I sat elbow-to-elbow with history last Sunday. Many seated around me had piloted military aircraft in hostile skies. Others had gone aloft as Royal Canadian Air Force navigators, radio operators, gunners and flight engineers. But just as many had made history in the ranks of the volunteer association that gathers, preserves and celebrates the romance of flight in peacetime – the Air Force Association of Canada. Closest to me (and equally close to that history) sat Hugh Halliday, eminent Canadian air historian. We talked about current writing projects. It turned out he had research I needed and he offered it to me without question, without thought of compensation.
“The best way to preserve history,” Halliday said, “is to share it.”
Hugh Halliday and I sat in the audience at Hamilton’s Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, last Sunday, as part of a ceremony to acknowledge just that sort of gesture. Some months ago, the Governor General’s office had charged the Air Force Association of Canada with the responsibility of honouring the Queen’s 60 years on the throne. The GG wanted the AFAC to choose several dozen of its many volunteers as deserving recipients of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
“The medal is a visible and tangible way to recognize outstanding Canadians,” Dean Black, the executive director of the AFAC, said.
Black stood on a podium beneath the nose of Second World War vintage DC-3 transport plane as he addressed the assembly of medal recipients and their families. One by one he invited men and women from the AFAC to the podium to be recognized for their service. Joining him was Senator Joseph Day (New Brunswick) to present the medals on behalf of Her Majesty. There were association administrators, fundraisers, chapter presidents and VPs, and long-serving members who, as Black said, “have built … this caring society and country through their service and achievements.”
But at a certain point in the presentations, Dean Black paused a moment. Then, making a special point, he emphasized the work of aviation historians. He talked about the need to document air force history, to capture its past in words and images, and to offer Canadians an interpretation of that history to keep it alive. That’s when he called forward Hugh Halliday. Based in Ottawa, Halliday had served as the RCAF’s air historian (1960 to 1965), with the Canadian Forces Directorate of History (1965-68), and as curator of war art, posters and photographs at the Canadian War Museum (1974-95).
Wonderful credentials worth recognizing, but for me Halliday is a walking encyclopedia of military aviation people, events, awards and statistics. He’s the author of a dozen or more books on Canadian history. And because, in addition, he’s always eager to offer his research freely, he received the Diamond Jubilee Medal on Sunday.
Also receiving a medal was Larry Milberry. I’ve always admired the way Milberry got his aviation-writing career off the ground, so to speak. For 10 years, as he taught high school in the Toronto Catholic school system, Milberry assembled the data and wrote as a hobby his definitive book, “Aviation in Canada,” published in 1979. He realized this was his calling and launched his independent writing/publishing firm CANAV Books from his home in downtown Toronto. I remember visiting him one day not long after he launched his one-man, mail-order publishing firm. He met me at the door of his narrow Beach-area home and walked me to his kitchen for a coffee.
“Mind the piles of books in the hallway,” he said. “They’ll all be mailed in the next day or two … from here to all corners of the globe.”
Later during the Sunday medal ceremony, I joined an aviation historian in a group photograph. Quebecer Jerry Fielden works in photography and tattoo art, but his passion is aviation. In particular, he has spent much of his free time in recent years compiling the history of RCAF 438 Squadron, a helicopter unit with service dating back to the 1930s. His efforts in preserving an extraordinary story (in French) were also recognized on Sunday with a Diamond Jubilee Medal.
“I feel privileged to be in such good company,” Fielden said.
In spite of the regal importance attached to every Jubilee medal and each recipient (including myself) there on Sunday, the Air Force Association had a final gift to bestow. As the medal ceremony came to a close, the AFAC announced it was awarding the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum and its work in preserving aviation history, a $35,000 grant. It was an exclamation point for the day, I thought.
One day, when my grandchildren come back to the museum to remember the day their grandfather was honoured for recording history, they will benefit from the gifts of a society (and a monarch) that cared enough to share the past with the future.