Flying with the Ace

Vintage News Stocky report

“Four fighters and a Lanc, three o’clock low,” I called to the man in the back seat.
    “Got ‘em,” was the reply.

It was an exchange that was familiar to WWII Ace James F. “Stocky” Edwards. The airplane he was sitting in was an old friend. The stick felt comfortable in his hand. The words coming through the headset were well-known phrases. The silhouettes in the distance: a part of his past. But the time and place were new. The green fields of the Ottawa valley lay under the wings, and 65 years had passed since the last time he flew a Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk.

The guy up front was new, too – me, a sprog fighter pilot. There may be 20,000 hours of time in my logbook, but only 25 of them are in fighters. That makes me a 25-hour pilot. Stocky paid me the supreme compliment of being willing to sit in the back while I got the airplane off the earth, and hopefully back onto it again in one piece.

And the airplane was new. Some parts of the original structure, airframe 42-104827, a P-40N-1 (Kittyhawk IV in the Allies parlance) remained, but the structural members, hauling us through the sky and supporting the Allison V-1719-81A engine’s 1350 horsepower, were fresh and strong.

It didn’t look new, though. The airplane bore no glossy paint, no metal-flake trim stripes, or punning slogans. It wore RAF 260 Squadron colours, exactly as Stocky’s mount in the Western Desert, 1942, had. The camouflage patterns, the slapped-on squadron markings: replicated to perfection. Other than the fact that it was not scratched by rough flying boots, etched by desert sand, marked by soot from a straining engine and smoke from often-fired guns, it looked like it had stepped right out of an old photograph. Ready for a mission.

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The Vintage Wings of Canada P-40N Kittyhawk sits expectantly on the hot zone ramp at VWC's September Open House - awaiting her two pilots - Dave Hadfield and James Edwards. Photo: Eric Dumigan

And we had a mission today. Slotted-in to the Flight Program for the September Vintage Wings Open House (and first-rate Airshow!) at Gatineau Airport, was our departure for a photo flight in formation with the Foundation’s “High Flight” Harvard CF-ROA. Pilot John Aitken and I had briefed for a tour of Ottawa, hoping for good air-to-air shots with the Parliament buildings in the background. Renowned aviation photographer Eric Dumigan was in the Harvard back seat. I was lead, and all the airspace boundaries were rattling around in my head, and the frequencies written on the back of my hand. (When display pilots have a quick “nervous one” just before their flight, they only wash their palms.) After that, who could say? Stocky had explicitly told me that he had no wish to fly the airplane, that he would be just a happy passenger. But I had other ideas....

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Dave Hadfield attempts to assist 88 year-old Edwards into the back cockpit of the Kittyhawk, but before he can, Stocky is over the edge and squeezing into the back.
Photo: Eric Dumigan

Stocky is 88. He is the highest scoring surviving Canadian fighter pilot. An icon. A “Champion of the Western Desert”. The “Hawk of Martuba”. And the way into the back seat of the P-40 is torturous. I was somewhat concerned. I had no wish to break any irreplaceable bones. Thus I had ladders and planks and volunteers lined up to smooth him into place. But all for nothing. Stocky’s spry, nimble form hopped up the wing, vaulted over the cockpit rim and squeezed into place, ready to go. He was particular about having his parachute in place properly, and his beautiful leather kid-skin gloves handy. The Perspex overhead made it a greenhouse under the Airshow sun, but Stocky sat cool and collected, focusing on my egress briefing. Ready to go. Big smile and thumb-up to the crowd beside the wing. 

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Looking over the 3 50-cal guns of the starboard wing, we see Stocky and Dave preparing for their historic flight.  Photo: Eric Dumigan

The Allison started easily. As warbird engines go, it’s a jewel. We have only the inertial starter in it – no continuous cranking! – and thus we only get about 4  blades per attempt, but it leapt into life the way we’ve come to expect. John was ready in the Harvard. We warmed up, ran-up, did the checks, and taxied out in trail.

