Postcards from Penhold

In the summer of 2013, nearly 50 Vintage Wings of Canada volunteer pilots took part in the most challenging youth outreach program to date. Spreading their wings across the entire nation from Victoria, BC to Debert, Nova Scotia, they took more than 500 young Canadians on a time machine flight back in history in one of our 6 Yellow Wings training aircraft. Many of these energetic and committed pilots were themselves trained by the Royal Canadian Air Cadets flying programs and it was an opportunity for these proud Canadian citizens to give back to the program that inspired them to take to the air many years ago. While our pilot cadre includes superstar test pilots, military fighter pilots, high time airline Captains and even a couple of astronauts, the 2013 Yellow Wings program embraced a number of general aviation pilots with deep experience in taildragger aircraft flying. One of them was Jeff Bell, a Winnipeg-based pilot with a natural love of flying and the hands and feet of a true Yellow Wings pilot. At first humbled by the brilliant flying careers of legendary pilots like Paul Kissmann, Joe Cosmano, Mike Potter, Krusti Whelan and Dave Hadfield, Jeff soon realized that he was among like-minded professionals and embraced by the Vintage Wings family. Here in his own humble words, is the story of how he was recruited, trained and sent into the fight to inspire our youth to set high goals... and achieve them. - Ed

By Jeff Bell – A First Time Vintage Wings Pilot

In late January, I received a Facebook message from WestJet Captain Dave Maric, with whom I flew as an Air Cadet and Cadet Instructor List Officer. I hadn’t seen Dave much in the last 13 or so years, so it was a bit of a surprise to hear from him. The next night Dave called me at home with an interesting offer. He advised me that my name had been put forward to fly for Vintage Wings of Canada in the 2013 season. I was pretty surprised to say the least. I think I said to my wife that this offer was almost too good to be true, and I wouldn’t believe it was actually happening until it happened!

Dave went on to explain the mission in subsequent emails. The opportunity to fly air cadets in the Vintage Wings aircraft was something that really made sense. It would be a really inspiring trip for both the pilots and the cadets. As a former air cadet that went through the gliding and flying program, it felt like a great opportunity to give something back to the program. I was pretty excited to be involved, and I have to thank the pilots that were already flying with Vintage Wings for putting my name forward.

My own air cadet career was one of the best influences on me. I attended summer camps in Winnipeg, Manitoba and Penhold, Alberta, where I received my gliding wings in 1993. In 1994, I attended a National Power Scholarship course in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. This was a great place to learn to fly. I had a great time on my course, and even toured a few of the mines in Yellowknife. I had no idea that that summer would have such a big impact on the rest of my life. Following that summer, I started as a tow pilot with the Winnipeg Gliding Club on the Bellanca Citabria. I also started glider towing with the air cadet program on the Scout. At the same time, I started in geological engineering at the University of Manitoba. These were busy times…

This is right after our wings parade at the Regional Gliding School in 1993, in Penhold, Alberta. I walked across that ramp during the VWC Red Deer deployment and stood where Lt. Col. Bob Patrick pinned on my gliding wings! I kind of always liked the tow planes better, so I think I wanted my picture taken in front of this Scout. This was the last summer that we wore the green uniforms. Photo via Jeff Bell

My fellow staff cadets at Penhold in 1995, standing in front of a former RCAF Harvard with our supervising officer. Left to right: Captain Lloyd Olson, Todd Katay, me, Bill Stock, John Gruber, Richard Kzasiak, and Sarah Tufts. Photo via Jeff Bell

All in all, the air cadet program was a great experience for me, and I met many people who would become my lifelong friends. During my year as a staff cadet, and after obtaining my power license, the cadet air studies and cadet gliding school staff went up to Wetaskiwin, Alberta one weekend to tour the Reynolds Museum. We all ended up going for a flight in a Boeing PT-17 Stearman. I remember having a great time, and telling the pilot that I would likely never again have that experience. The Stearman seemed so huge compared to the diminutive Citabria. The pilot told me that one never knows what opportunity may come along. At 18 years old, flying the Stearman seemed pretty much an impossibility.

This is a blurry picture of the first flight I ever had in a Boeing Stearman – in 1995, when I was a staff cadet at Penhold. I worked that summer as a staff cadet instructor for the air studies course. Photo via Jeff Bell

On the first summer that I towed gliders with the air cadet program in Penhold, Todd Lemieux, now the Vintage Wings Board Chairman, flew up to see some of the staff who he had served with in previous summers. He introduced himself to me, and he asked what I was taking in engineering. When I told him I was taking geological engineering, he advised me that I had made a good choice, as airplanes and geology went well together. He also passed on his business card, and told me that I should keep in touch should I find myself in the oil sector after graduation.

This is taken on my cadet flying scholarship course with Great Bear Aviation at Yellowknife, NWT in 1994. I am standing on our “apron” where we would park and tie down overnight. This school closed down afterwards, and this is now part of the Buffalo Airways parking area.

