Book Review: Hero: The Buzz Beurling Story, by Brian Nolan

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BOOK REVIEW by Stu Simpson

George Frederick "Buzz" Beurling, Ca...
George Frederick "Buzz" Beurling, Canadian WWII ace. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who claims to be an aviation afficianado in Canada had better know who George Beurling is. For those who don’t know (and shame on you for it) Beurling was Canada’s highest scoring ace of World War II. It’s somewhat embarrassing that everyone reading this will likely know of Americans Chuck Yeager or Bob Hoover, yet very few will know of one of our own national war heroes. But Brian Nolan has done a very creditable job of trying to remedy such ignorance.

Nolan’s book, published in 1981, chronicles Beurling’s life from beginning to unexpected end and tells the story of a classically tragic figure. It is the story of a very young man who gladly sought, received, and excelled at, the job of airborne assassin. It is also the story of someone who seemed able to do little else.

Beurling grew up in Verdun, Quebec and was smitten with flying very early on in life. He was a typical airport kid who traded odd-job labour for flying lessons. He soloed at age sixteen in the summer of 1938, and with only ninety minutes of solo time was teaching himself aerobatics.

"Buzz" Beurling, famous flying ace d...
Beurling, famous flying ace during World War II, signs an autograph for
Helen Fowler, while other female employees of the Aluminum Co. look on.
Kingston, Ontario. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But Beurling was an eternally restless sort, not cut out for the routine of day to day life. He eventually tried to enlist in the RCAF, and was rejected. But he found a home in Britian’s RAF in the early part of the WWII where he became a constant thorn in the side of just about everyone around him, especially his superiors. Beurling was eventually transferred to Malta where in just a few months in the summer of 1942 he shot down nearly thirty German and Italian planes before being shot down himself.

In the section of the book covering Malta, Nolan reveals what a master technician and tactician Beurling really was. He had an almost computer-like ability with numbers, angles, closure rates and other factors essential to air combat. Yet he was sullen and solitary on the ground. And he was still constantly running afoul of his superiors.

Nonetheless, it was in Malta that George Beurling earned his fame, and he would later remark that his time there, though desparate and dangerous, was the best time of his life.

After the war Beurling seems to have done very little more than have a long term affair with a New York socialite (he was married and separated at the time). In early 1948 he signed on with the fledgling Israeli air force as a mercenary pilot. In Rome, in May that year, Beurling was on his third circuit of a refresher flight in a Noorduyn Norseman bush plane. The plane caught fire and crashed and burned, killing Beurling and the check pilot.

George Beurling speaking at an event with Will...
George Beurling speaking at an event with William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1943. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My only complaint with Nolan’s biography of Beurling is how the author seems unable to view Beurling through the eyes of a flyer (not surprising since Nolan is not a pilot). Though clearly a book about an aviation figure, “Hero” was not written for an aviation audience.

Nonetheless, “Hero” is a well researched chronicle of an intruiging and little-known Canadian. Nolan has talked with those who knew Beurling at different stages of his life and has woven these anecdotes together with official data to tell a compelling story. He presents Beurling as an endless dichotomy of talent and inner turmoil. If the author is to be believed, George Beurling’s tragic flaw seems to have been his ability to achieve greatness, yet his inabliltiy to accept its accompanying responsibilities.

Me & The Beeve – The First Year

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by Stu Simpson

Well, it’s been a year now. A little more really, but who’s counting? It’s been my first year as an aircraft owner. But I don’t own just any airplane. I own The Beeve.

Sure, The Beeve’s a little rough around the edges – the fabric has seen better days, the wind screen needs replacing, the prop too – but it’s got it where it counts.

Where it counts most is in the engine. Which happens to be a Rotax 447.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I should tell you what my airplane was before it was The Beeve.

It started out as just another one of Spectrum’s single-seat RX-45 Beavers, serial number SB122. The guys at Spectrum thought the single-seaters would do alright on 28hp. And they were right. Then they thought, “35hp would be even better.” They were right again. Then they thought, “40hp would be the best.” They were really right about that one.

When I first decided I wanted The Beeve, it had been sitting, in large pieces, for three years in a hangar at Indus airport. There were 3 hours flight time on the airframe.

