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Seven First World War-era replica aircraft have arrived in France ahead of a ceremony that will mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The four Nieuport XI replica Scout aircraft, two Sopwith Pup replica biplanes and one replica Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 biplane, are part of Vimy Flight, a group of builders and former Canadian military pilots and will form part of Canada’s contribution to the Vimy centennial on April 9.
“I’m anxious about the weather,” said Allan Snowie, a former Royal Canadian Navy pilot and team lead for Vimy Flight. “I’m excited about the flying.”
Bad weather is the only thing that would keep the Nieuport and S.E.5 replicas from participating in the ceremony, he said.
The aircraft are slated to fly over the Vimy memorial just as members of the British royal family arrive for a commemoration that is also expected to include Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Francois Hollande.
While the two Sopwith Pup replicas were also originally slated to fly over the memorial, they will now be part of a static display.
“We had made a last-minute decision two months ago to change the engine on the two Sopwith Pups, and that put us behind the eight ball in getting them ready for flight,” said Snowie.
“It was one of these things where it was gratifying to see how the Canadian aviation community sort of closed ranks around us … Unfortunately, we didn’t get the second Sopwith Pup test-flown yet.”
All seven aircraft were packed into the belly of a 429 Transport Squadron CC-177 Globemaster III and flown from 19 Wing Comox, B.C., to Gander, Newfoundland before carrying on to Lille, France.
The Nieuports were packed with their wings on, but the Sopwith Pups and S.E.5 were packed with wings off–the only major disassembly required for the journey.
A post on the Vimy Flight Facebook page compared the packing process to the video game Tetris.
“The air force loadmasters have done a great job,” said Snowie. “I think they took it as a personal challenge.”
Snowie and fellow pilot Rod Ermen, a former member of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, are in France with the aircraft. A group of eight more pilots–there is one pilot and one backup for each aircraft–are expected arrive within the next couple of weeks.
The group will re-assemble the planes and take part in practice flying ahead of the ceremony. While the Vimy centennial is a tribute to those who fought in arguably the most celebrated military battle in Canada’s history, Snowie said the Vimy Flight pilots are not anxious about it.
“The anxiety, if there is any, is the doggone weather,” he said. “However, that’s almost a re-enactment right there of World War I. A hundred years ago it was a blizzard on the day of Vimy. Hopefully we don’t have anything like that. It’ll be blue skies.
“We’ve had a hundred years of global warming, so maybe it’ll show favour for a change. Anxiety? No, I wouldn’t use that word. We’re pretty pumped. We’re ready.”
Vimy Flight grew out of a larger project called A Nation Soars: Commemorating Canada’s Great War Flyers, which is anchored by a trilogy of one-hour documentaries.
The third documentary, Flight Path of Heroes, will focus on the Canadian Corps’ stunning victory at Vimy.
A film crew from Ottawa-based Sound Venture Productions is slated to follow Vimy Flight during its visit to France, and footage from the trip is expected to be included in the documentary.
After the 100th anniversary ceremony, Vimy Flight will take part in a small airshow in Lens, France, and then all seven aircraft will be packed back into the CC-177 and transported to 14 Wing Greenwood, N.S.
The Sopwith Pups will be test-flown and then are expected to join the Nieuport replicas on a five-month journey across Canada, stopping in communities along the way and promoting historical literacy about the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Along the way, all seven replicas are expected to take part in Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa on July 1, marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
Vimy Flight wished to thank Veterans Affairs Canada, the Royal Canadian Air Force, Air Canada, the Air Canada Pilots Association, and EF Tours for making the journey to France possible.
“I tell people we’ve come to France to commemorate Vimy,” said Snowie. “We’re returning home to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.”