Farmers restore Canadian war bomber

Canso PBY-5A rolls onto the runway to do pre-flight checks before its first official flight before a crowd of about 1,000, among them Fairview area residents and pilots who flew in for the fly-in breakfast on Father’s Day in Fairview, Alta., June 18. | Barb Glen photo

‘We didn’t know it was impossible, so we did it,’ say Fairview farmers who restored Canso PBY-5A airplane

FAIRVIEW, Alta. — Dreams took flight June 18 for six farmers from Fairview and for a community of volunteers who shared in their vision.

The Canso PBY-5A soared that day for the first time in 16 years, the last nine of them spent in restoration.

As one of only 13 Canso aircraft still listed as airworthy, the former Second World War patrol bomber will now become a flying museum, visiting air shows and being seen by all who care to look.

The farmers dragged the plane from a lakeshore in Inuvik, barged it down the Mackenzie River and trucked it to Fairview. Weekly work bees by those farmers and others who joined the project resulted in the Canso taking to the air and making several graceful passes over a crowd of spectators and the pilots of more than 50 small aircraft in Fairview for the occasion.

“How do I feel? Hey, pretty airplane, eh? It’s nice to see the old girl flying again,” said Don Wieben, a farmer, pilot, aircraft mechanic and the first to consider rescuing the downed plane.

“If we can give people a sense of admiration for the airplane that was built and designed in 1936-37, fought during the war, rescued lives out in the ocean both during the war and in peacetime … it celebrates the technology and the people that built it. They designed it with slide rules, not with computers,” said Wieben.

“It’s a beautiful airplane to fly. It still does a great job.”

Wieben, Doug Roy, Joe Gans, Brian Wilson, Norbert Luken and Henry Dechant were “the six farmers from Fairview” that attracted local and national attention.

“The name caught on,” said Roy during a celebratory dinner June 17.

“Everybody liked that idea, calling us the six farmers from Fairview, but we soon realized that this project was way too big for a few people and it was too important … for just a few people to be involved.”

That’s when they formed the non-profit Fairview Aircraft Restoration Society.

At first the farmers met in a shop for Wednesday night work bees while their wives were quilting, but the project soon attracted other volunteers.

“It isn’t six farmers from Fairview. It started out as two farmers, then six farmers, then 12 farmers, then many, many, many people did small parts of it,” said Wieben.

“It’s truly a community airplane.”

The inaugural flight of Canso PBY was dubbed “the historic wings over Canada 150 celebration,” coming as it did during this year of celebration for the country.

Several Second World War veterans who had flown either this particular plane or other Cansos attended the celebration and watched the first flight.

Veteran Hal Burns said that when he learned of the farmers and their project, it prompted him to check his logbook.

“Lo and behold,” he said, the record showed he had flown this very plane three times during the war.

The Canso flew out of Iceland with the 162 Squadron to spot and bomb German submarines and act as a rescue plane.

Veteran Jim McCrae was flying a Canso in the war years when he and his crew were shot down in the North Atlantic. Three of the seven perished before rescue could arrive.

Peter Austin-Smith, who flew Cansos after the war, patted the plane on its nose before the official flight.

“I flew a number of different aircraft in the air force, but this one … for some reason or other, it just grabs you.”

Stories were plentiful from the other veterans and from those who had flown the Canso in its post-war service flying fish and freight in northern communities, patrolling the mid-Canadian line for the Royal Canadian Air Force and most recently fighting fires out of Newfoundland and Labrador and Yellowknife.

Canso PBY went down in 2001 in Lake Sitigi in about 90 feet of water. Then it sat on the shore, stripped of its engines, until the six farmers came to get it in 2008.

Captain for the inaugural flight in mid-June was Bill Brady, an experienced pilot who logged about 3,500 hours in a Canso, some of them in this very plane. PBY-5A was his first command as a pilot in 1969.

Brady said he was honoured to be chosen. His co-pilot was Don Wieben’s son, Gary, a pilot with WestJet. Brady made two test flights before the big day.

“It flies beautifully, nice and straight. Considering all it’s been through, it flies very nicely. Some of them are kind of crooked and that, but this one is dead straight. They’ve done a really good job on it,” said Brady.

“Farmers are usually pretty good at finding solutions for problems.”

What’s next for the six farmers and the other members of the Fairview Aircraft Restoration Society?

Something smaller.

They plan to restore an Aeronca Chief, a two-seater often used for training. Wieben said its “newer,” having been built in 1946.

“It’s a sweet little airplane,” he said. “Two people just barely crowd into it. It’s got 65 horsepower, no electrics. That’s just the perfect airplane, the opposite spectrum of the Canso, and young pilots that just got their licenses could fly it. It was a training airplane. So that’s our project next time.”

Some farmers like to golf in their spare time. For the Fairview six, and others who joined them, relaxation involved something few others would consider.

“We didn’t know it was impossible, so we did it,” said Wieben.

“The long-term call of whether we’re successful or not will be if it’s still flying as a heritage airplane in Canada 30 years from now.”

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