fokker-airplane-brome

The Fokker D.VII was the most advanced fighter aircraft of the 1914-18 war. ((John Weatherseed))

There's an air war in the town of Knowlton in Quebec's Eastern Townships involving a First World War German fighter.

The biplane is the star attraction of a local museum. Some people want to sell it and make the museum rich, while others want to keep it.

The plane is the Fokker D.VII, the most advanced fighter aircraft of the 1914-18 war. Its speed, agility and firepower so terrified the Allies that it was the only weapon mentioned by name in the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918. The Germans were ordered to destroy the remaining planes, though the Americans, French and British kept some for themselves.

The Fokker D.VII that now sits in the Brome County Historical Society's museum is one of seven left in the world. But this aircraft isn't just rare, it's unique.

"It is the only unrestored Fokker D.VII in the world. It is a priceless relic of the First World War," says Edward Soye, who wrote a good part of his master's thesis at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., about this aircraft.

Soye, a Toronto financial executive by day, flies vintage military aircraft in his spare time — when he's not researching and writing about planes such as the D.VII.

But how did this stunning biplane find its way to a museum in a rural backwater in the Eastern Townships?

Spoils of war

This plane and others like it were taken to England at the end of the war. There the Canadians demanded a few D.VIIs of their own, so 22 D.VIIs were packed up and shipped to Canada in 1919.

Canadian war aces Billy Bishop and William Barker flew the D.VIIs in air shows in Canada, the first Snowbirds. And this particular aircraft was part of the first Canadian air squadron formed after the war.

Soye is so obsessive about the plane he even has a copy of the shipping order signed by a British sergeant. 

'It should stay in Knowlton. The idea of a national museum doesn't mean it has to be in one place.' —Stephen Quick, Ottawa museum

Sir George Foster, a senator from Knowlton and a powerful politician in Ottawa — he was deputy prime minister at one point during the war — asked for one of the planes to be shipped to Knowlton. Foster's son had flown in the war, as had another half-dozen local men.

The Fokker arrived on May 27, 1920, with Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden giving a speech marking its arrival in Foster's hometown. Apart from one short trip to an RCAF base in 1963, the plane has been in the Brome County Museum in Knowlton ever since.

Now the future of the German fighter is a hot subject of debate at the once-sedate board meetings of the Brome County Historical Society. Voices are raised, people resign. Others threaten to stop donating money to what is a favourite local cause. All over the Fokker D.VII.

How did it come to this?

Without getting into all the details of a local dogfight, there are two camps. One says Foster brought the plane here, so this is where it should stay. The other says the aircraft has nothing to do with local history and deserves to be in a proper museum with climate controls to preserve a military artifact that is almost 100 years old.

"It's arguably the most significant aircraft of the war, certainly from a German perspective," says Soye.

Then there's the money. A New York auction house has made overtures, hinting the plane might be worth $1 million. Others have estimated it could be worth even more to a German buyer, though museum curators in Canada would scream if there was a move to let it out of the country.

This is not the first time the museum has been approached to sell it. Howard Hughes, the legendary American gazillionaire airman and Hollywood producer, wanted Knowlton's Fokker D.VII for his 1930 First World War air epic, Hell's Angels. The museum's board members said no then, and they are saying no now.

Soye thinks the directors of the little museum might be right.

"I have visited the aircraft in late winter and in the summer. Despite the lack of climate control the aircraft has fared well. It's not the perfect environment, but it's been well taken care of," says Soye. "The Brome County Historical Society should be given credit for keeping it as it is. There's a strong argument the D.VII should stay in Knowlton."

Last month the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa sent a team of technicians to judge the plane's condition. They wanted to find out if the plane could survive a transfer to a new home.

"The aircraft has adapted to its environment and there would be extensive damage to it if it were moved," says Stephen Quick, director general of the Ottawa museum, which houses a huge collection of old warplanes.

"It should stay in Knowlton. The idea of a national museum doesn't mean it has to be in one place."

That could be the end of the D.VII battle. Though the argument over the plane will still mean some people around Knowlton won't talk to others.

Small towns are like that. But they'll get over it in a decade or so, maybe in time for the Fokker's 100th birthday in the spring of 2018.