The Rookie


“Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.” – Sherry Anderson

On a day reminiscent of a soggy watercolour painting, I participated at the Fifth Annual Volunteer (and Guide) Training Day given by Vintage Wings of Canada and held at their hangar at the Executive Airport in Gatineau.

Do you know what to do if there is an emergency? Do you know what to do if you see an airplane leaking fluids? How do you control a fire? How do you control an obnoxious spectator? Are you good with people? What do VIPs expect? What do you do if you run out of supplies? These are just some questions that will need answers if you are to volunteer your services at Vintage Wings.

So why volunteer with the Vintage Wings of Canada? For any aviation buff, this is a golden opportunity to get up close and personal with fellow enthusiasts who share the same insatiable passion for vintage aircraft, particularly from the Second World War.            

At 23,000 square feet, the interior of the cavernous hangar is like a step back in time, housing planes that weren’t shaped so much like stilettos, but with the sensual lines of a woman in mind: the P-51 Mustang, the Curtiss P-40, the FG-1D Corsair, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire to name a few of the dozen on display.

Over the years, Vintage Wings of Canada has become respected and applauded for its role in acquiring, restoring, maintaining and flying classic aircraft, thanks to the countless hours and dedication by staff and volunteers.

I was one of an army of new recruits and was immediately introduced to a selection of roles to choose from (i.e. ticket sales, retail store, display and hangar grooming, pilot greetings and VIP hospitality to security, crowd control and marshalling). I had the pleasure of meeting veteran volunteers and staff, and was quickly engaged in stories and the history behind each airplane and its heroic pilots, men like Second World War fighter pilots Charley Fox and Bill McRae.

For new volunteers like author Branson, arriving amidst the flow and chatter of veteran volunteers was not unlike arriving at a new high school for the first time... a bit intimidating. But Vintage Wings is a welcoming family if anything. Photo: Clive Branson

Ninety percent of those who arrived for the Training Day were male between the ages of 30 and 55 years old. Most of them looked like they probably disassembled their toys when they were kids just to rebuild them better. The purpose of this event was in preparation for the Gatineau en Vol air show, to be held in mid-September on the Battle of Britain Memorial Day weekend. The event will host over 400 airplanes (including the Red and White Tutors of the Canadian Forces  Snowbirds Demonstration Team) and thousands of spectators who will experience an intimate view of these magnificent original and replica planes; an opportunity to meet the pilots; and enjoy a BBQ spread all under the sounds of Vera Lynn, Glenn Miller and the nostalgic air of the 1940s.

Prior to old and new volunteers breaking into groups for specific task training, they were addressed by Vintage Wings President Rob Fleck and Business Operations Manger and Air Show Director Carolyn Leslie (in background). Photo: Clive Branson

For many volunteers, this would be the first get-together since last year's air show. For newbies like author Branson, this would be a first introduction to the hallowed halls of the Vintage Wings hangar and its priceless contents. Photo: Peter Handley

By 10 a.m., 120 people eagerly crammed into the hangar and, after registering, were ushered into groups of their chosen role. I was intrigued by the ‘marshalling’ function, and after a 45-minute lecture by aircraft maintenance technician, André Laviolette, was fascinated by the various hand signals responsible while simultaneously intimidated by how many signals are required. The encyclopedia of signals involved clearing the section around the plane, permission to start the engine, setting brakes, releasing brakes, slowing down, speeding up, in case of fire, in case of leaks, turning right, turning left, screaming blue murder, and stopping the plane before it’s too late. On top of that, monitoring priorities between private aircraft, VIP and exhibition participants. We are then told that there will probably be quite a few inexperienced pilots. “How many days training will this take?” I asked. “Two hours,” came a short, curt response like it was coming from the voice of an undertaker. An exciting part of the training process was actually sitting in the cockpit of a Corsair to get a pilot’s view of how difficult it is to see the ground crew around the massive bulk of the engine.

Michel Côté, in charge of aircraft ground movements during air show events, addresses volunteers including Branson and goes over the basic rules, pitfalls, and concepts needed to understand the role of an aircraft marshaller. Photo: Clive Branson

Guest of honour at the ground marshall course was none other than André Laviolette, the winner of the 2010 "So You Think You Can Marshall" reality TV series. Laviolette insists that “it's all in the hips”. Here he combines a critical "engine fire" signal with a cha cha - the same move that won him the top spot on TV series. Photo: Peter Handley

"We have to have sexy lines, people"  shouts Laviolette, the Buckingham Baryshnikov as he is known in these parts. Seems everyone is looking at his hips in this shot. Photo: Peter Handley

Laviolette demonstrates even basic hand directions such as "The Mechanics' Toilette is this Way". Photo" Peter Handley

Over 400 planes, from First World War fighters to Korean War era jet fighters to a mixed bag of civilian and general aviation aircraft will arrive over the two days prior to Gatineau en Vol. With such an influx of traffic, it will be hectic and volunteers will need to keep their wits about them. Once on the ground, you are the voice and eyes for each pilot, therefore; clear communication is paramount. Although there is no better way to see each of these legendary aircraft (other than actually flying one), the priority is placed on safety, and approaching each situation with a professional manner. Inattentiveness and irresponsibility can cost a life, especially around propeller blades.

Volunteer service has been an active and essential component of the charitable foundation since it opened its doors. Without the time, talent and dedication of its large roster of volunteers, Vintage Wings would be unable to fulfill its mission.

This is a wonderful way to exercise a personal passion and a rare opportunity to honour our veterans for their contributions to our aviation heritage.

Clive Branson

After a couple of hours of instruction, everyone got to know each other a little better over lunch. Photo: Peter Handley

After lunch came the now-traditional Vintage Wings of Canada Squadron Photo. The rain outside required everyone to line up on and around the Corsair. Here Branson seeks the money shot and gets a dramatic shot of the Buckingham Baryshnikov as he leads other mechanics and pilots up on to the wings of the big bird. Photo: Clive Branson

Though being hunted down to join the family out front, the author grabbed a few last shots of the group assembling for the photo shoot. Photo: Clive Branson

While Branson shot from the reverse side, Peter Handley was on the other side shooting the Vintage Wings of Canada 2011 Squadron photo. For a higher resolution and wider version of this image, suitable for printing simply download from this link  Photo by Peter Handley, Vintage Wings of Canada

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