Places With a Past

Back to Articles

by Stu Simpson

“Where do you wanna go today?” I asked Botting.

“Well, we should go some place, I guess,” he replied with deadpan humour.

I peered over his shoulder at the pretty yellow Vagabond glowing in the morning sun. A propane heater hissed as it spewed warmth up into the Vag’s engine cowling. It didn’t really matter to us where we went, so long as we were flying.

“How about south?” I asked. “Have you ever been to Ron Laverty’s strip east of Vulcan?”

“I suppose we could try that,” Al said thoughtfully. “What about going to the old Vulcan RCAF strip, too?” Al`s a talented historian who rarely passes up a chance to visit places with a past.

The Vulcan RCAF airfield certainly qualifies. It was active during World War II, training bomber crews in the fine arts of their deadly trade. It sits twelve miles southwest of the Vulcan townsite.

“Sure. How about we head up to Linden after that?”

Al nodded his agreement. He’d be flying with a co-pilot, Elmer Dyck.

We each finished our pre-flights, mounted up and took off south.

This day was faultless, a prairie pilot’s dream. The wind was a whisper, the early March sky a dazzling blue that forbade any intrusion of cloud. Perfectly portioned rectangles of black summer-fallow occasionally interrupted the sandy coloured earth below, and a few patches of brilliant snow clung desperately to the remains of winter.

Such days are to be revered, for later in March the sun would climb higher and heat the earth so that mid-day flying would be a violent ordeal much akin to a boxing match on a trampoline. But not today. Today was satin and silk.

The Bow River soon passed by, rushing on to its destiny with the Hudson’s Bay. Huge ice ledges along the banks hung precariously over the water, waiting tensely to crack and fall beneath the weight of spring’s imminent warmth. On the horizon, the town of Vulcan sat as a faint silhouette slightly left of our course. It gave us something to steer away from to find our destination.

RCAF Vulcan’s giant white hangars, six of them still standing, eventually appeared from nearly 20 miles back. How many young bomber crews had shared that same view of the field? Within minutes we were overhead and choosing our landing direction.

Runway 33 it would be. I curved around to short final on the infield runway. Ancestrally speaking, it’s really a taxiway. But the actual runway, running parallel a few metres to the east was still under upgrade after having become overgrown with bushes and weeds. But someone was clearly working hard to clear it and restore it to usable condition. It wasn’t far off now.

I touched down, taxied back to the end and cleared onto the button of 28, jumping out of Merl to look for Al and Elmer. Botting brought the Vag in just so, and settled artfully to the scrabbled surface. Then he taxied over and shut down.

We normally park near the hangars at the north end, but we’d already seen them recently and we didn’t plan to stay long anyway. I peered at them across the open expanse of the airport. They were still bright white but slowly succumbing to the creeping ravages of time. The large windows on the upper walls were speckled with broken panes, some of which were boarded over.

Al and I explored a couple of the hangars on our last visit. The inescapable history of them, and the whole airfield, was deeply moving. No one back in the 1940s really expected these simple but behemoth structures to last this long. Fortunately, they did last, and they still stand today, quietly commemorating an incomprehensible sacrifice.

A burgundy pick-up truck caught my attention as it approached from the direction of the hangars. The driver turned out to be the airfield’s owner, John Sands. We spent a pleasant twenty minutes talking with him about the airfield. Botting indicated none too subtly that he and many others would like to see an excavation of the grounds to dig up the aircraft and equipment rumored to be buried there. Sands talked proudly of his workings to turn the field into a thriving, self-sustaining airport again. He had plans to rent out the field to a sky diving operation in the coming summer. I very much appreciated him wanting to give Vulcan RCAF a future again, rather than just a past.

The topic of our immediate future arose and we told Sands of our next destination. He suggested that instead of flying east and then north, that we take a look at another ex-RCAF field halfway between Granum and Fort Macleod. Hmmm. We hadn’t really planned to fly that far south today, but it’d be someplace new to see, it was only 36 miles away, and we’d have the privilege to fly there in our airplanes.

Ah, what the hell, we agreed. Let’s go. Sands offered up the coordinates from his GPS, and Al and I punched them into ours. A few minutes later we jumped into the sky again and turned south for a place we never knew existed until a few minutes ago. We weren’t sure we’d land there, but we weren’t going home without at least having a look.

