(This is an abridged version of the Special Edition of the Rockcliffe Flying Club's newsletter, Crosswinds, which I produced this week. You can read the original version on the club's website. Click on RFC Crosswinds - Special April Edition to download the pdf, if you're interested.)
While club members and guests were cheerfully celebrating a record number of flying awards at our “Centenary of Flight” Wings Dinner, held at the Canada Aviation Museum on the evening of April 25th, 2009, disaster struck. A freak wind blew in, tearing across the airport just as we were being served the first course of our supper, mutilating more than twenty aircraft parked there, some irreparably, with wheels and tails sheared off, wings crumpled, some having cart-wheeled and landed on their backs, wheels in the air. We were so well sheltered inside the museum that everyone was oblivious of the wreckage until the end of the ceremonies, three hours later. There's some irony in that, but it was fortunate that because of the indoor celebrations no one had run the risk of being injured.
The Aviation Museum where our dining tables had been set out was very spacious and quiet inside and thoroughly insulated from the elements. We were sitting a long way from any windows and from the entrance so that we noticed neither the 10 cars damaged in the car park, nor the revolving entrance doors spinning round uncontrolled in the wind (as the door man later reported). At one point a faint banging noise could be heard from some part of the building, but it didn't register as anything important.
The whole region had been hit, with roofs torn off houses both sides of the Ottawa River and big trees torn up by the roots or simply snapped in half. In each place affected, the 100 km/h squall, tornado, microburst or whatever it was, only lasted a couple of minutes. There had been a similar incident on a July afternoon in 1999 when one of the parked aircraft at Rockcliffe had been flipped over during a storm, but this time more than twenty aircraft parked at CYRO were harmed, over half of these completely written off: five ultra-lights and a Cessna-172 belonging to the club, GWZA, among them. The Piper Cherokee Six, whose tumbling flight wrecked GWZA, ended up with its tail smashed through the window of another of our club ’planes, GPHV. For anyone who’s a member of Facebook, by the way, a new group has been formed: I once flew in GWZA. If you're feeling bereaved you can share your memories and photographs there.
Ten club members' cars were damaged in the museum parking lot as well that evening.
Another especially sad loss to the club was the old willow tree that fell onto the western end of the clubhouse; by 11a.m. the following morning it had been sawn into pieces. Some members have planted willow twigs along the fence in the hope that the tree might resurrect itself in some sense. It will be a long time before we have another one as large and as shady, but it's certain that the willow and the swing that hung from its branches will continue to live in our own and our children's memories. Tony's barbecue equipment was also smashed in the storm and owing to the fall of the willow tree the shed he used for catering is no longer usable.
Club members spent half the night and all of the next day tidying up. The club's staff and supporters hurried round. Chris let the police into the clubhouse while Simon, Don and Laurie, working literally in the dark, did a great job of putting an emergency response team into action. Many of the helpers that night worked till after 2 in the morning, still dressed in their party clothes, rather flimsy in some cases; the female contingent learned that there's not a lot you can usefully do on a muddy field at midnight while still wearing your high heeled party shoes. Simon contacted the insurance companies. Don, Elva and their assistants made as thorough an inventory as possible in the dark of the damage that had been sustained. Marie-Eve, Brenda and Laura didn't flinch from the challenging task of phoning all those owners whose planes had been wrecked. René, Marek and Gary checked the state of the runway, taxi-ways, and clubhouse. Ian took the necessary photographs.
Next day, Sunday, in response to an emailed appeal for help from the CFI, about eighty volunteers turned up to assist with clean-up operations. Some felled the remainder of the tree with chain saws, others shifted the broken aircraft off the taxi-ways and everyone worked at clearing away the debris left by the storm. Michael Brown delegated each volunteer to a specific part of the field, working parties being spontaneously formed in this manner. Throughout the day, people continued to turn up, including press and TV reporters. Rozy, a Safety Management professional, voluntarily assisted with the plan of campaign and took notes, so that in the event of another such catastrophe there'll be an improved response plan in place. Nothing like experience itself for honing one's emergency preparedness!
By Monday afternoon the airport was effectively back to normal, due to a tremendous amount of outside help. Two mechanics from Vintage Wings of Canada (based at Gatineau Airport) had came across the river to offer their services and a couple of mechanics who specialise in metal work had also arrived to help with the repairs. The other two Ottawa clubs had offered spare aeroplanes so that flight training operations at Rockcliffe could continue without a hitch. Belinda, the Insurance Company representative, had arrived from Toronto and the chopped pieces of the willow tree were being removed from the field by a club member who had organised the pick-up on his own initiative.
The team spirit had turned out to be as phenomenal as the weather.
...If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same...