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45º 42′: The aviator turned storyteller

For aviation-mad boys in the 1950s anywhere in the British Commonwealth, Capt. W.E. Johns ruled supreme.

September 26, 2011  By Peter Pigott

For aviation-mad boys in the 1950s anywhere in the British Commonwealth, Capt. W.E. Johns ruled supreme. The author of the “Biggles” novels, Johns wrote of a hero who, aided by chums, constantly saved the world by using aircraft – fighting the Boche, criminal masterminds, the Japanese and later Communists in exotic locales like the Gobi desert, African veldt and Pacific atolls. Dated by modern standards, Johns’s 169 books – often illustrated by the author himself – were serialized in magazines, on the radio and television. Biggles became the inspiration for thousands of boys to join the air force or airlines – or draw and write about them.

I had no desire to draw fruit or crockery, justa Spitfires, ships, steam engines, cars.


Ottawa is fortunate to have its very own Capt. Johns: Dave O’Malley. Unlike Johns’ writing, most of O’Malley’s work is non-fictional and appears only on the Vintage Wings website, but the two writers are kindred spirits. “The very first time I saw an aeroplane it terrified me,” remembers Dave O’Malley. “It was on a family picnic at Rockcliffe in 1958 when Harvards came in very low and I remember hiding behind my mother and crying.”

O’Malley soon got over the fear and accompanied his dad to the annual Air Force Day at Rockcliffe. “Air Force Day then was unlike what we have today,” he says. “Our own Air Force was immense then – all kinds of helicopters, naval patrol bombers, fighters – it was magnificent!” O’Malley admits that he doesn’t remember the days his two children were born on or the sequence that led up to those events but he can recall in precise detail every single minute of those air shows.


“I can still see the giant Argus sweeping across with the bomb bay doors open flanked by Sabres, a Starfighter ripping across the field, the helicopters doing a square dance, a Hercules with rocket-assisted takeoff – all the acts. It all made a huge impact on me so that through grade school I took art lessons. I had no desire to draw fruit or crockery, just Spitfires, ships, steam engines, cars – I am absolutely addicted to machines.”

A Carleton University-trained architect, O’Malley never got to practise in his field because, even before graduation, he was illustrating a manual on how to insulate a home. He did this in cartoon style and that led to the formation of the company he now owns.

What about his wonderfully nostalgic stories for the Vintage Wings website? “In this world,” he says, “most of the things you love to do, you have to do for free. I got involved early on in the West Carleton Air Show (which became the National Capital Air Show) and designed the poster for it. I did this for 17 years and was the president of the air show association for seven of them. In doing that, I decided to produce a newsletter – and that’s when I discovered that writing is more exciting than graphic design.”

While he still gets great pleasure out of graphic design, O’Malley says it is writing that gives more. “I write visually – I visualize a scene the way I would have felt it. So, if I’m doing a story like a Spitfire pilot taking off from an aircraft carrier bound for Malta, I stop for a minute and imagine I am him and what do I see, feel, smell and hear. Then I ask around to the Spitfire pilots – what would you do? I like to paint pictures.”

O’Malley was speaking about probably the most poignant story he has ever written. Called “All Things Never Done: The Last Day of David Rouleau’s Life,” it was about an Ottawa boy who attended Lisgar Collegiate, played hockey on the frozen canal and trained at nearby St. Eugene. On July 3, 1942, the last day of his life, Rouleau flew a Spitfire off the deck of an aircraft carrier to reinforce Malta. The Germans were waiting for him and the 24-year-old was shot down. His story, O’Malley would write, “is extra-

ordinary in its ordinariness. He was not an ace nor a braggart or a self-promoter. His was one of many, many thousands of stories never told. He is the Royal Canadian Air Force of the Second World War.”

Capt. Johns, who died in 1968, wrote he had created Biggles to demonstrate the best of the human spirit and the futility of war. He has a worthy heir to that ambition – Dave O’Malley of Ottawa.

Peter Pigott is a Wings writer and columnist.


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