Sir George of Mayer, The Duke of Penhold, Earl of Argus-shire and Clown Prince of Vintage Wings, dances in the blue Canadian skies with an old flame – still as beautiful and yellow as she was when he was first smitten by her.
Fifty-one years ago, I was standing on the tarmac outside the hangar at RCAF Station Centralia, Ontario where I was completing my initial pilot training on the de Havilland Chipmunk. Suddenly a huge, noisy, smelly, bright yellow, flame belching aeroplane rumbled up to the ramp and stopped in front of the hangar. The pilot motioned for me to climb up on the wing. Apparently, his radio headset had become unserviceable and he requested I go get him a serviceable one in the hangar. Standing on the wing with the 600 hp Pratt and Whitney 9 cylinder radial engine loudly complaining at idle, with the smell of burned avgas searing my nostrils, and the propeller slipstream trying to rip my flying suit off, I began to shake uncontrollably. I suddenly realized that this beast was the aeroplane I would have to master after the Chipmunk and prior to starting my training on the CT-33 Silver Star jet!
Within two months, on April 27, 1960., I found myself at RCAF Station Penhold, Alberta flying my first trip in the mighty Harvard (RCAF 464). It has now been half a century since I survived 170 hours of advanced training on the Harvard and some Vintage Wings magic was about to happen!
A twenty-something George Mayer in civvies outside barrack buildings at RCAF Station Penhold, Alberta in 1960. The thing about George that becomes apparent when meeting him is that he has never lost the zest for life and the excitement of that fresh-faced kid in the RCAF tartan tie. George would go onto fly the massive Canadair Argus patrol bomber - the biggest fistful of throttles in the RCAF. Photo via George Mayer
A Harvard at Penhold back when George was completing his basic flying training. Photo: George Mayer
I have been a volunteer with Vintage Wings for three and a half years and the profile of the big, bright yellow, beautifully restored High Flight Harvard (painted as 2866 – a Harvard known to have been flown by John Gillespie Magee) in the hangar has not gone unnoticed. During one of many pilot chitchats with Vintage Wings pilots, I mentioned that the year 2010 would be my 50st anniversary since I flew the Harvard and, with great trepidation, I broached the subject of possibly getting an anniversary flight. The Magee Harvard aeroplane manager thought it was not only possible, but mutually beneficial as this would add another colourful page to the aeroplane’s historical record. Due to maintenance and operational commitments, the flight itself would not happen until the spring of 2011
If you have heard this before, stop me. It was two years ago, February 16, 2009 that I flew Chipmunk 074 fifty years after I had flown that very same aeroplane at Centralia during my primary RCAF pilot training. I remain eternally grateful for that wonderful flight courtesy of Vintage Wings, Bob Fassold, Kate Speer et al. Life at Vintage Wings is wonderful! Once you get to the hangar, you never know whether you are going to plant flowers, move furniture, give a quickie tour, help the mechanics by holding something, or go flying – the hangar is full of magic!
George gets a Chipmunk ride on his 50th Anniversary last year courtesy of Chipmunk Guru and Elder Statesman Major General Bob Fassold. For more on George's Chipmunk Anniversary flight, click here.
The following is my personal take on the Harvard and is based on my own experience as a pilot-under-training in the RCAF. WARNING: Liberal use of literary licence was used.
My main activity at Vintage Wings is as a tour guide taking our guests around the hangar, giving them a short, factual, historical, and in my case, humourous description of each of the aeroplanes including the Harvard. I admit my presentation is biased from the flying perspective, however, the personal stories and opinions are, I am told, thoroughly enjoyed by our guests.
Visibility from the Harvard cockpit on the ground can best be described as trying to see where you are going wearing snow goggles having a restricted area of view the size of a triangular cocktail sandwich between the leading edge of the wing and the nose. Once airborne and level, the forward visibility is great, unless you were one of the unlucky pilots who got an aeroplane that had the weights on the propeller hub greased, but not wiped clean, just before flight! Landing into sun with a grease-covered windscreen and a slight crosswind was the cause of many expletives being accidentally transmitted over the radio by students grabbing a handful of throttle (which included the radio transmit switch) in order to execute an unintentional overshoot from a balked landing.
The take-off in this magnificent machine may be described, by mutual consent of all who have tried, as an event requiring three feet, four hands, five eyes, sensors to rival the latest Remote Piloted Vehicle, and the ability to react to change in .5 of a nanosecond. The noise, acceleration, simultaneous un-commanded movements in three directions, and the aeroplane’s inherent dislike of pilot trainees is almost too much to endure.