Today, one of my favourite aircraft to fly is the highly capable Piper Pawnee. Built as a crop duster, it now serves the Winnipeg Gliding Club as a tow plane. Here I am diving for the field after a tow. Photo via Jeff Bell

Fast forward 18 years… Married with a three and a half year old, I was working full-time as hydrogeological engineer, and flying for both work and the Winnipeg gliding club as a tow pilot. My work had taken me all over the world and things were very busy. Now Dave Maric is starting to send me emails about a trip to Ottawa for an annual recurrent training (ART) course for Vintage Wings of Canada’s pilots. Perhaps this will be a reality after all, despite my doubts! Meeting everyone was pretty overwhelming, but the spirit in the room was great. I was very impressed by the professional approach that everyone took. Todd explained the mission, Rob Fleck, the VWC President provided the introductions, and Ulrich Bollinger, one of the legendary VWC pilots, provided much of the entertainment. The weekend was a great experience. The second day was all ground school on the individual aircraft. I still didn’t really think I belonged there, as I was sitting through the Fleet Finch ground school next to Chief Pilot Paul Kissmann, who had flown a CF-18 Hornet over my cadet graduation parade in Penhold. After all, I was a just a 2,200 hour private and tow pilot and Kissmann has that just on Hornets!

After returning from Ottawa, I eagerly awaited an email to see if this whole dream was going to happen, and where it was going to happen. The emails were extremely interesting to read, and I was enjoying just being a part of them. It all came together when Todd sent a very simple email asking if I wanted to fly the Fleet Finch or de Havilland Tiger Moth out on the East Coast, or be a part of the Stearman team in the West, flying out of Penhold or Victoria, BC. I jumped at the chance to be flying back at Penhold again, going back to the place where it all started for me. I also thought it would be great to make that Stearman dream from my youth a reality. Most importantly, it would be great to give something back to the cadet program at Penhold. Todd did tell me that if I was to go to Penhold, I would have to keep an eye on one particular pilot with a reputation for ribald humour and pranks – Krusti Whelan.

Since I had missed the Stearman ground school in Ottawa, my good friend Larry Brown, another Yellow Wings pilot, gave up an evening to train me. Larry spent almost two hours preparing me for the checkout. I felt pretty nervous, and made sure I was well read up on the manuals.

Soon after, I was on my way to Calgary to start a check out. It was the Wednesday before the Penhold deployment was about to start, and the pressure was on. Veteran Yellow Wings pilots Gord Simmons and Todd Lemieux made that checkout happen and spent lots of time on the phone making arrangements. Another Calgarian Vintage Wings pilot, Bruce Evans (a geologist too), also opened up his office and hangar to us, which I thought was great. Geology maps all over the place, and airplanes in the hangar… it doesn’t get much better. I met my check pilot, Joe Cosmano, and I was feeling pretty nervous! Joe was not only a senior airline captain with US Airways, but also owned his own Stearman and homebuilt Christian Eagle, flew air shows and was qualified to fly the Vintage Wings Hawker Hurricane and Harvard. To say I was nervous was a major understatement. After the first takeoff, things sort of settled down, as Joe expertly guided me through life as a Stearman pilot. The aircraft didn’t seem quite so big anymore, and he taught me everything I needed to know. I was pretty hard on myself, and Joe was great to fly with. I learned so much that day. The last flight was really interesting, as there was a storm 25 miles away, and we wanted to get the flight in. We finished the mission, and started to taxi in. That was when the rain started, so I got pretty soaked in the back seat. At the end of the day, I was still being really hard on myself, and Joe told me that it was an 8 out of 10 day, and as far as he was concerned, I was ready for solo in the Stearman. He then told me that the rain shower was my solo dunking!

A postcard from my first solo flight in the Warrant Officer Harry Hannah Boeing PT-27 Stearman. Photo by Jeff Bell

I flew back home for a few days and got ready for the next week. Gord Simmons arranged for me to get back to Calgary on the Sunday before our deployment began. I was to fly my first solo up to Red Deer, Alberta (the largest city near Penhold) to bring the aircraft over. Gord sent me off to Red Deer solo in the Stearman. The first solo was amazing, and it didn’t really dawn on me until I passed by the former British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) relief airfields at Netook (for No. 32 EFTS Bowden) and Innisfail (for No. 36 EFTS Penhold) that I was flying a BCATP veteran. I overflew my old base at Penhold, and looked over the side to see the cadets lining up between the barrack blocks. There were a lot of memories there for me. The Vintage Wings experience had become a reality, and I was pretty happy to be finally a part of it. I had not been back to Penhold since 1997, and never dreamed I would return to that old base that had meant so much to me, flying in a Boeing Stearman, and one which had actually flown with the BCATP during the Second World War. Following Joe’s instructions, I did a few circuits, landed and taxied in.