The take-off was standard – standard that is, for a one-armed P-40-paperhanger. Raising the gear involves hitting the brakes, releasing a trigger, moving the gear lever up, holding the hydraulic pump switch on the stick “On” with your pinky, easing back the manifold pressure and the revs, re-trimming elevator and re-trimming rudder, switching hands on the stick, vigorously pumping the stand-by hydraulic lever, switching hands again, lever back to neutral and shutters (cowl flaps) to combat climb. Then you look around and see where you got to. And notice you’ve exceeded the briefed re-join speed by 30 mph. Oops!, way back on the MP, pitch back to 1800, re-trim all over again, gentle right 360 overhead to let the Harvard (which hasn’t “come back” on anything!) slide in. And it happens. John’s a pro, cuts the corner beautifully, and it only takes a minute. He’s in. We exchange glances. He nods.

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Lining up on the single runway at Gatineau, the men and their machine are set to go.  Photo: Eric Dumigan

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Shortly after take off John Aitken, flying the High Flight Harvard photo ship with photographer Eric Dumigan, slides smoothly onto Dave's right wing.  Just forward of the P-40's red nose we can see the Canada Aviation Museum on the site of the former RCAF Station Rockcliffe.  History on the ground, and history in the air. Nice job Eric. Photo: Eric Dumigan

“Okay, Stocky?”

“Fine, Dave.”

Then it’s talk to Terminal, who switch us to Tower, who change our transponder code, and as I’m fiddling with this stuff I glance up and the windshield is filled with Canada Geese. At least 100 of them. Achh! I can’t just stuff the stick forward – I’m leading a formation! I have time for a “Geese, geese – descending!” and we push over to miss them. By the time we’re level we’ve lost 400 ft. Tower comes on the horn and starts giving me grief. I waste no time sorting that out (one short, pungent sentence), and pull back up to our assigned altitude, eyeballs scanning everywhere. John has stuck to me like glue, 20 ft away.

OK, the mission… below us and to the left is Parliament. The old grey stone and green copper roofs contrast beautifully with the blue of the Ottawa River and the glass-and-steel of the downtown office buildings. I roll gently into a slight left turn, trying to arrange it so we circle at the right distance, but at no time do I want to adjust by turning into my wingman. Eric slides the hood back in the rear of the Harvard. His long lens comes up. John moves in closer. (I thought he was tight before.) I concentrate on flying very, very steadily. At one point as Eric urges him to move up a bit, and I hear the prop tips of the Harvard (“Roar!”) above the noise of my own engine. (Harvards ain’t Stealth.) Two slow turning, endless, complete circuits and we roll level pointing east. The River extends in front of us like a deep-blue highway. In no time we’ve gone by Rockcliffe, past Gatineau, and break free into the uncluttered sky SE of the field. Now we can play.

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Like Niagara Falls and the Rockies, the Canadian Houses of Parliament make a beautiful and significant backdrop for any Canuck photo flight. Here the shoreline of Entrance Bay (where the Rideau Canal ends) and Parliament Hill seems to follow the outline of the Kittyhawk's form. Photo: Eric Dumigan

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Two full photo circuits of downtown Ottawa netted many fine images. Here Stocky looks down on the Rideau Canal and Union Station (forward of the tail).  Photo: Eric Dumigan

John takes suggestions from Eric, and moves the Harvard around, seeking different camera angles. I just sit there, “being shot.” A quick glance back shows Stocky glancing at the Harvard, studying the ground – there is a thoughtful expression on his face, calm, yet his eyes never rest for long on one target. Who can tell what he’s thinking? I decide not to intrude. I concentrate on the airplane… the pitch and manifold pressure are way back, we’re indicating 125 mph. It’s a bit nose-up and uncomfortable. The coolant is below the green arc, but I’ve already got the shutters nearly closed. I’ve never heard this low-pitched “thrum” from the engine and prop before, but it’s smooth enough. Gas is fine, but taking advantage of a nice long hayfield underneath us (just in case), I switch to the forward small wing tank to save the main tank for later. “Betty Boop,” the mascot on the glareshield that appeared one day last June, as if by magic (courtesy of Angela Gagnon, Kittyhawk Crew Chief, who understands these things) faces forward and admires the brilliant Fall day.

