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By summer 1973, The Mary and I were comfy with lovely old Bessy, had crossed ‘The Rocks’ to my old Base at Penhold, and visited Ma & Pa Pierce at their farm by Pine Lake.
They made we RAF Cadets so welcome during our NATO days back in 1953, feeding us chicken, with sing-alongs by the piano and all. Their three sparkling daughters iced the cake.
Those days we showed off our aerobatics right over the farm; after a couple of humdinger low passes to boot. All legal! Not our fault they lived in the LLPA, Low Level Practice Area. So 20 years on, with a gentler version we advised we were in town. Later they told us they kept fingers crossed we’d miss their power line. Power line! What power line! Still there too. But I digress.
By ’73 The Mary and I had flown at Abbotsford, Arlington, the Sea Festival, and stuff, and were psyching up for Oshkosh next year. Old Bessy needed a lick o’ paint and some serious TLC to avoid the Dirty Bird Award, as well as tents, camping gear, fancy radios and stuff.
Our erstwhile partner in the Great Waco Rebuild, Eldon Bauer, had just started a new airplane salvage outfit at Pitt Meadows, so could give us a deal on a top-notch paint job, as a ‘Specialty Engineering’ promo. Hey, Hey, Hey. Don’t get better than that. Painting Harvards ain’t easy, as we were about to find out.
STUFF AMERICANS USE
I designed a nifty paint scheme for Bessy. Air Force yellow is a bit dull, so I chose a cheery lemon yellow. Back then it wasn’t kosher to use a proper RCAF scheme, so pretending Bessy was a retired C/O’s personal plane, I faked Rescue Command side flashes, and red ‘F’ Flight nose flashes a la Currie Field, where I first soloed. The fuselage triangles are our ‘Delta Air Force’ make-believe insignia.
It would be simple. Eldon and partner Del Herndon were professional airplane painters, and wanted to be the Bee’s Knees locally using real Canadian Paint, similar to the magic new polyurethane stuff Americans then used to paint outside in downtown Los Angeles. It always looked like jewelry. Way to go.
Anyway, any iffy snags must be fixed before this painting lark, so I was to scrutinize everything, swing the gear, and make a CCI ‘To Do’ list, for the pre-paint ‘Annual,’ before deliverance of Bessy to SEL. No problem. Having worked at the DND Harvard overhaul base in Calgary, I had all ze books.
So with the Gear swung, the list made, and Bessy delivered to SEL at Pitt Meadows, fellow Brit Peter Chick and I buzzed off in Chapter 85’s Turbi to Vancouver, Washington for the Annual Antique & Vintage Fly-in at Evergreen. It was great.
Local Neil Rose not only had a Harvard, but also a basket-case Hurricane fighter hidden in a ratty T-hangar. Wonderful! The Mary stayed home and sold lots ‘a fish.
Immediately we returned, The Mary hustled me to SEL to strip paint. Hey! With these proper professional paint guys, how tough could it be? Sigh. Huge drums of icky stripping stuff
“Wear gloves, safety goggles, and clothes you can throw away,” they said. “Don’t get any on you. It’ll burn to the bone. There’s the hose. Go to it!”
BESSY WAS NAKED
Every teensy bit of old paint must be scrubbed off of all rivet heads, or the fancy new paint won’t stick. The belly too, no slacking. Mask all glass to avoid ‘milking.’ To get behind overlapping bits, all side panels and multi cowlings came off for meticulous individual stripping.
What a job. Bessy’s innards were open to the world, instruments, radios, cables, pipes and all. She was naked and alone!
This so upset me in bed later that I got up at 2 a.m. to drive back the 28 miles, and slept under the wing to save her from the bad guys. Soaked and exhausted, The Big Strip took a week.
My SEL guys tested the magic new paint on the cowlings and it looked fantastic! For about a day. When it erupted in hives, a myriad of tiny bubbles. The pin striped paint company guys turned up in the pissing rain, and announced it was just too moist in Vancouver, and to put in a couple of drops of this ‘magic fixing stuff’ per gallon to fix it.
It didn’t, so third time round they just shrugged and said to just use epoxy like always, and clear coat it. No one’ll know the diff. Sigh. So that’s what we did.
The SEL guys rented Command Aviation’s huge heated hangar for the job. So they didn’t mess about, and worked non-stop night and day to get out of there.
There are critical time frames for applying various layers of paint, primer, flat coat, topcoat, speed lines, insignia, and final gloss coat. This demands a whole passel of masking, measuring, and pin striping.
Then, masking is reversed to rejuvenate the fabric, and for non-painters, this constant choreographed action is bewildering. I kept up for a couple of days.
Eventually, as they sprayed and bustled about, dead on my feet, no help at all, needing a shave, and wanting out of my throwaway clothes, at 3 a.m., I went home.
Leaving the gloomy parking lot in Mary’s funky old 66 Ford Falcon muscle car, I glimpsed a car light up, and follow at a suspicious distance. Dead tired, I trundled off to the Lougheed Highway for the Pitt River Bridge. The sinister car followed.
Suddenly, all Hell broke loose! Woo! Woo! Woo! Flashing lights, “pull over and stop” etc., etc.
With a huge sigh, I did and wound the window down. A huge RCMP officer appeared by the door in a slicker, waving an insolent flashlight.
“License and registration!” says he “And where do you think you’re going?” ”Home.” says I.
”Yeah! What you bin up to?” ”Working” says I. “Oh yeah! I saw you sneakin’ out’a the airport!”
“Well,” says I, “If you go back there you’ll find two other guys still working.”
”Yeah,” says he, “And just who works round here at three o’clock in the morning?”
“You’re working!” says I. Long pause, him standing there in the rain, with his slicker, flashlight in my face, and all.
“That’s right!” says he. Another long pause. “Take care driving home sir. Good night.” And he left. Sigh.
Next day, Bessy looked magnificent.
Fly safe, Tony Swain, retired Vancouver Copaguy
Photos courtesy Tony Swain archives