Canadian Museum of Flight and Fort Langley

Here’s a day trip from Vancouver — a two for one — that parents or grandparents can convince themselves is interesting, historical and educational for the kids, something they must sacrifice to do. Anyone who has raised any number of kids knows that is a delusion, especially in the summer when the kids want nothing more than to put “education” as far away as the North Pole.

So the reality is that the adults will like it, maybe a lot, and the kids will tolerate it maybe for a while. What I mean is Fort Langley and the air museum, about an hour’s drive east of Vancouver on the Trans-Canada highway. That means access to a car, but beyond that nothing but the cash for the admittance fees. Drive an hour east on the trans-Canada highway and make a right turn at the Langley exit for the Canadian Museum of Flight or left for the restored Fort Langley. The air museum as a first stop in the morning worked best logistically for us early but on the edge of rush hour.

The town of Langley that abuts the fort that lies on its eastern edge has a bigger choice of restaurants, not necessarily gourmet but in the boutique class. Just as easy though is to do Fort Langley in the morning, have lunch and head south to the air museum. As air museums go, this one is small: nothing on the scale of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum or the Canadian Aviation Museum in Ottawa that specializes in Canadian designed or built aircraft and engines.

Yet the Vancouver museum has some airplanes worth seeing. The best thing for the youngsters is that they can get in and crawl around the cockpit of what still is a very hot fighter, the Canadian CF-104 version of the Lockheed Starfighter that pilots described as not much less than a rocket with infinitesimal wings. My then 5-year-old grandson had a great time sitting in the cockpit, hauling around the control stick and pushing back and forth on the engine control throttle lever. A rarity next to the CF-104 is a Handley Page Hampden twin engine World War II bomber and patrol aircraft that might win the title of the most unsuccessful airplane built then. A few steps away, though, is the postwar Avro CF-100, a twin-engine long-range interceptor designed to defend against the threat then of Russian bombers. Both the airplane and its Orenda jet engine were designed and built in Toronto, probably the last such fighter to go into Canadian service. A Canadian designed and built jet powered trainer called the Tutor also is on display.

Still one more rarity is a Westland Lysander, an odd duck of a smallish high wing monoplane with a fixed set of landing wheels enshrouded in what were called pants for streamlining. While as a utility aircraft it might have won no beauty contests, the Lysander carried out some of the hairiest missions of World War II, ferrying covert agents into occupied France and out again, not to mention escaped prisoners of war. Aviation buffs find it fascinating. Outside the hangar of the museum, which is on the east side of Langley airport, is one of several flyable antiques.

Especially fascinating to American pilots is a Tiger Moth, a bright-yellow biplane that trained beginning students in Canada and Britain much as the Stearmans and the Ryans did in the United States in World War II. Vivid yellow paint was not an aesthetic choice but a warning to other pilots in the air that inexperience was at the controls. There is more for the aviation buff, but the truth is the ladies in our group enjoyed the museum, too, especially talking with the docents who had real world experience with some of the exhibits. Not the least for everyone was the souvenir shop, which carries a fine set of accurate scale models of historic airplanes and, again, rare items in the T-shirt and hat department. I have to confess that I didn’t think the kids were all that interested. Happily I was wrong. My grandson delighted in it and keeps asking his parents to take him back.

Following our practice, it’s now to Fort Langley, which means driving back to the TransCanada and north to the town of Langley. Fort Langley is neat. A Canadian National Historic site, it’s a restored Hudson Bay Company trading post with palisade walls and corner watch towers on the north end where the local traders approached. Though mostly all restored in relatively modern times, it is a realistic version of an 1827 settlement designed for swapping goods for furs with the people of the First Nations. Where the aviation museum looks like what it is, a hangar and shop, Fort Langley has a new visitor center with folders and such and, most welcome, lots of clean rest rooms. Another pleasant touch we found. The ranger who checked us in warned us that the mosquitoes — not surprising with a river and woods — were especially bad that day and gave the ladies a big squirt of repellent.

The history is significant for both Canadians and Americans. Fort Langley was part of a free enterprise drive by the British through Canada and down the Fraser River (which Fort Langley abuts on the south) to stake a claim for the northwest and a Pacific Ocean border. Vancouver eventually prospered at the river’s mouth when the Canadian Pacific Railroad became a transcontinental link. At the same time, the equally free enterprise Astor fur trading tentacles from New York were following the Lewis and Clark expedition down the Columbia River into what today is Washington and Oregon before the mass migration following the Oregon Trail began.

Today it’s hard to comprehend the importance of furs in the 19th Century, especially for hats that men hardly bother with now, not to mention other uses. A storage building and a fur press to compact the pelts for shipping are part of the Fort Langley site. So much for history. What did our group like the most? (And the group ran the gamut of ages.) The ladies gravitated toward what is called the Big House at the south end of the green. As the site of a ceremony in 1858 when British Columbia was proclaimed a colony, it served as both an office and a dwelling for the senior managers and provides a feel for how the colonists lived and furnished a home. Coincidentally, the Fort also became a supply house for prospectors moving through during the gold rush then to hunt for gold farther up the Fraser River. A kitchen garden, a necessity in the 19th Century, is planted near the residence. As I said before, it’s hard to figure what the youngsters will like. I thought the blacksmith’s shop where a 21st century iron master demonstrates with small iron bars how they are heated red hot, hammered into shape and turned into pointed hooks that can be driven into a wall for hanging clothes would fascinate them. Instead it fascinated me and they drifted off to gambol on the green lawn around which the buildings stand. The blacksmith gave my grandson the hook he fashioned, but the interest was mild enough so that I suffered no pangs of guilt by taking it home for myself. Once more, though, I misread my grandson’s likings. He especially remembered the blacksmith clanging on the anvil in what must be a typical shop from the period. Then, there is the cooperage, where I was the one transfixed. Here a craftsman built the barrels for shipping food, salmon for one. A cooper plies his trade there even now and the smell of fresh cut lumber permeates the air as he works and talks. Anyone who has done wood work will be amazed at how the coopers then, and this one today, using hand tools and nothing other than seaman’s eye, cut the curved barrel staves so that they fit together tightly enough to hold water. No templates, no special tools, just experience and skill. Not surprisingly, the cooper who showed us the shop was not eager to share the secrets of his knowledge. Both the air museum and fort can be visited in a full morning. Then lunch and a drive back to Vancouver before traffic begins to get ugly. Both sites are worth more time, but ours was tuned to the stamina of the young children we brought along.

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