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A Canadian Gunner in the Army Air Corps

On the 16th of December, 1964, I did a range clearance and shoot with 1 RCHA in Gagetown, flying L 19 number 724. On 30 December, 1964, I started Alouette conversion with 1 Wing, Army Air Corps (AAC), in Detmold, Germany. This came about because a re-organization of Army Aviation in the British Forces left the AAC short pilots in key units and they asked to borrow some Canadians for a two year period. Six of us volunteered: two Service Corps, two Armoured Corps, and two Gunners: Major P.W.Davis and me. Major Davis went to Middle Wallop and the rest of us to the British Army on the Rhine.

The Alouette instructor was Maj Whitehead, the Chief Flying Instructor (CFI) of the school. The Alouette II was quite different from the Hiller we had trained on. It was a fixed turbine, three bladed, five seater with direct input from the hydraulically boosted cyclic to the blades. This made it much more responsive than the two bladed Hiller with its ninety degree lag in a manual control system. It didn’t take long to adjust, however, and as engine revolutions were taken care of automatically, the workload was much reduced. First solo on type happened after three hours on the 7th of January, 1965, and on the 3rd of February, I was posted to 24 Flight, AAC, attached to HQ 4(UK) Armd Division, at Herford, Germany. 24 Flight was a sub-sub unit of the 4 Div. Signal Regiment, but controlled by 655 Squadron AAC for all things related to flying. My call sign was Army Air 534.

Upon my arrival Lt Mike Dean took me on an area familiarity flight then I was on my own. I flew local training missions until the 9th of February when Maj Russel, the Squadron Commander, gave me the Commander’s Check ride. The work we did was mostly carrying passengers around to the different Headquarters and Units of the Division, exercise recce, and field exercises either with the Div HQ or with one of its units. During a period of bad weather, which happened a lot, I got qualified on all trades for the 25 hour check at 71 Workshop, REME, in Detmold. This was very useful as it allowed us to do the 25 hour check in the field with only one technician, or another qualified pilot.

On the 4th of March we had to fly our annual Standardization Check with Maj Whitehead, the CFI. We did the usual things, including night circuits, with the addition of autorotation at night. The drill was, after establishing autorotation at the desired airspeed, 50 knots in this case, you turned on the landing light and adjusted the beam to your angle of descent. When you could make out individual blades of grass, we did this on the infield, you pulled the collective and flared for the landing, or in our case, overshoot. It took a bit of faith to do it the first time but it worked.

The divisional Engineer Regiment was stationed in Paderborn, across the Tuterburger from Hereford. In April I was tasked to take a Captain from the Regiment to Copenhagen for a recce. I could not get over the hills so my passenger met me in Detmold and we headed North in the fog. After two refueling stops we arrived at the Great Belt, the strait that separates the Island of Fyn from Zeeland where Copenhagen is located. The Belt was totally fogged in; we were stuck. We then noticed that we were near the ferry terminal and there was a steady stream of ferries going to Zeeland. Hover taxiing off the stern of one of the ferries we made the crossing, and gave the passengers a thrill as well. The Danes gave us a warm welcome and the next day we did the recce in beautiful weather. The following day was not so good. The two straits were completely socked in, as were the refueling airfields. Copenhagen, meanwhile, was enjoying beautiful weather. My boss back in Hereford was not completely convinced, but he did give me permission to fly any trips that the Danes wanted that day. I did two, much to the delight of my host, since the second trip was to take him, a Squadron Commander, to a Brigade conference. On the way back to his Headquarters he told us how even the Brigade Commander wondered how come a major was arriving in a British helicopter when the remainder came by staff car. The weather cleared the next day and we flew home under clear skies.

