"This remarkable team remains a symbol of aviation excellence, not just to Canadians, but to the many international audiences who witnessed the Golden Hawks’ sterling performances in five seasons from 1959 to 1963. With the world’s best fighter aircraft of its era - the Canadian-built F-86 Sabre - the team’s pilots and their supporting ground crew personnel were of the highest calibre. I personally knew all of the Golden Hawk pilots, and can attest to the fact that they were the cream of the RCAF at a time when our air force was generally acknowledged to be the best in NATO." General (Retired) Paul D. Manson, OC, CMM, CD
The 1959 Golden Hawk pilots (L - R, front to back): F/O Bill Stewart, F/L Ralph Annis, F/L JT Price, S/L Fern Villeneuve (Team Leader), F/L Jim McCombe, F/L Jeb Kerr, F/O Jim Holt and F/L Ed Rozdeba.
The RCAF Golden Hawks set new standards of excellence that influenced aerobatic teams around the world. We hope you enjoy getting to know the outstanding Canadians who thrilled audiences for five short years.
The RCAF Golden Hawks were officially formed on March 1, 1959 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of powered flight in Canada and the 35th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The team, under the leadership of Squadron Leader Fern Villeneuve, was to develop an aerobatic display that would travel to air shows around the country for one year. The aircraft chosen for this task was the Canadair F-86 Sabre Mark 5, Canada’s front line fighter. The goal was to showcase RCAF capabilities for the Canadian public.
There had been a number of Canadian aerobatic teams before 1959, including the Siskins and Blue Devils, but as the Sabre proved to be such an agile aircraft, fighter squadrons quickly formed their own unofficial aerobatic teams to perform at air shows and other events throughout Europe in the early 1950s. The Fireballs and Sky Lancers became the official aerobatic teams of Canada's No. 1 Air Division in Europe between 1954 and 1956. The tragedy that befell the Sky Lancers in March 1956 put an end to aerobatic performances until the request was approved to form the Golden Hawks in 1958.
The Golden Hawks were the first official Canadian national aerobatic team to be given dedicated training time to perfect their routines and to be assigned to full-time aerobatic duties. Pilots were chosen based on their flying skills and for their ability to adequately represent the Air Force to the people of Canada. As the pilots selected for the team were members of either Air Defence Command or Training Command, RCAF Station Chatham, New Brunswick, home of #1 (Fighter) Operational Training Unit (OTU), became their base of operations.
Squadron Leader Villeneuve was chosen to be the team lead based on his vast experience with aerobatic displays including the Prairie Pacific Team of 1954. He was given the authority to select the other team members so after seeking volunteers and holding tryouts, Jim McCombe, Ed Rozdeba and Jeb Kerr were chosen for the formation positions. As there weren’t enough pilots available in Chatham with the right combination of skills and experience in aerobatic flying, S/L Villeneuve pushed to get better qualified members for his team. One of the first was a former 441 Squadron mate, Ralph Annis.
Ralph became the lead solo and helped develop the routines for the solo act. Sam Eisler, Bill Stewart and Jim Holt rounded out the team. After a tragic crash killed Sam Eisler during a training flight, JT Price from the OTU volunteered to take over as the second solo.
With the team in place, this highly experienced group had three months to get ready for the demanding schedule planned for the summer and early fall of 1959.
The 1959 RCAF Golden Hawks.
Photo credit: DND via MWO (Retired) Bill Briggs.
As the leader, Villeneuve wanted to ensure that the team would impress experienced aviators and hold the interest of the general public. They would accomplish this by ensuring there was always something to see and by saving the best manoeuvres for last. The Golden Hawks became renowned throughout North America for the changes they introduced to the air show community such as integrating a coordinated solo program where the aircraft would go head-to-head to help fill gaps in timing and creating trademark routines such as the Card 5 and the bomb-burst.
As Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Dan Dempsey wrote in his book “A Tradition of Excellence”, the history of Canada’s aerobatic teams, “If the modern day Snowbirds owe their legacy to any one predecessor, then it is arguably the Golden Hawks, for it was this team that first earned Canada and the RCAF widespread international recognition for having a world-class aerobatic team.” Unlike the Snowbirds of today, flight safety rules were not as stringent and aircraft separation, performance altitudes and many other areas involved far greater risk. According to Fern Villeneuve, their minimum altitudes were 50 feet for solo aircraft passes, 100 feet for formation fly pasts, 150 feet for solo aerobatics and 200 feet for formation aerobatics. Although two pilots were lost during their initial training and Jeb Kerr was tragically killed in a collision in Calgary in August 1959, none of the pilots had a serious incident during a performance.
