“Ewing!! Get over to Transient!! Some officer wants to see you!!” Thus started my Centennial tale in 1966.
As I was already in the Base Flight Hangar at RCAF Station Cold Lake, I walked to the door to meet my future boss, Wing Commander O.B. Philp. His first question (and my answer) sealed the deal. Did I still want to work on old aircraft?? And yes!! A month later, I was driving myself and my belongings down the road to a little wide-spot-on-the-prairie known as RCAF Station Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. I was officially a member of the team being formed to help the Royal Canadian Air Force celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Canada. The team would be known as the Golden Centennaires.
Not that I stayed at Portage long. My first order was, “If you have any leave, you’d better take it now. You won’t get any until after the Centennaire flying season is over.” So I took the leave and headed off to see what kind of adventures I could find. (More on this later.)
With leave all used up, I arrived back in the Golden Centennaire Orderly Room to be handed more travel orders … this time to #6 Repair Depot, RCAF Station Trenton, Ontario. Why?? Because that’s where they were putting together the two Avro 504K aircraft that would be part of the Centennial celebration. The Avro 504K was the first training aircraft ever flown by the Canadian Air Force (later the RCAF) after being included in a group of aircraft donated to the fledgling Canadian Air Force by the RAF*, and it had been decided to rebuild a pair of them in honour of the Centennial. I was to be part of the restoration crew so that I would know what kept all the various bits and pieces from falling apart in the air as I followed them across Canada. So to Trenton I did go.
RCAF riggers George Carpenter and Bob Fisher work to cover one of the Avro 504K’s four wings in a hangar at Trenton in the summer of 1966. Photo via Bill Ewing, a.k.a. Westwing
The first person I met once I arrived at the No. 6 RD hangar was Warrant Officer 2, Harry Tate. He was not the usual WO, all neatly dressed and looking sharp for the troops. Harry was wearing coveralls and these were liberally dabbed with glue (both dried and wet), dope, paint … you name it and if it was on aircraft, it was on him. Within minutes, I was out of my uniform and into a similar pair of coveralls—in which I would live for the next four months. In a very short period of time, under the careful guidance of Harry, I became proficient in the ancient arts of aircraft wood working, rib stitching, piano wire cutting and securing, and doping … lots and lots of doping.
And that’s how I spent my summer and fall of 1966. Then came November. Work on the first of the two Avros, G-CYCK, was finished and the initial test flights completed.
Then it was pack up everything and move G-CYCK and myself back to Portage so that the assigned pilot, F/L Gord Brown could learn how to fly the thing. The only problem was, it was NOVEMBER. We’re in Portage. It’s cold … no, BLOODY COLD!! The first time we tried a flight, we couldn’t even get the engine (an original LeRhone Rotary) started outside. We had to push the Avro back into the hangar and position it directly under one of the hangar heaters. Once running, Gord taxied it out of the hangar with we crewmen desperately hanging onto the wingtips for guidance (no brakes … this is an authentically restored 1918 aircraft here, folks.) With care and a lot of luck, the aircraft was launched on its first flight into prairie skies.
The Avro 504K is pushed out into the depths of a Manitoba winter prior to its first flight at Portage La Prairie.
Now our fearless leader, O.B. Philp, was from Vancouver Island and knew that the Navy kept a squadron, VU-33, all neatly tucked away at the Pat Bay (Victoria) Airport. There they sat, with a huge hangar, a barrack block, and only a couple of aircraft. So, he made a couple of phone calls, and we packed up G-CYCK, F/L Gord Brown, and Corporals Bill Ewing, Frank Doherty and Joe Chermishnok, loaded everything aboard a Herc and headed west to our new (and warmer) operating space.
It was the perfect solution. We had lots of room, some talented Navy help, and even one old civvy (Joe Holroyd) who dropped by and had the answers to some of our more puzzling problems. Gord was able to figure out some neat flight moves with the Avro that are unknown today. As the Avro 504K had an all-flying rudder (no fin), he was able to pull off a flat 360º turn, and with the amount of wing area available, lots of height, and the slow engine speed, a Falling Leaf was a cinch.
Then the second Avro was completed and G-CYEI joined us, with its crew of F/L George Greff, and Cpls Mickey Trimm, Denny Brooks, and Bill Randal. Now the flight practices began in earnest, and with them, troubles started to appear.
