The grand children and the great grand children of our service men and women of World War Two line up for a tour of Canadian Warplane Heritage’s DC-3 Dakota “Canucks Unlimited” at Canada Aviation Museum on Canada Day, 2007. The “Dak” is painted in the famous markings of 436 Squadron RCAF which operated in the China Burma India theatre (CBI) during the war.
One hundred and forty years ago, Queen Victoria placed her signature on the British North America Act. At that moment, the existence of a new political entity became official: four provinces, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario were now the Dominion of Canada. It was a small place in 1867; a person today could tour the original layout in the Vintage Wings Tiger Moth, albeit with numerous fuel stops and some overnight visits.
Things would change quickly. By the end of the century, the boundaries of the new nation would extend as far as the Pacific and the North Pole. In the next century, the children and grandchildren of those first Canadians would not be busy defending their own borders, freedoms and values, but the borders, freedoms and values of other nations, other peoples; in many cases the lands of their ancestors. Fifty years after Queen Victoria's historic signature, Canadians would man convoys crossing the North Atlantic to form a lifeline for Britain, fight in and above the trenches of the Western Front, and take Vimy Ridge.
The Depression, hard on the heels of the Twenties, would bring drought in the west and unemployment in the east, and then the youngsters of these decades would be called back to the same battlefields and skies where so many of their fellow Canadians had fought and died only twenty years before. For many of those young volunteers destined to fight in the sky, the route from Battleford Saskatchewan or Peterborough Ontario or Pictou Nova Scotia to England or North Africa or Burma or Malta would involve time spent in the cockpit of a Tiger Moth or a Fleet Finch. These open cockpit machines would be important steps to the front-line bombers and fighters being used to fight the Axis forces. In machines like the Hurricane and the Spitfire Canadians would once again pay the price for freedom and help create the conditions necessary for peace.
And so, on our nation's one hundred and fortieth birthday, individuals who decided to make a visit to the Canada Aviation Museum part of their Canada Day itinerary were able to approach and view first hand aircraft used by Canadians to defend the freedom of other nations. The reactions to the aircraft were as varied as the individuals themselves, each person bringing and taking away his or her own feelings. The grey haired gentleman in the blue cap who stood quietly for a few moments beside the port wing of the Spitfire, what was he thinking? What memories were stirred by the immediate presence of this airplane? An old friend? An older brother? A black and white photograph of a young airman on the mantel piece back at home? At one point, a young lady to my right in a summer dress folded her arms against a light but chilly breeze, and gazing at the cockpit said, "It's so small! There's no room. How did they...?, and her voice trailed off.
Resident historian and Vintage Wings volunteer Don MacNeil tells a veteran and his wife the story of our Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVI at the Canada Day event.
Exactly. How did they do it? Heaven knows how, but the fact is they did what had to be done, and we all need to remember.
From the young fellows who came by, the questions and comments were more along the lines of "Crazy! How many cylinders? How much horsepower? How fast did you say it goes?" Young people born long after the advent of ejection seats listened with partial disbelief to the explanation that baling out meant hoisting oneself up and jumping, or turning the aircraft upside down so that when the pilot released the harness he fell earthward, hoping he did not get hit by the tail section on the way out.
They gaze upon the Harvard, which represents a kind of Phase Two in a pilot's development, a radial- engine monoplane introducing the young aviator to things like a retractable undercarriage and the challenges of torque and horsepower, the last aircraft in the process still providing a seat for an instructor.
Groups of onlookers walk around the Tiger Moth; a little biplane with a jaunty, Model-T Ford appearance which was used to present the novice pilot with the feel and rudiments of flight. In the 1930s and ‘40s these aircraft were taking off, landing and crashing all over the dominion, as the British Commonwealth Air Training Program (BCATP) worked in high gear preparing pilots to take their places in front line squadrons.
Three aircraft; three reminders that in its short one hundred and forty year history, Canada has been called upon many times to face great and terrible challenges; much has been expected of this young nation, certainly more than Queen Victoria or John A. Macdonald could ever have known. Canada's first century was a dangerous one indeed; not for the faint of heart. In 1867 the new dominion had to learn the rudiments of nationhood, and learn them quickly if it hoped to survive.
The Tiger Moth, the Harvard and the Spitfire on July 1st remind us of the sobering truth that Canada's place in the world has not been defined by the prowess its people have shown in building things like a transcontinental railway or settling the west, but by the bravery its citizen soldiers have had to demonstrate, and continue to demonstrate, on distant battlefields. In the words of Victor Suthren, Director of the Canadian War Museum, "Canadians, like the Swiss, are men and women of a peaceable nature, able to live without war precisely because they can be so fearfully good at it, without a shred of romance."* Though the Spitfire, the Harvard and the Tiger Moth, lovingly restored and immaculately kept, snarl and swoop gracefully overhead, these aircraft, like the block of marble overlooking Sai Wan Bay in Hong Kong where Canadian troops were surrounded and massacred in 1941, or the monument that stares silently down on the French country-side from atop Vimy Ridge, bear an important message. Terrible defeats and hard-earned victories mark our history.
*. Suthren, Victor, pg. 2, Canadian Military Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1989
Canadian Vickers manufactured Canadian Warplane Heritage's PBY-5A Canso” in 1944. It served with the RCAF until 1961 when it was sold as surplus. The Canso is restored in the colours and markings of 162 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron and dedicated to the memory of Flight Lieutenant David Hornell, VC, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. On 24 June 1944 he and his crew bombed and sank U-1225. Sadly, the Germans shot down the Canso A, and Hornell and his crew spent more than twenty hours afloat on the ocean before being rescued. Hornell died shortly afterward. - From CWH’s website.
Here Peter Handley captures the effectiveness of the Canso’s white-grey camouflage as she sails across the sky at the Canada Aviation Museum - the scheme was designed to make it hard to spot against the constant cloudy gray skies of the Nortth Atlantic.
Moment of Ignition: As with all the pilots, managers and volunteers at Vintage Wings of Canada, there comes a moment in a young child’s life that will forever be burned in memory - a moment that sparks a life-long love affair with aviation. Long may you fly young man.