When my announcing partner, Toby, died suddenly in 1973 a light seemed to go out. He and I had covered many air shows together, from Abbotsford to Paine Field to Reno to Springbank, Alberta to Terrace and Prince George.
I attended Toby’s funeral service in his home town of Calgary. The church was packed with his friends, one of whom slowly stood and started to play a trumpet solo. Toby had always said that he wanted a particular tune played at his funeral. The trumpeter played “When the Saints Come Marching In” and I cried like a baby. At the gravesite I stayed in the car. I couldn’t bear to watch my air show buddy being lowered into the ground.
Unbelievably, I had to fight with the Air Show directors for approval to put Toby’s picture on the following year’s program cover. I felt it was the least we could do to recognize the passing of Abbotsford’s most beloved announcer.
Toby’s place was taken by Bob Singleton, an Abbotsford radio announcer. Bob was slow off the mark as an air show announcer but over time he became a seasoned pro and continues to this day as Abbotsford’s principal announcer.
As the years rolled by the shape and feel of Abbotsford changed. New directors were brought in. New ideas were introduced. Commercialism became a key word. A larger military presence was favoured. And the fun days were over. Long gone were the antiquers from Washington State – Mark Hoskins and company with their beautiful Ryans and other classic types – who were responsible for giving Abbotsford its initial boost. They weren’t the hot shot aerobatic types that are burning up the sky nowadays but they helped, big time, to put Abbotsford on the airshow map.
Page of antique aircraft
I stuck it out for 25 years and decided that I’d had enough.
But, I really couldn’t complain. Many wonderful moments were stored away in my mind. I’d had experiences that are offered few people: my ride on the wing of the big Stearman, sailplane aerobatics with Art Sellars, helmet and goggle flying in open cockpit airplanes like the Fly Baby and Fleet biplanes, Bucker Jungmann aerobatics with Dave Rahm, blasting up Howe Sound at mast height in Howie Keefe’s P51 Mustang and flying with the Blue Angels. Back as a kid of thirteen I never dreamed I’d have such wonderful adventures.
Howie Keefe and Miss America
By the way, we are in touch, almost weekly with Howie via Email. He currently resides in Florida with wee wife Midge. Recently he sent us a photo of himself alongside Kermit Weeks, the fellow with deep pockets who maintains an awesome fleet of classic aircraft near where Howie lives. Kermit had asked Howie to attend an open house and do a book signing of Howie’s book called “Galloping on Wings”, the story of his exploits as a race pilot in his P51 Mustang, “Miss America”.
Speaking of Dave Rahm…while I was enjoying a visit with a bunch of antiquers at Vancouver, Washington, Dave Rahm asked if I’d like to go flying in his Bucker Jungmann that he had recently acquired from the swashbuckling writer, Ernie K. Gann. Well, it just so happened that I had my helmet and goggles and would be delighted! Dave strapped me in real tight and off we went to do the whole aerobatic routine. He even let me fly that wonderful Jungmann. Couldn’t get better than that!
In 1974 Abbotsford hosted King Hussein of Jordan, who turned out to be a most pleasant and unassuming chap to talk with.
He was so impressed with Dave Rahm’s personality and flying ability that he invited him to form an aerobatic demonstration team in Jordan. Dave accepted the offer. Sadly, while practicing in Jordan, Dave spun into the sand and was killed.
The Abbotsford Air Show opened up many doors for me. Not only the close proximity to the flying events but the part I had played as Art Director. Here, I was able to exercise my imagination and layout ability to produce 25 years worth of Air Show promotional material, from posters to mailing pieces, to souvenir programs.
One of my first tasks was to design a crest that could be used on all stationary and also turned into badges for the membership.
I always tried to be mindful of the Air Show’s budget while at the same time designing material that would prompt the public to buy and keep the annual programs. When I quit as Art Director, the Airshow got the shock of their lives when they were presented with the bill from a Vancouver agency for the next year’s promotional material. That’ll teach ‘em! Hee, hee.