The Avros had been copied from a pair of airframes purchased from U.S. builders. With G-CYCK, we had a problem of the aircraft flying tail heavy. Finally, in order to handle it, a pair of counterweights had been added to the base of the landing gear struts. (And more on this later, as well.) G-CYEI had been rebuilt from the same airframes but by then, a set of the original Avro drawings for the aircraft had arrived from England. A problem that those of us that would be on the road with the Team foresaw was the age of the engines. They just don’t make parts for old rotary engines anymore. In total, six engines were unearthed at various museums and the crew at Trenton spent an entire summer building and rebuilding these six for us to try and keep two aircraft up and running. Their efforts were magnificent, but in many cases, in vain, as engine after engine would be rebuilt and installed, only to have it perform more poorly than the engine we had pulled off in the first place. The first thing we discovered (after running one some forty hours) was that the LeRhone rotary was originally “lifed” at 25 hours and then pulled and returned to factory for a complete overhaul. This problem stuck with both Avro crews for the entire summer.
The second Avro 504k was a replica of one of those that were given to Canada by Great Britain after the First World War in what was known as the “Imperial Gift”* The original G-CYEI started life in the Canadian Air Force as an Avro 504K on 27 October 1921 when its certificate of registration was issued, after having been gifted to Canada in 1919 along with 113 other assorted Aircraft by Great Britain. It continued service as a standard trainer with the RCAF when that organization was formed on 1 April 1924 and was converted to a 504N on 29 June 1927 by exchanging its Clerget power plant for an Armstrong Siddeley Lynx IV, replacing its undercarriage, and several other minor modifications. It was re-serialled to “4” on 1 January 1928, and struck off strength on 15 August 1928. Photo and text: DND
But they weren’t the only problems we endured, although they were the main fault behind most of our others. George Greff suffered a badly-running engine up over Vancouver Island and was forced to land on the down slope of a plowed field. Only his skill and a lot of luck prevented G-CYEI from becoming a pile of wood and fabric. Air show after air show was missed with the engine problems and we disappointed a lot of Canadians who were there to see the old aircraft fly.
The plan for the tour was that one Avro would be available for the shows in an area. The second Avro would leapfrog on to the air shows in another area, and the jets of the Golden Centennaires Demonstration team (the forerunners of today’s Snowbirds) would just join us. To help the transfer of the Avros, for each one, a set of wing transporter stands were constructed. Using these, combined with the fact that the Avro had a “two bay” (two sets of struts on each outer wing) system, allowed us to leave the wing pair on each side assembled during each move. With the centre section in place on the fuselage, all that was required was for each wing set to be removed from the stand, lifted up into place and the attachment bolts installed. The required rigging was kept to a minimum.
O.B. Philp and the Golden Centennaires team (the progenitors of the Snowbirds), flying the then new Canadair CT-114 Tutor, were the star attraction across Canada in 1967. But the entire team, including the two Avro 504Ks, one CF-101 Voodoo (flown by F/L Jack Miller, with nav F/L Rod McGimpsey), and one CF-104 Starfighter (flown by F/L Rene Serrao) and their crews were also part of the Golden Centennaires. The stylized maple leaf worn on their fuselages and patches was the iconic logo/symbol for the Centennial year and became the symbol for a newly awakened and energetic Canada. Photo: DND
The Holy Grail for Canadian military patch collectors—the Snoopy Old Gold patch. This is the original design dreamed up and drawn by Bill Ewing, [Renaissance Man – Ed] in February of ’67. Ewing notes: “Over the years in the Air Force, I came up with several crest or cartoon designs. I had the whole thing coloured and ready for production when I submitted it to O.B. Philp for approval. He okayed it and we had a very limited run of the crest made. Only O.B. and the guys on the two Avros got them. And, no, Charles Schultz never gave his approval as I didn’t know about copyright stuff back in those days”. The original sketch and colour concept presented to O.B. Philp plus the final stitched crest are shown. Photo: William Ewing
The long fuselage and large wing area of G-CYEI are evident in this image from Centennial Year. Photo: DND
The normal situation was to dismantle the Avro wings after each set of shows and load them into the stands. Then the fuselage, centre section, flyaway kit, and crew personal gear was loaded aboard a C-130 Hercules with one crewman and the pilot, and they were flown to the next scheduled air show site. The pilot would hurry off to secure our crew vehicle and check us into the arranged hotel/motel. While he was doing this, the crewman would install the centre section and rig it to requirements. Meanwhile, the Herc would return to point A and pick up the wings and the remaining crew. Once back at Point B, the wings would be unloaded and hung on the airframe, a test flight would be carried out, and the crew would then sit back and wait for the rest of the Centennaires to arrive for show day.
