Paul O’Reilly has little hesitation about getting into the cockpit of a First World War-era biplane made of wood, metal and fabric.
After all, the Central Saanich man spent his career in the Canadian military, serving as a pilot on both the east and west coasts of Canada. He ended that career flying for the Navy, having seen service during the Iran hostage crisis in the 1970s, among other actions.
O’Reilly is part of a group of retired commercial and military pilots planning to fly replica Nieuport 11 biplanes over Vimy Ridge in 2017. That year is the 100th anniversary of the First World War battle — one that saw Canadian forces come into their own on the world stage.
Escadrille Norwest includes O’Reilly, Alan Snowie and Alvin Jasper. All three, O’Reilly said, have served with each other in the military at one time or another.
O’Reilly said he came across the project in 2011. He had retired in 2002 and found he had a lot of extra time on his hands. While attending a visit by the Golden Hawks aerial team, O’Reilly said he saw a pair of Nieuports flying past and wanted to learn more.
“It turns out I knew both pilots. Both had moved to Bellingham, Washington.”
Almost immediately, he was enlisted into the project as the pilot of a third replica biplane — the kind of aircraft used by French and American pilots during the Great War. O’Reilly said he has traveled back and forth to the U.S. to get used to flying the Nieuport and to practice formation flying with his buddies.
“I hadn’t really flown in nearly 20 years,” he said. “So I started out in a Cessna, practicing on grass airstrips.”
Soon, he moved up to the biplane — a third Nieuport owned by Snowie. There was just one snag: it had been crashed and needed a lot of repair. Those trips across the border became as much about repairs as they were about flying, O’Reilly said.
Once it was ready to fly, O’Reilly said he had to get in the required hours to be checked out on the aircraft.
“I was quite nervous at first. You have to keep track of the air speed and other things, but without the electronics that planes have today.”
His first flight in the Nieuport also meant having a lot of his friends and family on the ground watching him.
“But I got used to the controls of the aircraft and after four landings, taa daa, I’m qualified.”
Even with more than 40 hours flying time on the biplane, there is still a lot of hard work to do, in order to get the three pilots and their planes to France.
O’Reilly said he’s working with federal regulators to get his biplane into Canada to enable him to fly more regularly — and to be able to visit air shows in B.C. to help promote the project. This, he said, is mired in a lot of red tape but he hopes there will still be time left in the summer once he gets the plane on the Island.
In the meantime, Escadrille Norwest is raising money. It will cost quite a bit to ship the biplanes to France well in advance of the 2017 anniversary celebrations. O’Reilly said they cannot be flown that far (it’s gas tank just isn’t that large and it can only remain airborne for about four hours).
The plan, if all goes well, is to have the aircraft in France early enough so the pilots can practice flying right before the Vimy Ridge anniversary. O’Reilly said they have to try out the local landing areas — some of which might be grass fields, the location of First World War-era airfields.
Once they’re ready, O’Reilly said they will re-enact the opening the Vimy Ridge memorial in 1935, which saw biplanes fly over the official activity below.
O’Reilly said they are receiving help from the Great War Flying Museum in Brampton, Ontario. People can visit their website and make a donation to the Vimy Project.
Escadrille Norwest is also building its own website (escadrillenorwest.org) but it’s not yet ready.
O’Reilly said he hopes they can spread the word about their Vimy project by flying over Canada Day events and letting the vintage aircraft speak for themselves.