Story and photos by Doug Switzer, Moto/ology Publisher
Hurry up and get your butt moving.” This wasn’t what I was expecting to hear on this cool morning last October. You see, it was my birthday and I was figuring that would be a fitting excuse on this autumn day to take it easy and maybe laze around a bit and you know, just chill. Well, apparently my good wife had other ideas and I learned a long time ago not to go against her wishes or plans. It just doesn’t end well.
So, I pried myself out of my cosey, comfortable bed and got myself ready for whatever it was she had planned, rather as ready as I could be as I had no idea what she’d arranged for the day.
Now, I’ll admit I did have an inkling that we were having a lunch with a couple of friends who live down in Hamilton, so that was a given. Obviously, seeing as they were living in Hamilton, I wasn’t surprised to be heading in that direction. Fair enough.
While on our way, I did manage to get one other detail out of my wife. We were going to have lunch with our pals at one of my favourite places: The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at Hamilton’s Mount Hope Airport. That’s a very nice birthday present, I thought. OK, this is very cool!
Now, my wife will never accuse me of being really quick on the uptake all the time and I’ll admit I was pre-occupied with the thought of turning 70 and not thinking too much about the event at hand, but I was sincerely taken aback when she almost yelled at me again to get my a** in gear or I’ll miss my flight. “Ha, ha!” said I, very funny…hey, wait a minute…whaaa?? My flight? No, you didn’t, did you? She smiled at me and nodded. I was out of the car in a shot and heading for the museum’s front door! Whoa, now this is very cool!
One of the things on my personal bucket list is to get some rides in at least some of the wonderful aircraft that the CWHM keeps in flying order. We had actually joined as members earlier in the year, mostly as a way to offer our support with our membership fees, but also as a way to keep up on the various nifty functions and happenings at the museum. One of the bread-and-butter earners for their operations is offering members flights on some of their vintage warbirds and other historic aircraft. Members can book flights on training aircraft like the North American Harvard (known as the SNJ or Texan in U.S. service), a de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane, a Fairchild Cornell, or a DHC Chipmunk among others. Flights can also be booked on a Noorduyn Norseman or a Beechcraft B18 Expeditor, types that were used as gunnery and bombing trainers, as well as wireless and navigation training during the war years. Flights can also be reserved on more upscale airplanes like the Douglas C-47 Dakota transport, the North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber, the Consolidated Canso (known as the Catalina in the U.S.) and the flagship of the collection, the mighty Avro Lancaster 4-engined “heavy” bomber.
Meanwhile, back at my birthday adventure, I ran into the museum and checked in at the admissions counter where I was sent directly to the flight office. At the time, I didn’t even know which aircraft I would be flying in… it didn’t really matter, I was sure that flying in any one of these machines would be a truly unforgettable experience.
At the flight office there were quite a few other people all lined up and waiting for their flights. This was the last day of flight operations for the season. After this, the flying programs would be shut down for the winter while the CWHM crews attended to maintenance and storage duties on the aircraft. So, I was one of the folks that was to have a flight on the Beechcraft B18 Expeditor. This aircraft is a twin-engine, twin-tailed design harking back to the mid-1930s and was used by the RCAF in training and transport duties throughout the war years. Other people in the line were awaiting their turn on other aircraft that sat on the flightline. There was a C47 Dakota, the B-25 Mitchell, the DHC Chipmunk, a Boeing Stearman biplane, a North American Harvard trainer and a delicate-looking de Havilland Tiger Moth. I thought to myself, somehow, sometime, I must get a chance to fly on all these wonderful planes! I made a vow that some day, I would.
It was at that moment, I met my pilot and his second in command. They were both very personable and cheerfully greeted all the “passengers” as they welcomed us and led us onto the tarmac. I knew from previous chats with people that both these chaps were certified as “pilots in command” and they took turns as pilot and co-pilot on the various aircraft.
Walking out on a fairly warm autumn day to the flightline I was captivated by the historical aircraft lined up before me. We were led over to the beautiful Beech, all restored in the markings of a photo recon and wireless trainer that operated out of a BCATP airfield near Winnipeg during the war. The airplane was painted in an authentic WWII dark green military paint scheme with the correct wartime roundels and markings of the RAF. (All Canadian military aircraft wore RAF-style markings until after the end of the war when the Canadian maple leaf was introduced into the centre of the roundels for all RCAF aircraft). As we paused beside the plane for pre-flight pictures, I got a funny feeling and thought this must have been what it was like to be a young airman about to go for an actual mission during those dark times. I was thankful my excursion was just a sightseeing tour and no one would actually be shooting at us!
