Saluting the Golden Centennaires’ 50th anniversary

News Article / December 7, 2017

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By Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Dan Dempsey

It has been 50 years since Canada celebrated its 100th birthday in 1967 with one of the most unique airshow displays the nation has ever witnessed.

Early in 1966, the Canadian Armed Forces, under the command of Chief of the Defence Staff General Jean Allard, announced that they would form a new national aerobatic team for Canada’s Centennial Year in the spirit of the Royal Canadian Air Force Golden Hawks, which had thrilled millions of Canadians from 1959 to 1963. The new team would be known as the Canadian Armed Forces Golden Centennaires.

A new commander

Chief of Personnel Air Marshal Ed Reyno was directed to oversee the formation of the new team. The man he chose to organize and command the Centennaires was Wing Commander Owen Bartley “O.B.” Philp of Sidney, British Columbia. A fighter and test pilot by profession, he had participated in airshows during his career but had never been associated with an aerobatic team. However, he was known as a strong leader and superb organizer. He had handed over command of 434 Strike/Reconnaissance Squadron, which flew the CF-104 Starfighter, in Zweibrücken, West Germany, in December 1965 with no knowledge of what the future had in store for him.

The extraordinary coincidence in the handshake he exchanged that day with his successor, Wing Commander Fern Villeneuve, was that Wing Commander Villeneuve had been the original team leader of the Golden Hawks in 1959/1960. Wing Commander Philp was about to carry on the legacy that he had played a key role in creating. And both were subsequently inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame as a result.

Canada’s Centennial Year

Wing Commander Philp received his marching orders from Air Marshal Reyno in the spring of 1966 during a 10-minute briefing in the air marshal’s office at Canadian Forces Headquarters in Ottawa, Ontario. The mandate was clear: to commemorate Canada’s Centennial Year and the 50th year of military aviation in Canada through a national tour that would begin and end at Expo 67 in Montreal, Québec. Other than those guidelines, he would have carte blanche in organizing a team that would utilize the RCAF’s new basic jet trainer, the Canadair CL-41 Tutor (designated the CT-114 by the RCAF).

With less than a year to build his team from scratch, Wing Commander Philp wasted no time in researching and selecting his team leader, Squadron Leader Clarence B. Lang, who had flown the slot position with the Golden Hawks in 1963 right up until their disbandment in 1964. With the disappointment that had swept the RCAF with the announcement of the Hawks’ demise on that fateful day of February 7, the excitement was palpable in the spring of 1966 with the announcement that Canada would have a new national aerobatic team.

Before he knew it, Wing Commander Philp had 76 pilot applications from across the RCAF on his desk, all who eagerly wanted to fly with the new team. The first one selected was a veteran airshow performer, Flight Lieutenant Dave Barker, who had been a solo with the Hawks in 1963-64 and a former RCAF Red Knight. Ultimately, through a highly competitive tryout of the 14 pilots deemed most suitable and available to join the team, the final seven pilots were selected on what would become a nine-plane team, all of whom had flown the F-86 Sabre with the RCAF’s No. 1 Air Division in Europe.

The Centennaires officially stood up on September 1, 1966, at their home base of Canadian Forces Base Portage la Prairie, in Manitoba, and started practising on September 6. Squadron Leader Lang’s plan was to feature a nine-plane opening sequence and then to split off three solo aircraft that would then intersperse with the six remaining Tutors flying various formations. Unfortunately, tragedy struck early in October; Flight Lieutenant Tom Bebb was killed when his Tutor crashed not far from Portage during a solo practice. He had recently designed the team’s official crest, so while his accident represented a tremendous loss to the team, his memory would live on through the beautiful shoulder patch he had created.

Vintage biplanes added

Early on, during deliberations about the new team, Canadian Forces Headquarters had decided to acquire and refurbish two vintage Avro 504K biplanes to commemorate 1967 as the 50th anniversary of military aviation in Canada. The old Avros had been used as trainers in the early days of the RCAF. This initiative presented many challenges, both in their restoration (virtually a new build) completed at No. 6 Repair Depot at CFB Trenton, Ontario, and in learning to fly the aircraft without the benefit of long lost “handling notes.” Both volunteer pilots, Flight Lieutenant’s George Greff and Gord Brown, did a wonderful job in saluting the pioneering days of aviation in Canada – and both became experts at deadstick landings! Their signature manoeuvre was a “falling leaf”, and they became a popular addition to the show when they could coax their finicky le Rhone engines to life.

Appropriately, their call sign became “Old Gold” and those involved with the 504K wore a unique shoulder patch designed by team technician, Corporal Bill Ewing.

Supersonic duo makes the team

In order to contrast the enormous advances in aviation that had taken place over the previous five decades, Wing Commander Philp sought and received permission to add a supersonic duo to the Centennaire show using Canada’s two frontline fighters of the day: the CF-104 Starfighter, which was primarily based in Europe in a nuclear strike and reconnaissance role, and the CF-101 Voodoo, which was based in Canada as the nation’s all-weather supersonic interceptor.

The two pilots who would fly this unforgettable display were Flight Lieutenants René Serrao and Jake Miller, both of whom were regarded as outstanding aerobatic demo pilots. They lived up to their reputation, treating spectators to a thundering solo and formation aerobatic display for 10 minutes immediately before the Tutor demonstration. By the end of the season, they would perform 82 shows across Canada. Their show was raw power at its best and set the stage for the intricate aerial ballet of coloured smoke that was to follow. While Flight Lieutenants Serrao and Miller worked up their individual solo displays in Cold Lake, Alberta, and Chatham, New Brunswick, respectively, the main team of Centennaires continued with their practices in Portage until they deployed to CFB Comox, British Columbia, in January 1967 for their final workups in preparation for the airshow season.

