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Written by Gord McNulty on 07 December 2015.

Russ Norman brings his EAA Biplane, CF-RFG, in tight for the capable camera of the author's late father. J. McNULTY.  

Russ Norman brings his EAA Biplane, CF-RFG, in tight for the capable camera of the author's late father.

J. McNULTY.

Russ Norman

A dedicated Canadian proponent of homebuilt aircraft

By Gord McNulty

 
A youthful Russ Norman in the cockpit of his Waco UPF-7, CF-JAU. NORMAN COLLECTION 
 

A youthful Russ Norman in the cockpit of his Waco UPF-7, CF-JAU.

NORMAN COLLECTION

This article is reprinted from the CAHS Journal, Volume 41, Number 1, Spring 2003.

Like many members of the CAHS, Russell G.Norman of Hamilton "caught the aeroplane bug early" and has never been cured. Best known for his lifelong accomplishments and keen interest in homebuilt aircraft, Russ has enjoyed a remarkable career in aviation, spanning more than 50 years. To describe Russ as a versatile aircraft owner, pilot and skilled Mr Fix-It around aeroplanes is an understatement.

Russ has flown more than 40 different types of aircraft, including six gliders in the 50s. He has owned different types, including his latest pride and joy, a beautiful all-metal Bushby Mustang II homebuilt. Russ, CAHS member 608, played a prominent role in the growth of homebuilt aviation with the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) after the Second World War. In fact, he made history. Flying his EAA Biplane CF-RFG, Russ made the cover of EAA's May 1965 Sport Aviation magazine in a Jack McNulty air-to-air photograph. It was the first time a Canadian pilot and aircraft had been given this prestigious recognition. Russ also has the distinction of having attended every EAA annual fly-in convention since 1958.

If there is a secret to his natural affinity for aviation, it lies in his exceptional mechanical aptitude and a facility for working with his hands. Russ has a confidence and a knack for adapting to changing circumstances that have carried him through many challenges, including the loss of his job in the cancellation of the Arrow at A.V. Roe Canada, and the occasional dicey moment in the air when things didn't follow the script.

Born in Burlington in 1928, Russ was raised in Hamilton. He recalled that he "always wanted to be a flyer." His first recollection of aeroplanes was at the old Hamilton Municipal Airport in east-end Hamilton, officially opened on 6 June 1929. Russ became involved in Junior Air Cadets, which operated out of a church. They met once a week, and built model aeroplanes. Cadet Norman won an award. It turned out to be his first flight, a ride in a J-3, CF-BUG, flown by a chap named Ernie Guzzo. The date was 11 February 1943.

Russ subsequently took the sheet-metal course at Hamilton Technical Institute. A school friend, Roy Byrne, had been flying out of the Cub Flying School at the airport. In 1946, he took Russ to the airport to get acquainted with the school. On 1 December 1946, Russ enjoyed his first instructional flight in a J-3, CF-EFO, flown by Frank Hawkridge. Russ had four hours and 45 minutes of dual instruction before his first solo flight, in a J-3, CF-EEO, on 29 March 1947. He acquired his licence on 11 December 1948, on a Cub L4B (Observer) CF-EGO, then began to check out on various aircraft including a Fleet Canuck, CF-DPX, and a PA-11 Cub Special CF-FTE. In May 1949, after the Cub Flying School folded, Russ went to Peninsula Air Services, also based at the airport. Peninsula had various Piper aircraft, from the J-3 to the PA-12 Super Cruiser, Cessnas, Cornells and other aircraft. Russ checked out on a J-3 on floats, (out of the Hamilton Sky Harbour Air Services seaplane base) two PA-12s, CF-EUX and FIB; and a Tiger Moth.

