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GTA Tripping: Canadian Air & Space Museum

Posted by Christopher Reynolds / October 17, 2009

20091017-gtatripping-air-toys.jpgAn open letter to girls, as inspired by my recent trip to Downview Park's Canadian Air & Space Museum:

Dear Girls,

As my unending quest to understand you rolls on, I'm faced with yet another question: do you ever come across certain objects, places or situations that inspire your inner child to mutiny, the little bastard charging forth out of your chest, rendering your adulthood utterly meaningless?

You'll have to forgive me, I come from a place of limited knowledge on the subject, but, do you ever see -- oh I don't know -- a pony or a rainbow or some messy hair attached to a plastic toy that clearly requires brushing, and then suddenly you're a kid again and against every mature inclination you've cultivated over the past decade or two you're oohing and awwing or brushing the shit out of that hair despite yourself?

Thanks (I love you),



Canadian Air and Space MuseumThis was me last weekend, pretty much -- only I was in the cockpit of an F-101 Voodoo fighter jet. As soon as I sat down I was no longer an adult. Finding the triggers to be sadly unresponsive, I immediately started singing out the sounds of my firefight, Pchew Pchew Pchew!.

Bill, the museum's volunteer front desk attendant that day, was walking by at the time and laughed at me. But it wasn't a laugh of pity (as were the laughs coming from our photographer and resident Girl expert, Petia), but a laugh of understanding.

Canadian Air and Space Museum

Canadian Air and Space MuseumOther than the real kids, and the part-time kids (like me), the Canadian Air & Space Museum is the playground of the airplane and war buff. And there's plenty to get nerdy about here: the world's only full-scale Avro Arrow model, a Lancaster (currently being restored) as well as a host of other military and experimental aircraft.

Canadian Air and Space MuseumThe Arrow is probably the biggest deal here (lit 'n' fig), and people come from all around to look up (waaaaay up) at its tragic splendor. For airplane nerds, or even simply the patriotic, the Arrow is a tragic dual symbol of Canada's aerospace technology potential and the tragedy (as is argued by many) of the project's premature discontinuation.

For most of us, the Avro Arrow is a Dan Akyroyd-related thing, like Ghostbusters and unpretentious wine, but for many it represents one of Canada's most amazing achievements.

Canadian Air and Space MuseumThe other giant plane in the building, the "Mighty Lanc" was impressive also, despite being in several pieces. The beast is famous for carrying the heaviest payloads during WWII -- up to 12,000 lbs of bombs -- for the RAF out of England.

Standing next to the Lanc was one of her original WWII pilots, a Scotsman by the name of Philip Gray. Mr. Gray was selling copies of his book Ghosts of Targets Past, a story about his tour of duty in the skies of Europe.

Author Philip Gray at the Canadian Air and Space MuseumPart of Mr. Gray's job was to answer simply "yes" to questions like did you really fight in World War Two? Did you really fly this huge plane? Did you really bomb Nazis? But he also spent a good amount of time explaining the way things were to a few seriously interested history buff fellows, who asked deeper questions like how cold was it in the belly of that thing?

While it was indeed interesting and definitely humbling talking to a WWII veteran, something across the room from his table caught my eye. It looked like a plane, but the wings were bent upward. As I approached, I saw that they were attached to the fuselage with hinges. It was then that I knew it must be, that's right, the ornithopter!

Canadian Air and Space MuseumWhat? Oh, you haven't heard of it? It's a plane that flies like a bird, by flapping its wings. Actually, you can buy toys in Chinatown that'll take care of that job, but in fact this machine, I learned, is the only one in the world to ever fly a human being through the air, and it was only achieved in 2006. Right here, too, at Downsview Park, by a professor and a bunch of grad students from the University of Toronto.

The "Space" in Canadian Air & Space Museum is really just a series of small models on the mezzanine level of the building, and looks more like a high school science fair than a proper museum, which is unfortunate because my inner kid loves space stuff. Though the museum changed its name in February of this year to match the similar institute in Washington D.C., it is desperately underfunded in comparison, and so this is what we have to live with for now.

