GATINEAU—Only once did age betray 97-year-old Ernie Allen.
Where once he could bound into the cramped cockpit of his Spitfire in a fluid motion in the rush to get airborne, on this day he needed help to clamber onto the wing and then into the seat.
“Legs didn’t want to bend,” he chuckled.
But once settled, the grin said it all. It had been 75 years since this Second World War veteran last sat in the cockpit of the storied Spitfire, yet it all came flooding back.
The view forward through the perspex canopy along the nose cowling, with exhaust stacks protruding from the Merlin engine and beyond that the big four-bladed prop. Gracefully tapered wings stretched out to each side.
In the cockpit, the controls fell easily to hand — the control stick in the right, throttle under the left, just as they did in countless missions so many decades ago.
“When you think that thing has stood up all those years,” said Allen. “It’s the best plane that was ever built. It’s the most secure airplane … you could do anything with it.”
But Allen was reunited with more than a machine on this August day. He got to huddle with modern-day pilots of the Royal Air Force, all elite members of the Red Arrows’ aerobatic display team, whom he enthralled with tales of his wartime exploits.
This day at the air show — and its series of remarkable encounters — all started in a library.
Tracy Facchin is a public service supervisor at the Stittsville branch of the Ottawa Public Library. During her years at the branch, she and her co-workers have gotten to know Allen, a library regular, and his past as an RAF veteran.
When she told co-workers Tuesday morning that the Red Arrows were performing that afternoon at nearby Gatineau airport, they all had the same thought.
“They all looked at me and said ‘Ernie.’ They said you have to go,” she recalled.
No, replied Facchin, explaining that she had to work. “They said, ‘We’ll cover, you need to go. Go call him right now,’” she said.
Facchin rang Allen just as he was finishing breakfast and asked if he would like to see the Red Arrows perform. He cancelled lunch plans and jumped at the chance.
When they got to show site, they found they weren’t alone. There was an hour-long wait for the shuttle bus to the airport from the parking. As they waited in the hot sun, Facchin admits she had second thoughts about her day’s plan.
That prompted her to ask at the entrance if there was special seating for veterans. And that’s when things got special.
A golf cart pulled up to whisk them to a VIP tent where British High Commissioner Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque was hosting a reception to mark the Red Arrows’ first North American tour in 11 years. (The team will perform in Toronto at Canadian National Exhibition air show over the Labour Day weekend.)
From the comfort of a seat in the shade, Allen watched the show that included two Spitfires growling across the sky and the dramatic Red Arrows’ performance.
And then came a special invitation to the hangar that houses Vintage Wings’ collection of historic aircraft, including the Spitfire that had flown in the show.
Sitting the cockpit, Allen recounted how Spitfire pilots took off with the canopy open. That way, if they crashed on takeoff there wasn’t a risk of a closed canopy getting jammed, leaving them trapped inside. But after takeoff, it was a rush to get the gear retracted and the canopy closed, which he demonstrated by reaching behind his head and easily finding the handle.
“Then we had to check in with the controller to report we were airborne. He’d say, ‘What took you so long?’ I’m thinking, ‘It was only two minutes,’” Allen said.
It took several people to help him out of the cockpit. He turned and eyed the plane’s graceful lines. “Once you flew a Spitfire, you didn’t want to fly anything else,” said Allen, who held the rank of warrant officer.
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The stars this day were the Red Arrow pilots in their distinctive red flight suits. They are the fighter pilots of this generation, all with experience flying fast jets such as Harriers and Tornadoes and time in front-line squadrons.
But Allen was the centre of the attention as he held court among the younger air force flyers, one hand resting easily on a cannon protruding from the Spitfire’s wing, the other — as pilots often do when conversing — demonstrating aerial manoeuvresue=”252″/>“When you look them in the eye, it’s not a 96- or 97-year-old man that is staring back at you, it’s a 21-year-old. He was still in that cockpit and their memories are just so sharp and they are talking about things that you can absolutely relate to as a pilot that for them are 70, sometimes 80 years ago, but might as well have been yesterday,” Squadron Leader Martin Pert, the Red Arrows’ team leader, said later.
“Looking back at the historical aircraft that they flew and just how they did it with gumption, lack of training, just sheer audacity in the face of what was at that time barrelling down upon them a huge enemy, I think is just massively inspiring,” Pert said.
“Modern warfare is entirely different. We’re not looking at the whites of people’s eyes anymore … whereas those guys, it was raw flying … multiple times a day with no expectation upon them other than to do their absolute best because the whole country’s safety is in their hands.”.
Later in the war, Allen moved to the Hawker Typhoon, which was used for ground attacks. He recalled that life then was always on the move as aircrews kept up with the advancing Allied ground forces. “We went all the way through France and Germany,” he said.
That history struck a chord with Flt.-Lt. Dan Lowes. Prior to joining the Red Arrows, he had flown the modern-day Typhoon, a sophisticated twin-engine jet fighter able to fly twice the speed of sound and down enemy jets beyond visual range.
He couldn’t resist pulling out his phone and asking a bystander to snap a picture of him alongside Allen. “He’s amazing. First, he’s a hero. And these guys are the stuff of history books that inspired all of us to join the military,” Lowes said.
Allen downplayed the admiration.
“These guys here, they’re in a different world now, jet flying is so different,” he said. “I’m just an old guy running around in an old plane.”
At the end of the day, there was no waiting for a shuttle bus to get back to the car. The high commissioner dispatched her Jaguar to take them back to the parking lot.
On the drive home, Allen was “flying on a whole different level. He was so pumped with adrenalin,” Facchin said.
“It was meant to be a fun day for him, something exciting, and it just snowballed into something that was just unbelievable,” she said.
And yes, Allen stopped by the library on Wednesday to relive the memories of the day.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier