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Profile of an Airman

RCAF Ensign
RCAF Ensign

Lancaster VR-A over Lake Winnebago, AirVenture 2006
(Photo by Jim Koepnick)

Falco Bulkhead
Peter and Joe with a Falco Bulkhead

Falco Fuselage
Joe and the Falco Fuselage Structure

JOe's Pastels
Joe's pastels (portrait of Claire lower left)

JOe and Claire
Joe and Claire, 625 Squadron RCAF, Edmonton, 1945

A huge RCAF Ensign fills the skies above Nanton, Alberta, and dwarfs every building except the Lancaster Museum and Memorial Wall. The Museum is easily the main attraction in this small town, located about 40 minutes south of Calgary.

A prominent airman, instrumental in the birth and inception of the museum, is WWII Pilot Officer Joe English, who flew 30 missions over Germany, including the attack on Berchtesgaden, Hitler's "Eagles Lair," and then two more humanitarian missions (Operation Manna) into German occupied Holland. Joe and his crewmates, flying the Lancaster "Lucky H" in RAF Squadron 625, not only survived the war in good health, but have also remained close friends for the past 60 plus years. Two of the crew have passed on, but the remaining five are often seen at museum functions, usually standing as a group as they were photographed during the war.

Joe is a local celebrity, a heroic figure who is well known and beloved throughout the area. He is often featured at aviation events and played the "lead" in the History Channel's production of The Bomber Boys. The production is a true reality show that follows seven young men, grandsons and relatives of the crew, who agree to participate in the WWII aircrew basic-training (boot camp) that their grandfathers and uncles endured at a similar age. Together, young and old, they recall the war, culminating in a trip to warsites in Europe. All members of the cast enjoy a ride in the rare and beautiful Lancaster VR-A bomber, the aircraft showcased at AirVenture 2006.

We visited Joe, to see how he had fared during the long winter, but especially to view his latest challenging project; building a Falco. This Falco homebuilt aircraft kit includes some weldments and little more than construction manuals (three large binders) and three rolls of drawings - all of which Joe reproduced by hand, expertly tracing the originals at his coffee table. He explains that now the project has working drawings together with the original backup. Visually, these drawings show the penmanship of Joe's postwar architectural practice.

Joe contracted with his friend, Peter Uithuisje, a pilot and a Dutch woodworking craftsman. One year later they have produced the wooden fuselage structure that portrays the Falco's swift and agile lines. "I had no idea what I was getting into," Peter said.

The two plan to complete the controls, the firewall forward, and then the thin skin of spruce plywood - like the rest of the aircraft construction - will be wetted, steamed, molded, and fitted to the bulkheads.

Joe quipped to the local newspaper, "I want to be the oldest living fighter pilot." He had a taste of the fighter in RCAF Squadron 402, a post-war reserve unit in Winnipeg where he served while completing his Degree in Architecture at the U of M. The squadron initially flew De'Haviland Vampires, but then reverted back to the piston-engine P51 Mustang. Joe's checkout consisted of "ground school" where the instructor advised Joe to "just fly it like a fast Harvard." He memorized the instruments and controls to stay ahead of the airplane and then soloed! Joe took off and disappeared into the wild blue, and observers noted that the gear stayed down and the flaps stayed deployed. He laughingly recalls that the airplane still stayed way ahead of him.

After viewing the Falco, we returned to Joe's apartment where we enjoyed a private showing of his pastels, and learned that Joe also enjoys a successful career in painting.

We reminisce with Joe about his life as a GA pilot and his various aircraft. "They were all good, but my best and most enjoyable aircraft was the V-tail Bonanza." He laughs as he tells us how he convinced his wife and childhood sweetheart, Claire, why they should have a personal aircraft to help in his travels as an architect.

Claire has now passed on, Joe is thinner and more fragile looking than when we last saw him a few months ago, and he tells us that he could use some of his former vitality. Nevertheless, Joe's project is exciting for him - "a good reason to get up in the morning." As summer approaches, the warm sun on his back and the progress on his Falco will continue to fuel Joe's passion to build and fly!

Pilot Officer Joe English - veteran WWII hero who flew Lancasters before he had a driver's license, husband and father of seven, GA pilot, architect, artist, amateur-built aircraft builder. A portrait of an Airman.

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