I made a deal with the owner that I could tear the wings apart to fully inspect them, and the rest of the airplane, before buying it. If everything checked out I’d fly it away.

So, after a two month delay, I finally took possession of my airplane. But it went to it’s new hangar on a flat-deck trailer, still in large pieces. It took another month, and the help of some good friends, to get the engine overhauled, everything put back together, tested, and flight-ready.

Then it happened. I pushed the throttle to the stop and blasted off. Blasted is the only way to describe it. I had never flown a plane with so much power at hand. What a treat!

I buzzed around for a few minutes, well within gliding distance of the field. It was much like shaking hands with someone destined to become your best friend.

Then it came time to land.

It was my first landing at Black Diamond. And it was very hairy. I hadn’t realized how severely the trees bordering the runway would affect the wind. But we made it anyway.

At that point my airplane was no longer just another ultralight. It became The Beeve.

Me & The Beeve have really gotten around since then. Two weeks after our first flight, I installed a cargo deck and a three gallon fuel tank behind the cockpit. A few days later we flew to Red Deer to be in our first air show.

On the trip home, we ran into some really strong headwinds. That flight turned into one of the toughest I’ve ever had. But the Beeve got me home safe and sound.

I spent the rest of the summer getting to really know my airplane, finding out what it could do. For instance, my Beeve loves to climb. About 1000′ per minute, I think. Even more in a good headwind. It also likes turning. Left turns seem to be the favourite because the prop turns toward the right. It’ll do a 360 in a radius of about 40 feet. Pretty tight, huh?

We enjoy doing stalls of course, and the odd chandelle too. It doesn’t do much for spins though, just prefers to toddle off into a mild spiral after I push the rudder pedal. I have to admit, The Beeve is quite stable in any flight regime.

Me & The Beeve won’t win any speed races either. Cruise speed is a comfortable 60 mph. A little slower than the new ships, but still quicker than Grandpa Pokey-pants in his ’73 Buick. And it sure beats walkin’.

As I said, me and The Beeve get around. Obviously, most of our flights are local ones. We go to little airports, like High River, Okotoks, and Airdrie. Airports that enjoy our company and always have a smile ready for us when we drop in.

We’ve been to lots of other airports too, of course, and some nifty out-of-the way spots. Last winter we flew up and landed on Ghost Lake. And we made some flights in the foothills last fall where the autumn colors left me breathless. We’ve also flown the mountains. We’ve been to Banff and even as far as Radium, B.C. and back. What adventure we’ve had together, me & The Beeve.

And we haven’t done all this adventuring by ourselves either. We have friends who think like us, who like to go exploring from the air. The best flights happen when all of us go together. We fly in formation and talk back and forth on our radioes, and peel off to see something nifty that catches our eye and we have more fun than is probably legal. I just hope we never get caught.

The Beeve’s a tough little bugger. I’ve made a few landings after which The Beeve would have been perfectly justified in stopping cold, kicking me out, and smacking me right on the noodle. We’ve been bounced and jerked and pounded by turbulence that would make Chuck Yeager toss his ‘right stuff’. But The Beeve just flies on, always willing to forget as we scoot along to the next little airstrip.

Numbers supposedly speak volumes. So I checked the numbers and found out it’s true. For instance, in the year I’ve been flying The Beeve, we’ve spent more than 65 hours in the air. That’s more than three times what I flew in the previous year. You’d have a tough job finding Spam-can drivers with that much time in a year.

I wonder where we’ll go next. I want to make a trip to the Red Deer Forestry strip and camp out for the weekend. I’ll bring some covers for The Beeve, in case it rains. And there are still lots of friendly little airports to explore.

I guess the bottom line is this: Every time me & The Beeve blast off together, regardless of where we’re going, it’s the start of another adventure. And that makes us pretty lucky.

I’ve got a confession to make. Sometimes, after we’ve landed on a perfect summer evening, when I’m ready to close up the hangar, I’ll just stand and look at The Beeve. I’ll give it a little rub on the nose, maybe fuss over some bug guts. Then I’ll just quietly whisper, “Thanks”.