Vintage Wings of Canada is restructuring the way it conducts its flying operations and public outreach programs. To understand these changes and their implications, it is helpful to recap the nearly 20-year history of the collection and its 14 years of operations under the Vintage Wings of Canada name.
In the late 1990s, Ottawa high-tech entrepreneur Mike Potter, a lifelong aviation enthusiast and pilot of high performance aircraft, embarked on an ambitious plan to acquire a world–class collection of classic aircraft in flying condition. The Michael U. Potter Collection was to have a distinctly Canadian focus, comprising the finest examples of types that played an important role in Canadian military and civilian aviation history.
While this extraordinary collection is privately owned, Potter has always sought to share it with fellow enthusiasts and the Canadian public at large, and to stimulate interest in our nation’s aviation history by telling the stories of the Canadian men and women who populate it. From the very early days, Potter’s vision of acquiring these remarkable airplanes and sharing them with the public for educational and commemorative purposes was realized in large measure due to the efforts of a small but growing team of dedicated volunteers.
The power of this collection to inspire emotions and open up dialogue came into focus in the summer of 2001. Potter had completed the repaint of his beloved Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVI in the markings of one that flew on combat operations with 421 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. In August of 2001, with the help of volunteers, he planned an unveiling event at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa and invited Canadian Air Force veterans and their families. With scores of eighty-something veteran pilots among the 3,000 or so in attendance, Potter demonstrated the flying qualities of the Spitfire with several emotional and inspiring flypasts for the invited guests. The sight and snarling sound of a Spitfire in swift flight, light glinting from her elliptical wings in the afternoon sun, brought tears to the eyes of many of the veteran fighter pilots in attendance. For many, it was the first time they had seen a Spitfire since their demobilization after the war.
A living Spitfire has the power to inspire emotions and teach younger generations about the long lost values of duty, honour and sacrifice. Photo: Peter Handley
At the end of the demonstration, Potter taxied the Spitfire up to the crowd and volunteers helped veteran pilots to step up on the wing and into the cockpit. Memories were rekindled. Tears and laughter mingled with silence and pride. Families saw their aging grandfathers in a new light, one swelling with both admiration and compassion. Everyone in attendance felt it—the obligation we have to remember the brave young men from Canada who flew in combat, many of whom paid the ultimate price, deprived of their future so that we might have one.
From this moment on, public outreach and education became the primary purpose of the collection. To fulfill this mission, a separate entity called Vintage Wings of Canada (VWC) was created in 2003. VWC was registered as a charitable organization with open membership, an independent board and professional management hired to lead the organization. It was provided the use of all the assets—aircraft, hangar and equipment—at no charge. The organizational model for VWC from its inception has been to integrate aircraft operations—restoration, maintenance and flight operations—with its public outreach programs under a chief executive officer and a small staff, while further developing the team of skilled and committed volunteers to help manage and deliver those programs.
By many metrics, VWC has been remarkably successful.
- In 2004, a fully-equipped 22,000 sq. ft., state-of-the-art hangar was constructed to house the collection and its accompanying restoration and maintenance facility at Gatineau–Ottawa Executive Airport (CYND) with access to its 6,000-foot runway and the most display-friendly environment in the National Capital Region.
- The collection grew rapidly and now comprises 17 outstanding and flying examples of some of the world’s most iconic aircraft, including 3 under restoration in the VWC facility and 3 on loan from other private owners.
- VWC assembled a team of professional aircraft engineers focused on restoration and maintenance and a cadre of highly experienced warbird display pilots.
- It developed a range of public outreach programs encompassing hangar tours, air display events, youth education, and commemoration.
- The foundation attracted the interest of hundreds of members and volunteers and more than 40,000 website visitors per month, literally from every country in the world.
