Air Show Memories
By Sam Longo AME A&P
I was sitting in the lunchroom, eating my ham sandwich when Kurt Schueller, our sharp-eyed crew inspector, casually commented while watching an approach to runway 23. “That Thunderbird doesn’t have its gear down, he must be doing a high speed pass.” Seven minutes later our shift foreman burst into the room simultaneously announcing, “A Thunderbird just landed, gear up!”
Life was always a little more interesting at the Air Canada Maintenance Hangar when the CNE Air Show came to town. All the larger aircraft and the display teams would begin to arrive the week leading up to the CNE Air Show on Labor Day weekend. Anything that could not be accommodated at the Toronto Island Airport came to roost at our hangar, which made for some very interesting visitors.
It was great to get up close and personal with otherwise off limits aircraft such as the SR71 Blackbird. Its dark titanium skin oozing fluids all over our tarmac, just like all the books said, and watching the pilot hobble into the cockpit outfitted in his full NASA space suit. We were also fortunate enough, while helping out some of the ground crews, to get exclusive tours of aircraft such as the RAF’s Avro Vulcan Bomber and Hawker Siddeley Nimrod (the ill fated aircraft that later perished in the waters of Lake Ontario in September 1995).
We watched the RAF run up one of their Harrier Jump Jets with David Gilmour on board. (Front man for Pink Floyd, see “Close to Famous” December January 2007) All the major display teams showed up over the years. We were treated to the pomp and ceremony of the simultaneous, saluting and cockpit closing choreography of the USAF Thunderbirds, US Navy Blue Angels, the flamboyant Italian Frecce Tricolori, and of course our very own Canadian Forces Snowbirds.
It was always a pleasure chatting with the ground crews from around the world and comparing notes on the business of aircraft maintenance. We also benefited on a few occasions from their unique sense of humor. I recall walking out of the hangar one morning to discover a small sign on a pedestal at the end of a long line of military aircraft. It read “State of the Art – US Air Force Stealth Fighter”. Directly behind the sign were two perfectly chocked nose wheels and four precisely spaced and chocked main wheels. We all got quite a chuckle out of that one.
All joking aside, however the Thunderbird that had landed gear up wasn’t about to disappear, though I am sure the Thunderbird team had wished it could. The aircraft was a special two-seater display model specifically set up for taking the local media folks for promotional joy rides. On the day of the incident an attractive young female reporter was riding shotgun. Apparently the landing was so smooth she didn’t even realize anything was amiss. I am sure the pilot soon figured it out, when it required full power to taxi!
A maintenance crew was subsequently dispatched to jack it up and despite the pilot’s adamant claim of a landing gear malfunction the wheels miraculously extended and locked. The damaged Thunderbird was unceremoniously towed and deposited into the old, then unused DC8 Hangars parallel to Airport Road. Towards the end of our shift, when our work was done, we ventured over to have a closer look. The US Air Force technicians that were assigned to take care of that specific aircraft did not look happy. A dark cloud seemed to hang over each of them as they tried to determine what to do with the otherwise gleaming but badly scarred and damaged aircraft. It was already covered over with a large tarp. This was obviously not the sort of PR the Thunderbirds had envisioned. We asked to take a peek and the technicians reluctantly allowed us to pull back the tarp for a closer inspection of the aircraft’s under belly. I had never seen the damage created by a gear up landing before, let alone on a high speed fighter aircraft. The entire lower skin was worn away, with bulkheads and stringers worn down to the point that components and accumulators were beginning to be ground away as well. It was as though the aircraft had been carefully placed against the world’s largest grinding wheel.
Rumor has it that the US Air Force had every intention of patching it up and flying it back to the United States, but Transport Canada stepped in and after inspecting the damage, refused to allow it to fly in Canadian airspace. Whether that part of the story is accurate or not remains to be seen. However, the forlorn aircraft did remain in the darkened hangar, covered by the tarp for sometime. A few weeks later a C5 Galaxy arrived complete with tools and a full maintenance crew. The wings of the Thunderbird were quickly removed and it was expertly loaded into the cavernous cargo hold, completing their somewhat embarrassing rescue mission. As always the US Air Force put on an excellent show right to the bitter end, and in spite of Transport Canada’s regulations, the battered Thunderbird did; in fact, fly home in classic American style.
