When you’re hurtling through the air at about 230 miles an hour and are just 50 feet or so off the ground the last thing you want to be seated in is an aircraft purposely built to be unstable.
But that’s just where South Delta brothers Keith and Vic McMann enjoy being.
And on Saturday (July 28) the pair of experienced aviators will show their skill at guiding their Harvard warbirds around an air race demonstration course as the Boundary Bay Air Show makes a return after a hiatus in 2011.
The pair—Keith is a retired commercial pilot who spent many years with Fletcher Challenge and Vic pilots Boeing 777s for Air Canada—are long-time campaigners at the National Championship Air Races held each year in Reno, Nevada.
And both are looking forward to showing spectators at Boundary Bay Airport what their vintage aircraft, which were built as military trainers, can do.
Keith’s crimson-coloured plane, called the Red Knight, rolled off the manufacturing line on March 23, 1952. The name he labelled it with comes from the fact all the Harvards were originally painted yellow and Keith wanted to make his plane stand out.
And after doing some research he discovered the Red Knight was a Canadian aerobatic team that flew jets.
“The plane is 60 years old and they just keep on ticking. I think if someone looks after it like we do, it’ll go for another 60 years,” he says. “It’s a well designed aircraft.”
Well designed, that is, to be a handful for young pilots getting ready for active duty.
“It was designed that way because they didn’t something that was easy to fly,” Keith explains. “They wanted something that was demanding, because this was just a stepping stone from one of these up to the fighters like the Mustangs, or the P40s, Hurricanes, and at the end of the war, the Typhoons that our dad flew.”
The Harvard’s landing gear was narrowly placed and its centre of gravity was made a little high to provide the required dose of instability
“If you are ham-fisted flying it, it will bite you,” Vic says. “You’ll be on your back, upside in a heartbeat hoping that you have altitude to get out if it.”
It was their father, Vic, who purchased the plane through Crown Assets in 1967 and it has been in the family ever since.
“When he (father Vic) passed away about 13 years ago I ended up with the airplane and it’s been a great bird. Very reliable,” Keith says.
Younger brother Vic, who was named after his dad, flies his black-painted Harvard that carries the name Gunslinger on its fuselage.
Vic chose a paint theme with six, distinctive black stripes under the wings to pay homage to their father’s squadron.
“He flew the Hawker Typhoon for the RCAF, so all my markings are authentic.”
The name Gunslinger is owed to the plane’s heritage—they were often called Texans because Texas was where some Harvards were built.
“And the number 66, that’s like a couple of six-shooters, so it all kind of works,” says Vic who acquired his plane from its previous owner in Denver, Colorado, but it was initially a Canadian aircraft.
It was built in 1941 on Christmas eve, about two weeks after Pearl Harbour and ended up going to the Commonwealth pilot training program similar to the one run at Boundary Bay Airport during the Second World War, but was stationed in eastern Canada.
“This one actually had a machine gun mount. And the guys who flew this thing actually went into battle,” Vic says.
Today, both mainly see action around a five-mile course in Reno, plus other air shows in and around B.C.
The Reno course for Harvards in the T-6 category is marked by 50-foot high telephone poles with 45-gallon drums mounted on the top.
“Touch one of those and it will take your wing off,” Keith says, adding the emphasis is on safety as up to seven aircraft can be jockeying for position on the course at the same time.
“We don’t fool around. You can’t afford to. You touch wings and the ball game is over.”
“It’s as safe as it can be with our group of racers. It’s very regimented and safety conscious. There’s no messing around,” Vic says. “There’s also a lot of trust in it because you’re literally flying off each other’s wing tip. You’re low to the ground. There’s no room for mistakes. And if there are, the results are usually catastrophic. That being said, everybody knows it and everybody flies accordingly to make it as safe as possible.”
In the turns the pilot are pulling somewhere between two to two and a half Gs.
“Any more than that and you start scrubbing speed off,” Vic says.
At Boundary Bay, the course will be somewhat similar to Reno’s, minus the poles and barrels. But the racing, despite being just a demonstration event, is expected to be thrilling for the crowd.
Stock Harvards top out at around 190 miles and hour.
The McMann brothers have tweaked their aircraft to break well beyond that. Much of that performance is down to reducing drag.
“It’s not like you have an overpowered race motor. It’s the combined effort of all the little things you did,” Vic says. “Each of them probably gives you about a quarter of a mile an hour more speed. And if you have enough of them, they can start to add up and give you an advantage.”
Noisy fly by
But it’s the low, rumbling the planes make that will make many look skyward as they approach the air race course.
“You’ll be able to hear the engine noise from here (Boundary Bay Airport) to Tsawwassen when we start to open them up,” Keith says.
Propelled by 600 horsepower engines the group of five or six Harvards taking part, “will be like a noisy, buzzing bunch of bees,” Vic adds.
That sound is expected to be muted after the next Reno event which this year runs Sept. 12-16.
“This is going to be my last year to go back to Reno,” says Keith who has raced the Harvard for 14 years. “Financially, you just can’t keep doing it forever. And my family has put a big commitment to keep it going all these years.”
It costs roughly $1,000 a day to attend the Reno Air Races once fuel, accommodation, ground crew, and meals are factored in.
The Harvards burn through 60 gallons an hour during take off and at $8 a gallon the costs can add up very quickly.
“You just can’t pull up to the fuel pump, fill her up and go flying every day,” Keith says. “But it’s a great airplane, and it’s a great sport. I’d love to keep her forever, but the day may come in the future that financially you have to pass it on to somebody younger who can have as much fun with it as I’ve had.”
As for Vic, this is possibly his last Reno race year, too.
“That’s the million dollar question,” Vic says. “I would love to continue doing it. Like Keith says, it’s very costly. It’s not like NASCAR where you have huge sponsorship which makes it viable to continue year after year. This is a lot of money out of our pockets.”
Both say they will certainly miss the opportunity to compete south of the border where they are a unique duo.
“We’re unique in a couple of aspects,” Vic says. “First, we’re brothers, and we race in the same class. But we’re also the only Canadians racing down there (Reno) in our class.”
“It’s lots of fun. I’m going to miss it,” Keith says. “It’s an addiction, without a doubt. Everybody loves to do it.”
To fill the void Keith says there are always air shows to attend with the Red Knight. And the chance to fly locally at Boundary Bay is a plus.
“It’s a great venue to bring people out to,” says Keith, adding the show’s organizers, Alpha Aviation and Corporation of Delta have invested considerable time, effort and funds to make it one of the few remaining free air shows around.
Gates to the 2012 Boundary Bay Air Show open at 11 a.m. with flights beginning at 1 p.m.
For more information, visit Boundary Bay Airport’s web site (czbb.com) and click on the about us tab and events section. You can also see below a list of events and their scheduled times.
Boundary Bay Air Show 2012
Schedule of events
John and Richard Mrazke L-29s take off
Museum of Flight passes
Les Mitchell—Avia Akro
Heritage Flight Museum—Skyraider and P-51
Fred Kaiser—CJ2 take off
Fred Kaiser CJ2 fly bys
Brandon Dreyer—Extra 300
Warbird Group-fly bys
Pete McLeod—Edge 540