Russ works on a CF-105 Arrow air intake in the Avro template department. NORMAN COLLECTION 
 
Russ works on a CF-105 Arrow air intake in the Avro template department. NORMAN COLLECTION  
The famous "sport Aviation" cover featuring Russ Norman's EAA Biplane, CF-RFG, the first Canadian Aircraft to be so recognized. J. McNULTY.  
The famous "sport Aviation" cover featuring Russ Norman's EAA Biplane, CF-RFG, the first Canadian Aircraft to be so recognized. J. McNULTY.  
  Merrill McBride flies Fairchild/Fleet Cornell, CF-GOG. Jock McNulty photographed CF-RFG from this machine. J. McNULTY
Merrill McBride flies Fairchild/Fleet Cornell, CF-GOG. Jock McNulty photographed CF-RFG from this machine. J. McNULTY

Aviation was then a magnet for girls who enjoyed the airport scene. Russ recalled that Peninsula had a Cessna 120, which crashed, claiming the life of Jeannie Penthall. "She and some guy who was a minister had gone somewhere on a breakfast flight. They were coming back when he stalled it and they spun into a gully north of the airport. She was a beautiful girl," Russ recalled. Speaking of 120s, Russ flew CF-FPB to the Cleveland Air Races in September 1949. He once flew a man on a photo mission in a J-3. He had a great big camera," Russ recalled. "He hung it out the door and we flew over the Jockey Club in east Hamilton and one of the steel plants." Russ also checked out in a Cornell, CF-ESD, a Peninsula aircraft. In May 1951, Russ enjoyed a flight to North Bay and back in another Cornell, FZA, belonging to Bill Green, a Peninsula instructor. "I had the pleasure of flying a guy, whose car had been stolen, to North Bay. I dropped him off so he could pick up the car."

Russ married his wife, Gloria, at age 19, and soon had a family coming along. The municipal airport, hemmed in by industrial and commercial development, closed in mid-1951. Its eventual fate was sealed in 1940 when the government opted to build an entirely new airport at Mount Hope for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Russ joined A.V. Roe Canada at Malton in 1951 and remained there until Black Friday - 20 February 1959. He worked in the template department on the CF-100, Arrow and Avrocar "Flying Saucer" programmes, but, ironically did not see much in the way of aeroplanes while making templates. He had bought a house at Mount Hope and drove back and forth to Malton.

Young Russ Norman (under the strut) works on the Kirby Cadet glider, CF-ZBA. NORMAN COLLECTION
Young Russ Norman (under the strut) works on the Kirby Cadet glider, CF-ZBA. NORMAN COLLECTION

Russ in another Kirby Cadet, CF-ZBQ. NORMAN COLLECTION
Russ in another Kirby Cadet, CF-ZBQ. NORMAN COLLECTION
 The Schweizer TG-3, CF-ZBU, called "the Bomber" by The Four Soaring Club of Hamilton. NORMAN COLLECTION
The Schweizer TG-3, CF-ZBU, called "the Bomber" by The Four Soaring Club of Hamilton. NORMAN COLLECTION

Russ had started to become involved in gliders at the old airport. He was one of four people who formed The Four Soaring Club of Hamilton, together with Roy Byrne, Charlie Yates and John Wyatt. They started with a Kirby Cadet, CF-ZBA, that had been built by the air cadets in St Catharines. Then they acquired a Schweizer TG-3, CF-ZBU. The club members called it the "bomber." Russ flew gliders out of Mount Hope, Kitchener and Brantford. Four or five clubs in the area formed the Southern Ontario Soaring Association. At one point Russ flew the Schweizer 1-26 prototype in Elmira, NY. Charlie Yates eventually became a world champion in gliding.

For glider tows, Russ at first improvised with his car, then a Tiger Moth, CF-BTF. He used the Tiger Moth to tow a Schweizer 2-22 at an air show in Chatham. On his way back in the Tiger he ran into headwinds and landed at an airport in Kitchener. It was a close call. Russ ran out of fuel as he taxied up to the pumps. He can still remember filling up the tank with the full 18-and-a-half gallons. In 1953, Russ and Roy Byrne upgraded their towing capability. They acquired a Fleet Finch 16B, CF-GDM, which they co-owned. The Fleet needed a fair amount of repair, including wing and engine work. Russ eventually took over complete ownership of 'GDM. Later sold to Harold Stone of Stratford, it went on a cross-Canada air race, then was brought back and restored by the Bouthoorn brothers in the Stratford area. It eventually went to Paul Soles.

In 1955, Russ acquired a Waco, a UPF-7 primary trainer, N30119, which he bought in Hammond, Indiana, under the auspices of M&M Aircraft Services operated by Jack Murphy and Watt Martin. Russ started to fly the Waco home, but crashed at Detroit when he ran out of gas.

