I felt privileged to participate in the ceremony at the Cobble Hill cenotaph on Oct. 22 to honour members of the Canadian military who died in non-combat roles, though this year, my perspective was entirely different.
It’s the seventh year in a row that members and veterans of the Canadian military, as well as civilians, gathered at the cenotaph on Oct. 22 to honour the deceased service members.
The annual tradition began in 2014 after Corporal Nathan Cirillo was shot in the back and killed as he stood as a ceremonial guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
More than 2,600 Canadian soldiers have lost their lives while on duty in Canada in non-combat roles since 1911.
This year, the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 134 Shawnigan Lake held the ceremony, and a Silver Star Mother laid a wreath at the cenotaph.
I have attended the ceremony for the past several years at the invitation of Bob Collins, a former member of the Queen’s Own in Winnipeg, who helped develop the idea for the ceremony at the Cobble Hill Cenotaph.
This year, however, Kevin Maher, a pilot with Air Canada with a passion for vintage aircraft, was asked to participate in a flypast of the cenotaph during the ceremony and he invited me to come along in a 1940 North American (Noorduyn) Harvard, which was a training aircraft for fighter pilots in the Second World War.
Maher, a resident of Cowichan Bay and a member of the Duncan Flying Club, told me that he and other club members regularly participate in flypasts over cenotaphs on southern Vancouver Island on Remembrance Day each year in vintage war planes.
He said he was more than pleased to participate at the Cobble Hill ceremony because one of the eight military personnel who were being remembered at the service this year was Capt. Jennifer Casey, who died in Kamloops in May in a plane crash when flying with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds’s squadron.
Casey was a long-time friend of Maher.
I met Maher at the Nanaimo airport almost two hours before our scheduled flypast at the cenotaph at 11:03 a.m., just after the ceremony began, to allow time for a quick check of the old rebuilt plane and to warm it up, as well as to give me some basic instructions on how to board and exit the plane, which is not an easy task.
He instructed me on how to slip into a parachute that was part of the rear seat of the plane, and to put on various straps to hold me in place in the tight quarters.
Maher said if there was catastrophic event, like a fire or a wing falling off the plane (yikes!), I should release the numerous seat straps, pull open the canopy, climb out of the cockpit, throw myself away from the crashing plane and pull the rip cord on my parachute.
It struck me that at less than 2,000 feet, the altitude we were to fly at, by the time I successfully got through all of this, I would be at best about 10 feet above the ground when I finally pulled the parachute’s ripcord, and that’s if I got out of the plane at all.
I began having a new appreciation of the what the fighter pilots of the Second World War had to go through.
We took off from Nanaimo and headed south over the Cowichan Valley towards Cobble Hill and were joined by Martin House, another member of the Duncan Flying Club, who was flying a Russian Yak 18, a Cold War-era fighter plane, and was also to participate in the flypast.
As we approached Cobble Hill, Maher shook the plane’s tail to indicate to House to turn immediately to the west as part of the missing man formation.
The missing man formation is an aerial salute performed as part of a flypast when aircraft approach from the south and one of the aircraft will suddenly split off to the west, flying into the sunset.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t see the ceremony at the cenotaph from the plane, but I waved anyway because I told Collins to wave at the planes when they were overhead.
On the way back to Nanaimo airport, Maher gave me the opportunity to fly the plane from my training position in the rear seat.
I immediately declined, but Maher said there was nothing to worry about as he had overall command from his front seat and could immediately correct any errors I made.
I gently nudged the plane to the right and then to the left before I asked Maher to take over again as my heart was beating out of my chest.
I certainly hope the flypast was a success at the Cobble Hill ceremony, which, as well as Casey, remembered eight other military members who died in non-combat roles this year.
They include the six members of the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter who died in an accident that occurred off the coast of Greece on April 29 (Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough, Master Corporal Matthew Cousins, Captain Brenden Ian MacDonald, Captain Kevin Hagen, Sub-Lieutenant Matthew Pyke and Captain Maxime Miron-Morin) as well as Bombardier Patrick Labrie who was lost in a training accident, and Colin Stephen Roy Bell who died due to PTSD.