Remembering Fern and Russ

By John Chalmers,
CAHS Membership Secretary

The Canadian aviation community has been saddened by the loss of two remarkable individuals who served as pilots with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Fern Villeneuve sketchJoseph Armand Gerard Fernand “Fern” Villeneuve, AFC, CD, was born on July 2, 1927 and died on December 25, 2019. In an outstanding career of over 30 years with the air force, Fern is well remembered as the original leader of the RCAF’s legendary Golden Hawks aerobatic team. (Sketch by Irma Coucill, courtesy of CAHF)

Bert Furlong, a member of the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, recalls a special memory of Fern and the Golden Hawks. “I was at a conference of the Canadian Aviation and Space Institute in Edmonton several years ago, and at the coffee break I noticed an RCAF officer. When I approached him, I read the name Villeneuve on his chest. I introduced myself to him then as I was shaking his hand I thanked him very much for saving my life. He asked me what I was talking about, so I told him about a small incident that had slipped his memory.”

Bert explained to Fern that, “I was a young lad in high school and working for Stub Ross in Lethbridge during the 1960’s, the pre-Time Air days. Stub was managing a small air service out of one of the hangars and I was the very junior ramp jockey. The Golden Hawks had just finished another of their spectacular airshows and everyone was going home. I looked out onto the ramp, the wind had come up, and an unchocked Fairchild Cornell started to move. It was moving directly toward the fuel pumps. Being very brave, or stupid, I decided that I could stop bad things from happening, so ran out and grabbed the rear fuselage. The wind continued and the plane weighing a lot more than me did not slow down very much. I was being dragged to my doom! Suddenly the plane stopped, and someone in a flight suit produced a set of chocks. The Golden Hawks Team led by Fern Villeneuve were in their cars ready to head into town when they saw my predicament. They stopped, and the whole team came to my rescue. The plane was fine, I was fine and The Golden Hawks saved my life!”

Russ Bannock sketchRussell William Bannock, DSO, DFC and Bar, was born in Edmonton on November 1, 1919, served as a Mosquito pilot with the RCAF during the Second World War and as commanding officer of 418 City of Edmonton Squadron and 406 Squadron. Post-war, Russ was president of de Havilland Canada, where his work included introduction and promotion of the Beaver aircraft. He died on January 4, 2020, just nine weeks after celebrations marking his 100th birthday. (Sketch by Irma Coucill, courtesy of CAHF)

The Canadian Aviation Historical Society and the RCAF were well represented at the service held for Russ on January 10 at Blessed Sacrament Church in Toronto. Gord McNulty, vice-president of CAHS, was in attendance and reports that, “Heartfelt tributes were paid to Russ by his son, Paul; by son-in-law Steve Smith; and by Father Larry Marcille of the church where Russ was a longtime dedicated parishioner. The speakers emphasized Russ's devotion to his family, his community service and good humour among his many attributes. A special tribute was provided by the Fort York Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. Russ truly lived life to the fullest, as reflected in the fact he was still flying at age 88. He enjoyed flying a Beaver on fishing trips to northern Québec, enjoyed playing golf, and was an enthusiastic curler.”

As to the secret of Russ's remarkable longevity, the speakers said Russ simply boiled it down to "keep moving!" The service began with the hymn “On Eagle's Wings,” and ended with a rousing rendition of “O Canada.” Russ savoured a lively social event, so it was fitting that everyone joined family and friends afterwards for a reception at the church. A regular attender at the annual induction dinner and ceremonies for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, on June 4, a special presentation was made to Russ by the Hall, in recognition of his upcoming 100th birthday.

Russ was known not only for his skill as a Mosquito pilot in bringing down enemy aircraft during the war, he was also highly regarded for his airmanship in destroying German V-1 flying bombs. Thus it was appropriate that at a recent celebration of his 100th birthday by the Ontario Aircrew Association, the birthday cake was decorated with a Mosquito and a V-1 flying bomb!

Both Fern and Russ were inducted as Members of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, where their biographies can be seen under the Members/Member Profiles section of the Hall’s web site at .

Among the many tributes to Fern and Russ are those appearing online from SKIES magazine. Fern is remembered here and a story about Russ is here.