Canadian Air and Space MuseumTo the average Canadian, our country's air and space history probably feels only deep enough to warrant a science fair-caliber exhibition like the mezzanine here. But as I learned on this trip, we do have a proud, impressive and groundbreaking legacy here that demands more.

The meek metal, mirror and glue gun model of Canada's first orbital satellite does no justice to the proud fact that the Alouette made us only the third country to have scientific instruments in space, following the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A.

It makes me a little emotional to think about (and this, I know, isn't just a guy thing, it's a Canadian human thing). And speaking of emotions, put that beautiful little thing in your mind, and read this quote from the museum's free pamphlet:

[The Alouette was] built to work for one year - a truly remarkable accomplishment at the time. It was still functioning ten years later. At that point it was remotely shut down. Alouette still orbits the earth.

Canadian Air and Space Museum

Canadian Air and Space Museum

Photos by Petia Karrin.



James / October 17, 2009 at 01:00 pm
The Aerospace museum is a great little gem, especially if you have an interest for old technology. There is a classic "analog" computer tucked away in the corner that used to run a simulator.

I also have had the pleasure of chatting with Philip Gray. He's got some great stories and would be the best exhibit in the place.

karen / October 17, 2009 at 01:48 pm
in response to your open letter: through both personal experience and the time i recently spent scrolling through the nostalgia tag at, i can heartily say the answer is absolutely yes.
(for example:
guinness416 / October 17, 2009 at 02:35 pm
Great post, I love this series. This museum is a little gem, I agree, and is a very Dad place to go - first spot on the itinerary when mine came over!
Mark Dowling / October 17, 2009 at 02:47 pm
I'd like to see the Museum relocated to the Island Airport so that its location can draw more visitors. If Bombardier manufacturing was relocated to Pearson then Downsview Park could be doubled in size with a small amount of high density residential around the subway stations paying the bill.

If we really wanted to get ambitious, Sheppard could be <a href=";ll=43.750668,-79.476557&spn=0.01302,0.054932&z=15">redirected "straight" under the decommissioned airfield</a> in a decked over trench and the existing jog converted to a lower speed local road.
Sean / October 17, 2009 at 06:37 pm
Sweet. You just saved me a trip to Ottawa. I didn't know Toronto had its own air museum until now. Thank you!
James / October 17, 2009 at 07:52 pm
A further note on Downsview in general. It seems to be in some sort of Federal government limbo, but old buildings attract interesting things. The Aerospace museum is small but good. Roller Derby has moved in. There are some nice indoor soccer fields. I'm told the market is not bad.

I wonder if a "showpiece" government project would just ruin the place.
G Smith replying to a comment from Mark Dowling / October 17, 2009 at 08:21 pm
Sure, why not move a large manufacturer (and what I understand to be its well-paying, skilled jobs) out of the 416 and into the 905! Its not as though Bombardier (via Dehaviland) has any meaningful roots in Downsview, right? Right?

Anyway, good luck with your grand designs, as there's still plenty of Forces activity there.
Proud feminazi / October 17, 2009 at 08:41 pm
I'm sure you're a great guy, but call us "women" and please refrain from perpetuating gender stereotypes.
Christopher replying to a comment from Proud feminazi / October 17, 2009 at 09:32 pm
Yes, ma'am.

Jay / October 19, 2009 at 10:51 am
Check the Warplane museum near Hamilton.
Jenelle / October 30, 2009 at 07:14 pm
"do you ever see -- oh I don't know -- a pony or a rainbow or some messy hair attached to a plastic toy that clearly requires brushing, and then suddenly you're a kid again and against every mature inclination you've cultivated over the past decade or two you're oohing and awwing or brushing the shit out of that hair despite yourself?"


Is it unthinkable that I get excited about transportation and exploration?
Christopher replying to a comment from Jenelle / October 30, 2009 at 08:04 pm
No, of course not silly! I think it's pretty clear to most readers that the passage you quoted (and this entire series - and maybe my entire life for that matter!) is pretty tongue-in-cheek.

Museum Employee / December 11, 2009 at 02:46 pm
The Museum's space display has improved since your last visit... you should come by sometime and see it.

We also have two new aircraft.

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