My Air Show programs
After I “resigned” from the Air Show I cooperated with my son Terry, doing a number of years’ worth of Air Show T-shirt designs. Terry had the use of Abbotsford Air Service’s hangar where he set up his silkscreen equipment. With a booth in front of the hangar we managed to flog a ton of T-shirts to the crowd each year. My most favorite design was done the year the Russians came over in force. They brought a fighter aircraft that would do the awesome “Cobra” maneuver so I incorporated a cobra in my T-shirt design. We could have cleaned up that year but unfortunately it turned out to be the first year in Abbotsford’s history that the show was rained out. Still, the Russian crews took arm loads of shirts back to their homeland so it wasn’t a total loss.
My T-shirt design
In 1969 I was given the task of Flying Events Director and one of the highlights of my program was the introduction of the brand new Boeing 747. It was also the year that Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau was our guest of honour. I had cautioned the chap who was in charge of VIP’s to ensure that Trudeau finished his opening speech before 1:00 PM at which time the Voodoos would be coming through to start the afternoon show. Does any dignitary ever listen? Sure enough, while Pierre was still nattering the Voodoos came thundering in at precisely 1:00 PM (you could set your watch by them) and when the noise died down he was heard to mumble, “I guess I might as well shut up and sit down.”
This was also the year that we had our only fatality. A last minute unserviceable aircraft left a 10 minute gap in my program. John Spronk, the man who had been Flying Events director for the early years volunteered to fill the gap with a duel act of two Midget Mustangs. Since John was highly qualified as a pilot and instructor I welcomed his offer, leaving it to him to brief Scotty, the young pilot who would fly the second Midget Mustang. My only condition to John was, “You know the rules. Make it a safe performance.”
I can still picture the two of them hunched together in my Events trailer going over their routine. The 747 did its thing to the delight of the spectators and departed to the south. Then the two Mustangs did a formation take-off to the south and then set up for head on passes at show center. Apparently John had called for both Mustangs to do snap rolls after completing their passes, John at the North end and Scotty at the South end. While I was on the phone to the tower I began to hear sirens and learned that Scotty had crashed.
Later I attended his funeral in Seattle where I was accused of putting Scotty in harm’s way by having him fly into the wake turbulence of the departing 747. It mattered not that John had flown into that same area before Scotty and had experience no turbulence. They were looking for someone to blame. I said nothing but knew in my mind that Scotty had over reached himself; a low time pilot pulling a snap roll at low altitude in a very unforgiving airplane.
While on the subject of Midget Mustangs… one day I found myself at the button of Abbotsford’s longest runway, strapped into one of the little beasts. How did that come about? It so happened that Herb Porter, owner of Abbotsford Air Services, was storing a Midget Mustang in his hangar. He mentioned to me that the builder of the tiny airplane was not able to fly it anymore due to a heart condition but was willing to let any qualified pilot build time on it.
Herb convinced me that I should fly the Mustang. “You’re real good on the 180. You’ll have no trouble with this one!” With one tiny cockpit there was no chance of a check ride so I picked Herb’s brain for as much info as possible. He suggested, “Just keep an eye on the cylinder head temperature… with the tight cowling it heats up real quick.” Great! Since this Mustang had no radio I had to arrange with the tower to use their Aldis lamps. Traffic at Abbotsford was almost nonexistent so I had the place to myself as I sat waiting for a green light.
Once cleared I slowly advanced the throttle and waited for the tail to come up. As the speed increased I glanced out at the tiny wings, had a second thought and throttled back. Taxiing back to the button I thought I’d have another go. Another green light, advance the throttle, tail up, peer out at the dinky wings and pull the throttle again. As I coasted along I made my decision. The Midget mustang will not go in my log book. I’ll live to fly another day.
I’ve never regretted that decision. Always foremost in my mind was that an airplane should have a number of built in safety factors. A decent glide if the engine packs up was at the head of the list. The Midget Mustang just didn’t qualify.
