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George LeMay — Daredevil Driver and Tireless Promoter of Aviation
By Mike Davenport, EAA 89102
January 2019 - While there are countless Canadians who have shown incredible courage and initiative in many fields, my interest naturally defaults to those whose lives revolved around aviation. Some may have completed an epic flight or built an aircraft that fills a unique spot in history, and still others have shown great business acuity while both promoting and enjoying aviation. In this issue, I want to reintroduce you to a unique and, some might say, driven Canadian from Alberta.
Between Acme, population 653, and Beiseker, population 819, 50 miles northeast of Calgary is the location of a farm owned by the LeMay family. Although both George and his wife, Bonnie, have died, their daughter, Jean, continues to enjoy the farm. In the late ’70s and early ’80s the farm had two grass runways, and from this unlikely location comes the remarkable story of a highly competitive Canadian who just didn’t recognize an obstacle when he met one.
George began making headlines back in the 1950s as a sprint car driver in races all over Alberta. A natural mechanic who had a knack for figuring out how to build things, he installed a 440-cubic-inch Ranger aircraft engine in his sprint car. Perhaps foretelling of more things aviation to come. He continued racing this car powered by a “poor man’s Offenhauser” until 1959. He restored the car in 1992, but it was later lost in a garage fire. According to a recent Facebook post, the car is currently being restored in Calgary. In 1995 he was inducted into the International Motor Contest Association Hall of Fame and in 2004 into the Canadian Motor Sport Hall of Fame.
I met George in the late ’70s when he and Bonnie opened their farm/airstrip to an EAA Canada fly-in. Hosted by what was then Chapter 318 in Calgary, the weekend promised to include dining and dancing as well as the usual breakfasts. The invitations spread across the west, and then-EAA Chapter 85 from Delta, British Columbia, responded with many members flying in through the mountains in Fly Babys, Volksplanes, and Luscombes while others like yours truly and family who arrived towing a tent trailer.
As I recall, it was an interesting weekend with arrivals from all over Alberta and the neighbouring provinces. The weather turned cold and windy necessitating a quick trip into Beiseker for rope to tie down the trailer. During the height of the storm, my wife and I had 12 people trying to get warm — in a tent trailer designed for four.
George’s personal aircraft included a Beech 1943 D17S Staggerwing (George had purchased and then restored the Staggerwing after having recovered it from a lake), a Tiger Moth, a Fly Baby named Chicken Hawk, and a de Havilland Dragon Rapide called Lady Faye. The Staggerwing was the one he and Myron Olson flew to England and back in 1971 to participate in the London to Victoria Air Race. The highlights of that story are printed in The Great London-Victoria Air Race published by the Copp Clark Publishing Company in 1971.
Having already flown the Atlantic twice for the air race in the Staggerwing, he flew back to England on a commercial flight to buy a de Havilland Dragon Rapide and bring it back to Acme. He was accompanied on this trip by Alf Bicknell, a commercial pilot who would perform the flying duties on the return legs.
Once the aircraft was purchased and all the paperwork completed, then came the testing and checking to make sure this thing could fly the Atlantic. This was no small task on an airplane that was built in the ’30s and designed for short haul commuter flights.
Several test flights were required to determine both the oil and gas consumption rates of the two 200-hp Gipsy Queen engines. Standard range for the airplane was only 520 miles so a lot of extra fuel and oil had to be carried for the long over-water flights between England and Iceland, Iceland and Greenland, and Greenland and Labrador.
During one leg of the trip that was 10 hours long, there was one event relating to fuel that was described as an in-flight “explosion.” The cabin was filled spare parts, luggage, and a number of 55 gallon drums of fuel and a smaller drum of oil for the Gypsy engines. This all had to be manually pumped to the wing tanks and out to both engines. It was George’s task to operate the pumps to transfer fuel and oil. This required that he crawl on top of the drums to reach the pumps and change drums. Somehow in the process he triggered the fire suppression system and the resulting roar and flash of the “explosion” was from the CO2 bottles, not the fuel.
Sometime after arrival home at the farm, it was determined that the Rapide needed some TLC so it was disassembled and completely gone through, returning to the air in 1982 with the registration C-FAYE.
Throughout his life, George was noted for his willingness to share. If you expressed any interest at all he would take you for a ride in whichever airplane he had out that day. That’s how I got a ride in the Staggerwing. A young lad and his dad were at the farm one day, and the kid was offered a ride in the Tiger Moth. He was fitted with a leather helmet and goggles, and George installed him in the front seat. The boy was ecstatic. Years later, possibly because of George’s sharing, that kid became a Snowbird — Capt. Glenn Kerr, Snowbird No. 4 in 1992 and 1993.
Yet another example of his sharing was demonstrated by his 15 years of volunteering at the EAA fly-in convention. There, he worked tirelessly as a judge in the antique and classic category, an area where he had exceptional knowledge and experience.
After his death in 1996, George’s celebration of life was held at the Spruce Goose Cafe in the Shell-Aero Center at the Calgary International Airport. Jean thought that a “red tagged” cylinder from a Pratt & Whitney R-985 engine would be a suitable urn so one was sourced. His son, Richard who is a machinist, was tasked with prepping the cylinder and machining the base. A great sendoff to a truly legendary race car driver, pilot, and a great guy.
The aircraft were later sold in 1999 with the Staggerwing going to a buyer in Minot, North Dakota. That registration apparently expired in 2013. The Rapide, however, can be seen on static display at the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste. Marie.