Pay It Forward

By Dave O'Malley

When I was eleven years old, there existed a holiday in my hometown that, for me, rivaled Christmas or Halloween or Firecracker Day, which is what we called Victoria Day. This holiday, this special day that I looked forward to for 364 days a year, no longer exists in Ottawa, nor does it still exist in any of the many cities across Canada in which it was also celebrated. As this great day approached, there would not just be ads in the Ottawa Citizen, but whole four- to eight-page sections dedicated to extolling its players, wonders and excitements. When this day of marvels arrived, my father and mother would round us up, clean us up, pack us up and off we would go to the celebrations.

The truth is, I do not remember my brother or sister even being there, or how we got there as we had no car and have just a vague recollection that my parents were in attendance, but I remember absolutely every other thing about this greatest of holidays, this quasi-religious celebration was known as Air Force Day.  I do not remember an Army Day or a Navy Day, though perhaps in certain towns like Halifax or Gagetown or Valcartier, these existed. All that I remember now is that Air Force Day was spoken about as if it had existed as part of our culture as long as the summer solstice, or Passover – with reverence, with building excitement and with a sense of the future.

Like the frenzied opening of gifts on Christmas morning, or the wild search for candy Easter Sunday, the great climax of Air Force Day in Ottawa was the massive air show that took place at RCAF Station Rockcliffe, four miles north of our house.

In those days, Rockcliffe was not the ghost base, the encroached-upon piece of real estate. the aviation remnant that it is today, but rather a bustling air base, acting like an aeronautical crossroads for the Royal Canadian Air Force. As old as military flying in Canada,  Rockcliffe had a bank of massive wooden hangars with their backs to the bluff that rose to the south. It had Junior Ranks, NCOs and Officers' messes and clubs as well as an attached town of lovely but tiny, postwar, asbestos-sided homes on curving, subdivisional streets. There were parade grounds, administration buildings, schools and churches and special buildings housing photo labs and stores. All this activity supported the acres and acres of concrete ramps and aprons, upon which, on Air Force Day, sat every type of aircraft operated by the massive and proud Royal Canadian Air Force. For a boy of 11, this was a paradise, the gates to which were opened one day a year.  

On one of these breathless days spent in heaven alongside the historic Ottawa River, I had an epiphany as did my friend Dan Dempsey, a member of Vintage Wings of Canada's talented cadre of pilots. This was a moment experienced by all young aviators to be, a moment of ignition.

Exactly fifty one years ago, Dan and I attended the same Air Force Day air show at Rockcliffe. Though we would not meet for another forty years, we both carried memories from that hot, muggy day in July of 1961 that have not diminished one iota in the half century that has passed since. In many respects, that day was our moment of ignition… a day that would seal our fates forever.

It was simply just one of 365 days that year, but it is the only one I remember, and I am sure Dan will tell you the same. Unlike all other important days of my life, this is the only one of which I remember in its entirety, the only one I can see in my head. The events of that day had such a powerful and lasting effect on us two skinny dark haired kids, that 45 years later when we finally figured out that we were both there that day, it was as if we were related, long lost brothers, sharing the same imaginary jet fuel bloodline. Because Dan had been in that crowd, I immediately knew him better.

The day presented many images that were to be forever seared into my memory – a thundering Canadair CP-107 Argus fly-by with bomb bay doors open showing day-glo practice bombs, followed by a CP-127 Lockheed Neptune dropping ordnance on a black plywood submarine set up at mid-field. There was a regal and smoky Royal Air Force Vulcan, Fairchild Flying Boxcars, square-dancing Search and Rescue helicopters, the Red Knight and his day-glo red T-33 and many more. All were enough to satisfy any boy's need for noise and speed, but one act and one act alone was left for the end of the day - the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Golden Hawks aerobatic team and their six “Pale Sheffield’s Gold” and scarlet Canadair Sabres (Canadian-built North American F-86 Sabre). Created just three years before for the fiftieth (golden) anniversary of powered flight in Canada, the Golden Hawks were the talk of the nation. Our Royal Canadian Air Force was one of the finest and largest in the world with scores of massive bases across Canada and in Europe and the poster boys for this zenith in Canada's military aviation growth were the sky blue-suited and gold-helmeted pilots of the Golden Hawks.

After the Red Knight pulled out of his last manoeuvre, the crowd was buzzing, the children straining to look up into the bright grey summer sky, eyes shielded. The heat shimmered from the runways and from the gleaming white and silver backs of the finest transport, bomber and fighter aircraft of the day. The announcer popped the PA system. A howl of feedback squawked and squealed across the crowded ramp. "Ladies and gentlemen, you are in for a treat today. In honour of Air Force Day in the Nation's Capital you will witness a display by the Golden Hawks, flying ambassadors of the jet age... ". And so it went for a few minutes as the show announcer introduced the main act of the show and handed over the microphone to the team announcer.

