Down and Back - Flying the Stringbag to Oshkosh

Friday, July 29th, 2011. Imagine a foursome of golfers at the Huron Pines Golf and Country Club near remote Blind River, Ontario, about to tee-off from the 18th on a wet afternoon. The skies are dank and glowering, the air humid and close, the waters from the Mississagi River run the length of the fairway. As the fourth man addresses his ball, the others stop talking and the sounds of nature take the place of the gossip and cursing.  Waggling his club head, he hears the raven's croak in the pitch pine behind the tee box, a cicada buzzing like a downed power line and an unidentified sound that stops him mid-backstroke. Far above, out of the eastern sky, comes a clattering relic from some distant time and place. Against the heavy, gray belly of cloud, the black silhouette of a large, war-like biplane moves with great effort and great noise towards the west, picking its way through the mists.

The golfer holds his swing and stares, as do his mates, at this wraith, this ghost, this steam-punk flying machine sweeping out of a memory and into the west. As the anachronism lumbers to the west, it is followed closely by a silver airplane of more modern configuration. The modern one seems to be chasing the wire and fabric behemoth, dodging and swinging from one side to the other. In a few minutes, they are both gone - over the Mississagi River, over the pines to the west, into the mists.

The man at the tee, rattled by what he has just witnessed, slices his shot. The ball arcs up and then, seeming to follow the flight path of the airplanes, drops into the Mississagi River. The golfers gather their wits, pick up their jaws, shoulder their bags and walk off the tee box in silence. 

This day, Ontarians, from Mattawa to Sault Ste Marie, tell of seeing the same aerial apparition – a farmer cutting hay near Verner, a man in a kayak near Killarney, tree planters near Plummer, a motel operator in Bruce Mines. What they saw was not a North Atlantic ghost, a flying Marie Celeste or temporal voyager, but rather the Vintage Wings of Canada Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber clawing and thrashing its way to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on the shores of the green waters of Lake Winnebago.

Until just a couple of months before, the Swordfish had lain fallow at the back of the Vintage Wings hangar, held hostage by a paralyzed engine overhauler in England for more than four years. But this gray and misty day, she was alive once again and working her way west to the Sault, and then the next day to the south along the western shore of Lake Michigan with a right turn at Lake Winnebago.

The “Stringbag”, as she was known by her Second World War crews, was piloted by veteran big-radial driver Bob “Sledhead” Childerhose with son Austin and mechanic Andrej Janik alternating hops in the open observer/gunner cockpit behind him.  Due to radio problems, the Swordfish was escorted the entire way by Doug Fleck in an RV-8 home-built to handle communications.  It was tiring, yet exciting and beautiful at the same moment. The trip took eight hours over two days and was the equivalent of flying from Cardiff, Wales to Berlin, Germany or New york to Savannah, Georgia - not an adventure for the weak spirit.

As the team approached Lake Winnebago, it was met by a Beech Bonanza with Warbird Digest photographer Scott Slocum shooting for an upcoming issue of the magazine. Fleck in the RV-8 slid out far to the left to allow the Bonanza to manoeuvre freely about the Swordfish. The photo session was finished about the time the Swordfish was ready to join the circuit at Oshkosh. Despite some technical glitches en route, Nordo radio status and many hours of grueling travel, the Swordfish touched down at Whitman Airfield to much fanfare and the rat-a-tat-tat of a thousand Nikon motordrives.

Let's take a look at the journey down.

Oshkosh Bound

After departing Gatineau, the team made its first pit stop in North Bay, Ontario. Photo: Doug Fleck

Somewhere near Sudbury, Austin Childerhose poses for Fleck in the RV-8 as the young lad flies the leg to Sault Ste Marie. Photo: Doug Fleck

The weather is beginning to look a lot like the kind Swordfish pilots encountered in the North Atlantic.  Doug Fleck in the RV-8 holds position behind the torpedo bomber as they skirt north of Lake Nippissing near Sturgeon Falls, Ontario. With young Austin Childerhose on the stick of the RV-8, Fleck took the photos on this leg. Photo: Doug Fleck

Doug and Austin edge in close to grab a photo in the poor light. Photo:
Doug Fleck

