Tuesday, July 27, 2010

No Sound of Ghostly Wings

Thanks to my dad, with his 5 years service in the RCAF and another 5 in the RCN as well as a career in air traffic control, I got to go to a lot of airshows when I was a kid. Seeing the Snowbirds innumerable times, I never got tired of them, and they share fond memory space with high speed/low level passes, vintage aircraft doing Cuban Eights, afterburners, wing walkers and a twilight JATO demonstration.

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 Mercury Merlin engine of the Spitfire or the Mustang's Packard V-12, but the Corsair's engine has a throaty bass note that is felt more than heard. To even listen to a Corsair idling up to the ready line is to listen to a beast straining to be unleashed. In trying to describe the acoustic difference, I've always compared the Mustang to a new Ferrari, while the Corsair sounds like a vintage Barracuda; speed compared to muscle.

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.


  1. I have a soft spot for the Corsair as one of my fave WWII planes, but I'll always love the Spit more. The Mustang's in there somewhere too, maybe 2nd or 3rd.

    Cool trivia about the mountains, adds a little style to otherwise bland and boring Kokanee.

    A spot o' pedantry: the Spitfire used Rolls-Royce Merlin and Griffon, per this page: http://www.spitfiresociety.demon.co.uk/engines.htm

    Interesting note (which I remembered from the book Spitfire Command, and confirmed on that page): with the introduction of the Spitfire Mark XII, the engine changed direction of rotation (Griffon vs. Merlin) which altered the compensation the pilot needed to do on takeoff, leading to a few exciting departures until they got the hang of the new engine.

  2. While the Spitfire is undoubtedly the classiest warplane of WWII, I have a thing for two planes: The original Lightning, and the workhorse PBY Catalina. The B25 Mitchell follows closely behind.
    My affection for the PBY stems not from WWII history directly, but from after WWII, when Jacques Yves Cousteau acquired one for his research purposes. It was the acquisition of the model that jump-started my interest in Cousteau, oceanography, and life sciences.
    And the Lightning? Sheer speed, firepower, and an very unconventional appearance.

  3. Dude, that is synchronicious: there are a lot of flying boat models at the Alberta Aviation Museum (and a full scale Vickers Viking), and while looking at them I told the girls about a recurring daydream of mine where we own a Catalina, live in the South Pacific and fly cargo around the islands, "Tales of the Gold Monkey" style.

    And the P-38 is almost too gorgeous to be real; it looks right at home next to the planes from Crimson Skies.

  4. One of the first planes my dad ever worked on was the PBY. The other was the Mitchell. I always loved the "bug-eyed" rear gunner stations on the PBY.
    As for the P38, "Oldsmobile 37mm cannon" for the win.

  5. OK, I was wrong. It was designed to take the 37mm gun, but instead wound up with a little pansy 20mm

  6. I checked with the museum today, and the Corsair had engine trouble and couldn't fly out on Saturday. They said to keep phoning for updates. I want to go see it fly by like I did with the B17 a couple of years ago.

    With cool/vintage planes, it's a tradition that they loop around and fly by the tower at tower height (which the B17 did) - watch for it. I'll try to remember to post the takeoff day & time here...but I'll be a touch excited.

    Paul T

  7. When I called, they said it was just about to take off, so I rushed over there. They let me (& a couple others) go through the museum and to the fence to get a good view. Cool. Chatted with a couple of similar picture-taker guys who were knowledgeable.

    Unfortunately we couldn't see it start up, taxi, or take off...and it didn't do a tower flyby. All business...in the air when it went by. Didn't get a pic. Oh well.

    Rumour is that it's going to Wetaskiwin for their airshow. There's a Mustang and another (Goodyear-built) Corsair there.

  8. One of the guys had an interesting story about it when it first got here. The pilot was showing off revving it up when it jumped the wheel chocks. He slammed on the brakes, but only one side caught and it slewed around. There was much excitement as the wing went right over top of a guy. Still, if you *have* to go...might as well be Indiana Jones style with a cool old fighter.