Old hands keep vintage aircraft aloft

Bill Hayman got the surprise of his life when he first visited the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton.

Hayman, 74, is a former RCAF pilot who flew Bolingbroke light bombers during World War II. The aircraft is now so rare that only one is still in flying condition — in England. So it’s little wonder Hayman, a former Bell Canada electronics technician, was startled to find several Bolingbroke fuselages and wings stacked beside a hangar, awaiting restoration.

“I checked the serial numbers with my pilot’s log, and discovered I had flown several of these very planes in my squadron out west,” he recalls. He decided on the spot to join the hundreds of volunteers who gladly give of their time to restore and maintain the museum’s large collection of World War II-era aircraft. As fate would have it, the Bolingbroke he’s been working on for the past six years is the very one he flew over 50 years ago. He’s helped in his endeavors by his friend Walter Wintermute, a retired OPP constable who has been with the restoration project for the past eight years. Wintermute, 70, first worked on Bolingbrokes during the war. He estimates the project will require foumore years until the plane is once more airborne, but feels the effort is worth it. “I want to preserve the history of these aircraft so that young kids can appreciate them,” he explains.

The pair are assisted in their labor of love by nearly 30 other volunteers, one of whom is Keith McIntyre, 76, a former probation and parole officer who was an aircraft mechanic during the war. McIntyre has been with the museum for eight years. “As soon as I retired, I signed up here,” he says. “I love it.”

Most of the museum’s vintage aircraft volunteers are retired, and bring a wide range of knowledge and experience to the job at hand. But often they choose to undertake projects completely unrelated to their past careers — a business executive may polish a fuselage, a refrigerator mechanic might repair radio transmitters.

Nestor Yakimik, 58, is part of a team restoring a Lysander — a single-engined plane that had two unique functions during the war: rescuing downed airmen as wel as transporting spies from one clandestine rendezvous to another.

A former ramp operations supervisor for Air Canada, he now happily strips the paint and fabric covering from the old airframe.

Albert Rowcliffe, 56, was the first member to sign up at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum when it began 25 years ago. Besides doing all the routine maintenance on the brilliantly- polished A6 Texan trainer, he also flies the aircraft. “I trained in the De Havilland Chipmunk first, then the Texan,” he says. “I was taught by ex-military pilots. This hobby is a joy.” Former computer systems developer Gerry Dempsey works on a twin-engine Cessna Crane. “We call this one `the Bamboo Bomber’ because it has a wooden frame covered with linen.” He adds that another popular name for the yellow trainer, which took eight years to restore, is `the Bug Smasher.’

Another volunteer, Don Prendergast, 71, has spent the past few weeks modifying the carburettors on the museum’s twin-engined B-25 Mitchell bomber. “I worked as an electrical engineer, and I was also a private pilot,” he says. Like the others, he lends a hand at whatever needs doing, often teaching younger volunteers how to handle vintage machinery. “There’s a very fine comradeship among the people who work here,” he adds. “We all pitch in to accomplish whatever’s necessary.”

One of the newest aircraft to enter the collection is a Spitfire fighter, presented to the museum by Heritage Minister Sheila Copps in April. Unlike the others in the collection, however, it’s on static display and doesn’t fly.

Perhaps the most celebrated aircrew in this army of volunteers are those who fly and maintain the museum’s famous Lancaster bomber, one of only two still flying.

Approximately 4,000 patrons have signed up to sponsor the maintenance and upkeep of the “Lanc,” and the airplane’s crew have a very personal regard for their four-engine warbird. The Lancaster is flown by Chief Pilot Don Fisher and Dick Pulley, both retired Air Canada pilots.

The Lanc, which flies up to 100 hours per year, usually in air shows, costs $1,600 per hour when it’s aloft.

Crew chief Alan Topham, who sits behind the pilot and monitors the engine gauges, is a former chemical engineer. His job is to check out the fuel, oil and hydraulic systems prior to take off.

The volunteer retirees perform another key function: passing along invaluable knowledge to younger generations of enthusiasts who are swelling their ranks. Besides saving the museum untold millions in salaries, they’re also doing their part to keep our aviation history alive.

To get to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, take Highway 403 to Mohawk Road in Hamilton. Head east on Mohawk to James Street (Hwy. 6), then head south to the town of Mount Hope. Turn east on Airport Road and follow the signs leading to Hamilton Civic Airport.