Article by Rich Thistle ©

Into the Blue by Rich Thistle © The cold dampness of the pre-dawn February morning filtered in through every crack of opportunity, mingling with familiar hangar perfumes well known to the noses of museum volunteer and visitor alike. In the silent dark, intimidating shadows stood vigil, waiting for the awakening kiss of daylight. Echoes of the past, sounds of a half-century of history reverberated silently, a quiet cacophony of marching feet and military music mixed with the drone of throaty aero engines.

Hangar #3 at Hamilton Airport, Mount Hope, Ontario, had seen its history accumulate like the growth rings of a stately elm. Here, at No. 10 Elementary Flying Training School during the dark days of World War II, thousands of young men, small cogs in the large wheel called the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, flew first “sorties” in their frantic preparations to meet the best the Germans would send against them. By war’s end, schools across Canada had graduated almost 138,000 air crew. Over half of them were Canadians, including pilots, wireless operators, air gunners and navigators.

After the war, until 1962, Mount Hope was the sight of a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Air Station and in 1973, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum was incorporated there as a living aviation museum to preserve and maintain, in flying condition, aircraft flown by Canadians in military service during this period. Hangar #3 had a new lease on life.

It was five of their pristine collection of over 40 flying aircraft which stood sedately in the darkness of hangar #3 that Monday morning in 1993. The atmosphere spoke clearly of av gas, clean metal and desiccated wood.

Outside, the southeastern sky showed first signs of awakening and the five silhouettes inside began to take on some detail. Back in a corner perched at a jaunty angle, sat a Talorcraft Auster Mk VI, the little yellow tail-dragger with the big wing, which was designed and built in England as an army observation/light communication aircraft. Although its type saw duty in a total of nine squadrons in the Mediterranean area, this Auster, after the Roman name for a dry south-westerly wind, would not again feel the wind over its wings.

Nearby, wing to rudder, the silhouette of a Stinson 105. This diminutive high-wing monoplane, designed in 1939 for the American civilian market soon attracted military attention both at home and abroad. Twenty-five of thirty-three French Stinson 105’s were pressed into service by the RCAF in 1940 when France capitulated. Painted in original Stinson factory blue with Canadian roundels and tail flash of the 1940 pattern, this aircraft carried its original serial number which identified it during its four-year wartime service with the RCAF from 1940 to 1945. But, the little blue Stinson had tasted rarified air for the last time.

Anchoring this group of five avian spirits were three major aircraft, lions of Canadian military flying history. Now casting strange, flickering shadows on the hangar walls, three aged but pampered denizens of the skies would shortly live out their final fiery moments. Carrying in their metal, rubber, cloth and paint the imprinted collective flying memory of a nation, they would be consumed in flame as had been their many sisters in the past.

As open flame began to send its fluctuating message through the fifty-year-old interior, reflecting off tool chests and work-benches at the periphery, the identity of the three aircraft materialized in the frightening orange light. Standing proudly at its last muster, minus its Rolls-Royce Merlin 66 which thankfully was off-site for servicing, was the Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX, on loan to CWHM from the Confederate Air Force. This aircraft saw active service with No. 66 Squadron, RAF in 1944-45 and flew in both the Royal Netherlands and Belgian Air Forces post war.

Purchased by the Confederate Air Force in 1965, it was one of the Mk IX’s which posed as earlier marks in the motion picture “The Battle of Britain”. One of 5,665 Mk IX’s built, and one of the comparatively few surviving in flying condition, it was slated to fly in the “Canadian Heritage Flight”, the equivalent of the “Battle of Britain Memorial Flight” out of RAF Coningsby in England.

Many looked forward to the first formation which would, in 1993, reunite in Canadian skies, three of the great aircraft of World War II, CWHM’s Lancaster, Hurricane and the Spitfire. Sadly, it was not to be. Canadians and Spitfires formed a strong working partnership during those darkest days of war. Many flew them in RAF Squadrons as well as in their own squadrons of the RCAF. Canadians flew Mk II’s in the Battle of Britain and Canada’s foremost fighter ace of World War II, George “Buzz” Beurling flew MkV’s over Malta as did many others.

