The Air Force days, 1955-57 - Return To Menu
You will recall stories about those starry-eyed kids who had always wanted to be a pilot. I was not one of them. Frankly, the idea had never occurred to me. My sights were set a lot lower than that. When I was about 15 and suffering through high school in Scarborough, I decided that I wanted to be a Greyhound bus driver. Looking back, it is clear that I wanted to travel and see the world, and being a bus driver looked like the most likely means to that end. Not too lofty a life goal, was it?
My military career started in September 1955, when I joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in Toronto as a Flight Cadet to take pilot training. It was complete serendipity that I ended up in the Air Force. It was the end of the summer and my job as night cook, waiter, cashier and bottle-washer at the Snack Shack in east end Toronto was coming to an end. It had been a summer job and it simply did not occur to me that I could have continued on into the fall. One of my acquaintances said that he was going down to see about joining the Air Force and did I want to come? Why not? We went to the recruiting centre in downtown Toronto where we wrote some tests. A guy in a uniform then interviewed me. He asked whether I was interested in trying out for aircrew. I asked what aircrew was. "Well, it’s pilot and navigator, things like that."
It sounded good to me, certainly more exciting that being a bus driver, so I was ushered into the world of medical, physical and psychological testing that was the start of the aircrew selection process. My friend did not even make the first cut and I never saw him again – I don’t even remember who he was, but I will be forever grateful to him. I was 18.
The first few months, from September to mid-December, were at RCAF Station Crumlin, near London, Ontario, where a group of us, perhaps 30 or 40 men – course 5514 – attended pre-flight school. Most of us were teenagers. I remember that one classmate, John Agar, was in his late twenties. He had been a veterinarian before joining the Air Force. We thought he was ancient and we called him Pops, of course.
There were no women accepted into aircrew training at that time. In fact, some otherwise intelligent senior Air Force officers argued that women’s internal organs prevented them from being able to handle G-forces. The pre-flight training was all quite civilized – lots of drill, lots of ground school: weather, navigation, theory of flight, nothing about specific aircraft. We were repeatedly told that we were the cream of the crop1, based on the intensive screening program that had gone on before we were able to enlist, but that, even so, many of us would not graduate at the end. Little did I suspect…
It was at Crumlin that I heard my first ‘war story’. One of the instructors, a flight lieutenant, had a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) among his many ribbons. One day one of us, starry-eyed, was brave enough to ask him how he won it. He said that he was no hero, but we persisted. This is his story:
1It was a good idea, since Air Force pilots might end up in combat alone with only their aircraft, their experience and their attitude to protect them. It was protective to believe that you were the best pilot in the sky … right up until the moment you got knocked out of it.
We finished at Crumlin in mid-December and after a weekend leave, which I spent in Scarborough, saying good-bye to everyone I knew, we headed out to Flight Training School by train. It was my first trip across the vast Canadian prairie. We were posted to 3 FTS, RCAF Station Claresholm, which was in southern Alberta, on the main – and only - highway between Calgary and Lethbridge, about 90 miles south of Calgary. There were a couple of other flying training schools, at Penhold, Alberta and in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Southern Alberta was a wonderful place to learn to fly. It was flat, the foothills and mountains were to the West, there was always wind and there were few towns, all of which had grain elevators with their names displayed prominently on the sides of the elevator. There was only one North-South highway, with a railroad running parallel to it, so getting lost was difficult. The local social life was sparse, since there were few towns and they were small. Most of us were away from home for the first time, but we were embarked on a great adventure and if people were homesick, they never discussed it.
Claresholm the town was on the highway. It was only a couple of blocks long. Claresholm the airfield was a couple of miles west of town and was the classic World War II triangle of runways, with a hangar line down one side. It had been one of the airfields used for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. This was a process in which thousands of young men from all the Commonwealth countries trained during the 1939-1945 war as various aircrew members in Canada.
On arrival, we were each issued our flight kit. This was winter, 1955 and the flight suits were the same ones that had been used in the bombers and fighters of World War II. The one-piece suits were incredibly bulky and heavy. We were also issued cloth helmets with earpieces and huge gloves. Naturally, the first thing we did was get into our quarters, which were open dormitory, and put on ALL of the flight gear and took photos of each other.
We had about a week of ground school before Christmas leave. I was much too far from home to get there for Christmas, so one of the other cadets, Gerry Carscadden, invited me to go home to Vancouver with him. I did and we had a wonderful time. I spent Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning with an ex-boxer buddy of Gerry’s. We had breakfast on Christmas morning on somebody’s live-aboard houseboat in Vancouver harbour! It was a great adventure for a kid from Scarborough. (Gerry was killed in a flying accident, possibly sabotage, in 1969 in Africa where, as an RCAF flight instructor on loan, he was helping train pilots.)
Back in Claresholm after Christmas, we continued ground school, getting ready to embark on basic flying training with a small sleek low-wing aircraft called the Chipmunk. It was yellow, piston-engine and had a tail-wheel. It also had a bubble canopy, two seats fore and aft and was fully aerobatic. We were only to get 15 hours in the Chipmunk; just enough to determine whether or not we had any major problems with flying that had not shown up until now, and to go solo. One of the students was CT’ed (Cease Training) in the first week. He was absolutely fearless and his inability to comprehend that these things could be dangerous was sufficient reason to get rid of him.
My first flight was on 10 February 1956, with Flying Officer (F/O) Deacon, a small round-faced man with blond hair going prematurely bald. He was very pleasant and patient and soft-spoken – a perfect ab initio flight instructor. By the 8th of March, I had 9 hours and 45 minutes of dual time and was sent off solo. I’ll never forget sitting in the aircraft at the end of the runway and twisting around in my seat before takeoff to look into the rear seat to confirm for sure that I was really all alone. The flight itself I don’t remember except that I kept repeating to myself, "Don’t screw up, there’s no one here to help you."
Three more solo flights in the Chipmunk, interspersed with brief bits of dual time, and we were transitioned to Harvards. We had already completed the preliminary ground school for the aircraft, so on 14 March 1956, still with F/O Deacon, I took my first flight in a Harvard. This was different! The plane was still a two-seater, but that was almost the only thing they had in common.
The Harvard had been the primary trainer throughout the latter stages of the war (In the US, it was called the Texan AT-6 or, for the US navy, the SNJ. The Harvard had a different and bigger Pratt and Whitney engine than the Texan and was therefore a little faster). It was big, it had a powerful radial engine, it had retractable undercarriage, and it had a constant-speed propeller. It also had a tail-wheel, so that sitting in the cockpit on the ground, you could not see directly in front of the aircraft. That meant that when taxiing, you had to weave back and forth to ensure that the path of the aircraft was clear. The engine was so powerful that when adding power to take off, the pilot had to add lots of right pedal at the same time to overcome the engine torque effect.
From March to November 1956 I flew the Harvard, learning to do aerobatics, fly using only instruments, night flying, cross-country navigation, and flying in 2- and 4-plane formation. I was competent at, but did not particularly enjoy aerobatics; Chandelles, half-roll and pull through, half loop and roll out, loops and rolls. Stalls and spins I endured and was finally comfortable at getting into and out of these out-of-control situations. I loved formation flying and low flying, although we didn’t actually do much of either.
A few of the moments I recall with startling clarity. Fairly early on in the Harvard period, when I was practicing 'circuits and bumps', I had done a couple of successful 'touch and go's (landing and then taking off without stopping). I was trying to improve my fine control, so I was watching, among other things, the manifold pressure. We were supposed to set it at 32 inches for take-off. You used a throttle control on the left side of the cockpit for this. One of my takeoffs seemed very long and slow, and, although I had raised the undercarriage, the aircraft did not seem to be accelerating as fast as usual, so I dropped the nose a little. To my immense surprise, I was just above the ground over a wheat field off the end of the runway. To get more power, I pushed the throttle all the way forward – and the manifold pressure jumped from 22 inches to past 32 inches, with the satisfying result of both more speed and more altitude. Oops.
I completed the hour of circuits and parked the aircraft on the tarmac. Someone said to me excitedly as I walked in, “Did you see the aircraft that just about went in off the end of the runway about an hour ago? He went right out of sight.” I said that I hadn’t (of course, since I was the one in the plane), signed the aircraft in and went to the flight room, thinking no more of it. A few minutes later, one of the aircraft maintenance crew called me aside privately and asked me to walk out to the aircraft with him. He asked me if I was the one who had been low on takeoff. I sheepishly admitted it and told him what I had been doing. He laughed and then showed me the wheat stalks caught up in the undercarriage, which had been raised when I collected them. He also suggested keeping my head out of the cockpit on takeoff – which was extremely good advice.
Before we learned how to fly aerobatics, we were allowed to go out to the flying areas just to gain experience in flying outside of the circuit. We were limited to 10,000 feet of altitude above sea level, above which you were required to use an oxygen mask. A couple of us decided to meet in one of the areas, which was strictly forbidden. I found out why. The other student and I met and flew side-by-side, kind of, leaving a lot of room between us and talking on an unused radio channel. Then the other student said, "Have you tried any aerobatics yet?" I said that I had not. Then he said, "Well they’re really easy, watch this.”
And with that he did a sloppy but successful roll. He explained that all I had to do was push the stick over to one side and the aircraft would do the rest. Not wishing to be thought a coward or ignorant of how to do a roll – how hard could it be? - I reluctantly pushed the stick over to the right. In moments, I was upside down! Momentarily disoriented, I centred the stick, so the aircraft stayed upside down. This was NOT what I had in mind and, since the nose was rapidly falling anyway, I thought I’d help by pulling the stick back and dive the aircraft to an upright posture. I had, however, failed to pull back the throttle so the engine howled, the airspeed rapidly increased, the aircraft became very noisy and the controls got stiff as the aircraft approached VNE (Velocity Not to Exceed).
I vividly remember the little house and red-roofed barn as they rapidly increased in size as I dove on them, pulling back desperately as hard as I could on the stick. Starting at 10,000 feet, I levelled off at under 3,700 feet, which would not have been a problem except that in that part of Alberta, ground level is over 3,300 feet. I immediately climbed back to 10,000 feet and never again indulged in unauthorized aerobatics. When I spoke later that evening with my partner in crime, he said that "you went down like a dart and I just got out of there." I could have been dead that day due to the combination of lack of experience and excess of testosterone, but I wasn’t. I’ve always thought that I have been living on borrowed time since that day. It occurs to me, looking back 50 years later, that if I had killed myself that day, it might have been written off as a suicide or just a complete loss of control. The other guy wasn’t going to tell anyone what we had been doing, was he?
I really enjoyed night flying. The weather was usually calm, with few vertical draughts, and it was much easier to see other aircraft than during the day. My first night circuits were, however, interesting. There are far fewer visual clues to location or height at night. It was 30 July 1956. The instructor flew the first circuit and landed, then added power and took off. He passed control to me, using the standard procedure: "You have control." "I have control." I climbed away and turned back to the downwind leg, established the right altitude, did the downwind checks, determined where I should turn and reduce power, drop the landing gear and set the flaps. Final looked good, with the runway lights in what appeared to be good relative position. When I thought I was close to the runway, I pulled back the power and brought the nose of the aircraft slowly up, so as it lost flying speed, it would settle in a three-point attitude on the runway. The aircraft started to settle … and it settled … and it settled. The instructor took control as we touched down quite firmly and said, as he prepared to take off; "a good circuit, good final, good roundout, the only thing was, you were about 50 feet too high." Next landing I was determined not to make the same mistake again, so I flew it down on final, right into the runway, bouncing heavily on the main gear. The instructor, again; "that’s great, you’ve got it bracketed. Just average those two and you’ve got a great night landing" … and the next one was.
Another moment was when I was climbing up towards 10,000 feet to go to one of the authorized flying areas for aerobatics. When climbing, with that big engine in front of you, you used the same weaving motion to ensure a clear flight path. I had just straightened out from one weave to the left when immediately to my left front another Harvard appeared going in the opposite direction. We were so close I recognized the other pilot from my class - his wingtip passed over mine – and he was gone. We discussed it later that day. Neither one of us had ever seen the other until we passed.
Fairly late in the course, we were considered - by ourselves – as pretty competent pilots. One of the exercises we had to perform was a solo cross-country navigation trip with a low-level leg. Low-level meant not below 250 feet above ground level (AGL). That restriction was, of course, a challenge to all of us. My particular low-level leg was along a route that took me directly along the length of a long narrow lake. The temptation was great and I dropped the aircraft down to what felt like a reasonable height above the still water. As I flew along, after a couple of minutes I noticed some cows standing at the water’s edge to my left. The cows looked to be remarkably level with me. I slowly eased the stick back (too fast would make the tail drop down, which didn’t seem like a good idea right about then) and climbed up a little. When I looked behind me, I was stunned to see that the aircraft had been leaving a wake in the water. I climbed promptly to 250 feet AGL and did the rest of my flight at the prescribed altitude.
One of the night navigation trips led me to a new understanding of the power and indifference of Mother Nature. I had a new instructor for the night nav and the weather briefing had forecast a storm front not far from one of the legs of the nav trip. We took off as the sun dropped below the horizon and flew for perhaps half an hour in the fading light, while we got closer and closer to what looked to me like a roll cloud at the leading edge of a band of continuous storm clouds. It was pretty dramatic. I asked the instructor if we shouldn’t avoid getting into the edge of the clouds, but he thought it was OK and he WAS the instructor and more experienced than I. So in we went.
Within seconds we were in serious trouble. First the aircraft started being lifted violently upwards, even when I took off all power. Then we started a precipitous drop, in excess of 6,000 feet per minute, with all power ON. We could see and feel the wings shaking and shuddering. The instructor then said, and I’ll never forget his exact words, "If you hear the sound of metal ripping, don’t wait for me to tell you to get out, just go." I said OK, trying to keep the shake out of my voice, and we continued to try to control the aircraft as we watched the violence around us and listened for the first sound of tearing metal. We got it turned around and in a minute or so more, we broke free of the cloud. It seemed like much, much longer but we’d only been in the cloud for less than five minutes. Looking back on it, I think that he thought, as I did, that the Harvard, strong as it was, was likely to lose its wings in the violent updraughts and downdraughts of the thunderstorm. The cockpit was located directly over the Harvard’s wings, so if they failed and collapsed upwards, they would fold over the cockpit and prevent any possibility of escape. I’ve always had the greatest respect for thunderstorms since then.
There were lots of minor accidents while we were at Claresholm, but only two fatalities. One was an instructor who was conducting a routine maintenance test flight after a wing change. Three mistakes sealed his fate. First, an aircraft technician attached the control wires on the right wing in reverse so that both ailerons went up and down at the same time, instead of one up and one down. Second mistake, the maintenance sergeant, or someone, wrote down and checked for a left wing change when it was actually a right wing change. The final and fatal mistake was the pilot’s who, doing his pre-take off check, looked only at the left wing and pushed the control stick left, saw the aileron rise, then pushed the stick right and saw the aileron drop. The correct procedure was to look left, stick left, see the aileron rise, then stick right to see the aileron drop to the down position, then look right, see the right aileron in the up position, then stick left to see it drop. He took off towards the west, climbed normally to about 200 feet, then slowly rolled inverted and flew into the ground. He was killed instantly. It was a sobering reminder to us about following the checklists, as well as that, although anyone could make a mistake, it was always the pilot who paid.
The other fatal accident was a flight cadet from a course a month or so ahead of us. He had a girlfriend on a farm near Lethbridge and he was in the habit of buzzing the farm whenever he got a chance to go solo. One day she was standing in the yard and he decided to show her what a good pilot he was. He flew low over the farm and rolled the aircraft inverted, probably intending to do a full roll, but the weight of the engine pulled the nose down and he slammed into the ground, inverted, before the eyes of his horrified girlfriend. The aircraft hit so hard that the wings and tail broke away from the cockpit and ended up right-side up in the burning mess. It took some time before the investigators discovered that he had actually hit while inverted.
On 2 November I completed Primary Flying Course 5514 and was duly commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 16 November 1956, but no pilot’s wings yet. They would come after Advanced Flying School. We were all posted to the Advanced Flying School at Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. On arrival there, we started right in on ground school for the T-33, the ‘Silver Star’, which was the advanced trainer. It was commonly referred to as the ‘T-bird’, with a top speed of about 460 knots (543 miles per hour, or 875 kilometers per hour) and a top altitude of 33,0002 feet. The T-bird was still in use by the military as late as the mid-1990’s, when it was being used as a target tow and as a navigation trainer. It was a sleek looking aircraft in the 50’s, with a shiny metal exterior, ejection seats, single turbine engine and tip-tanks on the ends of the wings for extra fuel. It was lot more sleek than anything we had flow before. It looked like a bullet. For all of us, it was our first experience with a turbine engine, high speed, high altitude, ejection seats and the use of a hard helmet and oxygen mask.
2 This is lower than the altitudes commonly flown by commercial aircraft 50 years later, but it certainly seemed high then.
