By Hal Bryan – 6 May 2007
Like so many good ideas, this one involved old airplanes, interesting people, complicated logistics, and a trip to Canada.
My friend Glenn “Newman” Norman sent me an e-mail about six weeks ago to tell me about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the Second Annual Wings and Wheels Heritage Festival in Toronto, an event so overflowing with relevance that it demands bullet points:
The event was hosted by the Toronto Aerospace Museum at the large, private Downsview airport, which is home to the original factory where de Havilland Canada built the DHC-2 Beaver, as featured in Flight Simulator X.
De Havilland Canada is now part of the Bombardier Aerospace group, which means this same factory is also home to another featured FSX aircraft, theCRJ700.
This year’s event marked the 60th anniversary of the first flight of the Beaver.
I’d have the chance to meet original de Havilland Canada chief test pilot George Neal, who worked on the Chipmunk, the Beaver, and the Otter, among others.
Local scenery add-on developers Flight Ontario were already planning to be on hand for the event with their own always-impressive Flight Sim display.
Best of all, I’d have the chance to fly into the event as pilot-in-command of a de Havilland Canada-built Tiger Moth, parking it in front of the factory where it was built 65 years earlier.
In order to accomplish that last bit, I’d need, among other things, a Canadian pilot’s “licence,” which is similar in most respects to my existing U.S. pilot’s license, but spelled with a “C” for just a hint of added Canadian exoticism. There were a number of options open to me, but the most expedient was simply to obtain a “Foreign Licence Validation Certificate” from Transport Canada which, as one might surmise, makes my US license valid in Canada. Being an uncultured foreigner, I find it charming that in addition to the use of the letter “C”, the odd extra “U”, and the term “aeroplane,” my new certificate is printed in French, as well. I’m no longer simply a pilot of aeroplanes; I am also a “pilote d’avion“. According to one source, I am also ” … ignorant et facilement amuse” which, I’m told, is far more flattering than it sounds.
I flew into Toronto’s Pearson International airport on my birthday – well, actually, it was just the latest of many. As always, I found Canadian Customs officials to be similar to their counterparts here in the US, except for the fact that they seem to actually want me in their country. When stamping my passport, the agent asked me if I was going to be visiting with any of the same people I’d seen last December. I said that I was, and added, “… you should SEE her! Wow!”, and was reminded at that moment that people who wear badges and work in airports, like wives, have little sense of humor.
My next stop was to pick up my rental car. This experience was remarkable only because, for the very first time, my original request for “Something Smaller than the Biggest SUV You Have” resulted in my getting the car I actually wanted.
Over the past year, I’ve made it out to the greater Toronto area (specifically, the town of Guelph) to visit and fly with Glenn and a group called the Tiger Boys (and Tiger girl Michelle Goodeve) several times, and they’ve been absurdly kind and ridiculously generous with their time, skill, and aeroplanes. On this most recent trip, I did a few flights with Glenn to get me reacquainted with the Moth, and then he hopped out, shook my hand, and sent me out for “circuits and bumps” all on my own, after a mere 39 years and two days of waiting. I first soloed a Quicksilver ultralight 25 years ago, and a Cessna 150 21 years ago, but something about “going solo” in the Moth made it feel every bit as momentous.
With that taken care of, the planning began in earnest for the Tiger Boys and their newest fully-legal Moth pilot to assemble a small armada of aircraft to take to the show. It’s difficult to explain exactly what happened next, and, when I say “difficult”, I mean “impossible”. Different people were going to take different airplanes on different days, then some people might need places to stay, other people might need to drive back to Guelph in the evenings. At one point there were simultaneously more airplanes than pilots, and more pilots than airplanes. Logisticles, the just-invented ancient mythological god of complexity in planning, had his hands all over the situation, but he was ultimately defeated by sheer force of will. Those in charge of the weather, on the other hand, were not so easily stayed.
Clouds rolled in, if not with a vengeance, at least with a certain impertinence. So it was, then, that I, the intrepid aviator, the dashing time-traveler of aerial yore, the square-jawed-yet-jaunty vagabond barnstormer, made his triumphant pilgrimage to the near-hallowed ground of the historic de Havilland factory … in a rented Nissan Versa.
This was disappointing, to be sure. However, the old adage about preferring to be on the ground wishing you were flying rather than the reverse didn’t get to be such an old adage without being terribly true – especially when you’re talking about borrowing someone else’s prize-winning antique airplane.