Waiting for me was our lead pilot for Penhold, Derek Blatchford. Derek had started organizing the week ahead, and we spent the evening meeting with the station commander, and checking out the location for our operations room. Derek is a great leader, and really got us going in Penhold. Fuel, maintenance, and parking were all sorted out on Sunday night and Monday morning. Our real commanding officer was Derek’s partner Fiona. She looked after us well, and made sure we were keeping up to schedule. She was to be our ground coordinator, and would deal with the paperwork and arranging the cadets who we would fly. We also met the station public relations officer, who assigned us a great staff cadet in Sergeant Tim Wun. Tim was a great addition to the group and was extremely professional.

We really got started on Monday morning. I did the first shift as Derek still had organizing to do. Our first cadets were really excited to be there. I was pretty nervous flying my first few cadets. This quickly turned though, as there was such energy from them. They were so excited to be there, and had a million questions. It was great to fly with such keen people. It was pretty easy to motivate these cadets as they were really amazing young people.

Midway through the morning, the final member of our team arrived… the famous Krusti Whelan! Krusti was great to fly with and was such a motivator to the cadets. We had heard that there was a demand from Vintage Wings communications people for creative post-flight photos, so Krusti and I took turns trying to come up with unique ideas for the post-flight pose. It was lots of fun. I knew I had just met a great friend in Krusti.

Some of the guys in my new family—the Yellow Wings Stearman team. Left to right: Derek Blatchford, a highly experienced military, commercial and cadet pilot, Fiona Stevenson (who actually ran everything,) myself, and the legendary Krusti Whelan, one of the most inspirational pilots in the country. Photo via Jeff Bell

Being a role model, making a difference and setting an example for the next generation of Canadian aviators and leaders made my week at Penhold one of the finest aviation experiences of my life. Photo via Jeff Bell

We ended up shutting down early for weather the first day. That evening we had the briefing for all the cadets on the base. There were about 1,000 people in the old Hangar 6 for the briefing! Ron Dujohn (YWC veteran pilot), Brenda Blair (Yellow Wings’ Western communications coordinator), and Colin Cately (a veteran postwar RCAF Mustang pilot) did a great job with their presentations. We also heard a representative from our sponsor Raytheon motivate these great young people to pursue careers in science, technology and mathematics.

We continued on with our mission, flying about 10 to 15 flights per day. The cadets were so much fun to fly with, and had great questions. We would often chat about the history of the Stearman, Harry Hannah (the man who the Stearman is dedicated to), the BCATP program, the former Penhold base, and all sorts of things. The cadets all seemed to have very definite plans of what they wanted to do in the future. All in all they were very impressive. Many of the cadets also had lots of natural ability in flying, and expressed their desire to pursue powered flight and gliding scholarships. It was also pretty amazing to hear some of the comments, as many of the cadets had done some research on the history of the Stearman prior to their flying with us. Each morning we all ate together in the cadet mess to meet more of these young Canadians who will lead us in the years to come. It was pretty neat to be so popular on the base!

On the final day Todd Lemieux and Gord Simmons arrived, and with their extra help, we flew 22 flights that day. It was a busy day for everyone. We also had a visit from the Mustang with Bruce Evans and John Aitken. Taxing in front of the Mustang in the Stearman was an experience I will never forget.

After the Thursday, it was time for me to head back home. The week was unbelievable… We had great weather all week with nice calm winds. No thunderstorms or otherwise bad weather. The Stearman never skipped a beat! Other than a soft left brake, she performed extremely well. As I drove back to Calgary to catch my flight in the “Krusti mobile”, I was feeling pretty good about the whole experience. The program to fly 500 cadets was an excellent fit with the vision of Vintage Wings—On the wings of history go the leaders of tomorrow. It was a great chance to give something back to a program that had given me so much.

I owe a lot of thanks to people that have given me this opportunity. My wife was extremely supportive about this, and so were my managers at Friesen Drillers where I work. Vintage Wings has given me the chance to inspire some young Canadians, while spending some time to think about the significance of our mutual history. We also had the chance to reflect on how great this country is, and the opportunities we have in life. I met some great new friends, and re-acquainted myself with some old ones. By far it was the most significant flying I have ever done.

Jeff Bell

After her flight in the Stearman with me, 14-year-old Air Cadet Inalie Portades, of Saskatoon, SK had this to say about her flight: “Flying in the Stearman, I felt like I was the happiest person in the world at that time. The best part was when Jeff, my pilot, let me steer and step on the pedals and make an awesome turn to the left. I felt like I was really lucky to be chosen. If I get the chance, I will apply for both a glider and a power pilot license. Then, I will go step by step to become a pilot. Of course I would thank the sponsors and donors a million times for giving me this experience to fly with this one of a kind vintage aircraft. Also, I would share this experience with other people and tell to them that without the donors and sponsors, I wouldn’t have a chance to fly a Stearman.” Photo by Tim Wun

The Stearman Spirit is infectious – me and the Warrant Officer Harry Hannah Boeing PT-27 Stearman.

Inspiring the young people at Penhold gives me some perspective on my own experience and the future of my daughter. Photo via Jeff Bell

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