One of the very exciting things as part of our training was the ejection tower. The intent of all this was to familiarize ourselves with the rather violent effects of ejection, in the hope that, if the aircraft became uncontrollable or the engine failed, the pilot would eject rather than choose to stay with the aircraft. Ejection seats, in those days, were primitive compared to more recent versions. If the ejection from the aircraft was successful, the pilot then needed to free himself from the seat straps, push away from the seat, then open his parachute. All of this was manual, so the pilot had to be sufficiently aware of his surroundings after ejection to be able to do all this successfully and in time as he fell uncontrollably towards the ground. As a result, ejection did not have a very high survival rate (about 75%) and was not the exit of choice, especially below a few thousand feet.
The ejection tower was a metal frame outdoor tower, perhaps 60 feet high, angled at about 75 degrees up from the horizontal, with an ejection seat fastened to two rails. The seat was the same one used in the T33. We had to sit in the seat, with our parachutes on, raise and lock the left handle, which locked the seat harness, raise and lock the right handle, which armed the seat, then squeeze the trigger under the right handle, which fired the oversized shotgun shell under the seat. (This was just prior to the switch-over from a shotgun shell to a small rocket engine) This was the sequence used for ejection in the T-bird. When fired, the seat rose rapidly up the tower and came to a stop near the top. We were scheduled for the ejection tower on a typical Manitoba early January winter day, clear and bitterly cold. When it came to my turn, I got in, strapped in, raised the handles in sequence and squeezed. Nothing happened. I squeezed again. Still nothing.
The technician instructor came over, rather gingerly, and inspected the firing mechanism. Everything seemed to be okay. The problem apparently was, my hands were so cold and the mitts were so bulky, I couldn’t tell when I had squeezed the trigger. The third time, I squeezed and I was amazed to find myself at the top of the tower, where I then heard the noise of the blast, after the event. It was quite a ride. There was no sense of motion at all. One moment you were at the base of the tower; the next moment at the top. I didn’t know it at the time but the damage done to my spine that cold morning resurfaced to give me grief 60 years later.
The other device we had to pass was the high altitude chamber. It was a pressure chamber with a bench seat down each side with space for about 10 people plus the instructor. Since none of us had flown above 10,000 feet and had not used an oxygen mask, the chamber was used to help us understand the effects of anoxia3 and also to experience that always exciting event, explosive decompression. We got in with our helmets and oxygen masks, sat down, put our helmets on and connected the free end of the oxygen hose to the nearest connector. Then the instructor signalled through a small window to the technician outside for the pressure to be decreased.
3 The absence or near absence of oxygen.
As the pump sucked the air out of the chamber, the instructor explained that we were going to experience a pressure equivalent to that at 30,000 feet. Then, on his signal and one at a time, we would disconnect our oxygen hose and follow his instructions. The first student disconnected his hose and was directed by the instructor to do some simple math questions. At first the student was fine, but after a minute or so he started slurring, but seemed unaware of his problem. Soon, he became incoherent. At that point, the instructor reconnected the student’s hose. Within seconds, the student was back and alert. The point, the instructor said, was that anoxia, or oxygen starvation, was insidious and not apparent to the person suffering from it. It bore an uncanny resemblance to being drunk and had the advantage of being cheaper, but the disadvantage of being quite lethal if experienced while flying.
When it was my turn, I disconnected my hose, at which point the instructor gave me a paper and pencil and asked me to write down the answers to simple sums; four and three, for example. I did that for a while, then became less interested in what he was asking. They seemed quite silly. At one point, I clearly remember him saying to someone, "Reconnect your hose", with some urgency. I thought that someone else was seriously in trouble, couldn’t even follow simple instructions. Then I sat up and looked at my paper, which was now on the floor. My hose had been reconnected, but not by me. The first few sums were correct, then the pencil line traced across the paper unsteadily and went off the edge. It was a very good introduction to one of the real hazards of high-altitude flight, since anoxia was completely transparent to the person affected by it. But it wasn’t over yet.
The pressure in the chamber was increased back to that of the inside of a pressurized aircraft, about 5,000 feet, but we still had our masks on. The instructor asked us if we had been briefed on explosive decompression. We had. It is what happens if the skin of a pressurized aircraft at altitude is suddenly breached and the pressure inside instantly equalizes to the low pressure outside. Since we were training to be military pilots, there was a pretty good chance that we would sometime be flying in hostile skies where other people would be doing their best to remove us. One of the real risks was explosive decompression and since it was so startling, they felt that it was important that we experience it under controlled conditions, so we wouldn’t panic or freeze if it happened for real. The effect was a very loud bang, the instant formation of a vapour cloud and the forced exhalation of air from our lungs. He said that none of this hurt, but it was startling.
As he finished explaining this, waving a screwdriver in his hand, he carelessly waved it through a membrane of heavy paper or plastic which covered what we thought was the interior end of the pressure chamber. It wasn’t. It was another part of the chamber, where the pressure was really low, so that when the screwdriver punctured the membrane separating the two parts of the chamber, we had explosive decompression! The pressure in the chamber went from 5,000 to 30,000 feet instantly. It was very loud, it was foggy and the air was forced – whoosh – from our lungs. It didn’t hurt, but it was something that you would not want to experience in flight without having had prior exposure. The combination of the ejection tower and the high altitude chamber made us realize that we were in an entirely different game now.
I managed to get in two familiarization trips before Christmas with my instructor, but I always felt about 5 seconds behind the aircraft. I wasn’t yet comfortable flying it and never did get comfortable. After the New Year, things came unglued in a hurry. I started flying again on 7 January 1957. The next two flights were on 10 January. The morning flight was eventful. We had a problem with the undercarriage lights. One green, two reds. They didn’t show all the gear down for landing. The instructor flew past the control tower to get their confirmation of the undercarriage configuration; left main gear down, right main gear up, nose wheel halfway down. We couldn’t get them up, we couldn’t get them down. We went back up to 20,000 feet, while the instructor explained that he was going to try some high speed stalls to shake the gear down. If that didn’t work, he explained, we would have to eject, since we couldn’t land in that configuration. The high speed stalls were successful, the gear all locked down and we landed without further incident.
In the afternoon, I had another instructor, who was one I didn’t like or trust – he had a reputation of being quite a drunk – and we went up for the next training flight. It was a disaster. I got very queasy almost immediately after takeoff and it just got worse. Every time we turned, I got disoriented, broke out in a cold sweat and finally threw up in the oxygen mask. Not a good thing to do at 20,000 feet. A flight the next day was the same, as was the next – and last – a few days later. They asked me if I had a problem, but I could hardly identify the drunk as the problem and, in any case, I didn’t know what the problem was. Some years later, the Air Force was able to identify two of the problems that had plagued me – and many other student and experienced pilots. One was the use of the rubber oxygen mask and the second was the practice of turning your head rapidly from side to side while in a tight turn. This combination of motions is almost guaranteed to topple people’s internal balance mechanisms and make the person nauseous. But no-one knew that at the time.
I was sent the next week for investigation to the Institute of Aviation Medicine at Downsview in Toronto. They had a torture device, fiendish in its simplicity. It was a large turntable, on which was mounted a chair with a helmet attached to a frame behind the chair. You sat in the chair, they put the helmet on your head (it was exquisitely tight – very painful, although that wasn’t necessary for it to work – they just didn’t have one my size), then blindfolded you and started the turntable rotating. As it rotated, they used the frame to tip the helmet forward and back. Within seconds, this translates into a strong sideways tipping motion, like a steep turn in an aircraft. The victim had a pushbutton on the right chair arm, which he could push if he started feeling nauseated. I lasted about 50 seconds – and I needed to last more than a minute to pass the test. Although I didn’t know for sure, I suspected that this was the end of a promising flying career. And if the Air Force had kept better records or shared them with the Army, it would have been – but more of that later.
There was, however, a major silver lining in this black cloud of despair. It was during this brief visit to Toronto that I first met Carroll. I had gone over one morning to visit Pat, a friend of mine who happened to be female. She was a friend, not a girlfriend, although her mother wasn’t clear on that point. I was in their house, sitting in the living room, when this slim blond stranger, wearing yellow pajamas, turned up at the ankles and with curlers in her hair, came down the stairs. She obviously didn’t know that they had company, but she handled the situation with aplomb. To this day, I don’t know precisely what it was I saw in her, but I decided there in that living room that this was the woman I wanted to marry. This was a complete surprise to me, since I had thought that I would like to get married in my late twenties. A couple of days later, I called her – she was a third-year nursing student at St. Michael’s Hospital – for a date. She was quite concerned about my relationship with Pat. I assured her that we were friends only and had no relationship beyond that. Carroll and I went out three times over the course of a few days before I was sent back to Portage. I was deeply in love, although I hadn’t shared that with her.
Back at Portage, they gave me the bad news. I was CT’d effective immediately for motion sickness and would I like to retrain as an Air Traffic Controller? I declined the offer, since we aircrew looked on Air Traffic Controllers as those necessary but officious people on the other end of the radio. More than anything I wanted to get back to that wonderful woman in Toronto. I had written her a letter pouring out my feelings – a risky business, but I did not think that I had an option. My friends and fellow pilots gave me a send-off that resulted in me not being able to stand the smell of rum for about ten years and my short-lived Air Force career was over.
Interlude in Toronto, 1957 - Return To Menu
In Toronto again, I courted Carroll with great determination. I did make one small mistake. I was living at home and decided that I had spent so much time with Carroll that I needed to spend some time with my mother, so I took an evening off. It was 14 February 1957. I didn’t know that it was Valentine’s Day until my mother asked me late in the evening what was up with Carroll. I said that nothing was up, I had just decided to spend an evening with my mother instead. That was when my mother pointed out that it WAS Valentine’s Day and perhaps not the best choice of days to spend with mother. I was properly horrified at my gaffe but compensated the next day by buying a small diamond ring and offering it to Carroll that evening. To my relief, she accepted. We had known each other for exactly three weeks, of which I had spent almost two weeks in Portage. It was 11 days before my 20th birthday.
I didn’t get to meet Carroll’s parents or sister, Maryan, for some months. They lived at the time in Smooth Rock Falls, west of Cochrane, Ontario and didn’t get to Toronto until Carroll’s graduation in late spring of 1957. Carroll had agreed some years before with her mother to go back north after she graduated and she was determined to keep that commitment. She found a job nursing at Sensenbrenner Hospital in Kapuskasing, universally known as Kap, which was about another hour west of Smooth Rock Falls, which is itself halfway between Driftwood and Moonbeam. Kap was about a 10-12 hour drive north from Toronto. We decided that we would get married the beginning of next May, which would give her a year in the north and us a year apart. Before she left, I did buy her a good used sewing machine, a Bernina, as I recall. She was already an excellent designer and seamstress. Best investment I ever made.
In the meantime, I had gotten a job with Bell Telephone and was working as a small business telephone systems4 salesman. I had my own rental car, a new ’57 Plymouth with the huge fins, every day. I even owned a suit – one suit. It was in a silvery patterned material that had looked wonderful in the small sample, but pretty garish as a suit. However, I was stuck with it. After a few months with Bell, I decided that the life of a salesman in Toronto wasn’t my style and I looked at the military again.
Camp Borden, 1957-59 - Return To Menu
When I had been in high school, I had belonged to the Army Cadets. The Cadet Corps at the high school, then Scarborough Collegiate5 , now R.H. King Collegiate, was affiliated with a Toronto militia regiment, the Queen’s York Rangers, which was a tank unit equipped with Sherman tanks. Since I had some familiarity with the Armoured Corps, and with Carroll’s agreement, I inquired about enlisting as an officer, since I had been previously commissioned in the Air Force. The Army concurred and I found myself in late fall of 1957 at the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps (RCAC) School in Camp Borden, west of Barrie and about an hour north of Toronto.
I was enrolled as a second lieutenant, but was required to take the full Officer Candidate Program training, the same as the officer cadets were taking. I must have been insufferable, since I was already commissioned and I knew how superior I was by virtue of my Air Force background. Fortunately, no-one paid the slightest attention to that aspect and we all slogged through the training together. It could not have been more different from Air Force officer training. It was tough, nasty and brutish. The intent was to select only those people who could keep on going, following orders and making decisions when they were thoroughly exhausted, cold, hungry, wet and confused – usually all five together and any other stresses that the instructors could think up.
We were undergoing basic army combat arms officer training, and the final, week-long, exercise was held in Meaford, Ontario. The instructors were all Second World War veterans, all with lots of actual combat experience. Sucker Creek in Meaford, Ontario in November 1957 still brings back memories of trying to conduct a section attack over and over again beyond the point of utter exhaustion across a piece of open swampy ground in a cold driving rain. We wore black coveralls, but no gear that would keep us warm or dry. It was cold, blustery, rainy, and nasty. After a couple of days, mostly without sleep, we were all just staggeringly tired. One fellow near me started to cry. He could feel something warm running down the back of his legs and he thought that he had wet himself. He quit later that night.
4 1A key system, up to 6 lines, for those of you old enough to remember.
5 Scarborough Collegiate Institute was the only high school in Scarborough at the time, and R.H. King was the principal while I was there from 1949 through 1955.
At one point, we were "shot at" (with blanks). We had to "go to ground"--that’s just the army expression. Actually we had to fall down in the mud, figure out where the fire was from, and figure out how to deal with it. I was so tired that I just lay there. One of the sergeants came up to me and said; "Get up." I could not and said so. He said, "Get up" again. I said again that I could not. I was exhausted, which was true. He then said, without raising his voice: "Get up. You are an officer and your men are depending on you." and he reinforced this with a nudge with his foot, not a real kick, in the ribs.
I got up . . . and went on for three more days. That was when I realized that you can keep going long, long after you think that you are finished. On that exercise, I did not finish, but not because I quit. They took me out with two sprained ankles, a sprained wrist, and suspected pneumonia, but I was damned if I’d give them the satisfaction of having me quit.
The officer running Officer Candidate Squadron was Major Tom Finan. He had served as a young officer with the Royal Canadian Dragoons in Italy during the war and had lost his entire tank troop in one 20-second action. On one exercise we saw him stripped to the waist and his back was a mass of shrapnel scars. He attributed the loss to his lack of training for war and was determined not to ever let that happen to another young officer again. Not all of us passed, but those who did were fully confident of our ability to continue long past when the conditions seemed to dictate giving up.
Over the winter and spring we completed the rest of the officer training; radio and communications at Wireless Squadron, tank driving and maintenance at D&M Squadron and tank gunnery at Gunnery Squadron. The tank we trained for war on was the British Centurion, put into service just before the end of WWII, just over 50 tons, with a 20-pounder gun, a co-axial machine gun and a four-man crew; crew commander, gunner and wireless operator/loader in the turret and driver forward and lower in the hull behind the glacis plate. The gunner sat in front of and below the crew commander, who rode in the right hand side of the turret. The operator/loader had his position on the opposite side of the gun’s breech from the crew commander and gunner.
Tank driving was a new experience. The tank, as a tracked vehicle, was steered with two vertical tiller bars, left and right, which braked the left and right track respectively. On a hard surface, the Centurion could turn in its own length. It was a standard shift, which was familiar to most of us, and easy to stall if you didn’t use enough power. One thing that we learned was what continuous tank traffic could do to a perfectly ordinary gravel or dirt road. On country roads, regular car traffic creates areas of washboard or corrugation, small ridges in waves that are perpendicular to the direction of traffic. Now imagine these waves just a little longer than a tank and about as high as a tank. Driving on ‘tank roads’ required a special technique to keep the crew from being thrown violently around inside the tank. You had to accelerate up each wave, ease the tank over the top, then let it run down the opposite side of the wave and accelerate up the next standing wave. Some tank roads in Camp Borden and at Meaford had hundreds of yards of these sections of gigantic washboard.
In gunnery, we were introduced to some ammunition we expected, such as Smoke and High Explosive (HE) and to some we hadn’t experienced before; Armour Piecing Discarding Sabot (APDS), High Explosive Squash head (HESH) and Canister. The first was a very high velocity anti-tank round that had a sabot, or boot, surrounding a small solid tungsten steel core. After the round left the tank barrel, the sabot fell away from the core and the small core, with the explosive force behind it of a much larger round, sped to the target. I thought at the time that this concept of a sabot was a brilliant new idea. Much later on I discovered that the sabot concept had been used routinely during the American Civil War.
The second ordnance, HESH, was designed to deal with the many tanks which had steeply sloped or rounded armour, so that the high velocity round skipped off. The HESH round, when it hit a hard target, spread for a few microseconds like a pancake (hence the term “squash head”) then exploded, knocking a piece, known as a ‘spaul’, of the interior face of the armour off at explosive speeds. The spaul would then ricochet around inside the tank, creating havoc among the crew. The last ordnance, Canister, could be likened to a really big shotgun shell. It was used to handle mass infantry attacks and was also extremely good at clearing trails.