Then with a sweeping roar, six immaculately painted gold Sabre jet fighters swept across the sky heralding the arrival of the much anticipated Golden Hawks. For the next half hour or so, thousands of crew-cut or sun-dressed baby boom children and their parents witnessed a display of the finest aerobatic formation flying anywhere in the world. Four-plane formations followed by opposing solos and six plane bursts roared across the infield. Two solo gold jets drew cries of awe and terror from the thousands in attendance as they appeared to nearly hit each other during opposing passes. Long before disasters at air shows curtailed aerobatic demonstrations directed at and over spectators, the Golden hawks seemed to be everywhere - behind me, over me and in front of me. The sound of six thundering Orenda engines lives with me still as does the sight of the cloud-filtered light gleaming from their gilt wings. Trailing wisps of red, white and blue smoke still swirl in my memory to this day. There was smoke and thunder and grace and precision enough to forever cement my love of this country. 

Air show spectators stare slack-jawed as the Golden Hawks perform above them. Not one person looks anywhere but skyward - a tribute to the awesome sight of six blinged-out Sabre aircraft that appear to be welded together.  Photo: MWO (Ret'd) Bill Briggs 

I watched as the Golden Hawks flew into the collective conscience of all who were witness to their show. The Golden Hawks created an obsession in Canadians, a need for speed and aerial ballet precision that leaves us addicted to the Snowbirds today. There was such pride and respect and patriotism in the air… Sadly, I have not witnessed it since. I can say that as a tool of the RCAF used for recruiting, commemorating and inspiring, it was very, very, very effective. I guarantee that every young boy and girl who left the field that day was awestruck, that they thought about it until they fell asleep that night, that they dreamed about it and that everyone of us made promises to ourselves that day. Many would set goals that afternoon, and some achieved them.

In 1959, Squadron Leader Vern Villeneuve, the first team leader of the Golden Hawks signs autographs at RCAF Station Rockcliffe after an Air force Day performance on the fiftieth anniversary of powered flight in Canada. Just one look at the crowd of mostly young boys pressing in and pushing the snow fence down and you can feel the inspiration taking hold.

During the 100th anniversary of powered flight in Canada in 2009, we came across this image of one of our volunteers, Cameron Fraser standing on the wing of a Golden Hawk aircraft back in 1960, replete with Little Buddy air force flight suit and helmet. In a nation of boys in coonskin caps, Davey Crockett jackets and Roy Rogers six shooters, young Cameron was clearly inspired to higher goals. Fraser would go on to join air cadets, and to become an accomplished general aviation pilot. Photo: Moe Fraser

Dan Dempsey - Lead Inspirer

Daniel Dempsey knew then and there that when he could, he would join up and fly the same aircraft that he saw that day. His career in the Air Force would see him fly CF-104 Starfighters in Germany and would culminate in two tours with the descendants of the Golden Hawks – the Snowbirds, once as Team Lead. Dan went on to a lengthy career as a Cathay Pacific Captain and now flies with Discovery Air's Top Aces. he is also recognized as Canada's number one authority on our remarkable history of air demonstration teams. His book, A Tradition of Excellence, Canada's Air Show Team Heritage, is the finest historical record about this part of our aviation heritage ever written. In fact, there are no other books about military formation aerobatic teams that come close to touching its comprehensiveness, its passion, its visuals and ... yes its size! With 768 pages and 1800 photographs, it is the bible on the subject.

Two tours with the fabled Snowbirds taught Dempsey that flying is only part of the skill set required of a flying ambassador. Like all Snowbird teams from their 42 years of history, they understand the importance of greeting the people and bringing their message of accomplishment and goal-setting to young people. This is a tradition started by Fern Villeneuve and the Golden Hawks, and now carried one by of those young boys that watched them so long ago.

While all the Snowbirds do a remarkable job of outreach with air show crowds, none does better than Hawk One Team Lead Dan Dempsey... no one! This man will hop up onto the Sabre's wing after a grueling flying demo, regardless if it is 35ºC out on the frying pan ramp, place one flying boot on the wing and stuff the other into the boot step high up on the Sabre's side. Dempsey will stand in this clearly uncomfortable position for up to four hours at a time. From this step he will talk to parents, lift children into the cockpit and show them how the controls work, He will talk earnestly with them, talk directly to them, ask them what their dreams are, encouraging them to go for them and never, never rush them.

He learned from the best long ago.