Rumbling through heavy gray skies, Andrej Janik pops up in the back seat and tries a little Y-M-C-A by The Village People to entertain the escort pilots and to possibly keep warm.  Photo: Doug Fleck

Stick your head out for long and you will enjoy a fine coating of high-grade engine oil. The amount of oil burned by the Pegasus is legendary and evidence can be seen on the lower wing struts, which were cleaned before the beginning of the trip. Photo:
Doug Fleck

Another fine view, this time nearing Sudbury. Engineer Janik has crawled back into his hole for comfort while Bob Childerhose, who is used to all day rips on a snow sled in the dead of a Canadian winter, grits his teeth and thunders on. Photo: Doug Fleck

Day Two. Early morning on the ramp in KANJ (American Sault Ste. Marie).  The team was hoping to get an early morning start, however there was a slight snag. The Swordfish had a hydraulic lock and engineer Andrej Janik had to take a couple plugs out. Photo: Doug Fleck

As Janik pulls the plugs from the Pegasus, pilot Childerhose gives them a good cleaning and a filing.  Photo: Doug Fleck

On day two, Childerhose skirts the control zone for Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. The course was going to take the team through it so, Fleck had to guide the NORDO Swordfish to the south a little. Photo Doug Fleck

On day two, the team got airborne close to noon out of Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, travelling south with Lake Michigan to the left. Photo: Doug Fleck

“The searchers all say, they'd have made Whitefish Bay if they'd put 15 more miles behind 'er”
.  Unlike the November day the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost, it was a beautiful day in Northern Michigan with Whitefish Bay in the distance
. Photo: Doug Fleck

Austin fuels the thirsty Swordfish at Minominee Marinette, Michigan, after it has already devoured several litres of oil, as evidenced by the containers on the ramp. This was the last fuel stop before the historic dash to Airventure 2011 at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Photo Doug Fleck

A Beech Bonanza photo plane working for Warbird Digest meets up with the pair about 10nm north of Oshkosh, over Lake Winnebago. Fleck in the RV-8 flew loose formation with them while they got the required shots for a nine-page spread in the upcoming issue of the magazine. Photo: Doug Fleck

On the Ground at AirVenture 2011

With AirVenture celebrating 100 years of naval aviation, the Fairey Swordfish was a huge hit with the spectators, who lined up at Warbirds in Review to hear the story and see the legend. Photo by Stephen Skelly, Vintage Wings of Canada

An EAA man interviews members of the Vintage Wings Swordfish team. Holding the mike is Vintage Wings President Rob Fleck, who spoke about the career of Royal Canadian Navy Commander Terry Goddard, an aviator to whom the Swordfish is dedicated. Goddard, 91, was to be on hand to speak, however, the extreme heat of the week made it difficult to be there.  It was in a Swordfish that Goddard participated in the now-famous, crippling attack on the German battleship Bismarck. Next to Fleck is Andrej Janik who spoke about the Swordfish's unique maintenance issues and Bob “Sledhead” Childerhose who spoke about what it is like to fly the historic aircraft.  Photo by Stephen Skelly, Vintage Wings of Canada

Clearly, the Terry Goddard Swordfish was a smash hit at the show. Vintage Wings volunteers (in orange) are thronged by aviation enthusiasts from all over the world. Photo by Stephen Skelly, Vintage Wings of Canada

Homeward Bound

Due to additional technical difficulties, the Swordfish remained in Oshkosh for a few days after the show. As a result the entire team had disbursed back to jobs and home - Pilots Childerhose and Fleck back home in the RV-8, young Austin off to Winnipeg in the back of the Vintage Wings Mustang. Vintage wings test pilot John Aitken and maintainers Paul Tremblay and Ken Wood (metal work guru) were dispatched to bring her home. Being still without a functioning radio, a new escort aircraft would have to be found.

Stepping up to the plate were EAA staffers Adam Smith and Janet Davidson, who are always up for an aerial adventure. They followed the Swordfsih home and kept a link to towers and controllers along the route. When asked about her thoughts of the experience, Davidson spoke passionately, “It was a really fun and interesting trip to be involved with. I'm very glad that we were fortunate enough to be available and have the opportunity to fly alongside such a unique aircraft.  The first time I saw one was 20 years ago. I was at college in London studying for the CAA exams.  A Swordfish flew past the classroom window along the Thames. Needless to say, the class subject was immediately ignored!