The Michael U. Potter Collection continues to develop its strengths with a solid commitment to restorations like the Roseland Spitfire Mk IX Project which looks forward to completion and first flights this summer. In addition, the McKnight Hurricane XII restoration continues and soon work on the Hawker Fury will begin in earnest. Photos: Peter Handley
Two months ago, the Michael U. Potter Collection welcomed the addition of an immaculate de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver (C-GFRX) on amphibious floats. This summer, we look forward to seeing the Canadian icon in the hangar, on the ramp and at events. Photo via Mike Potter
As a result of these accomplishments, VWC has become a well-respected member of the warbird community worldwide and has had significant social impact, particularly on residents and visitors to Canada’s capital city. It has developed a reputation for innovative branded programming such as Yellow Wings, the In-His-Name Aircraft Dedication Program, Hawk One, and the Hadfield Youth Summit as well as a wide spectrum of special events—from grassroots to national in scope.
Volunteers will take on leadership roles in Vintage Wings’ innovative outreach programs such as Yellow Wings, a program that takes Second World War training aircraft to Air Cadet youth camps and shares the stories and even the skies with them. Photos: Yellow Wings
For 14 years, Vintage Wings of Canada has been the meeting place for dedicated aviation enthusiasts whose skills and passion have given life to the aircraft of the Michael U. Potter Collection. Their commitment to the future of vintage aviation operations in Ottawa will continue to drive outreach in the future. Photo: Peter Handley
While Vintage Wings was set up to operate independently, as required for a charitable organization, Potter has provided to the foundation the use of the aircraft collection and the purpose-built hangar, and has supported the foundation’s operations annually with cash donations. From its inception, the long-term vision was for Vintage Wings to build a broad financial base that would eventually fund operations without significant cash support from Mike Potter or his estate.
In spite of its remarkable success in pursuing its mission of public outreach and education over the past 14 years, VWC has made less progress towards financial viability. As a result, it has continued to rely heavily on its primary donor for operational funds and has forecast continued significant deficits for the foreseeable future. In the fall of 2016, the independent board of VWC therefore determined that it would be prudent and responsible to wind down the existing charitable organization and announced plans to do so at the annual meeting of VWC members held in December.
Also at the annual meeting, Mike Potter announced his personal plans to maintain the collection in good order and to restore private control over all aircraft operations, including restoration, maintenance, flight operations and facilities management. He further indicated that he wished to continue to share with the public his interest in Canadian aviation history and that “the hangar doors would be wide open” to any public outreach and education programs that might continue.
In the few days following that meeting, VWC volunteers and members were virtually unanimous in signifying their wish to migrate the foundation’s innovative outreach and education programs to a volunteer-driven grassroots organization. Long-time volunteer and supporter, Don Buchan, stepped up to reorganize the VWC foundation as an all-volunteer, not-for-profit organization with charitable status, to continue the foundation’s important work.
At the same time, air show veteran John Bennett volunteered to lead a single purpose organization, independent from the foundation, focused on continuing air demonstration events. John’s team is already well advanced in organizing a show on 30 April featuring the Snowbirds and their French counterpart, la Patrouille de France—an air display lineup not seen before in Canada’s national capital.
Mike Potter (centre) discusses future plans with volunteer Don Buchan (right), who will spearhead the creation of a new not-for-profit organization that will showcase the collection through outreach and education programs, and Paul Tremblay (left), Director of Maintenance at Vintech Aero. Vintech is the Approved Maintenance Organization that maintains the aircraft of the Michael U. Potter Collection. Photo: Kathryn Buchan
In 2017, la Patrouille de France, France’s spectacular military aerobatic team, will join the Canadian Forces Snowbirds at Vintage Wings and the Gatineau–Ottawa Executive Airport for their only Canadian public show of their 2017 North American tour. Not since their last Canadian visit for Expo 86, have Canadians seen this astounding team on the same card as the Snowbirds.
A simplified way to look at these events and the ensuing reorganization is that Vintage Wings of Canada is “volunteer-izing” all public outreach and education programs while “privatizing” aircraft operations.
Early indications point to increasing volunteer interest. Anyone who wants to learn more is encouraged to attend a “Beer and Pizza” evening at the Vintage Wings hangar on 3 February from 18:00 to 21:00, when plans will be discussed, ideas exchanged and a solid future engaged.
By Dave O’Malley