Flying with the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team

High and to the right, four yellow aircraft in Goose Formation dive from 1,800 feet towards centre stage and pull into a loop, their nine-foot Hamilton Standard props producing a distinctive roar.

Halfway through the loop, the team transitions to Diamond Formation. A quick dumbbell turn and the team is back at centre stage for a Diamond Barrel Roll. A series of loops, rolls and tail-chases leaves the sky filled with smoke. A crowd favourite is a heart drawn in the sky and pierced by an arrow. For 11 minutes, the audience is dazzled by sound, smoke and low-level precision aerobatics.

The Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team was formed in 2000 as a three-ship routine and became the four-ship routine that it is today in 2014 when Harvard pilot Marco Rusconi joined the team. Each performance is finished with a topside photo pass. Eric Dumigan Photo
The Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team was formed in 2000 as a three-ship routine and became the four-ship routine that it is today in 2014 when Harvard pilot Marco Rusconi joined the team. Each performance is finished with a topside photo pass. Eric Dumigan Photo
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From the description above, one might think the yellow aircraft were modern carbon fibre ships capable of 10G pulls, but in reality the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team (CHAT) flies the North American Harvard. It’s the same aircraft flown by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during the Second World War and into the 1960s.

First flown in 1935 (NA-16 Prototype), the design is powered by a 600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engine and weighs in at a whopping three tons. These ex-RCAF advanced trainers, known as “The Pilot Makers” were used to train new pilots on formation flying, aerobatics and gunnery training. It was said that if you could fly a Harvard well, you could fly anything.

CHAT operates two marks of Harvards, the Mk.II, and a Mk.4. Each aircraft is individually owned by the pilots. Formation leader Pete Spence has flown Harvards for over 25 years and grew up flying the family J-3 Cub and DHC-1 Chipmunk. Spence’s father, Bob, restored Canada’s only flying Fairey Swordfish in the 1980s and both father and son demonstrated the British torpedo bomber at airshows across North America before selling the Swordfish to Vintage Wings of Canada. Spence’s Harvard is a Mk.II, built in 1941.

The airframe had a long career with the RCAF before being struck off strength in 1960. Central Technical High School in Toronto, Ont., utilized the airframe for training in its aircraft department until it was acquired by Less Bala in 1985. Bala restored the aircraft, which made its first post-restoration flight in 1994. Spence acquired 2918 from Bala in 2005.

Harvard No. 2 is flown by Dave Hewitt, whose father Bob was one of the founding members of two Canadian flying museums. Hewitt has been flying since 1989 and soloed in the Harvard in 1990. By 1995, he was performing solo aerobatics at airshows in the Harvard and three years later began training to fly formation aerobatics with his father. He has accumulated over 1,400 hours on the Harvard for a combined 1,500 total flying hours. He has been checked out on the Hawker Hurricane, Stearman, Beech 18 and other high-performance aircraft.

Hewitt’s Harvard is a Mk.II, also built in 1941 at Noorduyn Aviation in Montreal, Que. It flew as RCAF 3039 and for a time was loaned to the Royal Canadian Navy. The airframe is currently marked in its RCN markings. The RCAF sold the airframe in 1960 at RCAF Station Downsview to Stan Fitzner, who flew it out of Mount Hope until 1978. It was then sold to Bob Hewitt and Norm Beckham. Since that time it has been operated from Woodstock airport.

Kent Beckham flies the No. 3 Harvard, a Mk.II built in 1941 at Inglewood, Calif. It flew in the RCAF as 3222. Kent’s father, Norm Beckham (Mr. Harvard), and Bob Hewitt purchased the aircraft in 1968, and in 2011 the younger Beckham became the sole owner of the trainer. In 1978, Kent Beckham earned both his glider licence and his private pilot licence. A year later, in Harvard 3222, he flew his first formation demonstration as part of a four-ship formation at an RCAF reunion. Beckham obtained a commercial pilot’s licence in 1980 and an instructor endorsement a year later.

Norm and Kent began flying a father and son aerobatic routine in the Harvards in 1981 and performed across Ontario and New York until 1998, when Norm retired from flying aerobatics. In 1983, Kent began his airline career and still flies today for one of Canada’s largest airlines. He has accumulated over 30,000 flying hours.