S/L Fern Villeneuve in 1960.
Photo credit: DND via MWO (Retired) Bill Briggs.
Brief history of the RCAF Golden Hawks - inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame in 2017.
Biography of Lieutenant Colonel J.A.G. Fern Villeneuve - inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006
Of the 317 shows performed by this amazing team, they managed to attain a 100% serviceability rate! This is a testament to all of the ground crew and the Engineering Officers who oversaw maintenance of the Sabres. Former team member Bill Stewart said the ground crew were “like ants”, scrambling over the aircraft to ensure any deficiencies were identified and corrected as quickly as possible. Although the maintainers never received the glory or recognition of the pilots who flew the Sabres, their pride and professionalism was always evident in the long, hard hours they spent keeping the aircraft in top flying condition.
From the moment they first performed in public, the Golden Hawks proved themselves to be as good as, if not better, than longer serving and well-established aerobatic teams including the US Navy Blue Angels and the US Air Force Thunderbirds. They attracted huge crowds wherever they went and they had no shortage of fans. One headline in the Toronto Star-Weekly in 1959 even glorified them as “The Glamour Boys of the Air Force”. Although the team did stand down at the end of the 1959 season, their incredible popularity led to the decision to reinstate them as a permanent unit of the RCAF starting in 1960, with all but F/O Jim Holt returning. Although it could be argued that he had a biased opinion, at the stand down of the team on September 26th, 1959 Air Marshal Campbell, quoted by Villeneuve in “A Tradition of Excellence”, remarked that “In the space of a few months you have established yourselves as one of the outstanding aerobatic teams in the world – in my opinion, the best…the Hawks have given the 51,000 members of the RCAF an even greater pride in their service!”
1960 RCAF Golden Hawks Line Crew
Photo credit: DND via MWO (Retired) Bill Briggs
When the word came down to disband the team in 1964, the message that came down from Air Force Headquarters to the Commanding Officer of the Golden Hawks read ”Although the disbandment of the Golden Hawks will cause disappointment throughout the service, the members of your team can be justly proud of the everlasting fame that they have brought to Canada and the RCAF. The superlative flying skills and incomparable maintenance standards have been admired by millions of people throughout North America and the Golden Hawks have earned an honoured place in the history of the RCAF”. More than 15,000,000 Canadians and Americans were thrilled by the 317 Golden Hawks performances over the course of five years.
The RCAF Golden Hawks became a symbol of the professionalism, skill and daring needed to be a fighter pilot and with the sleek, elegant F-86 Sabre painted in the distinctive gold with the red and white Hawk emblazoned on each side, the dream of flying became instilled in the hearts and minds of countless thousands of awe-struck observers. The Air Force could not have found a better recruiting tool! It was estimated that in 1959 alone, the team generated more than $1 million dollars in publicity from all the news and magazine articles and the TV and radio announcements.
The team received accolades throughout the country during their five years of existence. In recognition of their excellence, a tribute film was created jointly by the Department of National Defence and the National Film Board in 1971. In addition, no fewer than five F-86 Sabre aircraft are painted in Golden Hawks colours and proudly displayed in museums or on pedestals in Canada and another one can be found on display at the Technik Museum Speyer in Germany. Two of them, one mounted in Belleville and the other in Sarnia, were both re-furbished in the last couple of years as communities remember what the team stood for. The RCAF Golden Hawks have also been captured for posterity by many noted Canadian aviation artists including Don Connolly, Geoff Bennett and most recently, Peter Robichaud.
Solo Hawk by Canadian aviation artist Peter J. Robichaud.
An F-86 Sabre was resurrected in Golden Hawks colours and markings by Vintage Wings of Canada in 2009 to mark the 100th anniversary of powered flight in Canada and the 50th anniversary of the RCAF Golden Hawks!
Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Dan Dempsey is a former leader of the Snowbirds and he wrote the book (literally!) on Canada's aerobatic teams. A Tradition of Excellence is a must-have for any fan of Canadian aerobatic teams.
Vintage Wings of Canada pilot, Pierre Clement takes Hawk One for a flight.
Sadly, when Vintage of Wings of Canada decided to sell Hawk One, no Canadian buyer could be found and it went to the USA. See Hawk One's final moments in Canada as she leaves her former home in Gatineau, Quebec.