Article: Last Flight of CF-THS

  • Image of Air Canada Vickers Viscount

    Fall, 2015, Altitude
    by Jim Griffith

    Late August, 1983, was hot and muggy in Winnipeg. I was on a lawn chair in my backyard looking at the condensation droplets on the side of the tankard holding my first ice-cold beer of the day. The phone rang. It was my good friend Gerry Norberg.

    “Jim” he said, “Have you still got a Viscount endorsement on your licence?”

    “Yes I do Gerry. What’s up?” I replied.

    Gerry explained that the aviation museum had just moved into the former Trans-Canada Air Lines hangar in Winnipeg where it planned to display a Vickers Viscount. He said the museum’s Viscount was in storage in a former RCAF hangar at Gimli. “The plane was flown up there from Montreal last year but now two of the four engines are time-expired and to make it airworthy for a flight to Winnipeg they need to swap two engines with Beaver Industries.”

    “And?” I interrupted.

    “They need someone to fly it to Winnipeg. They don’t have the money to pay anybody.”

    I mulled over the possible implications of this oblique request. Back in those days, when cars had fins, there were no requirements to keep endorsements current nor were endorsements required for co-pilots. I countered with the question: “How about coming along for the ride?”

    Without hesitation, he answered, “Sure.”

    “That settles it then. Let’s do it but when?” I enquired.

    “They had to take the rudder off to get it into the hangar, so as soon as they finish changing the engines and put the tail back on–probably three weeks.”

    Gerry and I drove to Gimli to have an advance look. Seeing the aircraft, my heart sank. Sundry bits of airplane were scattered over the hangar floor, two of the four engines were missing. I had second thoughts.

    We would have to test run the engines at full power. To do this we would have to blast down the runway at takeoff speed, check power output and then stop before the end of the runway. Two problems: First, if there was wind it had to be right down the runway because without a rudder we would have insufficient directional control. Second, after sitting in storage, how reliable were
    the brakes?

    Two weeks later, we returned to find everything in its proper place–except the tail; you can’t fly without one. However, weather and maintenance gods smiled and the test run proved satisfactory. It felt weird to roll down the runway well beyond rotation speed and fight the natural instinct to pull back on the control column and become airborne.

    With the tail at last in place, the day of the big event, September 17, 1983, dawned bright and clear with a strong south wind that blew straight down the departure and arrival runways.

    There was, however, a pre-flight warning from the museum’s maintenance chief who said “look boys I’d rather you didn’t bring the gear up after takeoff. I’m not 100 per cent sure they will come down again for the landing at Winnipeg. I think the down locks are a bit dodgy.”

    I was disappointed, but I agreed to the request because I could not risk the hundreds of volunteer hours he and the museum team had spent restoring this aircraft to flying condition for no other reason than to do a high-speed, victory flypast over Winnipeg. The homecoming of CF-THS would have to be like that of all the Viscounts that had served the airline so well–steadfast, reliable, and unpretentious.

    I climbed into the left seat and with difficulty overcame a sense of nostalgia for the five years I had spent flying this airplane and its sister ships through Canadian skies; the Viscount years were the best of my flying career. There was an eerie, alien strangeness in the cockpit that I had not anticipated. As Gerry clambered into the right seat and began reciting the liturgy of the checklist, the old black magic came back and by the time we taxied out to the runway I was at home.

    The takeoff was nothing like I remembered, nor were the control responses. Thirteen years of hydraulically augmented controls and positive takeoff rotations on DC-9s and 727s left me unprepared for the seemingly strange lift off. We had a strong wind right on the nose. That, and the resulting low ground speed gave the sensation of rising horizontally similar to riding an elevator; it was so unlike the pitched up, nose-high attitude of a jet. In the climb and cruise, there was not much attitude difference. There wasn’t time on the 40-minute flight to Winnipeg to allow Gerry much time at the controls; a couple of short turns either way and that was it. We made a low pass over the meager welcoming crowd–our speed governed by the extended landing gear. The approach speeds and landing attitude were not unlike those of a jet and we landed smoothly.

    We taxied in, I set the brakes, reached over and pulled all four HP cocks to “fuel off.” There is something about shutting down engines after a flight–it has a finality about it that is like an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence. As the ear-splitting whistle of the Dart engines echoing off the surrounding buildings gave way to silence, nothing stirred in the empty aircraft. These last few precious moments of complete silence were a time for reflection, only to be broken by the sound of opening doors and hatches.

    I can’t speak for Gerry but I had a sense of intense sadness that this aircraft would never again share with its crews the ecstasy of a minuet with the gods of flight. Instead, its destiny was to be poked and prodded by the sweaty hands of curious strangers. My one hope was for CF-THS to be the queen of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada’s historic fleet and, as such, be cared for with the diligence befitting such an honour.

    Aviation historians understate the contributions made by the Viscount to Winnipeg’s aviation industry in particular and to Canada’s transportation system generally. While it is true that small bush planes opened the north, it fell to the turbine-powered Vickers Viscount to give Canadians a fast, efficient, comfortable, and above all, safe way to travel. Indeed the Viscount connected many small cities within Canadian regions and, in turn, linked them to larger centres. There is ample evidence that the Viscount altered the travel habits of businessmen and everyday Canadians. The Viscount’s hippity-hop route structure improved intercity commerce and travel more than any other aircraft in the dramatic shift from piston-powered aircraft to turbines.

    I am grateful and proud to have my name as the last entry in the logbook of CF-THS and to have had Gerry Norberg as my co-pilot.

    Jim Griffith is a retired TCA/Air Canada pilot with over 22,000 hours of recreational, military and airline flying who writes satirical personal revelations from the aviation industry not always flattering to himself or his fellow pilots. This article originally appeared in the Fall, 2015 edition of Altitude magazine.

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