The tank had no computers, no range-finding and the interior of the turret could only be described as a hostile environment. It did have one feature that intrigued me. Both the crew commander and the gunner had turret rotational controls, to lay the gun on the line of a target. If either one held these controls to fix the gun on a target, the driver could turn the hull below the turret and the gun stayed on the set line. Live gunnery training was done at the live fire range at Meaford. During live gunnery, the loader’s responsibility was to load the type of round called for by the crew commander, Sabot, HE or Smoke.
Loading took some getting used to. The loader picked up the round with his left hand cradling the nose and his right hand supporting the base of the round. When the breech was clear, he would insert the nose of the round into the breech and with a closed right fist, drive the round up the barrel. It would trip the breech, which would slam shut, pushing the loader’s fist out of the way. Many of the instructors were second war veterans and showed, with the missing middle fingers of the right hand, what happened if you didn’t use a closed fist to load a round. Gunnery was a deafening (literally) experience, although we didn’t suffer obvious effects for some years. Ear defenders were a thing of the future. The concussive overpressure of the Sabot round being fired was so high that the crew commander, standing in the turret with his head out, had to deliberately open his mouth as the gun was fired to reduce the pressure difference between inside and outside his eardrum.
The last segment of training was tank tactics, doing roughly the same type of thing that we had done on foot in basic training, only this time with a troop of four tanks, rather than a section of ten men on foot. We learned to have two tanks moving, two observing, how to approach and pass through a defile – always a favourite place for an ambush, how to move up to a fire position and how to back away under cover before moving to another fire position.
One memory stands out vividly from the tactics training period. It was late March after a winter and the Meaford area had had a lot of snow. I managed to bog my tank in a hidden creek so thoroughly that only the turret was above the snow. It wasn’t going anywhere without help. The recovery crew arrived with an ARV – Armoured Recovery Vehicle. It was a standard Centurion hull with a different turret. There was a short demolition gun and a winch with a reel of 110-ton test cable. They hooked the cable to the front of my tank while the driver got in and closed his hatch. I stood just off to one side of the tank and watched with interest while they took up the strain. When the cable was taut, my driver put the tank in gear to assist the ARV and the ARV started to really pull.
After some seconds of straining, there was a report like a pistol shot and the cable, which had parted at the ARV end, lay neatly and instantly coiled on the front of my tank. I slowly realized that I had been standing in harm's way. Had the end of the cable whipped at all, I would have been neatly and instantly cut in two. After that, whenever we had to recover a tank, I was always farther away from either tank than the cable was long.
It wasn’t all hard slogging. We got some weekends off and I and a few military friends – Don Young, Eric Latham, John Larkin and Bill Urquhart, among others - would drive all night to get to Kapuskasing, party for a day and a half, then drive all night to be back for Monday reveille. I went up to Smooth Rock Falls for Christmas on the train, the Ontario Northland. It was a wonderful ride, since everyone on the train was going home for Christmas and they all knew each other or had common friends. It was one long party.
I asked the military for permission to get married – it was required then – and they pointed out that an officer didn’t get married allowance (an extra $50 per month, or so) until the age of 23. I was just 21, but that didn’t matter to me – or so I thought at the time. I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have much money, so just before I was to get married in Kapuskasing, I went down to the used car lots on the Danforth in Toronto and bought a car, a 1955 Chevrolet, pale green and seemed to run well. The only member of my family who was able to go to the wedding was my 16-year-old sister Meredith, and she could only go if I drove her there. The car ran fine as far as Barrie, where some alarming noises started. I took the car to a mechanic there, who discovered that the oil pan was full of mashed bananas – very useful if the rings are REALLY bad. It prevents the oil loss and smoking that would otherwise be very evident. From that moment on, our car got about 50 miles to the quart (of oil). In these environmentally-aware days, that would be sacrilege, but in those days it was just annoying … and expensive.
We arrived in Smooth Rock Falls, where I delivered my sister to Carroll’s parents, who promised to look after her, and went on to Kapuskasing the day before the wedding. All I had to do was show up. Carroll had done everything necessary to get it ready, including making her own wedding dress. We were married on a wet, rather chilly 3rd of May in 1958. I was dressed in the armoured dress blues uniform, with chain mail shoulder pieces and tight pants with the yellow cavalry stripe down the side. There was a sword party of fellow Armoured Corps officers as we exited the church. We had a small party at the Kapuskasing Inn, after which Carroll and I took off. We honeymooned at a friend’s cottage in, of all places, Meaford. It was very cold but that didn’t matter. Mike Charrier, another of the Armoured Corps friends, came out and chopped wood for us so we could have a fire in the stove.
We graduated from basic officer training and I was assigned to stay at the RCAC School as an instructor. My first summer’s job was teaching the officer cadets who came in for the summer. One of those cadets was a tall fellow from PEI named Jim White. About a dozen years later I flew helicopters with Jim in Germany, and we are still friends today (2016).
We set up house on the second floor of a small house in Barrie, about 20 miles east of Camp Borden. After a couple of months we moved to another place, larger and overlooking Kempenfeldt Bay on Lake Simcoe. Carroll found work at the hospital in Barrie. This was very good news for all my single friends, since Carroll was a conduit to all those young single nurses! They prevailed on her and she arranged for a party at our house, with some of the nurses in attendance. The guys had already arrived when Carroll returned from picking up the nurses. Bill Urquhart, my best man, was inspecting the fridge when the girls walked in. He looked up from the fridge, turned pale and said, “Ohmigod”. He recognized the nurses as some of the nurses from the psychiatric hospital in Toronto, who had been at my bachelor party in Oakville, hosted by Rick Latham. Hadn’t I mentioned the bachelor party, which migrated at one point to Niagara Falls? The rest of the day was spent with earnest and alarmed young officers and even more earnest young nurses going up to Carroll privately and saying, “Nothing happened, really, nothing at all.” It was enough to make anyone suspicious but Carroll just laughed it off. I was – and am - very grateful for that. One of the things that has sustained our marriage is that we have always given each other as much private space as was necessary.
By midsummer two events had occurred. One was that Carroll was pregnant. We were both delighted, possibly me more than Carroll. I desperately wanted a family and we were on our way to having one. The second, which was not so delightful, was that I got poison ivy and was covered from my neck to my knees, leaving no part unscathed. You don’t want to know. I got it because part of the training involved night exercises and crawling through the undergrowth, which, in Camp Borden, is loaded with poison ivy. Up until then, I didn’t know what it looked like. It was so bad I was sent home for a few days with Calamine lotion. Of course, it was essentially useless. Carroll asked one of the doctors at the hospital who recommended something new called Ziradryl lotion. It stopped the itching and helped control the blistering, but it wasn’t fun, at least not for this newly-wed.
There were wonderful Mess events at the School over the course of the summer of 1958. The Officers' Mess was the focal point of the military officer’s social life and I, like most of my peers, didn’t have time or money for much social life outside the Mess. One of the memories I have is of the School graduation parade, seeing and listening to retired general Frank Worthington, who was recognized as the ‘father of the armoured corps’. He was an old man, but still a visionary. He made a plea for Armoured officers to understand that it wasn’t the tank per se that was important but the principles it embodied; speed, mobility, firepower and protection. I don’t think anyone was actually listening, in light of later events.
At the end of the summer I was transferred to the recruit training squadron, headed by Major 'Pappy' Jewkes. It was my first experience with real soldiers, and I liked them. A remarkable number of them were from the maritime provinces, which was not surprising, given the level of unemployment there. It was Pappy Jewkes who taught me about ‘fair, firm and friendly’, three attributes he considered essential in an officer in command of troops. Teaching the recruit course was likely better training for me than it was for the soldiers under my command. One other thing that Pappy Jewkes taught me was personal responsibility. I had devised a map-using exercise that ran for part of its length, through a swamp. I took it to the Major for approval. He looked at it, approved it and as I was leaving his office, said, casually, “You’ve done this yourself, haven’t you?” Of course I hadn’t and said so. He then said quietly; “Never have the troops do something you haven’t done yourself.” Excellent advice from an wise and experienced soldier. I went and did the exercise … and it was much tougher than I had thought it would be. When the recruits did it, they came away with a heightened sense of accomplishment.
On completion of the recruit course, at about the turn of the year, I was transferred to Wireless Squadron, which was headed by a courtly white-haired Signal Corps major, whose name was Streeter. My job was as training co-ordinator, the title you give to young inexperienced officers who are trying to manage a bunch of long-in-the-tooth NCOs. The major radios we used in the tanks were 19 sets, big heavy boxes about twice the size of a flat box computer today, all with Cyrillic markings. They had been built to go to Russia but were not required there when the war ended. Of course, they were vacuum tube machines and were considered as potential antiques even then. No such thing as punching in the channel, they had to be hand tuned with two rotary dials, one for broad tuning and the second for fine tuning. Communications was much more of an art form in those days.
Sometime in the spring I was advised that my posting orders had finally arrived. I was posted to the newly re-activated regiment, the Fort Garry Horse, in Petawawa, just north of Pembroke, to report on 1 May. Petawawa at that time was a restricted posting, which meant that housing was limited and you could not move your family there until you had found a place to live. Since there was no entitlement to go in advance and find a place, that meant that anyone posted to Petawawa went alone, moved into single quarters there and, when time and regimental duty permitted, searched out a place to stay. At the time, that seemed reasonable, except that the date of posting coincided with the expected date of arrival of the new baby. Even that was not the worst of it.
Remember the under-age wedding, no marriage allowance until age 23? If I went to Petawawa alone, I would live in quarters and would therefore not be eligible for living-out allowance, which was what paid my rent in Barrie. So I was caught in a dilemma; couldn’t move my family with me, couldn’t leave them behind. What to do? I did the obvious. I asked for an extension to my posting date. The response that came back was ominous and to the point. "The regimental CO, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Gardner, does not want this officer. He will be an administrative burden and should be released now."
I could quickly see a second shot at a military career going down the drain, only this time I had a wife and expected a baby momentarily. I petitioned my superiors at the RCAC School to intervene on my behalf. I was not going to be an administrative burden, but I did need a little time to resolve the crisis. The compromise arrived at was this: My arrival date was delayed for three weeks. I would take Carroll and the new baby back north to Smooth Rock Falls, where her parents lived and she would stay there until I found a place to live near Petawawa. And so it happened that Francis Joseph Thatcher was born in Barrie, Ontario on 21 April 1959 and, at nine days of age, travelled 10 hours north in the back of a ’55 Chevy to Smooth Rock Falls with his mother, to stay there with her parents for an indeterminate period.
Petawawa, 1959-62 - Return To Menu
I arrived in Petawawa in late May of 1959 and reported in to the adjutant, Captain Phil Neatby. He told me that I was to report to B Squadron, working under Major Jack Ritchie. I do not now remember if I also reported to the Commanding Officer, but I do remember that I treated him with great care. He was already VERY annoyed with me, so I didn’t want to give him any reason to get rid of me and I had no doubt that that was in his power. Jim Gardner was a short compact man with piercing blue eyes. He was a legend in the Armoured Corps.
He had been taken prisoner in North Africa, was transferred by submarine - the Germans had heard rumours (true) that he intended to take over the boat that was originally planned for the move - to an Italian POW camp, from which he escaped, after learning Italian. He walked north through Italy, then turned left and walked out through France and Spain. He was repatriated to England and then, a few weeks later, was dropped back into Italy to work with the partisans. He had been offered the choice of going back in by parachute or by submarine and he chose parachute, since he’d already been there by submarine. Not a man to trifle with.
Jack Ritchie, like all the Fort Garry Horse squadron commanders at that time, had combat experience and, like most of them, wore the Military Cross for Valour. Major Ritchie was a great big bear of a man, soft-spoken, slow to anger and a fine officer. Like most of the experienced Armoured soldiers I met, he had the greatest respect for the German soldier. He said that they were mostly well trained and well disciplined. He told us once about how the Canadian Armoured units in Normandy handled the German 88’s, which were anti-aircraft guns used over open sights as anti-tank guns. They were lethal against the Shermans that the Canadians had and did major damage to every attempt to move deeper inland. He explained that whenever they had to approach a hedgerow, which was a favourite place for the 88's to lie in ambush, he would stand on top of the tank and direct the driver to slowly move forward up an incline until he could just scan the hedgerow with his binoculars. He would pick the most likely place for the ambush, then wait and watch until something – a movement, a shape, a glint of light, a silhouette – would betray the location of the 88.
Then he would call up his gunner to stand on top of the top of the tank, describe the location to the gunner, have the tank move forward, again very slowly, until the gunner could see the target. They would calculate the range, the gunner would climb back down, lay the gun for line, elevation and range and Jack Ritchie would climb back into the turret. Then he would give control of the driver to the gunner, who would direct the driver forward until the gunner could see the target. The instant he could see it, he fired. Of course, the German soldiers on the 88, who could see the tank moving forward, would be waiting until they could see the body of the tank. When the Canadians did it right, the Germans never got the opportunity.
Meanwhile, back in Petawawa, I was looking for a place for my family. After a couple of months, I found an affordable and very basic apartment in Pembroke. It was on highway 17 at the junction of highway 60, where 60 formed a T-junction with highway 17. If a truck missed the corner or failed to stop, it would end up in our living room. To add to the fun, the railroad track from Ottawa to North Bay passed about 20 feet – literally - behind the house and crossed highway 17 just beyond us. This meant that the train not only went by shaking the house, it whistled as it did so. We got used to not speaking as the trains went by. But it was a place for my family, so I went and collected Carroll and the baby. She had had an interesting time in Smooth Rock Falls. Francis, the baby, had developed a hernia and so at four months old, they operated on him. He was so little that the opening went from one hip to the other. It looked like they had broken him open like a shotgun! We had to buy furniture, since our places in Barrie had been mostly furnished. We had a bed, a kitchen table with four chairs, a crib and a chest of drawers.
We lived in Pembroke for several months, over the fall and Christmas 1959. The place was at the T- junction of two highways, with the railroad track directly behind and crossing highway 17 a few feet away. When the trains came by, all conversation ceased. Just after Christmas, we were offered a Permanent Married Quarter (PMQ) on the base at Petawawa. Carroll was pregnant again and the tiny apartment we were in was clearly too small and unsuitable for us with two babies. All in all it was, briefly, a very good deal .I still wasn’t getting married allowance so they could only charge me the single rate for the PMQ, about $50 per month! That only lasted until the end of February, when I finally turned 23 and became eligible for married allowance, which immediately triggered an equal increase in my rent. We ended up living next door to Phil Neatby, the adjutant, and his wife Marian and their children. They were wonderful neighbours for both of us.
Sheevaun Marie, a feisty redhead, was born on 30 March 1960. We were lucky to get to the hospital in time, which we had not expected. Carroll woke me early in the morning with labour pains. We drove into Pembroke and Carroll was admitted and disappeared into the Maternity area. I picked up a Reader’s Digest (of course) and was reading through the first article when a nurse came out looking for Mr. Thatcher. When I identified myself, she said; "You have a lovely baby girl and both she and your wife are just fine". I protested that I hadn’t even read the first article yet! The nurse came out a few minutes later with Sheevaun for me to hold. Francis was only eleven months old at the time. My mother, Claire Thatcher Robertson, said that Francis, at 11 months old, was awfully little to be a big brother.
I spent three years, 1959 to 1962, in Petawawa, all with B Squadron. They were good years. We spent a lot of time, summer and winter, in the field on exercise – those were the days when the military still had money and an expectation of being trained for war. I remember one vivid image. We were out on a night exercise on the upper plains. It was a brightly moonlit night The fog was dense and just deep enough to hide the hull and turret of the tanks as they moved across the plain. All you could see was pairs of truncated figures; the crew commander and the wireless operators of the tanks, standing in their turrets, moving smoothly above the white ground fog. We did stationery gunnery training on the ranges at Petawawa and every year we went to Meaford in a convoy of jeeps and trucks and used the Centurions stored there for tactical gunnery training. I became Battle Captain of the squadron after a couple of years as a troop leader. One of my new troop leaders was an OCP second lieutenant named Wally Johnson. He’ll show up later.
The Fort Garry Horse had recently been brought back as a regular regiment, so the Commanding Officer, Jim Gardner, was very keen on an active Mess life for the officers. Friday night was always at the Garry’s officers’ mess. Each combat arms unit in Petawawa, the Fort Garry Horse – armoured, the Canadian Guards - infantry and the Horse Artillery – gunners, had its own officers’ and sergeants’ messes and other ranks’ canteen. There were others for the Service Battalion and still others for the base officers and staff. While drinking wasn’t required, it took a strong and determined personality to avoid alcohol. I was not strong or determined about this issue. I enjoyed drinking and could handle it well. The CO’s position on drinking was simple. Drink whenever you want, whatever you want and don’t EVER fail to show up for or be unable to do your duty because of drinking. Mess dinners were regular events and very formal. There were occasional mixed mess dinners with the ladies and they too were formal. At that time, there were no women in the Army except for nurses and even nurses were not allowed in the bar of the officers’ mess.