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On the cockpit coaming sits a small figurine of Betty Boop, cartoon vamp from the 1940s. She was placed there for good luck by Kittyhawk crew chief Angela Gagnon who also named the P-40 "Betty". Some pilots like to have her facing the direction of travel, some facing the pilot. The only thing that matters is that she should always remain on station. Photo: Dave Hadfield

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In the back, the triple ace Stocky Edwards pops a positive thumb for John and Eric as they move in tight.   Photo: Eric Dumigan

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 Aitken in the Harvard flies around Hadfield for more unique photo angles.   Photo: Eric Dumigan

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After a few turns around town, the pair headed east of Ottawa's traffic and control zones, where there was plenty of room to manoeuvre for the camera.   Photo: Eric Dumigan

“Your turn, Dave,” advises John. “Eric wants some action shots.”

I’ve been waiting for this. John holds the Harvard steady and I cavort beside it. I haul the nose up and bank away, then turn in. I keep the bright yellow airplane clearly in sight, keep the rate of closure gentle, but display the Kittyhawk for the camera. Back and forth, up and down, roll left and right. I have a huge reserve of power and speed and can move forward at a mere squeeze of the throttle.

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Now Dave uses his advantage in speed and power to fly around Aitken who remains steady for Dumigan in the back.  Photo: Eric Dumigan

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Adding a little G to the equation (nothing the Hawk of Martuba can't handle), Hadfield rolls left.  Photo: Eric Dumigan

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Time to head out on their own. Hadfield and Edwards head east where they can play.  Photo: Eric Dumigan

“Been a while since I’ve done this, Dave,” says the voice in the back. I recognize the tone. I’ve used it often enough myself. Time to move to the next item. John announces the photos are complete, and kisses-off, Eric waving. The shining yellow airplane peels-away in classic fashion, rapidly diminishing in the direction of home. Now we’re free to do as we like. I employ a subterfuge.

“Take her for a sec, will you Stocky? I gotta change freq’s.”

“I have control,” comes the calm voice from the back, and the stick wiggles a bit to make sure I’m off it. Hah! I think to myself. He was waiting for that. I switch to the Air Boss frequency and hear the Lancaster and a number of fighters. The radio is busy. They’re rehearsing the flypast for tomorrow’s Battle of Britain display. I’ve lost track of who’s going where and when. I could go back and try to squeeze in, but on the other hand, why rush? We’ve got a gorgeous day, a smooth-running engine, and the low power settings have preserved our fuel – lots left. And Stocky and I may never have this chance again. Hell, we’ll wait until they’re done.

“’Kind of busy back there, Stocky. What say we just stooge around out here and enjoy the view?”

“OK with me, Dave!” I glance back, smiling. Sure enough, he looks like a kid in a toy store.

And so we enjoy about half an hour of pure flying. No agenda, no taskings. Pure enjoyment. I ease the throttle up so we indicate about 190 mph. She handles better at this speed, but still only sips the gas (for a fighter – about 32 US Gal/hr under these conditions, in Auto Lean). I direct Stocky with a few brief hand signals to keep clear of traffic. He responds immediately, and we roll smoothly into the turns. I’m impressed by the way the “ball” stays in the middle. I mention a target altitude and we immediately move to it and stay there. It takes him about 30 seconds to sort out the “feel” of the airplane. He asks where’s the rudder trim? I reply there isn’t one back there – only up front with me: what would he like?, and he asks for a bit of left and a bit of nose-down. What a delight! He’s tuned-in, he’s on-target, and he’s 88.

