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At the 2017 induction dinner and ceremony for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, held in June at the Vancouver International Airport, the legendary Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Golden Hawks aerobatic team received the Belt of Orion Award for Excellence. The award is given “to honour organizations, groups, societies or associations who have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of aviation in Canada.”
Accepting the award was J.A.G. Fernand “Fern” Villeneuve, who as a squadron leader in the RCAF was the first team commander of the Golden Hawks. The team flew 317 incident-free performances from 1959 to 1963, but during preparations for the 1964 season, the Golden Hawks team was stood down as a result of budget cuts to the Air Force. Villeneuve retired as a wing commander with the RCAF and in 2006 was himself inducted as a Member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
Three years after the end of the Golden Hawks’ thrilling performances, on Sept. 16, 1967, a Golden Hawks Appreciation Day was held at RCAF Station Chatham, N.B., the team’s original home. Fifty years later, to the day, at Miramichi, N.B., minutes away from the site of the former Chatham base (now the Miramichi Airport) a “Celebration of Excellence” was held to honour the Golden Hawks and their place in Canadian aviation.
Spearheaded by retired RCAF Capt Kevin Anderson, the executive director of the New Brunswick Aviation Museum, the event brought together pilots, ground crew, and family members of Golden Hawks personnel. Activities for the 90 people attending the weekend program included social events, with a tribute dinner on Sept. 16 as the high point of the celebration.
Speakers at the dinner included Kevin Anderson; New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor Jocelyne Roy Vienneau; and RCAF Deputy Commander, Maj Gen Blaise Frawley. Retired LCol Dan Dempsey, a former team commander of the Snowbirds, spoke of the international respect held for the Golden Hawks and the team’s influence on Canada’s next generations of aerobatic teams–the Golden Centennaires and today’s Snowbirds.
The featured speaker was Gerald Haddon, grandson of J.A.D. McCurdy, the first person to fly in Canada. Haddon outlined McCurdy’s contributions to aviation, which were more than the first flight at Baddeck, N.S., on Feb. 23, 1909. Others speaking from the podium were local Member of Parliament, Pat Finnigan, and Jim Harrison, mayor of Quinte West, Ont., (formerly Trenton) which was the final home of the Golden Hawks. The Government of New Brunswick and Quinte West were major financial supporters of the celebration.
An extensive collection of Golden Hawks memorabilia from the New Brunswick Aviation Museum was displayed throughout the weekend. Flying suits, prints of the team, the Belt of Orion certificate, models, display panels, log books and other artifacts were included. Notable among the items were five massive volumes of Golden Hawks history, photos, documents and news clippings compiled by the late crew chief Bill Briggs, who had donated them to the Museum.
All in attendance received a copy of a new 94-page history about the Golden Hawks, A Celebration of Excellence, which includes photos, names of all pilots and ground crew who served on the team, articles about the Golden Hawks that had appeared in the former RCAF journal, The Roundel, and first-person accounts by team members. Unveiled at the dinner was a new painting of the Golden Hawks by aviation artist Peter Robichaud. Dinner guests who purchased prints of the painting were busy getting them signed by Golden Hawks personnel!
Copies of both the book and the print of Robichaud’s painting can be ordered by contacting the New Brunswick Aviation Museum: firstname.lastname@example.org. A challenge ahead is to locate a permanent home for the New Brunswick Aviation Museum: http://www.nbaviationmuseum.com.
The final event of the weekend honouring the Golden Hawks was a memorial service on Sept. 17, conducted by an RCAF Chaplain, Maj Al Murphy. The service was held to remember Golden Hawks pilots who lost their lives while flying in accidents during training or practice sessions: F/L Leonard “Sam” Eisler; F/L Jeb Kerr; F/L Jim McCann; and F/O David Barker, who flew later with the Golden Centennaires when a flying accident took his life.
Information about all individuals and organizations that have been honoured by Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame can be found at the Hall’s website. The Hall encourages nomination of individuals as members and nominations of organizations for the Belt of Orion Award. Details and nomination forms can be found at the Hall’s website, with a May 31 submission deadline each year. The 2018 gala dinner and induction ceremonies will be held in Calgary on June 7.
John Chalmers is the historian for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame. He may be reached at email@example.com.