RCAF joins the Vimy Flight Association in tribute to Canadian airmen at Vimy

News Article / April 6, 2017

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By Major Holly-Anne Brown

As Canada prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her victory at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 2017, many aspects of this epic story are coming to the forefront of our collective conscience.

Many Canadians consider the Canadian Corps’ victory – and the story of how four Canadian divisions came together for the first time to fight the German forces that held the ridge – as a decisive element in the forging of our nation. Today, we still mourn the more than 10,000 casualties (3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded) the battle cost Canada.

But relatively few are familiar with the battle fought in the skies over France that began well ahead of those first soldiers leading the ground assault. Nor do they know that valuable intelligence was provided to commanders on the ground as the result of the valiant reconnaissance and mapping efforts of the airmen of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), many of whom were Canadians.

To recreate and bring that story to life, a group of retired Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilots created the Vimy Flight Association (VFA) with high aspirations of taking their replica First World War aircraft to France to fly past the Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial during the national ceremony on April 9, 2017.

The RCAF is supporting them as they realize this dream by providing airlift to and from France on a CC-177 Globemaster III from 429 Transport Squadron of 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario. On March 15 at 19 Wing Comox, British Columbia the VFA aircraft – two Sopwith Pups, four Nieuport 11s, and one SE5 – were loaded by some of the RCAF’s most experienced traffic technicians from 2 Air Movements Squadron (also from 8 Wing) with the assistance of several technicians from 19 Wing.

Under the supervision of Master Warrant Officer Ken MacCarl, a technician from 2 Air Movements Squadron, the seven aircraft were moved out of the 19 Wing hangar, where VFA pilots had been conducting preparations and formation flight training since mid-February, and were loaded onto the huge transport aircraft in about two and a half hours.

“This is a unique cargo; it's pretty fragile, not like the kind we are used to loading,” said Master Warrant Officer MacCarl at the beginning of the process. “Fortunately we [the RCAF] have the expertise and experience to ensure these aircraft are safely and securely loaded. It’s going to take a big team effort, but we’ll get it done.”

With its precious cargo safely stowed in its enormous cargo area, the Globemaster took off from Comox the following morning, and began its two-day journey to Lille, France. From there, the replicas went to a nearby airfield at Lens-Benifontaine, where they would base their activities over the next three weeks. The two Sopwith Pups, built by Canadian Museum of Flight pilots and volunteers, along with cadets from 746 Lightening Hawk Squadron at Langley, British Columbia, will be used for static displays at commemorative events in the French towns of Arras and Lens. The Nieuport 11 and the SE5 replicas, built by veteran pilots and volunteers in Comox, will be used for various flybys in the Vimy area in the days up to and including the national ceremony. Their historic formation will fly past the crowds at the Vimy Memorial, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Royal Family.

The RCAF is further honoured to have one of its own pilots, Captain Brent Handy, flying one of the four Nieuport 11s alongside the VFA’s Major (retired) Dale Erhart, who will lead the formation, Major (retired) Peter Thornton, and Captain (retired) Larry Rickers, and Captain (retired) Allan Snowie, who will pilot the SE5. Captain Handy, currently stationed at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, is a former Snowbirds pilot, a former CF-188 Hornet pilot who, outside his military duties, also flies his Pitts Special aerobatic biplane on the North American airshow circuit.

Captain Handy is keenly aware of the depth of the heroism displayed by those young RFC and RNAS airmen one hundred years ago, remarking that today’s fighter pilots, like himself, typically have hundreds of hours of “seat-time” (he has about 4,000 hours) before they might see any combat operations.

“I’ve had four hours of practice in this Nieuport, and that’s pretty much all those young pilots ever got before heading off over the horizon to fight a war for us,” he said. “It is humbling, and I’m very honoured to be a part of this event.”

The opportunity to participate in the Vimy celebrations alongside the VFA is an exciting yet solemn undertaking for the RCAF; it is a fitting tribute to those valiant Canadians who paid the ultimate sacrifice 100 years ago at the Battle for Vimy Ridge.

As we celebrate, we invite all our fellow Canadians, from all backgrounds, to join us in remembering and honouring the bravery of our airmen and airwomen, who fought and continue to fight to defend Canadian values at home and abroad, and the strength and courage of the families and loved ones they left and leave behind.

Be sure to like the RCAF Facebook page, at http://www.facebook.com/rcaf1924, and follow @RCAF_ARC on Twitter to see imagery from the journey.

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