by Stu Simpson
No pilot will ever truly be able to say he’s done it all. But there are some guys who’ve come close. Wayne Thomas Foster, known to all simply as “Butch” is one of those fortunate few. Foster’s flying experience spans more than half a century and includes some of the most legendary airplanes in history. He’s flown more than a hundred different types of aircraft and logged better than 15,000 hours. Butch Foster’s tale is one of a remarkable flying career.
Butch started flying as a youngster in 1954 in Chilliwack, B.C. A typical airport kid, he spent many hours peering over the fence watching seemingly frail little tail-draggers flitting around the circuit. Soon, he began trading odd jobs for flight time, and eventually earned his PPL with the air cadets at age 17.
Butch recalls those days fondly, especially since a flying licence then cost only $400, required only 30 hours in a Fleet Canuck, and was done on a 30 day program.
Two years later he joined the RCAF and wore his wings proudly from 1958 on. From then until 1965 he flew various marks of the other Canuck, the CF-100 in Cold Lake and Germany.
To say Foster loved the ‘Clunk’ is a bit of a an understatement. “It had good performance,” he says, “it packed a great punch with all those rockets, it had great range and great reliability.” In Germany, Canadian forces often faced-off against faster American jet fighters in training exercises, during which the Canuck held it’s own. “It lacked a bit of speed, but that was more than made up for by it’s reliability and firepower. The Americans couldn’t touch us there.”
Butch moved on and learned to fly Grumman Trackers, flying them from aircraft carriers when Canada still did such things.
In the late 1960’s Foster and another Canadian went south to fly with the U.S. Navy off its carriers near Puerto Rico. They spent their time teaching air combat maneuvering, or ACM. This was back in the days when military brass still thought missiles would rule all air battles of the future. Squadron-level flyers, of course, knew differently and therefore “imported” some knowledgeable people for a time.
This is also when Foster picked up his nickname. In his unit there were three other guys named Wayne. Clearly, Foster would need another handle. His squadron mates saw the way he and his fellow Canuck teamed up to make mince-meat of their opponents in the air; one would butch and the other would chop, they said. Thus, the Canadians were soon known as Butcher and Chopper, quickly shortened to just Butch and Chop.
While with the USN Butch got to fly the A-4 Skyhawk and the F-8 Crusader. He happily characterizes the A-4 as a scooter, since it was so small and maneuverable and was such a treat to fly. With only 9600 pounds of thrust available the early Skyhawks didn’t have the power granted to later variants. But Foster says the A-4 still carried quite a weapons load and also had a good roll rate.
Butch also got to fly the F-8 Crusader, a single-engined supersonic jet fighter with absolutely sparkling performance. Long revered by pilots as one of the greatest dogfighters, the Crusader had a fantastic turn rate that got even tighter the faster it went. “The F-8 was the Last of the Gunfighters,” says Butch. “It was an excellent airplane. But, of course every dog has its day, and so do airplanes.”
A stint teaching advanced flying with the U.S. Air Force was next for Butch. Then it was back to Canada for a ground tour in Moose Jaw. Butch retired from the Air Force in 1980 after his final posting at Namao, flying Twin Otters.
Flying the Classics
In 1975, when Butch was stationed at Moose Jaw, he got a chance that would set any red-blooded pilot to drooling. The National Aviation Museum approached him and asked if he wanted to fly some of the Museum’s planes in airshows. Butch jumped at the opportunity, having read and dreamt of these airplanes as a kid. He spent the next few summers displaying the Avro 504 trainer, the Sopwith Pup, and the Nieuport 17. Just how lucky can a guy get?
Always a fighter pilot at heart, Butch is one of the few people still around who are able to give a comparative analysis of some of World War I’s combat planes. “The Nieuport was my favourite,” he says. “Because of my size and height, and the position of the Nieuport’s wings, my visibility was phenomenal. It would be a distinct advantage in a combat situation.”
“The Sopwith Pup was a bit faster,” he adds, “but the visibility all around was a lot less than the Nieuport. In some ways it was a little bit more maneuverable, it would probably turn tighter, but in the Nieuport you could take off and run if you had to.”
Of course, the rotary engines that powered these classics were lubricated by castor oil, which spewed from the engine valves in a fine mist, coating everything in the propwash, including the pilot. “To this day, I can still smell castor oil in my flying suit,” says Foster. Fond memories, indeed.
He also remarked on the stark contrast of flying a biplane from 1911 one day, then jumping into a modern jet fighter the next.
Before he left the Air Force Butch was lucky enough to get a lot of time in the P-51 Mustang. June of 1978 saw him and a fellow named Jerry Westfall headed south to ferry back a pair of P-51’s from Bolivia. The Bolivian air force was selling off the Mustangs and replacing them with T-33’s. The Bolivians only flew the P-51’s in day VFR conditions and the planes carried no radios.
Butch hadn’t flown a Mustang for several years, and his wingman hadn’t flown one at all. But because of his previous experience, Foster drew the short straw to make the first test hop. The flight was successful, though challenging, seeing as how La Paz’s field elevation was 13,500 feet ASL.
