An 84-year-old former Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot got to relive his passion on National Seniors Day by stepping into an RCAF plane for the first time in decades.
Back in the 1950s, Canadian pilot Gordon Helm served at an RCAF base in West Germany and, on many days, was behind the controls of a North American F-86 Sabre fighter jet in Europe, patrolling the border of the former Soviet bloc during the Cold War.
“We used to fly up and down the Iron Curtain,” Helm recalls. “I suppose you might consider it tense. Canada lost 29 pilots during that tour.”
READ MORE: Frustrated passengers share their stories after Swoop Airlines jet grounded at Hamilton airport
On Tuesday, the Huntingdon, Que., native returned to the cockpit, piloting a de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk for about 25 minutes over the Hamilton International Airport, thanks to the charity Wish of a Lifetime and Chartwell Retirement Services.
The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum provided the backdrop for Helm’s return to the skies, and he was joined by former Air Force pilot Steve Purton.
Gordon is currently a resident of Chartwell Lancaster, a retirement community located 28 kilometres northeast of Cornwall, Ont.
Janine Reed, senior director of communications and public relations for Chartwell, says Helm was chosen for the outing after a staff member heard Gordon talking about his exploits in the Chipmunk and nominated him for the wish program for older adults.
“She knew he flew the Chipmunk and had a passion for flying it so she raised it to us, and he was selected because of his passion for the aircraft,” Reed explained.
Helm admitted that despite his love for the Chipmunk, he had actually requested to be flown in a Boeing-Stearman biplane, which was also a military training aircraft. However, though the War Museum had an operational PT-27 Stearman, Helm was told it was not serviceable for the flight he had in mind.
The former fighter pilot’s passion for planes started at a young age, specifically during the numerous trips between his birthplace in Quebec and Peterborough, Ont., during which time he would pass by Canadian Forces Base Trenton and see airplanes on the ramps.
“I had an interest in flying, but my mother told me I had to get into engineering first,” he said.
To complicate matters, Helm said his family doctor told him he had a heart murmur and that his condition would pretty much ground any chance of a flying career.
Undaunted, Helm signed up for the University Reserve Training Plan and passed a physical examination, which cleared him to join the RCAF Regular Officer Training Plan (ROTP).
Eventually, Helm was shipped to the overseas headquarters for the Air Force in Metz, France.
After seeing much of western Europe during his posting, Helm decided to get married at the age of 22.
He says that back in the day, that was a “no-no” and that the action had his commanding officer considering a discharge.
During that time, Helm had his first child, a daughter, and began looking again at a posting overseas, this time in Germany.
Helm took up his role in Germany at RCAF Station Baden-Soellingen in the ’50s, without his new family, and began flying a Sabre jet fighter.
The former pilot would log 4,000 hours in his flight book from that tour of duty, including the operation of simulators after the Sabre jets were retired.
He then returned to Canada to do his ground tour at Lac St-Denis, Que., and flew the Chipmunk before being grounded by “health issues” and working until he was 80 with a number of commercial airline companies.
Helm said he was “pleased” with his 25-minute so-called “exercise” on Tuesday, adding that the best part was when he took over the controls and got to do chandelles, which involve the pilot combining a 180-degree turn with a climb.
“We used to do those as a practice back in the day, learning to manoeuvre the airplane yet keeping everything constant,” he said.
When asked whether he would take another flight in a warplane in the future, Helm replied: “Yeah, I’d do it again.”
WATCH: Thousands attend airshow marking the establishment of the Peterborough Airport 50 years ago