Note: It took me a while to write this. I always seemed to have something else getting in the way, which is not meant to diminish in any way the thrill I got from this gift.
This past year, on my thirtieth birthday, my parents gave me a fantastic gift — a flight in a vintage World War II fighter. I’ve always liked history, especially military history, so for me this was an appropriate and exciting gift. October was approaching, so I booked a time for the flight in mid-October and hoped that the weather would hold.
Lizabeth and I spent the night before the flight at a friend’s murder mystery birthday party. Although I didn’t come close to solving it, I did have a good time. I was preoccupied thinking about the next day. The forecasts called for rain in the afternoon, and that’s where I was hoping it would stay since my flight was booked for early in the morning.
The day of the flight we drove out to the Canadian Warplanes Heritage Museum in Hamilton. The museum is a great place for history buffs, with a large collection of mostly air-worthy planes. Many of their exhibits fly in the museum’s annual air show every June. The centerpiece of the collection is a Lancaster bomber.
Proceeding through the museum we came to the office and tarmac where the plane, a Harvard trainer, sat. These planes and thousands like them were used during World War II to teach British and Commonwealth pilots how to fly a fighter. Canada was one of the largest training centres for the Commonwealth.
I met my pilot, Leon, at the office. He’s a pilot for Air Canada and flies 767s during the week, but said he likes to think of his time at the museum as his real job. He immediately started teasing Lizabeth that she could go with me on the flight. Of course there was no way a third person could fit in the cramped confines of a fighter, but my mom bought into it and began encouraging Lizabeth to go.
Leon asked what route I’d like to take. I decided that we’d go over Burlington and try to spot my parents’ home, then we’d head back over Hamilton and fly over the Grand River.
With planning complete, Leon led me out to the tarmac with my parents and Lizabeth behind us. We took some pictures of the plane and the flight preparations. The ground crew helped strap me in while giving me a safety briefing. Then it was time to clear the area. Liz and my family went to an observation deck where they’d be able to see us take off and fly over later.
The ground crew signaled all-clear and Leon started the big radial engine. As an indication of how well cared for these machines are, it started up right away. The whole plane vibrated in tune with the engine.
Leon ran through a few checks, notified the tower and taxied us out to a spot near the run way. We zigzagged as we went so that we could see ahead. On the ground, the nose of the plane points up making it impossible to see what’s directly ahead, so zigzagging is the only way to see what’s coming.
Once on the taxi-way we came to a stop and warmed up the engines. Leon applied more throttle to test them. The vibration increased along with the noise. You really got a sense of the engine’s power from the vibration.
The engines came up to their optimum temperature and we were ready. We taxied down to the end of the runway, turned around, and then accelerated–fast. I was surprised at how quick the plane moved. I shouldn’t have been though since the engine has 600 horsepower on tap. In a few moments the tail came up and the plane was level.
Then we were off. Leon pulled up and we climbed quickly. Again I was surprised by the plane’s steadiness, although I’m sure a lot of this was due to pilot skill. Before long we were up at 3,000 feet and heading north-east to Burlington. The view as we passed over the Hamilton
Escarpment and the Skyway bridge was great. I could still see out to 40 kilometres in the light haze.
Despite our speed of over 100 mph the ground appeared to crawl by.
We flew over Burlington, where my parents live. Using a few apartment buildings in the area as landmarks, I was able to spot their house. Then we turned back and headed for the skies south of Hamilton. Lake Ontario sparkled under the sun, and I could see the wakes of a few boats out enjoying the weather.
I decided to slide the canopy open. Leon said it was okay to do so before we took off, and had his part of the canopy open the whole flight. The change was instantly noticeable; wind buffeted me in a constant rush from both sides and I had to shout into the mike to make myself heard. A few minutes of that was enough. Besides I didn’t want to lose the camera I was holding, so I reached behind me and pulled it closed.
Keeping the canopy open during the flight is something that I’ve seen pictures of WWII pilots doing. In the Pacific where the temperature would soar inside the glassed in cockpit, it would likely have been a welcome respite to open the canopy and feel the wind.
I took a lot of pictures during the flight, but because of the vibration of the plane some are a little blurry.
After about 25 minutes in the air it was time to head back. We came in for a pass over the airport at about five hundred feet so Lizabeth and my parents could get a few pictures.
The pilots aren’t allowed to do aerobatics with the planes, something too dangerous given their age, but Leon did pull around in a hard bank and rolled the plane almost 80 degrees.
The landing itself was pretty smooth. We touched down without a problem and taxied back to the hangar. Lizabeth and my parents were waiting for us there. We took a few more photos with me and the plane and Leon, the plane and me.
To commemorate the flight, they gave me a certificate, and a pewter pin of the Harvard. The certificate is waiting to be framed and hung in my office. I still have the pin on my jacket.
My parents and Lizabeth wanted to hear about the ride, so we went to the cafeteria. On a lark we asked Leon to join us. He agreed since it was a little while before he had to go out again. We enjoyed his company and talked about what it was like volunteering at the museum. He also talked about his job, but it was easy to tell how eager he was to come back out on the weekends and fly the Harvard. I could understand the thrill of flying one of these antiques; no autopilot, no computers or fly-by-wire, nothing that isolates the pilot or makes it feel like a simulator. Real flying.
Before long, Leon excused himself to meet his next appointment, and my parents decided they should hit the road, since they were going up north for the day. Lizabeth and I stayed and toured the museum. My only disappointment was in not being able to find a nice print of the Harvard that I could frame and hang in the office. Instead I bought one of the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster.
For anyone who wants to enjoy real flying and to support a worthwhile cause, I recommend getting in touch with the museum. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it.
I got some other cool gifts too, and I don’t want anyone to think that those weren’t special. My wife, Liz, gave me a very large, hard-cover edition of the Lord of the Rings and a bottle of Talisker Premium. My friends chipped in and gave me $600 towards a new computer. And I even have my own collectible card now.