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Waypoint: Celebrating a national treasure

When I was in my 20s, I had the pleasure of being part of a very special, and at that time, unique, aviation experience.


May 8, 2012
By Rob Seaman

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When I was in my 20s, I had the pleasure of being part of a very special, and at that time, unique, aviation experience. Little did I know the experiences gained would produce the skills I call upon in my professional life today.

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 The CWH has grown, survived and improved despite situations that would have closed most operations.


 

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum (CWH) in Hamilton was in its infancy back then and soon became my second home – as was the case for many like-minded aviation folks. This year marks the 40th anniversary for what is Canada’s and, for that matter, one of the world’s, largest collections of flying vintage aircraft. In the years since its inception, the CWH has grown, survived and improved despite situations that would have closed most operations.

The museum today is a well-developed entity focused on preserving aviation history. It is publicly accessible and is working to broaden its reach. And as it turns 40, it’s only appropriate to look back and see how this impressive organization has grown from humble beginnings.

In the early 1970s, businessmen and friends Dennis Bradley and Alan Ness decided to take their shared passion of aviation to a new level through the joint ownership and operation of a high-performance aircraft. They thought they wanted to buy a Spitfire, but a lead for one in Australia actually turned out to be a Fairey Firefly. Neither of them really knew anything about it. At the 1971 Oshkosh Air Show, Bradley learned of a Firefly based at Wadley, Ga. The owner had intended to turn it into a transcontinental racer but never got around to it.

The dynamic duo approached John Weir and Peter Matthews to join them as partners in the venture. Upon arriving in Wadley, the new partners found the precious Firefly sitting in a cornfield. After inspection, they determined it to be restorable and purchased it for $10,000. Several weeks later, the Griffon engine was fired up and the Firefly headed towards Toronto. Unfortunately, the pilot got as far as Fredericksburg, Va., where a hydraulic failure forced him to land with the tail wheel retracted. Bradley and Ness rented a Twin Commanche and flew to Virginia. They were met there by the Firefly’s owner, who flew up in his Cessna 310. The Firefly was rendered ferryable and the old owner headed north in it, followed in formation by Bradley and Ness.

The Firefly was equipped with only basic instruments – no compass or radio. When the formation encountered poor weather, the two planes were separated near the north shore of Lake Ontario. Bradley and Ness landed at the Toronto Island Airport for customs only to discover the Firefly had just arrived ahead of them without communication with the tower. Toronto was where the restoration was to take place.

On starting the Firefly for the short flight there, the Kaufmann starter on the engine became unserviceable. The group managed to get it running using ropes, tires and a truck borrowed from the airport manager.

Once again in flight, the Firefly became separated from the group and controllers at Toronto Centre provided radar vectors to the “Nordo” aircraft. They eventually formed up again and were cleared to land.

Restoration work commenced almost immediately, and on June 4, 1972, the Fairey Firefly was test flown. At this time, all four partners realized that flying a vintage warbird exposed them all to certain liabilities. They decided to operate the aircraft through a non-profit corporation and named it “Canadian Warplane Heritage.”

By 1973, CWH was calling Mount Hope Airport home. In March of that year, charitable foundation status was obtained and a Chipmunk donation started the expansion of the collection. More aircraft followed, the Harvard and Tiger Moth, followed by the Corsair. The rest, as they say, is history. One hangar became two. More aircraft and members followed. Even a devastating fire in 1993 turned into a positive with the building of the current museum facility – a $12-million home to one of this country’s most valued aviation trusts.

So, how do you celebrate a 40th anniversary of an organization like this? You have an air show of course. The event runs June 16-17 and the CWH will showcase more than 40 warbirds including the rare Boeing B-29 Superfortress, making its only Canadian appearance this year. Other features will be a 10-plane Harvard formation, Lancaster, Sabre, Firefly, B-17, Lysander, Hurricane, Spitfire, Skyraider, Avenger, Canso, Helldiver, Swordfish, Wildcat, Corsair and many more.

I remember sitting in the original CWH hangar years ago with Bradley, and I asked him, “Did you ever plan on it becoming something like this?” His reply was a simple “no” with a big smile. Funny thing how the right idea can take on a life of its own.