In less than half an hour we were over top the strip. It was clearly another old war field with a triangular runway arrangement. But cattle, snow melt and mud covered the runways and we had no real desire to challenge any of them for landing rights.

Fort Macleod was up ahead, only a few minutes distant. I asked Botting what he thought of heading there. He politely checked with Elmer and it was decided. We banked a few degrees to the left, settled on course and dialed in Macleod’s radio frequency.

Ft. Macleod. It’s where my mom is from and as a kid I spent lots of time there with my grandparents. But it was more than 20 years since I’d been near the place, seemingly a whole lifetime. What would it be like now?

We crossed Highway 3 inbound for the field. I glanced beneath Merl’s left wing and felt a shiver of memory as my grandparents’ old house slipped past the left wing. I shook it off and concentrated on ground features so we could find our way into town more easily. Strange that as a kid I never visited the airport here.

The outline of the RCAF station was a mere phantom on the earth after 65 years. The runway and taxiway outlines were still visible, but overrun with a new housing development. A smooth modern runway cut across the middle of the old ones like they were never there. It impressed me that two of the old hangars were still standing and in use as industrial buildings.

We soon landed, parked and started walking north into town. As we approached the industrial park at the south end of Ft. Macleod, we couldn’t really see much of the town proper. But when we crossed the railroad tracks at the grain elevators I collided with a sledgehammer of memories.

Things had certainly changed, but I could still see – and feel – the way it was all those years ago.

Grandpa, a very cagey and competent businessman, owned a big chunk of the west end of town. He had a gas station, an A&W, a motel, a coin laundry, an appliance repair shop and a trailer court. I was thirteen when I helped him build his and Grandma’s last house there. He paid me $3.00 an hour that summer on my first real job. The house was enormous.

Now, more than 30 years later, the house seemed a little smaller, a little run down and was harder to see behind evergreens and dense shrubbery. What was once a shabby baseball field adjacent to the house, and containing the town’s landmark water tower, was now a residential subdivision. The water tower was long gone.

Grandpa and Grandma used to live above the back of the gas station, and it sat next to the A&W restaurant. I smiled remembering how many free root beers and french fries we grandkids consumed.

Al and Elmer and I wandered about Grandpa’s old properties for a while, my wingmen generously patient with my sentimentality. We’d turn a corner and, something – maybe a fence, the back of a building, or an old alley – would trigger another roaring flood from my past.

A dam, holding back time, had fractured and burst, nearly drowning me in its deluge. I’ve never felt such a powerful memory force as I did that day. It was simply overwhelming.

It was also the first time I felt like a ghost, floating nearly invisible at the centre of a swirling storm of memory that only I could feel. No one there would know me now, nor give a whit about my memories of the place. Not even Al or Elmer could feel it. In the silent vaults of my history I was utterly alone.

Reluctantly, I admitted it was time to leave. We hiked back to the airport, giving me time to sort through the shards of my past. Then we fired up our planes and were quickly airborne once more.

Northbound for Kirkby Field a hundred miles distant, I reflected on what had led us here. We’d simply picked a direction to fly, a place to briefly set down, and then happily strolled hand in hand with fate to see where it would all lead. I contentedly watched Ft. Macleod drift away behind Merl’s right wing. The town got smaller and smaller until it was soon just a distant speck of what used to be.

What sweet delight it was to fly that perfect March day; to take flight on a simple but incredible journey back through time. We’d indeed touched places with a past; some historic, some intensely personal. And our voyage reminded us that there are some things we don’t ever want to forget.

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

Back to Articles

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.

An Old Eagle Flies Again

Back to Articles

by Stu Simpson

Two figures walked toward the biplane that sat gleaming in the sun. One was of medium height; a quiet, competent man in everything he did. The other was tall, moustachioed and tanned from a lifetime spent in sunny climes. The tall one spoke with an easy Texas drawl of his admiration for the other man’s beautiful aircraft. Trailing them was the Texan’s wife, more than a little concerned with the realization that her husband was about to take wing in the biplane. It didn’t look much like what he used to fly.

The two men were soon strapped into the tandem cockpit, and just before the owner started the engine, the Texan‘s wife approached him.

“I want you to know”, she said nervously, pointing toward the Texan in the front pit, “that this man is my whole world. My everything.” Her words were heavily laced with both love for her husband, and menace for the owner should any ill befall her love during the biplane flight. It was a warning the man in the back took seriously.