Harvard No. 4 is flown by Marco Rusconi. Born in Italy, Rusconi learned to fly his father’s Tiger Moth at 14 years of age. He earned his private pilot’s licence in Victoria, B.C., and joined the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in 1997. He graduated from the Royal Military College and earned his pilot’s wings in 2004 at Moose Jaw. Rusconi became an instructor on Harvard II aircraft. He then fulfilled a dream from 2008 to 2011, flying with the Snowbirds Air Demonstration Team. Rusconi was just 26 years old when he joined the Snowbirds. He is currently a Boeing 737 first officer and instructs at Stallion 51 in Florida when not performing with CHAT.

Dave Hewitt's Harvard Mk.II 3039 was built in 1941 at Noorduyn Aviation in Montreal, Que. It wears her Royal Canadian Navy markings from the 1950s. Eric Dumigan Photo
Dave Hewitt’s Harvard Mk.II 3039 was built in 1941 at Noorduyn Aviation in Montreal, Que. It wears Royal Canadian Navy markings from the 1950s. Eric Dumigan Photo

Behind the scenes, Eugene Loj, known to many as “Az,” is the team’s safety pilot and announcer. Loj also operates an event promotion business. Dave Hewitt’s oldest son, Dylan, just earned his private pilot’s licence and is destined to be a third-generation Harvard pilot. Dylan performs ground handling duties and preparation for the team at events. He also creates promotional material for the team and video tapes practices for the safety de-briefs. Long time warbird pilot and mechanic Glenn Goldman often helps with ferrying aircraft and currently flies Dave Hewitt’s Expeditor 3NM on the airshow circuit.

The pilots maintain and look after their own aircraft with help from a small but dedicated group of volunteers and their AME/AMO. Winters are busy at Woodstock, as maintaining an 80-year-old aircraft to current high performance airshow standards is costly and time consuming. Never missing a demonstration is proof of their high maintenance standards. Typical wear items include brakes, tires, bearings, pulleys and cables. All other parts and systems are tested, serviced and rebuilt or replaced as needed. Some newly manufactured parts are becoming available as new old-stock inventory are being depleted.

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The CHAT was formed in 2000 as a three-ship routine. Performing at airshows across eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S., the team has earned a great reputation for professionalism and showmanship. In 2014, Rusconi joined the team, creating the four-ship routine we see today.

In 2016, CHAT performed for the first time at Oshkosh and wowed the crowds with its dynamic, tight 11-minute routine. 2017 saw the team perform a twilight show at Thunder Over Louisville. They then travelled north to the Norseman Festival at Red Lake, Ont. They flew west to Missouri, where they were a hit at the 2017 Wings Over Whiteman Air Show at Whiteman Air Force Base. CHAT finished 2017 by performing at the Canadian International Air Show in Toronto. Several other shows, flypasts and memorials were also performed over the summer including a Remembrance Day flypast over several communities around the team’s home base at Woodstock, Ont.

“The airshow industry is a very tough and underdeveloped one, making it a huge challenge to try and balance a business budget around an airshow act,” said Hewitt. “CHAT is proud to announce the addition of key sponsors to help control the costs and enable the team to continue preserving history, while demonstrating performance and teamwork and our passion for aviation.”

Current sponsors include Red Canoe, Aircraft Spruce, Concorde Batteries, H&S and Champion.

As for 2018, Hewitt said, “We are very excited about the upcoming season. It is long, starting in April. CHAT will represent the Harvard at AirVenture in July as it celebrates the 80th anniversary of the T-6, Harvard, and SNJ prototype. The season will end in October in Virginia. We will be doing our twilight show in over two venues this year. [We are] very excited to break into a few new states, Virginia, West Virginia and potentially Massachusetts. With airshows in the region dwindling, we are having to travel abroad to fill our schedule.”

As of Feb. 1, CHAT had six airshow bookings in the United States and one in Canada. It is still early in the year, so a few more locations may be added to the schedule soon.

Visit the team’s website for more information.

 

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