Herb Porter was a real nice fellow. A very competent pilot, running a very successful flying school. One day he asked me if I’d be interested in taking over the place while he and his wife took an extended holiday. Sounded okay to me. But I would need a Commercial license said I. No problem, said he. It was arranged that he would see me through to my Commercial, no charge! Whoooeee! While I was preparing for my Commercial, Herb would take me on some of his trips to deliver parts to logging outfits, which would become my job when I took over. He would stick a few parts in the back of a 150 and off we’d go, north over Mission and up a valley into the mountains. A left turn then a pause while we circle to check out the saddle in the mountain that would take us into Harrison Lake. If the cloud was high enough we could see through the saddle to the other side. If the cloud blocked the saddle it was a no go. Once through the approximately 1,000 foot high opening we would descend to the lakeshore and land on dirt strip that started at the water’s edge and ended in the water. About 1,000 feet long. Needed a fair bit of practice in short field stuff.
One day I got a call from Herb’s office. His wife was in a panic. “Herb is overdue from a trip to Harrison Lake! Can you grab an airplane and join in the search?” By the time I got to the airport and was ready to go we got the word that Herb was okay. A few hours later he was delivered to the office by a crew from a small logging operation. He was as white as a sheet and soaking wet. He told his story while we listened with open mouths.
“I took off from the strip on Harrison Lake, arrived at the saddle and circled for a look see. The cloud was fairly low but I could see daylight through to the other side so proceeded through. Just as I arrived over the saddle the cloud suddenly came right down. I had no choice but to continue but knew that straight ahead was a rock wall. Normally I would clear the saddle and wait till the valley opened to the left and then make a sharp left turn to avoid the deadly rock wall. But, suddenly finding myself flying blind I had only one possible option if I wanted to avoid slamming head on into the far wall. I opted to steer slightly to the left in the hopes of crashing against the side of the mountain rather than head on.”
A month or so later Herb and I flew over to have a look at where his Cessna 150 wound up. Unbelievably the airplane hit like an arrow between a couple of large trees growing on a ledge on the steep mountain side. It was almost impossible to see the wreckage, the fuselage stuck between the tree trunks and the wings sheered off. The cabin had been torn open and Herb had stumbled down to the valley and walked through an icy stream into a logging camp in his oxfords. An absolutely amazing outcome to what would most surely have been a fatal crash.
So, I got my Commercial, checked out on Herb’s 180 and started flying skydivers. Sweaty stuff. Four heavy guys sprawled on the floor around me (I had the only seat). Shove the throttle wide open, wait for the tail to come up and then hope the engine behaves itself as we claw for altitude. Climbing to 12,500 feet took 30 minutes in a long arc. Throttle back to 80, open the big door and wait while the four clowns gather out on the wheel and wing strut and then yell, “Get the hell off my airplane!” As they let go, thumbing their noses, the Cessna leaps up, relieved of the weight. Slam the door shut, close the cowl gills, drop the nose and spiral down at 3,000 feet a minute. 30 minutes up and 5 minutes down to get the next load.
The skydivers offered me a chance to experience a jump and I grabbed it. Using the old round chute was not the same as the newer types but it was what was in vogue at the time. So I did my static jump from 3,000 feet and was amazed that I was able to hear the folks on the ground talking as I drifted down…right towards a large barn! Hauling on the risers gave me enough clearance to avoid landing on the big roof only to wind up on my rear end in a huge puddle. But I was down and safe! Okay, that was fun but let’s get on with something else now.
At some point Herb changed his mind about going on holidays and I was relieved of the responsibility of commercial flying. No regrets! In fact, a big sigh of relief… I didn’t relish the idea of doing those trips to Harrison Lake. And I came out of it with the realization that Commercial flying was not for me… I’ll fly when I want to, not when someone else tells me to.
Not long after that I basically hung up my helmet and went on to a new career as an oil and watercolour painter.
(Editor’s Addendum: And Why Fly Contributor.)