The event itself ran three days. The first day, Friday 25th, was devoted to a symposium on the de Havilland Beaver, which consisted of a series of presentations by authors, historians, and pilots, including a former RAF Beaver pilot named … Paul Beaver (I wish I was making that up!).
The next two days were of the more traditional fly-in / airshow variety. While the visiting aircraft numbers weren’t what they could have been thanks to the weather, there were quite a few interesting types on display. The Toronto Aerospace Museum opened its doors and rolled out its beautiful full-scale Avro Arrow replica, and Air Canada brought and gave a few rides in (no, I didn’t) their beautifully restored 1938 Lockheed Model 10A Electra in original Trans Canada colors. There were a number of Beavers and a lovely DHC-1 Chipmunk on display, and, in addition, straight from the “Because We Can – Finally” department, the University of Toronto showed off their utterly fascinating ornithopter. It didn’t fly during the show, but they did start the engine and flap the wings while I hummed Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” quietly to myself. (If you know your Looney Tunes, you’ll know the song when you hear it.)
The event also brought out a number of classic cars – the “Wheels” bit of “Wings and Wheels” – another love of mine. I was very much at home among the Jaguars, happy to see more than a typical number of vintage CitrÃ¶ens, and even some exotic foreign jobs from companies like Studebaker and Oldsmobile.
As we’ve come to love and expect, the Flight Simulator display saw a steady flow of traffic. The booth was set up and managed by Flight Ontario, a great group of add-on scenery developers that I’m lucky to count among my friends.. As might be obvious, they specialize in scenery add-ons for the Ontario area – picking up where we leave off by building airports and other regional features to an astonishing level of detail. Their business model leaves a little bit to be desired, however, since, after all that effort, they just give it away. While I’d gladly pay for the quality of work they put out, I’m sure there are a lot of people who hope they don’t “wise up” too soon.
The Flight Ontario guys brought computers and joysticks and yokes of all sorts, and did an absolutely masterful job of demoing the software to interested customers of all ages. The inclusion of their specialized scenery and local expertise (though one of their number was reportedly an American infiltrator) really resonated with the crowd. Their enthusiasm and patience with everyone who came up and wanted to take a virtual flight was infectious and remarkable, and freed me to be a sort of “celebrity” guest at the booth, fielding only the toughest “token Microsoft guy” questions like, “Is it your fault that the software doesn’t run on my PC at home?”, “Why should I buy Vista?” and “Excuse me – where did you get that peameal sandwich?”
And speaking of sandwiches … dinner on Saturday night was at a place called Katz’s Deli, where you canorder your sandwich based on height. The sign out front features an oversized caricature of a man with a handlebar moustache and a pith helmet, wearing an apron – Livingstone’s Stanley, had Stanley been a purveyor of sandwiches. On the day of my visit, the sign read, “Feeling Droupy? Try Our Soupy!” I wasn’t, so I didn’t, and thus cannot report.
In addition to our friends Glenn and Michelle, the Flight Ontario group and I were extremely lucky to be joined by George Neal, former de Havilland Canada Chief Test Pilot and member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame. George worked on the Chipmunk, Beaver, and Otter projects, and still flies his own lovingly restored Chipmunk as well as a terribly rare de Havilland Hornet Moth. George is full of fascinating stories … or so I presume, since he wanted to spend a lot more time talking about Flight Simulator than about the important things I was interested in, like impossibly arcane bits of de Havilland history. Not being in any kind of Hall of Fame anywhere, at all, I felt compelled to keep my protestations to a minimum, but watch for more from George on this site in the future.
Other highlights at the show included a great visit with the representatives from Aviation World (see my post in the Free Flight section of the site for more details), and a chance to meet a hitherto e-mail-only friend in the form of Rob Godwin, owner of Apogee publishing from nearby Burlington, Ontario. Anyone with even the most passing interest in space exploration, from both the historical and pop-cultural perspectives, is almost certainly already a customer. If not, they’re missing out.
Watching Flight Simulator show itself off and getting the chance to watch and talk with customers first-hand is always a pleasure. Doing so in such good company, and in such historic surroundings, is far better. The fact that I didn’t get to arrive in something slightly more classic and aerial was almost immaterial. Besides, there’s always next year…. Who says “once in a lifetime” can’t happen annually?