Western Swing - Westjet takes care of Gray Ghost

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Photo: Trevor McTavish

Thursday July 8th dawned over the Calgary International Airport (YYC) with a beautiful cloudless sky and a light breeze that would keep the afternoon’s 27°C temperatures bearable – the kind of weather perfect for a family picnic or airshow.  For an estimated 1,500 WestJet employees and their family and friends it was both.

The first WestJet Snowbird Family Day was held in 2002 when Canada’s famous aerobatic display team stopped in between airshows.  WestJetters and their friends and families enjoyed a lunch and a meet-and-greet session with the Snowbirds, while the Snowbirds had a chance to network with a potential employer.  It must have worked because WestJet employs almost two dozen former Snowbird pilots [Including Steve Will and Rob Mitchell of Vintage Wings of Canada].

In combination with this year’s Snowbird Day was the annual Silver Dart Glider Competition.  Teams from across Canada build a free-flight glider from an identical number of balsawood sheets, white glue and felt markers.  They then compete for prizes for everything from best decorated to longest flight or most spectacular crash.

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Early morning setup of one of the WestJet hangar bays.  The bay, big enough for two 737NGs, easily accommodated The Silver Dart glider contest, the BBQ picnic lunch and hundreds of visitors in shady comfor. Photo: Trevor McTavish


The morning’s events began around 8:00am with the arrival of two locally based vintage aircraft.  Thomas Thomas brought his immaculate 1941 Beech D17S Staggerwing, while Bruce Evans arrived in his 1954 North American Aviation T-28B Trojan.  A few hours later Mark Eberl parked his beautiful 1953 Beech 3NM Expeditor taxied onto the apron.  Even one of the airline’s own 737-700s got in on the act as it taxied in and out for engine runs.

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Mark Eberl rolls in in his 1950s vintage and beautiful RCAF Beech Expediter. The "Bug Smasher" type served with the RCAF through four decades. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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A Beech Staggerwing in factory speedbird markings very similar to those of the Vintage Wings Staggerwing, roars to life on the WestJet ramp. Photo: Trevor McTavish

Inside WestJet’s hangar the glider contest and lunch began, accompanied by face-painting, clowns and balloon animals.  Then at 11:50, only moments before the lunchtime rush of airline departures, eight landing lights in the western sky signaled the Snowbirds’ arrival.  Trailing smoke the team thundered down taxiway Foxtrot as hundreds watched.

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The crowd, estimated between 1,300 and 1,500, assembles outside as the Snowbirds make their spectacular approach. In the foreground stands Bruce Evans' 1954 T-28 Trojan in US Navy markings. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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After their flyby, the Snowbirds park their Tutor jets smartly in front of the WestJet hangar. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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The event is held on one of Canada's busiest international airports.  Here's one of WestJet's 737-600s taxiing past for the enjoyment of the WestJet family while in the distance we see the Calgary skyline. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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Two great symbols of Canadian aviation - the Snowbirds and two WestJet 737s. Photo: Trevor McTavish

As the Tutors’ canopies opened the team was greeted by the thunderous applause.  But something was still missing.  40 minutes later Vintage Wing’s FG-1 Corsair and one Snowbird slowly rolled to a stop with fire trucks in trail.  It was apparent that something was wrong.

Somewhere on route from Saskatoon the engine-drive hydraulic pump had failed, leaking fluid into the Corsair’s belly.  Concerned about bringing the wounded fighter to a stop in front of a capacity crowd, Francis Belanger made the right decision and parked in an unused area of the apron.  No sooner had the blades stopped turning on the massive Hamilton Standard propeller, than Todd Lemieux, Vintage Wings’ Western Coordinator presented Francis with the typical Calgary greeting – a white Stetson cowboy hat.

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Bélanger is greeted with a time-honoured tradition for honoured guests in Calgary - a white steston. Now, if we can only get it miked, he could wear it while flying. Photo: Trevor McTavish

While guests ate their lunch a willing crew from WestJet’s Technical Operations (maintenance) team hooked up a tow strap to one of the airline’s tugs and cautiously towed the Corsair to centre stage.  From there Francis and members of the local Naval Reserve spoke to several local media sources.

