Stan Reynolds was only a teenager when he bought his first automobile, a Model T-Ford pickup truck, and since then the legendary collector, philanthropist and businessman has bought hundreds of automobiles, tractors and planes. A large portion of his collection is now housed in the namesake Reynolds-Alberta Museum. Click above to listen to an interview with Stan Reynolds.
What was then-27-year-old aviation pioneer Ted Reynolds thinking back in 1919 as he readied his homemade Alberta plane for its first takeoff? Did the former World War I ace have any doubts about the aircraft he’d designed and ingeniously cobbled together from linen, bamboo and whatever else was handy on his Wetaskiwin farm – including angle irons and a Ford Model-T engine? • I know I do, now that I’m poised to take my own leap of faith.
“You wouldn’t catch me going up in that thing,” a grey-haired onlooker calls out. But there’s no time for second thoughts. Besides, this ripster is a tad more modern than Reynolds’s. I clamber onto a lower wing and hoist myself into the open cockpit of the vintage 1939 UPF-7 Waco biplane, a 20-year improvement on Reynolds’s home grown version. The antique is poised for takeoff on the tarmac outside one of the most extensive aviation museums in the world, featuring vintage planes collected by Reynolds and his brother, son and grandson in the rolling farmland just outside Wetaskiwin.
Back in the day, the Waco was considered one of the finest sports aircraft in the world. Fittingly, perhaps, it was also a favourite of the predecessors of today’s Snowbirds, those over-the-top “barnstormers” who dazzled crowds with their aerial acrobatics at country fairs across North America in the 1920s. It must be safe, I reassure myself. The pilot I’m entrusting my life to, John Cummings, captivates 20-plus passengers a day in the craft each summer for what’s literally the high point of any museum tour here. Still, it’s no Learjet.
I strap on my Billy Bishop-style leather helmet and Cummings drops into the driver’s seat behind me. “It’s gonna be noisy!” he yells, cinching me in. “Once we’re up, I won’t be able to hear you – even if you scream.”
Suddenly, faced with nothing but a wooden propeller and tiny windshield, the courage I’ve summoned recalling Alberta’s impressive, albeit relatively forgotten, roster of aviation heroes evaporates. Time to channel another local great, renowned World War I bush pilot Wop May. In a similar open-cockpit model back in 1929, May and co-pilot Vic Horner famously flew nearly 1,000 kilometres from Edmonton to Fort Vermilion – in a blizzard, no less – cradling vials of antitoxin inside their flight jackets to keep the serum from freezing, and in the process stopped a diphtheria outbreak in its tracks. Surely I can survive a sunny 20-minute joyride.
Cummings revs the engine and we roar down the runway. But before any of my life can flash before me, we’re airborne, and, as the earth drops away, so does my fear – to be replaced by an overwhelming sensation of pure bliss. So this is why Reynolds, designer of Alberta’s oldest surviving self-built-and-designed plane, risked his life to fly by the seat of his pants between 1919 and 1922. Grounded as a garage mechanic after serving in the Royal Flying Corps, former farm boy Ted Reynolds knew he had to get his head back into the clouds. Defying gravity, slipping the earth’s surly bonds to become one with the sky and shrieking wind . . . just one minute into this 20-minute flight over the prairies, and there’s no question I’ll do it again . . . soon.
Gearing up for Canada’s 2009 100th anniversary of powered flight, I’ve already seen Ted Reynolds’s historic 1919 monoplane up close – after shaking hands early this morning with Wetaskiwin’s living link to Reynolds: his grandson Byron. A former commercial pilot, Byron now uses his career as a property developer to fuel his true passion: preserving Canadian aviation history. And like his uncle, Stan Reynolds, namesake of the Reynolds-Alberta Museum (RAM), Byron is a collector. Along with a shared love of technology, be it cars, planes or tractors, a mania for collecting definitely runs in the family.
“My grandfather Ted was a World War I pilot and mechanic, my father, a flight engineer during World War II, and my uncle, Stan, flew ‘Mosquitoes’ with the RCAF 410 Squadron,” Byron tells me. “Our family has been involved with putting planes together and flying them since before the Dead Sea was sick. Aviation is definitely in our genes, along with collecting. Grandpa Ted only discovered about one per cent of what you see at the Reynolds Museum today. But he instilled the hoarding madness in the rest of us. My uncle Stan, with the assistance of my grandfather and my father, went on to pull all of this together.”
