themselves from the waste of those years.
Since those terrible days, the three generations spawned by the returning airmen, sailors and soldiers have also distanced themselves in an unintentional way. The years have passed, the days of remembrance whittled down to one cold morning a year, the interest faded, the heroes lost to memory. Now, as the last of these men, the strong and healthy ones, reach their ninetieth year, we have very little time to tell these men how much we appreciate the risks they took back then to give us the life and freedom we enjoy. Very little time.
I have done a lot of thinking about these men, about how much I owe them, about how much I enjoy their company and about what I can do to tell them so. There is very little one can do, because they do not ask for anything other than respect and to make good the world they sacrificed so much to give us.
There is no better gift to give one of these old gentleman warriors than a rendezvous with the best memories of their own history. Each and every pilot from that era looks back on his flying days with a powerful fondness. One of the greatest joys of being part of Vintage Wings of Canada, on par with watching the great warbirds flying, is being present when one of these men walks into the hangar for the first time and beholds a collection of exotically beautiful machines that were the consuming focus of the best years of his young life. It is like watching an older man come upon the young and beautiful woman he once loved in his passionate youth to find she has not changed one iota in sixty years. It is a breath-taking moment when a veteran sees that the love of his life is even more beautiful than he had remembered her. The look on their faces is one of rekindled passion.
But what if you could give them more than just a glimpse of their past? What if you could get them back in the air and put a control column in their hand again? What if you gave them wings? The new Vintage Wings Member Ride Program is the answer.
During the recent Wings over Gatineau Air Show, I had the opportunity to pay back in a small way one of my good friends, former 602 City of Glasgow Squadron Spitfire pilot Flight Sergeant Harry Hannah. Harry was shot down over France in 1943 and spent the next two years as a POW. One full year of that time was spent in solitary confinement for his part in a failed escape plan. Harry was tried in a Wermacht military court, given a military lawyer and sentenced to 3 years hard labour. His lawyer spoke eloquently on his behalf at the trial in Dresden and had the sentence reduced to one year in solitary - the 3 year hard labour being essentially a death sentence. While in Dresden, Harry witnessed the terrible immolation of the city by RAF Lancasters.
Harry Hannah is an elegant man, not given to loud words, rude jokes, boasting or actions that would hint at bad taste. He carries himself with a quiet grace, a straight back, and twinkling, constant blue eyes. There is something about Harry’s eyes that I haven’t yet pinpointed. There is contentment and laughter in them. They seem to look out upon the world from a quite place, a place Harry has truly earned. Harry is a gentleman in the true meaning of the word. He speaks well of every man, or should they not deserve it, he speaks very little of them. Harry is the very picture of a Scottish gentleman - with all its attendant qualities - a wry wit, a proud bearing, a reserved manner, an elegant sartorial sense and a way with the lady folk.
His history is one from the pages of a movie script, yet he will tell his story only if cajoled and questioned and entreated by an enthusiastic aviation nut like me. The movie of Harry's life would blend the scripts from Captains of the Clouds, The Battle of Britain, Reach for the Sky, The Great Escape, and Slaughterhouse Five.
He is still the quintessential fighter pilot and I wanted to pay him back for what he did for me and my family before I was even born.
As a member of Vintage Wings of Canada, I was able to sponsor the flight of the Tiger Moth as it prepared for the next day's air show and I or anyone of my choosing could fill the front cockpit for free. Harry was more than willing to hop into the vacant spot and go dancing in the skies over Gatineau and downtown Ottawa. I sponsored two back to back 20 minute flights, but pilot Blake Reid was aloft for almost an hour getting in as much time as possible while the conditions were perfect.
In addition to Harry's flight, Vintage Wings of Canada member Frank Waywell also sponsored a flight in the P-40 Kittyhawk. This is the same type he was in over North Africa when his engine packed in during a stafing run in 1943. He too was captured (by the Italians) and strangely enough he spent two years as a POW with many months in the same POW camp (Stalag Luft 4B) as Harry Hannah and never met him. Perhaps it was because Harry was in solitary. For more on Frank's personal story we direct you to a story we did last year.
Both men met over golf many, many years later and are members of the Oakville Golf Club.
If you have a father, grandfather or uncle that was an airman during the Second World War, the greatest gift you can give them if they are still alive and healthy today, is a flight in one of our warbirds. Trust me on that one. But if your beloved airman has passed away and you want to feel a little bit of his experiences during the war, become a member, sponsor a flight and go for a ride for free. All you have to do is become a member of Vintage Wings.
Enough talk... let's take a look at the flights of these two heroes and judge for yourselves how much it meant to them and their families.
