Although I have a soft spot for several civilian aircraft, like the GeeBee Air Racer and Ford Tri-Motor, the military planes have always been my favourites, and although I might have a hard time deciding between jets and prop jobs depending on my mood, my favourite WWII aircraft has been the Corsair for as long as I can remember.
Strangely, this is not due to the popularity of "Black Sheep Squadron", a TV program from my youth that followed Greg "Pappy" Boyington and his wingmates around the Pacific theatre in their Corsairs. No, it was mostly from seeing them fly with groups like the Western Warbirds, and in truth, it has less to do with the sight than it does the sound.
The Pratt & Whitney 2000 horsepower engine isn't necessarily any louder than the
Then of course there is the look of the plane itself: the bent wings give it a predatory air while the monstrous 13 foot propeller affects the entire front aspect of the aircraft, hinting at tremendous speed and power. The large propeller makes for a smaller undercarriage at the rear, which, combined with how far back the cockpit sits from the nose, gives the Corsair a rakish appearance even at rest.
I was thrilled to hear that one of my favourite planes was making a visit to Edmonton, and learned a lot I didn't know beforehand, including a linkage between the Victoria Cross and Kokanee beer.
The Gray Ghost is a lovingly reconditioned FG-1D Corsair, originally built by Goodyear (because manufacturer Vought couldn't meet the demand) for the British Fleet Air Arm, which was a revelation to me; I had no idea that the British used American fighters on their carriers. This also gave it a nice tie-in to Canada's Naval Centenary, which is the occasion for the visit.
This particular plane is painted in the livery of Lt. Robert Hammond Gray, who was born in Trail, B.C., and attended both UBC and the U of A before enlisting in the Naval Reserve in 1940. After flying Hawker Hurricanes in Africa for a time, he qualified for the Corsair in 1944 and joined the complement of HMS Formidable, and while I knew Canadian pilots served in the RAF and fought in the Battle of Britain, I had never imagined a Canuck Corsair pilot, my second discovery.
The British Corsairs were originally painted in a disruption pattern, but were later painted the uniform 'shipyard blue' of their American counterparts. In order to reduce the likelihood of friendly fire, the familiar red 'bullseye' (too similar to the Hinomaru markings of Japanese planes) seen on RAF planes was discarded on Fleet Air Arm planes, and a white bar placed on either side of the circle, making it similar to markings found on USAF F-4U Corsairs.
Lt. Gray was mentioned in despatches and received the Distinguished Service Cross before his 1841 squadron was involved in an attack on a Japanese destroyer in Onagawa Bay. Despite his airplane being hit and catching fire, he never broke off his attack run and scored a direct hit on the destroyer with a 1000 lb. bomb, sinking it. Unable to recover, his Corsair crashed into the bay and was destroyed, and his body never recovered. For this act, he was awarded the British Commonwealth's highest honour, the Victoria Cross, and is the last Canadian to have received it.
Six days, later, on August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered, ending the Second World War, and making Robert Hampton Gray one of Canada's last casualties. He was 27 years old.
Unfortunately, the Gray Ghost flew in to Edmonton while I was at work, because I had every intention of bringing the girls down to the City Centre Airport so they could see and, more importantly, hear this piece of flying history. As it was, the nice gentleman at the Alberta Aviation Museum was kind enough to let us past the ropes for a few pictures, which will have to suffice.
I was certainly glad for the opportunity to learn about Lt. Robert Hampton Gray, who would probably still be a cipher to me if not for this plane and its tour of western Canada. Fenya and Glory listened intently when I told them about the Victoria Cross and how he earned it, and about an affection for the Corsair that has lasted since my childhood.
After the war, two memorials were dedicated to Lt. Gray. In 2006, he was commemorated by a granite monument by Onagawa Bay, the only foreign serviceman to be so honoured on Japanese soil. In a culture that venerates courage so highly, it is hard to imagine greater praise.
In 1946, a mountain in British Columbia was named after Lt. Gray and his brother John, who was also killed in WWII. Grays Peak is in Kokanee Glacier National Park, and is the mountain pictured on the label of the eponymous beer.