Vimy Ridge memorial flight set for take-off
One hundred years ago, young Canadian military members with around four hours of flying experience went to fight in the First World War, in single open cockpit airplanes.
With more than 4,000 hours of flying experience to his credit, Capt. Brent Handy is getting ready to re-enact that experience. Next month, he will strap into a replica aircraft and participate in a flyover with other pilots as part of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy in France.
“I can’t even think of the words to describe how incredible it is to fly over the skies that our first fighter aces flew 100 years ago,” the RCAF pilot explained at 19 Wing Comox Monday, as the team was disassembling, packing and loading the aircraft onto a CC-177 Globemaster III with the assistance of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The RCAF will transfer the two Sopwith Pups, four Nieuport 11s and one SE5 to Lille, France on behalf of the Vimy Flight Association, where they are expected to arrive on March 17 in time for the celebration over Vimy April 9.
“I honestly felt like I won the lottery when I found out that I was assigned to the program. My experience is that I’m a fighter pilot in the RCAF; I’ve flown the F-18, I’ve flown with the Snowbirds. To me, the biggest honour as a fighter pilot is to participate in this kind of commemoration.”
Handy will be flying one of the Nieuport 11s, and explained the amount of aviation innovation which has taken place over the past century is “absolutely breathtaking.”
“These were the top line fighters of 1917. These are like the F-35, F-22, Super Hornet of its day. When I got to fly it last week in my training, we’ve learned a lot over the last 100 years, let’s just put it that way. But 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.”
Handy noted pilots had only a handful of flying hours before they left for war, and described the courage it took to fight is an inspiration not only for him, but to all Canadians.
“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. 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.”
Retired Maj. Dale Erhart is the flight safety officer and lead pilot involved in the flight, and said participating in the memorial flight is “a true honour. It’s something that I never imagined in my life … it has such emotional significance for Canadians.
“I think I have to pinch myself to think it’s still true. We’ve worked so hard and have had so many hurdles, financial hurdles. It’s very difficult to get people to understand what we’re trying to accomplish, believe what we’re doing and to generate enough interest into what we’re doing.”
Erhart was one of the first pilots to fly the F-18, and following his military career, he became a civilian commercial and business pilot. Years ago, he ran into an ex-air force colleague flying business jets, and the pair had a layover in Paris.
“We rented a car and went to see Vimy. We were absolutely shocked and amazed at what we saw, and it really changed our lives. To understand Canada’s contribution is well written and documented, but what is not well written and documented is the fact the air element provided so much preparation and intelligence through aerial recognizance and aerial mapping, that it really did change the outcome of war in the Western Front.”
After the celebrations in France, the team will return to Halifax and embark on a cross-Canada aerial tour, crossing from Shearwater, N.S. to the Comox Valley between May and November. The flight will include a flypast over the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa on July 1 during the 150th commemoration of Canada.
For more information, visit vimyflight.ca.