After start-up the biplane taxied smartly to the button of runway 11, turned into the gentle summer wind and took off. For the man in the back, it’d been only about 31 minutes since he last had the controls of an airplane in his hands. But for the Texan, it had been 31 years.

A Flying Career

Major Virgil Ross Hughes, USMC (Ret.) was born in Texas and as a boy once saw a barnstormer in a biplane doing rolls and loops over his home. He knew then and there that he’d someday fly airplanes, too. So it was no surprise when he stood with his classmates in 1954 while a senior officer pinned a set of U.S. Naval Aviator’s wings to him.

“I wanted jets“, said Virg, “and the Navy was going to put me in Avengers, World War II torpedo bombers. The Marines guaranteed me in writing that they’d give me jets. That‘s why I joined them.”

From then on, Virg had the chance to pilot some of the most fabled aircraft of the 20th century, in both war and peace. The list of types he flew is staggering. There was the North American SNJ (naval version of the Harvard/Texan), the T-28 Trojan, T-34 Mentor, the F9F-5 Panther, and it’s swept-wing stablemate, the Cougar; the Douglas Skyraider, 0-1 Bird Dog, O-2 Skymaster, A-4 Skyhawk, Douglas R4D (naval version of the DC-3), R5D (DC-4), C-130 Hercules, Grumman Tracker, the Lockheed T-33, and the Beech King Air. And those are just the fixed-wings he flew. Virg also flew helicopters, including the Sikorsky S-55, H-34, and the Kaman Husky.

Virg was in on the infancy of carrier jet aviation. He spent some years flying Panthers and Cougars off small WWII-sized, straight-decked carriers equipped with hydraulic catapults. These mechanisms developed their greatest power at the start of their stroke, rather than at the end when it was needed most.

In the late 50’s there was a crisis in Laos where the Americans and Soviets nearly came to blows. Virg was on a carrier off the coast of Vietnam, just east of Laos. He was assigned to fly O-1 Bird Dogs, with U.N. observers in the back seat, across Vietnam and into Laos. The plane was hurriedly painted white with prominent U.N. markings so it could be seen as neutral and not as a direct American military asset in the region.

Laos was, and is, a desolate and lightly populated nation that consists largely of dense jungle with very few roads and little infrastructure, or even recent technology. To go down in such a region would mean virtually no hope of rescue. Hughes made several of these flights before the crisis passed.

He soon learned to fly helicopters and once again found himself back at sea piloting the military versions of the Sikorsky S-55s and S-58s. The Marines were developing the concept of sea-launched helicopter assault and since Virg had recent carrier experience, albeit in jets, he was a natural choice to help his fellow Marine aviators transition to a seaborne environment.

He also spent time based at El Toro, south of Los Angeles, flying Panthers and Skyraiders over California. He still speaks mischievously about piloting Skyraiders at telephone pole height, going beak-to-beak with trains in the desert, and pulling up at just the last second. He tells of formation flying in Grumman Panthers where the perfection of the moment might be spoiled by a wingman who was a foot or two out of position.

“You’d glance over at his plane“, Hughes said, “realize who was flying it and think disgustedly, ‘Ya, that guy’s married’.”

On one occasion, he was right wing in a tight diamond of four Panthers inbound to El Toro on a ground controlled approach (GCA) into an undercast layer. The flight entered the soup, and a few hundred feet above ground Hughes suddenly got vertigo, an incredibly dangerous situation to the whole flight. He veered away from the formation and heard the GCA controller tell the flight leader one of his wingmen had broken off. Virg re-oriented himself, went around and landed safely on the next approach, but later received a monumental chewing out by the flight leader for breaking formation.

In 1965, Virg was once again in Southeast Asia, this time flying Sikorsky H-34s. The Marines were landing troops from helicopters to establish a base at Chu Lai and rout the enemy from the area. As was standard practice of the day, Virg was flying while his copilot pointed an M-16 rifle out the open cockpit window on the other side. The crew chief also had a mounted .50 calibre machine gun.

Suddenly, Virg took a round in the left leg while his chopper was only a few feet AGL. With one leg useless and limp, he uncontrollably jammed the other one hard forward, skewing the chopper sideways into the ground. Because the copilot was holding a rifle and not riding the controls, there was no chance of recovery at such a low altitude. The helicopter thundered in and rolled on its side. Luckily, everyone aboard escaped alive and lived to fly and fight another day.

