When Grant Hopkins touches a piece of the four-engined Avro Lancaster with the serial number FM104 currently undergoing renovations at North Saanich’s B.C. Aviation Museum, he is not just touching an iconic machine.
His fingers are also grabbing a tip of personal and Canadian history. Hopkins’ dad served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War as a motor transport driver, driving fuel trucks and other vehicles, while attached to various squadrons.
Following the invasion of Nazi-occupied western Europe, Hopkins’ father served with flying units supplying aerial ground support to troops advancing in Belgium and Germany. But before that, Hopkins’ father served with various bomber squadrons, including a squadron that flew Lancasters, perhaps the most familiar English-designed bomber during the war.
As coordinator of the plane’s restoration, Hopkins is now overseeing a project that connects him in tactile, personal manner to his father and so much more. “You have that attachment to the history through your own personal touch of the artifacts at the museum,” he said. “That is a very important thing. It is very important to me.”
He is not the only one. Many volunteers at the museum have a personal connection to family members who served in the Second World War, even First World War. As such, they are carriers and transmitters of history, as the number of surviving veterans from the Second World War dwindles toward the number of living survivors from the First World War, namely zero.
The disappearance of this living legacy accordingly grants the work of the museum generally and the restoration of the Avro Lancaster (its major parts currently spread across different parts of the museum) specifically even more salience and urgency.
“The aircraft itself becomes a monument,” said Hopkins. “It represents the history and it will last on long after the people had served on it and are working on it now.”
Mass-produced during the war with more than 7,300 planes rolling off production lines, the museum’s Lancaster is one of 17 that remain across the world after arriving in the fall of 2018 from Toronto, where it had been on display at the Canadian Air and Space Museum at Downsview Park since 1999.
One of 400 Lancasters manufactured in Canada during the war, it arrived in the United Kingdom in 1944, but never saw action during the war, serving in a reserve unit.
It returned to Canada in 1945 and spent the two next decades as part of the Maritime Air Command of the Royal Canadian Air Force, performing patrols and search and rescue functions.
Purchased by the Royal Canadian Air Force Association in 1965 and donated to the City of Toronto, it rested on a upon a plinth in Coronation Park, where it sat exposed to the elements until its 1999 move to the Canadian Air and Space Museum.
The restoration currently underway could take anywhere between 10 and 15 years at an estimated cost of $10 million with the long-term goal of making the plane air-worthy again, said Hopkins.
“Whether we can get to that in the future is uncertain because of many factors, ” he said, adding later that the restoration will be to industry standards. “So we are not doing anything that would have to be undone later should the time come when somebody wants to fly it.”
Regardless of this question, the plane along with other items in the museum represent the physical legacy of Canada’s military history, a memorial to the people who manufactured Avros and the people who flew them, said Hopkins. “Also, it records and commemorates its Cold War service into the 1960s,” he added.
The restoration work is in “its very early stages,” said Hopkins. “COVID-19 has certainly kicked our volunteer program quite hard and we are really just ramping back up again as best we can under the conditions. A lot of our volunteers there are in the high-risk group.”
The main focus lies on investigating the different parts and pieces of the plane to determine its overall condition, he said. “We have been tearing down some of the engines to determine their condition (to see) whether they will be usable in the future to make them runable.”
A lot of work remains ahead, but Hopkins leaves no doubt it will be worthwhile.
Members of the public can visit the B.C. Aviation Museum, 1910 Norsman Rd., Thursdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It will also be open to the public on Remembrance Day with admission by donation with visitors encouraged to bring a donation to the Saanich Peninsula Lions Food Bank.
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