Author and pilot
Flying a World War I-era airplane can feel like
riding a kite.
A canvas-and-wood plane sort of wanders
because it’s not as efficient as a modern airplane,
said Peter McMillan ’ 81. When the pilot turns
the wheel to the right, the plane tends to go to
the left. Then the ailerons catch hold, and the
nose sort of skids around. To make turns sometimes the pilot has to do things the opposite of
how he would in a modern aircraft.
“The plane really talks to you,” said McMillan.
“You can feel the flexing of the wings and the
vibration in the engines,. In the open cockpit
you can feel the wind on the side of your face.
You have all your senses involved in flying a
plane like this.”
McMillan spoke at UNC’s FedEx Global
Education Center in November and was sched-
uled to speak in March at the Winston House
Discovery Series in London — a joint project
of the College of Arts and Sciences, Honors
Carolina, UNC Global and the GAA — about
his involvement in re-enacting a 1919 England-
to-Australia flight that pioneered long-distance
McMillan put together a team that built a
replica of the Vimy, a World War I bomber that
racked up a number of aviation firsts: first successful trans-Atlantic flight, first flight from
England to South Africa and first from England
That original flight from England to Australia
inspired McMillan to embark on a project that
amassed 25,000 work hours and more than 17
months of labor to get the plane off the ground
in 1994, the 75th anniversary of the original
flight. Both adventures are detailed in
McMillan’s new book, The Vimy Expeditions.
“Flying a plane made of cotton and wood is
an act of faith in the builders,” McMillan said.
“You have to have some faith that many sets of
eyes have gone over the plane and its construc-
McMillan, who lives in London and works
for an investment firm there, was no novice
COURTESY PETER MCMILLAN ’ 81
“It’s a wonderful
thing to have a passion, and it can be
exercised in ways
great and small,”
says Peter McMillan
’ 81, who flies vintage aircraft like the
Vimy, left, to re-create early aviation
pilot when he launched the project, having
rebuilt and flown a Stearman biplane as well as
a Jungmeister single-seater. He owns a
Beechcraft airplane that he flies around Europe.
He and a friend were discussing what had
stimulated air travel, and they concluded the Vimy
played a huge role. Then he read an article from
a National Geographic magazine about the first
successful flight from England to Australia.
“Once I read that article, it became very clear
that we had to make some effort to bring that
story back to life,” McMillan said.
McMillan saw the effort as a history lesson as
well as an adventure. At first he used his own
money to finance the project but soon ran out
of funds. He turned to various sponsors, including