It seems as though every big city has an aviation museum, and I have visited many of them during my travels. As wonderful as these museums are, seeing perfectly restored aircraft in far better condition than anything that ever rolled off an assembly line makes me long for something unique.
Happily, I came across just such a museum during a recent visit with StandardAero and GE Aviation, the inauguration of GE’s fantastic new engine icing test facility at Winnipeg’s James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. The GE/StandardAero team held a briefing for the assembled press the evening before at the Western Canada Aviation Museum. After a tasty dinner, we were treated to a personal tour of the museum’s wonderfully well-worn and oddball collection.
What I really liked about the Western Canada Aviation Museum was that not only were there plenty of aircraft types that I had never seen before but there were also a bunch of workhorses that clearly had been flown hard and often.
Greeting visitors at the entrance is the largest airplane in the collection, a behemoth of a bush airplane, the broad-shouldered Bristol Freighter. This high-wing taildragging heavy lifter looks like an experiment in bolting the biggest radial engines available onto a thick slab of a wing that is held up by massive struts and boulder-size wheels that can handle the worst runways in the frozen Canadian north.
The metal monocoque Fairchild Super 71 floatplane looks like an attempt to replicate an airplane from a Tintin comic book, although Hergé was known to draw from pictures of actual airplanes, and perhaps this speedy-looking craft was inspirational. Sadly, while the Super 71’s sleek high-wing monoplane silhouette appeals to the Walter Mitty in all pilots, it wasn’t so great to fly. Our charming and knowledgeable docent explained that the engineers who designed the airplane didn’t realize that a cockpit so far back on the aft fuselage means that the pilot could never see the front of the nose or the location of the front of the floats. Too many incidents soon grounded the Super 71.
The museum is also home to a serious attempt from 1952 to 1954 at building a flyable saucer, the Avro Avrocar. While it did undergo some testing and flew up to one meter off the ground, the Avrocar was wildly unstable.
Canadian brothers Doug, Theodore and Nicholas Froebe almost entered the history books with a viable helicopter. The Froebe helicopter, the only one ever built, has many features that are found in modern helicopters. And the Froebe even flew briefly constrained by tethers, but that was as far as the brothers got. Perhaps a little more effort would have seen another pioneering effort at helping usher in the helicopter era. Incidentally, the Froebe brothers also tried their hand at an ornithopter.
Few of the marvelous machines in the Western Canada Aviation Museum are in perfect condition, and many, like the muscular Bristol Freighter guarding the entrance, remain in the beat-up shape resulting from serious use before retirement. I like that. Real airplanes work hard and get dented, patched and pranged. It’s fun to see these workhorses in their well-used condition.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge fan of the many great aviation museums scattered around the world. I spent three full days scouring the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum the first time I got to visit. But a place like Winnipeg’s Western Canada Aviation Museum is unique and well worth a visit next time you’re in town for one of StandardAero’s engine overhauls.