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Harvards fly over Toronto

Three historic Harvard aircraft from Tillsonburg flew above Toronto’s Old City Hall on Nov. 11 participating in the city's annual Remembrance Day ceremony.

Bjarni Tryggvason, former Canadian astronaut and president of the all-volunteer Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association, led the three-plane formation leaving Tillsonburg about 10:15 a.m. Saturday with fellow CHAA pilots Scott McMaster and Percy Contractor at a speed of about 120 knots (222 km/h or 138 mph).

"Reasonably nice weather," said Tryggvason. "Chilly, but nowhere near as cold as these planes were designed to take. On the ground getting ready, it's chilly, but just dress for it. It's fine, the airplane has a heater in it. These planes were used to train - through the war and after the war - all year round in the Prairies. If the temperature is cold, pre-heat the airplanes. The planes we used were inside a heated hangar overnight."

After the Old City Hall tribute, the Harvards flew over the East York Civic Centre on Coxwell Avenue, past the Veteran’s Wing at Sunnybrook Hospital on Bayview Avenue, and over IBEW Local 353 on Lawrence Avenue East before returning to Tillsonburg about 12 p.m. continuing a CHAA tradition that goes back at least 18-20 years.

"The planes actually fly better in the cold," said CHAA chief technical officer Shane Clayton. "A lot denser air... they fly great. They were modified from the originals for winter operations. They were fine in Texas, but up here in the middle of February... you pre-heat the oil within a half-hour or so of the flight.

"Last night we had the heat (in the hangar) on all night just because it was down to -12C or whatever. That was for the batteries too."

"Everything becomes more difficult when it's cold," said George Wilson, who piloted a CHAA 1941 Tiger Moth over Tillsonburg's Remembrance Day service Saturday morning.

"If you get it properly pre-heated, it'll purr like a kitten," said Clayton. "They flew them 50 hours a month, year round. We could do flights here (after Nov. 11), but usually they're down for the winter. We do maintenance, inspections, and cosmetic stuff."

Contractor, a CHAA pilot from Toronto, commutes to Tillsonburg during the summer months to fly Harvards.

"Usually the organization operates every Saturday from the end of March until today, Remembrance Day," said Contractor, who started flying Harvards in 2009. "There's usually something going on every weekend, but of course that doesn't mean I'm here every weekend. Sometimes it's every weekend, sometimes not for a few weeks. It's the same for most pilots."

The flight to Toronto was Contractor's fourth or fifth Remembrance Day trip.

"Each flight in and of itself is special, whether it's 20 people or 20,000 people. It depends on the ceremony - sometimes we do a fly past over a funeral and it's obviously very special for the people there. Sometimes we'll do a fly past over a fall fair or the opening of a museum. Each of them are special in their own way, but this one today, Remembrance Day, I would say does have a little more significance. It's everybody in the country, in their own time zones, commemorating the event. And of course, it's a very great privilege, not just for us but for everybody here, to actually fly over the biggest city in Canada.

"Some days the weather's worse, some days the weather's better. Today the weather was kind of 'what you see is what you get.' There were a little bit of snow showers over the city, we thought might impact us, but in the end it was all good."

The whole trip, from wheels up to wheels down, lasted just over one hour and 45 minutes, said Contractor.

"That's typical, I'd say maybe a little on the shorter side. Sometimes it's 1:55, it's always around there. You want to be there a little bit early so you have time to orbit."


Built by North American Aviation, the Harvard was the primary advanced, single-engine aircraft used to train more than 130,000 aircrew under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada during the Second World War. With its distinctive roar, the Harvard was a familiar sight and sound at air bases across the country.

The Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association is a registered, non-profit, charitable organization with a Class B Museum designation. It is a dedicated group of volunteers established in 1985 to acquire, restore, preserve, maintain and display the North American Harvard and other training aircraft associated with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and the RCAF. For more information, visit


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