National Air Force Museum of Canada’s “senior squadron” a national treasure

News Article / December 10, 2018

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By Vic Schukov

Kevin Windsor has more than 20 years of experience as a curator in several museums across Ontario, but his latest posting is very special. He is the executive director of the National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton, Ontario, and interacts daily with a special crew.

“We have more than 120 volunteers, with more than 75 percent retired military,” he says. “Our oldest is 96. They do everything from greeting visitors, staffing the gift shop, and giving guided tours, to working on aircraft restoration and education programs, and working on the exhibits.”

Even more than this, they bring something very life-affirming. “Every time a volunteer comes in, we hear a new story from their life experiences,” Mr. Windsor says. “They become a part of our lives, like parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. It’s a family of close friends. You get so involved in their lives and they become involved in yours. On a deeper level, they are life coaches.”

The veterans never stop serving their country even in a civilian capacity.

“Some are here 40 hours a week, some once a week who live a couple hours away. You become really connected with them. They like to talk to people about what they do and how the Air Force impacted their lives in a very meaningful way. For a lot of them, they started at a young age and were able to travel all over the world, meet people from different cultures, and learn highly technical skills. It made them worldly citizens.

“For me, I realize they were once my age. Some in their 80s and 90s, you might think they were always like that,” he reflects. “One lady, a Second World War veteran, was here with her great-grandnieces and nephews, and I told them I hoped they realized how cool she is. I told them some stories about what she did in the war and they sort of looked at her with new eyes.”

One gentleman, George, 96, is restoring the actual aircraft he piloted in the Second World War—a Lockheed Hudson. “I told him I was amazed at what he did,” says Mr. Windsor, “and how his ground crew kept his plane up. He replied, ‘At the end of the war, I thanked my groundcrew for always being professional. My sergeant at the time replied, Sir, if you knew half the things we did to your airplane you never would have got inside.’

“As we were taking some panels off, we found one with all the aircrew’s signatures.”

Another veteran, Andy, in his 80s, is working on a Lancaster. Andy was a flight engineer on Lancasters in the 1950s. “He was one of our tour guides. We asked him to switch over to restoration. Remarkable, to see him working on something he had done years before. He was fixing one of the engines and I asked him, ‘When was the last time you did that?’ He looked down and said, ‘The last time I had this piece in my hand was 60 years ago.’ He still knows what he is doing, one of our experts back there. People seek his advice.”

Some restorations are intense. One aircraft that came in was just steel tubes and an engine. “Whether it’s welding, woodwork, metalwork, or fabric, each veteran has their own special skill set that can put you to shame,” Mr. Windsor says. “They are mentors. They teach these skills to others. These guys have learned so much, had so many more experiences, and do so many more different things. I am amazed by the things they can do with virtually nothing, at how resourceful they are making things, finding things, scrounging things, and fixing things because they had to. They have an attitude of ‘I can fix it.’”

The tour guides bring their own sense of history and adventure.

“Their involvement in your tour is as much as you want it to be. We have visitors who spend hours with the guides, hearing some deeply personal stories. Some guides just answer questions you may have. Nevertheless, when you come in it’s like you are meeting a stranger for the first time. By the time you leave, it’s like you are saying goodbye to a grandparent. A few weeks ago, there was a young girl, maybe three years old. Every time she saw one of our tour guides, she kept running up and hugging his leg. Her Dad later told us the guide looked like her grandfather.

“Our volunteers are very caring people. We couldn’t do it without them. We have seven full-time staff here. We are a seven-day-a-week operation. Without the volunteers, there is no way we could exist; they are the heart and soul of the museum. They also give us stories we put in our exhibits. In a sense, the guides are part of our exhibits. We have volunteers here who have been a part of every operation from the Second World War to Afghanistan—an amazing, walking history.

“I joke with the wing commander and say we are the largest squadron on base now that we have 30 aircraft.” Mr. Windsor laughs. “Ours just don’t fly. And we probably have more flight time logged with all of our retirees. We open at 8:30 and the volunteers are already in the parking lot, waiting, at 8 a.m. Their mantra throughout their lives is, ‘If you are on time, you are late.’”

Many veterans are snowbirds who spend the winters in the south. “I joke with them about opening an annex for The National Air Force Museum of Canada in Florida because most of them are there in the winter.”

The “Senior Squadron” of The National Air Force Museum of Canada is a national treasure.


 

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