The Fort Garry Horse must have been a good training ground, since a number of the officers who served with the Garries during the period that I was there – Jim Gardner, Phil Neatby, Gord Kitchen and Ernie Kreber (our RCEME officer) – became general officers.
Two courses that I attended during this period were interesting. One was the ABC course, held at Camp Borden. ABC was the acronym for the Atomic, Biological and Chemical Warfare course, three weeks of horror discussed in matter-of-fact terms. There was a lot of security around the material we covered and I raised some hackles by asking, innocently, I thought, about the 25 Megaton nuclear bombs carried by American B-52s. The security officer asked me very seriously how I knew that piece of secret classified information and I told him, just as seriously, that I had read it in the most recent edition of Life magazine.
The other course was the Subaltern’s Long Course, widely known as the “Couth” course. It was designed for those of us officers who had not had the privilege of a university education. It was 12 weeks, held over the summer months at the Royal Military College in Kingston and was supposed to turn us from rough diamonds to polished officers, presumably by osmosis from being in residence in the hallowed halls. We treated the intent with the contempt it deserved – we did not think we needed to be brought to the standard of the typical RMC graduate. There was a long standing, kind of friendly, enmity between RMC graduates and those of us who were OCP (Officer Candidate Program), direct entries without a degree. We OCP believed that our basic training, done in the fall and winter, was much more rigorous than that of the RMC students, who did their ‘military’ training over the summers and got full military seniority for their academic years. This was during the period when seniority was the primary basis for promotion. We had experience, they had education. The course material was mostly academic, at the first year university level, with one course on political geography which was very interesting. This course and the math course actually got me interested in doing something to improve my academic qualifications, which were frankly dreadful. There was also daily physical education, which pared about 20 pounds off me in three months.
Our course was the last one ever held. We decided that it was because the powers in Ottawa had finally understood that it was hopeless to try to civilize OCP officers. It probably didn’t help that someone found a cedar strip canoe sunk at dockside and brought it into the indoor swimming pool and played with it there. It was the Commandant’s canoe, and it was seasoning in the water at the dock. The punishment was that we were all forbidden sailing privileges for the rest of the summer. Since few of us sailed, it wasn’t too difficult to stand the pain. We also held long intense parties in one of the Martello towers. It was summer and Queen’s University was an excellent source of female partners. Ken Mulligan, a long-time Garry, met his future wife Willie, at one of these parties. I’ll never forget Clive Milner, a future general, at the piano singing “Alley Oop Oop” at the top of his lungs, with all of us joining in.
At another weekend party, we confiscated someone’s Beetle and lifted it up the stairs into Haldeman Hall. At one point up the stairs, we slipped and dropped the car onto the foot of an old high school friend of mine, Dave Kehoe from Scarborough. He was at Queen’s for the summer and we had connected somehow. After completing the mission, we took him to Emergency at Kingston General Hospital. An ER nurse asked him what had happened to his foot and he said that she wouldn’t believe him. She said, "Try me". He told the story of carrying the car up the stairs and she finally agreed with him that she didn’t believe it.
During the winters at Petawawa, we did a lot of troop and squadron level training, some of it with the tanks, much of it as winter survival training. We would set up a tent camp deep in the bush, near the boundary with Algonquin Park and run day and night foot patrol exercises from the base camp. We became acclimatized to the cold very quickly. I remember once a jeep from the unit back in Petawawa arrived early one Sunday morning. We were standing around in our battle dress, with leather gloves on, enjoying a small fire. "Do you realize how cold it is?", asked the driver. We had no idea. "It’s 25 below Fahrenheit!", he exclaimed. Of course we were deep in the woods and there was no wind chill effect.
One evening, we sent off several small – three or four-man – patrols with a delay of 15 minutes between patrols. They went out a common route, then each had a different return route to follow. Some hours later, one patrol returned and immediately wanted to know if the patrol which had left before it had come back in. Their concern was that, a few minutes after leaving the base camp, the trail of the previous patrol was covered by the tracks of a pack of wolves, which had followed them as far as the turn-off for the second patrol. The first patrol had not arrived but did so shortly afterwards. They had neither seen nor heard the wolves. After that, we sent the patrols out armed with live ammunition, and with strict orders about only using it if attacked. Several more patrols were tracked by wolves, but it was likely caution or curiosity on the part of the wolves, since there were no incidents.
During that same exercise, the CO was running some weekly officer training back in a classroom in the unit lines, and insisted that all the squadron officers attend. We did so, but he relented after we all, including the squadron commander, Jack Ritchie, fell asleep in the relative heat of the classroom.
Army flying 1962-1971 - Return To Menu
In the summer of 1961, the Armoured Corps put out a call for officers who would like to try out for helicopter training. The Corps wanted officers who were reasonably experienced and I had four years in. I put my name in, fully expecting someone to say, “Didn’t you get chucked out of the Air Force for air sickness?” But no-one did and, if anyone remembered, they weren’t saying. I thought that my previous bout of motion sickness was as much a product of immaturity as anything else. I believed that I could successfully fly, and I was out to prove it. Several of us from the Fort Garry Horse went down from Tetawawa to Ottawa for some kind of selection process, much like the process I had undergone in Toronto in 1955. Evidently, they had access to some of my records, because one of the Air Force officers who was part of the selection process commented on my records from the previous period, but neither he nor anyone else asked why I was not now in the Air Force and I wasn’t about to enlighten them. We went back up to Petawawa and in due course, I was told that I had passed the selection process. Then nothing happened.
Most of May was taken up with getting B Squadron ready for the annual summer exercise. It was more serious than usual, since the Garry’s were scheduled to go to Germany that fall and the Cold War was in full swing, with the potential to go hot at any time. I was Battle Captain for the squadron, responsible for all operational, as opposed to administrative, aspects of the squadron. We would be out in the field in Petawawa for about three months, getting home only occasionally during that time. We had been out in the field for just a few days, doing shakedown troop training, when I was told by the squadron commander that LCol “Wild Bill” Little, the Commanding Officer, wanted to see me. This was NOT good news, but I couldn’t imagine what I had done wrong.
I reported to him within the hour at his field caravan, a converted truck. To my astonishment, he asked me if I still wanted to try out for helicopter flying. I did. He warned me that it could have a negative effect on my career in the Armoured Corps, since it was not main stream. I thought about that for about three seconds, then said that I was still very interested. He said, "Before you decide, you’d better discuss it with Carroll." He then broadsided me: "In that case, you had better pack up and get home. If you decide to go, you have to be in Texas in eight days to start training." I was stunned.
I took my Jeep and went home, where Carroll was very surprised to see me, since I wasn’t due back in camp for another six or eight weeks. I explained the situation and the options. The helicopter training course was in two parts, the first in Texas for four months and the second in Alabama for about the same duration. If I stayed with the Regiment, we would go with them to Germany in the fall. If I went for helicopter training, she and the children – three years, two years and one month old – would have to stay in Petawawa, since the course was less than a year in duration and that precluded an accompanied posting. Carroll being Carroll, she said, "You do what you want, I’ll support you either way and I know that you have always wanted another chance to go flying. The kids and I will manage just fine here. You do have to leave us the car." I advised the regimental adjutant, Captain I.D. Mackay, that I wanted to go for the helicopter training. He said that he would do whatever he could to help Carroll while I was away.
Texas, 1962 - Return To Menu
A week later I was on a train southbound from Petawawa for central Texas. The U.S. Army base was Camp Wolters, just outside the town of Mineral Wells, about 90 miles west of Fort Worth. When I was there, it was a bustling, busy place. It was the U.S. Army’s only basic helicopter school and they were ramping up to train pilots for Vietnam. There were six Canadian officers there for training, all Armoured Corps; Leo Noiles, Al Cooper, Bob Billings, Dennis Hopping, John Higgin and me. John was a captain, the rest of us lieutenants. We were all assigned to course ORWAC 6210 – Officers Rotary Wing Air Craft, 10th course in 1962. The course was broken into two sections and the day was also divided into two periods. Half of every day was spent at ground school and half on the flight line. The sections rotated every week, so that we spent one week being at the weather briefing at 0530 for 0600 takeoff and the afternoon in ground school. The next week was ground school in the morning and flying in the afternoon. We worked a very long day, normally about 11 hours every day. Saturdays and Sundays were free time.
The basic trainer was the Hiller H23D, a three-seat, two-blade piston-engine helicopter with a plastic bubble. There were flying controls at the left and centre seats. The visibility was excellent, especially since they didn’t have doors on. You could see the ground between your feet on the pedals and the only place that you couldn’t see was directly below and behind where the engine and transmission sat below the rotor hub.
Almost as soon as we arrived, we were given some very good news. The Americans were starting up a new tactical low flying - nap of the earth - course in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to run sequentially after our course in Alabama and we Canadians were scheduled to go on it. Because of its duration, the combined courses stretched just over a year, and I immediately asked if that meant that this had become an ‘accompanied’ posting. It had, so that meant that I could send for my family to join me!
I telephoned the Garry’s adjutant, I.D. Mackay, who set about to get Carroll under way as soon as humanly possible. He arranged for her passport and sent a car and driver to Ottawa to pick it up. In less than a month, she had cleared the base and was on her way, in our Volkswagen Beetle with three kids inside and a trunk strapped on top. I could only get a Friday off – the American Army wasn’t too generous with time off – so we arranged to meet in Chicago in early July. She would drive from Petawawa, I would fly from Fort Worth, meet at a pre-arranged motel in Ypsilanti on a Friday evening and drive the next two days so that I could be on the flight line bright and early Monday morning. That is exactly how it worked out. My instructor flew me to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and I took a commercial flight to Chicago. On Friday evening, I took a bus to get to the motel we had agreed on and knocked on the door. I don’t think I have ever seen such relief on a person’s face as when Carroll saw that it was me at the door.
For the next two days we drove south as fast as the Beetle would go, which wasn’t very fast – it did have a trunk on top. I remember driving west in a headwind on the Will Rogers Turnpike in Oklahoma, desperately trying to keep the Beetle’s speed above 40 MPH, which was the minimum speed on the freeway. We arrived in Mineral Wells late Sunday afternoon and we unlocked the door of the little furnished rental house that was to be our home for the next three months. It did have a window air conditioner, which was a good thing, since Mineral Wells stood on a stone desert and the typical daytime temperature during the summer was 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
By the time Carroll arrived, I had already soloed in the Hiller. Any concerns that I had had about airsickness were gone; it just wasn’t a problem. Helicopter, or rotary-wing flying, bore more than a slight resemblance to what we now referred to as fixed-wing flying. As long as you were flying at speed, the aircraft responded in much the same way, although the controls were different.
Rather than one central control stick, there were two. The vertical stick in front and between the pilot’s knees was called the cyclic. The horizontal stick to the left of the pilot was called the collective and also held the motorcycle-type rotary throttle. The name referred to the way each stick interacted with the rotor blades.
The cyclic control acted with each blade in sequence, depending on where the blade was in its rotational swing, and was used for banking left or right and for raising or lowering the nose of the aircraft. The collective acted on both blades together – collectively – and was used for climbing and descending. There were two foot-pedals, used to control the pitch of the tail rotor. Its purpose was to overcome the torque of the engine, which would otherwise send the body of the helicopter spinning in the opposite direction of rotor blade rotation.
To accelerate, the pilot would pull up on the collective, add power with the throttle, push the cyclic forward and add right pedal to overcome the increased torque. To decelerate, you did the reverse. All of this had to be done in a very coordinated way and it took a little getting used to.
So exactly how does a helicopter work? First you need to understand that the rotary blades are just wings, exactly the same as the wings on a fixed wing aircraft. On a fixed wing aircraft, lift is created by moving the aircraft’s fuselage and the wings which are attached to it rapidly through the air. Similarly, on a helicopter, each blade creates lift as it moves through the air, but it moves independently of the aircraft’s fuselage. The fact that the blades rotate causes some significant differences in the aircraft's performance and capability. As the aircraft moves forward, the blades that is sweeping forward has, in addition to its own speed, the speed of the aircraft. The blade that is sweeping to the rear has, subtracted from its own speed, the speed of the aircraft. This creates a difference in the lift between the forward sweeping blade and the rearward sweeping blade whenever the aircraft is moving forward at any significant speed.
Helicopter designers solved this problem by hinging the blades so that they could swing slightly as the blades rotated. The forward sweeping blade swings slightly to the rear to reduce its lift and the rearward sweeping blade swings slightly forward to increase its lift. This helps compensate for the difference in lift, but eventually, at high speeds, the rearward sweeping blade suddenly loses its lift and it stalls. When that happens, the helicopter will roll downward violently to the side of the retreating blade. This is why helicopters have relatively low maximum speeds. Two partial solutions to the problem are to have more than two blades, each rotating at a slower speed, and to have a stub fixed wing to take some of the lifting load off the rotary blades as the aircraft achieves higher speeds.
Hovering was in a class of its own. Each student was taken by his instructor to an unused firing range, about 200 yards wide and 500 yards long. The process of learning to hover was quite simple. My instructor picked the aircraft up to a hover, explained how each control worked in the hover, suggested that I look far away from the aircraft, then gave me control of the foot pedals. My job was to keep the nose straight. That wasn’t much of a problem. After a couple of minutes, he gave me control of the collective. Now my job was to keep the nose straight and the aircraft at about five feet above the ground. That wasn’t much of a problem either, so after a couple more minutes, he gave me control of the cyclic. For a little while, perhaps 30 seconds, that wasn’t much of a problem either and I thought, naively and prematurely, that I had this licked. Then things started to go wrong. First, the nose would start to wander off the line. While I was bringing it back, the helicopter would start to drift left. While I was fixing that, the height above ground would change AND the nose would be rotating AND the aircraft would now be drifting right, only faster.
Every correction was an over-correction, came too late and lasted too long. Every correction made it worse and I was soon swooping around the range, using most of it up, wondering how bad it could get before the instructor took over. Every muscle in my arms was shrieking and my legs were shaking. The instructor sat there calmly with his hands in his lap. HE WASN’T EVEN NEAR THE CONTROLS! We could crash! I had a family! As my arm muscles got exhausted, the aircraft’s violent movements imperceptibly got smaller and smaller until I sat there in a hovering helicopter, sweat pouring off me. The instructor said the magic words, "I have control. See, all you have to do is relax. Don’t work so hard. The helicopter will just about fly itself, if you’ll let it." I never had any particular problem with hovering after that and we never went back to the range – but I now knew why they only taught hovering to one student on the range at a time.
It is a common misconception that helicopters cannot continue to fly after they lose their engine and that they simply plummet out of the sky. While it is true that they do not have the gliding capability of a fixed wing aircraft, they can be brought safely to ground without the engine. A transmission failure is, however, much more serious and potentially fatal. The term for this engine-off glide is an autorotation. In normal powered flight, the air is drawn down past the blades. When the engine fails, the pilot immediately lowers the collective to keep the energy stored in the turning rotor blades. Concurrently, he pushes in the left pedal to keep the aircraft from rotating – no torque from the engine – and manipulates the cyclic to set up the glide speed suitable for the aircraft. The aircraft starts to descend fairly rapidly but under control and the air now rushing up past the blades keeps them turning.
As the aircraft reaches about 50 feet, the pilot eases back on the cyclic to slow the aircraft’s forward motion and upwards on the collective to slow its descent. If he’s done it right, he ends up moving slowly forward and slowly downward at something like five feet above the ground. The aircraft continues to slowly descend and the sustained upwards pull on the collective bleeds off rotor speed, trading it for lift to slow the descent even more. A good autorotation and landing will not be noticeable to observers or even passengers, except for the initial sickening drop as the aircraft transitions from flying to autorotating. It was certain that every flight with an instructor would entail at least one and usually several opportunities to practice autorotation.
Within a few weeks of Carroll’s arrival, two events took place that shattered our sense of complacency. The first was an explosion in the gas oven in our house that gave Carroll some potentially serious burns. It was an early morning and she was making toast in the gas oven – we didn’t have a toaster. She turned the oven on, then realized that she had to do something with one of the kids and turned it off. When she was finished, she turned back to the oven, bent down to open the door and lit a match. As she did so, she realized that the oven had been on and started to back away, but she wasn’t fast enough. The accumulated gas in the oven blew and ignited her hair. She stood up with her back to me, a huge ball of fire around her head. She was wearing a nylon nightdress which I was afraid would ignite. I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around her head to put out the fire. We got everyone into the car and drove to the military hospital, where they put some ointment on her face. She had burned off her eyebrows and eyelashes and about an inch of hair around her face. Her face turned bright red, but did not blister a lot. We were very lucky to have gotten through that with so little physical trauma and no permanent physical damage. Carroll, however, still won’t have a gas appliance in the house.