Bill Ewing’s Avro 504K G-CYCK being held in place (it was breezy at the time) by Cpl Frank Doherty, in front of the original CAF hangars at RCAF Station Camp Borden … an original aircraft in front of the original hangar. At one point, the wind won out over Frank and the one wing lifted, crushing the opposite underwing bow. Luckily the team carried spares. Photo: Via William Ewing
Sound like fun?? Lots of time off?? Lying by some hotel pool watching the girls go by?? HA!!! This is the Royal Canadian Air Force. Things don’t work that way. The Avros had Rotary engines. Rotary engines are lubricated with Castor oil. What they don’t burn is thrown out the cylinder. And just where does it land?? You guessed it. All over the aircraft. And what takes it off the aircraft?? Lots of elbow grease and white (unleaded) gasoline. The Avros had to look good for the public, so each time the pilot or the fitter did a run-up, the two riggers got out the rags and the white gas and wiped the Avro down again.
As I said, one Avro did the tour through eastern Canada while the other did the west. That is, when they were flying. In Ottawa, G-CYCK provided an interesting break in the summer. We assembled the aircraft at the RCAF Station at Uplands, and Gord Brown headed off to Rockcliffe to have a look at the site of the upcoming air show. It was a nice warm lazy day, and so the three of us lay back on the grass outside the hangar to await his return. Above my head, I heard a phone ring, and someone stuck a hand out the window with the phone receiver. “Ewing. It’s for you.” Puzzled, I answered. A small voice at the other end said, “Bill. Bring the guys and your tools to Rockcliffe. We got a problem”. So, Frank, Joe and myself piled the kit into a truck and drove over.
Problem?? He called this a problem?? It was a disaster!!!
Air Force officers and men survey the damage of G-CYCK after her nose-over at Rockcliffe. Photo via Bill Ewing
It turned out that Gord had decided to do a roller landing … just to check out the levelness of the field. The 1914 Pilot’s Guide to the Avro 504 advises against such a move. In fact, it warns against it. Go back a bit. Remember I mentioned that G-CYCK was always tail heavy and had thirty pounds of lead bolted to the front undercarriage strut?? Well, that had dug into a small hummock, the long undercarriage skid had broken off, and upsy-daisy. The aircraft immediately stopped moving and Gord was left hanging in his straps. The propeller had been shattered, the entire undercarriage junk, the cowling battered beyond recognition, and the engine had been rolled back under the now-broken fuselage. But Gord Brown suffered only a small scratch to his nose. And a severe beating to his pride.
What to do now?? The 1967 Ottawa Centennial Air Show was out as far as the Avro was concerned. Harry Tate had his crew up from Trenton in what seemed like minutes and they took over. The aircraft was pulled back into a more presentable position, then dismantled and shipped back to Trenton. It took us six weeks and lots of long shifts, but we did get it back into flying shape. Remember also that I said that the tail plane vernier block, which allowed for longitudinal trim had been “Murphied” when it was installed originally?? During the rebuild, we had the drawing to refer to, and the block was installed the correct way this time. This made Gord Brown extremely happy as now he was able to actually fly G-CYCK hands-off.
Then came August, and time for the Abbotsford International Air Show. This was the crème de la crème of Canadian air shows. It was determined that we WOULD provide the public a sight not seen in Canadian skies since the 1920/30’s … not one but TWO Avro 504Ks in the air at the same time. (Maybe)
This shot by the author is the first air-to-air photo taken of Gord Brown with G-CYCK—taken over Vancouver Island (Patricia Bay) in early spring of 1967. The photo was shot from Joe Holroyd’s Luscombe Silveraire, CF-SHE. Note the large shiny black weight blocks at the skid end of the forward vee struts. To attain stable flight, 30 lbs. of lead were added … a 15 lb. block on each side of the undercarriage skid at the forward undercarriage strut attachment point. This wasn’t the primary cause of the Rockcliffe crash, but a contributing factor to the amount of damage suffered. Photo: Bill Ewing
At Abbotsford, British Columbia, the two Avros enjoy a rare moment together. Photo: William Ewing
Both the Avros and the crews made the trip. G-CYCK was assembled. G-CYEI was assembled. G-CYCK was test flown. G-CYEI was test flown. Then the first of the air show days.