May brought back memories. All AAC Pilots had to be competent is conducting immediate neutralization shoots from the air, so the flight deployed to Munsterlager on the 12th of May. Our Flight Commander, a Gunner, was in charge and we would be shooting the 14th Field Regiment, RA, with 25 pounders. I was 17 years old when I joined the 14th Field Regiment RCA, with 25 pounders, in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. We were doing simple shoots from the ground when my flight Commander tasked me to do a destruction shoot as I was the only other Gunner in the group. I was well into the shoot when we heard a familiar sound and Major Ace Card landed an L 19 on the track behind the OP. I introduced him around and after a coffee he took off. It was now my turn to conduct my first air shoot since December of 1964, it really felt good.

The German Army hosted an annual helicopter rally and I took part in it with Lt Dean. On the 31st of May we flew to Bad Kreuznach, where the rally started, for the briefing. We were given a map, a take-off and landing time and the Grid Reference of the meeting place. We were also given a sheet of check points, by latitude and longitude. The first competition was to collect as many stamps as we could so as to fly the maximum distance possible in the time we were allotted. Once at the Rendezvous we had to shoot in a pistol competition, draw our evening meal, fly to another Grid Reference and camouflage the helicopter before a recce chopper came along and photographed our position. We took off at 15 second intervals, which meant we all had our engines running at the same time, as the vast majority of the helicopters were turbine powered – the sound was incredible. The next morning we flew to a large field where we were given various recce and precision flying tasks. We then went to Buckeburg, a large German Army aviation base, for the prize giving and banquet. It was a tremendous event with some 300 participants. The German Border Police won the event, which, we were told, was the norm.

The 22nd of July 1965 was a personal milestone. I remember how impressed I was when I found out that my instructor in Centralia had 600 hours. I passed that milestone on 22 July and my wife, Anne, gave me a surprise party.

Time passed with liaison flights and Exercises being our main job. My family had joined me in March, 1964, and we enjoyed the things Canadians did in Germany. We travelled, visited friends, and went to lot of very good restaurants. I found the AAC a good place to work with excellent ground support. I got some back seat time in an L 19 and also some CH 112 time and dual in the Auster 9; then came the summer of 1966.

24 Flight had a new boss and he set up a Mountain Flying course in Lyon and the Vercours, in France. He arranged for us to take initial training at the French Army Aviation School near Lyons, and then a few days of practical work based on a plateau in the Vercours in the French Alps. We spent two days learning the basics of weather, wind and terrain in the hills around Lyon with an instructor then flew up to our camp on the Vercours for solo and mutual flying. The weather remained good for the duration so we were able to get up to the high ridges. This was where we really appreciated the reserve power of the Alouette, it did, after all, hold the world record for the highest medevac which had been done on Mount Kilimanjaro by none other than our own Major Whitehead. In the Alps it allowed us to do vertical approaches at elevations that were off limits to other AAC helicopters. The scenery was fantastic and the vistas breathtaking.

In August that year the President of Germany visited our forward Brigades and I was tasked to transport his bodyguard. They were pleasant men and during casual conversation I learned that one of them flew Dorniers during the war. The next month I got a VIP rating and became the standby pilot for the Corps Commander. The down side of this was having to sit in my helicopter, with all the checks complete by 0600 or so, waiting to hear if his chopper got away from Detmold OK – it always did but I still lost a lot of sleep.

My Last flight with the AAC was significant in that one of my passengers was Major A. Garlick, RCASC, who was on exchange at the Headquarters. It was an engineer recce of the Hamlin area, took place on the 8th of December, 1966, and lasted 1 hour 55 minutes. Anne and I then packed up our belongings, son Stephen, and were home for Christmas. I was posted to 4 RCHA as BK of K Battery. My total time for the tour was:

  1. Alouette II: 20:30 dual, 475:35 Pilot;
  2. Hiller CH 112: 2:00
  3. Cessna L 19 1:10
  4. Auster Mk IX O:45 dual
  5. TOTAL 500 hrs

H.D.Thompson, LCol RCA

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Pad at Herford.

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Alouette II.

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Going flying.

The child is Stephen Thompson at two; the mechanics would push him into the hangar and he would pretend he was flying.

LCol H.D.Thompson