A Banner Night - a Tribute to Bill McRae

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Bill McRae and his old dance partner - the Supermarine Spitfire. Photo: Peter Handley

We celebrated a lot of things last Saturday night at our Victory Gala.

Firstly, we celebrated a new widely inclusive operational model and the remarkable independent Board of Directors we have recruited. Mike Potter, our founder, spoke briefly about our new public charitable status, our governance and our ballistic climb into the future. The idea that started to take shape while standing at the wing of his beloved Spitfire so long ago is continuing to mature, to fill out, and to gain stride and purpose. And all because of the very passionate nature of vintage aviation enthusiasts from coast to coast.

Next, we celebrated a safe and successful year of flying operations and the overcoming of many obstacles from mechanical to organizational to emotional. One of the highlights of the Gala was the inspirational and motivating speech by Vintage Wings President Rob Fleck. He took us through the roller coaster year, the technical challenges, the coast to coast accomplishments and the people we reached. He outlined our coming year and the breathtaking complexities and challenges of running our four Yellow Wings aircraft from here to Vancouver and back across the country, down to Oshkosh and then all the way to Nova Scotia... and finally back home. We now have the talent and the knowledge to take on such a task. Then "Flecko" took us through the restoration projects - "the hostage taking at Pegasus" and the Terry Goddard Swordfish, the turnaround with the Roseland Y2K Spitfire, the corroded pile of truncated metal that will someday become our Griffon-powered Spitfire XIV and all the other work that will keep us busy for the next decade. Listening to Rob, it was hard not to ask yourself... "Wow, we did all that?".

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Rob Fleck draws the audience's attention to the Vintage Wings projects that surrounded the dinner tables. His high-energy presentation ranged from Great Britain to Comox to Oshkosh to Prince Edward Island. Photo: Peter Handley

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RCAF Association stalwart, Vintage Wings member and all-pro piper Graham Batty brings the evening to order.  Graham's enthusistic participation in the event made for a memorable evening. Photo: Peter Handley

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The emcee for the evening was none other than CBC reporter and producer Jacquie Perrin. Here she delights the crowd with a sumptuous and theatrical description of the dinner. Photo: Peter Handley

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Vintage Wings staff and volunteers under the direction of Carolyn Leslie transformed the hangar into a vintage wartime party venue - including flags, bunting, lamps and dramatic lighting highlighting key aircraft.   Photo: Peter Handley

Thirdly, we celebrated our volunteers... And God-almighty, we celebrated them in creative style with a lyrical, energizing and electrifying free-form poem by Carolyn Leslie. As Carolyn "threw down", her presentation rode bare-back, goofy-foot and free-range from the get go - celebrating the true meaning of Vintage Wings of Canada. Her words cut like a plasma torch though the metal and fabric, the hardware and the software and right to the heart and soul of the volunteer. It was a ringing, emotional and heart-felt tribute to the most important part of the Vintage Wings family that had everyone thinking the same thing - standing ovation! Here, for all those volunteers who were not present, is her ode to you and all you do for us:

"2010 what a year it has been!

I have had the distinct privilege to work beside so many amazing people…volunteers to be specific. With no questions asked…you have helped me pack up, load up, unload, display, sell, pack up, load up and unload just in time to do it all over again.

You have supported the ground schools, jumped in and helped when we move the aircraft, sold tickets, cooked food, marshaled aircraft, parked cars, greeted pilots, given tours, hosted Veterans and done pretty much anything I have asked.  It’s been cold, it’s been hot, it’s been windy and it’s been rainy…but you still roll up your sleeves and do what it takes to get the job done.

You are Vintage Wings of Canada!

When defining Vintage Wings of Canada
You might list some statistics
You might mention our oldest Aircraft
Or fastest jet
You might look into the hangar
And see a red Indian on a Spitfire
You might read up on some heroes
Might mention Robert Hampton Gray
Might even mention the fact that we’ve seen
Stocky Edwards fly
Or that we make these crazy things
Like Bango bolts
Punk a louvers
And zerk fittings
When defining Vintage Wings of Canada
It seems we are much more than metal and wood
And maybe that’s what it looks like from the outside
It’s true
We’ve done and we’ve been
We’ve seen
All the great air shows
And looped and rolled
Our way around the sky
But when defining Vintage Wings of Canada
Don’t forget to mention that we have sparked imaginations

We are not just about the flying stories
About the formation flights and sponsored rides
We do more than sit around and say “we should”
And “we ought to”
We are the home of Bill McRae and Charley Fox
Who inspired little fighter pilots
Like Rose, Fat Daddy, Woody and Scratch
But we are more than fighter pilots and call signs on the radio
And some say what defines us
Is something as simple as “Welcome” and “Thanks for visiting”
And as for “Come see us again”
Well we say that too
But we are more than polite and accommodating
We are a force
To be reckoned with

We are young
We are old
And when we weave together our plans
And ideas
This is what makes us more
Than the sum total of our history
We are a dream going right for a change
With influences that range from volunteers to veterans
And cadets to Air Canada pilots
We are the colours of 442 Squadron and the inspiration of John Gillespie McGee
We dream so big that there are those
Who would call our ambition an industry
Because we are more than clover leafs and knife edge passes
We are inspiring, educating and commemorating year after year
Because we believe in generations beyond our own
Knowing now that so many of us have grown past what used to be
We can stand here today