Our pilots herded us into the Beech and pointed out where to sit to maintain our weight and balance and keep the doors clear for access and egress in case of emergencies. I was one of four passengers this day, two of which were a husband and wife. I explained that my wife had bought this flight for me as a 70th birthday present and the gentleman smiled and said his wife had also bought his flight for his 75th birthday! Happy birthday to both of us! The other passenger was another fan and supporter of the CWHM and told me this was another in a long line of flights he had taken in the museum’s aircraft. His goal was to fly at least once on every machine they had on offer. What a cool idea!
The Beech cabin was outfitted as it would have been during the war if it was used as a light transport for VIPs and other service personnel. There were 6 comfortable but quite basic seats (8 if you include the flight crew) and charming plaid curtains adorned the windows. Military-style diamond-stitched blanketing covered the walls. Our pilot made his way forward to the cockpit, while our co-pilot secured the main side door then moved about the cabin making sure we were all seated and belted in properly.
The pilots gave us a preflight run-through of safety and emergency procedures then prepared to fire up the two Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior radials. I drank in all the vibration, noise and atmosphere I could while our pilots ran the engines through their run-up checks—the two radials banging away happily!
After the run-ups and pre-flight checks we began to taxi out past the B-25 and other planes on the flightline. Did I happen to mention this was very cool?
Hamilton’s John C. Munro Airport at Mount Hope, Ontario isn’t exactly a huge international facility, but it does cater to several airlines and cargo-carriers so it can be quite a busy place. With this in mind, our pilots exercised much due diligence while taxiing out to the assigned active runway.
Once on the threshold, we lined up, the power came on and we were away! With the twin radials growling away, the tail came up and we lifted off with great grace… what a wonderful old beast!
As we climbed away from the field I looked out my window at the olive-drab wing with that wartime roundel on it and I just had to grin to myself. Through the open doorway to the flight-deck we could keep track of all the pilot’s motions and duties. We flew southwest from the airport across the Niagara Peninsula toward Lake Erie, moving in and out of sunlit light cloud cover and looking down on the pre-winter farmland below. It was generally a calm day and our pilot executed a couple of high-angle but gentle turns and modest maneuvers to demonstrate the agility of the old plane. It performed beautifully!
Approaching the north shore of Lake Erie just west of Port Colborne, Ontario, we circled the old, now-unused WWII airfield of No.6 RCAF Dunnville. This airfield was one of the many built in Canada during the war years for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. It was in use until a few years ago when it sadly became populated with wind generators. The airfield is now home to a museum dedicated to its wartime activities, but no aircraft will ever operate out of it again. It’s kind of sad actually.
We swung into a shallow turn out over the sun-dappled waters of the lake and then headed back towards our home base at Hamilton. I strained to watch Lake Erie retreat out of my right window, while checking on Lake Ontario approaching through the window on the left side of the cabin. I thought to myself, this is kind of weird but in an interesting way. I’m looking out over two of the Great Lakes passing under me, one coming and one going. This is very cool!
Coming back to land at Hamilton Airport, I was still quite excited but also sad that my flight was about to end. We completed our circuit around the pattern and gently turned down into our final approach. The old Beech seemed to be very steady and easily controllable at the slower speed selected for our landing and we touched down with a minimum of fuss and bother. As we ran down the runway slowing even further, the twin tails dropped gently and the tailwheel settled onto the pavement. We turned off the active runway and taxied back to the waiting crowd gathered in front of the CWHM flight office. There was my smiling wife and friends waving as I climbed out of the wonderful old Beech.
There was a quick round of “thank-yous” and handshakes between our flight-crew and my fellow passengers and myself, then we paused for a couple of group shots of us beside the plane. After that, we headed back into the flight office and restaurant area.
Once there, I joined up with my wife and friends. We then had a delightful lunch while I ragged on about my just-completed thrilling warbird experience. I’m sure everyone was very pleased when I told them it was very cool!
If you would like to take a flight in a warbird, check out the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at: www.warplane.com