“No one has flown this low at this airport in 20 years.”
This quip came from an employee at the Miramichi-Chatham airport about the visit of 87-year-old George Miller in his 1940s Ryan Navion.
Screaming near the eastern New Brunswick airport in the scorching sun, the Navion’s unpainted silver fuselage reflected the sunlight so badly it stung the eyes.
The plane has a 1950s sci-fi movie spaceship vibe, from when the future was chrome.
WATCH | George Miller’s Last Emotional Flight
Aircraft fanatics would recognize his lineage of fighter aircraft. Designed by the same company that built the legendary WWII P-51 Mustang, the Navion emits a hoarse growl as it passes.
They don’t make planes like that anymore.
And on that spring afternoon, the Navion emerged from the skies for the last time, landing at Miramichi-Chatham Airport.
He will never fly again.
Neither does its pilot.
“I love this plane,” said George Miller. “And I know it will be hard to finally get one last look at it.”
“It’s a real headache to give it up.”
After spending 68 years in the air, George Miller says goodbye to the plane and goodbye to his Navion, flying it across Canada to donate to a museum in New Brunswick.
Born on Fogo Island off the north coast of Newfoundland in 1935, Miller remembers being captivated by a seaplane delivering supplies to the island when he was just six years old.
On his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the RCAF. For the next 35 years he was a fighter pilot. And it was this small airport in New Brunswick that gave it its beginnings.
“A Crazy Career”
In his early days in the Air Force, Miller says the first transonic fighter jets, planes capable of flying as fast as the sound barrier, had just entered service. He asked to be trained to fly them. To this day, he still can’t believe it was granted.
Miller moved to New Brunswick and began training to fly CF-86 Saber fighter jets, an aircraft that first flew against Russian MiGs during the Korean War.
The airport was then a military hub, much larger than the humble airstrip it is today.
“It was our main hunting base, as Cold Lake is now in Alberta,” Miller said.
“It’s part of my soul, really, because I grew up with it,” Miller said of the Miramichi-Chatham airport. “I was so involved and so engrossed in the whole fighter and air force thing.”
Miller’s first tour in 1955 was to fly Sabers in Germany in the early years of the Cold War.
“Basically it was to counter the imminent Russian threat because the Russians…they really intended to move into Europe and the threat was real,” Miller said. “And then, of course, we would be in World War III.”
The nuclear age
He eventually switched to the Canadair CF-104 Starfighter, a jet aircraft capable of flying at twice the speed of sound. It was also capable of nuclear strikes, carrying nuclear weapons supplied by the United States.
After flying the Starfighters in Germany, Miller was transferred to Sardinia, Italy, where he trained Canadian pilots in the transport and deployment of nuclear weapons.
Miller ran a sea survival school, training pilots who ejected or parachuted over water to survive.
He also spent time in the 1970s in Kingston, Ontario, as principal of the Air Force Staff College, then was sent to Egypt when that country began peace talks with Israel.
“It was an amazing time in my career…and they gave me a year of intensive Arabic language training, so I became bilingual in Arabic…and had crazy assignments across ‘no man’s land’.
“I was often at the center of it all, trying to get intelligence for the Canadian government,” Miller said.
After stints in Israel and Sudan, Miller retired after 35 years in the RCAF.
“It was a crazy career,” he said.
Falcons and Snowbirds
Miller was also part of two high-flying Canadian Air Force stunt teams.
His skill in piloting these early Sabers earned him a spot on the 1962 Golden Hawks team. The Golden Hawks would showcase high-speed maneuvers and stunts at air shows, wowing crowds across the country.
In 1973, he traveled to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to help develop the new Snowbirds flying squadron into a national aerobatic team.
The Snowbirds still perform across Canada today.
Miller eventually formed his own aerobatic team after his retirement, the Fraser Blues, flying alongside his son, putting on shows all over British Columbia.
WATCH | George Miller Shows Off His 1940s Ryan Navion One Last Time
Miller’s aircraft for these shows was the Navion. But although he is still in excellent health, it was the year to ditch the plane, he said.
“I feel very capable of flying, there’s no problem there,” he said. “But I think it’s good to be reasonable.
“I’ve been on enough ‘hundred dollar burger’ type trips, where you spend a hundred dollars on gas for a 15 dollar burger.”
When Miller started selling his beloved Navion, he spoke to Kevin Anderson, CEO and founder of the New Brunswick Aviation Museum.
Anderson has been working since 2013 to create a museum showcasing the province’s aviation history.
The museum’s current collection is housed in a hangar on the tarmac at the Miramichi–Chatham Airport. It already includes George Miller’s flight suits of the Golden Hawks and Snowbirds.
It will now also include the Navion.
Miller decided to cancel the sale of his aircraft and donate it to the fledgling museum.
“Well, I had a pretty big smile, I’ll say it,” Anderson said.
“The reason it was important for us to get it is because with the formation of the Golden Hawks here in 1959, they played a significant role in the history of Canada’s aerobatic team,” said Anderson.
Trip of a lifetime
Miller decided to deliver the Navion to New Brunswick himself, making the final flight from his home in Langley, British Columbia.
His plan was to wait for good weather in early summer to fly over the country one last time.
But on May 1, as he was going to bed, he checked the weather on his phone. He was shocked to find the perfect tailwind crossing Canada.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Miller said. “It was coast to coast. It was a Sunday and I said, ‘I’m leaving on Monday’ and I did.”
The perfect co-pilot
But at 87, Miller knew he couldn’t complete the journey alone. With any older aircraft, maintenance and upkeep is a constant variable, so it would need someone who wasn’t just in the game.
He chose 27-year-old engineer Freya Inkster.
“She’s an absolutely terrific maintenance engineer,” Miller said.
A pilot herself, she maintains around 30 to 40 planes, including Miller’s, and said she was honored when he asked her to help with his final flight.
A good thing too.
About halfway through the voyage, the Navion began to have engine trouble and had to land in Kenora, Ontario.
“I thought, ‘Please don’t be a cylinder,’ but it was a cylinder,” Inkster said.
She ended up having to replace it, shipping a rebuilt device they luckily had in Langley.
The rest of the flight passed without incident.
“This one is special,” Inkster said. “Each Navion is different, it doesn’t matter if they are from the same year, each one is different.”
Last Thursday, after nearly seven decades of flight, Miller descended from the sky for the last time.
To his surprise, two fire engines arched water jets over the runway in a welcome gesture.
After an emotional embrace with Anderson, Miller handed her the keys to his plane.
“The end of an era, that’s for sure,” Miller said.
“I hope when the new museum opens, I’ll come back here, and I’ll take Freya with me, and I’ll come back to see him, and that will be the last time I see him.”