By D-Day, in 1944, there were nine RCAF fighter Squadrons flying black-and-white striped Mk IX B’s under the umbrella of the Second Tactical Air Force. The following December, flying in No. 411 Squadron, RCAF, Canadian pilot Richard Audet picked up five aerial victories on one sortie in a Spit IX. Of the 20,351 Spitfires built, over one-quarter were Mk IX’s.

Now the firelight illuminated for the last time the markings of the doomed Mk IX. It had recently carried the code “D-B”, the personal markings of the aircraft flown by the late Sir Douglas Bader. Soon it would soon be virtually unrecognizable as an aircraft. The flames burned strongly now as hot smoke filled the upper reaches of hangar #3. From somewhere outside in the half-light of dawn came the sound of running feet and, in the distance, the sad sonority of sirens. Towering above the other aircraft, wings folded as they would have been below, on hangar decks, or running-up on the flight deck, ready for air battle, the hulking, ungainly Grumman TBM Avenger, its blue-black paint gleaming eerily, stood starkly, facing its last battle with no chance of victory.

Battle honors had mounted steadily for the big torpedo bomber with the performance of a fighter. After an inauspicious beginning at the Battle of Midway, the Avenger went on to become the Allies’ most potent torpedo Bomber of the Second World War. Seeing carrier service in both the US Navy and the British Fleet Air Arm, the total number built by Grumman (TBF’s) and General Motors Eastern Aircraft Division (TMB’s) was 9,839.

Carrying a crew of three and armament including two forward firing 0.5-in. machine guns, one 0.5-in. machine gun in a power-operated dorsal turret, and one 0.3-in. gun in the ventral position, the Avenger carried one torpedo internally or up to 2000 lb. of bombs. During he war, many Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) pilots attached to the Royal Navy flew Avengers from British aircraft carriers and shore installations and they were operated post-war by the RCN on Canadian carriers like the HMCS Magnificent. Pulled through the air strongly and surprisingly gracefully by a Wright Cyclone R-2600-20, the doomed Canadian TBM, built in 1945, had seen service in the US Navy. It had been acquired by CWHM in 1976 from The Planes of Fame Museum in Chino California. Restored lovingly to peak flying condition in the markings of an aircraft operated by the Royal Canadian Navy 826 Squadron circa 1950, its loss would cut deep.

Relentlessly, the flames, their crackling voice of destruction now punctuated by gut-wrenching detonations of fuel tanks, forged forward, oblivious to the heroic efforts of men and machines outside.

Soon to be overtaken by the sinister inferno, the Hurricane IIB, gem of the collection, sentimental persona grata, the keeper of a proud national memory, quickly succumbed. Its rear canvas-covered fuselage, the Hurricane’s anachronistic link to all machines of the air which preceded it, exploded like the struck tip of a wooden match. The Hurricane was indeed a watershed machine. Great Britain’s first “modern” fighter was designed in 1934 by Sydney Camm for Hawker Aircraft Limited, which had evolved from the Sopwith organization. The prototype flew one year later, bulging with new technology but steeped in tradition. It was the first low-wing monoplane in British service, the first to feature retractable landing gear and to carry eight machine guns, located beyond the sweep of the propellers in its muscular wings.

It was also quick for its day, breaking the 300 mph mark in level flight at 20,000 ft., the first British aircraft in service to do so. Power was supplied by the new Rolls-Royce Merlin twelve cylinder, in-line engine which went on to fame in other types as well, including the Spitfire and later the Mustang. The largest peacetime production orders ever for an aircraft were placed for the Hurricane. By the outbreak of the Second World War, almost 500 Hurricanes equipped 18 British squadrons.