The second event was a thunderstorm that started on a Thursday morning and deposited almost 14 inches of water in the next 24 hours. We went to bed late and slept poorly because of the continuous thunder. At about five in the morning we got up to see what was going on. There was a lot of water running down the road, from the right side, where there was an intersection a few houses away, to the right, where an open storm sewer ran under a small factory at the end of the street. Francis, three years old, was awake, so Carroll had him stand at the front door to watch the water. I started to get dressed with the intention of moving the car up the hill to the right. Before I could finish dressing, Carroll called to me from the front door. The water was over the curbs and rising fast. As I watched, the car, my beloved red Volkswagen Beetle, first new car I had ever bought, started to shift, then slowly, slowly turn around in the water. It was floating! Carroll asked what I was going to do about the car. I said, “Nothing, the car is gone, what we have to do is get ourselves out of here.” And it was gone, out of sight. I presumed that it would get to the Brazos River and end up in the Gulf of Mexico.
At the same time, a Corvair came floating by with some of my classmates in it. We shouted frantically at them to get out, because they didn’t know about the storm sewer at the end of the street. They climbed out and swam to higher ground, except for the driver, who got back in, then out again to safety. When Carroll asked him later what he had been doing, he explained that he had gotten back in to turn off the engine and take the keys. It was still running!
One of our concerns was that the house was just sitting on a concrete slab and we were afraid that the whole house could go. The water was rising visibly as we spoke and was running over the lawn. There was a fellow pilot living next door to the right, Al Hermes, a slim, tall, quiet-spoken Texan with his pregnant wife Pam, and another couple with a grown son living in the next house, which was on the intersection. Across the intersection was higher ground and we wanted to get to it. I ran up to the second house and asked for help getting the children out. We strung clothesline from house to house and out to a fire truck which had by this time stalled in the raging water in the intersection. Then we ran a garden hose from the fire truck to a tree across the intersection. This gave us a path that people could hang on to as they tried to get out of the flood.
The man from the corner and his son came back to the house with me and the three men took the three children – Carroll insisted that I take the baby, who was two months old – while Carroll brought baby provisions that she could carry. She was last out of the house and saw the bathtub drain, the toilet and the washbasin all spouting water straight up and bouncing off the ceiling. Then we went out into the water, which by this time was chest-deep, still rising and running very fast. The car was long gone, I suspected, into the Brazos River. We went hand over hand up the lines and the hose, which stretched and bowed dangerously, but held. Carroll’s shoes were torn off her feet in the raging water. We were worried about snakes in the water, but I figured that they would be busy enough staying afloat to not give us any grief. In the event, we didn’t see any. We managed to get across the intersection and the lines all held. The house on the high side of the intersection was that of our landlord, a Mr. Honey and his wife. She welcomed us all into their home, dripping water all over their carpets. Mr. Honey complained, but she sent him off to keep him busy.
Within a couple of hours, the water had receded and the sun had come out. We went back home and looked at a house which had had about a foot of water through it and now had about three or four inches of mud everywhere. We had no idea what to do. As we stood there, there was a knock on the door. It was a black couple, a fellow pilot from the course and his wife. They had come because they figured that we would have no experience in being flooded. As they pointed out, it was more common for the black section of town – this was 1962 in the south – to be flooded than the white section but they had escaped it this time. Their advice was to use a garden hose and just use water pressure to hose all the mud straight out of the door. We did and it worked. I always did wonder how well the floor furnace would have worked that winter but we were long gone before it was needed. It was one time that I was really glad that we were in furnished accommodation. That evening, we were at a Walmart equivalent buying some necessities for the children and the clerk commented on our accents. We talked about being flooded out and the clerk laughed, "When we do things in Texas, we don’t mess around! We always do them in a BIG way."
What happened to my car, my beloved red Beetle? A couple of blocks away, a local woman, a retired history teacher, had seen the car drifting by and had used a rope to tie it to her fence, opening the doors so it would sink where it was. We discovered it a few days later and spent some time with her. She was delighted to meet Canadians and we were equally delighted to meet her, under the circumstances. The car had almost a foot of dried mud in it. It took a couple of months to get it back – the local insurance agent had a ‘deal’ with a car repair shop in Fort Worth and he insisted that it go there, not to the Volkswagen dealership in Fort Worth. Eventually, I discovered that nothing was happening and didn’t know where to turn. Jud Bireley, one of the American students, contacted the base legal officer, who in turn contacted the head office of the insurance company and gave them 24 hours to resolve the problem or their insurance policies would be declared invalid on ALL American Army bases. This did the trick and the car was moved to the Volkswagen dealership, who quickly got the car back into running order.
While my car was out of commission for the better part of two months, I had the use of another. Another local Mineral Wells insurance agent, whom we had met at a party, found out that our car was gone and loaned us his second car, an older Plymouth, without charge and without any hope of future business, until ours was back on the road. It was an extraordinary act of kindness and certainly removed any taste of bitterness left by the first insurance agent.
Very shortly after this, we were advised that the Americans had reconsidered sending Canadians on the first U.S. tactical helicopter course, since they expected some fatalities and didn’t want Canadians to be part of their experiment. We didn’t mind, since the Canadian Army’s advanced course in Rivers, Manitoba, was available for us and the timing had allowed us to get Carroll and our family with me. I have always credited I.D. Mackay with a lot of that, since if the process had been done at the normal glacial speed for dependents, Carroll would still have been in Petawawa and the whole move would have been cancelled.
Flying training and ground school continued apace. The ground school included a class on airframe and engine. There was a complete Hiller in the classroom. Over the course of four months, we took the aircraft and its engine completely apart and put it back together again. We were very careful, since the instructors had pointed out at the beginning of the course that they used aircraft off the flight line for this training and, when we were done, the aircraft went back to the flight line. It also made us very cautious and thorough in our pre-flight inspections.
The Hiller was a difficult aircraft to fly well and it autorotated6 like a stone. The piston engine was controlled by a motorcycle-type rotary throttle on the end of the collective. While under power, the engine power controlled the blade speed, which had to be keep in a very narrow range, from 312 to 330 RPM. Above 330, there was the risk of engine damage, while below 312 the blades were not capable of supporting the aircraft. If you let the RPM get much below that, you could not recover blade speed, which would likely ruin the rest of your day. All of this meant that it took an unusual degree of hand-eye coordination to fly the Hiller well and it was a source of great gratification to me that I was considered to be a very good helicopter pilot.
6 Autorotation is the power-off glide that a helicopter makes when the engine fails or is turned back to idle for training purposes. When the rotor blades are being powered by the engine, air is drawn down past the blades. When the engine is off-line, the blade angle of attack is set to minimum by lowering the collective lever and the aircraft starts to descend rapidly. The air flowing upwards past the blades keeps them rotating. As the aircraft nears the ground, the pilot flares the aircraft, adding collective to recapture energy in the blades, then levels the aircraft and slowly lowers it to the ground. You get one shot at this.
Its speed range was from hover to 86 knots, the VNE, or Velocity Not to Exceed speed. Above 86 knots, the forward speed of the aircraft would cancel out much of the lift of the blade that was retreating at any given moment and the aircraft would roll left violently and without warning. One student in another course gave us a graphic and morbid demonstration of the implacable nature of helicopter physics. He was out in one of the flying areas and decided to test the VNE. His last radio transmission was, "This VNE thing is a crock. I’m way over that and there’s no problem." When they found his aircraft crashed and burned, it was inverted.
Alabama, 1962-63 - Return To Menu
We finished the basic helicopter course in early October 1962 and were posted to Fort Rucker, Alabama for cargo helicopter training. The actual move from Texas to Alabama was interesting. It was still very hot, so we decided to travel by night and sleep by day en route. It was at this time that there was a real dustup between the federal government and the State of Mississippi. A black man, James Meredith, had applied for entrance to the University of Mississippi, an all-white university. It took 3,000 federal troops to quell the riots that ensued over his admission. Feelings ran very high across the South. When we crossed one border between states, there was a roadblock, ostensibly to prevent the movement of boll weevil, but was actually for state troopers to hand out flyers about the erosion of state’s rights by the federal government. The use of the word ‘Meredith’ seemed to be unnecessarily provocative7 at that time and in that place. Since our younger daughter was named Meredith, as we travelled, we called her ‘little girl’.
7 Carroll and I had been briefed before I left for Texas about the ‘delicate’ colour situation in the South. It was explained to us that we were guests of the American government and that it was not up to us to right any wrongs or to comment on the issues. I agreed to the extent that I would not provoke any arguments about colour but I would not remain silent in the face of provocation either. I don’t think that anyone in Canada was happy with the treatment at that time of the American black population. My position seemed to be good enough for the Army, since they let me go.
We arrived in Alabama early in October 1962 and moved into our new home, an apartment-motel complex in Ozark, just east of Fort Rucker, on the highway running south to Dothan, then into northern Florida. Many married student pilots were staying there, so we car-pooled into Rucker every morning before dawn. Our course was divided into three groups, depending on the cargo aircraft assigned to us. I, with all the Canadians, was assigned to the H-19, which was the military designation for the Sikorsky S-55. Others, including Al Hermes, got H-34s, otherwise known as the Sikorsky S-58 and a few unlucky students got the old H-21s, the Piasecki ‘banana’. These last had a well-deserved reputation of falling out of the sky. They were so old that they frequently lost the engine and had to make real engine-off autorotations to the ground. Leo Noiles and I shared an instructor, so we three always flew together, with one of the students riding in the cargo bay while the other sat up front with the instructor. When the instructor was not there, the two students would fly together, with the co-pilot managing fuel and communications for the pilot. We flew the C and D models of the H-19. The C model was known affectionately as the ‘Charlie model Hog”. It was seriously under-powered and, on warm days, would hold a full load of fuel or a full load of passengers – not both.
The first few weeks at Rucker were very exciting. We had an opportunity to see the new Bell HU-1A utility helicopter – the Huey, which would become the workhorse of Vietnam. There was a group of perhaps 20 Hueys on a heavily-guarded pad. We were told that they were being shipped to Vietnam and that there had been rumours of a sabotage plot. Leo and I started flying on 23 October with a Captain Hamm as the instructor. Unlike Camp Wolters, where we were all on different radio frequencies, we were instructed to all use the same frequency. We thought that this was strange and it was the cause for much flight room speculation. It was cleared up the very next day. We were in the air when our aircraft was called and asked if Captain Hamm was on board. He answered affirmatively and was then instructed to return to the stage field, drop off his students – us – and report to Fort Benning in Georgia. His mission was to pick up a load of infantry and take them to the Naval Air Station in Key West, the nearest US mainland base to Cuba. It was the Cuban crisis. We never saw Captain Hamm again. He did not come back to our flight. That same day, Carroll had driven into the base with the three children to do some grocery shopping at the Commissary. It was uneventful until she started to drive out the road back to Ozark. At the camp exit point, there was a new roadblock and several soldiers, all armed. The officer, with his pistol drawn, stopped the car and wanted to inspect the interior, which he did. When Carroll asked him what was going on, he was polite, firm and noncommittal. We found out later that the Army had blocked 22 of 24 exits to the base, to prevent any infiltration. They had also overnight transformed the base hospital from 200 to 1,200 beds.
We didn’t fly for about a week, just stayed at home and waited for news or orders. There was normal traffic on the highway past Ozark during the day, but non-stop convoys of military vehicles headed south every night as soon as it got dark. The Americans were VERY serious about their confrontation with the Russians over Cuba.
The H-19 was different in a lot of ways from the H-23. First, it was much bigger. In the H-23, the pilot sat at about the same height as a car driver and you stepped in like stepping into a car. In the H-19, you sat about 12 feet up. The options for getting into the pilot’s seats were up a flight of built-in steps up the side of the aircraft and climbing through the large window, or climbing into the cargo compartment, then up a ladder into the crew compartment. The H-23 was instrumented for visual flight only, while the H-19 could be flown on instruments. The H-23 had a pair of skids; the H-19 had a nose-wheel and two main gear. The H-23 had two blades, which turned as soon as the engine started, the H-19 had three blades and the pilot engaged the rotors after the engine was running smoothly. The H-23’s engine sat behind the bubble, immediately below the rotor mast. The H-19’s radial piston engine was in the nose of the aircraft. The H-19 had hydraulic controls, while the H-23 did not. And, of course, the H-23 had a single bench seat, while the H-19 had separate pilot seats and a whole cargo compartment below and behind which could hold about a dozen troops.
The three blades and the use of wheels made for different operating characteristics. First, the autorotative glide was much shallower in the H-19, since there was 50 percent more wing over which the air could flow. This meant that in the event of an engine failure, there were more options available for setting the aircraft down successfully, since the distance that you could glide was greater. It still wasn’t anything like the engine-off glide of a fixed-wing aircraft, but it was better than the Hiller.
The H-19 was much bigger than the Hiller and used hydraulic assist to allow the controls to be handled with ease. There were two features of this hydraulic assist that were a lot different from the Hiller. First, the cyclic was a 'limp' stick. That meant that it had no central location to which it would return if you let go of it. In fact, if you let go of it anywhere, it would simply fall over to the end of its travel in any direction – taking the aircraft with it. This meant that the aircraft was inherently unstable. The other feature was that the pressures on the control surfaces were extremely high. We had to learn how to fly it, at least briefly for practice, with the hydraulics off. It was possible to handle it for about five minutes with the hydraulics off – just enough time to find a place to land and to get it on the ground. This was only done for practice when you were not alone in the aircraft.
One of the mechanisms that the helicopter’s designers used in an attempt to get a little more speed out of the helicopter was to hinge the blades at their root so that, as the blade swung forward, it was allowed to lag back a little and as it swung towards the tail of the aircraft, it was allowed to move forward a little faster. The objective was to minimize the lift differential between the advancing blade and the retreating blade, so the aircraft’s VNE speed could be safely increased. This worked just fine in the Hiller and in any helicopter with skids. There was a very slight potential for disaster, however, in any helicopter with wheels and a shock system. With three blades and three wheels, if you hit the ground unevenly with one wheel and if the blade above that wheel was lagging at that precise instant, it could be forced by the uneven landing to rotate forward. Then if the aircraft next touched down on another wheel with the blade now over it, it could be forced further forward. The condition was known as ‘ground resonance’. It could only happen in a practice or real forced landing and, if left to continue, would tear the aircraft apart within a few seconds. We were told about it and also told that it was very unlikely that we would experience it. I managed to find out at firsthand what it felt like.
The civilian instructor, a cigar-smoking southerner named Schwegler, Leo Noiles and I were out on a routine training mission. Leo was back in the cargo hold when Schwegler turned the engine back to idle. I lowered the collective, pushed in the left pedal and set up an autorotative glide towards a large clearing. All went perfectly normally until what appeared to be a normal touchdown. The aircraft immediately started to shake extremely violently with a rotary motion. It was like being in a really big blender. Both Schwegler and I frantically cranked on power to the engine to provide enough lift to get us clear of the ground. We succeeded in a few seconds and the shaking immediately stopped. A plaintive voice came through the intercom, “What the hell was THAT?” Leo, back in the cargo compartment, hadn’t bothered to strap in. The instructor confirmed that it was, indeed, ground resonance and that, yes, we had had about five seconds to play with. Given the violence of the shaking, I was quite prepared to accept the timing. Leo said that it was like being in a MixMaster.
It was common practice to allow two students to fly together on the training missions, although you didn’t show it in the log book. The only thing we weren’t allowed to do together was autorotations to the ground. The way we handled that was to go to a stage field, one of the students got out and the other did a couple of autorotations. Then the one on the ground got in, the other got out and the process was repeated. That is how I came to be standing on the ground when Leo did an autorotation right in front of me, landed heavily and the retreating blade slowly and rather majestically descended and lopped off the entire tail boom. After a minute the aircraft engine was shut off and Leo climbed out of the aircraft. “How did that happen?, he asked. I had no idea, since he was a good pilot. But I was glad it wasn’t me.
The winter of 1962/63 was the coldest in the South since the Civil War. Most of the Americans blamed it on us Canadians. It wasn’t any treat for us either. We had not brought winter clothing with us. I recall one bitter bright day at 4 degrees Fahrenheit conducting a 15 minute pre-flight check on an H-19, clambering around it in my unlined leather boots and unlined leather gloves, the cold bringing tears to my eyes. Then we climbed in and tried to turn over the engine. Nothing – the battery was dead.
The course included some night-flying and some limited instrument flying. During the night-flying, we were scheduled for night autorotations. It was common practice in the US Army at the time to bring out the spouses to see what we were doing. With a dreadful sense of public relations timing or someone’s morbid idea of humour, the spouses were brought out by bus that night after dark to watch their husband’s aircraft apparently plunging out of the air, only to recover a few feet above the ground.
On one of the instrument flights, I was having a terrible time keeping the aircraft on course and on altitude. I had been feeling poorly for a few days and I explained that the instruments were unclear. Schwegler took control and we headed back to the airport. He insisted that I go to the infirmary, where a doctor duly saw me and advised me that I was “getting over just a dandy case of pneumonia”. He gave me a shot of crystalline penicillin in an oil solution; “Bend over, drop your drawers and hang on to the radiator”. I went home and really was sick for a few days.
