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Blue Mountain to Paradise

Although the World War II skies over my hometown, Singhampton, Ontario were often full of yellow trainers out of Camp Borden, surprisingly I did not grow up with an overpowering desire to be a pilot. I remember paying five dollars for a local flight out of a farmer’s hay field; no idea what kind of aircraft it was. I guess I later became interested through a few bootleg Otter hours with my RCAF roommate while serving with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps (RSASC) in Fort Churchill, Manitoba. I later applied for the aircrew flight medical and tests, I’m sure as a means of breaking out of the Catering field, which did not appeal to me for the long haul. So, in Camp Borden in 1957, when the RCASC School Adjutant phoned me to ask if I was interested in taking a US Army Helicopter Course in Camp Wolters, Texas, I jumped at the chance. Without fixed wing training, I was to be one of four “guinea pigs”.

So Along with Dave Guy, Hal Swain and Neil Overend, I somehow learned to handle the H-23 (killer) Hiller, or for some time it was handling me. In 100-degree heat in Texas, the Hiller was not kind to anyone with ham fists. To pass the course you had to make one successful solo touch down autorotation. I remember my instructor watching me abort two attempts, before succeeding with barely enough fuel to hover-taxi back to the ramp. To this day I don’t know how close I was to returning to the catering business.

Chopper Basic Course- Killer Hiller- (wooden blades!) 1957

Well, we four Canadians were successful in Texas, and headed for Fort Rucker, Alabama, the mecca of helicopter training, where we qualified on the Sikorski H-34. For some silly reason we also had to solo on this helicopter, which we all did, but I have a vivid recollection of my solo. On takeoff climb out, my seat slipped from its top position to bottom, giving me the mistaken impression that something was seriously wrong with the aircraft. The instinctive reaction was to declare an emergency and autorotate to the nearest field. Prior to touchdown the realization that my knees were almost touching my chin caused me to make a power recovery, and sheepishly indicate that I had given a false alarm.

Graduation from Fort Rucker did raise some sticky issues for us. As far as the US Army was concerned, we were now qualified to wings standard. The Canadian Army had the view that without fixed wing qualification, we could not be presented with the “Army Flying Badge”. At the eleventh hour our ‘wings’ arrived (via Lorne Rodenbush, I believe), and we were presented with both US Army and Canadian wings. We were much relieved!

Sikorsky H-34 Course- Fort Rucker Alabama - (Shocking segregation!) 1958

After Fort Rucker we headed for Fort Knox, Kentucky, not for gold, but for attachment to a US Army H-34 Company, the 64th. There we really learned about tactical helicopter flying. Many of our US Army friends were destined for Viet Nam; some lost their lives.

Some incidents with the 64th stand out in my mind. Preparing for a large firepower demonstration in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, most of the twenty-one H-34s sat on the ground for weeks so that we could have 100% serviceability prior to the mission. After the historic photograph, a formation of twenty-one H-34s left Fort Knox on the first leg to Knoxville, Tennessee. After two of the aircraft tangled rotor blades while taxiing on the Knoxville ramp, we were suddenly down to nineteen. The flight ended when the formation leader, the company second in command, mistakenly led us into the civilian airport of Fayetteville, with clearance to land at Fort Bragg. An easy mistake at night, perhaps, but there was a chorus of “Hey Boss, you’re at the wrong airport”. Surely it was a shock to Fayetteville to see nineteen helicopters, without warning or clearance appear on the airport.

In February 1960, along with Hal Swain and Dave Guy, I attended a course in Rivers, Manitoba designed to convert us from helicopter pilots to fixed wing pilots. Well, I have to say that although we quickly learned to fly the L-19, as far as I’m concerned, the course failed to convert me. I think it did justify the decision to give us our wings at Fort Rucker.

FW (L-19) Conversion Course #2 CJATC Rivers MB 8 Feb (first flight)-21 Apr (check ride) 1960
L to R (all RCASC):
Lt FT Zeggil,  Capt GE Lindsay,  Lt DA Guy,  Capt H McKenzie, Lt HFE Swain

While our military leaders and politicians as usual dithered over what helicopters we needed I went to Germany in 1962 as pilot of the Hiller assigned to 1 Transport Company, RCASC. Obviously the Hiller was useful only in a liaison or reconnaissance role, so that’s what I did for a time. The Armoured corps had received some Hillers for a Reconnaissance Squadron, so I operated in close proximity to the ‘Recce’ Troop. It was there that we used the so-called ‘nap of the earth’ techniques. I have to say in hindsight that some of the maneuvers we performed were ‘nuts’, especially in a Hiller. Without doubt though, the Armoured Corps pilots were ‘Tigers’

My close call with disaster came, not with nap of the earth, but returning from an Exercise, when my Commanding Officer insisted on flying home, in order to get some ‘flying hours’. The weather was not good, and to make a long story short, we ‘pranged’ into a rather high and foggy hill, but fortunately lived to tell about it. My old buddy, Hal Swain was also a passenger, and needless to say, whenever we are together, we relive this memorable experience.