Meanwhile, Wing Commander Philp had recruited Squadron Leader Lloyd Hubbard, the last leader of the Golden Hawks, to help coordinate the massive undertaking that was about to take place. All was going well until the middle of February when a mid-air occurred during a nine-plane practice that took the life of lead solo Dave Barker. With so little time remaining until the start of the season there was no time available to train a new pilot so the team unanimously resolved to carry on as an eight-plane formation for the balance of the year.

In resuming their workups in Comox, they became the first team in the world to take off and land eight aircraft in formation.

The famous Red Knight

There was a fourth element to the Golden Centennaires’ show: the inclusion of the RCAF’s beautiful Red Knight solo display in the T-33 Silver Star that had been thrilling airshow audiences across Canada since its first appearances in 1958.

Canadian Forces Headquarters had soon discovered that it would be impossible to fulfill all of the airshow requests that had inundated the team for Canada’s Centennial. Thus, by integrating the schedules of the main team with the Red Knight, maximum coverage of the country was achieved and almost every community who wanted a show got one. Veteran instructor Flight Lieutenant Jack Waters was selected as the 1967 Red Knight with Flying Officer Rod Ellis as his capable alternate. The scarlet-red jets were impossible to miss as they wove their way across Canada on their own grueling schedule, a magnet to young and old eyes alike. All told, 101 Red Knight shows were performed in 1967, including seven major shows that were flown with the rest of the Centennaires’ team.

Expo 67

True to form, the Golden Centennaires opened Expo 67 on April 27 with a spectacular 11-plane formation flypast featuring the eight Golden Tutors with the Red Knight tucked in behind, the Starfighter and Voodoo on either wing. It was a sight to behold. The next day the entire team performed their first official show of the season over “Man and His World”.

From their very first day of operation, enormous credit must be paid to the 67 aviation technicians who serviced the team’s Tutors, Starfighter, Voodoo, Avro 504K’s and T-33’s over seven months of practices and the 184-day airshow tour that ensued. Transport Command provided CC-130 Hercules aircraft to ferry the Avro 504K’s as well as technicians to every show site; they even acted as ground refuelers in some of the more remote locations where the team performed. The logistic tail needed to keep such a diverse team operational on the road was long and complicated.

Centennaires a smash hit in the United States

Following the closing ceremonies at Expo 67 on October 15, 1967, the Golden Centennaires Tutor team was invited to fly seven shows in the United States on a sojourn that eventually took them all the way to Freeport in the Bahamas for two shows. By the time the season was over following their last show on November 18 at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the team had attended scores of public relations events while performing a total of 121 shows, setting a Canadian record that will never be matched. They had treated Canadians to a phenomenal demonstration that showcased our aviation heritage in grand style.

While there have been many accolades for the Centennaires’ show by those fortunate enough to have seen it, O.B. Philp’s “Flying Circus” was eloquently described by the late Bill Johnson in his book Airshow!, in which he wrote, “Theirs had to be the most intricate demonstration routine ever flown. Some of the maneuvers are almost impossible to understand, even with the diagrams that I have before me – yet they were performed with a precision and grace that made my scalp tingle. This was airmanship and showmanship at its best … These guys were something else!”

And just to underscore that sentiment, legendary airshow performer Bob Hoover watched the Centennaire performance at Nellis, home of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, and subsequently wrote to O.B. Philp, stating, in part: “Beyond any question, the demonstration by your team members at Nellis Air Force Base was by far the most outstanding that I have ever seen. I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I was to learn that this was to be your last demonstration flight … I would be grateful if you could convey my great respect and admiration to your team members. They are the greatest.”

The official disbandment of the Centennaires took place on January 12, 1968, at CFB Portage (the Red Knight would continue to fly in 1968 and part of 1969). Although they flew under the banner of the Canadian Armed Forces in 1967, the team also represented the swan song for the RCAF itself, which ceased to exist when the unification of Canada’s three military services took place on February 1st. The team had epitomized the proud traditions established by the RCAF over 44 years of war and peace, motivating untold thousands of young Canadians to aviation careers as pilots, technicians or support personnel. And while their disbandment was met with widespread disappointment across the nation, they set the stage for the creation of yet another magnificent team that would be formed just over two years later.

Memories and new beginnings

Today, as we salute the 50th anniversary of the Golden Centennaires and the wonderful memories they left us, the guardians of their proud heritage are the Canadian Armed Forces Snowbirds who have now been captivating North American audiences for 47 consecutive years.

As Canada’s aerial ambassadors, they fly in the spirit of the Golden Centennaires, Golden Hawks and all of the many teams that have graced Canadian skies for more than nine decades. They continue to do our nation proud. May the legacy long continue.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 edition of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame newsletter, The Flyer, and is translated and reproduced with the permission of the CAHF and the author.

Dan Dempsey is a former Snowbird solo pilot and commanding officer/team leader. He was also a demo pilot on the “Hawk One” Golden Hawk F-86 Sabre from 2009 to 2012, flying airshows across Canada. His highly acclaimed book, A Tradition of Excellence - Canada’s Airshow Team Heritage (www.CanadasAirshowHeritage.com), chronicles the history of Canada’s airshow teams in considerable detail.

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