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WWI replica planes to take part in Vimy 100th anniversary

Retired major Dale Erhart will be lead pilot and air safety officer at the Vimy Ridge 100th anniversary celebrations. Here he stands with one of the replica WWI aircraft before loading Wednesday onto huge Royal Canadian Air Force CC-177 Globemaster III - Michael Briones / Echo Staff
Retired major Dale Erhart will be lead pilot and air safety officer at the Vimy Ridge 100th anniversary celebrations. Here he stands with one of the replica WWI aircraft before loading Wednesday onto huge Royal Canadian Air Force CC-177 Globemaster III
— image credit: Michael Briones / Echo Staff

Comox pilot, retired Major Dale Erhart kept a close watch as his Nieuport 11 bi-plane was delicately loaded onto the giant Royal Canadian Air Force CC-177 Globemaster III.

Erhart put on a brave face as 19 Wing personnel lifted the whole plane and made it fit inside the transport plane that was to airlift it, along with six other aircraft that are replicas of what Canadian pilots flew during World War I, to Lille, France to take part in the Vimy Ridge 100th Anniversary ceremony.

Once the plane was safely locked and loaded, Erhart felt relieved although he didn't admit he was worried.

"I was cautiously optimistic," said Erhart, who is one of the pilots chosen to take part in the flying festivities in France.

Loading the Nieuport 11 planes and the SE5 was a challenging task as they had to be loaded inside the aircraft sideways. Once inside there is only an allowance of about a foot from both ends of the planes. The wings of the other two planes were disassembled to make them fit.

The RCAF is helping the Vimy Flight Association, which houses and maintains these planes in Burnaby, with this ambitious project. Aside from providing transport, the RCAF is providing personnel to take care of the precious cargo that consists of two Sopwith Pups, four Nieuport 11s, and one SE5. Only the Nieuport 11s and SE5 will be flying while the two Sopwith Pups will be there on display.

Erhart is excited to be going to France. He will serve as a flight safety officer and also the lead pilot.

"It's an absolute honour," said Erhart. "It's something I never imagined in my life, that I would be involved in such a large project that has emotional significance to all Canadians."

Before they departed, Erhart still can't believe the project is happening.

"I have to pinch myself to think that it's really true," said Erhart.

That's because the association had to overcome significant hurdles, like securing funding.

"It is very difficult to get people to understand what we are trying to accomplish, to have them believe we are actually going to do this and to generate enough interest to keep it going," Erhart explained. "So we have been self-funding and driving ourselves completely into debt to try and make this happen. Now, finally, the sponsorships and interests are starting to come out around and we are going to be all right. The airforce has given us tremendous assistance throughout all of this."

The RCAF has also chosen one of its pilots to take part in the commemoration of the famous battle at Vimy Ridge that saw more than 10,000 Canadians killed or wounded.

Captain Brent Hardy said it is an assignment that he is extremely excited and so privileged to be a part of. He will be flying one of the VFA's Nieuport 11s.

He said it was like "winning the lottery" when he got assigned to the program.

"I can't even think of the words how incredible and honoured it is to fly over the skies that our first fighter aces flew you know, 100 years ago" said Handy, who is from 15 Wing Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan.

Handy is a former CF-18 pilot and also a former Snowbirds pilot but he had to make some adjustments having to switch from a high-tech, modern aircraft to an older fighter plane that used to be the top of the line in 1917.

"It's a single cockpit airplane and it's also one seat so you have to teach yourself to fly it," said Handy. "As a pilot, it's a really neat experience and a real cool thing to be a part of."

Handy is quite impressed at how airplane technology has developed over the last hundred years. "I have learned a lot."

But more than anything else, Handy, who has over 4,000 hours of flying experience, has marveled at the pilots who flew these aircraft to battle.

"I've got about four hours in this type and that's about what these guys had when they went to war," said Handy. "So they probably had a grand total of about four hours flying experience and they're strapping these things on their back and heading out over the horizon to fight a war for us. This experience is about perspective. It just really opened my eyes on what we have accomplished as a nation in a hundred years and what these men have done for us."

In embarking on this ambitious project, the Vimy Flight Association wants Canadians to know that the air force back in 1917 had a role in the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge even though it was the forces on the ground that did the real fighting.

"Canada's contribution over there has been well written about and well documented but what's not so well written and documented is the fact the air element had provided so much preparation and intelligence though aerial reconnaissance and aerial mapping that really did change the outcome of the war," said Erhart.

Erhart is honoring two Canadian veterans on his plane – Comox's Andrew Eykelenboom from Boomer's Legacy and Charles R.R. Hickey of Parksville.

Eykelenboom was a Canadian medic who was killed in Afghanistan, the first Canadian medic to be killed in action since the Korean war while Hickey was an ace pilot with 21 victories during WW1.

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