Why Yes! It IS Rocket Science


The northern lights  (aurora borealis) travel in the same aerospace as radio waves – that thin layer of the atmosphere between 20 and 200 miles above the earth.  The radio interference caused by the northern lights sparked an industry, built a city, and developed a world-renowned research center in Manitoba’s North.


In the 1950s, at the onset of the Cold War, any phenomena interfering with radio waves were considered a threat to national security and the U.S. Army was keen to research the matter. The only problem was that the aurora belt lies across inaccessible areas of tundra and is not easily probed. Churchill in northern Manitoba, is not only a location of maximum aurora borealis activity, but in 1957 it was also close to established supply routes (rail and sea, as well as air). These factors combined to make Churchill the ideal location for aerospace research. 

In 1954, the Churchill Rocket Research Range was established as a northern base of operations for the U.S. Army’s sounding rocket research program. (Rockets can access the low ionosphere, a region of the atmosphere beyond the reach of research balloons and too low for satellites.)  By 1957 the U.S. Army had already fired 95 rockets from the Churchill Research Range.


The Winnipeg plant of Bristol Aero-Industries was in the business of aircraft overhaul and component manufacturing. In addition to its experience in the manufacture of welded high-strength steel components (such as jet engine after-burners), Bristol had the technological depth, the manufacturing base, and convenient access to the Churchill rocket range.

Bristol launched its first Black Brant sounding rocket (named after the Canada Goose species) from Churchill in 1959.  Black Brants carry payloads up to 1,800 pounds to altitudes of 1,000 miles providing up to 20 minutes for micro-gravity experiments, auroral studies, deep space observations, aeronomy (the study of the upper atmosphere), astronomy, plasma physics and solar physics, and other studies that don’t require orbital launches. Black Brant, which went through 12 model versions, has earned a vehicle success rate of 98 per cent since 1962.

Black Brant established Bristol’s reputation in the scientific market. It also cemented a long and successful collaboration with NASA.  Since that first launch in 1959, almost 600 of these Manitoba-made rockets have been launched, most recently at the White Sands Missile range in New Mexico in August of 2010.

In 2011, Black Brant rockets are still part of Bristol Aerospace’s product line with active contracts that support the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Group.


During its heyday, the Churchill Research Range, which involved up to 200 researchers and technicians, was Canada’s leading upper atmosphere research centre and a world-renowned facility for sounding rocket studies. At its peak, the military base and surrounding area had a population of up to 4,000 people.

The military base closed in 1964; the barracks and support buildings were razed. All that remains are the roads, which are now traversed by tourist-filled tundra buggies in search of polar bears.  Today, Churchill’s population is just under 1,000. The rocket site is now home to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, since it is ideally situated along the Hudson Bay seacoast where marine, northern boreal forest, and tundra meet.


How the Flying Fortress Got its Name


“Why, it’s a flying fortress!”, said Richard Williams, a reporter for the Seattle Times, when he first saw the prototype of the B-17 unveiled and tested on July 28, 1935. The name stuck. Boeing registered it as trademark.

The Flying Fortress was a heavy, 4-engine, strategic bomber developed for the U. S. Air force and produced between 1936-1945. When in full-scale production, it was considered to be the “first truly mass-produced large aircraft.”

The aircraft was used mainly during World War II in the daylight precision strategic bombing campaign against German industrial, civilian and military targets. The B-17 also participated, to a lesser extent, in the War in the Pacific, where it conducted raids against Japanese shipping. It became the aircraft of choice among crew, lauded for its durablity, utility and survivability.

When the war ended, most of the B-17s were scrapped. The US Air Force kept some for VIP purposes. The US Coast Guard took 30 in 1945. The last one was retired in 1959.


In Canada, the RCAF acquired six B-17s  in 1943. All six belonged to #168 Heavy Transport Squadron which operated out of RCAF Station Rockcliffe, Ontario. Stripped of their armaments and armour, their job was to fly mail to Canadian troops serving in Europe. In total, the squadron made a total of 636 trans-Atlantic mail flights (of which 240 were flown by the B-17s); 26,417 flying hours; 2,245,269 pounds of mail from Canada to the U.K.; and 8,977,600 pounds from the U.K. to the continent. The mail planes were marked with the squadron logo and after every successfully completed trip, a mailbag symbol was painted onto the aircraft. The squadron logo and subsequent ‘mailbag’ art was considered nose art.