Butch thought the Bolivians’ upkeep of the old Mustangs was pretty good. “They were still on the original type-maintenance program as used during the war. So the airplanes were quite dependable.”
Which was good for Foster and Westfall. They took off for Lima City, Peru with a good weather forecast. But the weather quickly deteriorated approaching Lima City. Foster and Westfall had to bring the Mustangs down through the clouds over the ocean, then make their way back to the airport with only basic instruments and a hand-held radio. They squeaked into Lima City, landing in pitch black with an 800′ ceiling and only 2 1/2 miles visibility. To make matters worse, the Peruvians had no idea they were coming. The Bolivians hadn’t forwarded the flight plans.
The two pilots were stuck there for five days, unable to get authorization to leave. Butch finally insisted loudly enough and obtained an audience with the Minister of Aviation. The Minister was a general in the air force and Butch saw a photo on his desk of the minister seated in a Hawker Hunter. Since the Hunter was a contemporary to the CF-100, “I was able to chit-chat with him on his own ground,” says Butch. “By the time I left the office, about two hours later, we had carte blanche on the Mustangs.”
They took off the next day and climbed to 14,000 feet to try and cool off high over the Peruvian desert. They’d also brought along a can of Coke each, since they hadn’t been drinking much of the water. “Jerry was sitting about a hundred yards off my wing and I saw him bring out this can of pop. I waved ‘No, no, don’t do it.’ Well, he did it. The can just exploded. The whole inside of his canopy turned brown.”
In December 1978 Butch and Jock MacKey ferried T-33’s down to Bolivia, and P-51’s back. All had gone well and MacKey was leading as they left Great Falls on the return trip to Calgary. Though the planes had no radios, MacKey was able to communicate with hand signals that he was having engine problems and wanted his wingman to lead. Foster was having none of it, and in fact had put away his map. Mackey insisted by pulling back his throttle and forcing Butch out front.
Trouble was, Butch didn’t know where they were. He thought he’d seen Lethbridge go by, but ten minutes later didn’t have a clue about their position. Fortunately, the mountains stayed out past his left wing and Calgary eventually came into view. But Butch couldn’t fail to notice the irony of having flown 7000 miles across two continents, only to get lost in his own backyard.
Butch Foster knows how lucky he is to have flown the P-51, and he loves the old warbird. “The Mustang is great, just super,” says Foster, smiling. “The range is good, the speed is good, the visibility is good. It’s an excellent aircraft.”
The summer of 1980 was Foster’s first summer flying fires. He adores the nostalgia inherent in flying A-26’s nearly as old as he is. He got the job after a rather surprising interview.
Airspray’s Don Hamilton conducted the questioning in Edmonton. “He asked me just two questions,” says Butch. “How much total time do you have? And how much twin time, do you have?” At the time Foster had 8600 hours total, nearly half of it in twins. “He says, “Well, you’re hired.” He didn’t even ask me if it was prop time or jets.” Of course, Butch had more than 200 hours on the Trackers’ radials, so he wasn’t worried a bit.
Being an ex-fighter guy, Butch finds the A-26 to be quite heavy, but very solid, stable and fast. As far as he’s concerned it’s an excellent water bomber.
Foster says his military background – his hit-the-target mentality, as he calls it – has helped him immensely in air attack.
So why does he keep bombing every year? The chance to fly a snarlin’ old round-engined warbird in tough conditions; the precision and skill it takes to drop a load of retardant in just the right place as burning trees explode all around; and the challenge of keeping track of the fire, the firefighters, your wingmen and the bird dog, are the things that keep Butch Foster coming back for more every summer.
But his resume’ doesn’t stop there. Up until 1996, Butch was Chief Flying Instructor for Mt. Royal College’s Aviation Program. He’d been there since September of 1980, becoming the boss in ’86. He reflects fondly on the many students to whom he helped give wings.
And he builds airplanes, too. Foster’s built three homebuilts already, and has a fourth nearing completion. His first was a 2/3 scale Jurca Mustang, followed by a similarly-sized Jurca P-40. Each of these planes required an estimated 7000 hours building time. A Jodel D-9 with a 40 hp Volkswagen engine followed, and he’s currently working on a Cavalier.
The serious homebuilder will recognize all of these planes as being made of wood. Foster says aircraft wood-working is a lost art, so he helps out with wood repairs from time to time at one of Springbank airport’s repair shops.
You might think Butch would be ready to sit back and rest on his laurels for a while. Not so. He regularly flies a Cessna 402 for Accent Aviation, a charter operation out of Springbank. And, of course, there’s his beloved summer bombers. He also wants to build a replica Spitfire, out of wood, naturally.
Butch often wonders if he shouldn’t have joined the airlines when he had the chance back in the 60’s. “Sometimes I walk
around in circles just kicking myself in the ass,” he says. “I’d probably be flying a 747 or a DC-10, and I’d have ten times the money I do now.” But he concedes such a route might also have left him with only one tenth the living he’s got now.
As I mentioned, there’s no pilot who can say he’s done it all. But as for Butch Foster, well, he’s given it a damned good try.