Dan Dempsey gets down on he level of the kids to sign an autograph after a Hawk One performance at Abbotsford, British Columbia. Though selected for his easy going personality and well-trained by the snowbirds to share time with the public, Dempsey takes it a few steps further, focusing on youth, goal-setting and dreaming big. Dan can speak with kindness and from experience, putting himself in those little shoes.  Photo: Peter Handley

The cultural make-up of Canada has changed much in half a century, but not the imaginations of young boys. Here Dan talks with a class of elementary school children in the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum's hangar two days before the 2012 Hamilton Air Show. Photo: Peter Handley

Smart phones at the ready, these school kids video and photograph Dan's explanation of how the Discovery Air Hawk One Sabre's Orenda sucks in air in the front and blows history out the back. Photo: Peter Handley

On the day he met the school kids at Canadian Warplane Heritage, Dempsey was aloft with the CWHM's Lancaster for some air to air photography. Peter Handley

After every Discovery Air Hawk One performance, Dan Dempsey will insist that the gold jet be let through the barriers from the hot zone to the static display line so that Canadians and in particular young people can get a close look and a personal tour. Sometimes this can upset harried air show volunteers who have to tow him into a crowded line and forklift him over an air stair, but the result is, well... Pure Gold. Here Dan lets a young dreamer at the Hamilton Air Show sit in the pilot's seat and handle the controls. You know this means a lot to a young man with so many choices ahead of him in his short life.  Peter Handley

Yes young lady, these days you can become an airline or fighter pilot if you lock your sights on that objective. Back in the days of the Golden Hawks, this would have been unthinkable and though many young girls would have gone home just as inspired as the boys, they could not have hoped for a career in aviation. Peter Handley

Dan Dempsey is still that same little boy from Rockcliffe 50 years ago and though he has been around airplanes and airshows for all of his adult life, he can't help but look up at every pass during an airshow. The ember that was ignited long ago still burns in Dempsey's soul. Peter Handley

Hey Dad... That's a cool  airplane over there!!! While Dempsey has been known to stand for four hours with one wing on the wing root and another in the step, Rob Fleck, Vintage Wings President and Hawk One pilot stood in for him so that he could take a break, get some water and stretch his legs. Peter Handley

While Rob Fleck works the cockpit, Dempsey, who is supposed to be taking a break, joins the line of adults and kids waiting in the 30 degree heat to see the cockpit of a vintage Sabre. Peter Handley

Inspiration... it's what we do best.

A few years back Peter Handley captured this wistful and determined look on a young man's face as he tries out the controls of our de Havilland Tiger Moth. Peter Handley

Last year, Paul Kissmann, Chief Pilot was inspired himself by young Daniel MacPhee at the Ottawa-Gatineau en Vol air show.

On the way to the Hamilton Air Show, Rob Fleck drops in at Seneca College's Buttonville Airport Campus. Though these young pilots are close the realizing their dream, it can't hurt to reignite the spark by getting a tour of the Vintage Wings of Canada Mustang. Before giving a speech to the Buttonville Flying Club, pilots Fleck and Joe Cosmano visited the Seneca College hangar, putting current students through the cockpit and explaining the history and importance of the Mustang to Canada’s next generation of aviators. Photo via Mary Norman

As a reward for his interest in vintage aviation and his academic and Air Cadet accomplishments, Cadet Zeke Ruddy was made a member of Vintage Wings of Canada and given a ride in a vintage Fleet Finch biplane trainer. Here, after the flight and the post flight wipe-down of the finch, Zeke and new best friend, Finch pilot Peter Ashwood-Smith give a thumbs up. Young Zeke blogged a great and superbly well written account of his flight and it is well worth the time to read.

Zeke works to tidy and clean the backseat of the Finch... part of the job for a Finch backseater!

As Vintage wings Stearman pilot Todd Lemieux would say... “Is there a pretty girl factory around here?”. Last month while touring the Stearman through Swift Current, Saskatchewan, he was approached at the airport by a wedding party to see if they could be photographed next to the Harry Hannah Stearman. Todd, being Todd, said “Sure, but first I need to tell you about Harry Hannah and what he did for us.” After telling the story, the bride and groom and their entourage we moved to stuff the donation box with tens and twenties. Then the gals sent Harry, who lives in Oakville, a special message of thanks for inspiring them and for making their special day so memorable. Photo via Todd Lemieux

Former Spitfire fighter pilot, Warrant officer Harry Hannah of Oakville and his wife Yvonne truly appreciated the gesture from Swift Current and sent a notice right back to the pilots who are touring with the Stearman - Todd lemieux, Gord Simmons, Liam O'Connor, Brice Evans and Dave Maric

What goes around, comes around. In 1959, Fern Villeneuve (right) inspired a young boy from Ottawa named Daniel Dempsey, and 53 years later, that young boy, flying an identical aircraft was wowing crowds of youngsters from coast to coast. To complete the circle, Dan, as Discovery Air Hawk One team lead was able to dedicate the golden jet to none other than Villeneuve himself.

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