Monday, August 9, 2010

In praise of a fighter jet that kept an eye on the Russkies

This Sabre jet once patrolled the skies along the Iron Curtain. It was on show in Victoria this weekend. Despite the 'Danger Intake' warning, many could not resist poking their head inside the fighter's shark snout. Deddeda Stemler photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 9, 2010


The retired air force pilot stood on grass slick with rain, the object of his admiration a snub-nosed fighter jet.

It was painted in the spectacular livery of the Golden Hawks, the defunct Canadian aerobatic flying team.

The warbird looked like it had been designed by George Jetson for use by the Thunderbirds, a swept-wing, single-seat futuristic vision whose shortened nose makes it appear as much lawn dart as jet.

The air intake hole in the cone, like a giant nostril, gives it a slightly comical appearance. In its day, it was about as whimsical as the shark snout it resembles.

The Sabre was the cutting-edge of a technology designed to deliver sudden and spectacular death to the enemy.

Don McBride spent three years of his life flying a Sabre along our side of the Iron Curtain. He patrolled possible hotspots on the most dangerous front of the Cold War.

He was stationed in West Germany a half-century ago, a young man out of Goderich, a pretty port town on the shores of Lake Huron. Despite living on an inland sea, he wanted to take to the sky. The shooting had stopped in the Korean War by the time he entered Royal Military College at Kingston. By age 23, he was part of Canada’s contribution in defending Western Europe from the Soviet Union, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization pilot facing down the Warsaw Pact.

“It was a wonderful thing to fly,” said Mr. McBride, a 74-year-old retired air force colonel. “A pilot’s aircraft. You could feel the controls. You felt part of the airplane.”

The other side had Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17s and MiG-19s, “which were very good,” he acknowledged, but he was always happy to be piloting a Canadian-built fighter.

This Sabre, known as Hawk One, took a roundabout route to get to the annual open house held on Saturday by the B.C. Aviation Museum at Sidney.

Owned by Vintage Wings of Canada, it left its home at the Gatineau airport in Quebec with stops at an air show at Oshkosh, Wisc., then on to Winnipeg, Calgary, and Comox. Hawk One is scheduled to appear at the Abbotsford Airshow this weekend. [Aug. 13-15]

This jet was the 1,104th to roll off the assembly line at the Canadair plant at Cartierville, near Montreal. Built in 1954, it was restored last year to mark the centennial of flight in Canada.

The name painted beneath the cockpit honours Al Lilly, Canadair’s chief test pilot who, in 1950, flew the prototype beyond the sound barrier, the first Canadian to do so.

Telling visitors about the jet and its history was Dan Dempsey, 57, who wore a blue flight suit with his name stitched in cursive letters of golden thread. He also possesses a mustache that would not be out of place on a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain.

Mr. Dempsey was a six-year-old boy in 1959 when he saw the Golden Hawks perform at an air show at RCAF Station Rockcliffe, near Ottawa. He determined then to become a pilot. He joined the Canadian Forces, spending 23 years as a jet instructor, a fighter pilot, and commanding officer of the Snowbirds demonstration team. After 15 years as a commercial pilot, he now works as a flyer for Top Aces, a subsidiary of Discovery Air, which provides combat support training to the Canadian Forces. (The Globe has called it “the fastest, fiercest company in Canada.”)

The retired lieutenant-colonel, who lives in Victoria, is the author of a history of Canada’s airshow teams, which trace their lineage to William George Barker performing demonstrations on German biplanes after the Great War.

Mr. Dempsey is one of only a handful who get to fly Hawk One, each hop adding to his more than 14,000 hours of flight time.

The only Sabre rattling on this day is in praise of a machine that is the last of its kind in Canada.

The museum also had on display a Chipmunk and a Bolingbroke, an Anson and a Norseman, as well as biplanes, gliders and helicopters. The museum’s volunteer restorers are at work on rebuilding a Harvard, known as a “Yellow Peril” by aircrew for its bright mustard colour, the terrible noise it made on takeoff, and its many deadly training accidents.

Others are working on a Vickers Viscount 757, a postwar turboprop originally delivered to Trans-Canada Airlines in 1957. When its flying days ended 23 years later, vocational students in Vancouver received maintenance training on it. The museum bought it for $1 five years ago and had it barged across Georgia Strait.

Weekend visitors toured the interior, peeking into the cockpit, checking the four ovens in the galley at the rear, giggling at the garish pink toilet. Mostly, though, they admired the wide seats with spacious legroom, a reminder of the days when air travel was classy.

The museum has wonders beyond flying machines. Weapons, uniforms and medals are all on display, as are silk maps designed for use by pilots trying to escape after parachuting over enemy territory.

Propeller heads can make a pilgrimage to a wall of propellers, while the meteorologically inclined will admire a Dines anemometer, used to measure wind speed.

My favourite is an ejection seat from an Avro CF-100 Canuck interceptor. It comes with a survival pack — oxygen bottle, sleeping bag, food pack, first aid kit, fish hooks, snare wire, a folding .22 Hornet rifle with ammunition, and a supply of Dexedrine to stay awake.

Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Victoria with all that stuff

1 comment:

Mary Meldrum said...

Thanks so much for your piece.
My dad was one of the lucky "jet jockeys" who piloted the Sabre. At 80 and feeling the effects of age and a major stroke, he's a shell of his former self and robbed of coherent speech, but even without his ability to remind them, none of us will forget the years he fought the Cold War from the cockpit of that magnificent aircraft.

The Sabre pilots meet every two years to reminisce - this year's reunion is in Penticton in September. Though the number of people they still know is dwindling away, my parents will make the trip - my mom pushing my dad in a wheelchair.