The Golden Eagle takes flight

Photo courtesy TDH Experiential Fabricators

The resurrected Golden Eagle dominates the skyline of downtown Chilliwack, B.C.

By Tristan Allan

Chilliwack, British Columbia, has a surprisingly rich aviation history. Many long-term residents have fond memories of a yellow Fairchild-Cornell airplane that sat on the roof of Brett’s Garage for 26 years from 1951 to 1977.

As part of the on-going rebirth of Chilliwack’s downtown, Anthem Properties commissioned artist Lucien Durey to create the ‘Golden Eagle’—an artwork made from painted aluminium and neon that pays homage to this iconic piece of history.

The airplane on the roof

William Earl Brett (1896–1988) was an adventurous, artistic, and entrepreneurial soul. As owner of several local car dealerships and Brett’s Garage on Hope Street, president of the BC Aviation Council, and a founding member of the Chilliwack Flying Club, he was a prominent member of the community. He developed a passion for flying, and in 1927, acquired his first airplane. He flew it for 450 hours before obtaining a flying licence—something he was forced to do once the authorities impounded the plane until he passed his exam.

Earl increasingly used his airplanes for travel around southwest British Columbia, preferring flying to driving when managing his commercial interests. In April 1944, he crashed a blue Fairchild-Cornell into Powell River with the sunken plane becoming a write off. He would acquire a second airplane from the same manufacturer, this time a golden yellow one.

In 1951, with the development of Brett’s Garage in Chilliwack’s downtown, Earl placed the golden yellow airplane on the roof to forever remind him of the joy of flying around British Columbia. Over time, the ‘airplane on the roof’ fascinated adults and children alike, and despite being gone for 43 years, it is still fondly remembered.

Image courtesy the Chilliwack Museum and Archives

Earl Brett with his grandson in front of Brett’s Garage.

Bringing the Golden Eagle back to life

Artist, Lucien Durey created the Golden Eagle to follow the outline of Brett’s Fairchild-Cornell and be illuminated with classic neon. The site was chosen to be the roof of a B.C. liquor store at Salish Plaza. This location is approximately 35 m (115 ft) northwest of where the original plane once stood. The intent was for the art to be seen for miles, creating a beacon of light that draws the eye whenever someone is passing through the area.

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TDH Experiential Fabricators in Surrey, B.C., was engaged to create the artwork. With careful design, Lucien’s vision was turned into a 6-m (20-ft) wide, 13-m (43-ft) high plane-shaped aluminium wrapped cabinet. The plane itself would be painted onto the cabinet for daytime visibility, and then outlined with neon to shine brightly at night.

A successful installation is all about picky details

The design process needs to consider all aspects of the project from start to installation. Small details cannot be missed—from the intricacies of mounting neon to the lifting points for installation, it all has to work together.

It all started with a site review. The building itself was a flat-top with wood and metal rafters. After careful examination of the building’s structure, three sets of sleepers were designed. These were to run perpendicular to the rafters and bolted securely in placed. From there, an A-frame could be built to mount the plane structure. All these details were planned out in computer aided design (CAD) and reviewed by an engineer.

The first step of fabrication was building the cabinet. The shape of the plane was computerized numerical control (CNC) machined from aluminum and matched to a structure built from aluminium angle. The returns were hand-wrapped out of aluminium and everything was sanded down to a smooth finish for paint. Meanwhile, inside the plane, mounting brackets for all the neon transformers and components were installed to allow for easy servicing should it be required in future.

Paint was an exercise in building up layers with seven different colours being used in the project including black with a variety of yellows and greys. Each layer was sprayed using the Matthews Paint system, and the outline of the plane came to life with each successive application of paint mask and paint.

Next, the glass neon tube was bent and pumped. EGL Noviol Gold was used for the plane outline and EGL Snowhite for the propeller. Traditional glass neon boots were used instead of the modern plastic ones in order to pay homage to the historic nature of the piece.

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On the jobsite, the three sets of laminated sleeper boards were installed to the existing roof structure, sealed with torch-on, roofing and capped with flashing. All the necessary electrical connections were placed in advance.

Photo courtesy TDH Experiential Fabricators

The artwork installation process was complete in about 60 minutes.

The Golden Eagle takes flight

It is often the case that people expect installation to take a long time, but with all the preparation and advance work, time at jobsites can be minimized. The art was loaded on a Hiab crane truck at the TDH shop, driven to site, and lifted into place (something that attracted the attention of many passersby with the plane finally “taking flight”). Bolts to the sleepers were installed and the final electrical connection was made. The artwork installation process was completed in about 60 minutes.  

Tristan Allan is the president at TDH Experiential Fabricators, a design-build signage, display, and art fabricator servicing Vancouver and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. More information can be found at or on Instagram @tdhxfab.

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