Hughes was removed from Vietnam due to his injury, and once recuperated, transferred back to jets. This time it was into the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk with the famed Black Sheep Squadron, VMA-214. The Black Sheep found themselves in Vietnam in 1966 and ‘67 flying ground attack missions supporting friendly troops.

From the base at Chu Lai, Virg and his squadron mates launched their A-4s from steel mat runways using rocket bottles attached to the rear of the plane, as well as an actual aircraft carrier catapult. Upon returning to base, they made arrested landings, just as though the runway was a carrier deck.

He survived his tour in Vietnam. But as time went on, Virg a warrior at heart, was becoming more and more disgusted with the Marines’ bureaucracy and internal politics.

“I knew there was no place for me in the peace time Marine Corps”, Virg said. So he decided to retire, but did so unforgettably.

Virg and his copilot were flying an R4D (DC-3) with a load of nurses across the southern U.S. enroute to Beaufort, South Carolina. At one point, an electrical inverter on one of the engines failed, requiring an in-flight shut-down. They landed safely at a field in Florida and had the engine repaired.

Then, on the final leg home, somewhere over Georgia, the other engine lost oil pressure and the CHTs went through the roof. It meant another engine shut-down.

“I figured that with two engine failures on one trip on the same airplane, somebody was trying to tell me something. I landed with no problem, because it’s no big deal landing a DC-3 on one engine. But I stopped right at the intersection of the base’s only two runways. I shut down and walked away from the plane. It closed the whole field.”

That was in May of 1973 and Virg hadn’t been at the controls of an airplane since.

“Every time someone offered to take me up,” Virg said, “I was worried they’d try to show this old fighter pilot what they could do. I thought they’d end up killing us both.”

I got to know Virg in the early 80’s as my girlfriend’s (now wife‘s) uncle. We visited their home in San Diego and Virg took a morning to show me around the air bases in the area. It was a pivotal and absolutely thrilling day for a nineteen year-old kid, and I hung breathlessly on every word of Virg‘s stories about airplanes, places and events I‘d only seen in books or films. He’d actually been there making the history that I’d been devouring for years. I’ll never forget standing at the end of the runway at Miramar while F-14s shot circuits right above our heads. And my guide to it all was a real, live former fighter pilot. For me, there was no turning back; I was going to fly, too.

From then on Virg and I have always had an easy and remarkable friendship; the kind we could set down for years at a time and then pick back up again as if we’d last seen each other only a week ago. It’s a friendship I treasure.

So when Virg visited the Calgary area, where I live, I wanted to give him a gift that would mean something. Knowing he hadn’t flown in so many years, the best thing I could think of was an airplane flight.

COPA Director Bob Kirkby, who owns a Starduster homebuilt, was the natural choice to help Virg shake hands with the sky again. When I asked him, Kirkby eagerly agreed to help. I would’ve dearly loved to fly Virg myself, but ultralight pilots aren‘t allowed passengers.

Virg and his wife Sharon were in Three Hills, my wife’s hometown, about 50 miles northeast of Kirkby Field. I assembled a few other flyers to join me and we made our way there through a beautiful evening sky in early July.

When Virg first saw the ‘Duster he was shocked to learn it’s a homebuilt, but it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for it one bit. Kirkby helped him strap in, and before long they’d jumped off the active at Three Hills. Their flight lasted about 20 minutes, and Virg was bubbling over with excitement when they landed. He did all the flying except for the takeoff and landing.

“You know”, Virg said, smiling after his flight in the ‘Duster, “it was exciting. But at the same time I felt like I’d been up there forever.” He complained that at one point he’d allowed the ’Duster to fall 300 below the altitude he’d picked. Everyone agreed, though, that 300 feet after 31 years is still well within spec.

We stayed on the ramp for a while talking airplanes and swapping flying stories. It was a treat for us to hear Virg’s tales of airplanes and circumstances we could only imagine. I couldn’t help drifting back to that day at Miramar more than twenty years ago, and I was more than a little pleased that now I had some flying stories of my own to tell.

Winging our way home I wondered what feelings the biplane flight had rekindled in Virg, and suspected they might be similar to the ones he helped inspire in me so long ago.

I’m really lucky to have the heroes that I do; my dad, Bob Kirkby and Virg Hughes. And every now and then I thank God for old eagles, because without them the young eagles might not find their wings.