It’ll be hard to top this one, folks.
I’ve only been in Ontario for three days and I’m already shell-shocked by its sheer magnificence. The weather’s been great, so is the food, wish you were here, blah, blah . . . oh, and I just flew on a World War II bomber. (For real.)
Yesterday I visited the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. Their collection of historic military aircraft is admirable and seeing airplanes like the Helldiver and Fairey Firefly brought back fond memories of making model airplanes as a boy. In a way, this well-thought museum is a bunch of boys (and girls!) who just like model airplanes–the difference is that they are building the real thing. Canadian Warplane Heritage is dedicated to restoring and preserving old military aircraft to as close as possible to their original state. Their ultimate prize: the world’s ONLY remaining Westland Lysander, which (after 30 years of painstaking work), they hope to put up in the air sometime this decade.
How do they manage the mechanical upkeep for planes that stopped being built over 60 years ago?
“We use flight mechanic manuals from the 1950s,” answered Wes, a volunteer at the museum and someone who knows just about every plane here inside and out. The museum survives on volunteer help–the majority of the folks working here are in fact, volunteers. I was impressed not only by their genuine passion for planes but also the importance of preserving each of these technological “creatures” for generations to come.
Of the museum’s many prize fighters, the Avro Lancaster is the most universally revered. Only two flying Lancasters remain in the world, and this is the only one in North America. As the quintessential British bomber from the Second World War, the Lancaster is remembered for its significant role in large-scale raids all across Europe. The Lancaster was also the plane used for the notorious Operation Chastise attack on German dams, romanticized in the book “Dambusters“.
As a night bomber, the Lancaster was painted black underneath, different from the daytime camouflage used by so many American bombers (the VR on the side of the plane stands for “Victoria Regiment”–The “A” is for aircraft).
Stepping inside such a historic plane did in fact feel like stepping back in time. I belong to the generation raised on blockbuster war movies with Hollywood sets made to look like war planes. The real thing is less open–one must crawl from the back of the plane to the front, contorting oneself to climb over various rises and divides. I was also surprised that the plane’s fuselage was covered with such thin metal–if I was being shot at up in the air, I think I’d want to be behind something more substantial than tissue-thin aluminum.
I was seated at the navigator’s table in the middle of the plane, with only little slits on the sides for windows, but a circular glass window above me. Each gunner’s station offered unique views, however, and after take-off, I kept myself busy crawling up and down the plane and sticking my head into glass bubbles for a look below.
Flying on the actual plane flown by so many heroic men was both remarkable and sobering. Of the 19,000 Canadian airmen lost in World War II, 10,000 of them were killed on bombing raids, including missions flown on the Lancaster.
Of all the wonderful modes of transportation I’ve been privileged to ride in my life, none of them compare to going up in a real-live, authentic, Canadian World War II bomber.