Nat McHaffie






Nat is an artist and former stunt pilot who lends her time and passion to helping The Great War Flying Museum in Caledon stay aloft.

“From 1914 to 1918, of the ten highest scoring allied air aces, four were Canadians, more than any other country. We reenact those battles over Headwaters. Happy 150, Canada.”


So you fell into flying? I guess that’s better than falling out of… never mind.

I fell into it. I needed a lawyer and the lawyer wanted one of my sculptures. So he said how about we trade: I’ll give you 10 hours in my airplane for that sculpture. Literally, it was put in front of me at a time when I was looking for something new.


Is it rare to be a lady stunt pilot?

For quite a while, maybe 8 or 10 years, I was the only one in Canada. But there’s another one now and she’s way better than I was. And there have been others in the past. I did it as a hobby, had a lovely time.


What’s the difference with aerobatic planes?

They’re a lot tougher. They tend to have shorter wings and can go faster. They can have bigger engines, you can point them straight up. Faster, slicker, stronger.


How did your parents react to your, uh, hobby?

I used to talk to my dad on the phone and he always finished with, “Now stay safe on the ground, dear.” I competed as an aerobatic pilot for about 25 years, stunt flying. All over Ontario, northern US, Michigan, New York State.

I also got involved in starting the Toronto Aerospace Museum. I realized that one of my problems with that situation was not having enough knowledge on how museums were run, so I took a post-grad degree in museum studies. That led to a number of jobs in heritage sites around Canada. I was program manager at a national historic site on the west coast. It was lovely, fishing industry, I spent my whole time on boats.

So when I came back to Toronto and semi-retired, I was also teaching sculpture at OCAD, and I found myself with quite a bit of spare time.


What, like three extra minutes a day?

I got talking with the people at the Great Flying Museum, they were really nice people to work with… and they sort of suckered me in. They ended up with no curator, and because I had the training, they sort of backed me into it!


This is a unique museum, truly.

We represent both sides of the conflict in the First World War. These are full-sized flying replicas with a few differences. Like we have a tailwheel instead of a tail skid, because we land on the paved runway at Brampton, we don’t land on the grass the way they did in the war.

I can tell you, landing on grass, you’re such an ace of a pilot, airplanes love landing in grass.


So it’s way more than a museum….

We build and fly airplanes, we fix engines, and we’re introducing people to what it really sounded and looked like during the First World War. Our focus is to try and inspire people to be interested in history and in aviation.

The primary reason for having airplanes in the First World War was scouting… reconnaissance photographs. The ones that everybody knows about are the fighters. But everybody had a machine gun.

You want to think about multitasking: they even did things like putting glass slides of the photographs into developing fluid on the plane while it was flying. So when they landed they were ready to go. Or imagine you’re the pilot, and you’re trying to change the canisters on your gun.


Have you built one?

I’ve built boats, but not airplanes. I have two grandchildren who have a cottage. And they needed boats, as far as I was concerned.

I’ve built a set of wings for an airplane and nothing more. It told me that I was never going to build a full airplane, that’s way too much for me. I have enough skills to keep it going.


And your family… it’s unique, too.

My daughter is an airline pilot. I have sons but they don’t fly, I have brothers who don’t fly. For whatever reason in our family it’s all women. My female cousins fly. Statistically, only seven percent of pilots are women. But not us!


How do you keep the museum, well, flying?

We aren’t government funded. Our income comes from our membership, renting our planes out for airshows, movies. We have flyovers, we’ll fly over your wedding, your commemoration for a fee. We also have donations that people give us at the door and special events. But we need support. We had an engine failure, and it’s going to cost about 20 grand to replace. This is a whopper.


Could you host weddings? People are looking for unusual settings…

Anybody wants a flyover, we’ll do it. But we don’t have the space to have a wedding.

Although our red triplane, people just love that as a picture. There’s also the fact that WWI airplanes were 2 or 1 seaters… we can’t show up at a wedding with the bride and groom…


Maybe the bride’s dress could be a parachute… sort of?

I’ll keep that mental image in my mind!


How does flying relate to being artist?

As an artist you get to focus in a particular way. And there are other things that require that. Aerobatics does. It’s really nice to have a total focus rather than just playing around with stuff. You have no choice but to focus.

But the art piece, that was another life. I taught dance for a great many years. The aerobatics and the dance are very similar. It’s all about reaching the right place at the right angle with the right amount of pressure at the right time, at the right speed.


When you’re up there, you get to see all of Headwaters.

Very true. I love the Credit River Valley. Particularly in the fall. And in the summer there’s that deep green that goes through the valley, with all the fields all along the sides.

You can let loose feelings of going back in time. It’s gentle and pretty. Or you’re flying and looking at the rear gunner, and you get a feeling of going back in history. In time. It’s really a lovely thing to do.