I must have been eight years old when I discovered my love of flying. I had transformed my room into a full-fledged airport. Taking the glow-in-the-dark road markings from my Hot Wheels set, I had stuck them to the floor in order to organize runways, taxiways and terminals. Even the planes had some sort of fluorescent markings.
Combined with the glow-in-the-dark stars that were stuck all over my ceiling, my creation ushered in a new world of dreams and adventures. One moment I was Billy Bishop, the top-scoring Canadian ace of World War I (72 aircraft). The other, I was some Amelia Earhart look-alike crashing into some Treasure Island.
My love of flying was my first real passion. It also helped that I traveled quite often with my mother (and later sister) to Europe and South America. I even remember being on a transatlantic flight when smoking was still allowed. I was sitting right next to the smoking section and believe me; it was unpleasant, especially for a young lad!
As the years passed, I delved into military history and was captivated by the exploits of Guynemer, Richtofen, Hartmann, O’Hare, Douglas Bader and others. I marveled in their feats and adventures (with the grim reality of war a far away notion for a child of my age). For example, here is the citation for William Barker’s Victoria Cross, another Canadian, and most decorated serviceman in the history of Canada, and of the British Empire.
“On the morning of the 27th October 1918, this officer observed an enemy two-seater over the Foret de Mormal. He attacked this machine and after a short burst it broke up in the air. At the same time a Fokker biplane attacked him, and he was wounded in the right thigh, but managed, despite this, to shoot down the enemy aeroplane in flames. He then found himself in the middle of a large formation of Fokker’s who attacked him from all directions, and he was again severely wounded in the left thigh, but succeeded in driving down two of the enemy in a spin. He lost consciousness after then, and his machine fell out of control. On recovery he found himself being again attacked heavily by a large formation and singling out one machine he deliberately charged and drove it down in flames. During this fight his left elbow was shattered and he again fainted, and on regaining consciousness he found himself still being attacked, but notwithstanding that he was now severely wounded in both legs and his left arm shattered, he dived on the nearest machine and shot it down in flames. Being greatly exhausted, he dived out of the fight to regain our lines, but was met by another formation, which attacked and endeavoured to cut him off, but after a hard fight he succeeded in breaking up this formation and reached our lines, where he crashed on landing.”
With some encouragement from my mother ( I was initially reluctant to join an organization which I knew nothing about), I became an Air Cadet here in Canada. After a few years in the organization, I was selected for a flying scholarship and at the age of 17 became a glider pilot, flying the old yet sturdy Schweizer SGS 2-33A. I still remember those wonderful days, the complete freedom of cutting through air, and the running back and forth to tow and bring the gliders back to the “runway” ( grass strip).
I suddenly understood in my own little way the poem written by an American who gave his life, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force in England in World War II.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
I then went on to complete my training on engine-powered aircraft the year later at Jean-Lesage airport in Quebec, being one of the lucky male pilots to train with the ladies, who were all grouped together in one training center (the males were mostly in other centers in Chicoutimi and other remote, dreary places).
I remember flying my Diamond Katana over the historic Citadelle, and the wonderful Ile d’Orleans. Funny moments did occur. As well as scary ones, such as almost having a head-on collision with an incoming aircraft (caused by some confusion with the ATC). A friend even had the honour of initiating a Transport Security Board investigation when he stalled and crashed his Katana in a field while practicing engine failures. Another got lost while right above the runway, forgot to pull up and crashed head first in the runway. Everybody survived the course though, and I will be forever in debt to the years I passed in the Air Cadets.
I then continued to fly on an occasional basis but those years were definitively one of the most exciting of my life. And I know my story is but one insignificant speck in the world of aviation, but I think still a valid one since it illustrates the common love of flying which bonds all of us, even though I might not be a professional pilot, or a joystick-totting fighter pilot.