Almost a year would pass before I returned to the field at Pendleton — not in the Smith but at the controls of a Fairchild Cornell, a Second World War basic trainer. It is the 75th anniversary of both No.10 and the Gatineau Gliding Club. To mark the occasion, Vintage Wings of Canada has sent the Cornell and Finch back to the airport that both types once called home.
|Cornell 10712 (CF-YQR) departing Gatineau. (Photo Courtesy: Sean Costello)|
The Cornell was developed as modern replacement to the air force’s biplane trainers. Students would go on to fly monoplanes, her designers reasoned, and so should begin their apprenticeship on a monoplane rather than be forced to later rid themselves of the skills built handling the draggy, inefficient biplane. The Cornell is larger and heavier than one would think necessary — with a thick wing of plywood wrapped in fabric, a generous tail and rudder along with an inline engine that produces more noise than power. To this collection, the Fairchild designers added a cockpit for two under a greenhouse canopy and a wide, forgiving landing gear. Student pilots loved the Cornell because she was easy to fly and land and had no bad habits. Instructors, however, grumbled at the mere mention of her.
|A nice detail of the Cornell, this time at Rockcliffe. (Photo Courtesy: Jean-Yves Duplessis)|
|A wartime Cornell. This was shot was taken in July 1942 at Arnprior, west of Rockcliffe and Pendleton. (Photo Courtesy: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-064305)|
“Too easy to fly,” they would snarl. “We need a training airplane not a wet nurse.”
Dropped from the air force inventory at the end of the war, most Cornells found their way into civilian hands but, due to the plywood wing that was difficult to maintain, lost their footing there too. Today, fewer than 100 Cornells survive. The one I’m piloting, having only recently been completely rebuilt, is in better shape than it was when it left the factory in 1943.
|Landing the Cornell. (Photo Courtesy: Sean Costello)|
The Cornell is a sweet, old gal. She doesn’t like to be hurried, preferring to do nearly everything at a leisurely 80 miles per hour. The morning is bright and warm and so we fly with the canopies open to the elements, watching the yellow wings slide past the green countryside below and beyond.
After about twenty minutes of flight, we land on the northernmost grass strip at Pendleton. The Cornell settles onto the rough turf with her usual good-natured docility and we roll to a stop in front of the surviving wartime hangar. A few minutes later, the Finch rolls up alongside and shuts down with a sigh.
|Giving Roberto Figueroa a cockpit checkout on the Cornell. (Photo courtesy: Roberto Figueroa)|
These airplanes always draw a crowd and, before long, I am helping people strap into the Cornell’s pilot seat and giving them tours of the cockpit. For most, it’s their first time sitting in a wartime trainer and, for one man, the occasion is an emotional one.
He pulls out his phone and shows me a black and white photograph of a man, clad in flight gear, standing in front of an early model Cornell. The man in the photograph bears a striking resemblance to the man holding the phone — an uncle, father, or perhaps a grandfather?
He tells me that the image is of his late father who completed his national military service in the Chilean Air Force and trained, as chance would have it, on a Cornell much like the one his son had climbed down from only moments before.
|A side-by-side shot of father and son - separated by decades. (Photo Courtesy: Roberto Figueroa)|
On this warm September morning at the old field that is still home to so many ghosts, we recreate the photograph with our Cornell and the Chilean pilot’s son. We chat about our respective stories and about how we each found flight. I tell him a little about my dad, his biplane and my own. We talk longingly about flying with our fathers. An hour later, after discovering we work in the same building and go to the same gym, my new friend takes me aloft in a glider — my first such flight in more than a decade.
|Just before launch by towplane in the glider, my first sailplane flight in more than 10 years. I learned to fly gliders at another old BCATP field - Picton, Ontario. (Photo Courtesy: Roberto Figueroa)|
We leave Pendleton just before lunch. As we climb away from the field and point the nose towards Gatineau and home, I think of the chance encounter and consider it may not have been chance at all.
Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 72.