A bit of a health issue has grounded Central Saanich pilot Paul O’Reilly, but that won’t stop him from going to France to be with his peers for the 100th anniversary of the Battle for Vimy Ridge.
O’Reilly, a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, had been flying since 2014 with three other retired military and commercial pilots in four First World War-era biplanes, based in Comox. He was going to be a part of a ceremonial flyover of the Vimy Ridge memorial in France on April 9. He says he’ll still be there, but in a different capacity.
“It’s a health thing. What can you do?” he said.
O’Reilly won’t be grounded for long, however. He plans to bounce back and be in the cockpit of one of the French-designed Nieuport 11 biplanes when they return to Canada and fly across the country.
But first, he and his wife fly to France this Saturday in advance of the Vimy Ridge anniversary. On April 9, O’Reilly said the biplanes will do a flyover of the site of the First World War battle that saw Canadian troops wrest a high point along the Western Front from German forces.
Flying at around 65 miles per hour, the planes will soar above a commemoration attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Princes Charles, William and Harry and other dignitaries. They will make a pass, turn around and head back to a grass airfield north of Vimy Ridge at Lens, France.
“Flying those planes is very basic,” O’Reilly said. “You do everything. And if you want to navigate, you have to make sure your map doesn’t fly out of the cockpit … of which I am well aware.”
The aircraft they will be flying are replicas of the Nieuport model — an aircraft also used by Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop during the First World War. O’Reilly said they will be joined by another pilot in a British-made S.E.5 — another aircraft used by Bishop en route to 72 aerial victories.
Another pair of Sopwith Pups will not be flying and will be part of the seven-plane educational display while in France.
Filling in for O’Reilly, he said, is Captain Brent Handy an RCAF instructor and pilot out of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
“He has some background with the CF-18, but when he came out to Comox, I gave him some instruction on the Nieuport.”
The biplanes are light, weighing in at 850 pounds — a little lighter than the wood-frame originals back in the early 1900s. These models, he said, have aluminum frames — and mountain bike brakes. O’Reilly said the original aircraft didn’t use brakes, as they landed and took off from grass runways. They could use headwinds and propeller wash to keep their planes on the ground and its tail dragging in the dirt to stop.
All of the biplanes were recently flown from Comox in a RCAF C-17 cargo plane, to Lille, France. There, O’Reilly said, his teammates Alan Snowie and Alvin Jasper will be getting them ready for the main flyover, and a few other tours of French battlefields while they’re there.
Around April 16, O’Reilly flies to Greenwood, Nova Scotia to meet up with the aircraft and other pilots, as they begin a cross-Canada tour. Taking more than three months or so, the biplanes will visit a variety of eastern Canadian cities, prior to a July 1 flyover of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. By October, O’Reilly said they will be back on Vancouver Island.
He said each stop they make will include an educational component to the aircraft and the era in which they flew.
The tour, he added, is an expensive one, and may occur in stages. They are always looking for donors and people can visit their Vimy Flight Facebook page for more details.