“All of this” is the more than 8,000 artefacts, including 120 aircraft, in the Reynolds-Alberta Museum – what Byron calls “a shrine to technology.” The museum celebrates “the spirit of the machine” by focusing mainly on the automobile, along with agricultural and transportation equipment. But it also displays six historic aircraft, most notably Ted Reynolds’s 1919 Sport Monoplane and the “City of Edmonton” 1918 Curtiss Canuck, flown for a time by legendary Edmontonian Wop May. And the big-ticket bonus: just behind the Reynolds museum is Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, the largest national collection of vintage aircraft outside Ottawa’s federally funded Canada Aviation Museum – “the aviation equivalent of Cooperstown’s National Baseball Hall of Fame,” says Byron with obvious pride.
The Hall of Fame building is also really two museums in one. Its centrepiece: more than 20 aircraft, all owned by the Reynolds-Alberta Museum and restored over the last 16 years. “Together they outline the story of aviation in Canada,” says Byron as I reach out to touch the fabric of a vintage wing, hardened with layers of lacquer-like paint through a process called “doping.” As honorary curator of the RAM’s aviation program, he has also had the giddy pleasure of flying many of them. “Some are rare, many are prototypes and many have technological as well as historic importance.” But circling the eye-catching aircraft and overflowing onto the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame’s second level are the real reasons for the hall’s existence: 1.2-by-2.4-metre panels profiling nearly 200 members who have received aviation’s highest award since its 1973 beginnings, including 2008 inductee astronaut Marc Garneau.
“It’s a great partnership,” notes Hall of Fame curator Justin Cuffe. The hall inducted its first members 35 years ago. But the organization’s profile remained low until 1992, when it was relocated from Edmonton to share the grounds of the newly opened Reynolds-Alberta Museum and added aircraft loaned by the museum. Suddenly history came alive. Though Cuffe acknowledges it’s still the planes that steal the show with visitors, at least for now. In the future, he envisions Hall of Fame panels that are less text-heavy, with video clips and other interactive draws. For now, he enlivens displays with members’ personal mementos: medals and uniforms, leather bomber jackets and flight goggles, a silk “escape scarf” imprinted with a map to guide downed military pilots out of enemy territory, bulky flight parkas worn by early bush pilots, a flight diary and a plethora of historic sepia and black-and-white photos.
I scan the panels for Canadian aviation’s most renowned Hall of Famers. There are military heroes such as Ontario’s Billy Bishop, the first Canadian airman to receive a Victoria Cross and its most famous World War I flying ace, who some say shot down the Red Baron; and trailblazer Punch Dickins, one of the first bush pilots to fly over Canada’s then-uncharted North – and the first to fly the 3,200-km length of the Mackenzie River – in 1929. I see Rosella Bjornson, an Albertan now living in Sherwood Park who fulfilled her childhood dream in 1973 by becoming the first woman pilot hired by a commercial airline. There’s barnstormer Calgarian Fred McCall, who once landed his Curtiss JN-4 atop a merry-go-round instead of crashing into midway crowds after the plane’s engine quit; Dr. Wilbur Franks, “father of aviation medicine” and designer of the first G-suit to prevent pilot blackouts, and master navigator Douglas Fraser, who located the site of the crash that killed Sir Frederick Banting and recovered the scientist’s priceless briefcase of research papers.
But the planes are beckoning, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to learn more about them from Byron, a walking Wikipedia of aviation history. We start at the very beginning: a full-scale replica of the Silver Dart, created to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its historic flight. It’s now almost a century since the first powered flight in the British Commonwealth took place, and some 100 astonished spectators watched the Silver Dart rise from a frozen Nova Scotia lake to soar into the record books. The fragile craft – designed by Alexander Graham Bell and his Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) members – included significant improvements over planes flown just four years earlier by the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. (Just a year prior to the Silver Dart’s success, in 1908, AEA member Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge died after crashing in a plane piloted by Orville Wright, becoming the world’s first aviation fatality.)
Most aviation buffs know of the Silver Dart, but who knew that airplanes were once built near Edmonton’s city airport? The proof now hangs in suspended flight before me: a Bellanca 31-55A Senior Skyrocket, the last of the famous bush planes manufactured by Northwest Industries in Edmonton in the mid-1940s. Only 20 were built – seven in the U.S. and 13 in Edmonton – before Alberta’s brief venture into commercial aircraft construction ended in 1948. The Skyrocket just couldn’t compete with a new upstart that went on to become the most successful bush plane of all time: the de Havilland Beaver, designed in Britain and manufactured in Ontario.
