Adventures: Air museums and airshows – come fly with me

Snowbirds never fail to thrill at the close of each Abbotsford International Airshow, coming up Aug. 7, 8 and 9.  - Ursula Maxwell-Lewis
Snowbirds never fail to thrill at the close of each Abbotsford International Airshow, coming up Aug. 7, 8 and 9.
— image credit: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

Aviation has been a passion since I began flying in central Africa in the 1960s.

While working as a reporter in South Africa, a friend convinced me that life as a Central African Airways ‘Air Hostess’ would be an adventure.

Hearing about the interviews in Johannesburg, her high school sweetheart was inspired to propose. I, on the other hand, found I had traded my Benoni City Time typewriter for an airline ticket to what subsequently became Zimbabwe.

For the next three years, I (to quote a Facebook page I follow) Served Africa with Wings clad in a sky-blue linen uniform, navy high heels, white gloves, a navy handbag (stuffed with a notebook, plus aircraft bar cash), a forage cap, and shiny Central African Airways brass wings pinned to my right shoulder.

They were historic years of change for Africa and me. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, and Tanzania all became independent. The great and the good cheerfully (unencumbered by security services) clambered onboard our Beavers, DC3s, Viscounts, and a leased DC6.

Ground engineers ensured the right airline name was bolted to the right aircraft based on the country we were heading to. We dished out in-flight catering, drinks, and sick-bags. Aircraft ‘went mechanical’

in assorted strange places. Aviation was added to my love of travel and newsprint. Fun and priceless adventures became the orders of the day.

Aviation museums and airshows interest few women writers, but they’re magnets for me. Even the Abbotsford International Airshow (August 7, 8, 9) was an annual family event when my children were young.

So, aviation geeks, here are a few stopovers I’ve enjoyed. I hope you will, too.

New Zealand:  Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre near Blenheim. Knights of the Sky is a WW1 exhibit like none other I’ve seen.

Thanks to Weta Workshop and WingNut Films, brilliantly designed theatrical Great War sets profile Sir Peter Jackson’s aircraft and artifact collections.

All the depictions are riveting, but the re-creation of the legendary 1918 downing of Red Baron Manfred von Richtofen’s Fokker DR1 Tri-plane really took me by surprise.

[Above: A recreation of the Red Baron’s final flight. Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo]

Items from Richtofen’s personal collection are showcased nearby. By the way, the Baron was chasing Canadian RAF pilot Lt. Wilfred May of 209 Squadron at the time.

Cleverly ominous lighting dominates demanding that you absorb the feel of a muddy, brutal war. The nurses and ambulance scene, in particular, made me stop and reflect on what these men and women endured.

England: The old RAF Hendon airbase at Colindale, north London, and Royal Air Force Cosford, Shropshire.

Contrast these with the one above. With over 100 aircraft in five themed halls at Hendon, and 70 aircraft displayed at Cosford, the extensive interactive exhibits, films, and First World War in the Air deserve the National Lottery Award they aim to win this week.

Politically and culturally, the National Cold War Exhibition at the London RAF site is thought provoking, particularly in light of recent U.S. political changes.

RAF Cosford is an active premier base. The museum is just one component of the complex. With free museum admission (in London and Shropshire), lunchtime refuelling with tasty NAAFi Rations was a no-brainer.

There’s an airshow at Cosford each June, as well as the famous Farnborough International Airshow scheduled for July 11-17, 2016. Prebook tickets to avoid disappointment.

The Centenary of the Royal Air Force is scheduled for 2018. Watch for upcoming details. No doubt it will be outstanding.

United States: Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona is billed as one of the world’s largest aerospace museums. I don’t doubt it. You’ll need plenty of time to visit all the hangers. I also suggest taking an exterior grounds trolley tour.

My trolley tour videos, Aircraft with a Past and The Shackleton Restoration are at YouTravel1 on YouTube. Pima also has terrific kids programs. Check out Soarin’ Saturdays.

Because of their Women in Flight tribute, Pima is a favourite with me. In my opinion, women in aviation are not profiled enough. A quick video overview of the many ‘firsts’ for women aviators is featured on their site. Thank you, Pima!

A ‘Boneyard’ tour (acres of assorted commercial and military aircraft) is optional. I took it, but found it too long. In addition, the retired USAF guide didn’t allow his bus-load of visitors to ask any questions. In any case, most of what probably interests you can be seen from the inbound road, anyway.

Canada: The Canadian Aviation and Space Museum near Ottawa has an interesting and varied static display. To my surprise Bill Cowan’s Ray Ban Gold modified Pitts Special S-2A was at the main door. I was so surprised I felt I’d been welcomed by an old friend!

Originally called The Canadian Reds, this outstanding Fraser Valley aerobatic team was an Abbotsford International Airshow favourite for many years. Eventually renamed The Ray Ban Golds, the four aircraft were re-painted a classy black and gold, and continued to thrill North American airshow patrons.

The museum, though smaller, was worth visiting, but low-key compared to the others mentioned here. Considering Canada’s space contributions and status, I found that section disappointing.

The Canadian Museum of Flight located at Langley Airport, B.C., is a gem. Though not large, you’ll find local aircraft enthusiasts around, a hanger with plenty of information, restored aircraft well-maintained in the surrounding grounds (some of which youngsters can climb aboard) plus a nearby airport cafe, restaurant, and small gift shop.

You can’t miss the retired Canadian Airlines DC3 at the gate. Open by donation on August 7, 8, 9.


– Many provinces have aviation museums. Give Ursula Maxwell-Lewis a heads-up on any of your favourites at

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