Last of her kind: vintage bomber in Prince Albert this weekend

Co-pilot François Bergeon is honoured to fly a plane that was stationed in his native France during the Second World War. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

Theresa Brassard has no problem sitting through the deafening noise of twin propellers. She wears a hearing aid, after all. Peering out the window of a B-25J Mitchell bomber, the former medic was trying to spot her house from the skies above Prince Albert.

Brassard may be 90 years old, but she said the cramped conditions hardly bothered her. Neither did the sweltering heat.

“I just felt right at home,” she said after touch down at the Prince Albert Airport on Friday. “That was an experience I will never, never forget.”

Herself a veteran of the Second World War, Brassard was probably the only passenger alive when the the 74-year-old bomber was flying missions over Europe.

Known by the moniker Maid in the Shade, the bomber is at Prince Albert Airport until Monday. It – or “she,” in airmen’s terms – is part of the Flying Legends of Victory Tour. The pilots and flight crew, all members of the Arizona-based Commemorative Air Force (CAF), are touring through Canada to share their passion for vintage combat aircraft.

The CAF’s Mike Mueller was up for his second sojourn in Prince Albert. He said the crew loves travelling up north. He thinks Canadians have a special “kinship” with the B-25, which flew in both the Canadian and American forces. Maid in the Shade is one of only 34 B-25J’s still flying, and apparently the only one left that flew missions in the war.

“This particular B-25 is the only B-25 we know of that is a combat veteran that is still flying,” Mueller said.

That certainly means something to François Bergeon, the co-pilot who helped guide Maid in the Shade into the air and back on Friday.

Bergeon is a native of France. During the war, the bomber – then known simply as Battle 18 – was stationed on French territory, on the island of Corsica. From there, she flew sorties to Italy and Yugoslavia, taking out enemy transportation infrastructure.

For Bergeon, the pilots who flew that plane helped free his country from the grip of Nazi occupation.

“For me, it’s very important to be able to participate in the Commemorative Air Force, because without the veterans of the Second World War who fought in Europe I would not be here today,” he said.

“The least I could do is to participate with my time… to keep that memory alive and bring that to the new generation.”

Bergeon admits that Maid in the Shade isn’t a comfortable plane. She’s noisy, he said, and “spartan.” She lacks “creature comforts.” But she’s a joy to fly.

“A very responsive airplane,” he said.

Maid in the Shade went through a long journey to get to Arizona. During the early 80’s, it was relegated to fighting fire ants as a “bug sprayer.”

“They dropped insecticide out of the bomb bay,” Mueller explained.

A donor bought the plane for “scrap value” – about $1,800 – and donated her to the CAF. She had to travel from Texas to Arizona in 100-mile intervals, Mueller said, as oil leaked out of the bottom. Volunteers spent 28 years restoring her in a shady hanger – hence the name.

The CAF team still spends 10 or 12 hours maintaining the plane for every hour they fly. But it’s worth it. Out on tour, Mueller said, they get to teach children what their ancestors lived through during the war.

“We want people to understand what sacrifices their grandparents and great-grandparents made in World War 2,” he said.

Bergeon said anyone who’s interested in flight should come and see Maid in the Shade this weekend. Public support helps the CAF keep her in good working order.

“That’s really what allows us to conserve these planes in a state where they can fly,” he said, “it’s the donations and the participation that we’re seeing today.”