Like Adam, I too was struck by the size of the Swordfish once it arrived in Oshkosh. On the ground it was surprisingly large, but in the air, against a benign Midwestern summer sky, it looked as small and vulnerable as a Cub. Trying to picture it and the crews who flew it out over the rough, forbidding North Atlantic conditions - it really says a lot for the courage of those people. One compass on board, which, as John [Aitken] described it, "likes metal & thunderstorms" was supposed to get you back to your carrier in what were probably pretty nasty IFR conditions. It definitely took more courage than most folks have.

John, Ken & Paul certainly earned their beers coping with the challenges the Swordfish created for them – from fixing broken chains [Flywheel chain from crank] to working the hand crank to get it started. It is definitely a "team effort" kind of an aeroplane.

Thoroughly enjoyed helping to bring it home”

Janet's Husband, Adam Smith, Vice President of EAA Membership, added, “The lowest point of the trip was after all the trials & tribulations the mechanics had gone through to fix the engine, we were sitting in the 180 [Cessna] ready to go, then the chain drive on the inertial starter snapped... another delay... frantic chase round half the hardware stores in Oshkosh looking for a 50c piece of chain.

The rest of the trip was great... it was an honor to escort the Stringbag.  Several times we thought about the brave souls that flew these things off aircraft carriers into horrible weather and anti-aircraft fire... so that we could fly today in the free and sunny skies of North America.”

Well said Adam. Let's simply see the photos of the trip back now.

Somewhere north of Oshkosh, and homeward bound, Janet Davidson slides her Cessna 180 under the belly of the Swordfish to allow Smith to get the perfect silhouette shot of the plan form. Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

The Swordfish shows her vintage lines from below. Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

Though the Swordfish looks somewhat ungainly (and I mean that in the best way possible) from the side, from behind she looks pretty elegant and even delicate. Nice work by the photo team. Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

The photo ship: Davidson and Smith's immaculate Cessna 180  lands in a Midwestern cornfield. Photo via Janet Davidson

What the crew of the Swordfish saw: the Davidson-Smith Cessna 180 photo ship. Photo by Jim Koepnick

Somewhere over Michigan or Wisconsin, the Swordfish lumbers over a winding river. Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

A beautiful sunset shot on the ramp at Canadian Sault Ste Marie, where the team spent the night. Photo by Adam Smith

On the ramp at Sault Ste Marie, the Jenny Davidson-Smith stretches her short legs. Jenny is used to travelling in aircraft as she accompanies EAA members Adam Smith and Janet Davidson on all their aerial adventures. Photo by Adam Smith

Jenny, the flying guard dog and a seasoned aerial traveller, sports doggie sound attenuators during a flight with Janet Davidson and Adam Smith. The three were needed to accompany the Swordfish on the way back as the RV-8 had gone back alone. Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

In Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, the mechanics prepare to start the "fish". Photo by Adam Smith

Mechanics Paul Tremblay (facing) and Ken Wood lay on the muscle. The heavy flywheel starter requires a minimum of 25 full turns of the crank and the effort is evident on Tremblay's face. Photo by Adam Smith

The mechanics are holed up from the slipstream and racket of the Pegasus and it looks like they are considering coming out.
Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

Mechanic Ken Wood (in blue shirt) rises from his hole to wave to the incoming photoship.
Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

Seriously... is there a more spectacular vantage point from which to view the passing world? Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

Tremblay and Wood seem unfazed by the spectacular perspective they enjoy. What a remarkable and privileged view. Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

Tremblay and Wood shout to be heard over the Pegasus while pilot Aitken carries on. Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

This shot pretty well tells you everything about the experience - the slipstream, the noise, the oil, the view and the spectacle of three friends sharing a lifetime memory. Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

Lucky boys. Photo by Adam Smith, Photoship pilot: Janet Davidson

The complete Warbird U Calendar for 2012
© 2019 Vintage Wings of Canada, all rights reserved. Vintage Wings of Canada, Warbird U., and Vintech Aero are trademarks of Vintage Wings of Canada