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45º 42′: An afternoon of heroes

The past and the future came together for one September afternoon on a windswept airfield outside Ottawa.

November 3, 2010  By Peter Pigott

The past and the future came together for one September afternoon on a windswept airfield outside Ottawa. And for once, the Vintage Wings Spitfire and Hurricane parked before the Gatineau Airport terminal were upstaged by the lumbering Canso and Lancaster flown in from the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ont.


This was the Vintage Wings of Canada “Wings Over Gatineau” air show. Held just before the Battle of Britain commemoration at Rockliffe Airport across the river, it traditionally marks the end of summer – and this year Vintage Wings was hosting the first Canadian Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) convention.

But there was nothing experimental about the historic Canso, Lancaster and Vintage Wings Corsair – the trio had come together as the Victoria Cross Flight. In each type of aircraft, during the Second World War, a Canadian had been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Watching them fly in one by one, I was reminded that Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski gave his life to save a fellow crewman as their Lancaster was going down in flames. Flight Lieutenant David Hornell depth-charged a German submarine in a Canso before being shot down and succumbing to hypothermia. And in a similar gull-winged Corsair, Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray attacked a Japanese destroyer, losing his own life in the process.

It was an afternoon for heroes – past and future. In the VIP enclosure, a former Second World War Spitfire pilot talked quietly of being shot down. He had been escorting Mitchell bombers over France when an Me-109 “bounced” him. He couldn’t get the stricken Spitfire across the English Channel and brought it down on a French beach to spend the next two years in a German prisoner of war camp just outside Dresden. As cool as the afternoon was, when he mentioned he had actually witnessed the firebombing of that city, a shiver ran through his audience.


Then, an all red Beech Staggerwing pulled up and astronaut Chris Hadfield got out. Always happy to share his experiences with the public, Hadfield had just spent the early summer as commander of NEEMO, the NASA undersea mission off Florida that uses the ocean to simulate exploration on the surfaces of asteroids, moons and Mars.

In the midst of so many different aircraft, Hadfield was asked which was his favourite to fly. “I’ve flown – I’ve lost count  – over 95 different types of aircraft but this,” he said, pointing to Hawk One, the Vintage Wings F-86 in the paint scheme of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s famous aerobatic team. “The Golden Hawk is my favourite. I would fly it again more than anything else.” When asked why, he said: “It flies as if you had your own wings. It’s as if you were born with wings.”

When asked why Canada still needs a space program, he didn’t flinch. “That’s like two questions,” he said. “Why do we need a program and why any more? Well, why do we ever need to learn new things? Why do we need to explore? Why do we need to try and find out things that we don’t know?  Canada’s spends a certain amount of money taking care of the day-to-day, which is important – out of every $1,000 we spend $230 on health and welfare. So, how much is the right amount to spend on research and development? It’s a good question I ask all the time. We spend a penny and a half on the astronaut program out of every $1,000. So, for kids here – if they ever want to become an astronaut and walk on Mars – that is the right amount of investment.

It guarantees we’re involved. The kids don’t need to leave Canada to become a Russian or an American in order to pursue their dreams. The sum spent on our space program is so small that even if we cancel everything in it, we wouldn’t notice. And Canada does it smarter than most countries – we get a lot of bang for our buck. It’s a $2-billion industry in our country and the amount the government spends is just a fraction – about $300 million. It allows us to sell Canadarms to the shuttles; we made billions doing that, we lead the world in satellite technology and when the opportunity comes like increased responsibility, like commanding the space station, we have laid the groundwork; so that’s a possibility for a Canadian. It’s a really smart process Canada follows.”

In March 2013, Hadfield will assume command of the International Space Station, becoming the first Canadian to command a spaceship. Of this he shrugged and said: “It’s a thrill, it’s a big responsibility and I’ve kinda worked my whole life to do this.” It was truly an afternoon for heroes.

Peter Pigott would like to thank Mary Lee, media coordinator for Vintage Wings of Canada, for the opportunity to meet heroes, past and present.

Peter Pigott is a Wings writer and columnist.


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