Mike Potter stands at the wing of his beloved Spitfire, arms crossed, looking into the sky. “These guys are good” he says as a threesome of crayola yellow Harvards rolls out at the top of a loop in precise line astern trailing gray smoke against a gray sky. The concussive whip-snapping howl of their prop tips spreads in waves across the ramp outside Vintage Wings of Canada and Mike feels the pleasing sound as much as he hears it. Behind him stands about 300 visitors and friends, fellow aviators and family, eyes to the sky as well. The guests are just as enthralled as he is to be watching a practice session of the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team, but Mike is thinking about something else as well – the weather.
Pilots, and in particular warbird pilots, never really stop thinking about the weather. They watch it like an adversary on some days and they welcome it like a gift on others. Today, Saturday July 7, 2007 dawned fair and partially cloudy, but the whole week leading up to the Vintage Wings of Canada Open House, heavy rain-soaked weather threatened to sweep down the wide Ottawa River Valley and to sit on the Gatineau airfield. But pilots are as well an optimistic bunch. Despite the dire predictions of Environment Canada, pilots from Tillsonburg to Montreal found themselves this morning strapping into their airplanes, getting ready for the day trip to Vintage Wings of Canada. Along with their full fuel loads, they topped up on weather luck and headed to Gatineau.
With one long last look at the high overcast and the lower, darker wind-driven and rain-laden clouds that hurried along the ridgeline to the north of Gatineau airfield, Mike turns and smiles. It was time to round up Tim Leslie and mount up. Tim in the Mustang IV and Mike Potter in the Spitfire XVI were scheduled to take their warbirds aloft for a bit of formation practice as part of Victory Flight Fighter Formation Team. While the weather was holding back enough to get them up, the Spitfire experienced a minor mechanical problem and Potter had to un-strap and dismount, leaving Tim to fly alone. Though there would be no formation practice today, there was still a good opportunity for Leslie to get more comfortable with his old mount as she had spent the entire winter engineless in the hangar while her Merlin heart was overhauled in California. Now healthy and in need of a little off-leash time, Leslie took her up to let her Merlin run free. Visitors were treated to a snarling start-up, three passes over the field and the experience of watching her taxi back to the ramp for shutdown.
Open house days offer other unique experiences for our guests - including the sight of Vintage Wings maintenance crew pushing the recalcitrant Spit back into the barn and swarming over and under her. They opened her access panels, exposing the mighty Merlin heart to the delight of visitors who assumed they would simply be looking at static artifacts today. Only at an operation like Vintage Wings can ordinary people see real World War Two fighter aircraft flying, vintage biplanes winging overhead, mechanics turning wrenches, ground crews marshalling aircraft and pilots hand-talking.
July 7th was the second of four open houses scheduled this year at our Gatineau home. Each Open House has been force-multiplied by visiting aircraft from across the region. This was the best event ever with the long list of visiting aircraft including a Pietenpol, John Kenny’s immaculate de Havilland Beaver, the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team and a threesome (two Nanchang CJ-6s and a Pilatus P-3) from right here in Quebec executing a superb formation arrival. Later the two Chinese-built Nanchangs took to the skies to practice aeros. Pilots Patrick Cloutier and Dan Fortin put on a stellar display of flying these rare (perhaps not in China) aircraft, executing loops, rolls and butterflies against the darkening sky.
After the training sessions for the Harvard team and the Nanchangs, the most memorable sight of the day was the arrival of a CF-18 from Canadian Forces Base Bagotville. The Hornet was flown by Lt Col Alan Pelletier and he spent most of the day on the airport terminal ramp surrounded by gawkers and photographers. Vintage Wings of Canada truly appreciates the continuing interest and support from Canada’s Air Force.
As we had hoped, the gravitational pull of the Vintage Wings collection made Gatineau a destination for experimental, obscure and classic aircraft of many types. Since last year this attendance has grown and to accomodate all our house guests, a walkway was created to join the Vintage Wings ramp to the main airport ramp. This ramp was perfect for the Hornet while the extended infield grass was the perfect spot for tail-draggers and other vintage general aviation aircraft.
A delegation from Vintage Wings of Canada headed by Air Force General Gaston Cloutier await CF-18 pilot Lieutenant Colonel Alan Pelletier. Photo: Steve Denny