Replica war planes take flight at Vimy 100th Anniversary

Captain Brent Handy, an RCAF pilot from 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, will fly Bill O’Reilly’s Nieuport IIs in the historic flypast during the main ceremony at Vimy Ridge next month. Photo by Major Dave Wood

Captain Brent Handy, an RCAF pilot from 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, will fly Bill O’Reilly’s Nieuport IIs in the historic flypast during the main ceremony at Vimy Ridge next month. Photo by Major Dave Wood

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

At the moment when five replica First World War planes make a symbolic pass over Vimy Ridge Memorial April 9, Major (Retired) Paul O’Reilly says he will be choking back tears.

The fly over is part of the Veterans Affairs Canada-led ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and retired military pilots and one from the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) will be in the cockpit.

Two Sopwith Pups, four Nieuport 11s, and one SE5 were placed into a CC-177 Globemaster III and flown to France March 15. The Sopwith Pup replicas, built by Canadian Museum of Flight volunteers along with air cadets from 746 Lightening Hawk Squadron at Langley, British Columbia, will be used for static displays.

One of those Nieuports belongs to O’Reilly. The single seat French fighter plane is affectionately nicknamed Bébé by French pilots, but re-dubbed Pokey by O’Reilly. With careful precision the planes were loaded into the belly of the massive transport aircraft as proud owners closely watched.

“My wife Nancy could see I was really getting choked up because it was like seeing a dream come to fruition and realizing this was actually happening. Attending the ceremony will be a far more emotional moment for me,” says O’Reilly.

The 69-year-old Brentwood Bay resident enjoyed a 34-year military career as a Sea King pilot with the RCAF, and later as a flight instructor. He also worked at CFB Esquimalt from 1995 to 1999 in an administrative position with the Maritime Air Group Detachment (Pacific).

“After I retired from the military I mistakenly thought that was it for my flying career and aviation, it was done for good, over and out,” he says.

But he didn’t stay away long. While driving by the Victoria International Airport a few years back he noticed two Nieuports landing. He went to the airport to investigate and discovered one was piloted by a former member of his Squadron, Allan Snowie.

This re-acquaintance led them on a two-year journey to rebuild a replica Nieuport near Snowie’s home in Bellingham, Wash.

“While he had a flyable Nieuport he had another that was still in pieces when I first saw it,” says O’Reilly.

The finished plane has some design differences such as a more reliable and efficient Volkswagen engine, which also eliminates the nasty early aviation reality of oil-soaked exhaust spraying back into the pilot’s face. Plus a more durable and lighter aluminum frame instead of wood, and a flame-resistant Ceconite, polyester interior. The plane was also built to a scale of roughly seven-eighths of its original size.

O’Reilly was hoping to fly the plane at the Vimy Ridge event, but just two months ago his ­doctor grounded him because of a medical condition. Climbing into the cockpit of the Nieuport will be Captain Brent Handy, 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, a former Snowbirds and CF-188 Hornet pilot who, outside his military duties, also flies a Pitts Special aerobatic biplane on the North American airshow circuit.

Capt Handy is bringing his wife Rebecca, and son Evan, 9, and daughter Grace, 6, to Vimy to witness the flight.

“It will be a defining moment for them to learn about the sacrifices made by soldiers and airmen at Vimy,” says Capt Handy. “I feel like I have won the lottery because these honourable gentlemen are entrusting me with their airplane and I’m completely stoked and honoured to be representing the RCAF with this flight.”

Each of the five planes will honour a First World War aviation hero. O’Reilly’s plane will fly in honour of flying ace and Air Commodore Alan Duncan Bell-Irving, who was credited with seven aerial victories while serving with the Royal Flying Corps.

O’Reilly will also take part in the “A Nation Soars” project that involves a cross-Canada tour of interactive events, flights and appearances by pilots over the summer months. A Nation Soars includes a series of documentaries narrated by Canadian actor Dan Aykroyd in English, and in French by Canadian explorer and mountaineer Bernard Voyer.

More information on Vimy Flight can be found at www.vimyflight.ca.

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