The big Allison rumbles gently. The hayfields slip by. I see more geese and call them out to Stocky. He moves easily around them. I hear Tim Leslie on the VHF, asking where are we? He’s in the Mustang waiting until the Lanc flight lands and wants to remain clear of us. We sort out some airspace: I’ll stay south of the river and he’ll stay north.

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For more than half an hour, Edwards cavorted in the skies east of the capital.  Photo: Eric Dumigan

Do we do hard-ass fighter-stuff? Yank and bank and grey-out on the turns? Split “S’s” and pull-throughs and victory rolls? Nah… he’s done all that.  Instead, here’s a chance for a wise and experienced pilot, a consummate aviator and a famous veteran of the “Greatest Generation” to commune once again with the airplane of his youth. This is the airplane that first revealed to him his gifts: his wondrous shooting ability and his ability to keep track of “who’s-moving-where” in the predatory chaos of a dogfight. He was 20, he was inexperienced – essentially untrained in gunnery – but he could make the most marvellous high-deflection shots and actually connect with the target. He seemed to be able to predict where the target would be (like Gretzky in a scrum) and make the one deadly burst from the 6 ’50s (right there beside us!), and get away. He was so successful that he was embarrassed to come back into the de-briefing tent in the Desert and make his claims, when his much more experienced Flight Commanders and Squadron Leaders had scored nothing.

So we weave lazily over the Ottawa Valley. Only once do I see a hint of what he was. At one point a C-172 comes trundling up from Montreal. We’re nearly on a collision course, but he’s about 200 ft lower. I call to Stocky to turn over top of him, keeping him in view until he’s passed. Stocky acknowledges, then banks the airplane in a smooth, flowing curve, that EXACTLY arrives over the Cessna as we pass. The intercept was perfect, it was unthinking, we were in total control of the situation every second, and the “ball” never left the middle. It seemed effortless. Made me think...

But beauty never lasts except in memory. The Lanc flight have finally landed and it’s time for us to go home. I vector us westward, and Stocky gently descends. I switch back to the main tank, leaving the boost pump on. I talk to the Air Boss, and we’re cleared for an overhead break.

“Got the field, Stocky?” I moved over to one side as much as I can so he can see forward.

“Yes.”

“Line up on final and I’ll take over for the break.”

“Okay.”

And he flies us right down the pavement. I take over and at mid-field haul us hard up and to the right. Once again I do the one-armed-P40-paperhanger drill and get the gear and flap down. GUMPFF check. Speeds are 120 mph by the end of downwind, then an arcing continuous descending turn to arrive over the numbers, 110 mph at the 90-degree point, 100 over the fence. Check back for a sec as the throttle is moving to idle, and the Kittyhawk touches on the mains, tail low. Hold it there with a gentle forward “pin,” wait and do nothing, and control yaw by feel and a bit of peripheral vision. Keep her straight! The airplane is well-mannered on the ground, but I know from fast taxiing that a swerve, once started, would be very difficult to stop. The tailwheel settles and I let her roll (the brakes are vintage hydraulic expander-tube, and I’d like them to last).

It gets hot fast with the hood closed. I let the airplane swing round at the end of the roll, straighten with a squeeze of brake, then roll the canopy back. All of a sudden lots of breeze, and stink of the V-12 exhaust. Carefully, thinking about it – quite deliberately – I select the flaps up. The Flap lever is right beside the Gear lever, and confusion would be “unfortunate.” Rad Shutters wide open. Electrics off.

“Very nice, Dave.”

“Thanks, Stocky.” Back in 2006, when I was first assigned this project, I journeyed out to Stocky and Toni’s place on Vancouver Island, and asked him how I should land it. He’s pleased to see I did it just as he recommended. (He’s also pleased to still be in one piece.)

