Decades old and still spiffy: A peek inside the planes of the Hamilton Air Show.
Friday, June 14, 2013, 4:58 PM - The whir of my camera’s shutter is lost beneath the roar of the twin prop engines of the C45 Beechcraft Expeditor, as I stand behind the pilot and snap away, the forests and farmland of the Niagara Peninsula stretching out below us.
Then I feel something shift, and suddenly, I weigh three times as much as my bathroom scale said I did that morning.
My legs threaten to buckle, and I lean on the back of one of the four cramped seats in the passenger section.
A glance out the window sends me scrambling back to my own seat. Pretty sure the cloudline isn’t supposed to be at THAT sharp an angle.
And when a thick cascade of smoke bursts from the wings, I feel a sharp pang of panic – until I remember the man at the controls, Matt Younkin, knows what he’s doing: It’s only stunt smoke for when he really puts his plane – fondly known as a Twin Beech – through its paces during the Hamilton Air Show this weekend.
There’s plenty of snazzy stunt performers at this year’s show, including F18 Hornet jet fighters and Canada’s iconic snowbirds – but you wouldn’t expect a 70-year-old cargo and trainer plane to be one of them. Yet that’s just the role Younkin’s plane will play, although fortunately he spares me any barrel rolls and loop-the-loops on this flight.
Still, it’s a testament to how hardy the plane is that he can pull off any kind of air show stunt. This particular one rolled off the assembly line in 1943, and was used as a training vehicle for the U.S. Army Air Corps.
“There’s not much you can’t do with a Beecher,” Younkin says, adding: “These airplanes have been used for crop-dusting, hauling freight, air mail, VIP transport. You name it, if it can be done with an airplane, it’s been done with a Twin Beech, and we’re doing aerobatics with it.”
The Twin Beech isn’t a common sight in the skies above Canada anymore. In Hamilton, however, the vintage Lancaster Bomber, the cherished flagship of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, can occasionally be glimpsed the closer you get to the air show.
When viewed from the ground, the pilots of the Second World War-era behemoth seem to handle it with ease, and that’s not from lack of practice.
“They’re used to flying heavy airplanes anyway, but the Lancaster has its own little characteristics,” says Dave Finnamore, dressed in his pilot’s jumpsuit as he shows off the cramped cockpit to any visitors keen enough to brave the journey through the claustrophobic interior of the beast. “Most of our pilots are high-time, very experienced guys. A lot of them are from the air force or the airlines.”
And, as is inevitable when you think about the history behind the planes, he points out the first pilots of the tide-turning bomber didn’t have that luxury of years behind the controls.
“During the war, they had about a year training program, but they could be killed on the first flight, first bombing run,” Finnamore says.
It’s a sobering reminder that many of the planes in the skies this weekend – from the F-18 jet fighters of modern times to the mighty Lancaster of the Second World War – had their heyday in times of conflict.
Leaning out the window of the cockpit of the bomber as it lurked in its hangar Thursday, you can catch a glimpse of a reconstructed Me-262, a jet fighter developed by Nazi Germany that would have dominated the skies of Europe, if it had only been introduced earlier and used more effectively.
On the other side, the view is of a de Havilland Mosquito. Made almost entirely out of wood, it could carry a huge payload of bombs for its size.
George Stewart was 19 years old when he climbed into the cockpit of one in 1943. He ended up flying 50 missions by the time he turned 21, and later volunteered for service in the Chinese Civil War, where he saw what the plane could do.
“When I first flew it, it was the fastest thing in the air,” he said, standing beside the storied plane in the Warplane Heritage Museum’s hangar. “It wasn’t just unique by its magical name and use, it was just a wonderful airplane to fly, very responsive.”
The Mosquito will fly again over the weekend, part of a special formation flight that will include the Lancaster, two Spitfires and two Hurricanes.
It’s just a small part of the Hamilton Air Show’s beefy line-up.
On Friday, the runway outside the museum was bustling with pilots and ground support crews, rolling out the planes to get them into position for the weekend.
Overhead, biplanes and triplanes, throwbacks to the First World War, spun through the air, while the Snowbirds were lined up on the tarmac in a line that seemed mathematically precise. The people behind the planes have all done this before, and they make it look easy.
The first Hamilton Air Show began way back in 1975, but was forced to take a hiatus after 2001, due to the 9/11 attacks.
“Insurance rates went through the roof and caused most air shows to disappear,” Al Mickeloff, the air show’s marketing manager, says. “Within the last couple of years, insurance rates have got back to what they used to be, making it affordable to run an airshow.”
Three years ago, Mickeloff says, they tried a revival, and were encouraged enough to bring it back in 2012 and this year.
Last year’s air show pulled in 30,000 people, despite some poor weather on the Sunday, and while the air show isn’t the museum’s top financial draw, the exposure the large collection of classic air craft gets is more than worth the effort and coordination needed to bring the planes into the public eye.
“The serendipities we get from the air show are hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra publicity and all that sort of jazz,” he says.
The Air Show begins tomorrow and runs Sunday and Saturday.
There are too many awesome planes in the air above Hamilton to go into them all. Here's four other classic gems to watch out for:
Avro Lancaster Mark X
Even if you live in the Hamilton area and have never, ever been to the Air Show, you've seen this machine:
And you'd have been fortunate, too. It's one of only two in the whole world that are still in flying condition.
Arguably one of the most recognizable symbols of Allied air power during the Second World War, the Lancaster was a powerful heavy bomber capable of carrying bombs as heavy as 22,000 lbs.
It dominated the skies above Europe from 1942 onward, distinguishing itself in numerous raids before being formally retired in 1963, long after its heyday.
Major campaigns including the decimation of Germany's highly-industrialized Ruhr region in 1943, and the sinking of the battleship Turpitz in 1944.
Fairey Firefly Mark V
If the Lancaster is the flagship of the Warplane Heritage Museum, this smaller, unassuming aircraft is its icon, appearing on the organization's badges.
It was the first addition to the Warplane Heritage Museum in 1972, the beginning of a collection that now includes dozens of classic aircraft.
Featuring folding wings for easy storage, the carrier-borne aircraft was used primarily for reconnaissance.
Its two-person cockpit accommodated a pilot and spotter, and the plane saw action aboard Canadian carriers from 1946 to 1954, including service during the Korean War.
de Havilland Mosquito
You wouldn't know it, but this versatile plane is made mostly of wood.
The light-weight frame allowed it to carry a bomb payload much larger than its size would seem to allow, making it ideal for combat as a multi-purpose fighter-bomber.
Introduced in 1941, it did see action in other theatres such as the Chinese Civil war of the late 1940s.
Aside from its unusual construction, it earned a place in history when a Mosquito raid famously knocked out a radio tower in Berlin in 1943, interrupting a major speech celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nazi take-over of Germany.
The Hamilton Air Show's appearance marks the model's first modern foray in Canada.
Me 262 Schwalbe
Jet fighters are commonplace now, but in the Second World War, they were still in their infancy, which is why the Allies were a bit nervous when this Nazi fighter roared onto the scene.
Luckily, delays in development meant this aircraft wouldn't make its first appearance until 1944, when it was much too late to make a difference against the allies, which soon began to introduce their own jet fighters.
No operational versions remain in existence. The jet at the Hamilton Air Show was reconstructed from scratch and first flew in 2011.
Hopefully, the weather will cooperate this weekend for the Hamilton Air Show, which runs Saturday June 15 and Sunday June 16.
Sunday is also Father's Day! Click here to see the forecast across Canada.