We all know about flying and fate, and the Hiller accident left me without a helicopter to fly, so I ended up on a two year tour flying Alouettes for the British Army in Germany. I learned a lot in those two years not only about flying. There is no doubt in my mind that in a war, I would want to be on the same side as the Brits. As Army Air Corps pilots, we were checked annually by visiting ‘Trappers’, not only for our flying, but everything else. When I indicated that RCASC pilots were not trained for Air Op, the Commander, a gunner himself, said, “Rubbish, we’ll train you.” They did, and I qualified.

Much of my flying with the British was transporting VIP’s around Germany. I recall flying the Commander-in-Chief of BOAR, (British Army of the Rhine) to a hotel in downtown Hamburg, after being told that the General did not like heights, and to keep it low. By discreetly adjusting my altimeter I managed to keep us both happy, not to mention Hamburg Air Traffic Control. Another event, not a funny one, was getting the ‘leans’ on a foggy night casualty evacuation. A successful mission, but I learned a great lesson – best landing I ever made.

I returned to Canada in 1966 when the Canadian Army was just getting its act together in the transport helicopter role. We had organized a Transport Helicopter Platoon of CH113A Boeing VERTOL ‘Voyageurs”, just what many of us had been waiting for, and I was to be Detachment Commander of three of them in Namao, Alberta. Thanks to another brilliant politician who became Minister of Defence, the Canadian military integrated, unified and destroyed the RCASC, 1 Transport Helicopter Platoon, and some would say the Canadian Armed Forces. Personally I enjoyed flying the Voyageur for two and a half years out of Namao, but unification was difficult for all of us.

The most memorable mission for me was a 1967 Centennial project: support for a group of PPCLI soldiers searching for traces of the historical Sir John Franklin expedition lost near King William Island. Along with pilots Bill Charland, Bill Binney, Peter Davis and Neil Coward, we spent a month on the island fishing for Arctic Char, and waiting for the fog to lift. We had very shaky authorization to use DC3 long-range tanks to get to the island in the first place, and I believe that Harry Reid, our fearless CO, really wanted us to make a dash for the North Pole. The closest we came to finding Sir John Franklin was a picture of him in a museum in Yellowknife.

Victory Point, King William Island. Cairn where letter from HMS Erabus, Sir John Franklin Expedition, was placed.
(Mostly fogged in, Great Fishing!) 1967

I went off to Staff College in Toronto in 1969/70, ostensibly to prepare us for ‘command’. One has to wonder today if it wasn’t really a glorified Management Course. After that, I was off to HQ 10 Tactical Air Group in St. Hubert, Quebec, to help coordinate the helicopter build up of Bell Twin Hueys and Kiowas into close support squadron for Mobile Command.

The 1970 ‘October Crisis’ occurred while I was in St. Hubert. There are lots of war stories about this operation. One I will always remember was the Commander of 10 TAG telling me to organize ‘VFR Airways’ to each and all of about seventy helicopter landing areas in the city of Montreal. He thought this important to prevent the helicopters from running into one another. Needless to say, this was one of the few occasions in my career that I practised ‘dumb insolence’ with a superior officer.

My last flying tour was in Gagetown New Brunswick; eight years in and out of 403 Squadron – Flight Commander, Chief Instructor, a brief tour as Officer Commanding Tactical Air Operations Wing at the Combat Training Centre, and then back to the Squadron as the Commanding Officer. How could I be so lucky? There are many stories that I could tell, but one stands out in my memory. When I was Flight Commander of the Kiowa flight, one of our instructors with a student attempted to fly through a gap in the trees somewhat narrower than the rotor diameter, and there was some damage to the rotor blades. The flight safety solution that came down from our Group HQ imposed restrictions, which we believed were more dangerous than the rules we already had. The CO, Marsh Wright told me to draft a message to HQ 10 TAG outlining our concerns, which I did in somewhat less than diplomatic terms. To my surprise, Marsh sent the message without toning it down. (Marsh always called a spade a spade). Well the message got the result we wanted, - the HQ restrictions were rescinded. But we heard from staff close to Commander 10 TAG’s office that on reading our message he uttered a loud profanity-something General Herbert, known for his quiet and gentle manner did not often do.

It was a privilege for me to fly as an Army Pilot. I had joined the Army Reserve and served for a couple years as a private soldier in 5 Column RCASC in Toronto before attending OCS in 1951. I was commissioned in the RCASC and like all of us had many postings, too many to list here. I considered myself to be a well qualified officer in the Army, and always felt that the homogenization of Canada’s Military destroyed the kind of close helicopter support the US and British Armies were not willing to give up. Nevertheless, I have made long and lasting friendships with former RCAF colleagues, certainly one positive result.

My flying career ended in 1980, when I relinquished Command of 403 Squadron to Lou Cuppens, and headed for NDHQ as Deputy Director of the Foreign Liaison Office, taking over from Lorne Rodenbush, who was retiring. With the cold war actually warming up in the early eighties, this was a most interesting posting. Two years on the ‘cocktail circuit’ in Ottawa, though was long enough. My last posting was to Air Command HQ as Senior Staff Officer (SSO) Regional Operations, where I was soon able to make the right contacts for a post retirement career with the Province of Manitoba’s Emergency Management organization. After 6 years of ‘crisis management’, floods and forest fires, it was time to retire again, which I did in 1991.

The Paradise in the title refers to our home in Paradise Village, Manitoba where I first wrote my story. We now live in a retirement home in Stittsville, Ontario where we are close to family and no doubt, like all Army Pilots closer to Paradise.

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