Soaring with the stars
By Paul Dixon
The Abbotsford International Air Show celebrates its 50th birthday this year – 50 years of creating special memories for aviation enthusiasts young and old
By Paul Dixon
The Abbotsford International Air Show celebrates its 50th birthday this year – 50 years of creating special memories for aviation enthusiasts young and old. That first air show was the inspiration of the fledgling Abbotsford Flying Club as a means for the newly formed organization to create some exposure for the recently re-opened airport, dormant since serving as 24 Elementary Flight Training School during the Second World War.
|You felt it as much as you heard it approach and hoped your dental fillings were secure. PHOTO: Paul dixon
The budget for that first year was $700, underwritten by the local Rotary Club. The 15,000 people that attended the two-day event may not seem like a large group by today’s standards, but 50 years ago, Abbotsford was more than just 45 (pre-metric) statute miles east of Vancouver. It would be another two years before the Port Mann Bridge and the Trans-Canada Highway would be completed.
My first aviation memory predates that first air show by a few years. It was 1959 and I was under my desk at Southlands Elementary School in Vancouver. They were the desks that sat three in a row on wooden runners, with a flip-up top and a hole in the top right corner for the ink well. We had scrambled under our desks at our teacher’s bidding after a loud boom had come out of the sky, shaking windows and causing dust particles to float down from the ceiling. I don’t remember being scared or concerned in the least, but I very clearly remember being under the desk. It wasn’t until the next day that we learned the boom had come from a jet fighter that had broken the sound barrier (whatever that was, I was only in Grade 2) high in the sky over Vancouver.
The Vancouver house I grew up in was on the south slope, a mere 4.27 kilometres across the Fraser River from what we now refer to as YVR. In those days, it was also home to RCAF Sea Island and I spent many summer afternoons lying on my back watching yellow Harvards circling endlessly overhead like distant bumblebees. Even today, when I hear that unmistakable sound, I can smell freshly cut grass and feel its coolness on my back. Those were the days of the first commercial jets, long before thoughts of noise abatement. On overcast days it seemed as though those 707s or DC-8s were landing about three doors down. Maybe that’s why I still accept high decibel levels as a natural byproduct of aircraft, but then I live a long way from the airport now.
I wasn’t at that first Abbotsford Air Show, but our family starting making the trek every year shortly thereafter. The show went to three days in 1967 to mark the Centennial and the crowds were more than 100,000 for both the Saturday and Sunday shows. It was absolutely mind-boggling, on the ground and in the air. We’ll just say that regulations such as they were at the time allowed pilots to interact a little more closely with the spectators than would be the case today. There’s nothing like a little misdirection to start the day by inviting the multitudes to focus on a couple of Voodoos approaching low and slow from the left, passing centre stage as a Starfighter approaches from behind the crowd at what appeared to be .9999 Mach, then pulling up into a vertical climb and disappearing into a clear blue sky.
There are so many memories from over the years that it’s difficult to rank them. Top three, in no particular order: the Avro Vulcan, a stunningly graceful aircraft that made an ungodly noise. You can understand the reportedly devastating psychological impact on the Argentine troops during the Falklands War who received their 0400 wakeup call at maximum speed and minimum altitude. The CP-107 Argus, predecessor to the current Aurora is another fond memory. This large, four-engine aircraft held the record for sustained time aloft at more than 31 hours until it was surpassed by the Gossamer Condor. For sheer noise generated during its dirty pass, it was unrivalled. You felt it as much as you heard it approach and hoped your dental fillings were secure. Lastly, the Minarski Memorial Lancaster Mark X that flew at Abbotsford in 2010, was a reminder of how many young men went through the British Commonwealth Training Program at Abbotsford and scores of other airfields across this country.
In more recent years, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some of the pilots who have been centre stage at Abbotsford. In 2009, it was astronaut Chris Hadfield, flying with Vintage Wings of Canada as a member of the Heritage Fight. He described the sensation of flying the Canadair F-86G Sabre as though he had literally been given a pair of wings. The look on his face as he described it was that of a 12-year-old boy in Sarnia looking up into the sky wondering what it would be like. I think he speaks for a lot of little boys (and girls) who had a dream and are still living it.
Happy birthday to the Abbotsford International Air Show, and thanks to those who had the vision of staging a thrilling and entertaining show a half a century ago. Thanks for letting us share the vision and keeping us young at heart.
Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.