In addition, once airborne, negative “G” applications (flying inverted) result in reduced visibility from cigarette butts (the instructors smoked while airborne) used chewing gum, pens and pencils, and the odd dried bits of vomit perfectly preserved and hidden until now on a dry, heated location below the cockpit floor!
The Vintage Wings High Flight Harvard in poetic flight above the Gatineau Airport. Photo via George Mayer
Fuel (avgas), is one essential item for flight, however, it is not welcome as fumes in the cockpit! It mystified me because one could always smell gas in the cockpit but the technicians could never find any fuel leaks! (and most instructors smoked!)
The Harvard is one of many aeroplanes that belong to the exclusive club called “Converters”. To belong to this club, the aeroplane must be capable of converting fuel to a decibel level of noise considered dangerous to human health.
Last but not least, if you felt a firm thumping on the back of your head while trying to execute a particular manoeuvre, you knew you were not doing it correctly. The instructor in the back seat could easily remove his control column from its connection and feed it horizontally through the pipe tripod between the front and back seat and thump you in the back of the head if you were not “doing it right”!
There is a modicum of truth about all these observations. However, in the Harvard’s defence, she is a grand old lady who may be coerced into any flight manoeuvre through firm, smooth control applications. The Harvard is one of very few aeroplanes that best demonstrates the thrill and allure of flying so beautifully described in that iconic poem – High Flight, by author P/O John G. Magee to whom the Vintage Wings Harvard is dedicated.
Back to the mission
I knew that 2011 was going to be a very exciting year, but just how exciting remained to be seen. My wife and I made arrangements to go on a Caribbean cruise in January, and we were preparing ourselves to become grandparents to twins in late March! The middle of June would see us at a four squadron military reunion in Greenwood, Nova Scotia. I also planned to go fly-fishing for Atlantic salmon in Labrador late June and visit a friend’s fish camp in NWT early August to chase some Arctic grayling around.
My November request for this special flight was initially eclipsed by the first Vintage Wings Annual General Meeting, Gala Ball, and New Years celebrations and consequently, it slipped to the back burner. However, a positive email reply from Vintage Wings President, Rob Fleck, ignited the solid rocket booster! His memo alerted the pilot, VW Public Relations, the phototgrapher (me), and Marketing Manager that this event was go for low earth orbit! This was obviously going to be a "Metro Goldwyn MAYER" production!
Preparations for this historic flight were commenced immediately upon approval. The date was chosen and pilot John Aitken and George were going flying! A request was sent to the Ministry of Transport to issue a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) to warn other pilots about the details of this hazardous flight. Parachutes were repacked and double-checked to ensure proper operation. The flight waiver was revised to include some manoeurves thought impossible on other kinds of flights. Most important of all, an extra couple of airsickness bags were stowed in both cockpits so as to be handy at a moments notice.
The flight profile included the start-up, taxi out, run-up, take-off, climb out, upper air work, a few circuits, full stop landing, taxi in to the ramp, and shut her down. I am incapable of describing how wonderful it was to fly the yellow "Hazard" again. Throughout the flight, I was reminded of a phrase that every pilot worth his/her salt would say at some point during the flight - " and they pay me to do this!!!!"
I will be forever grateful to Vintage Wings again for affording me the opportunity to display my passion for a profession that far too many may, unfortunately only dream about. Sincere thanks to Mr. Michael Potter for creating Vintage Wings, a very special organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and commemorating aviation’s contribution to Canada which is the reason I remain:
George and Vintage Wings Harvard pilot John Aitken do a pre-flight and talk over the landing gear sequence. The small red-framed window in the wing, around which they are talking, allows the pilot to look down from the cockpit to visually verify that the gear locking pins are securely in place. Photo Richard Lawrence
Aitken and Mayer go over cockpit egress procedures. Mayer would have had this drilled into his thick skull 50 years ago, and probably was just humouring Aitken. Photo: Richard Lawrence
George is ready to rumble. Photo Richard Lawrence
As John Aitken in the front works his way through the preflight checklist, Mayer in the back maintains a steady thumbs-up situation (TUS). Photo: Richard Lawrence
Photographer Richard Lawrence gets Mayer to recreate a photo from George's past. What at first appears to be blue skies in the background, is, in fact, a mountain of styrofoam from the adjacent factory at Vintage Wings. Photo: Wayne Giles
Fifty years ago, George posed for a camera prior to his first famil flight in a Harvard. On the right, he recreates the same pose half a century later. Photos: Left via George Mayer , Right : Richard Lawrence
Mayer and Aitken jettison the earth. Photo: Wayne Giles
George Mayer, The Duke of Penhold, is transported 50 years into the past. Photo: Wayne Giles