Sometime in November, Carroll and decided we wanted to go off to see the Florida coast at Panama City. It was a couple of hours away. We arranged for Leo Noiles and Al Cooper, both single subalterns, to look after Meredith, who was about eight months old, for the day, while we took the two older children to the beach. The trip was fun and instructive. The route took us past Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and parallel to the taxiway, where we saw hundreds of aircraft, all with their external ordnance and external fuel tanks, lined up with APUs by every aircraft. It became clear that Kennedy hadn’t been bluffing during the Cuban crisis.
The beach was fun – and deserted, although it was a hot day. We saw dolphins frolicking off-shore. When we asked someone local why the beach was deserted, they looked at us as if we were crazy. It was November. No-one went to the beach in November! We went to a museum in a park. There were leaves all over the ground and we all played in them, kicking our way through them. Then we went into the museum. On the wall in a glass case was an enormous snake, well over ten feet long. When we asked where it had come from, the curator said, “It was out under the leaves.”
When we arrived home, a minor crisis awaited us. When we had left, we had explained that the baby had to be changed as necessary. The boys had interpreted that very literally and had used up our entire week’s supply of cloth diapers in a single day. It called for an emergency trip to the laundry.
Of course, we partied a lot. We Canadians were very popular hosts, at least partially because of the accessibility of diplomatic liquor. We were in the US as foreign military officers and were entitled to 12 bottles of liquor each per month, as were our wives. Since Bob Billings and I were the only married officers, we got a double ration, at about $40 per case. Each month we would decide what we wanted for the next month, then split it up when it arrived. The result was that liquor was cheaper for us than mix. The Americans would come to our place for parties with the understanding that they would provide the mix. It made for some memorable parties. One of the American pilots, Jon Holtzman, played the guitar, so he would arrive with his guitar in its hard case. The case would end up on the floor with the older babies, Francis and Sheevaun, sitting in it while Jon played and sang folk songs for us all.
Nearing the end of the course, I was informed that I would be receiving the award as the top student for the whole course. The award was offered by the American Army Aviators’ Association and I was just delighted to find out that I would win it, since a Canadian had never won it before. However, just before the course ended, I was told that I would not be getting the award after all, since it was for the top American student on the course. I was disappointed and angry, but there didn’t seem to be much I could do. Many of my course-mates were sympathetic but also didn’t have any idea what, if anything, could be done about it. Jud Bireley had other ideas. He went to see the general running Fort Rucker and told him in respectful but firm terms that the award being taken away from me was unfair and that he should reverse the decision. This was an act of singular courage by Jud. He was a West Point graduate and rocking the boat was a dangerous thing for a young West Point graduate to do. The general explained that he could not reverse the decision, since it was not his decision in the first place. The award was presented by a private organization. What the general could do – and did – was to prepare a letter congratulating me as the top student on the course and made a formal presentation of it to me, after our graduation ceremony and presentation of wings on 8 February 1963. The Canadian pilots were presented with the American Army aviator’s wing by the American general and the Canadian Army pilot’s wing was presented by Major John Beament, the Canadian liaison officer at Fort Rucker. It was a great party! It was also a farewell party.
Within a few days, the Americans dispersed for their various postings – most were directly to Vietnam, and we Canadians and two Mexican pilots started a two-week checkout course on the Bell HU1, the HUEY workhorse of Vietnam, finishing on 20 February 1963. We had some extremely bad news during this course. Al Hermes, our next door neighbour in Mineral Wells, who had gone through the flood with us, had trained on H-34s and had been posted to Germany. Shortly after his arrival, he flew an H-34 into the ground in fog and was killed on impact. He was our first fatality. He left behind his wife Pam and a brand-new baby girl, Melissa. They were still in Alabama. They hadn’t even yet packed for the move to Germany. Many of us thought that Al had been sent to Germany rather than Vietnam because he was married with a new-born, and the posting people felt that Germany was a safer place to be. Pretty ironic, in the circumstances. It was a great loss for me and Carroll. We had been very good friends with Al and Pam, both of whom were very quiet-spoken, very gentle people and both completely unlike the popular image of Texans and his death so soon after graduation was all the more horrifying.
For the last couple of months in the US, we Canadians had been inquiring about our next postings. There was no information at all until mid-February. To my astonishment, I was posted to the Armoured Corps School in Camp Borden, which was about 1,400 miles from the nearest military helicopter. This did not make any sense to me. I was to go immediately on the helicopter tactical course in Rivers, Manitoba which was, at least, promising.
Back to Canada and Rivers, 1963 - Return To Menu
In late February we packed up our belongings, said goodbye to the Americans still around and headed north. Francis and I drove in the red beetle, while Carroll and the two girls flew back to Toronto, where they were met in a snow storm by John and Judy Heinrich. Judy was one of Carroll’s classmates from St. Michael’s School of Nursing days and had been Carroll’s maid of honour at our wedding. Francis and I celebrated my 26th birthday at a motel in Louisville Kentucky, where he was mortified when I arranged for a birthday cake to be delivered to our table in the restaurant. He was almost four. We made up for that by having a bath together and playing in the soap bubbles before retiring for the night.
Back in Canada, we found a place to live in Barrie and arranged for our belongings to be moved from Petawawa, where they had been in storage for the last year. There was just enough time for me to be there when they arrived, in a snowstorm, but not enough time to unpack them before I left Carroll and the three kids again, standing in a sea of packing boxes, to attend the tactical course in Rivers.
The course, number 4, was at the Army Aviation Tactical Training School, known as AATTS. The helicopter that was used and was, in fact, our tactical low-level reconnaissance helicopter, was the Hiller H-23, now renamed by the Canadian Army as the CH112.
The course was ten weeks long and was about as exciting as training could get. The objective was to make us into pilots competent and confident at flying fast just about three feet above the terrain – and keeping track of where we were and watching the ground in front of us at all times. While that sounds, on the face of it, to be utterly fool-hardy, the tactical reasoning was sound. The task we were to perform was forward reconnaissance, which entails seeking out and reporting on enemy locations and movements. Since the aircraft was unarmed and unprotected from even small arms fire, the theory was that by flying low and fast, the enemy would get only glimpses of the helicopter, too brief to bring effective fire to bear. While we did not have to endure personally finding out whether the theory was sound, later American experience in Vietnam showed that flying either very low and fast, or above 5,000 feet had pretty good survival rates. In between, the enemy fire was very effective at bringing helicopters down. It was sobering, however, to realize that the Canadian War Games statisticians calculated the forward recce helicopter pilot’s survival rate at zero percent within 24 hours. We joked about it a lot, but it was gallows humour. In any case, we didn’t have to find out personally – and we were all delighted at that lack of personal experience.
My first flight on the course was on 18 March 1963 with Captain Pat (Pinky) Thornton, who was an Armoured officer I had known and liked for a long time. This familiarization flight was a nerve-racking experience. We flew at three feet off the ground, going around, never over, obstacles, and when he banked the aircraft, he raised it just enough to keep the rotor blades about three feet off the ground. All the tactical manoeuvres were designed to shield our flight path and our intentions from unfriendly eyes and unfriendly fire.
He showed me the tactical quick stop. Again, the normal quick stop, done at heights above 50 feet, was performed by a coordinated lowering of the collective, pulling back on the cyclic to keep the aircraft at the same height and adjusting the pedals to keep it straight. The tactical quick stop, done at three feet, was done exactly the same way a quick stop is done in skating or down-hill skiing – and I learned to perform this in a helicopter before I ever tried it on skis or skates. You climbed the aircraft slightly, then applied left pedal, lowered collective and brought the cyclic sharply back and left so that the aircraft ended up facing left in a steep bank to stop it. As it came to a halt, skidding sideways just above the ground, the pilot kicked the right pedal to straighten the nose, held the collective and recentred the cyclic to adjust for any lingering movement.
He also showed me a tactical pinnacle approach. The normal pinnacle approach on which I had been trained, was to circle the pinnacle at 500 feet, read the wind, then make a steep approach into wind, ending at a three-foot hover over the pinnacle. The tactical approach was to fly at the pinnacle, which loomed above us until it seemed as if we must fly into it, then flare the aircraft sharply so that it climbed up the face and ended up in a three-foot hover on top of the pinnacle.
For most of the flight I was terrified; I truly believed that Pinky was suicidal. As the flight continued, I slowly concluded that he and I were not going to die that day. Thirty flying hours later, I was flying joyously at three feet. While it never became ordinary, in that it was not a place to let your mind wander, it did become a familiar and welcome sensation. Tactical helicopter flying taught me something about myself that I had had no inkling of. Growing up, I had been a pretty ordinary kid, except that I was small and didn’t care much for team sports like football. If I was thought about at all at high school, I was thought of as pretty timid. I believed it myself. Suddenly I had this revelation that I liked – really liked – taking a calculated physical risk. Flying a helicopter at between 100 and 120 kilometres per hour at three feet required a very high level of skill and concentration, and I had them both. It did something for my self-confidence that changed how I approached life. I have never sought what I considered to be foolish risk, but doing something physically challenging that required both skill and concentration to manage the risk has always since appealed to me.
The ever-present hazard for low flying was wires; telephone lines and power lines, and often the wires themselves were invisible. You had to look out for anything that might indicate the presence of a wire. Telephone and power poles were obvious choices, as were roads and rail-lines. A house or a barn usually had a wire attached to it somewhere. On military exercises, sometimes signal wire was just strung between trees. Even fences could be a hazard. On our low-level exit route from the base at Rivers, there was a fence not far from the base which had an open gate in it, and it was normal practice to fly through the gate. Imagine my surprise when one day, just as I approached the fence line, I noticed that the gate was shut! It taught me not to be complacent.
The course included a lot of flying in restricted areas, bounded by trees or other obstacles. As we became more confident, we liked to test ourselves by flying in very confined areas. Southern Manitoba had a lot of water holes, sloughs, surrounded by a border of high trees. It was a real test of flying to drop a helicopter down into the gap among the trees without catching the main rotor or a tail rotor on a branch.
One of the skills we practiced was a coordination exercise that involved a fence pole. You would bring the aircraft to a hover over a fence pole, and put the front of one of the skids gently on the pole. The objective then was to rotate the aircraft’s nose through 360 degrees without letting the skid come off the fence pole. When there was any wind at all, this was an extremely demanding test of hand-eye coordination! It was good training for manoeuvering in very confined areas.
One day while out on a solo low level training flight, I noticed a cut line in the trees. It was a clearing for a gas pipe line. I brought the aircraft carefully up to the cleared area, determined that there was sufficient clearance on either side and slowly moved the helicopter through it. I did this several times at increasing speeds until I was confident about the clearance. The next day I was out with an instructor in the same area. When we came to the cut line, I said, ingenuously, “Look at that cut line. I wonder if it’s big enough for us to go through”, and headed into it at speed. The instructor sucked back his breath as we flew through the narrow clearing. As we came out the other side, he said, accusingly, “You’ve been through that before!” I admitted that I had and we both laughed hard over it. It did cost me a couple of beers later that evening, though.
One of the manoeuvres that never became routine was low-level autorotation. Of all the low-level flying skills, it was the most challenging and potentially the most risky. I described in an earlier section the normal autorotation, in which the critical first step was to lower the collective rapidly to the bottom to preserve the energy stored in the blades. That was the one thing that the pilot could not do in a low-level engine failure, real or simulated. Flying at three feet, lowering the collective would immediately put you in contact with the ground, something you wished to avoid. Instead, you held the collective steady, pulling the cyclic back to gain altitude for the rest of the process. The left pedal went in as always, to compensate for the loss of engine torque. As soon as the aircraft had climbed about 30 feet or so, you lowered the collective to recover rotor speed, pushed the cyclic forward and immediately went into the flare before landing. All of this had to be done in perhaps three to five seconds from initial engine failure to ground contact – whether or not the aircraft was level enough or slow enough. It was an enormous challenge to be able to handle a low-level engine failure at speed. In the hover, an engine failure was much the same although forward speed was not an issue. You held the collective steady, added left pedal to stop the tendency to rotate, then let the helicopter settle to the ground.
Of course the purpose of the course was not to simply fly the aircraft, but to use its capability to conduct low level reconnaissance. That meant that as soon as we were competent to fly at low level, we added map using and actual reconnaissance to identify and report on what we saw as we flew. Knowing your location at all times became a critical piece of the task. On battle runs, we normally flew under radio silence, until contact with the enemy was made. Then the radio procedure was simple and sequential:
- Contact, wait, out
Then, as soon as you had determined their location on the map and what they were:
- Contact at grid 347583, four BMP52 armoured vehicles, moving west past crossroads. Am observing, over
First, identify that there has been a contact with the enemy. Then, in sequence, where it is, what it is, what it is doing and finally what you are doing. If you follow the sequence, it is in order from most critical piece of battle information to least critical. The sequence was predicated on the short life expectancy of the recce pilot in combat. If you were hit while providing the contact report, the most critical pieces of information were transmitted first.
Tactical flying was demanding and exhausting work. One day, Al Cooper and I flew three missions, each of two hours. At the end of the day, I returned to my quarters, lay down on the bed and work up early next morning. I had slept 12 hours straight through, even missing supper!
The other activity that occupied me while I was at Rivers was taking and completing grade 13 geometry by correspondence. The academic approach on the couth course had not gone entirely unnoticed by me, and I was busy improving my academic credits.
On the 16th of May, I completed the final check ride. It was a very windy day and the examiner waited until I was in a steep turn to the right, just coming out of a low run directly into the wind, to crank off the power and put me into an engine failure situation. I cranked the helicopter back to the left and completed a successful low level autorotation to a hover, facing into the wind. I always felt after that extremely difficult test that I could handle anything that low flying could throw at me.
After graduation, I returned to Camp Borden to find out, to my astonishment, that I was not be given a flying posting, as expected. My posting to the Armoured Corps School was not temporary and I was given a new assignment, to set up and run the new Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) school, as part of Gunnery Squadron. In order to get ready for this, I was scheduled to go to Belgium for three months, August through October, to their ATGM School. I subsequently spent from then until the fall of 1965 at Borden teaching ATGM.
Throughout this period, I campaigned to get posted to a flying position, because I could see my training investment going down the drain, but it didn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. What did happen was that I was sent on the Army’s fixed wing conversion course, flying L-19s at Rivers, commencing in January 1965 and ending in early March. The L-19, commonly known as the Birddog, was an extremely sturdy and airworthy high wing fixed undercarriage two-seater still in service since World War II, where it had served with distinction as an artillery spotter and liaison aircraft. It had a single piston engine driving a fixed pitch prop. One notable feature was that the flaps could be dropped to 60 degrees, which gave it some extraordinary flying and landing capabilities. We practiced slow flight, which meant that the pilot added flaps, progressively pulled up the nose and increased power to maximum as the forward motion slowed to about 30 miles per hour, below the stall speed of the aircraft. The prop wash over the wings kept the wings above stall speed. Often in any kind of wind, you could make the L-19 ‘hover’ in location. It was also very adept at short field landings and takeoffs.
It was winter in Manitoba, so the L-19s were fitted with skis which could be manually raised and lowered from within the cockpit. We did many of our landings and takeoffs on a compacted snow runway beside the real runway. We also practiced landing on remote snow strips away from Rivers. These were used only by the L-19s during ski training. Of course we did some night flying as well. One of those trips caused some concern at Rivers although not in the plane during the flight. It was on 17 February, a scheduled 2 hour night navigation trip. Wayne Brocklehurst and I prepared for the flight and checked the weather. It was very cold and quite windy and a storm was due through, but the weather was VFR and we could see no reason not to go.
We took off into the pitch black and headed north on the first leg of the trip. Within about five minutes we lost radio contact with the tower at Rivers, but this was of little concern since the radios weren’t that reliable at any distance anyway. We did decide to crank down the skis, since if we had engine trouble at night in rural Manitoba, it was a really good bet that we’d be going down in snow. It was really black out with low heavy overcast, the odd blustery snow squall, and few lights showing from the remote and infrequent farmsteads on the ground. It took longer than planned to get to the first turning point and we calculated that the wind from the west was a LOT stronger than forecast. As agreed before takeoff, we radioed at this turning point, even though we did not get and did not expect a response. Often Rivers could hear us when we couldn’t hear them.
The second leg was even slower as we flew directly into the strong headwind. Again at the turn we radioed our position and revised ETA, and again received no response. The third leg was crosswind, so we didn’t lose much more time although by now we were running about 40 minutes behind our flight plan. At the last turning point we turned for Rivers and radioed our location and ETA, about 45 minutes later than our original planned arrival time. Again, no response. About ten minutes from Rivers we called for approach instructions and got no response. About five minutes out we did the same with the same silent result. It wasn’t until we entered the circuit that we finally raised the tower, who gave us the standard pitch, said that they were glad to see us and in a couple of minutes we were on the ground. We parked the aircraft on the tarmac and walked into the AATTS operations room. To our surprise, it was full of pilots, including the CO, Major Marsh ‘Swampy’ Wright, taking off their winter gear. They were all VERY glad to see us and we soon found out why.