Filled with all the pride people have
When they say things like “I helped build that”

“I helped build that” rudder,
“I helped build that” wing,
They helped build
An air show routine
Or a ground school course
And all our ambition will pay the way
For those who on any given day
Look towards tomorrow
And start another new project
We will reach the goals we set
And we will get interest on our inspiration
Because we are more than a team of NOTAM readers and weather watchers
More than Dave Clarks and Snap On tools
We are air guns and rivets building aircraft
For those who are willing to fly
To tell the history that we need to tell
Of those who gave their life for us
Our fathers, brothers, sisters and mothers
Uncles, nephews, aunts and nieces
We found missing puzzle pieces
We brought people together
We are a family with room at the table for newcomers
We are more than air shows and tours
More than off seasons
We are the reason people have for wanting to visit
Because we are more than what we say or do

Vintage Wings of Canada is the “what” in “what’s new?”
Feel proud when you say “been there done that”
To know you have worked in the restoration area
While volunteers have sewn and doped the wings of an aircraft
Being restored for flight
Be sure to say you’ve been here and done that
Let this organization be your outlet
For all the times you feel like you want to contribute
Let the story be told to your friends
Don’t let your inhibitions get in your way
Each life unravels differently
And experiences are what make up
The stories of our lives
We do honour our Veterans, we do salute our Troops
And what’s more
Is that we don’t just say it
We make it be.

Carolyn Leslie's inspiration for the form of this verse is Shane Koyczan's poem "We are more" from the 2010 Winter Olympics.

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Many Gala attendees wore vintage period clothing. Here former Snowbird Lead Al "Scratch" Capone (left), Dragon Lady Laurie Graham, Nick Danger, Private Eye (Formerly Gavin Lee) and The Black Dahlia (Public Affairs Officer for Vintage Wings), pause for a photo... after which Scratch had the photographer killed. Photo: the late Peter Handley

The presentations concluded with the introduction of our guest of honour. This began by first informing Second World War Spitfire pilot Bill McRae that he was, in fact, our Guest of Honour... something that was a complete surprise to the gentle and humble 91 year-old. Luckily, resuscitation was not required and he allowed us to take the audience through his many flying accomplishments. Bill McRae survived more that 240 combat missions during the war including a odds-defying 60 straight days in which he flew one or more sorties. He survived and lived a healthy life which brought him to the Canadian Aviation Historical Society where he found a unique voice for his comrades.

Many years after the war, Bill began to write short vignettes about his experiences during his nearly five years with the RCAF. These he continued to share with the CAHS and now with Vintage Wings of Canada. His writing voice is the voice of all his comrades and squadron mates those many years
ago. This voice like all of the men of that age is remarkably humble, often gently humourous, never angry, and touched with a sadness for all the friends lost and damaged.

It is his ability to communicate his experiences to all of us who were not there, which makes him so valuable to us at Vintage Wings. Whenever a member of the media wants to do a story about what we are really about, they invariably ask for a flying veteran of the Second World War to help them put their story into context. And Bill invariably responds positively to our requests to speak on our behalf.

With his gentle and humble voice he speaks for us, and in simple honest terms he provides the true meaning and impact of what we do here in this hangar. He is the living breathing reason for our work.

For all that Bill has done for his country, for us and for all that we will continue to ask him to do, we honoured him on Saturday with a very special presentation that will live on here in our hangar long after we are all gone. If he was a legendary hockey player, we would retire his number and raise his jersey to the rafters. Our idea was the Vintage Wings equivalent - to raise to the ceiling a banner dedicated to his service in the presence of his family - both his progeny and his adopted Vintage Wings family. As the his banner was raised, Piper Graham Batty droned the Air Force march and the moment was one of pure honour and joy. The look on Bill's face was said it all - mission accomplished.

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Bill McRae shows his emotion as his banner begins its piped journey to the rafters of the hangar in the background. His daughter Marilyn (beside him) beams with pride for her dad. Photo: Peter Handley

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Bill McRae takes in the moment. Photo: Peter Handley

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Bill McRae is presented with a miniature of the banner by Vintage Wings Founder Mike Potter. Photo: Peter Handley

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The Tribute banner to Bill McRae will now hang next to that of the late Charlie Fox who, sadly, was commemorated after his death. We hope this will begin a lasting tradition of commemorating flying veterans who have made a difference for Vintage Wings of Canada. Design: Dave O'Malley

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Two Spitfire pilots from two generations share a moment while all in attendance applaud McRae's tribute.Photo: Peter Handley

At the end of the year, we could look back, take stock and swell with an well-earned self satisfaction. The Victory Gala meant that members, volunteers, employees and managers could gather and share a laugh, a dance and a few reminiscences of a year to remember. The Victory Gala and the tribute to one of our veterans is, we hope, the beginning of a long and happy tradition.

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To complete the the evening's vintage theme, Carolyn Leslie arranged for professional swing dance lessons under the bunting. Photo: Peter Handley

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