Russ was not to be denied. "I paid Murphy the money for the airplane and I hauled it from Detroit to Buffalo," he recalled. "I used to drive to Buffalo every weekend and work on it until I got it back together. Moe Servos flew it to Hamilton for me and I had it certified. As CF-JAU, the Waco was flown by Russ back and forth to Brantford to tow gliders. At the time, it was the only UPF-7 in Canada that Russ knew of.

The Waco UPF-1 newly restored after its accident in Detroit. NORMAN COLLECTION 
The Waco UPF-1 newly restored after its accident in Detroit. NORMAN COLLECTION
 Russ Norman in his Fleet 16B, CF-GDM, used as a glider tug at Mount Hope in 1953. NORMAN COLLECTION
Russ Norman in his Fleet 16B, CF-GDM, used as a glider tug at Mount Hope in 1953. NORMAN COLLECTION

One unnerving incident with the Waco at Brantford still stands out. Olaf Woolrich, a Luftwaffe veteran, was checking out the Waco alone, when it swung on him as he took off. He kept going right across the infield to get airborne. Woolrich reacted to the emergency by applying full power, as he had learned while flying Messerschmitt 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s. The banged-up Waco was later sold to the glider club. "They, in turn, wrecked it in about three weeks," Russ recalled with a smile. "The last I heard it was back in Troy, Ohio."

During his time at Avro, Russ really became involved in homebuilts, then known as ultralights. He was attracted by the concept of being able to construct and fly his own aircraft at modest cost. A relatively early member of EAA (No 4,338 in an organization that now has 130,000 members), he had started going to EAA meetings and was a member of Chapter 41 in Brampton, one of the most active chapters. Russ met Ben Keillor, an EAA enthusiast who owned a fleet of aircraft and was the Canadian representative for Jodel aircraft of France at the time. He worked on Ben's Jodel D-9 Bebe, CF-RAM, and test flew the Volkswagen powered aircraft. "I once went to Buttonville with the D-9 and flew a guy's rebuilt J-3," Russ recalled. "I remember coming back that evening. It was so breezy that the guys in the cars below were passing me with their lights on. That D-9 was quite the little machine. It flew on about three litres an hour."

In 1958, Russ rented a Cessna 172 to fly to his first EAA convention, then held at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with Ben, fellow Avro template worker Jack Asher of Oakville and Ed Maxi of Cooksville. Ben had quite a fleet of his own. The highlights included a vintage Welch OW-8, CF-PMH, which went to an air museum in Niagara Falls and then went to the western United States on the museum circuit, and a CallAir A3 cabin monoplane, CF-MMK, which is now in a barn at Harrow in southwestern Ontario. Russ flew both of these rare aircraft. After returning home from the Milwaukee convention, Russ established Chapter 65 in Hamilton. It was chartered in 1959, with Russ serving on the executive for about 30 years.

Considering his long connection with biplanes, it was natural that Russ was "Intrigued by the idea of building his own EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Biplane." He started RFG in 1957, in partnership with fellow Avro employee George Ellis. Russ built the fuselage and tail group of "CF-106" in the basement workshop of his home, while George built the wings in his shop in east Hamilton. The project took five-anda-half years to complete, at a cost of $1,700 including engine and prop. It was the first EAA Biplane built and flown in Canada. Russ and George put in many enjoyable hours flying the aircraft. Paul Poberezny, who founded the EAA at Milwaukee in 1953 and served as president for 37 years, flew it once for two or three circuits at Mount Hope. The Biplane was sold to a man in Boston, who took it to the United States and proceeded to crash it on its first flight. An impressive painting of the Biplane, by the late Hamilton artist Robert Finlayson of the CAHS, is proudly displayed in the living room of the Norman home.

The cancellation of the Arrow was a dark moment in more ways than one. Russ and Gloria had actually bought a house in Brampton and were going to move there before the announcement. "We had the house I built in Mount Hope up for sale, and we had a buyer for it. Fortunately, when A.V. Roe folded, we were able to get out of it and just lost our deposit in Brampton." He recalled that Avro employees had been hearing the rumours of the cancellation "for ages and ages," but just carried on. "It was quite a shock in the end when it was final," he said. Russ has lived on East 14th Street on Hamilton Mountain ever since . The garage, complete with an extension, has been a mini-assembly plant over the years.