Friday, 11 August: G-CYCK airborne for the Antique Flyby. Severe vibration encountered … proved to be a chipped prop. So, we phoned Trenton for a replacement—fast!!! O.B. Philp has been grading the Golden Centennaires Tutors on their performances all season. Today the “Brass Budgies” [Golden Centennaires – Ed] outdo themselves and are awarded a 9.6 out of 10!! They even make the US Navy Blue Angels look a little shabby.
The extremely narrow undercart and broad wings of the 504K are evident in this shot of one taking off at Abbotsford. Photo: William Ewing
Saturday, 12 August: Prop doesn’t arrive even though Frank & Joe drove all the way into Vancouver International and waited... and waited... and waited. In the meantime, G-CYEI thrills the crowds with the 360º Flat Turn and the Falling Leaf.
Sunday, 13 August: Final day of the Abbotsford show. The replacement prop for G-CYCK arrives, BUT!! Some of the prop retaining nuts have been damaged due to poor manufacture, and after much struggle, it is finally installed. We move it out into the fly area, and after three short engine runs, Gord Brown gets it airborne on test. Not good. Now that the new prop is on, the engine decides to frustrate all by running rough. In disgust, we of “Old Gold Two” give up and push the aircraft back into the hangar.
And that pretty well sums up the fun and games of life on the road with Avro 504K, G-CYCK, during the summer of 1967. We did additional shows, and finally in mid-September, after more failing engines, the official word came down to leave G-CYCK at Trenton in the care of the crew there and to return ourselves to Portage.
Remember back at the start I mentioned having my own adventures?? Well, in November, the Golden Centennaires were invited to fly down to Las Vegas, Nevada, and take part in a giant reunion and air show with the US Air Force Thunderbirds and the US Navy Blue Angels. O.B. Philp decreed that ALL Centennaire personnel would be allowed to go as a “thank you” for a year of hard work. And they all did … except me. I had asked a Winnipeg girl to be my wife, and the wedding date was that very Saturday. I asked if we might slip the date a week so that I might go with the rest of the team to Las Vegas. Some women just have no sense of humour.
* For an excellent history of this donation of aircraft known as the Imperial Gift, read Hugh Halliday’s superb and thorough story in the latest edition of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society’s Journal—available on newsstands (or purchased through their website www.cahs.ca – Ed).
The 504K taxies on grass at what appears to be RCAF Station Rockcliffe—possibly being demonstrated at the National Aeronautical Collection (now the Canada Aviation Museum) where it was donated in 1968. Avro G-CYCK was built in England in 1918, used by the fledgling Canadian Air Force and, after passing through the hands of several owners, was purchased and restored by the RCAF, which subsequently flew it in Centennial celebrations during 1966–67. Acquired by the museum in 1968, it has been kept in flying condition and was flown by the museum on special occasions. It is one of several aircraft in the collection powered by rotary engines. Photo: DND
The second Avro 504K, G-CYEI now resides at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio—repainted in French markings of the First World War. Here is the USAF’s description on their website: “Using original parts, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Aircraft Maintenance & Development Unit built the aircraft on display in 1966–1967 with a 110-hp Le Rhone J rotary engine. It arrived at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in May 2003, and it is painted to represent one of the 52 Avro 504K aerobatic trainers used at the AEF No. 3 Instruction Center, Issoudun, France, in 1918.” Photo: Jim Kershner with thanks
The author, Bill Ewing (Left) and Cpl Frank Doherty (my fellow Rigger) pose for DND’s magazine the Sentinel at Comox on 20 April 1967. Doherty is holding the unofficial Log which Ewing kept up through the “Summer of the Avros”. Shortly thereafter, the Avro returned to Trenton for her official NIVO (Night Invisible Varnish Orfordness—Orfordness being a secret coastal RAF station) green paint scheme. Photo: William Ewing