First blooded during the Battle of France, it was in the Battle of Britain, during the summer of 1940, that it achieved undying fame. Despite the popular attribution of the dominant role to the Spitfire, the Hurricane played the more decisive part in the Battle, concentrating its efforts on German bombers and downing more aircraft than the rest of the defenses combined. During the Battle, 60% of Fighter Command squadrons, about 30 all told, flew the type.

Proudly, Canadian 'Hurri' pilots were among the famous “few”. No.1 Fighter Squadron, RCAF, embarked for Britain, with their Hurricanes in crates, just as the Battle of Britain was developing. Later renumbered No. 401 Squadron, part of the Canadian “four-hundreds”, their operational training took place virtually between air battles raging around their base at Croydon. Its 26 pilots were soon to be tested as the squadron was posted “operational” and thrust headlong into the hectic and dangerous fight for supremacy fought daily in the skies above London. Often flying multiple sorties daily, Canadians such as F/O (later W/C) B. D.”Dal” Russsel flew with distinction during the Battle. He was among three Canadians awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by His Majesty King George VI at the end of the Battle of Britain, the first RCAF decorations of the war. Their Hurricanes also served with distinction. Able to absorb large amounts of battle damage, the aircraft proved rugged and relatively easy to maintain in serviceable condition.

Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Hurricane IIB, now twisted, red-hot, a mere demented memory of its former persona as 'YO A', representing an aircraft of No. 1 Fighter Squadron, RCAF, was in fact built in 1942 by Canadian Car and Foundry at Fort William, now Thunder Bay, Ontario. The IIB, with wings stressed to carry up to a 1000 lb load of bombs and four more guns , a total of twelve, became the “Hurri-Bomber”, a capable tactical fighter-bomber used mostly in daylight ops until the Dieppe Raid, August 18, 1942, which marked its last major European operation.

However, this particular aircraft never saw active combat. It was declared surplus in 1952 with a grand total of 86 hours flying time. After restoration, it also “served” in the film “The Battle of Britain”, seeing nearly 80 hours of flying time in the company of other famous Hurricanes and Spitfires. It became the first acquisition of the Strathallan Collection of Scotland from which it was acquired by CWHM in 1984.

In the cold morning light, the museum fire scene was a nightmare come true for all supporters of flying heritage. Barely distinguishable from the deformed steel girders, strewn in disarray as by some tantrum-throwing toddler, the somehow insignificant remains of five aircraft lay smoldering, open to the sky. Gone too were offices, tools and records, the raw materials of the Museum’s primary mission, to preserve and maintain.

Beyond a cinder block wall in the same devastated Hangar #3, the Lancaster, one of only two airworthy in the world, crown jewel of the collection, had been trapped helplessly on jacks as the flames crept through the ceiling overhead bringing fuel in wing tanks to a boil. Finally and just in time, rolled to safety from the burning hangar to the cheers of all present, she was fated to fly other missions, to again carry aloft collective emotions and memories. But for all those who had witnessed their historically eloquent flights of grace and power, through eyes brimming with feeling and hearts swelling with pride, the loss of these five, on that sad, cold morning of February 15, 1993, would be poignant, powerful and permanent.

It was at lunch the next day, February 16, that this disaster first entered my consciousness. The words 'Canadian Warplane' and 'fire' somehow filtered through from the background newscast. It was a sudden, jarring shock, like waking to a ringing telephone at three a.m. I cried. The loss I felt was personal and profound, but within half an hour I was redirecting my grief. My next painting project would commemorate these lost 'friends'. It’s at times of loss such as this that people rally around. Almost immediately, offers of help, monetary as well as practical, began to pour into the Museum. In 1996 the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum celebrated the opening of a brand new, state of the art aviation museum which would proudly display their valuable collection and the Canadian heritage it represents.

I decided to reproduce this acrylic painting as a limited-edition print and a collector plate (Sold Out). The painting and publishing of INTO THE BLUE as a limited-edition print, has been personally therapeutic. It is strength of feeling which drives the artist. It’s at the center of why I paint.

An editied version of this article was published in the American magazine AVIATION HISTORY in 'Art of Flight', May 1995 issue.

  • original painting available