A team of former military pilots is preparing for a memorial flight at Vimy Ridge next year, in conjunction with a 100th anniversary celebration in France.
Dale Erhart of Comox is part of the team that will fly over Vimy at the April 9 celebration.
“What we are hoping to do is honour the First World War veterans, as well as all veterans by celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy,” said Erhart, who joined the Vimy Flight team last year. “There’s going to be a huge celebration over in Vimy, France. When that memorial was first presented by King Edward in 1936, they had five planes flying overhead. We’re trying to re-enact that.”
Erhart’s plane is a Nieuport 11 out of Nanaimo. He and other team members have been taking test flights from the Courtenay Airpark.
“My aircraft is honouring a gentleman named Charles Hickey, who was born in Parksville,” Erhart said. “He was raised in Nanaimo, and he was an ace. He had 21 victories in the First World War. He was sadly killed at the age of 21. His name is emblazoned on the side of my airplane, as well as Andrew Eykelenboom from Boomer’s Legacy. I’m trying to bring in both the more contemporary veterans and heroes of our day, as well as the past.”
Eykelenboom was a Comox soldier who was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2006.
The planes are scaled-down reproductions of the Nieuport 11, which was designed in France before the First World War.
“It was used as a racing machine for the Schneider Cup, and when the war broke out, they found it was very fast and manoeuvrable, so they started using it for fighter aviation,” Erhart said. “It was one of the very first fighters that the Canadian airmen used when they joined the Royal Flying Corps. Even though it was made in France, it was used by the British, the French, the Italians and eventually the Russians in the First World War.”
Several team members have flown with the Snowbirds. Erhart, who flew fighters, had flown Voodoos at the base in Comox from 1978-81, and was then a demo pilot for the F-18. He and other Vimy Flight members later worked in the airline industry.
“This is really a tremendous honour, and quite a responsibility for us to try and do this,” Erhart said. “It’s a challenge because these airplanes are built to modern standards but they’re still very fragile in their design.”
Leading the team is Bellingham resident Allan Snowie, the founder of Vimy Flight who joined the Royal Canadian Navy Air Branch in 1965. He flew his Nieuport across Canada during the nation’s 100th Anniversary of Flight in 2009.
“Our pilot group is baby boomers, and the First World War was our grandfathers’ war,” Snowie said. “Our generation is the last living link with these men. It’s truly our duty to pass along what knowledge we have of them to our grandchildren.
“On a personal note, my grandfather marched off to that war with four cousins,” Snowie added. “He was the only one to return home.”
Other pilot members include Paul O’Reilly of Victoria and Peter Thornton of Chilliwack. Nova Scotia resident Dave Wilson is one of the spare pilots.
“It is quite an honour to be invited,” Wilson said, noting the bravery of Canadian soldiers who fought in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. “(They) Probably got quite a surprise when they found out what they were up against. But they didn’t run. Stayed with it and acquitted themselves very well.”
Comox Valley resident Darwin Dzuba is the maintenance manager for Vimy Flight. A ground crew of about eight will help keep the team on the move.
Erhart thanks 19 Wing for providing storage space for the four Nieuports and a training aircraft called an Aeronca Champ.
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.
The federal government has provided some funding for the project, which needs to obtain further funds to cover the approximate $800,000 in costs.
For more information, visit bcaviationcouncil.org/vimy-ridge
Another project — A Nation Soars: Commemorating Canada’s Great War Flyers — is a trilogy of documentaries that explore how aviation changed the course of the First World War.