Legacy of the RCAF Golden Hawks celebrated

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By John Chalmers

At the 2017 induction dinner and ceremonies of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, held in June at the Vancouver International Airport, the legendary Royal Canadian Air Force Golden Hawks aerobatic team received the Belt of Orion Award for Excellence from the Hall. The Award is given “to honour organizations, groups, societies or associations who have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of aviation in Canada”.

J.A.G. Fernand “Fern” Villeneuve who, as a squadron leader in the RCAF was the first team commander of the Golden Hawks, accepted the award. The team flew 317 incident-free performances from 1959 to 1963, but during preparations for the 1964 season, the Golden Hawks team was stood down as a result of budget cuts to the air force. Fern Villeneuve retired in the rank of wing commander with the RCAF and, in 2006, was himself inducted as a member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

On September 16, 1967, three years after the Golden Hawks’ thrilling performances ended, a Golden Hawks Appreciation Day was held at RCAF Station Chatham, New Brunswick, original home of the team.

Fifty years later to the day at Miramichi, New Brunswick, minutes away from the site of the former Chatham base (now the Miramichi Airport) “A Celebration of Excellence” was held to honour the Golden Hawks and their place in Canadian aviation.

Spearheaded by Captain (retired) Kevin Anderson, a former RCAF member and the executive director of the New Brunswick Aviation Museum, the event brought together pilots, groundcrew, and family members of Golden Hawks personnel. Activities for the 90 people attending the weekend’s program included social events, with a tribute dinner held on September 16, 2017 to honour the team as the high point of the celebration.

Speakers at the dinner included Kevin Anderson; New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor Jocelyne Roy Vienneau and RCAF deputy commander, Major-General Blaise Frawley. Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Dan Dempsey, a former team commander of the Snowbirds, spoke of the international respect held for the Golden Hawks and the team’s influence on Canada’s aerobatic teams that followed: the Golden Centennaires and today’s Snowbirds.

Former Honorary Colonel Gerald Haddon, grandson of J.A.D. McCurdy, the first person to fly in Canada, was the featured speaker. Honorary Colonel Haddon outlined his grandfather’s contributions to aviation, which were more than the first powered, heavier-than-air flight that he flew at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, on February 23, 1909.

Others speaking from the podium were local Member of Parliament, Pat Finnigan, and Jim Harrison, mayor of Quinte West, Ontario, where 8 Wing Trenton, the final home of the Golden Hawks, is located. The Government of New Brunswick and Quinte West were major financial supporters of the celebration.

An extensive exhibit of Golden Hawks memorabilia from the New Brunswick Aviation Museum was displayed throughout the weekend. Flying suits, prints of the team, the Belt of Orion certificate, models, display panels, log books and other artifacts were included. Notable among the items were five massive volumes of Golden Hawks history, photos, documents and news clippings compiled by the late crew chief Bill Briggs, who had donated them to the museum.

All in attendance received a copy of a new 94-page history about the Golden Hawks, A Celebration of Excellence, which includes photos, names of all pilots and groundcrew who served on the team, articles about the Golden Hawks that had appeared in the former RCAF journal, The Roundel, and first-person accounts by team members.

A new painting of the Golden Hawks, by aviation artist, Peter Robichaud, was also unveiled at the dinner and guests who purchased prints of the painting were busy getting them signed by Golden Hawks personnel!

Copies of both the book and the print of Mr. Robichaud’s painting can be ordered by contacting the New Brunswick Aviation Museum. A challenge ahead is to locate a permanent home for the museum.

The final event of the Golden Hawks’ weekend was a memorial service on September 17, conducted by an RCAF chaplain, Major Al Murphy. The service remembered Golden Hawks pilots who lost their lives while flying in accidents during training or practice sessions: Flight Lieutenant Leonard ”Sam” Eisler; Flight Lieutenant Jeb Kerr; Flight Lieutenant Jim McCann; and Flying Officer David Barker, who later flew with the Golden Centennaires, losing his life in a flying accident while serving with the team.

Information about all individuals and organizations honoured by Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame can be found at the Hall’s web site. The Hall encourages nomination of individuals as Members and nominations of organizations for the Belt of Orion Award. Details and nomination forms can be found at the Hall’s web site. Deadline for submission each year is May 31. The 2018 gala dinner and induction ceremonies will be held in Calgary on June 7.

Mr. Chalmers is the historian for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.


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