Aircraft #9204 was severely damaged at Rockcliffe on September 17, 1944 and was never repaired. Another, #9205, survived a mid-air collision on January 23, 1944 with a Wellington over the Bay of Biscay (in the Atlantic Ocean, north of Spain, west of France). The Wellington was lost and the B-17 made it back to Engand on one engine. The story was not released until March 14th of that year.

Nose Art: What’s in a Name?


Aircraft names and nose art images are inextricably linked. Both are essential to the genre. How the names and images were selected is as varied as the aircrew and ground crew connected with the aircraft.

Where the same group of flyers were assigned consistently to the same aircraft, the nose art would typically be a somewhat “democratic” process with all crew members contributing. Where this occurred, it supported the development of a strong emotional bond between the machine and the men inside. In addition to the nose art, there are examples of aircraft where crew members would add a “good luck” image to the fuselage at their position. In the case of aircraft where the crew was transient, there is evidence to suggest that nose art was sometimes handled by ground crew. But it is also true that there were many aircraft without names or art.

In RCAF and RAF squadrons, the name and artwork were often directly related to the letter designation for the aircraft within the squadron. The fuselage markings on RCAF/RAF planes consisted of a two-letter squadron code (such as QB) and an additional letter designating a specific plane within the squadron. This was a much easier way of keeping track of aircraft inventory than serial numbers, and also made it easy to assign radio call signs.

An example: When a new Halifax bomber was assigned to Jack Dundas, a pilot with 424 Squadron, it became QB-B. He and his crew were faced with deciding on a name and nose art using the letter “B,” the third letter in the string and the one specific to the plane. The story goes that most of the crew favoured “Beer Barrel Betty.” Dundas, however, thought they needed something different. On a visit to a bookstore he saw a children’s book with Walt Disney’s Bambi on the cover. He bought the book and pulled rank on his crew and had the ground crew paint the name and image of Bambi on the fuselage.

Probably the most interesting nose art name examples are the ones associated with pin-up girls. The image and the name reinforced each other, sometimes suggestively, sometimes not.

The examples below illustrate this range, and are examples from Canadian aircraft.

  • Avenging Angel
  • Blonde BombshelL
  • Drum Major GirL
  • Easy Elsie
  • Evening Ecstasy
  • Miss Shapely
  • Notorious NaN
  • Pistol Packing Peggy
  • Vicky, the Vicious Virgin
  • Virgin on the Verge

Other names express other thoughts:

  • Beer is Best
  • Blues in the Night
  • Buzz, King of Hogtown
  • Fangs of Fire
  • Let’s Grow Old Together
  • Malton Mike
  • Slow But Sure
  • Terror of the Axis
  • The Rope for Tojo
  • Willie the Wolf

Restoration Team Keeps them in Stitches


When history’s significant aircraft are retrieved from their crash sites in the arctic, from the bottoms of lakes or the sides of mountains, they’re often in quite rough shape.  They’ve definitely had a tough journey and the runways were never paved.

Once the wrecks reach the Museum, a team of voluteers aims to restore the aircaft to its pre-crash state, as authentically as possible.  And that means restoring or re-creating the canvas wing structures that were used in the pioneer days of flying.


A technique known as ‘rib-stitching’ has been employed to fasten fabric since the beginning of flight – from the Wright Brothers at the start of the 20th century through the machines of the Great Wars 1914 and 1939.  It’s the mechanism used to fasten fabric to the ribs of aircraft. Early pilots needed to know how to do it for quick repairs in the bush, but it’s a lost art, used today only by restoration teams such as the team of volunteers at the Western Canada Aviation Museum. 

The team starts with aviation-quality cotton (a very fine weave cotton) to create a smooth airfoil. One continuous thread is applied from leading edge to trailing edge. The stitch itself is begun through the fabric at the top of the wing to the fabric at the bottom of the wing on the inboard side and back up the opposite side of the rib. Then it is tied off with a ‘seine’ or ‘fisherman’s knot’ – a fairly flat knot that is virtually impossible to untie. The procedure is repeated every two or three inches until the entire rib is stitched.

After stitching, the fabric is wetted down with water to shrink it. Once dry, the first coat of dope is applied. Dope is a clear nitrate-based liquid that causes the fabric to shrink even further. It is left to dry and when ready, the tape to cover the stitching is applied and glued to the rib, followed by 5-7 coats of silver-colored, lacquer-based dope. (The silver blocks out the sun’s ultraviolet rays that could break down the fabric and glue.) Then the final paint colour is applied – about two to three coats.

This procedure follows original manufacturing techniques to make aircraft restorations as authentic as possible.


A tribute to the craftsmanship of our volunteers has been established at the museum.  Drop by any time during regular Museum hours to see the tools, canvas, thread, tape, doping liquid and brushes that made bush repairs possible after a minor ‘dust-up’ with a tree.  Or during the war when pesky artillery holes needed repair. 

Here’s a link to a video from the Kanvas Aviation Museum, showing how the rib stitching technique works.

When Sabres ruled the Skies – Korea


The Sabre F-86 was designed in answer to the US Air Force’s need for a high altitude, day fighter / escort / interceptor.  The F-86 entered service in 1949, with the Strategic Air Command’s 22nd Bomb Wing, 1st Fighter Wing, and 1st Fighter Interceptor Wing.


In November 1950, the Soviet-built MiG-15 first appeared over the skies of Korea. Vastly superior to every United Nations aircraft then in use in the theater, the MiG forced the US Air Force to rush three squadrons of F-86s to Korea. Upon arriving, US pilots achieved a high level of success against the MiG. This was largely due to experience as many of the US pilots were World War II veterans whereas their North Korean and Chinese adversaries were relative novices.

American success was less pronounced when F-86s encountered MiGs flown by Soviet pilots. In comparison, the F-86 could out dive and out turn the MiG, but was inferior in rate of climb, ceiling, and acceleration. Nevertheless, the F-86 soon became the iconic American aircraft of the conflict and all but one US Air Force ace achieved that status flying the Sabre. The most famous engagements involving the F-86 occurred over northwestern North Korea in an area known a “MiG Alley.” In this area, Sabres and MiGs frequently dueled, making it the birthplace of jet vs. jet aerial combat.

After the war, the US Air Force claimed a kill ratio of around 10 to 1 for MiG-Sabre battles. Recent research has challenged this and suggested that the ratio was much lower. In the years after the war, the F-86 was retired from frontline squadrons as the Century Series fighters, such as the F-100, F-102, and F-106, started to arrive.


While the F-86 ceased to be a frontline fighter for the US, it was exported heavily and saw service with over thirty foreign air forces such as Taiwan where its pilots continued to compile an impressive record against their MiG-equipped Communist Chinese foes. The F-86 also saw service with the Pakistani Air Force during both the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistani Wars.

After thirty-one years of service, the final F-86s were retired by Portugal in 1980.

Check out these videos: 

  • A close up view of the American passion for the Sabre and a tribute to the Korean War ,
  • A musical slide show of the Korean War

Sabre F-86 – A Fighter Pilot’s Fighter




As any fighter pilot would anticipate, the Sabre is an absolute joy to fly. Most pilots who have sat in it have expressed surprise at how tight the cockpit is – the old adage of strapping a fighter to your back is not far off when it comes to the F-86. 

 The Sabre loves to fly fast and, while she is no match for today’s afterburner equipped fighters, she accelerates to over 450 knots with little effort or sensation in the cockpit. Yet, she is surprisingly easy to fly – a fighter pilot’s fighter as they say. Even at an all up weight of 16,233 pounds, nosewheel rotation occurs at 115 knots and she eagerly leaps into the air at 131 knots – with only 2,800 feet of runway behind her. As the jet rapidly accelerates through 200 knots her leading edge slats automatically slide closed. Once over 300 knots the roll rate of the aircraft, even at half aileron deflection, is very fast – dizzyingly so at full deflection. Combining pitch, roll and acceleration rates as she races through the sky, it is readily apparent why the Sabre was so successful as a dog fighter – and why she was so revered by those fortunate enough to have flown her.

