Home | Airshows | The Hangar | Nostalgia | Links

On the trail of the lonesome pylon...

Andrew Bates tours Ontario on an aviation heritage trail

A recent return trip to Canada to sample the delights of Toronto, Niagara and Ottawa proved to be the perfect opportunity for indulging a passion for classic jets and props. There were four aviation museums to be found on our planned tour, not to mention a fair number of other preserved airframes on route. This provided your scribe with the perfect holiday combination of sightseeing and aircraft. A view that surprisingly was not shared by Mrs Bates - can't think why!

Downsview, Toronto
CWH, Hamilton

First on the (aviation) itinerary was the Toronto Aerospace Museum. Situated at Downsview Airport, spiritual home of De Havilland Canada, this relatively new museum contains a growing collection of airframes and artifacts associated with aviation in the Toronto area. Dominating the workshop was Lancaster FM104, one of eight survivors of the type in Canada, which was built by Victory Aircraft at Toronto's Malton Airport in 1944. Following retirement in 1962, FM104 was presented to the City of Toronto and subsequently displayed on a plinth at Toronto's harbour front. After many years exposed to the elements, the bomber was removed and transported to the museum to begin an extensive restoration programme. Other airframes on display include a CF-5A Freedom Fighter, CT-133 Silver Star, CT-134 Musketeer, and the last CS-2F Tracker built at Downsview for the Royal Canadian Navy. The latest addition just prior to our visit was an immaculate DH82C Tiger Moth, which had been donated by its previous owner in California, and had also been built at Downsview.

A few days later and it's time to leave the delightful city of Toronto and head south to enjoy the spectacle of Niagara Falls. Ideally situated approximately half way through this journey is the city of Hamilton. Here, at Hamilton International Airport, can be found the superb Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, a must see attraction for any warbird fan. This is home to what must be Canada's premier collection of airworthy historic aircraft, including the only other Lancaster to be found flying anywhere in the world, apart from our own BBMF example here in the UK. Visiting this museum in the summer presents the possible risk of missing certain airframes if they happen to be positioning themselves for an airshow. Thankfully, this was not the case with CWH's much cherished Lanc, which was undergoing a little routine maintenance during our visit. The only absentee I could discern was the Firefly. Unfortunate, but soon forgotten with all the other immaculate warbirds to peruse.

With a well-lit hangar to aid photography, there were plenty of historic pistons of interest, including B-25 Mitchell, Dakota, Beech 18, Catalina, Yale and a trio of Harvards. It was also possible to view some of the restoration work that was being carried out, with a Lysander and Bolingbroke being the two main projects underway at the time. Not all of the collection is airworthy, as some of the airframes on show are on permanent display, including a fine selection of jets. These included a Vampire, Sabre, CF-5A, CF-100 and an imaginatively displayed CT-133, complete with a separate control panel that visitors could use to operate the undercarriage, flaps, etc. Also, completing the more modern era was a beautifully presented CF-104 Starfighter, resplendent in a superb Tiger Meet colour scheme. Needless to say, the camera was severely overworked at this juncture.

After four days we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from the awe-inspiring sight and sound of Niagara Falls and hit the road again. It was a return trip back north towards Toronto, then beyond to the east for our next stop at the delightful town of Brighton. This enabled a visit to the third museum on the itinerary, the RCAF Memorial Museum at CFB Trenton. Situated just off Highway 401, it is virtually impossible to miss the turn. Just look for the dramatically posed CF-5A, preserved in the grounds of the Holiday Inn, and follow the museum signs. Here can be found a beautifully landscaped outdoor airpark with a variety of ex-RCAF/CAF airframes. Situated alongside the active airfield at Trenton, it's also possible to watch the comings and goings of the based CC-130 and CC-150 transports. Although the museum inhabitants are displayed outside, the standard of preservation appeared to be first rate, with the majority of exhibits looking immaculate. These included CF-104D, CF-5A, CF-101, CF-100, CT-133, CT-114 and Sabre. The largest aircraft in the airpark, and probably the rarest, is the CP-107 Argus, whilst other props on display included a Dakota, CT-134, Auster, Chipmunk and Tracker. The Chipmunk was unusually not a Canadian example, but ex-RAF WB550, which had been presented to the museum upon retirement. It was also surprising to see an ex-East German Mig-21 and ex-Swiss Air Force Hunter on display.

Not far from the airpark it was impossible not to notice the framework for a new hangar that had been recently constructed. This is in anticipation of the continuing restoration of Halifax VII NA337, which was recovered from a Norwegian lake in 1995. Built by Rootes Securities at a 'shadow factory' on the edge of the airfield at Liverpool (Speke), this aircraft was part of a batch of aircraft ordered under contract No. 637, comprising of serial batch NA311 to NA380. It has not yet been ascertained of the exact date of manufacture of NA337, but it is believed to have been delivered on 3 March 1945 to No. 644 Squadron, RAF at Tarrant Rushton in Dorset, as part of No. 38 Group, which was assigned 'Special Duties', where it was allocated the code 2P-X. Halifax A Mk VII aircraft were used by the Airborne Forces to tow gliders and when not actively engaged in this role they were used for 'Special Duties' work, dropping agents and supplies to the Resistance Forces in Europe which, in the case of NA337, included those of Denmark and Norway.