Russ was out of work for only a couple of days. His ability to "think things out and work with my hands" was never more valuable. He returned to work for Hamilton Aircraft Services at Mount Hope, a maintenance and repair shop, under Mac Galbraith. They specialized in rebuilding and improving PA-12s among other things. That fall, business slowed down as it traditionally does in the aircraft maintenance field. Russ was laid off. "I bummed around that winter and did little jobs of my own," Russ recalled. "I put a landing light on a guy's aeroplane, and I put the gear back in a SeaBee on the waterfront. Another guy had a Seabee and I had the job of taking the paint off the bottom of it. I can remember being stuck in the hangar till the wee hours of the morning working on that sucker."

At one point the company worked on the well-known Fleet 21M, CF-DLC, usually flown by the legendary Tommy Williams. Russ flew the aircraft from Welland to Mount Hope and back on 2 October 1959 for Williams, who became famous as Canada's oldest pilot. Williams continued to fly it until he retired his licence at age 82. At one point in the early '60s, Russ was asked to restore a Meyers OTW biplane, CF-HAN, which had crashed at Williams Lake near Owen Sound. Jerry Willis gave the aircraft to Russ for restoration, but it would have been too much work. It was sold to a man in Iowa.

Russ test flew Ben Keillor's trim and economical Jodel D-9, CF-RAM. J. McNULTY.
Russ test flew Ben Keillor's trim and economical Jodel D-9, CF-RAM. J. McNULTY.
 Also flown by Russ was Ben Keillor's very rare Welch OW-8, CF-PMH, now in a museum in the western US. NORMAN COLLECTION
Also flown by Russ was Ben Keillor's very rare Welch OW-8, CF-PMH, now in a museum in the western US. NORMAN COLLECTION
 Also in the Keillor fleet and flown by Russ was the equally rare CallAir A3, CF-MMK. NORMAN COLLECTION
Also in the Keillor fleet and flown by Russ was the equally rare CallAir A3, CF-MMK. NORMAN COLLECTION

Eventually Russ realized that he needed steady work and found employment with the Hamilton Board of Education, where he worked for 25 years until his retirement in 1993. He began as a caretaker and ended up as a supervising foreman. In 1965, Russ started his next homebuilt project - a Corben Junior Ace, which became the new CF-RFG. He liked the two seats and the apparent ease of construction. The Corben was among the homebuilts constructed during the early days of the homebuilt movement prior to the Second World War. "It had a bit of nostalgia to it," Russ recalled. "l talked to a fellow at Rockford, Bill Wessor from Chicago, who took me for a ride in his Junior Ace." Russ first flew the Corben in 1970, and had it for about 30 years until he sold it to Mike Zanstra of Brantford. "Mike was a flier. He flew it about 300 hours in the couple of years that he had it," Russ noted . "I flew it 300 hours in 30 years." Russ has accumulated 1,000 hours flying in all. "You would think it would be more after all of these years, but I guess I've been a tinkerer, a builder, and a maintenance person more than a flier." When he goes to the EAA Convention at Oshkosh, it's usually by car. He flew the Junior Ace there in 1976, a ten-hour flight each way. "It's a long haul and there is Big-B worry - especially with the weather - of getting there and back , when you have Job".

Vaughan Norman poses with his sleek Steen Skybolt, C-GNST, at the Hamilton International Air Show in June 2001. Vaughan built this machine in the basement of his father's home. G. McNULTY.
Vaughan Norman poses with his sleek Steen Skybolt, C-GNST, at the Hamilton International Air Show in June 2001. Vaughan built this machine in the basement of his father's home. G. McNULTY.
 Russ Norman with Paul Soles, subsequent owner of the Fleet 16B Finch, CF-GDM, at a Hamilton International Air Show in the '70s. NORMAN COLLECTION
Russ Norman with Paul Soles, subsequent owner of the Fleet 16B Finch, CF-GDM, at a Hamilton International Air Show in the '70s. NORMAN COLLECTION

Russ sold the Junior Ace to make way for his third homebuilt aircraft, a sleek high-performance Mustang II, with side-by-side seating. C-GFEL was started in 1977 and finished 23 years later, in 2000. There wasn't any push to finish it, as Russ noted, since he had the Junior Ace to fly as well as a Steen Skybolt, C-GNST, built by his son. Vaughan Norman built the Skybolt - nicknamed The Black Beast - in the basement of his father's home. Russ did the first flight on it on 21 Oct. 1979. He checked Vaughan out on the two-place aerobatic biplane. Vaughan, who lives at Aberfoyle, has been a waste-water treatment operator at Dofasco in Hamilton for 28 years and counting.