Flight Sergeant Harry Hannah's Tiger Moth Flight
Pilots: Blake Reid, Harry Hannah
Friday September 17th, 2010, Weather CAVU, Winds: calm, Memories: Life
Vintage Wings of Canada Tiger Moth pilot Blake Reid and flight sponsor O'Malley push the Tiger Moth out into the sun after refuelling. Photo by Richard Allnutt
Mr. and Mrs. Harry Hannah of Oakville, Ontario pose with Harry's Tiger Moth mount for the evening's flight. For veterans and aviators of any stripe, the "trip of a lifetime" can be an exciting and enduring experience. This goes for all members of the family and attendant friends. Though surely Harry's "trip of a lifetime" was the time, in his Spitfire, that he turned back over France to help out a formation of B-25s in trouble and found his cockpit shot to pieces and his aiplane in a death spiral. This evening's flight was to be a pure pleasure. Photo by Peter Handley
The experienced Spitfire pilot gets to know Blake Reid before the flight. Blake Reid, a soft spoken and affable gentleman if there ever was one, is an airline pilot with Ottawa-based First Air. Photo by Peter Handley
While the two pilots wait, Vintage Wings of Canada aircraft groomer Anna Ragogna is taken briefly away from her glass of cabernet sauvignon to polish Harry's windscreen. Given the low light of the evening and flying into the setting sun, it was necessary to limit glare. Photo by Richard Allnutt
Before O'Malley could assist the 90 year old, he scrambled up the wing, following Blake Reid's instruction about where to hold and what to step on and practically jumped into the cockpit. Photo by Peter Handley
Nearly 70 years after his first military training flight in Arizona, Hannah still has the aristocratic and bold bearing of a Spitfire pilot. Photo by Peter Handley
Harry's beautiful wife Yvonne sneaks in to get a photo of her man. Always humble, Harry had to put up with a lot of picture taking this evening, and for that we thank him. Photo by Richard Allnutt
Blake Reid instructs Harry on the magneto switches for the Tiger Moth, which are in plain view from in and out of the cockpit - a necessity for an aircraft with an "Armstrong" starter. Photo by Richard Allnutt
To the cadence of "Clear - Contact!", Steve "Armstrong" MacKenzie whips the Tiger Moth's prop into action. Photo: Peter Handley
As mentioned before, it's not just the man in the cockpit that recieves a memory for life on a sponsored aircraft flight. Here Yvonne Hannah and honourary daughter Susan Kirkpatrick beam with joy and pride - with the yellow Tiger Moth reflected in their sunglasses. Photo by Peter Handley
Zooming in close to the joyful face of Yvonne Hannah, we can clearly identify the Vintage Wings of Canada Tiger Moth in her sunglasses. Phot by Richard Allnutt
Blake Reid sashays the little biplane down the taxiway while Harry sits up front with his thoughts. Photo by Peter Handley
Low golden light, cool evening air, a Yellow bird and no wind what so ever. It promised to be one of the finest flying evenings of the 2010 flying season. Photo by Peter Handley
There are indeed benefits to hauling around a lense the size of mortar. Despite being three hundred meters from the runway, Richard Allnutt is able to capture the smile on the fighter pilot's face. The look seems to say... 'I am happy to be back." Photo by Richard Allnutt
The perfect evening. With light wing loading, the Tiger Moth can be a frisky bird in thermals and low level turbulence. But tonight, the Gypsy Major would run like a joyful spirit and the yellow wings would be drawn through the smooth air as if they were not flying at all. Photo by Peter Handley
Alas, one hour later with the sun slipping below the horizon, Harry and Blake reluctantly land and taxi back to the ramp. Photo by Richard Allnutt
While a large gathering of EAA pilots, Vintage Wings volunteers and dignitaries dine in the hangar, some hear the Tiger Moth's return after almost an hour and rush out to great the returning pilots. Photo by Peter Handley
As Harry and Blake taxi off in after a glorious evening, the womenfolk blow him kisses and obviously share his exhileration. In the group, aviation philanthropist and aircraft buff Clint Cawsey photographs the return. Photo by Richard Allnutt
If you ever wondered why we do this... Harry's smile and thumbs up will give you the answer. Photo by Peter Handley
With the moon running high, historic aviation videographer Jim Blondeau captures Harry's thoughts after the flight... time for drink! Photo by Richard Allnutt
Flight Sergeant Frank Waywell's P-40 Kittyhawk Flight
Pilots: Dave Hadfiled, Frank Waywell
Saturday September 18th, 2010, Weather thin overcast, Winds: calm, Memories: Life
The following evening, 91-year old Kittyhawk pilot Frank Waywell (I know, it's hard to believe), met up with Vintage Wings of Canada pilot Dave Hadfield for a flight in his old warhorse. The last time that Frank flew in a P-40, it was 1943 and its engine packed-in after staffing Italian troops in North Africa. He crash landed, was captured and by various means and stages, found himself in Stalag Luft 4B where he spent the remainder of the war. The strange part of this story is that Harry Hannah also spent the remainder of his war at the same POW camp after being shot down in 1943. Neither met during those two years, but found themselves members at the same golf club in Oakville many decades later. Photo by Peter Handley
Frank Waywell is in tremendous shape. He does not look a day over 70 and he scrambled up the wing and into the rear seat of the P-40 like it was 1943. Photo by Peter Handley
No need to say much here... as Frank is about to take a flight back in time. Photo by Peter Handley
Vintage Wings ground crew worked long into the evening after the Wings Over Gatineau air show to ensure that Frank's mount was primed and ready. Here AME Angela Gagnon and mechanic André Laviolette signal the start with Dave Hadfield. Photo by Peter Handley
You have control!... I have control... Frank takes the stick of a P-40 for the first time in 67 years and his joy lights up the rear cockpit. Photo by Dave Hadfield
Frank Waywell beams with a warmth that only a perfect moment like a sunset flight can bring. Here, he poses with pilot Dave Hadfield, Frank's great grandson and his granddaughter Wendy. Photo via Frank Waywell
67 years after the last P-40 entry in his logbook, Frank gets Dave Hadfield to sign off on one more Kittyhawk sortie. To be able to put this entry in his yellowed and long-dormant logbook is a testament to Frank's longevity, relaxed outlook on life and physical fitness. Photo via Frank Waywell
Frank Waywell and Harry and Yvonne Hannah joined us at the EAA - Vintage wings dinner after the air show. The satisfaction at returning to the skies is written on their faces. Photo by Peter Handley