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Maritimes’ Leading Role in Aviation Highlighted at ACAM
By Mark Peapell, Vice Chair, ACAM
March 2019 - Founded by a group of enthusiasts and informed citizens in 1978, the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum has grown and developed to become the largest aviation museum east of Ottawa. Located across the highway from Halifax Stanfield Airport, the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum is dedicated to preserving Atlantic Canada’s deep aviation heritage. The museum is home to a large number of aircraft and artifacts, which are used to illustrate and showcase Atlantic Canada’s significant role in aviation history.
The museum owes its existence to a group of highly dedicated volunteers who shared a common desire to create a museum to record and highlight the region’s aviation history. Under the guidance of Robert Grantham, a group called the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum Society was created in 1978. It was the society’s goal to create a museum to share the rich aviation heritage in the Maritimes with a wider audience. This goal was achieved with the museum’s opening in 1986 at its present location across the highway from the airport. The building, which was a former Provincial Visitor Information Centre, was transformed into the museum. In 1996 a second hangar building was added bringing the whole collection under cover, except the F-101 Voodoo, which sits adjacent to the highway. Today the museum houses more than 25 complete aircraft and helicopters, ranging from a reproduction of Alexander Graham Bell’s Silver Dart to a CF-5 jet fighter.
The collection holds a number of interesting and varied artifacts and aeroplanes. The oldest aircraft represented in the collection is a complete full-scale Silver Dart replica, which celebrates the first official flight of an aeroplane in Canada. On February 23, 1909, J.A. McCurdy flew the first Silver Dart from a frozen lake in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. The airplane had been built in Hammondsport, New York, and was brought to Baddeck by Alexander Graham Bell. The replica Silver Dart was one of two built in Baddeck in 1984 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the first flight. The replica highlights the significant design and technological improvements that the Silver Dart incorporated, which included ailerons, doped fabric, and radiator cooling, all of them based on experience gained by Bell’s team testing earlier aircraft.
The Silver Dart is displayed in the museum over a Royal Canadian Air Force CF-104 Starfighter. Less than 50 years separate these two aircraft, visually showing the rapid pace of aviation technology.
The history of aviation in Atlantic Canada is diverse, from the early first flights through to present day. Aviation has grown and developed along with the region. Exhibits in the museum showcase the roles that Atlantic Canada has played in the development of aviation throughout the last century. These exhibits range from World War I flyers from the region to Canadian Coast Guard helicopter operations. One significant role aviation played was during World War II. Atlantic Canada was on the frontline, with an active enemy presence in the form of U-boats just off the shores. Probably Canada’s single largest contribution to World War II, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) had significant presence in Atlantic Canada, with a large number of airfields built to operate the training schools required. In Nova Scotia for example, four airfields were built and operated as part of the BCATP. Of those four, they all still operate as active airfields today. Stanley Airport was home to No. 17 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School). It is still currently used for private light aircraft operations.
Aircraft and aircraft production have also played a role in the history of the region. The first Canadian-built Avro Anson Mk II was built at Amherst by Federal Aircraft Ltd. in 1941. Amherst would produce a large number of Anson aircraft over the course of the next four years. Today, a number of aircraft-related and associated companies still produce aircraft parts and components for today’s aircraft. A number of other airframes in the collection highlight this varied and interesting role of aircraft in Canada and Atlantic Canada’s history.
ACAM’s collection includes examples of the backbone of the 1950s RCAF, with the F-86 Sabre and the only jet fighter fully designed and built in Canada, the CF-100. The museum’s F-86 is painted in the colours of the famous RCAF display team, the Golden Hawks. The Golden Hawks were the RCAF premier formation and aerial display team during the late 1950s through 1964. Displaying across North America throughout this time, the Golden Hawks laid the foundation for the formation of the current RCAF team, the Snowbirds. The museum’s Sabre didn’t serve with the Golden Hawks, but was based at Canadian Forces Base Chatham in New Brunswick for most of its time in service. Assigned to gate guard duties at Chatham, it was recovered by ACAM in 1996 and subsequently restored and put on display. Like most of the airframes in the collection, it was restored to a very high standard and retains the majority of its systems and cockpit instrumentation.
A number of the aircraft on display have been worked on and restored by the museum volunteers. These airframes include a TBM Avenger water bomber, which was restored from a crashed example. A Harvard IIB trainer, which was formerly on outside display in Ottawa, as well as most recently a Canadian Army Cessna Bird Dog. All of the airframes have received attention and detail from the dedicated group of volunteers. They have made it their mission to preserve and restore these aircraft to the highest standards to be shared with present and future visitors to the museum.
One significant restoration project currently being undertaken by the volunteers is the restoration of a PBY-5A Catalina flying boat. The museum’s Catalina, one of the oldest still in existence, has an interesting and varied history. Taken into service by the U.S. Navy in 1942, it was assigned to Naval Air Station Norfolk in Virginia. From there it flew missions on the East Coast of the United States, throughout the significant U-boat campaign. After the war the airframe was assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard. It was eventually surplused and ended up in the Caribbean shuttling between islands. Eventually the airframe was sold to Eastern Provincial Airways and became part of its fleet of aircraft supporting a number of projects across eastern Canada. Now registered as CF-HFL, the aircraft was used to supply projects in Labrador.
HFL’s days of flying would come to an abrupt end on the night of October 5, 1957, when it crash-landed about 70 miles northwest of Goose Bay in Labrador, due to a double engine failure. CF-HFL was deemed a write-off and left on the shores of the lake where it crashed for the next 29 years. In 1986, ACAM mounted a bold recovery of the aircraft. A Canadian Forces Chinook helicopter was used to haul the aircraft out of the bush and return it to its intended destination, Goose Bay Airport. CF-HFL was then dismantled and eventually trucked back to Halifax and the museum. Since its arrival at the museum, a small group of volunteers has taken on the task of restoring the significant artifact back to its original pre-crash EPA colours. The crew has currently concentrated on the main hull section. Given the aircraft’s remote location, a number of key components, both internal and external, are missing, but a number of sources for parts for the project have been tapped to help complete the project. Sourcing and finding parts for HFL is a major project in itself, and leads on Catalina/Canso parts are always appreciated.
The museum is open daily from early May to October. Access to the museum can be arranged in the off-season by prior contact. The museum is totally run by a core group of volunteers, dedicated to preserving and showcasing the rich and varied aviation history of Atlantic Canada, for current and future generations. For more information on events in 2019 check out the ACAM website here.