VANCOUVER, B.C. - What may be the largest group of non-military aircraft ever to fly together in Canada will lift off from suburban Vancouver airports Friday for a cross-country journey to mark the centennial of flight in Canada.
More than 100 small planes, from First World War replicas to vintage bush planes and a two-seater jet, will be part of the Century Flight, the brainchild of Vancouver TV producer and pilot John Lovelace.
The buzzing armada of private planes cruising at an average 200 kilometres an hour will make eight official stops along the way before arriving at Sydney, N.S., to visit nearby Baddeck, where the first powered flight in Canada took place on Feb. 23, 1909.
That day, John McCurdy flew the Silver Dart, designed by a group financed by Alexander Graham Bell, off frozen Baddeck Bay.
The flight itself was commemorated last February by a replica Silver Dart flown by astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason, though a planned flight on the anniversary itself was scrubbed due to bad weather.
Lovelace said he got the idea for the Century Flight after the United States marked the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers ground-breaking 2003 flight, recognized as the first controlled, powered flight in the world.
Associate Anthony Nailli, a Brampton, Ont., pilot, said there seemed to be little hoopla about that event, though Lovelace said the U.S. celebrations were more regional than national.
"What we wanted to do was come up with a concept which we could involve the entire country and draw the entire country's attention to it," Lovelace said in an interview.
"We couldn't think of a better way than to get 100 airplanes into the air at the same time and fly across the country."
Lovelace said he had planned initially to make the pilgrimage to Baddeck by himself in his two-engine Piper Navajo, stopping along the way to collect artifacts marking the role of aviation in developing Canada.
But other fliers began asking to tag along, he said, so the Century Flight was born. Interest has been intense, forcing organizers to cut off registrations in mid-March, said Lovelace.
"We have 127 planes registered and we could have had 300," said Lovelace.
The aerial trek will start officially at Boundary Bay airport, just south of Vancouver, which caters to private aircraft. Some participants will leave from other Vancouver-area airports.
The planes will take off at intervals of up to a minute and fly single file.
"This is not a formation flight," said Lovelace. "It's not going to be like World War Two where you look up and you see 100 bombers in the air at one time."
But the stream of planes will still be impressive, especially as they queue up to land.
"If you were standing on the ground and had 100 airplanes go over you, even if that was one-minute separation, you're going to be hearing an airplane for an hour and a half," said Lovelace.
The Century Flight's official stops are Springbank Airport, near Calgary, Brandon, Man., Marathon, Ont., Sault Ste. Marie and Brampton in Ontario, Sherbrooke, Que., Fredericton and finally Sydney, whose airport this year was named after McCurdy.
Only a dozen or so planes will fly into Baddeck itself, which has nothing more than a grass landing strip, said Lovelace.
Participants - about 300 in all, including passengers - are paying a small registration fee and covering their own travel costs.
This is the trip of a lifetime for many private pilots, fodder for years of storytelling, said Lovelace.
"This is the pinnacle, to be able to go across the country with 100 other airplanes," he said.
"We have this thing called hanger talk, which pilots are famous for. If you've ever been in a room with two pilots, you can't get a word in edgewise."
Volunteers are handling organization, bolstered by some private sponsorship money and help from Nav Canada, the government agency that operates the air traffic control system.
Only about 80 planes will start from the West Coast but the fleet will total more than 100 by the time it hits Calgary.
"The air separation in Canada is not an issue," said Lovelace. "You could put thousands of airplanes up there at the same time. "
"The problem that we're getting into is ground handling."
Nav Canada has also expedited things by allowing pilots to prefile their flight plans to avoid a crush at takeoff time, and update them as they go.
There have been other logistic challenges, such as making sure the 20,000 litres of aviation gas - a three month-supply at small fields like Marathon, in northern Ontario - is in place when the fleet swoops in to refuel.
Video of the Century Flight will be turned into a documentary to be shown in the fall on History Television, Global TV and U.S. public television.
It will also provide material for a separate series called "The Aviators" to air sometime next year.
On the Web: http://www.crossCanadaflight.com/