Stringbag - a First Flight

Once again, Gatineau Executive Airport in beautiful Québec, Canada was the site of an historic flight. After nearly five years in the overhaul abyss, the hearty Bristol Pegasus engine powering the Vintage Wings of Canada Fairey Swordfish coughed to life in a cloud of oily smoke this afternoon, July 26th, 2011 and pulled the big, broad “Stringbag” into the air for the first time in many years. With today's long overdue and much anticipated flight, Vintage Wings becomes only the second operator of this historic aircraft type on the planet. Other than Vintage Wings, only the Royal Navy's Historical Flight in Yeovilton, England presently flies a Swordfish.

The Swordfish's first flight pilot was John “Obi-wan Kenobi” Aitken, the Grandmaster of Test at Vintage Wings of Canada. After a lifetime of test flying with the Canadian Air Force and the National Research Council's Flight Research Laboratory, Aitken retired to a life of bluegrass guitar pickin' and taking it easy, but soon found himself one of the most accomplished warbird pilots at Gatineau with the Harvard, Spitfire, Corsair, Mustang, Lysander, Cornell and now Swordfish notched on the neck of his Martin guitar. John's easy relaxed manner and analytical approach put no added pressure on already taxed mechanics and his wisdom was listened to like an oracle.

There was jubilation on the ground as she took to the air, enough to wash away the disappointment we all felt this spring when the engine arrived from overhaul in England damaged, after 4 and half years separated from its Swordfish life support system. Over the past couple of weeks, the maintenance crew, as they did with the recent Cornell first flight and the Lysander before that, patiently and doggedly solved and worked around one seemingly “random, head-scratching snag” after another until there was nothing but a chugging engine, gas in the tank, pilot in the seat, open runway ahead, and nothing stopping her.

And she took advantage of it!  With those four, wide, deep and thick wings she fairly leaped into the air and climbed into the perfect Outaouais day, full of clouds and good fortune steaming in review down the Ottawa Valley. Flying photo chase in the de Havilland Beaver was Keith Sabiston, with Bob Childerhose, the Swordfish manager/pilot in back and photographer Peter Handley in the right seat. The "chase plane” name was apt for this mission, for though the Fairey Swordfish's flight characteristics have long been called “lumbering”, it was difficult indeed to catch up to it in the draggy amphibious Beaver. Getting even close to the Swordfish would prove to be a problem this day, but the photo team did an admirable job regardless. Peter Handley, despite the situation, provides spectacular images... yet again.

The following photos are the first of our "new" Swordfish flying, but as she is (fingers and toes crossed) booked to appear at the last weekend of Oshkosh, there will be many more. So, enough blah blah blah... let's go flying with our team.

Out on the ramp the “Stringbag” is fueled for her debut. Photo: Peter Handley

With electric starter issues still hounding the team, it was the Twin Armstrong Starter Mk II to the rescue. Here Austin Childerhose and Angela Gagnon disengage the start crank after winding the reluctant flywheel. For a video of just how hard this is to do, take a look at Vintage Winger Jay Hunt's video of this moment. Photo: Peter Handley

Warming her up and getting all the needles to settle down. Photo: Peter Handley

Test pilot Aitken heads to the main ramp to execute a compass swing before the flight, accompanied by AME Angela “Guns” Gagnon. In the foreground, stands Austin Childerhose, son of Swordfish pilot Bob Childerhose. Photo: Peter Handley

With a darkening sky and thunderstorm looming in the background, Aitken brings the Swordfish back to the hangar after the compass swing to wait out the rain. Photo: Peter Handley

Inside the hangar Aitken chats to Andrej Janik and key support crew as the summer rain falls. Photo: Peter Handley

With the heat of the ramp already evpourating the rain,  the Swordfish is pushed back outside. Photo: Peter Handley

Manager of  Maintenance, Guy Richard takes over the start crank and the engine comes to life again.  Photo: Peter Handley

The Pegasus is a smokey engine if anything. Photographer Handley chose the correct side of the aircraft to be standing, that's for sure. Photo: Peter Handley

Aitken trundles off for his rendezvous with history. Photo: Peter Handley

Backtracking down the single Gatineau runway. Photo: Peter Handley

With Sabiston and party, trying to catch up in the Beaver, the Swordfish clatters away into the spectacular cloudscape. Photo: Peter Handley

Despite its size, the Swordfish looks tiny against the towering cumulus. Photo: Peter Handley

Catching up with the world's second flying Swordfish. Photo: Peter Handley

From this photo, one gets a sense of the skill of pilots and crews who navigated hundreds of miles of weather over the oceans to find their targets and get back home. Photo: Peter Handley

Alone.  Photo: Peter Handley

Finally, the Beaver manages to pull alongside. Kudos to the Beaver chase team, for it was a bumpy grind to even get near the big biplane, slow as it was. Clearly visible on the rudder is the dedication graphic panel honouring Commander Terry Goddard, a Canadian who participated in the sinking of the Bismarck.  Photo: Peter Handley

Timeless. Photo: Peter Handley

Homeward bound. Photo: Peter Handley

Photo: Peter Handley

Back on the ground, Aitken fills in Janik and Gagnon on what he learned from the hour-long flight. After landing, post flight briefing with maintenance revealed a few more tweaks were necessary. If they are resolved, then we will prepare for a cross country adventure to Oshkosh and an appointment with some very important and excited aviators. Photo: Peter Handley

After many "first flights", Aitken knows the drill. Pose for your photo, while behind you, Vintage Wingers attack with buckets of cold Ottawa river water. And its best to take it like a man. Vintage Wings pilot, Doug Fleck (background), advances at a gallop with five gallons of torment. Photo: Peter Handley

And Austin Childerhose offers up the Coup de Grace. Photo: Peter Handley

Clearly this is the result of a lifetime of bad parenting. Doug Fleck, son of VWC President Rob Fleck, and Austin Childerhose, son of Swordfish pilot Bob Childerhose, attack a senior citizen in broad daylight and laugh at his predicament. What is this world coming to?? Photo: Peter Handley

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