Sunday, October 18, 2009

Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum

This past Friday I was lucky enough to take part in the UWO History Society`s 25th annual field trip, which took me to two sites, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum and Dundurn Castle, both located in Hamilton. Although Dundurn Castle was disappointing, I was really impressed with the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. Located near the Hamilton Airport, what makes this museum special is that many of their aircraft are kept in flying condition and are flown on a regular basis. At the beginning of our tour, long-time museum volunteer Ted Lowrey asked us to contemplate during our visit whether we felt it appropriate for the museum to fly their artifacts, particularly as some are quite rare. In this blog post I want to introduce some of the issues inherent in his question and provide readers with hopefully enough information to make an informed decision for themselves.

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum has been criticized for flying their aircraft partly because it puts the artifacts under undue strain and risk. This is a valid concern, as every few years tragedies occur at air shows when vintage planes crash and their pilots are killed. On the other hand, flying aircraft ensures their preservation. Because of the dangers associated with flight the Museum`s planes must be kept in excellent repair through preventative conservation to ensure the pilot`s safety. Therefore, what better way to ensure their proper care than by flying them regularly.

To help ensure the safety of everyone involved in the flights, some planes have had their original engines replaced with different models. In many cases this increases not only the safety of the aircraft, but its value as well. However, does replacing the original mechanical components of the plane negatively affect its authenticity? Sometimes. It was common practice during the active service of a number of planes to replace their engines to make them more effective. One well-known example of this was the Mustang, which became a well-respected aircraft during WWII when its original engines were systematically replaced with higher performance models. Therefore, if the engines are changed to period appropriate models then I do not believe the integrity has been compromised. However, other practices are more suspect. For example, some vintage plane aficionados have been known to install autopilot systems in their vintage planes, a slight against authenticity not only in the eyes of many museum professionals, but among many vintage plane enthusiasts as well.

Museums are not generally known for their overflowing coffers, and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum is no different. The vast majority of mechanical work is done by museum volunteers (there are 300 of them), yet still, 75% of the museum’s $5 million annual operating budget goes towards the preservation and restoration of planes, as well as the fuel required to fly them. One of the ways in which the museum raises funds is by selling rides to members on select aircraft , which run from $50 for a 20 minute ride in a Dakota DC3, to $2000 for a 60 minute ride in a WWII Avro Lancaster bomber (one of only two left in the world capable of flight). While the prices might seem steep (or not, depending on how much you like planes), fuel is expensive, and increased flights mean increased strain on the planes, which in turn requires more frequent maintenance, which for something like the Lancaster can cost over $100,000. With these associated costs, is continuing to fly the collection financially sustainable?

In flying their aircraft, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum raises a number of issues, such as preservation, authenticity, and associated cost, but in doing so they differentiate themselves from other museums with similar collections. They also have the opportunity to use their planes as travelling exhibits, which was done in the summer of 2009 when the Lancaster was flown from Hamilton to Edmonton, stopping in various locations along the way, typically met by large and excited crowds. This gave a large number of people the opportunity to see an important part of Canadian history which they otherwise may never had had a chance to experience. Should the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum fly their planes? I would argue yes, they should, but I put it to you to decide.


  1. Authenticity vs cost/practicality is a debate that is near and dear to my heart. As you might have noticed (or will notice in the future) I talk about tanks like a tween girl talks about 'Twilight'. This argument of authenticity vs. cost is huge in the work of armour restoration.

    The Bovington Tank Museum has a Tiger tank in working condition. The problem is, that the Tiger was so poorly thought out from a durability standpoint, they keep breaking vintage original parts. Not only that, but once a part is broken, reverse engineering becomes nearly impossible, as the nature of the Tiger is to mangle and twist, rather than break cleanly. The museum is committed to using as many original parts as possible, and only replacing with modern equipment when totally necessary. It is getting to the point, however, where many are calling for modern technology to be used to completely restore the beast.

    Would modern technology ruin the authenticity of the piece? It would certainly make it cheaper to run during the Tankfest festival. But the historical sound and movement is a huge part of a piece like this, at least for h-core types like myself. The Tiger in Bovington is running faster and more smoothly than it likely ever has. It looks and runs great on the new technology, but does this ruin the piece? I am torn between being a purist and a showman. So, like many of my attempted answers, I have only managed to ask more questions.

    PS. Here is the Tiger at Tankfest 09, featuring many modern components.

    PPS. Sweet picture of the Lanc'

  2. Thanks for your take - I never considered the fact that parts would need replacing so often. Also, I can't take credit for the photo - it was public domain on Wikipedia. I forgot my camera on the bus, which was too bad, or I would have put up some photos of the Spitfire and Lysander III. You should check out their website - they have specs on all of their planes.