By Sam Longo AME A&P
For most Aircraft Mechanics, getting to work continues to be a mundane routine reality. Over the years, however, being a diehard gear-head often made my Hangar commute slightly more enjoyable. The destinations remained the same but the diversity of vehicles always seemed to enhance the journey.
When Nordair in Montreal hired me in 1975, it was time to buy a car. In a last minute flurry of activity I received the insurance money from my recently demolished 1971 Honda 750 (that’s another story!) and hastily purchased a 1969 Mustang Mach 1. It was the day before my departure and despite the cars good looks and 351 cubic inch V8 it proved to be a rather poor choice. On that first run to Montreal its fuel and oil consumption were tied for first place. It soon became clear that beneath the gleaming chrome and shiny paint was just another clapped out, well abused, muscle car. That winter I recall walking to work a lot! Fortunately I had an apartment on Dorval Ave. so it wasn’t far to “snowshoe” to the Nordair hangar.
In the spring of 1976, after returning from Frobisher Bay, I purchased a beautiful, low mileage, 1974 MGB. The Mustang at this point had a rebuilt engine and still proved to be a clanking, cantankerous beast, so I sold it. Two weeks later it threw a rod. I felt bad and gave the new owner most of his money back and told him to keep the damn car. I never wanted to see it again.
Fortunately the MGB proved to be a real gem. With optional electric overdrive, it was a joy to drive. On one memorable trip, after working all night followed by an equally busy morning in Dorval, I headed to Toronto. I was tired but figured if I kept the roof down the windblast would help to keep me awake. I suddenly awoke at the wheel with the sound of gravel under the wheels. The electric overdrive was doing a fine job and the speedometer was reading 95 MPH. I was gently fishtailing on the soft shoulder of the 401. I cautiously nudged the car back on to the asphalt and the subsequent adrenalin rush kept me wide-awake for the balance of my journey.
When I started work at DeHavilland I still had the MGB. Its two small six-volt batteries buried behind the seats was the cars one “Achilles heel”. To remedy this issue I extended the cables into the trunk connecting them to a very large 12-volt battery. I took great delight in the cold dead of winter, boosting stranded Chevy’s and Fords from the “boot” of my British sports car!
The MG was sold to purchase my current Honda CB750, which still resides in my garage. I then purchased a 1969 Semi-Automatic VW Beetle as a winter beater for $300. I always wore a full snowsuit and carried an ice scraper while driving in winter due to its rotted out heater channels, but it never let me down. I was constantly getting pulled over by the cops due to its different colored fenders, so on a hot sunny day I painted it with a gallon of gloss-black Tremclad using a quality brush. It looked great, and after three years of faithful service I sold it for $295 to a fellow mechanic at Air Canada.
Air Canada’s improved paychecks finally allowed me the luxury of another sports car, so I purchased a 1973 Datsun 240Z. I installed fiberglass fenders, an Ansa exhaust and had it painted Ferrari red. It was a terrific car despite its ongoing corrosion issues. Before its fall from grace I also installed stainless steel floor panels, severely testing my somewhat rusty sheet-metal skills.
Next came a pristine 1979 Ford Mustang, “Cobra Edition”. In contrast to my earlier bad luck, this Pony Car proved to be a reliable steed so long as it never saw snow. I subsequently sold it to a good friend to finance a 1985 Lotus Super Seven replica. The Super Seven was a Canadian built hybrid with a Toyota 1600 Twin Cam engine, utilizing twin Solex carburetors and a 5-speed transmission. The little Seven was a blast to drive but could only be used in perfect weather, so once again I went shopping for a winter beater. A succession of mid seventies Honda Civics got me through the next three winters. They were all cheap, rusty and reliable, with the added luxury of working heat.
The Lotus was eventually sold to the foreman of Air Canada’s Engine Overhaul shop in Montreal. On a sunny dry November day I bundled up and after a very long cold ride parked it in his immaculate garage. I was still shivering after flying home to Toronto on a company pass.
All of these cars were good fun and trigger great memories of my days working in the industry. As for that original Mustang, I got a call long after I sold it from the RCMP. Apparently it was involved in some kind of bank robbery. I sure hope it wasn’t their only getaway car because it rarely got me to work! I guess its true what they say about men and boys. The only real difference is the price of their toys. Fortunately, growing old may be mandatory, but growing up is still optional.