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All great things must end, but the stories and the memories go on for ever. Dave and Stocky roll to a stop with the ace complimenting the younger fighter pilot on his landing.  Photo: Parr Yonemoto

We taxi-in to the still-thronging crowd; Stocky is all smiles and waves. I spot the signaller who is careful to stand to one side so I can actually see him. He marshals me in and then crosses his orange batons. I brake to a halt, do a live-mag check, and move the mixture to Idle Cut-off. The big Allison rolls to a halt. I hear the exhaust stacks “tick” as I complete the Shut-down check, unbuckle and rise. I feel the cool air on the damp back of my flight suit. It feels good to stand and stretch.

I help Stocky out, and he stands with me on the wing. The crowd claps generously as he waves. Everybody’s grinning. Everyone has a sense that we’ve all shared something unique. I know I have.

The “mule” tow-vehicle arrives, and – surprise! – it’s Mike Potter driving. Angela hooks up the tow-bar (she gives me a questioning look; I reply with a thumb-up; she grins), Mike puts Stocky in the right seat, and I sit on the back deck. We tow the Kittyhawk back to the hangar. We wave and smile and banter with the crowd. Stocky and Mike chat about the flight, about the airplane, about the day. We park in front of the hangar and – pronto! – get put in front of a mic. Mike speaks, Stocky speaks, and I try. But there are so many impressions, and it’s been such a long road to get here, that I can’t do it justice. The crowd claps anyway.

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None of this magic could have happened at all if it were not for the vision, commitment and philanthropy of the man driving the tow-vehicle - Michael Potter. Typical of the Vintage Wings founder, he chose to go out himself to the two pilots and bring them back through the throngs to the home ramp.  Photo: Eric Dumigan

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Back on our doorstep, Stocky relates his feelings about his historic reunion with his old warhorse while Mike Potter beams from ear to ear.   Photo: Peter Handley

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"What did you do in the war Great Grandad?" When Stocky's grandchildren grow up, they will know just what sort of leader Great Grandad was. Photo: Eric Dumigan

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After every flight during the war, each pilot had a few words with their crew chief about the flight and any problems. No different today. Here Angela Gagnon, the Kittyhawk Crew Chief chats and shakes Stocky's hand.   Photo: Dave Hadfield

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History was made this day and Stocky's family was there to witness it. Here he and his family group with dignitaries for a photo. In the back row with flightsuits are Dave Hadfield and Mike Potter. Far right is RAF veteran Harry Hanna (shot down in a Spitfire in '43 and POW) and next to him Frank Waywell (flew in 250 Squadron on same operations as Stocky's 260 Squadron in North Africa - crash landed behind enemy lines in '43 and POW). But most importantly is Toni Edwards (In blue jacket), his beloved wife.   Photo: Peter Handley

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James Francis "Stocky" Edwards, CM, DFC and Bar, DFM, CD of Nokomis, Saskatchewan - the Hawk of Martuba.  Photo: Eric Dumigan

Then Stocky’s family gather around and there are many photos taken. They’ve come from all over North America to witness the day. They line the wing. Smiles and cheers and cameras flashing everywhere! Eventually Stocky ends up back in the cockpit, and I hand a series of great-grandchildren into and out of his lap. Some come back 2 or 3 times. He coaches them to shout, “Kittyhawk!” and hold up a thumb.

Later, as I ask Stocky to sign his name on the canvas duffel bag in the baggage area (a modern P-40 tradition), he pulls off his gloves and looks for a place to set them. There’s no place handy. He looks at me for a second, straight on, and says, “Here, you take them.”  They’re the beautiful kid-skin brown gloves I admired earlier. “They were issued to me at the end of the war, when I was on Spitfires. They’ve been in a drawer ever since.” I protest, but he won’t take no for an answer. I try them on, and they’re a perfect fit.

I am deeply, deeply honoured.

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The gloves of an ace - draped in over a print of a painting done by... you guessed it Stocky Edwards.  Photo: Dave Hadfield

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