Russ was attracted to the Mustang II primarily because he wanted to build a metal aeroplane. The 200-plus miles per hour speed was quite an attraction too. The Mustang II is based on the popular all-metal Midget Mustang racer which made its public debut at the 1948 Cleveland Air Races. Developed by Robert Bushby, the Mustang II made its first appearance at the EAA convention in Rockford, Illinois, in 1966. Close to 400 have since been built around the world.

Russ had a fair amount of help in completing the Mustang II. When the aircraft was completed, Russ needed to make a hole in the wall to remove it from the basement. He did the same thing when Vaughan's Skybolt was finished. "The Biplane came out the cellar," Russ recalled with a smile. He made his first flight in the Mustang II on 20 July 2001, and was honoured with the EAA Chapter 65 All-Metal Award for the project. The aircraft is powered by a 160hp Lycoming, with a Hendrickson fixed-pitch wood prop. Russ has been to Bob Bushby's home in Illinois. At the 2002 EAA convention, he enjoyed meeting with fellow Mustang II owners at their annual dinner.

Like most pilots, Russ has had the occasional tension-filled episode in the air. "One of the most frightening rides came in the summer of 1959. Russ was in the co-pilot's seat of a Grumman Widgeon on Hamilton Harbour. He was working with Hamilton Aircraft Services at the time, doing a hull test for leaks on the Widgeon. All of the floorboards had been removed. The aircraft became airborne and reached an altitude of a few hundred feet when the pilot told Russ "We're going in! I can't get the stick back." Russ grabbed the wheel and pulled. It was solid! "There we were, heading in," he recalled. "I jumped out of my seat and looked to see if I had jammed the control cables down in the floor. Then the pilot hollered, I've got it!" and we started to climb." The pilot told Russ that, when he released the flaps, the spring had broken on the flap handle and fallen through. The aircraft went to full flaps and there wasn't enough elevator control.

Russ Norman at the controls of his Corben Junior Ace, CF-RFG (II). J. McNULTY. 
Russ Norman at the controls of his Corben Junior Ace, CF-RFG (II). J. McNULTY.
 Russ with his award-winning Bushby Mustang II, CF-FEL, at the Hamilton International Air Show in June 2001. G. McNULTY
Russ with his award-winning Bushby Mustang II, CF-FEL, at the Hamilton International Air Show in June 2001. G. McNULTY

Another gripping moment occurred in a Schweizer TG-3 glider CF-ZBU, out of Brantford, on 15 May 1955. Russ was enjoying a nice flight with Marjorie Davidson, who was in the front seat. They were at an altitude of around 4,500 feet when Russ suggested they try a spin. She had never been in a spin before. Russ started the spin, but the aircraft wouldn't come out of it. "She was light in the front and I was heavy in the back," Russ recalled. "The damn thing just kept spinning. I had to undo my shoulder harness and my belt and slide under the instrument panel, to get the weight forward and get that nose down. We came screaming out of the dive at the bottom over the Grand River." Telling the story, Russ flapped his arms energetically to demonstrate how the wings were moving at the end. Talk about a structural test!

While flying the Waco on a test flight, 21 March 1957, Russ was supposed to go up and do aerobatics after the aircraft had been signed out. Russ has never been into aerobatics. He climbed to 3,000 feet, looked down, and decided he wasn't high enough. He went to 4,000, looked down, and made the same decision. "When I got to 5,000, I said to myself, 'Well, I can't go much higher.' So I put it into dive, pulled it up into a loop, reached the top and snapped out of it. I flew away, came around and landed. The boys on the ground said to me, 'Nice roll off the top.' I said, 'Yeah, it sure was.' "As Russ noted in retrospect, "It wasn't intended."

