Feral and pure. That’s how Steve Zago describes flying a Cold War-era fighter jet.
Zago is a pilot and the media coordinator for the Waterloo Warbirds, the volunteer-run organization dedicated to restoring and flying retired, ex-military jets.
Of their six jets, the T-33 Mako Shark is probably the most recognizable, built in 1957 and painted to resemble a menacing looking shark. It’s also one of the fastest, with a maximum speed of over 900 km per hour.
While some people might squirm at the thought of flying in a two-seater plane at those speeds, for others, it’s a dream come true.
For instance, there was a man in a Vancouver hospice who dreamt of flying in a warbird, and they were able to make that happen.
“His kids flew him out to Toronto and brought him here, gave him a Tom Cruise Top Gun jacket. It was his dream to fly, and I took him up for a ride,” said Warbirds chief pilot Ray Thwaites, who flies the Mako Shark.
Thwaites says they also get a lot of veterans coming out for passenger flights, as well as people who have ties to the military.
For the veterans, “it’s a step back in time to their past … in some ways, it’s like a completion of a cycle,” Thwaites said.
Others often ride them to feel a connection with someone dear to them. That includes Zago, who became involved with the Warbirds shortly after his grandfather died.
“I grew up with the stories of my grandfather, who was a squadron leader. He served with part of the British Commonwealth during World War 2 at home in Ontario,” he said.
One of their jets is just one number off from the plane he flew, “so I’m very sure that at some point he walked by the aeroplane in 1942 or 1943 and ran his hand across it,” Zago said.
Today, Waterloo Warbirds are one of -- if not the only -- places you can get a ride in a jet like this.
One reason for that is because they burn a lot of fuel, so you need specialized people like Thwaites and Zago to fly them. Not only that, because they burn so much fuel, they cost a lot of money to fly: Thwaites says just 30 minutes in the air will cost at least $1,000 -- a cost the pilots front themselves each time they do flyovers to honour veterans.
“[The engines] are extremely dependable, but they’re very high in fuel consumption. In fact, more dependable than the new types of engines that are out there now,” said Thwaites.
Another reason is because the maintenance required is so extreme. Every hour of flying equals several more hours in maintenance. In fact, the jets spend significantly more time being maintained than they do flying.
Though they update the jets when need be, they do so only when absolutely necessary for safety purposes, to try to maintain their historical integrity.
“They’re representative of a forgotten era of Canadian aviation, which is the Cold War in Canada,” Zago said, adding that we typically talk about WWI and II, “but no one really talks about the contribution Canada made in the defence of peace, especially in eastern Europe during the Cold War.
“We like getting people out here and telling them these stories,” Zago said. “In the cold war, over 1,100 Canadian pilots lost their lives; nobody really knows that.”
Their de Havilland Vampire jet, built in 1958, has a significant history of its own. According to Zago, a lot of pilots died flying the model after the war.
“They took guys who flew passenger planes during the war, and they threw them into a vampire, which is a jet, which was completely different. You don’t just jump into a jet,” he said. “And they didn’t know … they were flying jets when they were like five years old as a technology. So a lot of guys died.”
“They were unwilling test pilots,” Thwaites said. “Aviation survives based on studying actions. You look at the past and look at what went wrong, and there’s always an improvement that comes out of it or a change in procedure.”
Zago adds that the reason they are able to operate the jet so safely today is because of those pioneers.
“It’s an homage to the sacrifice of the people who didn’t make it; people who spent their youth defending freedom in the cold war.”
And while they have somber histories, they’re painted in whimsical ways primarily to appeal to kids.
“They look friendlier, or maybe less friendly if you don’t like sharks,” Thwaites said. Plus, they look pretty cool in the sky.
But it’s not just for stylistic appeal. The paintings also have their own histories associated with them.
For instance, in the early 1950’s, a Vancouver-based Royal Canadian Air Force squadron that flew Vampires had painted their jets with red and black vampire faces, inspired by the local Indigenous culture. The paint on the Warbird model is an homage to this.
Besides passenger flights and flybys, for the last few years, they’ve been focusing on
formation flying -- an incredibly difficult form of flying that only a handful of pilots in the world get to do, according to Zago.
“None of the pilots are ex-military,” he said. Zago was in the army, but not the airforce, where they’re “trained to fly for close formation together. We’re not, so we’ve been getting training from other professionals.”
Thwaites points to a picture that, at first glance, looks like modern art. But it’s the Blue Angels flying in formation: several planes flying together, nearly stacked on top of each other. In fact, he says they often fly so close that they rub paint off each other, because each pilot is focusing on the lead plane, not the wings of each plane.
“When you see aircraft flying in formation, those guys and gals are sweating buckets,” he said. “It’s really hard.”
Despite the pandemic, they were able to get some passenger flights in last year after establishing some protocols.
“Flying around by yourself is great, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t share it with anybody. And part of our mission is to honour veterans, honour the history of these aircraft, but also to inspire people,” Zago said.
For anyone who wants to learn more about the Warbirds or see the jets up close, they are hosting an open house on Sept. 11 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
You can find out more about becoming a member here.