After reading Joe Oakley’s interesting and informative article about the early days of 403 Squadron I was reminded of the mission he mentioned regarding support for Prime Minister Trudeau and President Nixon at the 10th anniversary rededication of the St. Lawrence Seaway. This was a somewhat complex operation involving aviation resources from both countries as well as a large contingent of VIPs, Press and hangers on and Canadian and American security details led by the RCMP and Secret Service. Also, to add class and probably security, the President’s personal limousine had been pre-positioned at Massena and it was used to ferry the President and Prime Minister around the site and to the waiting helicopters.
To the best of my recollection there were 14 helicopters involved at various times in the day’s activities. The Canadian contingent consisted of 450 Squadron providing 2, CH-113A Voyageurs, to fly VIPs and act as back-up to the Presidential Flight.; 403 Squadron contributing 8, CUH-1H Iroquois to fly some VIPs and the Press Corps and an unexpected participation by the Canadian Coast Guard chipping in at least one Jet Ranger. The American side had only 3 helicopters; the Presidential Flight with 2 Sikorsky VH-3A Sea King helicopters, Marine 1 flying the President and Prime Minister and Marine 2 acting as the back-up and decoy. Another Marine Corps helicopter, a Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion commonly referred to as the “Jolly Green Giant” took care of the American Press and baggage.
The coordination for the mission started a few weeks before the visit when Lorne Rodenbush, CO 450 Squadron, gathered us in the briefing room in the large Air Force hangar at St. Hubert (10 Hangar?) as the briefing room in our old hangar was not considered suitable for such an auspicious occasion. We were introduced to a Marine Corps Major, pilot, who was the liaison officer for the Presidential Flight and several civilians who we would later find out were from the President’s personal security detail and the Secret Service. Lorne started by telling us 450 Squadron would be supporting the upcoming visit of President Nixon to Massena New York, where he would be joined by Prime Minister Trudeau in celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The American Major gave an overall briefing of the operation from the American perspective and advised us that more detailed briefings would follow in the days ahead after our crews had been assigned and the schedule had been confirmed.
I was a young Captain, a Category 1 pilot, with over 500 hours on the CH-113A and had flown several VIP mission over the past few months and Lorne and I had flown Prime Minister Trudeau and Defence Minister Cadieux to Petawawa to visit the troops on 14 June 69, just 2 weeks prior to the Massena ceremony. I guess Lorne had enough faith in my ability not to screw up so he appointed me as the 450 Squadron Mission Commander for the upcoming operation. Little did we know that by giving my name to the Americans, I was basically locked in as the overall Canadian Mission Commander and named as the contact point for further planning and coordination between our two countries. I met with the Americans one more time in St. Hubert and on the 25th of June, Mike Anglesey, who would captain the other Voyageur, and I flew to Ottawa in our ancient CH-112 Hiller for a final coordinating conference. On 26 June , Pete Armstrong and I flew a reconnaissance mission to check out the landing site at the Dwight Eisenhower Lock at Massena and the landing zone at the Man and His World site in Montreal. I went to bed on the night of 26 June, confident that we had a good plan and could conduct the mission to the high standards expected of us on this international stage.
The morning of 27 June 1969 was sunny, clear and warm; a perfect day to go flying. The ceremony at the Eisenhower Lock was scheduled for 1350hrs. We arrived in Ottawa in good time to refuel and carry out any last minute coordination. 403 Squadron, led by their Commanding Officer arrived at about the same time and shortly after our initial meeting in the hangar, where we were to meet the PM and VIPs, Major Marsh Wright , the Deputy Commanding Officer of 403 Squadron approached me and advised me that his CO, as the ranking Canadian officer was now taking over as the Canadian Mission Commander. I was a little surprised but, even at that early stage of my career I understood the military pecking order and was willing, although reluctantly, to hand over my responsibilities to CO 403. The American Ambassador to Canada, Ambassador Harold Linder and several senior American guests were already present in the hangar so I went over and advised them that the CO of 403 Squadron was taking over as the Canadian Mission Commander and that all further coordination or discussion about the operation should be directed to him. After a short discussion among the Americans, a Colonel, decked out in a dress uniform ( I think he may have been the American Defence Attaché) advised Marsh and me that he appreciated the COs concerns, but my appointment had been vetted and approved at the highest level and that any such drastic last minute changes would not be acceptable. We were told very diplomatically but firmly that I was to remain the Mission Commander and the Americans would continue to use only me as their point of contact regarding the mission, especially in our coordination with the Presidential Flight which was going to meet us in Massena.