Next, Byron shows off a 1937 Cessna C-37 Airmaster, the only one in Canada he knows of. This technological marvel once carried four passengers for 965 kilometres at a cruising speed of some 240 km per hour – on just 23 litres of gasoline. Its record as the world’s most fuel-efficient aircraft would remain unbroken until the 1980s, when composite plastic materials replaced fabric on planes’ bodies and wings.
So much information, so much history . . . Byron skims through the highlights as if introducing old friends, though most of the collection is in storage, he notes – including a full-scale replica of the Avro Arrow, built by another Wetaskiwin local and used as a stand-in for the real thing in the 1997 Dan Akroyd movie homage to the famous aircraft, The Arrow. “In fact, we’re chock-a-block with aircraft and crying for additional space.”
Still, inspired by the example of his uncle Stan Reynolds, Byron is constantly searching for more icons of Canada’s rich aviation past. “Stan had the interest – and the resources – to collect. He was once the largest car dealer in Canada. His call sign was ‘We’ll take anything in trade’ – and he did: steam engines, tractors, trucks, baling ware and, occasionally, planes. People thought it was junk. But to him, it was all an important part of Alberta’s history. He didn’t know what he’d do with it; he just knew someone had to save our heritage.”
I want to hang over the side of the Waco for a better look down, but I can’t. The sheer pressure of our race against the wind forces me back. The landscape stretches below in beautiful perfection, losing its flaws as we rise higher: a Lego-like collection of tiny housetops surrounded by a gently rolling sea of green fields. But it’s not the view that’s got my attention; it’s the sensation of truly flying, with no barriers between me and the sky. I feel like I’m riding a super-fast motorcycle, 305 metres up in the air. I’ve always loved to fly, but this wondrous wind-shrieking, open-cockpit blast, the very thing I’d feared, is beyond description.
Too soon it’s over, as with a rude jolt we return to earth. Thankfully, my first open-cockpit soar ends more smoothly than Ted Reynolds’s 1919 test flight. (After takeoff from Wetaskiwin’s ironically named Slaughterhouse Hill, Reynolds barely cleared a barbed wire fence before landing in a grassy field.) But it’s a huge letdown to be bound by gravity again.
I console myself with the promise of winter weekends delving into the past, discovering more about the hall’s prestigious flyers. I’ll also be signing up for the Waco’s first flight when it again takes to the skies in May – now that reliving the Golden Age of Aviation in an adrenaline-inducing open cockpit is at the top of my must-do list. Only next time, I won’t forget the earplugs.
The Flight Plan
- Reynolds-Alberta Museum – home of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame Schedule: Tuesdays to Saturdays until May 21. Watch for special programming and displays in 2009, in celebration of Canada’s 100th anniversary of powered flight. 780-361-1351, 1-800-661-4726; http://www.cahf.ca, http://www.machinemuseum.net
Open-cockpit biplane rides: Early June through September 1, weather permitting. 10- to 50-minute flights, $124.95 to $378.50. 780-352-9689; http://www.centralaviation.ca
Note: AMA members save 10 per cent on admis-sion at Reynolds-Alberta Museum, 25 per cent at Calgary’s Aero Space Museum.
- Aero Space Museum Founded in 1975 by former WWII pilots and aviation enthusiasts. Aircraft, flight simulators, Canadian space program info and more. 403-250-3752; http://www.asmac.ab.ca
- Alberta Aviation Museum More than 30 aircraft; aircraft restoration area; personal artefacts of famous bush pilots. 780-451-1175; http://www.albertaaviationmuseum.com
- Cold Lake Air Force Museum Canadian military aircraft and artefacts. Part of Cold Lake Museum Group, on old site of 42 Radar Squadron. Winter hours: by appointment. 780-594-3546
- Nanton Lancaster Society Air Museum Military memorabilia, planes and aircraft art honouring those who served with Bomber Command and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Weekends only, October to April. 403-646-2270; http://www.lancastermuseum.ca
- Naval Museum of Alberta and Air Force Museum of Alberta Part of the Military Museum, Calgary. 403-974-2850; http://www.themilitarymuseums.com, http://www.navalmuseum.ab.ca
- In the works The Harvard Historical Aviation Society hopes to open a new aviation museum in Springbrook, near Red Deer, in early 2009. http://www.penholdbase.com