Once he was flying the Waco over to Brantford, accompanied by Ben Keillor in his machine. "I jumped into my aeroplane and away we went. We took off and headed west. Out over Glanbrook Road I hit the goll-darndest bump I had ever experienced. I went that far off the seat and pulled myself in with the stick. Then realized I had not done up my harnesses."

On another occasion Russ was flying with his friend Eric Campbell in Eric's Aeronca K, CF-VQX, on a return flight from an EAA fly-in at the Lake St. John airport near Orillia. They started back in a rainstorm. Before taking off, they used masking tape to seal up the seams against the downpour. They got as far as Halton Hills, where they hit a complete line of fog, right down to the ground. As Russ recalled , "I said, 'Eric, let's get out of here.' He started a gentle turn and I said, 'Now!' I grabbed the wheel and around we went. The wind was blowing so hard that we were heading back to Alliston. We had overflown an airstrip at Beeton where Eric wanted to stop. So we followed the railway track back to Beeton and stopped at the strip there."

Before nightfall, four aircraft had landed at the strip. The owner's wife proceeded to serve what Russ described as "the most beautiful meal for us all." Russ phoned Gloria at home and both of the wives arrived that Sunday night by car. Russ drove home on the Sunday with Eric, then Russ drove Eric back up on the Monday and Eric flew back.

A crisp rendering of Russ's EAA Biplane, CF-RFG, by the late Robert Finlayson. NORMAN COLLECTION 
A crisp rendering of Russ's EAA Biplane, CF-RFG, by the late Robert Finlayson. NORMAN COLLECTION
 Russ was invited to restore the Meyers OTW, CF-HAN, after a serious crash, but declined. 'HAN is seen here at Buttonville, 14 September '63, at an airshow. W. WHEELER.
Russ was invited to restore the Meyers OTW, CF-HAN, after a serious crash, but declined. 'HAN is seen here at Buttonville, 14 September '63, at an airshow. W. WHEELER.

In retrospect, Russ noted that the fundamentals of homebuilt aviation have not changed all that much. Transport Canada regulations have eased up somewhat, helping to promote amateur-built aircraft. One advance has been the use of composite construction, a technique that came into its own in the '70s and has opened up a vast array of new designs. Russ, however, remains a traditional homebuilder. "I like the old rag and steel tube fuselage, the wooden wing," he said. As a strong believer in the EAA, Russ never agreed with the decision of some homebuilders in Canada to break away from the EAA and form the Recreational Aircraft Association of Canada. He felt that EAA always served the Canadian homebuilt movement well and that it wasn't necessary to set up a distinctive Canadian organization. "There were a lot of hard feelings about it, and there still are."

As much as he loves to attend the Oshkosh fly-in, Russ prefers the old days to the new. "EAA has become a great big business," he said ruefully. "It's not as much fun anymore. The whole thing has taken on a carnival atmosphere. I expect to see a Ferris wheel and wooden merry-go-rounds. With Paul (Poberezny), it was more of a volunteer thing."

Chapter 65 , which built a hangar at Mount Hope, now Hamilton International John C. Munro Airport, in 1970. The hangar was donated by Dofasco and manufactured by Butler building contractors. A second portion was added with a grant from Wintario. There are 25 aircraft in the hangar now. Although the airport is much busier today, Russ has not found any problems working with air traffic controllers. He believes the chapter should remain at Mount Hope, as long as it's feasible. Some members are anxious to move to one of the smaller airports or airfields nearby. But Russ has checked out the alternatives and has not been impressed. He feels that once the cost of rented hangars and other expenses are considered, it will cost more to move than to stay put.

Given his traditional approach to things, it's not surprising that Russ is now building a vintage Pietenpol Air Camper, another of the popular pre-war homebuilts. As Russ recalled, "Ben Keillor had welded up the fuselage as part of a group project. Then Ben moved to California and the project went dormant. It was going to go to the dump, but I said no." The Pientenpol went to the basement wall in Russ's home and is now under active construction. In keeping with the relaxed style and emphasis on having fun that Russ likes to take when building homebuilts, there is no set date for completion. But you can be sure that the fourth in the line of homebuilts constructed by Russ Norman will be built with the dedication and care that are the trademarks of this lifelong enthusiast.