Halifax aircraft assigned to this type of work were supplied without the mid-upper turret and the H2S dome on the underside usually found on the bomber versions. The mid-upper turret opening was covered with plywood and the opening usually used for the H2S dome was converted by the fitting of opening doors, for the dropping of 'joes' (spies) and packages behind enemy lines. The supply dropping usually consisted of the delivery of containers containing weapons, ammunition and explosives. The containers, about 15" in diameter and about 60" long, were carried in the Halifax's bomb bays. The first reference to NA337/2P-X in the 644 Squadron Operations Log is on 24 March 1945, when the aircraft towed a General Aircraft Hamilcar glider, containing a Dodge truck and a 17-pounder gun, on the last, great, airborne operation of World War II, 'Operation Varsity', the massive airborne assault across the Rhine River into Germany.

Halifax NA337 flew some other supply dropping operations to resistance groups in Norway and Denmark and it was on such an operation, on the night of 23/24 April 1945, that it was shot down, ditching in the waters of Lake Mjosa, near the town of Hamer, at about 02:00 hrs on the morning of 24 April. Unfortunately, although it is believed all the crew survived the actual ditching, by the time the locals came out in their boats at first light, at around 07:00 hrs to search for survivors, only one, the rear gunner, Flight Sergeant Weightman, was found alive, lying on top of the overturned dinghy. The remainder of the crew sadly perished in the freezing cold waters of the lake. They were found floating in their 'Mae West' life jackets, with the exception of the Flight Engineer, whose body was never found. NA337 was to then lie undisturbed for fifty years until the summer of 1995, when the Halifax Aircraft Association recovered it, for restoration and future display in the RCAF Memorial Museum. The Handley Page Halifax is a very significant aircraft to those Canadians who fought in the Second World War in service with the Royal Air Force or the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Halifax is the aircraft in which Canadians flew seventy percent of all wartime operations. The aircraft at Trenton will, when completed, be the only completely authentic, restored Halifax in the world. At the time of our visit, it was progressing nicely but was rapidly outgrowing the restoration workshop area in which it has spent the last eight years, so the construction of the new hangar would have been a most welcome addition to aid the sterling efforts of all the hard working volunteers involved in the project. (Just two months after our visit, the bomber was carefully moved to its new home in the newly completed museum extension).

A few days later, and we had travelled further eastwards to the capital Ottawa and it was time to visit the final museum on our trip, the National Aviation Museum, situated a mere ten minutes from Parliament Hill. Here can be found a diverse collection of over one hundred and twenty aircraft, ranging from the 1909 vintage Silver Dart, that made the first powered flight in Canada, right up to the present day frontline equipment of the CAF, in the shape of the CF-188B Hornet. From a personal point of view it was the military hardware from both the Second World War and post-war that proved the main attraction. An impressive collection of wartime aircraft included Spitfire, Hurricane, Lancaster, Lysander, Swordfish, Mustang, Anson, Mosquito, B-24, B-25, Bf.109F, Me.163 & He.162. Postwar jets included Vampire, Sabre, CF-100, CF-101, CF-5A, CT-133, USMC AV-8A Harrier, Polish Mig-15, relatively rare RCN F2H-3 Banshee and the very first Canadian Starfighter 12700, an ex-USAF F-104A which served as the pattern aircraft for the subsequent CF-104 programme, and spent the remainder of its life flying as a trials aircraft with the AETE. Another fascinating and rare airframe on show was the CL-84, Canada's very own VTOL project.

Fort Erie
RMC Kingston

For anyone with the slightest interest in aviation, you could easily spend all day at this superb museum. The only disappointment was that the lighting was not particularly good in certain parts, so a good flash is recommended for the keen photographer. Also, the one corner of the museum is utilised for airframe storage, as currently it would be impossible to have each and every aircraft in the collection on display. Regrettably, the stored airframes, containing some classics, were confined to quite a small area and were consequently 'jammed' together, making photography of some impossible. Fortunately, a remedy appears to be on the horizon as construction of another annex to the museum was underway at the time of our visit, which looked substantially complete.

As mentioned at the start of this article, apart from the museums, there are a vast number of individually preserved airframes dotted all over Canada. Planes on pedestals, as they are referred to, seem to be quite popular and a great way to eke out a few more years of useful existence for a redundant airframe and much more civilised than sending them to the scrapyard. There's even a website devoted to them, which also serves to provide location details and helps to track them down. Consequently, some of our journeys between planned destinations were not as direct as they should have been! Locations such as Dundas, Fort Erie, Oshawa, Belleville, Smiths Falls, Brockville and Kingston, to name but a few, were to feature as prominently on the itinerary as Toronto, Ottawa, etc. CT-133s and Sabres seemed to be the popular choice, with the occasional Harvard or CF-100 thrown in for good measure. Patience and good navigational skills were a definite requirement during these diversions. As I was the driver, the missus was to prove that her navigational skills were second to none. As for her patience, well, that's a different story!

Home | Airshows | The Hangar | Nostalgia | Links