The Gentle Aviator

This week’s story is not about the tragic end of a Bomber Command crew in the Second World War, nor hellfire aircraft carrier operations off Okinawa in the Pacific war. It is not about Merlin engines, big aerial battles, aces, pioneer aviators, grass roots flying, or night fighters of the Soviet Union at the Battle of Stalingrad... but it is an aviation story just the same. Perhaps it is not the sort of story you might expect coming from Vintage News, but for us at Vintage Wings of Canada, it is as important as honouring a great hero of the Second World War or flying our F-86 Sabre across Canada. This is a story about one of our own. This is the story of the loss of an aviator.

There is one thing that binds all men and women who I call aviators. Whether you are a cocky jet fighter pilot or a low and slow-flying ultralight farmer; an aviation writer or aviation photographer; an actual 20,000 hour four-stripe airline captain or a basement dwelling nerd on FlightSim, hand flying a 747 Combi from San Francisco to Kuala Lumpur in real time, while your mother makes you pizza pockets; whether you are a rivet-counter or a plane-spotter; a fixer, builder, flyer, lover, reader, writer, researcher, collector or marshaller—you are an aviator and we, every one of us, all share one thing in common—a passion for flight in one of its forms or another. You, me, that slightly weird guy with two radio scanners slung like six-guns, that astronaut who made our whole country proud—we are, have always been, will always be,... aviators. Those actual flying aviators (let’s call them pilots) who do not understand or recognize this common DNA are missing the true greatness of aviation. Somewhere far back in our individual stories and our collective souls, we had a moment when this passion was ignited. And from that day onward, it burned in different ways for each of us.

In some of us, this is not a burning ember so much as a raging fire. Photographer and aviator John Davies was one, for whom the passion was not just a fire, but a conflagration. He was one of our volunteers, and a friend. John died sometime over these past weeks in sad and unfortunate circumstances, unseen and alone. It has broken all our hearts.

John Davies was a quiet man. He was one of those fellows of whom everyone spoke kindly, yet knew little. John wore a kindly expression, spoke with a soft timbre, kept his words to himself, and happily gave his time and his passion to aviation enterprises throughout the Ottawa area. As well as Vintage Wings of Canada, John worked with the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, the Ottawa International Airport Watch, and other organizations whose mandate is to share the culture of aviation. And John was the ultimate sharer.

Three aviators (left to right): Dave Hadfield, senior Boeing 777 Captain with Air Canada and veteran warbird pilot; Mike Potter, founder of Vintage Wings of Canada and high time warbird and aerobatic pilot; John Davies, ground control marshaller, veteran aviation. Photo: Peter Handley

Davies was an avid photographer, perhaps not an art photographer, but incontestably our city’s most prolific recorder of the comings and goings of aircraft at the Ottawa International Airport. His passion for aircraft and for flight is what all of us have in common and what made John an aviator as much as a fighter pilot, shuttle pilot, airline pilot or air show performer. John was particularly and joyously afflicted with this passion.

There is no doubt that ego and aviation go together like pilots and hamburgers, but ego was perhaps the only thing John Davies did not possess. He had a gentleness and a thoughtfulness about him that would make you feel like a lout in comparison. About John, many have said that he never had an unkind word to say about anyone. And in return for this, everyone had only kind words about John.

He had not been at the Vintage Wings hangar for a few years, but his work was evident to all of us in Ottawa who were involved on the beautiful periphery of aviation—the sharing of its history, culture and visual interpretation. John was a volunteer at Vintage Wings of Canada for years, but he slowly detached from us to follow his true passion—photographing the common and the unique aircraft which frequented CYOW—the Ottawa International Airport. He, along with YOW airport policeman Gary Davidson, was a founding member of Ottawa Airport Watch, and a member for 15 years.

Ottawa Airport Watch is the Ottawa air transport community’s version of a Neighbourhood Watch. Endorsed by the Ottawa Police Service and the RCMP, this group of plane-spotters and aviation photographers force multiply the airport’s security services, while indulging their passion for aviation. On any day, you would find Davies, a retired Canadian Forces Master Warrant Officer, quietly recording Ottawa’s aviation history.

This past year, John Davies was accorded honours from the volunteer group known as Ottawa Airport Watch for more than 10,000 hours of volunteering for the organization. That is the equivalent of working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year for five years. That is an incredible commitment, offered by John Davies quietly and without demands. He was a man of exceptional generosity. Here we see him standing on a snow bank (the fence top is 10 feet high) this year during one of Ottawa’s most difficult and cold winters on record. John was there almost daily, rain or shine, -30ºC or +30ºC to photograph the comings and goings of one of the world’s best run airports. Photo: Rod Digney

Sometime in the first couple of weeks in April, John, always the photographer, grabbed his camera, and drove to a place in Ottawa called Hog's Back. Hog’s Back is the dramatic highlight of Vincent Massey Park, a large park run by Ottawa’s National Capital Commission along the fast moving banks of the Rideau River. At the southern end this park, a dam holds back the coffee coloured waters of the Rideau, while a series of locks allows boaters to navigate a 40-foot drop in elevation past Three Rock Rapids, now called Hog's Back Falls. On whatever day John visited the falls, he parked his vehicle, took his camera and locked his camera bag in the car.

At any time, Hog's Back Falls is a thundering torrent, but at this time in any year, the spring run-off turns it into a very dangerous, yet photogenic spot. After the particularly difficult winter we just had, it was even more spectacular. The thundering of the cataract makes it hard to hear and roiling clouds of mists rise above the torrent, soaking any stone outcroppings from where one might get a good look, and if you get in the right spot, your camera will capture a bold rainbow arching over the dam.

John lived alone and his closest relative, his sister, lived in Barrie, Ontario. When he failed to appear for a doctor’s appointment, she was alarmed and reported him missing on the 17th of April. His car was found, still in the parking lot, on the 20th, and his body was found downstream a few days later.

Contemplating what transpired is difficult for all of us in the aviation community. Did he stumble and fall, slip on the wet rocks, get too close for the perfect photo? It does not matter I suppose, but what does matter to us all is that he was alone and that there was no one there to help him. A man of his astonishing kindness did not deserve this manner of death.

So, while you are rocketing along in your Dreamliner at 35 thousand feet, or checking the handsome cut of your flight suit in the mirror, or standing in front of your post-career “I love me” wall pondering the awesomeness of your flying memories, offer a prayer for a gentle man. Offer a prayer for a fellow aviator. For John

Dave O’Malley

One day, a number of years back, John Davies and pilot Rob Kostecka took the Vintage Wings Tiger Moth for a summer’s flight to visit the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, where they shared their enthusiasm for flight with dozens of children, no doubt igniting a spark in some of them. On the way there, John took this picture of himself and a moment of sublime joy. This is my favourite image of him. A “selfie” before the dawn of the “selfie.” Photo: John Davies

As Kostecka banks the yellow winged Tiger Moth over the still Ottawa River, Davies captures an iconic image for us. Just a few miles upstream from here, the Rideau River empties it waters into the bigger Ottawa in a roaring waterfall. This shot inspired the words “Yellow Wings”, the name of Vintage Wings’ program which, over the past three years, brought the story of Canada’s aviation heritage to the youth of Canada. Last year alone, we flew 500 of these young people and many of them took “selfies” like John’s. Photo: John Davies

There is an old saying: “When God shuts the door, he opens a little window.” One thing I know for certain—something that comforts me a little—is that, for every aviator lost, another is born. John... you are forever gentle in our hearts. Photo: Yellow Wings

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