Saturday, 1 December 2018

A MUSEUM THAT'S FAR FROM BORING

(The CWHM entrance, photo by the author)

If you like museums and aviation (especially its rich history related to World War II) then the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum located at Mt. Hope Airport outside Hamilton, Ontario is a must-see for you. You’ll have a blast.

The CWHM website states it well: “The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum was founded in 1972 and is a non-profit organization whose mandate is to acquire, document, preserve and maintain a complete collection of aircraft that were flown by Canadians and the Canadian military from the beginning of World War II to the present. Our role is to preserve the artifacts, books, periodicals, and manuals relating to this mandate. The Museum now houses almost fifty aircraft, an extensive aviation Gift Shop, and Exhibit Gallery.”

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum began with four friends--Dennis Bradley, Alan Ness, Peter Matthews, and John Weis. Their first purchase was a British-built Fairey Firefly, a two-seat naval fighter with folding elliptical wings for use on aircraft carriers. First manufactured during World War II, Firefly variations continued into the 1950s. When refurbished, the Firefly became the showpiece for the museum and remains that way to this day, exhibited on CWHM letterheads, memorabilia, and such.

(The CWHM gift shop, photo by the author)

Five years later, in 1977, the CWHM went all out by acquiring a decaying four-engine Avro Lancaster bomber that had been previously displayed in front of a Royal Canadian Legion branch in Goderich, Ontario. The bomber was flown by helicopter to Mt. Hope in 1979. There, the restoration commenced. Nine years later, she flew for the first time over the airport and surrounding area: 20,000 spectators saw it all. And it’s been flying ever since.
The CWHM suffered a setback on February 15, 1993, when a large portion of Hangar #3 at the Mt. Hope Airport caught fire, burning five vintage aircraft, including two Battle of Britain fighters, a Spitfire and a Hurricane. The Lancaster escaped destruction. What resulted was the brand new 108,000-square-foot building that is used today to house the entire CWHM operation under one roof instead of being scattered inside a few aging hangars as had been the case before.

I’ve seen the Lancaster in the air dozens of times myself over the last few years from my house or when I was in transit somewhere. Several times, from a distance, I’ve heard those four guttural Merlin engines before I could even see the impressive machine.  It leaves you breathless. I could just visualize hundreds of those things in the air at the same time when leaving or returning to England on those World War II bombing raids to Germany. The ground must have shook.

Considered the “Queen of the Fleet,” the Lancaster was dedicated to Andrew Mynarski, VC. In 2014, a CWHM crew flew the bomber to Great Britain for a two-month tour along with a British-refurbished Lancaster. These two Lancasters--the only two in flying condition in the world out of the 7,000 built--astounded millions throughout the British Isles. But there’s more than just the Mynarski Lanc at the Canadian Warplane Heritage. A lot more.

To begin with, there’s all the piston-engine and early jet aircraft in the hangar and outside. Nearly 50, in total, as stated earlier. Some piston-engine ones have been refurbished to fly, while the others are on static display. The twin-engine Dakota is one of those that take to the air almost as often as the Lancaster. And it’s about as noisy as the Lancaster during the flyovers around Southern Ontario.

Born on the Douglas Aircraft drawing boards in the early 1930s and first flown as the DC-3 passenger airplane, the Dakota became mainly a troop carrier during World War II, and a reliable one at that saw duty on every battlefront. Like the military version, the Canadians and Brits called it the Dakota, and the Americans referred to it as a C-47. Same thing, different name. Manufactured well into the middle-1950s, over 16,000 of the DC-3 and different variants had come down the assembly lines in the United States and abroad. By 2013, over 2,000 were still said to be found flying around the world of this aircraft that had revolutionized air transport.

Another aircraft at CWHM that still climbs into the wild blue yonder is the maneuverable, multi-purpose, mid-range, twin-engine North American B-25 Mitchell. Almost 10,000 were built in the States and served on every front by every Allied air force during World War II. This was the same type of aircraft used by Lt-Col Jimmy Doolittle in early 1942 for his morale-boosting surprise raid when 16 such machines left the carrier deck of the USS Hornet and bombed Tokyo. The remarkable thing is that the Mitchell was never originally designed to take-off from a Navy carrier.

(The North American B-25 Mitchell, photo by the author)

Another aircraft in flying condition is the North American Aviation (same company as the B-25 Mitchell) T-6 Texan, a single-engine advanced trainer used in the USA and Canada, where it was designated as the Harvard. In Canada, it was used in conjunction with the massive World War II British Commonwealth Air Training Plan on its 150 airbases coast-to-coast. My father, Jack Wyatt, was a mechanic during the war and was stationed at three different bases in Ontario and had worked on the Harvard.
The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum also has dozens of interesting displays: pictures, uniforms, flight simulators, mannequins in flight suits, and replicas of such things as a full-sized model of one of the bombs (similar in size to a 45-gallon drum) used by the 1943 Dam Busters RAF raid on three hydro dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. Other material relating to the Dam Buster operation can be found on site, including a list of the planes with the crews that saw action, and a beautiful model of Moehne Dam that the RAF had successfully breached during the historic raid. And don’t forget the type of aircraft that was used--the still-flying CWHM Lancaster bomber. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Inside the hangar, you can see a multi-photo display to the CF-105 Avro Arrow jet fighter from the 1950s, along with an actual piece of the aircraft’s Plexiglas canopy. The Arrow and its destruction in 1959 is a story in itself that forever blots Canadian aviation history. Around the corner from there, you will see a couple of machine shops and many aircraft in the midst of being refurbished. It’s a long process, as you can well imagine.

(The Avro Lancaster bomber, photo by the author)

The gift shop is huge, containing numerous new and used aviation and military books, T-shirts, jackets, posters, model aircraft, you name it. Right beside the shop is where every so often an aviation author drops by for a book signing such as Ted Barris had done in early September 2018 for his new creation, Dam Busters, the story behind the Canadians who flew on the raid.  I showed up to represent my family (my mother’s cousin, Stefan Oancia, was a Dam Buster bomb aimer) for Ted’s standing-room-only, one-hour talk on the highly skilled bombing attack.
In addition, the CWHM is home to air shows and the occasional visit from a vintage aircraft. In early September, FiFi, the mighty B-29 Superfortress flew in while on a Canadian tour. For two days, it took enthusiasts aboard for a half-hour flight, for a hefty price, of course. This was the same aircraft that had dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, to end the Second World War. Enormous for its day, the B-29 wingspan was nearly 50 feet longer than the Lancaster.

Check out the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at www.warplane.com, and go see it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed. Allow a couple hours, for sure.