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Why that plane is here

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When you're a child and you see a massive airplane suspended on three posts, you ask questions.

Like: "Why is that plane here?"

The answers led a young farm boy to learn what war is, to discover Canada had played a pretty big role in something called the Second World War and to understand that war wasn't just something impersonal that happened far away -- it had touched the lives of relatives, neighbours and many, many other people around the Ontario town of Goderich, where I grew up.

No one around me talked about the war. So the Lancaster bomber that sat on cement pillars at Goderich Airport was a trigger for my learning.

Today the plane -- the very same Lancaster that sat for years suspended in the air, but never in flight -- serves the same purpose for all Canadians as it did for me, operating as a flying museum to demonstrate the proud history of the Lancaster and its role in the Second World War.

The airplane was a fixture of my youth, on display in Goderich for a decade from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. It was through the Lancaster that I learned about the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and how Goderich had hosted Elementary Flying School No. 12 to train Commonwealth pilots, who learned how to take off and land on the cliffs along Lake Huron, which had air currents similar to those over the English Channel, or so I was told as a child.

There is still a small museum at the terminal building, dedicated to the students who trained there during the war.

The military air school was long gone by the 1960s, and most of the Lancasters that survived the war had been decommissioned and sold for scrap. But the Goderich Royal Canadian Legion stepped in to save this particular plane, sending a letter to Paul Hellyer, minister of national defence at the time, who authorized its sale in 1964. Then the plane took what was expected to be its final flight -- to Goderich Airport.

"I remember the day it came in," says Ken Bogie, a youth at the time who is now the airport manager. "It came in from the southeast. At first sight it looked like a stick coming through the air."

It was eventually mounted, alongside a tank. It was quite a sight -- the wingspan is 31 metres, it is 21 metres long and six metres high.

In war, Lancasters were never expected to last long -- they averaged about 100 flying hours -- because of the precarious missions they flew over enemy territory.

This particular Lancaster, known as Lancaster B X FM-213, endured because of sheer luck -- both good and bad. It never saw service in the Second World War and was put into storage. It was converted to do Maritime patrols, but was damaged during a landing on the way to a base in Nova Scotia. It was considered unsalvageable, but put into storage -- again -- until parts were found. Finally, it went into service in the RCAF and clocked 4,392 hours prior to being retired in 1963.

As a child, I thought the airplane had reached its final resting place watching over tiny Goderich Airport -- where I took my first flight in a small plane piloted by Ken Bogie, the older brother of one of my best childhood friends.

But it wasn't easy to keep the Lancaster safe in peacetime, not from vandals and years of exposure to the elements.

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum purchased the Lancaster in 1977. The fuselage was finally airlifted away from Goderich in 1979.

A small army of volunteers and staff with the museum carried out the restoration over the next decade until, at last, in September 1988, the Lancaster flew again, a permanent reminder of the Canadian connection to the bomber. Thousands of Canadian aircrew served with Lancaster squadrons in the war, and thousands of Canadians at home worked at Victory Aircraft in Toronto where they produced more than 400 Lancasters.

The restored aircraft -- like me -- is linked to both Goderich and Winnipeg. The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum dedicated it as the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster in memory of Winnipeg pilot Andrew Mynarski, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in June 1944 when his Lancaster bomber was shot down by a Luftwaffe fighter. Mynarski, his clothing on fire, tried in vain to free a trapped gunner from the jammed rear turret as the Lancaster plummeted to the ground. The gunner lived to tell the story. Mynarski died from his severe burns.

It is now the only Lancaster flying in North America and it has travelled to air shows across the continent. This summer it will stop in Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Calgary, Abbotsford, Edmonton and Windsor. People here will be able to get their own taste of history when it visits the Western Canada Aviation Museum from July 29 to Aug. 2.

Perhaps when it is in Winnipeg, some child will visit the Western Canada Aviation Museum, look up at the Lancaster and ask: "Why is that plane here?" And so will begin another Canadian's education on the Second World War.


Bob Cox is publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2010 A16


Updated on Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 11:51 AM CDT: Adds updated photo.

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.


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