Apparently, immediately after we had taken off, a vicious snow- and wind-storm had blown through Rivers and all the aircraft had been recalled. Everyone except us had responded and had returned as soon as storm had cleared past the airfield. The tower had been trying for over two and a half hours to raise us, with no success. Several other storms had blown through since the weather was much more severe than predicted by the weather office. They had not heard any of our transmissions. So while we were blithely flying around the planned navigation trip – albeit with our skis down – they had been getting ready for a major search mission with little chance of success. I was impressed by the readiness of these Army pilots to take off at night in bad weather to participate in a search which would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack.
On the last day of the course I had occasion to marvel once again at the near indestructibility of the L-19. I had successfully completed the final air handling test on the 9th of March, but was short a couple of hours of night flying, so I went out that evening and did night circuits to put in the time. As was normal, I landed without landing lights. I was completing the last circuit and was on short and shallow final approach to what appeared to be a routine landing when the aircraft slammed into something which caused it to shake and shudder violently. I realized almost immediately that I must have hit the piled up snowbank at the end of the runway with the undercarriage. I assumed that I had damaged them severely or had torn them completely off - I couldn’t see them in the dark - and quickly decided that it was better to continue with the landing rather than overshoot and perhaps lose something even more critical like, for example, a wing, on overshoot.
I put the aircraft down, rather expecting there to be no undercarriage at all. To my amazement and relief, the aircraft landed normally and I rolled to a near stop, then taxied off the runway and stopped the aircraft in front of the hangar. I shut it down, climbed out and went in to sign off the flight log as unserviceable due to probable damage. The mechanics later told me that they had completely checked the aircraft out and there was no evidence of damage at all. I had driven the undercarriage through a pile of hardened snow and ice at the end of the runway, but even that had failed to cause any damage to the L-19’s landing gear. A very impressive, if unintentional, demonstration of the over-engineering built into the L-19.
At the end of the course, I had a few days left over and took the opportunity to get back into the CH112 helicopter for a few hours. The check-out pilot was none other than Dan Dunn, who had been on the missile course with me in Belgium and was now a helicopter instructor at Rivers. I returned to Camp Borden and continued to work in the missile section, but was frustrated by a couple of things. My resignation of my commission was accepted, and I left Camp Borden in mid-November 1965, expecting that that was the end of my military career. I had certainly burned my bridges. I spent most of a year with IBM in Toronto but was not happy with being indoors in an office all the time. Eventually with Carroll’s concurrence, I inquired about getting back into the military. Evidently I hadn’t burned all my bridges, so I re-enrolled in the Armoured Corps and was assigned to the Fort Garry Horse, now in Calgary.
1969 Portage - Return To Menu
I spent February to April in Portage la Prairie on the Tactical Helicopter course. This was the same course that I had taken 6 years earlier, but had never had the opportunity to use. I had campaigned throughout that period to get back to flying and eventually my nagging succeeded, or they were just so tired of my requests that they gave up or they just were happy to be rid of me. The course was uneventful as far as I was concerned. It took very little time to get back up to speed after a few years away, but the aircraft was the same trusty old Hiller, so it was a matter of relearning the details of low flying in a new flying area. What was funny was taking flight training at the same base where I had flown T-33s – briefly – about 14 years earlier. Then it was back to Calgary to get ready to move to Germany.
Germany, the Helicopter Troop 1969-71 - Return To Menu
At the end of June 1969 we packed up our belongings in Calgary and headed for Germany. It was an unusually difficult move in some ways. Carroll had just returned home from dangerous back surgery and was not able to lift anything, so she travelled with Francis, who was just ten and who carried her bags, by air to Toronto, where she waited for the rest of us to arrive. Sheevaun, 9, Meredith, 7 and Christian, 2 and I travelled in our Peugeot 404 wagon across Canada from Calgary to Toronto. We had great fun; Sheevaun sat in the back seat with Christian to look after him and Meredith rode, sitting on a booster seat, in the front seat with me. She told me years later that she was very concerned that people would mistake her for my wife.
We flew from Trenton at the beginning of July. On the flight we met Rusty and Shirley Willett and their children. Rusty was also a helicopter pilot and was joining the same unit as me. At the time, there was a Canadian brigade in what was then known as West Germany. The unit to which we were posted was at Fort Chambly, just outside Soest in Westphalia, about 25 miles east of Dortmund. We were both attached to the helicopter troop of C squadron, 8th Canadian Hussars. C squadron was the recce squadron and we were the recce helicopter unit. The mission we had was brigade reconnaissance, which meant that in the event of real or threatened hostilities, we were to patrol out in front of the brigade and report on enemy activity to our front. The brigade was part of the NATO reserve, so it didn’t seem likely that we would be the first to report activity.
This small and fiercely independent unit of seven pilots, seven observers, seven mechanics and a driver was to be my home for the next two years. It was the most consistently professional group of individuals with whom I was privileged to serve. The pilots, all Captains and all experienced, were, with one exception, either Armoured or Infantry. The pilots were Sparky Webb, Wally Johnson, Jim White, all Armoured, and Rusty Willett and Gerry Buck, who were both Infantry. The one exception was Andy Séguin, who was Service Corps. The observers were experienced Armoured recce NCOs, usually sergeant or corporal. All volunteers for the job, they were trained in their flying duties on a short course run by the helicopter troop. The mechanics were headed by Warrant Officer Rick Middleton, an excellent mechanic and excellent individual who ran a tight ship. None of us ever had to worry about the aircraft failing because of something the ground crew had done or had failed to do. They looked after the aircraft as if they were their own – and in a very real sense they were.
The helicopter troop was actually removed by several miles from the rest of the squadron and we had our own airfield a few miles east of Soest with a hangar and tarmac, as well as a grass strip. We didn’t need or use the grass strip except for practice autorotations, but it was used by a German civilian gliding club which used it on Sundays.
The aircraft we used was the trusty – and old – CH112, the civilian Hiller 12E and known to the US Army as the H23. The area we flew over was the great German plain, through which so many invading armies had trampled over the millennia. Just north of us was the Teutoburger Wald, with its Minden gap, where Arminius, a German tribal prince, had defeated and slaughtered two Roman legions – the first two Roman legions to be wiped out by ‘native tribes’. There was a huge statue of Arminius near the Gap. Known derisively as Herman the German, it was pockmarked with bullet holes from Allied fighters who had given it a few parting shots towards the end of World War II. Just south of us was the Mohnesee, where 2000 years after Arminius the Dambusters of World War II fame had destroyed the Mohne dam which powered Essen’s factories.
The countryside around Soest was very flat, made to order for low flying and we took every advantage of that. We had several specified low flying areas, where we trained constantly to improve our skills. Each of us had an observer, an experienced Armoured recce NCO, usually sergeant or corporal, who rode in the right-hand seat and handled the maps and some of the communications. These men were distinctly underpaid and undervalued by the rest of the Armoured corps for the work they did. They rode with us, kept track of where we were in spite of every twist and turn, never complained and were paid about $2 a day extra for flying.
The unit, up until 1971, was perhaps the very last of the ‘white scarf flying’. All flying was strictly VFR, although we pushed that formal distinction a lot. We did make flight plans, but they were of the nature “Thatcher/Fletcher to Low Flying Area #3 for 2 hours”. Each pilot could sign himself out and did so. If you wanted to take a helicopter away for a few days, all you needed was to ensure there were no exercises booked, there were enough pilots not on leave and there was a mechanic willing to go with you. At the time we thought nothing of it.
There was no daily routine. We were expected to be extremely proficient at low-level flying and my log book from the period show a lot of entries, “local nap”, which was our shorthand for low flying practice (nap-of-the-earth) in the local area. Most of that practice was either one or two aircraft, always with observers, making sure that we were both comfortable and competent at doing forward reconnaissance from a low flying vehicle. We thought of the helicopter as a scout car which happened to be able to get off the ground and, after a while, I got to the stage where I didn’t think about getting in the helicopter and taking off. I strapped it on – as opposed to strapping myself in – and just went somewhere.
It was, in retrospect, a symbiotic man-machine relationship, although I don’t think that any of us thought about it in those terms. I do know that after some months I became aware that I was flying consistently at the performance limits of the vehicle, rather than my own personal limits. I don’t intend to imply that it ever got routine. I do remember that Carroll once asked me if I thought about her or the kids when I was flying. I had to reply truthfully that I never did. When she asked why, I explained that when I was flying at three feet, I was fully absorbed in what I was doing and that the level of concentration was absolute.
Within the first month that we were in Soest, the recce squadron had a change of command from Hugh Peacock, an old friend, to Jack Dangerfield, another old friend from the Armoured Corps School. Jack went on and up in his career to become one of the Armoured generals. It was one of the anomalies of the life of the Army pilot that the people who were responsible for our careers really had no idea what we did or how well we did it. I was gone from the army flying world when it was taken over by the Air Force. I think that the later Army commanders who got Air Force-trained pilots as their recce people rather than recce-trained people as their pilots must have discovered the difference, but a little too late.
We were away frequently for a week or two on NATO exercises. Our duties on these exercises varied, but our primary task as a unit was forward patrol, so we spent a lot of time in the early part of the exercise flying back and forth along notional boundaries or patrolling river lines or highways. This was done at a very comfortable 500 feet above ground and was frankly pretty boring stuff. Later when contact was imminent, we got down to where the flying was more interesting. Occasionally, we would get tasked with transporting squadron, regimental or brigade officers, either on a road recce or just between headquarters. This was properly the responsibility of the brigade’s C&L (command and liaison) flight, which had a couple of Hillers, but they were sometimes too busy, so we helped out.
On exercise, we always tried to find a place where we could get the helicopters either right next to a woods or, preferably, right into one. They were highly visible from the air because of the bubble, so the challenge was to get them under cover from surveillance.
Satellites did not exist in those days, so the threat - had we been in action - was from high-flying enemy aircraft. We carried camouflage nets in the trucks, along with wheels to roll the aircraft into or near to woods. We were usually close – within a kilometer or two – of the recce squadron, but they didn’t like us too close because the air traffic was a dead giveaway of location. One way to handle this was to find a place perhaps a kilometer away from where the troop was to stay overnight with a low level path between the two points. We would make our approach to the far point, then fly low level to the destination. German air rules at that time did not allow us to fly at night expect in designated areas, so most of our exercise flying was day only. It was nominally VFR, but we treated that as a bureaucratic issue. If we could see, we could fly – and did.
A the end of August, I had just come in from a three-day exercise, Exercise War Axe, and was in the hangar at Chambly changing to go home when the phone rang. It was Sparky Webb, the flight leader. He told me that the flight was supposed to send two aircraft to a civilian air show in the hills south of Soest. Wally had already gone and Rusty, who was supposed to go, was laid up, and could I go in his place? I was not really happy about it, because my brother Stuart had just arrived in Germany for a visit. Sparky pointed out that we had committed to this air show and, given that it was at some remote airstrip called Bergneustadt auf den Dümpel, if I didn’t go, it would likely ruin their show. I agreed to go, called Carroll with the change of plans and left with Sgt Hayes, one of the senior mechanics, for Dümpel. We got there in less than an hour, landed and parked the helicopter besides Wally’s and went to find him.
What a story he had for me. This little air show in a remote hilly area attracted over 70,000 spectators, had an RAF Air Marshall as the master of ceremonies and was expecting the Red Arrows, the Belgian helicopter team with eight aircraft, a flight of French Mirages and a Harrier. Walking around in the crowd of people with Wally while figuring out what we were going to do the next day, I noticed a woman who looked very familiar. I lost sight of her and then saw her again about an hour later. I walked up to her and said; “Excuse me, are you Belgian?” She looked up at me and said, with a question in her voice; “Guy?” It was Alice van Lishout, my friend from the Belgian pub near Bourg Leopold. We spent the evening with her and her friends. It turned out that her fianceé had never returned from his merchant sailing trip, and she had become the girlfriend of the leader of the Belgian helicopter team, which was why she was there. It was a wonderful and warm reunion with a very nice person.
The next morning, some hours before the air show, Wally and I walked the grass strip to calculate the exact locations at which we would make our various moves to do our small part in the show. At the same time, there were all the pilots from the Red Arrows, pacing the strip and picking their aiming points for the head-on manoeuvres. They did their calculations to have a six foot clearance between the wingtips of the opposing aircraft – not a lot of room for error. We did the show by capitalizing on the features of the Hiller – a very loud engine and a very small turn radius. All of our manoeuvres, including vertical spiral takeoffs, Immelman turns8 and “curtsying” the aircraft to the stands, were low level and within the confines of the grass strip itself. After we landed, we then watched the rest of the show from our vantage point. The Red Arrows did their passes so low that their smoke blew into the trees that stood at the end of the runway. When I spoke later to the RAF Air Marshall about the flying, he laughed and said that they couldn’t get away with flying like that in air shows in Britain any more.
8 In a helicopter, this turn is done by pulling up the nose until the aircraft is almost vertical, then kicking in left pedal to turn rapidly 180 degrees to the left and pulling the nose back to level the aircraft as it descends.
Exercises like “Tomahawk” and “Marshmallow” took up much of the time in September and October. One incident in September brightened the month. Wally Johnson and I were out flying somewhere near the Mohnesee and we had gotten into a tail chase. The objective was to get behind the other aircraft and keep him from getting behind you. Wally was making my life quite difficult and I was twisting and turning to evade him. I came down along the shore of the Mohnesee and was continuing to turn when I saw a dock in front of me. I climbed a little to clear it but clearly, the person on the dock didn’t think that I would because he jumped into the water fully clothed. We watched to make sure that he wasn’t in any difficulty, then got out of there. Later that day, there was a call from brigade headquarters. Some VERY irate British general wanted the heads of the helicopter pilots who had forced him into the water. We asked, innocently, if he had gotten the tail numbers. He hadn’t, so we weren’t about to admit to anything. Besides, it was a Brit general and they were supposed to be used to cold showers. Nothing came of it, since the Canadians were not about to give up one of their own. Still, we were asked not to low fly down the Mohnesee any more. Something about noise...
In November, we were all invited to go to Munich the last week of the month to see and fly the Messcherschmidt-Bolkow BO-105, a new helicopter with counter-rotating blades. We were all excited and all scheduled to go. Then came a quick trip to Lahr to pick up a helicopter that had been repainted at the Air Force shops there. Gerry Buck, Sgt Baird and I flew down in one helicopter on the 22nd of November, picked up the second aircraft and headed back. It was getting dark and very foggy, so we stopped for the night just a few miles north of Lahr at a town called Bad Dürkheim. It was famous for having the “grossest fass am welt” – the biggest barrel in the world, in which there was a two-storey restaurant seating over 200 people. The barrel had only three customers the night we arrived. It was off-season for the casino, which was the other attraction in the town.
When we got up in the morning, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. It was clear that we weren’t going anywhere. We called the weather office in Lahr, who told us that it was going to be at least a day before it cleared up. Gerry and I explored the town, which took about 20 minutes. We spent the day reading and twiddling our thumbs, waiting in vain for the fog to lift. We consoled ourselves by going back to the “grossest fass am welt” and testing their wine selection. They came out with a fancy silver tray with eight different wines, all numbered, so that we could test them all and select our favourite. Gerry and I unanimously decided on “nummer seiben” – number 7, as the favourite and proceeded to drink it beyond the point of wisdom, let us say. We had a fine evening and a correspondingly dismal morning. By late morning the fog had lifted a little and we were able to continue north as far as Finthen, an American Army heavy helicopter base, where they flew Skycranes and where I met an American Warrant Officer pilot who remembered me from Camp Wolters. We got an opportunity to fly as observers in a Skycrane as it picked up a 20,000 pound load. The Skycrane had three complete sets of flight controls, two facing forward and the other, directly behind the pilot’s seat, facing backward. This allowed one of the pilots to fly the aircraft up to a load, where the other pilot, facing backward, would take over the controls and could see and control the load hookup directly himself. It seemed like a novel and effective approach to the always difficult problem of manoeuvring over an external load, while taking verbal directions from the crew chief or visual directions from the ground.
We left Finthen the next day, which looked promising, although the weather over the hills south of Soest was still claggy. We needed to get home, since none of us had much money and we all wanted to go to Munich. We flew north, more or less following the right bank of the Rhine, until the ground started to rise and the ceiling didn’t. We stopped and had a short discussion. We couldn’t fly above the hills because the clouds were too low. We couldn’t follow any of the highways, because they followed the ground contour too closely. It was then that I had a brilliant idea.
We could follow a railway line, since they climb very slowly and always run along the lowest ground. Off we went, with me in the lead and Gerry and Sgt Baird in the helicopter behind me. We were making excellent progress along the right hand side of a narrow valley, staying just under the cloud base and following the railway tracks when I suddenly radioed; "One eighty left now!”. As I radioed I started an immediate steep turn to the left. I was relieved to see that Gerry had turned as well and was heading away from me. “What was it?”, he radioed. “Tunnel”, I answered. That was the end of Plan A.
