Planes such as the Sopwith Pup aircraft were covered in linen or other fabric that was stretched over a light wood and metal frame and painted.
Yet Canadian, and other airmen of the Allied Powers in the First World War, climbed into the single-seaters and took to the skies to fight against Germany as well as map war zones. The planes were, in modern parlance, a game changer.
“The advantage they had it was one of the first aircraft that had synchronized machine guns,” explained pilot Allan Snowie. “All the pilot had to do was aim the airplane instead of having to [also] aim a gun.”
War in the skies was a dangerous pursuit. The average lifespan of a First World War pilot was 16 weeks.
Now the Langley-based Canadian Museum of Flight is helping tell the history of First World War flying by creating two Sopwith Pups. The museum unveiled the aircraft June 17.
The museum was commissioned by the people behind A Nation Soars, a documentary series on the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, a key battle in the First World War.
The Sopwith Pup building and upcoming flypast in France are part of a documentary Wings of Courage. The first documentary was on the relationship between wartime flight and mapmaking (Drawn to Victory).
The federal government provided funding for A Nation Soars, which involves the film production firm Sound Ventures and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.
To start the plane project group of four volunteers from the CMF ventured to Missouri where over a period of a couple of weeks, they tried to make sense of the pile of old metal that would become the skeletons of the two Pups.
The museum volunteers, mostly older men, had some young hands on the project. Air cadets don’t typically encounter planes older than their great grandparents.
Six cadets with the 746 Lightning Hawk Air Cadets got to work beside the flight museum volunteers.
“They would teach us what to do, and we would do it together,” explained Richard Knopp, a flight sergeant with 746.
For them the project became about more than making a plane out of fabric stretched over metal wings.
“It gives them a perspective on what it was like for young pilots of the same age or slightly older,” said Dave Arnold, CMF vice president.
The Vimy Flight (vimyflight.ca) will feature the two Sopwith Pups along with four Newport aircraft, two of which were brought up from Bellingham by expat pilot Allan Snowie for a flypast at the unveiling.
After taking part in Vimy commemorations, the aircraft return to Canada, raising awareness about the anniversary and the museum.
“We’re going to get dropped off on the East Coast and fly their way back home,” Arnold said.
At Friday’s ceremony, the two planes were gifted to the CMF and will be the centerpiece of the new museum that will be constructed on the airport grounds near the Derek Doubleday Arboretum.
Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese said the war, despite being a century ago, still resonates with Canadians, many of whom have family involved in the war. The grandfather of his wife, Debbie, was injured at Vimy. They have planned trip over for the anniversary in 2017.
“I’m off to Vimy Ridge for April when those two planes fly over,” he said.
Those who can’t attend can still find out about the project and Vimy. A Nation Soars includes extensive educational materials available free to teachers. The two completed documentaries will be aired in November 2016 on CPAC.