Golden Hawk helps history take flight

Team of aviation experts travels the country to celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight in Canada

The original Silver Dart in flight. Canada’s first powered plane
Image supplied by: Supplied
The original Silver Dart in flight. Canada’s first powered plane

Sitting in the cockpit of a shining golden Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) F-86 Sabre 5, I did what anyone else would do. I started fiddling with the dials hoping for something exciting to happen.

Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Dan Dempsey, a Royal Military College graduate with more than 20 years of RCAF service under his belt, showed me around the Golden Hawk, pointing out the features of the 1954 aircraft and keeping me away from others. Like, say, the eject button.

“The eject function shoots you out of the plane so quickly, the presumption is you will probably black out, so everything happens automatically,” he said. “The whole seat should shoot out, you’re kicked from it, and the parachute opens. Presuming everything is functioning properly. … Don’t pull it now.” Lesson learned.

The cockpit’s quite small, full of analog dials and manual levers and pulleys. It’s a far cry from today’s sprawling, lit-up dashboards with autopilot buttons and digital monitors. Pedals at my feet adjust the tail for some more complicated flying maneuvers.

The plane has been touring the country with an elite team of pilots and aviation specialists to commemorate the 100th anniversary of powered flight in Canada. Also called Hawk One, it takes its name from the legendary Golden Hawks, a seven-plane aerobatic team created in 1959 to honour the 50th anniversary of powered flight in Canada.

“When we bought the plane we didn’t realize what a unique airplane we had,” Dempsey said. “It’s stunning. The Golden Hawks had seven of them. They flew very tight and very low. The regulations were a little bit different then. ”

The plane, made by Canadair in Montreal, was one of 815 manufactured. Of these, 183 were delivered to the RCAF, a staggering figure compared to today’s numbers. The RCAF’s two squadrons currently share 60 operational F-18 fighter jets between them.

“We ruled the skies at that time,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey, whose father was in the air force, decided he wanted to be a pilot at a young age, when he was a spectator at the Golden Hawks’ first-ever air show.

“It was at an RCAF station in Ottawa, and I was a six-year-old kid. … I was really taken aback. I was mesmerized by the Golden Hawks. I was a lucky kid in middle school and high school because I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was motivated. I worked very hard to achieve my goals, and managed to get a scholarship to military school.”

Dempsey took time before our interview to show me some photographs of his time with the Snowbirds, pointing out two other pilots also travelling with the Centennial tour.

“This is a passion for us,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

The team—which includes astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in orbit—is comprised of five pilots and a plethora of technicians, maintenance engineers and support staff. The tour is a volunteer-run, non-profit venture that is funded by Vintage Wings of Canada, in partnership with the Department of National Defence, as well as several private and corporate sponsors. All remaining proceeds at the close of the tour will be donated to the Military Families Fund sponsored by the Canadian forces.

The Silver Dart, Canada’s first powered plane, took off on Feb. 23, 1909 in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, six years after the Wright brothers’ launch in Ohio. It was more sophisticated than the Wright Flyer, but primitive compared to today’s planes or even the Golden Hawk. The airplane was built by five men, among them Alexander Graham Bell, who called themselves the Aerial Experiment Association.

A contraption made mostly of wood and wires, it got its name from the silver Japanese silk used to cover the wings. Like many early aircrafts, the single-engine biplane had no brakes and poor controls.

A working replica of the Silver Dart, made by volunteers from the group Aerial Experiment Association 2005 Inc. was flown at the official 100th anniversary celebration ceremonies at Baddeck, Nova Scotia in February. The Golden Hawk also launched at this celebration, following the Silver Dart’s fly by, or, as Dempsey called it, the “bounce-by.”

“It was airborne, but barely,” he said. “It was really surreal to see it take off in the same place where the historic flight had occurred 100 years ago,” Dempsey said. “We’ve come a long way.”

Dempsey said the weekend stop in Kingston was especially important to him and his team.

“The significance of our presence here this weekend is twofold. We’re doing the usual static displays and fly-pasts as part of the Centennial, but six of our team members are graduates of RMC. It’s a real privilege to come back, especially for Sunday.”

Dempsey was supposed to fly the Golden Hawk as part of an annual memorial service and parade held Sunday at RMC to honour ex-cadets killed in the line of duty, but the fly-past was cancelled due to poor weather.

Dempsey got his pilot’s wings in 1972, and started in the Air Force shortly thereafter. Although he recently retired from 15 years as a pilot for Cathay Airlines in Hong Kong, Dempsey isn’t ready to ground himself yet.

He works for Top Aces, a private company that provides contract work for the Canadian Forces.

Dempsey is no stranger to high-intensity flying. He served for several years with the Snowbirds and commanded them in 1989 and 1990.

“With the Snowbirds, training is very intense. Tryouts are in November, and you spend until April working on the show, practicing two or three times a day. Every year you change one third to half of the team, so you spend a lot of time getting the new pilots acquainted with the positions and the routines.

“Every position is unique, and the Snowbirds don’t fly like anybody else. It’s very specialized flying.”

Despite the impressive and daredevilesque appearance of their moves, Dempsey said the Snowbirds don’t like to refer to their shows as stunt flying.

“We call it demonstration flying,” he said. “We don’t call it stunt flying or daredevil flying because that’s not what we do—it’s not what we’re about. Everything is very safe, and has been practiced over and over.

“We don’t consider the job to be dangerous. Sometimes things can go wrong, and they do, but it’s so rare. We fly very close together, but we train so well,” he said. “Everyone has been practicing and practicing. There’s always an element of risk, but I honestly think the most dangerous part of our job is driving to the airport.”

The Centennial group is collaborating with the Snowbirds, flying in formation together and doing some demonstration flying at events.

The Centennial Heritage flight formation was created especially for the 100th Anniversary of Powered Flight in Canada. Leading the way is a blue and gold F-18 Hornet, followed by the Golden Centennaire (another special anniversary plane) and the Golden Hawk.

But the show isn’t just about aerial acrobatics.

“The static displays are important as well,” Dempsey said, referring to the interaction I had with the parked plane. “We’ve put hundreds of kids, and adults too, into this plane. It’s motivating. That’s our motto for the year: resurrect, celebrate and motivate. We want to motivate kids to do something special with their lives. It doesn’t have to be flying—it’s anything they want to do that’s special to them.”

Dempsey said it’s important to encourage the achievements of the future while remembering those of the past.

“We’ve achieved an awful lot in Canada in our 100 years of powered flight. From these roots we’ve seen men fly faster than the speed of sound—with some of the modern planes, at five times the speed of sound—and we’ve put a man on the moon. At the height of our celebrations, we actually had two Canadian astronauts in space at the International Space Station.”

Flight is still an important part of Canada’s natural identity, Dempsey said.

“It’s part of our natural fabric. Aviation really opened up a lot of Canada to us. There’s a lot to celebrate and we want people to realize what is possible. It’s something really special, really unique,” he said. “We just want people to appreciate our rich aviation heritage and the hundreds of thousands of people who have contributed to it over the last 100 years.”

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