I blame it on Canada’s World War I ace Billy Bishop.
If I hadn’t romanticized his “knights of the air” exploits over Allied lines in France, 1915-18, and fallen in love with the whole concept of open cockpit planes, I might have thought twice about going up in an open 1939 Waco UPF 7. Maybe even three times.
I also blame my father, who was an avid recreational pilot for years, and thought the idea of my taking to the air in the Waco was wonderful when I told him. Even at 84, he’d have been thrilled to climb on board.
The upshot was that on Sunday, June 17, 2012, at the air strip opposite Upper Canada Village, I found myself shaking hands with pilot Greg Reynolds of Central Aviation, and getting ready to go aloft in one of three remaining fully restored Waco aircraft owned and still flying in Canada.
Central Aviation is a Transportation Canada approved 703-704 air carrier. The company operates business Citations, and Navajos as well as Canada’s three original Wacos.
Genial (and very reassuring), Reynolds has been flying for 40 years.
With Jordan McCorkle of the Aviation Museum in Ottawa, making arrangements from the ground, Central Aviation will be affiliated throughout the summer with Upper Canada Village, and operating in South Dundas. Seven days a week, passengers of all ages can book a ride in the red vintage, World War II aircraft.
“The Waco was used by the United States Air Force to train pilots for duty in the World War,” Reynolds explained. “About 625 of the planes were built in Waco, Texas.
A Waco carries a 220 H.P. radial engine. On the books, it has a top speed of 100 mph. But,” he added with a smile, “that would be on a good day with a wind at your back and possibly heading down hill. Generally we cruise at 85 mph.”
History aside, it was time, Reynolds said, to fly.
This involved putting on the leather flying cap, with its chin strap buckles and ear protection. It involved climbing up on the wing and clambering into the open front cockpit where Reynolds securely fastened the shoulder and waist harness. (Double checked that: on the off chance that we did fly upside down, I did not plan to “jump to any conclusions.”) I also kept in mind the pilot’s advice to “sit on your notebook, or it’ll get sucked out,” and boss Sam Laurin’s parting instructions: “Don’t drop the Leader camera over the side.”
Aircraft like the Waco (often called a “tail dragger” because of the small wheel at the rear of the plane) were originally built to take off and land on grass and in bumpy fields. Having an actual paved runway opposite the Village was a perk as we taxied for take off into the wind.
The plane lifted off gently, effortlessly. Beautiful.
At somewhere around 2,000 -2,500 feet, we swung over Crysler Marina, then wheeled out over the glassy St. Lawrence, and down towards the Village. Reynolds will also take passengers over the site of the Lost Villages. Roads and the foundations of buildings, invisible these 50 plus years under the Seaway, are easy to pick out from the air.
It was an exhilarating ride. This, the old time barn-storming pilots would say, is “real flying”. Engine running smoothly, wind in your face, feeling like a bird up there as the small craft turns and banks.
You experience the river, the shorelines and the old-fashioned greenery of Upper Canada Village in a completely new way from an open cockpit.
The flight was over way too soon for me.
With none of the thumping, or slamming backwards I have long associated with landing, especially in big commercial planes, the Waco dropped gently on to the runway.
Regretfully, I climbed out of the cock pit and reluctantly gave up my jaunty flying cap. (I like that Billy Bishop look.)
“What a great flight. It was wonderful, fantastic. I’ve never landed so softly, so smoothly before,” I exclaimed. “Well,” said pilot Greg Reynolds, grinning modestly, “I do have my good days.”
For information, or to book a memorable ride for two in the Waco UPF 7, a 1939 World War II trainer, call 613-809-6179 or go to uppercanadavillage.com