Twenty-eight years ago airline captain Terry Champion walked into a meeting of aviation groups working to save Edmonton’s Hangar 14, the Second World War building now home to the Alberta Aviation Museum. He had no intentions of getting involved.
“Bruce Edwardes, who was president of 418 Squadron Association, asked me to attend one meeting in December, 1990, because he was going to be away.”
Champion had spent a lot of time volunteering with the pilots’ association and had resolved not to make any further commitments. But his plan went awry.
“That one meeting on December 1, 1990 led to many many years and hundreds and hundreds of days of helping save the hangar and helping renovate it and build up the aviation museum.”
Champion accepted a position on the executive of the Edmonton Aviation Heritage Society. And it was not just any job. He agreed to help raise millions of dollars needed to fix up what was then an almost 50-year-old building designed only to last the duration of the war.
“My smart Alec answer is I arrived late at the meeting and all the good jobs were gone. But I grew up in Edmonton and knew a lot of people who were prosperous and owned businesses, some ex-Air Force. Silly me, I thought all I had to do was ask.”
After a shaky start, Champion started getting advice from other veterans of the fund-raising game. Over the next few years he helped bring in “a million or two” in government grants and monetary donations. With that support, along with contributions of labour, materials and volunteer time, the group completed more than $3,000,000 worth of renovations including a new front entrance, a new roof, a sprinkler system, mezzanine and fire wall. But Champion is quick to point out it was a team effort.
“There were so many key people if they had not done what they did we wouldn’t be here today.”
Terry Champion’s ties to Hangar 14 date back to 1954 when he discovered he could learn to fly and serve part-time in 418 (City of Edmonton) Squadron, which was based at the hangar. After training on Harvards he transitioned to the B-25s. After one particular flight in May 1957, his Mitchell bomber experienced a brake failure and the aircraft slammed into the east side of the hangar. Miraculously Champion and his co-pilot sustained only minor injuries. The museum’s own Mitchell, “Daisy Mae.” was restored to commemorate that event.
“There’s not many days go by that somebody doesn’t make a joke about it. Particularly when I was flying later for Pacific Western Airlines out of this airport and taxied by this hangar hundreds of times in 737s and DC-6s. Stewardesses would bring up a business card from one of my friends saying ‘Terry watch out for the hangar.’ It was my more than 15 minutes of fame.”
Champion joined Pacific Western Airlines in 1966, continuing to fly for both 418 and the airlines for another three years. He flew for PWA and Canadian Airlines for 26 years, making his last flight in late 1992.
Despite not playing an official role at the hangar for the past number of years, Champion was always available to help museum staff tell the story of Hangar 14, 418 Squadron and PWA. So it was not surprising when, earlier this year, the trim, 84-year-old, hatched a new plan.
“I had noticed that when (Curator) Lech (Lebiedowski) did the islands and dioramas around a couple of the airplanes, how it affected visitors. Instead of taking a look as they walked by, they lingered and read the story board and looked at the audio visuals.
Champion wanted to see the same improvements to the displays featuring the de Havilland Mosquito and the B-25 Mitchell, two aircraft associated with his old squadron.
“So I said, ‘Count on doing the job and I will get the money.’ What was needed was $11,000 and within about 9 days I passed that mark and ended up where it is now, at $24,600.”
The money, from more than 55 contributors, has financed the construction of the new diorama which sets the Mosquito in a bombed-out German town. The upgraded B-25 display will show the aircraft and aircrew in the 1950s preparing for a training mission through the use of mannequins and other artifacts.
Twenty-eight years after that first fateful meeting Champion believes his efforts, along with so many others, have exceeded his expectations.
“We’ve developed a really great community asset for the city at very low cost. Aviation is so important to Edmonton and Edmonton is so important to aviation. That history should be preserved for posterity.”
And few people have played a more pivotal role in helping keep that history alive than Terry Champion.