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.