I observed a short and animated discussion between Marsh and his CO after which I was asked to join them, as LCol Casselman wanted a word with me. He told me in no uncertain terms that while I might nominally be the Mission Commander, there should be no doubt in my mind about who really had command. Feeling a bit chastised, but still in charge, I went back to the friendlier embrace of my squadron mates to await the arrival of the PM and other dignitaries.
The call sign for this mission was ‘eggshell” and as the lead helicopter I was designated as Eggshell 1 with George Fawcett as my co-pilot. Mike Anglesey was Eggshell 2 with Peter Armstrong as his co-pilot. Peter was working in 10 TAG HQ but due to a shortage of Category 1 pilots on 450 Squadron at that time, he was pressed into service to help us out for the operation. Unfortunately, the names of the remaining crew members were not listed in my log book and after so many years I can not remember their names but can attest to their professionalism and high standards during this important trip.
We boarded my passengers, a mix of Canadian Members of Parliament, invited guests, Ambassador Linder and members of his staff and a few military personnel and were waiting for the arrival of Prime Minister Trudeau and Mitchell Sharp, the Secretary of State, who would be flying on my helicopter to the ceremony. In the middle of all this activity, a Coast Guard helicopter, a Jet Ranger, plunked itself down in the middle of our tarmac and the pilot was looking around as if waiting for someone. Shortly after, a car pulled up to our helicopter and the PM and Mr. Sharp got out. They exchanged a few words and the Prime Minister headed off to the Coast Guard helicopter. Mr. Sharp advised me that the Prime Minister had previously flown in a Voyageur (obviously referring to our trip to Petawawa two weeks previously) and he found it an uncomfortable and noisy trip so had arranged for his own transport to the ceremony. I was quite surprised at this change of plan and a bit concerned about the Prime Minister’s security but our free-wheeling Prime Minister set the rules and we, of course, did as we were told.
The rest of the day was generally uneventful. We arrived on time and landed in our designated parking spots and sat back to enjoy the festivities. I was parked next to Marine 1 and I can still remember the contrast between our drab workhorse and the polished Sikorsky of the Presidential Flight. We conferred with the pilots of the American helicopters and agreed on the flight details from Massena to Montreal. After the speeches and hand shaking, as well as Nixon, the Americans were represented by New York Governor Rockefeller and Secretary of State Rogers, we re-boarded our passengers and were off to Montreal. The Prime Minister and President flew in Marine 1 and we had been told to fly a loose formation but not to get too close to either of the American helicopters. I flew in a loose echelon right on Marine 1 and I think Mike did the same for Marine 2. 403s helicopters were strung out in a loose formation behind and to my left and on several occasions moved in a bit too close for the President’s pilots liking and he asked that they back off to a more reasonable distance. Our two Voyageurs landed with the Marine helicopters at our designated landing zone at Man and His World and the other helicopters parked in an area across at road along the side of the St. Lawrence river. The Prime Minister was not returning to Ottawa and the President was making his own travel arrangements from Montreal , so after a few hours the Canadian portion of the visit was completed and we returned our remaining passengers to Ottawa and called it a day. We flew almost 6 hours that day and my log book entry has an asterisk beside it to remind me of this special occasion.
The visit was not without controversy as the Canadian Press had speculated whether American Security personnel would be allowed to carry their weapons while in Canada. They were assured that there would be no American weapons in our country during the Canadian portion of the visit and that security would be provided by the RCMP. This was absolutely false. The Presidential Flight liaison officer told us from day one that the Secret Service and President’s personal protection detail would all be armed and, of course, they were. Also, Mike Anglesey told me that during the speeches at Massena, he was talking to a Canadian soldier in the Canadian security detail and asked if he could see his rifle. The soldier complied and Mike asked him if it was customary for a member of a security team to hand over his weapon to a stranger. The soldier apparently laughed and told Mike that it did not matter as their weapons were not loaded, which on closer observation Mike confirmed.
My final post script to this saga occurred a few days later after we are all back to work. The American Major and I had become reasonably good friends over the period we were planning and carrying out this mission. We were about the same build (back then I was considerably slimmer) and we decided to exchange flight suits as souvenirs of our time together. He liked the green, trial, summer flight suits we were wearing at the time and I saw nothing wrong with making the exchange. A few days later I showed up for work proudly decked out in my American Marine Corps flying suit. I was advised by the Ops Officer after our morning briefing that the Commanding Officer was not amused and I was not to return to work until I was properly dressed. I kept that suit for a long time but finding no real use for it finally gave it to a friend of mine who was working on his car.
Colonel George Zvanitajs (Rtd) CD
01 May 2018