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Volunteer project takes flight

Members of Langley's Canadian Museum of Flight tasked with building pair of replica First World War fighter planes
Retired Air Canada pilots Peter Thornton and Allan Snowie will be joining the replica Sopwith Pup biplanes on a flyover of Vimy Ridge at the 100th anniversary in April

There was a rumble of excitement at the Canadian Museum of Flight Friday morning as four volunteers were sent off to Airdrome Aeroplanes in Holdren, Missouri.

Sam Beljanski, Ray Sessenden, Al MacDonald and Steve Chamberlain will have two weeks in the U.S. to learn everything there is to know about assembling a replica Sopwith Pup biplane.

The team, along with 25 other Museum of Flight volunteers, will build two replicas of the First World War fighter planes to be used in a flyover ceremony in France during the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April, 2017.

The project, Wings of Courage, is the second installment of the education program, A Nation Soars — Commemorating Canada’s Great War Flyers.

After flying through French skies, the pilots will return home for a Canadian tour, where they will stop at schools and events throughout the country to teach Canadian aviation history in the First World War.

Part of this includes celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday in Ottawa on July 1, 2017.

The final resting place for the planes will be back at the Canadian Museum of Flight in Langley.

“It’s exciting,” said Dave Arnold, vice president of the Canadian Museum of Flight.

“I’m a pilot, I love the museum and having these two aircraft will be a feather in our cap.”

During the flyover, the two Sopwith Pup biplanes will be joined by a trio of Nieuport 11s, smaller fighter planes from the same era.

Flying these planes is a bit like riding in a “three-dimensional motorcycle,” said Allan Snowie, a retired Air Canada pilot who will be flying one of the Nieuport 11s over Vimy Ridge.

“People who ride motorcycles get to have the wind in their face and they understand the freedom that you feel,” he said.

“Or, yesterday it was the rain in our face,” added Peter Thornton, also a retired Air Canada pilot, who will be flying with Snowie.

“It’s lots of fun,” Thornton said. “It’s just stick and rudder — it’s very basic rudimentariness of flying, which all pilots enjoy doing.”

The Langley museum was chosen to construct the two biplanes over any other facility in Canada because of the past experience of its volunteers in building vintage planes.

Though the museum originally committed to building just one plane, they have now been asked to create a second one.

It’s going to be a lot of work — Arnold estimates it will take 2,500 man-hours to have the plans completed by June, 2016 — but it’s an opportunity none of them would dream of passing up.

They plan on involving members of  the cadet program to educate the new generation of pilots on what pilots their age experienced going into battle 100 years ago.

A documentary and feature are also being made by Sound Venture Productions and Canadian Geographic.

Dan Ferguson/Langley Times

A replica of a Sopwith Camel fighter plane was put on display outdoors on Canada Day by the Canadian Museum of Flight. A team of volunteers has been tasked with building two replicas as part of the Wings of Courage project.