CFB Comox: Comox Aviation Museum


Story: Frances Reilly
Photography: Frances Reilly
Friday, August 9, 2019

Though the Comox Aviation Museum is small, it holds an important history for Vancouver Island and Canada. Situated beside the military base, 19th Wing Comox, it is part of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Museum Enterprise, which consists of 11 museums across Canada. The Comox museum comprises of a building holding a gallery, collections, gift shop, and library, and an outside exhibit, the Heritage Air Park. Since it opened in 1987, the volunteer–run museum has provided Comox residents and visitors with the fascinating history of aviation in coastal British Columbia as it relates to the larger history of flight in Canada, through the twentieth century to present day. The outside exhibit, open to the public throughout the summer, features bombers like the DC–3 Dakota Mark III and the CF–100 Canuck Mark 5, displaying the international and historical prowess of Canadian aviation.

The town of Comox, British Columbia is located on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. It sits on the top of a small peninsula, or ‘spit,’ that extends into the Strait of Georgia, a portion of the Salish Sea, and looks out over various Gulf Islands and the province’s mainland. The Comox airbase, which sits on the tip of this spit, opened during the Second World War. Run first by the Royal Air Force and soon after by the RCAF, it guarded the Pacific coast from Japanese military threat. It became a central training base during the Korean War and the site of a Cold War early warning radar station in 1954. In the 1980s, CFB Comox became an important base for coastal patrols and search and rescue missions.

The museum is a friendly place busy with visitors and volunteers who work the gift shop, gallery, and library. Despite the small space, the museum is brimming with information. A variety of well–maintained displays and artefacts show a rich history of flight in British Columbia. The self–guided tour begins chronologically with the First World War, moving through the Second World War and into the Cold War, NATO–era, and Canadian Peace Keeping missions in the late twentieth century. (Or, if you decide to ignore the signage as I did the first time at the museum, you can travel from the present backward through time to the birth of the airplane, which provides a different albeit interesting view of technological advancements through time.)

The gallery exhibits a historical blend that satisfies various interests. Those fascinated by the mechanics of flight, for instance, will be delighted by the engines on display and the comprehensive descriptions of jet and missile functions, while those visitors more drawn to social and cultural histories will appreciate the personal stories provided alongside various military and squadron exhibits. The numerous exhibits feature everything from small notebooks to missiles, political cartoons to blueprints, models and paintings to actual relics from various aircrafts.

The histories presented also vary from the familiar to the bizarre. One exhibit about RCAF Prisoners of War includes the well–known history of Stalag Luft III, the subject of the 1963 film The Great Escape. Contrary to the story told in the Steve McQueen classic, the escape from the German POW camp had a significant Canadian component with connections to Vancouver Island. One of the prisoners, John H. Colwell of Nanaimo, kept a diary while imprisoned at Stalag Luft III. This diary, which is available to the public in the museum’s exhibit, detailed life at the camp along with aspects of the Great Escape. Another prisoner, Patrick W. Langford of Victoria, escaped the camp but was recaptured and shot along with 50 other escapees.

Less familiar too are histories of “evaders,” pilots who were shot down over enemy territory but who successfully avoided capture and internment in German prison camps. The museum’s library, which is open to the public, contains several published volumes on this subject and others related to the pilots who trained at Comox.

One of the more bizarre histories is that of the Japanese balloon bombs. During the Second World War, Japan released 9,000 hydrogen–filled balloons to carry incendiary explosives across the Pacific to North America. Deceptively complex but ultimately unsuccessful, this campaign worked to overcome the lack of aircraft carriers and long–range bombers. The delivery was without a guidance system and therefore dependant on the changing atmospheric temperatures. It resulted in the successful crossing of 1,000 balloons, approximately 100 of which landed in Canada. This is an odd historical episode and one that extends the breadth of wartime flight to consider crafts other than bombers and fighter planes.

Once past the chronological history of flight, the gallery displays the history of the RCAF, squadrons at CFB Comox, various aircrafts built in Canada, and coastal search and rescue. In addition to the main gallery the museum features a special annual exhibit. When I visited in July 2019 the special exhibit featured the Aleutians Campaign of the Second World War. The Alaskan Aleutian Islands were the site of a 1942–1943 campaign conducted between the Japanese and American armies on the basis of the islands’ strategic value in the American and Pacific Theatres. Canada sent in its infantry and air force to aid the Americans. The exhibit details this history, leaving no doubt about the hardships experienced on the unforgiving northern terrain and ocean. The rough elements of the arctic climate resulted in a harsh year for the Japanese and the joint Canadian–American forces.

My favourite section of the museum details the distance early warning lines that were built at the height of the Cold War to detect Soviet bombers flying over the arctic. Comox was one of three west coast sites of the Pinetree Line, which was one of three radar lines stretching across the northern part of the continent (the other two being the Mid–Canada Line and the Distance Early Warning (DEW) Line). The Pinetree Line was constructed during the 1950s and was the southern-most radar line, running along the 49th parallel. Today an iconic white bulb sits at the edge of the airfield, overlooking the beach below and the Strait of Georgia.

Small museums say a great deal about a community and the Comox Aviation Museum expresses not just a pride for west coast aviation—evident in the community’s care in building and maintaining its collection—but also its love for flying and aircraft. Artwork featuring aircraft in wartime and peacetime, over regional and international landscapes, capture this admiration for the beauty of flight, the wonders of aviation technology, and an appreciation for its history.

Details:
Hours: Museum: Tuesday to Saturday 10 am–4pm
Heritage Air Park: April to September
Location: Military Row, Lazo, B.C.
About 10 minutes from downtown Comox by car.
Cost: by donation
Tour: self–guided, 30 minutes or longer
Accessibility: one storey; virtual tour of the museum available on the website (comoxairforcemuseum.ca); washrooms located near the museum entrance
Photography: allowed

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