A squadron of replica First World War biplanes that includes three Langley-built aircraft has arrived at the airport in Lille, France, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge.
The two Sopwith Pups, built by volunteers at the Canadian Museum of Flight at the Langley airport, were partially disassembled and packed into a Royal Canadian Air Force transport jet at Comox air force base on March 17 for shipment to France, along with a Langley-built SE5a and four replica Nieuport 11 ‘Bebe’ biplanes of the same era.
Museum general manager Mike Sattler said volunteers in Lille were reassembling the aircraft and preparing them for the April 9 fly-past.
Sattler said more than two dozen people, some of them air cadets, helped to build the Sopwith Pups.
“It was done with volunteers in an incredibly short period of time and a high degree of professionalism,” Sattler said.
“Only three, maybe four volunteers came from a professional aircraft maintenance background. I’m incredibly proud of their achievement.”
The tight construction schedule was nearly upended by an unexpected problem with malfunctioning engines that forced the museum to scramble for replacements.
Because of that delay, while both Pups are complete, one didn’t get enough test flying time to be declared airworthy and may have to stay on the ground at Vimy.
Even so, the fact the planes were completed despite the tight schedule and setbacks is something to celebrate, said Sattler, who recalled watching one of the Sopwith take to the air for the first time as an unforgettable moment.
“It was absolutely, wow,” Sattler said.
Sattler will be one of several Langley representatives attending the anniversary.
“The support we’ve been given by Transport Canada, Royal Canadian Air Force, municipal ad provincial governments and general public has been absolutely outstanding,” Sattler said.
The fly-past was inspired by a 1936 photo which depicted biplanes flying over the Vimy memorial during the opening ceremony of the memorial, which records the time and place where four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together for the first time.
RCAF Capt. Brent Handy will be flying one of the Nieuport 11s over Vimy.
“I honestly felt like I won the lottery when I found out that I was assigned to the program,” Handy said.
The Nieuports, he said, were “top-line fighters” for their time.
It’s really thrilling. It’s a single cockpit airplane as well, so only one seat, so you have to teach yourself how to fly.”
In the First World War, pilots had little training before they left for war.
“They probably had about a grand total of four hours of flying experience, and they’re strapping these things on their back and heading out over the horizon to fight a war for us,” Handy said.
“To me, this experience is all about perspective — it’s just really opened my eyes as to what we’ve accomplished as a nation in 100 years, and what these veterans did for us.”
After the anniversary celebrations in France, the aircraft and pilots will return to Canada and begin a cross-Canada tour from Shearwater, N.S. to the Comox Valley between May and November.
The flight will include a fly-past over the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa on July 1 during the 150th commemoration of Canada.
For more information, visit vimyflight.ca.
– with files from Black Press