With a pitiful rattle, the eight horse-power single-cylinder diesel engine on my sailboat dies. We will not get off the dock today. I’m startled by a louder roar, an ear shattering thunder of ancient engines so off kilter I swear I can hear the individual pistons firing. Just above the trees behind the dock on Toronto’s Centre Island an extraordinary silhouette emerges, a creaking old World War Two four-engine bomber, flying low over the city. It’s twin tail fins immediately identify it as an Avro Lancaster, out on patrol from its current base at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in nearby Hamilton.
There are only a few of these planes left in the world and this is one of only two that can fly. The other is based in the UK as part of The Royal Air Force’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Our plane is on the first leg of a long flight across the pond to join its only airworthy brother for a series of air shows.
A few days earlier, our Escapes with Nigel television crew had been at another warplane museum, this one celebrating those magnificent men in their flying machines who invented aerial warfare. This is The Great War Flying Museum, in Caledon, Ontario, just north of Brampton, where all the exhibits get off the ground and go flying. Anyone can visit The Great War Flying Museum, but to go flying in one of their 100-year replicas you have to be a member. It seems like a very worthwhile way to spend $160. I’ve been kitted out with a vintage canvas headset, but it comes with modern communications, so I can talk to the pilot, or more importantly, he can talk to me. Then it’s off to meet the pilot, an experienced commercial airline pilot, who flies these wonderful replicas as a hobby. Mike has the keen gaze of a competent flyer and immediately instills confidence. We walk to the plane, a Sopwith One-and-a-half Strutter.
The Sopwith is rare among WWI replicas because it is one of the few with a two-seat configuration. Although most planes flying during the Great War were two-seater observation aircraft, most replicas today are the more exotic single-seat fighters. As we get close I can see it is covered with fabric, just like the original, but using space-age materials instead of canvas. The frame is much sturdier steel, but the whole is built to exacting original dimensions. I discover, somewhat to my consternation, that I’ll be sitting in the rear gunner rear-facing seat. Flying backwards, in other words. Mike shows me where the barf bag is. I ask him if most people throw up, kiss the ground or shake his hand when they land. He tells me he’s going to let me decide.
I’ve also got several video cameras recording every moment, so I shall have to be brave and uphold the family honour. The plane is painted in the colours of, and named for, Flight Sub-Lt. R.F. Redpath of the Royal Naval Air Service, a WWI ace. After a complete safety check, in which I am reminded several times not to take off my harness or try to stand up, and a communications check, the engine is started and we taxi down the runway. Mike comes onto the intercom to assure me we are not following such a wavy course because he’s inebriated, but because the nose of the plane is so high, he can’t see over it and has to turn left and right to see what’s ahead. He turns the nose into the wind and after a very short take-off we’re in the air. Flying in an open bi-plane cockpit for the first time, and backwards, is an exhilarating experience. Soon I’m quite comfortable with our jaunty progress through the sky and have time to look around. The earth is only a few hundred feet below and cars and people look like miniatures. The countryside around the Brampton Airport is mostly green, but one can’t help but notice the march of development. Acres of good farmland have been scraped bare with streets and lots marked out for future homeowners. One wonders where all our food will come from in the future.
My thoughts are interrupted by the sight of the Red Baron’s personal Fokker Dr 1. This famous tri-plane is bright red and painted to match the plane flown by Manfred von Richthofen, the German ace who once battled Canada’s own hero, Billy Bishop. Now the Fokker is coming up fast on our tail, and imagining that his machine gun is firing at us, I blaze away (in my imagination, for my Lewis gun is entirely fake) with my own armament. Since no one can hear me, I make machine gun noises as I fire. I’m sure I hit him and as if my imagination has created reality, smoke billows from the plane. That’s really cool. We circle the airport a few times, and once fly really low down the runway, past our cameras, and the camera from CTV News, who’re also covering the event. Splendid stuff. I just wish I’d had a long white silk scarf to complete the outfit. When we land, I shake Mike’s hand. My director rushes up with a cameraman to get first impressions. I babble away I’m sure, but my excitement was palpable.
Back in the hangar where the planes are stored I meet several of the volunteers. John, David, Jim and Jerry who between them, and with the help of many others, have restored or built from scratch all the flying replicas. They are working on a wooden wing of incredible complexity, entirely built by hand. It’s waiting government inspection before being covered with rare German camouflage fabric and re-installed on another Fokker. Jerry, who gives me part of the tour, is still flying in his 80s and has flown more than five dozen different types of aircraft in his career as a commercial pilot. He has wonderful stories of growing up in India at the time of Empire, where his dad was a tea planter. Our shoot would not be complete without a visit to the museum building, where Natalie is the curator. They have some marvellous artifacts in the building, itself a replica of what a front-line flying operations hut would have looked like in 1914. She shows me some of the treasures and the crew busily videotape them. My favourite is a tiny model, painstakingly crafted, of a scene at the front line during the Great War. The miniature airmen are frantically trying to repair a plane and get it back into action.
With thousands of civilians and uniformed soldiers we attend the 1914-1918 In Memoriam Centennial Commemoration. On July 31, 2014, we remembered our Great War heroes on the exact moment 100 years before, of the start of the conflict,when the Austro-Hungarians opened fire on Serbia, in retaliation for the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand of Austria a month earlier. Britain, and its Empire, entered the war a few days later on August 4, 1914. MC Brian Stewart brilliantly recounted the events and was ably supported by WWI historian Margaret MacMillan, while massed bands, pipes and drums played patriotic tunes from days long ago and marched at the University of Toronto’s football stadium. Ceremonies and memorials will continue all over the world for the next four years, but even that will not be enough to remember the millions who sacrificed their lives during the awful conflict.
There are many ways to get involved in the First World War centennial, but I think my visit to The Great War Flying Museum was one of the most significant. There history can be touched.
Thanks for the photographic contributions from Carolyn McMaster. This article was originally published on August 11, 2014.