From 35,000 feet to Exshaw


It’s possibly little wonder that Cliff Hansen, sometimes known as “that osprey guy from Exshaw” has such an affection for the large fish hunting raptors in the Bow Valley.

Like the osprey, Hansen himself has hunted in the air.

Unlike the osprey, though, Hansen sometimes did so at supersonic speed and 35,000 feet above sea level.

Hansen, you see, along with being an expert on the life and times of osprey in the valley, is a long-time veteran of Canada’s air force who graduated from propeller-driven Harvard trainers to the Mach 2-capable CF-104 Starfighter, with many other aircraft in between.

Further, when the world teetered on the brink of war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Hansen found himself sequestered in a hardened bunkers ready to fly a CF-101 Voodoo fighter against Russian aircraft that might encroach on Canadian airspace.

Hansen’s wife Margo was an air force nurse, though she gave up her commission (to avoid possibly being stationed away from Cliff) after the couple met in Bagotville, Que., then married in Enderby in 1961.

As often happens within the armed forces, Winfield, Alta’s Cliff and Enderby, B.C. native Margo met on a base and, after marriage, moved numerous times within Canada and to Europe while having four children before finding themselves retired in Exshaw.

The Hansen’s life, therefore, from 1955 to Cliff’s retirement in 1990, was one of changing bases, with Cliff moving up the ladder and training on new aircraft, while Margo and their growing family moved with him.

It all began when Cliff, working on a civil engineering degree at the University of Alberta, joined the air force after being chosen for pilot training as part of a University Reserve Training Plan.

After a couple of years, he became immersed in the Regular Officer Training Plan and graduated with a degree in 1959. While studying, his summers were spent in pilot training at Moose Jaw, Sask. and Trenton, Ont.

After ROTP training on Harvards, he obtained his wings and moved to T-33 jet trainers. After being posted to Bagotville, he flew the Avro CF-100 Canuck all-weather fighter.

It was in Bagotville that Margo and Cliff, who claimed her heart despite her being extremely popular as an English speaking nurse on a Quebec base with “a lot of single young men at the time,” he said. “There were two squadrons and word quickly spread about a new English speaking nurse. She had to run the gauntlet.”

It’s understandable, then, that when it came time to get married, Margo insisted on a wedding at home.

“I was determined not to get married on the base,” she said. “I had been to a couple of weddings and the groom was so drunk … my mother would have been so disappointed. So we were married in Enderby, a nice, quiet, sedate family wedding. It turned out to be good for both families.”

In the late 1950s, Cliff would have been in line to fly the legendary Avro Arrow, but Prime Minister Diefenbaker cancelled the project, leaving the Hansens with a move to Edmonton where Cliff trained on the Voodoo – “with two irons, two ironing boards and a trunk each,” said Margo.

After Voodoo training and moves to Ottawa and Chatham, Ont., the Hansens found themselves again in Bagotville, when, during the missile crisis, to Margo’s surprise, her aviator husband and others on the base disappeared.

“All the pilots were gone,” she said. “We were left in the dark and weren’t told where they were.”

Sequestered away from everyone, “we weren’t allowed to leave, except to fly for our country,” said Cliff. “Things were tense. Our business was to fight, but we didn’t want to go to war. But NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) put us on alert.

“Our Voodoos were armed with nukes (MB-1 missiles) and if Canada had been attacked, we would have flown against Soviet bombers. We listened a lot to news on the radio and we worried while we played a lot of bridge.

“It was a good day when Khruschev (Soviet premier) turned his ships around. We were all quite relieved. Luckily, that was the closest I came to being in a war. I like to say I’m a veteran of the Cold War.”

After the missile crisis, things settled down somewhat for the Hansens as they stayed in Chatham from 1962-66, where Cliff worked in civil engineering while keeping up his pilot training in case he was recalled to active duty.

Now with four Hansen children in tow, moves were made to Winnipeg, where Cliff put in a year of aerospace systems management and training on AT-33 ground support jet aircraft; supporting army operations from east to west coast; Montreal, where he worked on the Canadair CX84 tilt-wing aircraft project to Ottawa; Ottawa and the Aero Experimental Test Establishment for aircraft development; HQ in Ottawa dealing with flight safety; Cold Lake, Alta. for training on the CF-104 Starfighter; Germany, Rome and Brussels.

The Hansen family saw a lot of the world during Cliff’s time in the air force, lived in many places and were introduced to many cultures.

“And there was some culture shock,” said Margo. “We went from Rome to living in Brussels, an hour and a half from Paris, to Cold Lake. Now that was culture shock.”

In 1987, they found themselves in arctic at Cape Dyer on the DEW (distant early warning) line, then Calgary, Canmore and Exshaw.

After retirement from the regular forces in 1990, as a reservist, Cliff was also the last commanding officer of the Banff cadet camp, and the first CO of a new camp in Waiparous.

During his flying years, said Cliff, his favourite aircraft was the Voodoo. “It was stable and you could make it do wanted you wanted it to.

“On the other hand, the 104 was thrilling. You could be at 35,000 feet doing Mach 2 (2,330 km/h), but you didn’t really notice the speed at that altitude. The only way you knew you were supersonic was by changes in the instruments. At supersonic, the air compresses and there are changes in instrumentation.

“But the 104 wasn’t as stable and you couldn’t fly slow. You were at 150 knots to land.”

Possibly because of the family’s many moves over the years, son Neil is an air force engineer now in Australia and daughter Karen is an air force nurse just like mom who earned a medal in the first Gulf War. Daughter Darah has worked as a reporter and been stationed in Afghanistan while Johanne is in Cochrane, with no ties to armed forces.


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Rocky Mountain Outlook