Retired fighter pilot and Air Canada captain Al French is looking forward to participating in the Vimy Ridge commemorative fly-past.

Vimy Ridge on Canadian Museum of Flight radar

Museum pilots will participate in the Vimy Ridge commemorative fly-past in France this year.

When Canadian Museum of Flight General Manager Mike Sattler, was asked if building two Sopwith Pup replicas at a self-funded museum on a shoe-string budget, with 45 volunteers, and getting to Vimy Ridge for 2017 was feasible, the ex-aircraft mechanic/bush pilot’s response was: “Sure! Why not!”

“I saw the project as a chance to showcase the museum and what this crew does that a lot of people don’t know about,” says Sattler.

Sattler tells me that Canadian Museum of Flight volunteers are making dreams realities by building two Sopwith Pup replicas. Leaning on a completed, certified Pup awaiting suitable check-flight weather, he chuckles, “Be careful what you wish for!”

Canadian Museum of Flight General Manager Mike Sattler.

Museum pilots plan to fly the legendary World War 1 fighter bi-planes at the Centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge at the Vimy Memorial in France on April 9, and at Canada 150 celebrations in Ottawa. Their return flight from Ottawa to Langley is expected to be via the Oshkosh AirVenture show in Wisconsin in July 24-30.

Retired fighter pilot and Air Canada captain Al French, is looking forward to participating in the Vimy Ridge commemorative fly-past, as is veteran Allan Snowie, test pilot for Pup No.1’s maiden flight.

Seated in a completed replica French tells me the single seat, open cockpit, fabric covered wood frame bi-planes first flew in 1916. The 2017 version sports a metal frame. Originally powered by rotary engines, these museum replicas will sport suitable, but more powerful modern-day engines.

Built to land on grass fields, Pups had no wheel brakes, no tail wheel, and no room for a parachute. “We’ve modified that because we won’t have a grass field, but still no room for a parachute,” he grins. French’s frame fills the tiny cockpit. Two rudder pedals are at his feet. There’s a joystick, a few panel dials to register height, airspeed, and apparently not much else. Pups were designed without a cockpit canopy, so WW1 aviator-style leather helmets, goggles and bomber jackets will be crew uniform gear.

Former Vimy Ridge Sopwith Pup pilot, the late WW1 Group Captain Joseph Fall, DSC, is listed among the museum’s Canadian aviation pioneers. Born on a Vancouver Island farm in 1895, Fall defied medical prognosis after surviving major brain surgery at the age of 14. Despite assorted stumbling blocks, he was determined to join the military. Reflecting on his successful Royal Naval Air Service interview, Fall reported: “When they asked me if I had any bodily injuries, I said no. They didn’t ask me anything about head injuries and I didn’t offer anything.”

Mike Fall, Joseph’s son, notes that ‘skillful may be an understatement’ considering some fighting by WW1 pilots took place only 50 ft above enemy trenches. Sopwith Pup pilots were also their own gunners. On one occasion, his 21-year-old father manoeuvred his bullet-ridden aircraft, armed with a jammed gun, back to a safe landing in Britain.

Fall’s story is just one of many recorded since Orville and Wilbur Wright undertook the first successful airplane powered flight in 1903. Remember the film “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machine”? That legendary 1910 London to Paris air race shone a spotlight on British aviation.

Inside the crammed hanger, and on the limited tarmac outside, Canadian Museum of Flight showcases Canada’s rich aviation history and heritage. As I leave, I’m aware of the stark contrast between 21st century cockpits and young flyers waging war in such fragile aircraft. Aviation has come a long way in 100 years.

Donations, memberships, and public interest in the Sopwith Pup-Vimy 100 project, would be much appreciated. Canadian Museum of Flight Open House takes place February 13 at Hanger #3, 5333-216 St., Langley. For general information and visiting hours go to: www.canadianflight.org An interview with Al French is online at YouTravel1.

 

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