One of the truly amazing technological advances of the Sabre was its leading edge slats which automatically deploy at slow speeds to improve manoeuvrability. Mounted on simple rollers, there is no sound or sensation as they extend or retract, an invaluable asset in a slow speed dog fight or while turning base to final. Overhead pitches are nominally flown at typical fighter speeds of 300 knots. After lowering gear and full flap at 185 knots, final turn is flown at a minimum of 150 knots decreasing to 130 on final and 110 over the threshold.


The F-86 Sabre that was destined to become Hawk One has a distinguished history. It was the 1,104th Sabre to come off the Canadair assembly line in August 1954, bearing the RCAF serial number 23314. Built as a Sabre 5, it was one of 1,183 Canadian-built Sabres that were delivered to the RCAF between 1951 and 1957 to equip 12 squadrons in Europe as Canada’s aerial commitment to the defence of Europe in the early days of the Cold War.

The jet served in Europe with 441 (F) Sqn following the move of  RCAF 1 (F) Wing from North Luffenham, England to Marville, France. Upon repatriation to Canada, it served in a number of locations, most appropriately as one of the training aircraft for the Golden Hawks at RCAF Stn Trenton during the workups for the 1963 airshow season. The aircraft ended its service career with the RCAF and Canadian Forces at the Sabre Transition Unit located at CFB Chatham, New Brunswick where it was used as a lead-in fighter trainer for the CF-104 Starfighter. Sabre 23314 flew its last RCAF sortie on December 31st, 1968.

Following the removal of its six 50 calibre machine guns and several years in storage, 23314 was sold to private interests in the United States where it remained for some 35 years. Following its sale to Vintage Wings in September 2007, it winged its way home to Canada to begin a long restoration process.


Today, the Golden Hawk legacy lives on through the Snowbirds and the Discovery Air Hawk One -a refurbished classic RCAF F-86 Sabre 5 in the colours of the legendary Golden Hawks aerobatic team. The Hawk One is touring Canadian airshows and will be making a stop at the Western Canada Aviation Museum on June 14 and 15, 2011, allowing Canadians young and old to “look, touch and learn” about the rich aviation heritage that helped build our nation.

This flying tribute to a century of aviation history is a result of a unique partnership between the Vintage Wings of Canada, presenting sponsor Discovery Air and the Department of National Defence, assisted by generous donations from the private sector.

Legacy of Canada’s Golden Hawks


The Golden Hawks were formed on March 1, 1959 as the RCAF’s contribution to the Golden Anniversary of Flight in Canada. Under the command of Wing Commander Jack Allan, Squadron Leader Fern Villeneuve and his team flourished, quickly establishing themselves as one of the finest aerobatic teams in the world. Trademarked by their six gold-coloured F-86 Sabre 5 fighters, the Golden Hawks represented everything that was glorious about the RCAF and aviation in Canada.

Although originally slated to fly for only one year, the popularity of the Golden Hawks ensured their survival for five full seasons until budget cuts to national defence sealed their fate on February 7, 1964 as the team practiced for their sixth season.

All told, over 15,000,000 North Americans watched the Golden Hawks weave their aerial magic in 317 shows over five years. They came to symbolize a form of national pride, a thrilling sight millions of Canadians would cherish and never forget.


Today, the Golden Hawk legacy lives on through the Snowbirds and the Discovery Air Hawk One -a refurbished classic RCAF F-86 Sabre 5 in the colours of the legendary Golden Hawks aerobatic team. The Hawk One is touring Canadian airshows and will be making a stop at the Western Canada Aviation Museum on June 14 and 15, 2011, allowing Canadians young and old to “look, touch and learn” about the rich aviation heritage that helped build our nation.