Ray Fessenden and Dave Arnold check out a piece of the aircraft’s wing.

Volunteers’ hands shape vintage biplanes

Engine arrival moves the Sopwith project to the next stage.

In the Canadian Museum of Flight, a dedicated crew of volunteers are putting together a pair of First World War biplanes.

The craft are replica Sopwith Pups, which in 1917 were state-of-the-art fighter planes, built largely out of wood and canvas. They were used by British, Canadian, and other Allied airmen to fight German air forces over the battlefields of France and Belgium.

When completed and airborne, the Pups will be part of a project called A Nation Soars, a commemoration of Canada’s First World War flyers.

But first, they have to be put together and get into the air.

The replicas are being assembled bit by bit. They are in some ways giant model airplanes, but far more complicated.

“Some assembly required – a little more than we figured,” said Ray Fessenden, one of the leaders on the project.

“We’re figuring out everything,” said Dave Arnold, the museum’s vice president.

The frames were built from steel in the United States by a specialist firm, but minor tweaks by the volunteers will be needed to make sure they work properly.

Early in the process, volunteers were adding a bracket to hold down the gas tank, as well as a baggage compartment for the chocks, rope, and other essential bits of gear that must be carried.

Fessenden said that they spend a lot of time planning, to avoid shooting themselves in the foot during the actual build.

If every mistake was a literal shot in the foot, they’d have no feet left, joked volunteer Phil Lipscombe.

“You always run into things you hadn’t planned on,” said Arnold. “That’s just the nature of the beast.”

For some of the volunteers, the project is a personal one.

“My dad flew all during World War Two,” said Alasdair MacDonald.

The elder MacDonald flew Wellington bombers, and was considered for the legendary Dambusters raid. MacDonald’s paternal grandfather was killed at Loos, Belgium in 1916.

MacDonald’s experiences with aircraft didn’t involve being a pilot. A former British Royal Marine, he spent some of his military service jumping out of Hercules aircraft.

The Sopwiths are expected to be complete this year. If all goes well, they will head overseas to Vimy Ridge for a flypast in 2017 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Corps’ victory there.

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