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Photographs that captured the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Golden Hawks in their prime are sometimes faded, sometimes blurry, products of a time before gigapixel cameras and Photoshop.
But even in those imperfect shots that date from 1959 to 1963, when the Hawks captivated airshow crowds as Canada’s first official national aerobatic team, the aircraft often glimmer.
Dressed in eye-catching regal gold-and-red livery, Golden Hawks pilots flew Canadian-built Canadair F-86 Sabre Mk V and Mk VI aircraft, the dominant Western jet fighters of the 1950s.
“They couldn’t have provided any better representation of the Air Force,” said Kevin Anderson, executive director of the New Brunswick Aviation Museum in Doyle’s Brook, N.B., about 35 kilometres from former RCAF Station Chatham, where the Golden Hawks were based.
“I think they’re a very underrated group in Canada. They’re not recognized for what they did.”
That may begin to change this spring, when the Golden Hawks receive the Belt of Orion Award for Excellence from Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
The award honours organizations, groups, societies or associations who have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of aviation in Canada, and this year it will be handed out at a June 15 ceremony at Vancouver International Airport.
The New Brunswick Aviation Museum nominated the Golden Hawks for the award, hoping to highlight a significant but often-overlooked story in Canada’s aviation history.
“They were basically like rock stars everywhere they went,” said Anderson, who is also a retired captain in the RCAF who served as an air weapons technician at Canadian Forces Base Chatham in the 1980s, and later served as an air navigator.
“Front page news, people lining up for hours to get in to see them, and even in places like the Calgary Stampede, where they performed, they basically stole the show…. People couldn’t get enough of them.”
The Golden Hawks formed in March 1959 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of powered flight in Canada and the 35th anniversary of the RCAF, according to literature from Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
Although it was intended to exist for only one year, the team lasted until 1964, when it was disbanded after 317 shows due to Air Force budget cuts. The team finished with a perfect serviceability rate and performed for an estimated 15 million spectators.
The Golden Hawks were seen as a symbol of the professionalism, skill and daring needed to be a fighter pilot in the RCAF, and their legacy is still felt today.
They invented new routines, including formation takeoffs and other manoeuvres that had not been done before due to their complexity and risk, according to the New Brunswick Aviation Museum.
“They pioneered a lot of stuff that you see at airshows now,” said Anderson. “And aerobatic teams around the world do things that they invented and perfected.”
Led by Squadron Leader Fern Villeneuve, the Golden Hawks are said to have revolutionized airshow performances. Among their innovations was having two solo aircraft fly directly at each other and do rolls, loops and other manoeuvres while the main part of the team was setting up for their next fly-by.
The Golden Hawks ground crew has been noted for its professionalism and credited for the team’s 100 per cent serviceability rate.
“They really were the best of the best,” said Anderson, referring to the team as a whole.
To celebrate the Golden Hawks’ Belt of Orion Award, the New Brunswick Aviation Museum is planning an event to honour the team in Miramichi, N.B.
A meet and greet is scheduled for Sept. 15, followed by a banquet on Sept. 16 and a memorial service on Sept. 17 to recognize three pilots who died while serving with the team.
It’s hoped all surviving Golden Hawks pilots and technicians and their families will attend, but the event is also open to fans and other members of the public.
The museum is accepting donations to cover expenses and is also seeking help to track down Golden Hawks technicians.
“There’s a lot of ground crew that we don’t even know their first names,” said Anderson. “We don’t know where they are; we haven’t been able to track them down.”
As for the legacy of those glimmering aircraft, the pilots who guided them and the technicians who cared for them, it lives on in the spirit of aerobatic performers who continue to captivate and inspire a new generation of aviation enthusiasts.
“It’s really hard to gauge the impact that they had, when kids go to an airshow and see a team with the latest fighters going, and just the thrills they got,” said Anderson.
“Many of them were inspired to join the RCAF while countless others pursued civilian careers in aviation.”
Anyone wishing to donate to the event can send cheques made payable to “New Brunswick Aviation Museum” to the following address:
NB Aviation Museum
1753 Rte 118
Doyle’s Brook, New Brunswick
Anyone with information about how to contact former Golden Hawks pilots and technicians can contact Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the event in September, visit the museum’s website at www.nbaviationmuseum.com.