Albertan returns fighter jet painting found in thrift store to veteran who made it decades earlier

An Alberta man has given an incredible gift to a former Cold War fighter jet pilot.

'I deeply regretted all throughout the years that I never kept one,' painter Andrew Henwood says

Andrew Henwood hangs a painting he created decades ago of a plane he used to fly. It was found in a thrift store and returned to him after some online sleuthing by Phil Johnston in Calgary. (CBC)

An Alberta man has given an incredible gift to a former Cold War fighter jet pilot.

Phil Johnston has returned a lost painting, dug from the dredges of a Calgary thrift shop, to the veteran, who now lives as an artist in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Johnston loves to poke through thrift stores, looking for stories in discarded items. On one trip, he found a painting of a Cold War-era fighter jet buried in a bin at the back of the store.

"Well, the Canadian content caught my eye here with the flags on the plane," Johnston said. "It was $10.50 and I wasn't sure if I should get it, and my wife said, 'Just get it. Bring it home. Do some research there.'"

He did do some digging, and found his bargain find was made by artist Andrew Henwood — a discovery he's glad to have made.

"I did almost leave it behind," Johnston said. "We weren't even supposed to be at the thrift store that day. We were just there haphazardly."

Phil Johnston found this painting in a Calgary thrift store. He has returned it to the artist, who lives in Ontario. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Henwood's home is full of dozens of his paintings but none are like the one Johnston found in that Calgary thrift store. In fact, Henwood had no idea his decades-old piece of art still existed.

"It was so nice when he called," the artist said.

Henwood has always been a painter and he was once a fighter pilot, too.

He flew a CF-104 Starfighter — which could potentially be equipped with a nuclear warhead — over Europe during the Cold War.

"Our training was to fly very low, very fast over the treetops," he said. "Basically, we were trained as essentially a pre-cursor to the cruise missile."

Andrew Henwood said the call came out of nowhere that Phil Johnston had found his long-lost painting. (CBC)

Henwood and his fellow Starfighter pilots were tasked with delivering a nuclear strike in minutes, if so ordered.

It was dangerous work, and the CF-104 was nicknamed the "widowmaker." Thirty-seven Canadian pilots died flying the plane without a shot being fired.

Watch the veteran be reunited with his artwork:

When Henwood, then a captain, wasn't flying, he spent much of his spare time painting his plane and other Starfighters.

"I was selling them for $50 or $60 and they were going out the door as fast as I was painting them really," Henwood said. "I deeply regretted all throughout the years that I never kept one for myself."

Phil Johnston wanted to help. He packed up his new-found treasure and sent it back to its creator.

"Just doing something nice for someone seemed like the stand-up thing to do," Johnston said.

Andrew Henwood's painting of CF-104 Starfighters from the Cold War was found by Phil Johnston. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Weeks later, Henwood had a package to unwrap.

"Oh my. This is better than I thought," Henwood said upon seeing the painting for the first time in decades.

For Johnston, sending this picture back to where it belonged marked the end of a very memorable trip to the thrift shop. For Henwood, it's quite a bit more.

"It is important to remember those who we lost in the Cold War, as well as in all those hot wars, because the losses were the same. They left widows and children behind and are sorely missed," Henwood said, his voice catching.

It's also a reminder that the time he served for his country is to this day appreciated, even by a stranger several provinces away.

With files from Erin Collins.


  • An earlier version of the story said Andrew Henwood flew a CF-104 Starfighter that was equipped with a nuclear warhead over Eastern Europe during the Cold War. In fact, although the plane was able to carry a nuclear warhead, it never had to do so.
    Sep 04, 2018 11:25 AM MT