After the crowds had departed the Gray Ghost was manhandled into the back corner of WestJet’s hangar.  The Snowbirds took off in the morning for the Calgary Stampede Parade, but the Gray Ghost remained tucked away in the hangar.

Over the weekend Vintage Wings held the Warbird U Corsair ground school in nearby Springbank where the Corsair was supposed to make an appearance.  However, with it still in Calgary the second day’s events were relocated, including an inspection by the Chief of Maritime Staff of the Canadian Forces.

Even on Monday, the Gray Ghost seemed determined to stay in the WestJet hangar.  Suitable equipment was needed to swing the landing gear but all of the airline’s jacks were too tall.  The decision was made for Francis to taxi to the south end of the International Airport where Skyservice Business Aviation, one of the Gray Ghosts’ sponsors would be waiting.  With ground power attached and a crowd of WestJetters watching it was decided that an approaching storm was blowing in too fast and the move to the other end of the airport was postponed.  Within minutes the clouds had opened up, releasing a downpour of rain, lightning and hail.  Parts of the city were pummeled with golf ball-size hail and winds clocked at 67 kilometers per hour.   It was almost as if the old girl knew what was hiding inside those storm clouds.  With the volunteer help of several of WestJet’s round-engine mechanics, Vintage Wings’ Chris Adams changed out the engine drive hydraulic pump.

Six days after it rolled onto the WestJet tarmac the Pratt & Whitney’s twenty-eight hundred cubic inches roared to life, allowing Francis to taxi off through the rain to Skyservice Business Aviation for the rest of its maintenance.  The Grey Ghost’s visit to WestJet was finally at an end.

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Vintage Wings' Western Coordinator, Todd Lemieux (Left) , supervises as WestJetter Louis Bourbonnais (Orange vest) hooks up a tow strap for the Gray Ghost Corsair. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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Forget the Gray Ghost... check out that hot rod tug.  Photo: Trevor McTavish

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Gray Ghost sports the Centennial identifier for the Canadian Navy on her rudder. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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Even in land-locked Calgary, WestJet found a couple of Canadian Navy officers. Gray Ghost might be about the only way the Navy can make an appearance on the Prairie. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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Many people wanted their picture taken with the Corsair, including WestJetter Rob Bowerman. Go Stamps, Go! [ed] Photo: Trevor McTavish

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Snowbird pilots in red flightsuits help push the Corsair inside the WestJet hangar at the end of the day.  Without a proper towbar, moving the Corsair was done entirely by hand. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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Because the Corsair's Hamilton Standard propeller is about two feet taller than a 737NG's wing, WestJet couldn't slide it under and had to do like the Navy - fold a wing and tuck it into a corner! Photo: Trevor McTavish

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Mike Compston, a WestJetter with radial engine experience, assists Vintage Wings' Chris Adams(right) in replacing the hydraulic pump.  Also assisting were Mike Pull and Rob Ballantyne of WestJet. If you are going to break down, perhaps there is no better place to do so than at the WestJet maintenance facility! Photo: Trevor McTavish 

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Have Wrench, Will Travel. Chris Adams travelled with a fly-away set of tools from Gatineau to affect the pump swap. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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On Sunday, the second day of the Vintage Wings Warbird U ground school for the Corsair, pilot Francis Bélanger poses in front of his bird. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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The thunderstorm that passed over Calgary on Monday, bringing lightning, strong winds and golf-ball sized hail.  This photo, aimed due south shows the storm as it soaks visitors at the Calgary Stampede. This storm ended any attempt to get the Corsair over to Skyservice's facility at the Calgary International Airport. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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On Tuesday, it was still inclement, but Bélanger fired up the Corsair for a taxi over to Skyservice. The Corsair has never looked so "Navy" as she did on the rain soaked ramp at WestJet. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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Six days after arriving for the WestJet picnic and with a new hydraulic pump installed, Bélanger moves on to her nest stop on her Western Swing. Photo: Trevor McTavish

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