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   A Memorial University of Newfoundland Publication

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November 27, 2003


Model plane makes history

Dennis Johnson’s model plane at Quidi Vidi Lake.
Dennis Johnson’s model plane at Quidi Vidi Lake.
The model of the Vicars Vimy as it appears on the History Channel program.
The model of the Vicars Vimy as it appears on the History Channel program.

By Michelle Osmond
Dennis Johnson has always had an interest in building models and in aviation history. Now, a model plane he worked on for over two years is the star in a documentary on The History Channel entitled The Great Atlantic Air Race.

Mr. Johnson, an electronic technologist with the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, built the replica of the Vicars Vimy in 1994 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first non-stop transatlantic flight, made in 1919 by Capt. John Alcock and Lieut. Arthur Whitten Brown. The original Vickers Vimy was built as a bomber for the first World War but production was not completed in time.

It was built mainly of wood with fabric covering and was powered by two Rolls Royce Eagle engines that could fly for 100 hours before they needed to be serviced. After some alterations were made it was put in crates and transported to an airfield in Newfoundland on the May 26, 1919. Capt. Alcock and Lieut. Brown took off for that famous flight on the afternoon of June 14, 1919, from Lester’s Field. The crew faced many problems. Besides delays, their radio broke down shortly after take off and fog enveloped the plane and prevented the fliers from seeing anything for much of the journey. The next morning, however, Capt. Alcock and Lieut. Brown reached Ireland.

Mr. Johnson also faced a number of problems when building the model of the famous plane. There were no plans, so he started with 3-D view drawings he got out of a book. “It was a challenge just finding all of the information I needed because it wasn’t just a scale model, but a flying model. I did quite a bit of research.” Mr. Johnson says he got a lot of help from friends and colleagues in piecing together information.

About 1,800 hours and $1,000 later, he had duplicated the aircraft’s control systems, materials and construction techniques.

“I felt it was important to recreate the history accurately so every knob, dial and gage is like it appears in the original and it all works the same way.” And it must have impressed the experts because in 1996 there was a province-wide model contest held at the Arts and Culture Centre. Mr. Johnson didn’t show up for the awards ceremony but when he came to take his model home, he had three trophies waiting for him: Best in Show, Technical Achievement and Best in Category.

In 2002, the model plane was on display in Labrador when some Americans from Vimy Restorations Incorporated saw it. They called The History Channel, who in turn, called Mr. Johnson. He says he was very flattered by the request because he has a lot of respect for the flight that “took air flight from infancy to young adulthood in a single stroke and pioneered the transatlantic route that aircrafts still fly today.” Filming, he adds, took quite some time but when he saw the finished product, about 80 per cent of the shots used in the film were of his model.

In June 2004 the Vimy Atlantic team of Vimy Restorations Incorporated will recreate the first direct crossing of the Atlantic by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown in 1919. Meanwhile, The Great Atlantic Air Race will appear on The History Channel on Dec. 17 at 9 p.m.


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Next issue: December 11, 2003

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