We flew a few miles back and landed on a little island in the Rhine. As we debated what to do, we noticed the procession of flat barges making their way north along the Rhine. Gerry and I talked about the possibility of landing on one of the barges, riding it north until we were past the hills, then flying east to Soest and home. Sgt Baird, who had been very quiet up until now, commented quietly on his observation that all the barges had masts that could be lowered flat. He wondered why they would have them like that. It didn’t take us clever pilots long to figure out that the Rhine had low bridges and we would have to explain just how we lost the rotors off two helicopters. So that was plan B.
The weather was getting worse, so we were facing a bit of a dilemma. We couldn’t go forward and we couldn’t go back and where we were didn’t look like a nice spot to spend a few days. Checking our maps, we noticed that there was a small German military airfield called Mendig just west of our position. We used the phone in a little gasthof to call Mendig and ask about their weather. They were IFR and nothing was flying but when we explained our predicament, they said that if we could cross the Rhine and get a little closer and then call them on the radio from outside their control zone, they could declare special VFR and that we could then come in and land. We could only see about a hundred yards in the early afternoon fog, so we flew in a fast hover over the Rhine and to a position a couple of miles from Mendig. We called with our position, asked for and quickly received special VFR. We flew in and landed. As soon as we reported on the ground, the tower cancelled special VFR and closed the field. We were the only traffic that day.
We were welcomed by an officer from a German Army helicopter unit and taken to the Officers’ Mess for lunch. It was quite strange to walk into a Mess where the pictures on the wall were of people like Baron Richthofen and Ernst Udet. They had always been the bad guys in all the stories I had ever read or heard. Here, they were the heroes. The officers from the unit made every effort to welcome us. They provided a vehicle and driver for a tour of Koblenz and later invited us to join the officers and their wives for an evening of kegeln, or bowling. I wasn’t much of a fan of bowling, but it was a kind offer so we went along. To my surprise and delight, we had a great time. Bowling is really fun when, every time someone gutters a ball, they buy a round of schnapps!
I was trying hard with my primitive German and the squadron commander, a tall, spare white-haired man, reciprocated by using his minimal English. He was the only German whom I met in two years in Germany who admitted to fighting against the Canadians during the second war. The troops under his command had not liked fighting against the Canadians. He said that they were very tough fighters, but poorly led. I hoped that things had changed, at least as far as the leadership went.
The next day was completely foggy and with it went any chance that Gerry and I had of getting back to Soest in time to go to Munich. What a disappointment! Still, we were having an adventure of our own. The following day, the 27th of November dawned clear with high cloud, so we said goodbye to our new friends. We flew north along the Rhine past Bonn and Cologne where we flew over a beautiful suspension bridge, then turned east at the Ruhr valley and finally to home. A 24-hour trip had turned into six days.
When you think of helicopter skiing, you usually think about using a helicopter to get to where the skiing is, then getting out of the helicopter and using your skiis to get down the hill. It doesn’t always have to be like that. Sometime over the winter, Jim White and I were flying south of Soest on a brilliant sunshiny day when he asked me if I had ever been to Winterberg. It was a ski resort in the hills and no, I hadn’t ever been there. Shall we go for lunch? Why not, and off we went. We landed at the top of the hill by the gasthof in deep snow and gently let both helicopters settle until their bellies were on the snow. There were not many skiers around and they gave us a wide berth. We went in, had a good lunch and enjoyed the ambiance. As we were having lunch, Jim asked me if I had ever helicopter skiied. I allowed as how I had not. He said; “I don’t mean from a helicopter. I mean with a helicopter.” There was a shallow “bunny” hill leading away from the restaurant and Jim figured we could ski down it, keeping the helicopters light on the skids, just as long as we remembered to lift off at the bottom, so the tail rotor didn’t hit the snow and the hill flattened out. After lunch we went back outside, reccied the hill and figured that it would be a hoot. So we cranked them up, lifted them out of the snow, taxied over to the edge of the hill and helicopter-skiied all the way down the bunny hill at Winterberg. Likely the only helicopter skiing ever done at Winterberg.
In February we ran an observer training course for a new group of observers, all of whom were very good recce NCOs and experienced in map using. They were, however, not using to having to map read in a vehicle going quite a lot faster than they were used to going in a scout car, so the course was mostly navigation training flights. On one of the flights in late February, I had an observer on board as we followed the planned route. It was one that we hadn’t used before and included a run up a creek bed with bush on both sides, then a right turn over a small stand of trees, with the end point of this leg of the trip at the far end of an open field. We flew up the creek bed, made a climbing right turn to get over the trees and there – directly in front of us at the edge of the clearing – was a set of heavy wires. There was no time to do anything except bottom the collective and dive between the wires and the trees. We made it without clipping either the wires or the trees and we flew to the end of the clearing and put the aircraft down. We debriefed for the leg of the flight, in which he had done a good job.
I then decided to go back and repeat the last leg, up the creek bed and over the trees, since I was distinctly unhappy about not having seen the wires or any warning indicators. When I came up over the trees again, I noticed three things in quick succession: the supporting towers for the wires were moss green to blend with the trees, the wires were power lines rather than telephone lines – this was not a good thing – and there was absolutely no room to put a helicopter between the wires and the trees. I tried it twice more and both times I had to fly over the wires. To this day I don’t know how I got the aircraft through that tiny opening. There must have been inches to spare. When I got back, I made sure that these potentially deadly wires were marked on the large operations map in our ready room at Chambly.
About then the announcement had been made about moving the brigade to Lahr. The Canadian presence in Northern Germany was coming to an end after 25 years. Much of the next few months was taken up with trips to Lahr and with all the details of a major and permanent unit move. In April we saw another squadron change of command parade, this time from Jack Dangerfield to Bert Lake.
In mid-May we did a short exercise at Hohne. For the pilots, this included a brief run by vehicle into Hamburg, where we checked out – purely for educational purposes, you understand - the Reeperbahn. It certainly expanded my education. Everything that a man and woman could do sexually with each other was on display in an abundance of shows. The shills outside the doors were excellent at determining language. They could evidently speak a dozen or more and were uncannily accurate about which language to use on which gawking tourist. We got quickly jaded, to the stage where one of our small party, when accosted by a shill, would say; “OK, but we’ll only pay if they’re fucking on stage now”. It actually worked very well. We went in and if there was no action right then, out we’d go to the next show.
A few months later I was sent on an American Army Aviation Accident Prevention course in Nuremburg. It was a week of crash and burn stories about what not to do if you didn’t want to become what one flight surgeon on the course referred to as “crispy critters”. More of that aviator’s black, black humour. There were lots of horror stories, mostly from Viet Nam – it was 1970 – and all the accidents we heard about or sometimes witnessed, with one exception, were pilot error, often really stupid and totally preventable errors. Which was, of course, what this course was all about.
The exception was an audio clip of a panicky voice calling; “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, This is Blue 2. Blue Leader has just lost his rotor!” After a brief pause, another voice, laconic, calm; “Cancel that Mayday, this is Blue Leader. We’ve lost the rotor. We’re going down.”
One thing stands out from that course. Just before lunch one day, they showed us a three-minute clip of film, after having told us that we would be asked questions about the film after lunch. It was the greatest indictment of eye-witness testimony ever. The film showed a small single engine, late model jet in US Air Force markings take off from a runway, climb normally, then pitch up and climb out of control, stall and plummet back to earth in a huge black fireball. In a few moments, fire vehicles arrived at the site of the crash. End of film clip.
After lunch, the questions about the clip which we had discussed over lunch. First question, “What type of aircraft?” Lots of guesses, none of them right. It was an Italian-made Fiat G91, which Fiat was demonstrating to the US Air Force. It was not, as you may have gathered, a successful demonstration. Next question, “how high did the aircraft reach before stalling and falling?” Guesses ranged from 50 to 500 feet. Actually, about 250 feet. “Did the pilot eject the canopy?” Some yes, some no, some unsure. He didn’t eject the canopy. He was Fiat’s chief pilot, with a very bad back and he knew that an ejection would cripple him. “After the aircraft hit the ground, how long did it take the first fire vehicle to arrive?” Again, estimates all over the map, from seconds to several minutes. It was 31 seconds.
Remember, this was after we had been warned that we were going to see a short film clip, then be quizzed on it. The message for all of us was clear. Eye witnesses are unreliable, even when they are absolutely sure about what they’ve seen. Very sobering.
In the summer of 1970, the Canadian base at Soest was slowly shut down and all the units moved from northern Germany (Westphalia) to southern Germany, to a base at Lahr on the edge of the Black Forest. Lahr had been a fighter base with one very long North-South runway, parallel to and just east of the autobahn running south to Switzerland. The Recce squadron was housed in what we called a Marg – short for Marguerite, which is French for daisy. Off the side of the runway led these daisy-like constructions of half a dozen open-topped bunkers, arranged around an taxiway from the runway, each big enough to house a jet fighter, to protect it from blast.
The whole of the Black Forest is our new training low fly area, valleys and high hills between, all covered in dense forest with the occasional open field. We had to investigate the whole area to find out where we could safely low-fly with no risk of wire strikes. It was exciting, a whole new area to explore by air and with our families, by car.
The base at Baden-Baden, about 40 km north of Lahr, was where Canadian F104s were based. One of the pilots, Ken Chatfield, had expressed an interest in a familiarization flight in a Hiller, so on 29 October 1970, he came down to Lahr and I took him for a ride. We did the usual low flying run and he said; “…and I thought flying at 100 feet in a 104 was fast. Now this feels much faster.” We were at 3 feet.
He then said that he’d like to see another Hiller in flight. It happened that Sparky Webb, our flight commander, was over in the next valley, so I called him and I asked if we could join him for a little 2 aircraft formation. He said sure, so over we went. Now this was a real no-no. You never flew formation without a ground briefing beforehand, but we were already in the air and we’d flown formation before, so I didn’t foresee a problem. Worst decision of the year. It came very, very close to killing me. As we flew over to where Sparky was, we encountered a German Army Huey going the opposite direction. We acknowledged them but paid no more attention to them. We continued on and caught up to Sparky, who was looking out his side window towards us. He didn’t say anything, just watched as we flew into a two plane formation while Ken Chatfield took some photos. When Ken said he’d had enough, I put the aircraft into a tight left turn away from Sparky … and directly into the German Army Huey.
He had, unbeknownst to me, turned around and formatted on me. All I saw was the expanse of the belly of his aircraft as he struggled to keep clear of my rotor. What saved us were two facts: the German pilot was aware that I didn’t know he was there, so was paying close attention to my control movement and the fact that the Hiller had a 90 degree rotational control lag, so that the rotor response to my left cyclic movement was delayed by a fraction of a second, just enough for the Huey pilot to suck his aircraft away from mine. I looked at the ground 800 feet below and thought that it would have been a very long and unpleasant descent had we collided in the air. The Huey disappeared and we never saw him again. Way too close for comfort.
I asked Sparky later why he hadn’t mentioned the Huey as I approached. He said; “He came up with you and I just assumed that you knew he was there.” And just that simply, that’s how fatal accidents can happen.
Early in the winter of 1970-71, I was advised that my application for UTPO (University Training Plan for Officers) had been accepted and that in the summer I would be posted to Kingston to attend Queen’s University to take Computing and Information Science for two years. This was, as you might imagine, very exciting news. Part of what it meant was that I had to go back to Canada to Rivers, Manitoba and learn how to be a helicopter instructor pilot. I was then to train my replacement in Germany in tactical low-level flying before I went off to Queen’s. The army sent both me and Gerry Buck back to become instructor pilots. The course went well and we both graduated with good reports (they wanted me back as an instructor), so back to Germany.
In the space of five weeks, from 24 March to 29 April 1971, I had three flying incidents which, taken all together, indicated to me that the universe was perhaps paying a little too much attention to me. The first on 24 March was on a flight with three of us in the aircraft, Capt Dave Taylor of the Recce Squadron of the RCD, my observer, Cpl Davidson and me - a tight fit. We were recceing a training area for an exercise when there was a bang just above and behind us. Both Davidson and I looked back where we could see that a damper arm had broken off. The two damper arms were designed to damp out control vibration in flight and this was a known potential problem. I immediately called a “Pan, pan, pan,” and looked for a place to put the aircraft down. We were over a sports field next to a village, so I put the aircraft down there. I shut down the engine and exited the aircraft. There were a lot of people around, and they weren’t happy that we had just interrupted their soccer game. I said, in my best German; “Entshuldigen Sie bitte. Wir haben ein unfall gehabt und Ich musst hier gelandet.” (Excuse me please. We’ve had an accident and I had to land here.) Instantly the hostile crowd became very friendly and helpful. We located the damper on its arm on the engine deck. We phoned back to Lahr to our head mechanic, Rick Middleton, and I explained what had happened. He asked; “Is there any visible damage to the cooling fan?” There wasn’t, so he said; “If you’re comfortable, you can fly it back to Lahr.” It was about a 30-minute flight with no further incident and I red-Xed the aircraft on arrival. The next one 13 April 1971 was potentially much more serious.
My observer, Corporal Davidson, and I spent hours going over the training that an experienced helicopter pilot would need to qualify in low-level operational flying. He sat in my usual left-hand seat and I flew from the right seat, where he usually sat and where I would sit as an instructor. One of the particularly demanding operations was the low-level engine failure and autorotation. At altitude, the engine failure procedure was to lower the collective to retain rotor speed, turn into wind and select a landing spot and reduce speed for an autorotative glide, flare at about 50 feet and set the aircraft down. At low level that was suicide. The pilot had to instead hold the collective, flare with the cyclic to gain some altitude - with luck 50 feet – then let the aircraft settle pulling up collective to slow the sink rate. I spent a lot of time flying over the grassy verges of the airfield at Lahr on this working out the approach if the student pilot made various mistakes until one day I wondered what would happen if he were to pull the cyclic back too quickly. So I tried it. I flew over the grass at three or four feet, cut the engine and pulled the cyclic back sharply. The aircraft nosed hard up, then an impact with a loud bang with a shudder and the nose went sharply down. The aircraft shuddered and shook quite violently for about 15 seconds, then settled down into a hover. I said to Davidson; “So now we know what happened when the pilot does that; the tail pogo-stick hits the ground and protects the tail rotor.” We did a couple more low level autorotations, then returned the aircraft to the pad in front of our hangar.
I went home to lunch, where I was called by the chief mechanic WO Rich Middleton. He called to advise me, as unit flight safety officer, that there had been a tail rotor ground strike with one of the aircraft. I asked him; “How did that happen? Is anyone hurt?” He replied; “One of the pilots was practicing low level autorotations and hit the ground with the tail rotor. No-one was hurt.” I objected; “But I’m the only pilot authorized for practice low-level engine failures.” He responded; “That’s right sir, it’s your aircraft’. Perplexed, I returned to the air field, where The Warrant and I examined the tail rotor of my aircraft. The two blades were splayed and bent back about 30 degrees from normal and both had dirt on them for about 10 inches. I thought about the bang and shudder that had happened and figured out that I had hauled the cyclic back so sharply that the pogo stick had cleared the ground but the tail rotor had not.
With a sinking heart, I called the base flight safety officer, Bob Goldie, a fellow helicopter pilot, neighbour and friend and told him what had happened. He, like me, was quite incredulous that I could have had a ground strike and gotten, more or less, away with it and we both wanted to see, on the ground, where I had made contact. We walked along the grass strip and could not see anything, so we called up a pickup truck. We both stood in the back and instructed the driver to drive up and down the grass in front of the tower. There should have been a long scar on the ground where the blades had made contact but there was nothing. Then we noticed the mole hills on the verges of the grass strip. They were 10-12 inches high and made up of soft earth which the moles had excavated. The only explanation was that I had over-rotated the aircraft and the tail rotor blades had struck and demolished a mole hill. That would explain why there was no scar in the grass and why the tail rotor had not been torn off the aircraft. It was eventually written up as an ‘incident’ rather than an accident, since I had not made contact with the ground.
The third incident on 29 April was again one of those potentially catastrophic events which, as it happened, was no great deal. Corporal Davidson and I were over the field at Lahr at about 500 feet when the transmission oil warning light lit up red on the instrument panel. This light was an indicator of metal particles in the transmission oil and could be a precursor to total transmission failure which would be followed immediately by rotor failure. The procedure is to get the aircraft on the round as soon as possible, keeping power applied all the way to the ground. Again, “Pan, pan, pan,” with a very brief description of the problem and I descended where I was which was over a runway under repair. The emergency vehicles were there facing me before I got the engine shut down. I was delighted to see them …. and told them so. I was starting to feel like Joe Btfsplk, of L’il Abner fame.
On 21 July 1971 I made my last flight in a Hiller in Germany’ finishing up Dave Winmill’s low level training and was almost immediately after on an aircraft heading over the Atlantic with my family to Kingston and Queen’s. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was the end of my military flying career.
Kingston and Queen’s 1971 - 1973