The bright yellow and distinctive roar were a common sight and sound across Canada during WW II. Every fighter pilot heading to war in Europe spent hours training in them before graduating to fighter aircraft. The Harvard aircraft is Canada's most distinctive aircraft of the WW II era, used as an advanced trainer by 137,000 aircrew that came from all over the world to learn to fly as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan that bridged the gap between
the elementary trainers of the day such as the Tiger Moth and the thoroughbred fighters such as the Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mustangs.
The Harvard was aerobatic and enjoyable to fly, but it possessed enough vices to ensure that students learned how to operate properly if they wished to survive. Every major power used them even as combat aircraft from the 30's to the 60's. Several variations, called the AT-6, Yale, Texan, SNJ, Wirraway were produced in North America and Australia, but the Canadian Harvard was produced in Montreal by Noordyan. Canada built 2,557 Harvards, but today there are only 25 left flying.
The Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association's (CHAA) home base is at Tillsonburg airport in Oxford County, home to a dedicated group of volunteers who lovingly care for these vintage aircraft and keep them flying. Their mission is "to acquire, preserve, restore, maintain, display and demonstrate the Harvard and all other aircraft associated with the Royal Canadian Air Force." They currently hold seven Harvards, a Yale and a Tiger Moth in their collection.
I was impressed with the dedication shown by this group in the middle of winter, snow on the ground, and no flying to be done as they worked on the aircraft. Every Tuesday and Saturday they gather to restore and rebuild these planes. I watched as two workers placed a section of aluminum wing panel on one aircraft wing and prepared to rivet it in place. The fact that there were several hundred rivets to be installed didn't daunt them as they smiled and began the tedious process. Nearby, two more volunteers refurbished parts destined for a nearby Harvard fuselage. A storage area above the repair floor held rows of shelving with a vast number of parts for repairs.
How difficult is it to obtain parts for a plane over 60 years old? Well, there are all kinds of old aircraft still scattered across North America that could be part sources. One surprising source for parts and aircraft lies under water. A number of aircraft were lost in the Great Lakes during WW II training, and CHAA employs their own dive recovery team that researches, locates, surveys and recovers heritage aircraft that crashed in the waters around Ontario.
What impressed me most was the fact that these volunteers weren't just working to restore each plane as a static museum piece for display. Every plane was being worked on with one goal in mind - to make it fly! In a second hanger, two mechanics conducted regular maintenance on a plane to ensure that it was ready to fly this spring. Behind that Harvard, was another missing an engine, sitting on a stand next to the plane. The engine recently returned from a U.S. rebuilding site. Rebuilds don't come cheaply at $44,000 for one engine!
Even painting these aircraft in their distinctive yellow is an expensive proposition. To re-paint and place all of the proper insignia on one aircraft costs $25,000. Harvard's were originally given their distinctive yellow colour to make them visible in the crowded skies over training bases and make them easier to spot on the ground if forced down.
Since the group is all volunteer, money required to work on the aircraft must be raised, again by volunteers who solicit donations, sell calendars, run bingos and barbeques, and a variety of other events to keep the planes flying.
Open Tuesdays and Saturdays for visits to the site, they are happy to show you around; however, the best time to see the planes is when they are flying. Each summer, the group has several aircraft performing at various events in Ontario and some U.S. sites (see table below). Seeing and hearing these planes perform is something everyone should experience. The Harvard produces a distinctive roar from the tips of the 9-foot propeller going supersonic. Adventurists can purchase a ride in the back seat at a show. It's not a cheap ride, but these planes are expensive to both maintain and fly. Anyone can visit a local airport and book a ride in a small plane, but only a few get the opportunity to ride in one of these vintage war-birds. I can't wait until summer so I can attend an air show to see and hear the Harvard's in action.
Doors Open Oxford
100th Anniv. Of Powered Flight
Wings 'n Wheels Day
June 6 & 7
June 20 & 21
Russell (Niagara Falls)|
Thunder Over Michigan
Gene Chambers is an author of three secondary school textbooks on computer studies in data processing, and a travel writer.
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