Royal Canadian Air Force Golden Hawks (1959-1964)

News Article / October 12, 2017

From Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame

“Established to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of powered flight in Canada, the RCAF Golden Hawks set a new standard for Canadian aerobatic teams. Flying F-86 Sabre aircraft from 1959 to1963, the Golden Hawks thrilled audiences, demonstrated professionalism of pilots and the maintenance crew,
and generated pride in Canada’s air force.”

- Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame Belt of Orion Award citation, 2017

The Golden Hawks aerobatic team was formed on March 1, 1959, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of powered flight in Canada, when the primitive Silver Dart biplane, flown by J.A.D. McCurdy, lifted off from Bras D’Or Lake in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, on February 23, 1909. In 1974, J.A.D. McCurdy was installed as an original member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

The establishment of the Golden Hawks aerobatic team, flying Canadian-built Canadair F-86 Sabre jet Mark 5 fighter aircraft, also celebrated the 35th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Canadian Air Force on April 1, 1924. Under the leadership of Squadron Leader Fernand “Fern” Villeneuve, AFC, CD, who was inducted as a Member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006, the Golden Hawks were originally intended to perform aerobatic shows for one year to showcase RCAF capabilities for the Canadian public.

Previously, RCAF squadrons based in England, France and Germany had formed unofficial aerobatic teams flying Sabres in Europe in the early 1950s. Such performances were halted in 1956 when tragedy befell one of the teams, the Sky Lancers, and a fatal accident resulted in the death of four of the five members of the team.

Other RCAF aerobatic teams had been formed over the years, the first being a team of three Armstrong-Whitworth Siskin biplanes. The team was formed in 1929, thirty years before the Golden Hawks, to celebrate the first successful non-stop transatlantic flight by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown who departed from St. John’s, Newfoundland, on June 14, 1919, flying a twin-engine Vickers Vimy biplane.

The Golden Hawks, with six F-86 aircraft, comprised the first official RCAF national aerobatic team. Pilots were selected from the Air Defence Command or Training Command at RCAF Station Chatham in New Brunswick. Chatham was home of No. 1 (Fighter) Operational Training Unit and became base of operations for the Golden Hawks. For the first time, pilots were given dedicated time to train and perfect their routines as part of their air force service.

Joining team leader Fern Villeneuve, with his vast experience in aerobatic displays, were Flight Lieutenant Jim McCombe, Flight Lieutenant Ed Rozdeba, Flight Lieutenant Jeb Kerr and Flight Lieutenant Ralph Annis, who became lead solo pilot and helped develop routines for the solo performance. Flight Lieutenant Sam Eisler, Flying Officer Bill Stewart and Flying Officer Jim Holt completed the team. Sadly, a crash killed Sam Eisler in a training flight at Chatham, resulting in his replacement by Flight Lieutenant J.T. Price. In 1959 Jeb Kerr was killed in a mid-air collision with a small airplane while landing at Calgary late in the season.

After its formation, the team pilots was ready to perform after only three months of preparation. In the summer and fall of 1959, spectators at air shows in Canada and the United States were treated to new and breath-taking high speed manoeuvres. Performances by the Golden Hawks attracted huge crowds and the team proved to be fine representatives of the RCAF, but was stood down on September 26, 1959, having successfully realized the goals set for it. However, the great popularity of the aerial ambassadors led to reinstatement in 1960.

In 1961 another fatality occurred at Chatham when Jim McCann was killed in pre-season practice. Despite tragedy, the Golden Hawks continued to perform until the conclusion of the 1963 season, five years after original plans called for only one year of displays. The team was preparing for their sixth season in 1964 when budget cuts led to their disbandment on February 7th.

More than 15 million spectators in Canada and the United States had seen performances of the Golden Hawks. They symbolized the professionalism, skill and daring needed to be a Canadian fighter pilot. The elegant F-86 Sabre in its distinctive gold livery with its red and white hawk painted on each side of the fuselage inspired countless thousands who saw them fly. Performances generated great publicity in press, radio and television and, although never intended as such, the Golden Hawks served as an effective recruiting tool.

In 317 shows performed by the Golden Hawks, they never experienced a serious incident during a performance. The aircraft’s 100 per cent serviceability rate was a testament to the maintenance of the aircraft and the team’s groundcrew, who were highly regarded by the pilots. Although groundcrew never received the public recognition accorded the pilots, the pride and professionalism of the groundcrew and maintenance officers was evident in keeping the aircraft in top condition. That same respect by pilots for their crews is still evident in the Golden Hawks’ successors, the Snowbirds, flying Canadair CT-114 Tutor jets since 1971.

Although the Golden Hawks have flown into history, at least five F-86 Sabres in original colours are located at museums or on pedestals in Canada and another is displayed in Germany. A restored F-86 named “Hawk One”, part of the Vintage Wings of Canada collection at Gatineau, Québec, and sporting authentic livery, flew at aviation events from coast to coast in Canada from 2009 to 2015.

The legendary aerobatic team is also remembered in other ways. The Golden Hawks Royal Canadian Air Cadets 540 Squadron in Oakville, Ontario, carries the team’s name. Other commemoration by young Canadians is seen on the name of a Junior A hockey team in Trenton, Ontario. In Medicine Hat, Alberta, a girls’ community basketball team was formed in 2009, celebrating the 100th anniversary of powered flight in Canada and the 50th anniversary of the Golden Hawks, and was named for the team. As well, the Royal Canadian Air Force Association established the Golden Hawks Trophy awarded for “commendable achievement in any field of military aviation.”

The Golden Hawks continued the RCAF tradition of jet aircraft for national aerobatic teams, which began with the 410 Squadron Blue Devils flying deHavilland Vampires. In 1967, when then-Wing Commander Owen Bartley “O.B” Philp formed the Centennaires to help celebrate Canada’s Centennial, he called upon former Golden Hawk pilot Squadron Leader Clarence B. Lang to lead the team.

When the Snowbirds aerobatic team was formed in 1971, Major Glen Younghusband of No. 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, led the team. He was followed in 1973 by Major George Miller, who had flown as a Golden Hawk in 1962. In 1978 the Snowbirds officially became named 431 Air Demonstration Squadron. Both Wing Commander Philp and Squadron Leader Miller were installed as Members of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2015. Today, the Snowbirds continue what the Golden Hawks started.

Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Dan Dempsey, a former team leader of Canada’s Snowbirds, successors to the Golden Hawks, has published a history of our aerobatic teams. He has written, “If the modern day Snowbirds owe their legacy to any one predecessor, then it is arguably the Golden Hawks, for it was this team that first earned Canada and the RCAF widespread international recognition for having a world-class aerobatic team.” 

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