Army Aviation Pilot Training
I am Pierre Marceau of the RCA. I went on pilot training in 1965 as a lieutenant, attending the Primary Flying Course on the Chipmunk aircraft at the RCAF Station Centralia, in Ontario from mid-September 1965 to the end of December. Posted to the Canadian Joint Air Training Centre in Rivers Manitoba, I undertook the Light Aircraft Pilot’s course on the Cessna L19. I was promoted captain on the 1st of April and got my wings on the 27th April and doubled my pay! The Basic Helicopter Pilot’s Course on the Hiller CH112 followed from the 2nd of May to the 16th of June. The conversion course on the Cessna L182 was completed during the third week of June. The training cycle lasted from September 1965 to June 1966, and I flew 260 hours without incident or accident.
Life as an Air OP Pilot with 1RCHA (August to December 1966)
Life as an Air OP pilot really started in August when I arrived in Base Gagetrown, NB when I reported to the 1RCHA. The CO, Lcol DB Crowe whom I knew, welcomed me and told me that Capt John MacGregor was waiting for me at the hangar, ready to go flying. So began the two best years of my life. At the Air OP hangar John, an old buddy since officer training days, had already pulled out two aircraft. He gave me a quick briefing on the training area and then we climbed on board the two machines and took-off. That was my introduction to this particular L19, 16724, which was to be mine for the next two years. We flew over the whole base area paying particular attention to the many landing strips and the artillery deployment and impact areas. John pointed out various hazards and particular features which might be useful in reduced visibility flying. We climbed above the cloud cover in a very loose formation to 8000 feet Above Ground Level. John was giving me pointers. One rule he enunciated which I always remembered was that if ever you are caught in a situation where the cloud cover/the visibility is forcing you to fly lower and lower, and doing a 180° turn is no longer an option, it is better to climb through the cloud then to continue and crash into the ground. Save your life first and search for a way down second. We landed on the sports field directly in front of RHQ building where the Air OP Troop offices were. This field was our main operating base during most of the year.
Major Lavender was the OC of the troop and Capt Lloyd McMorran and I were the new Section Commanders. We were caught in the turmoil of a regimental rotation and at the same time, a conversion from field and medium towed artillery to mechanized, self-propelled medium artillery. Major Lavender was appointed acting/2i/c of 1RCHA and both Lloyd and I got secondary jobs. Lloyd was acting BK of one of the batteries whilst I was appointed acting RCPO. My first mission in the Troop was to fly 16704 to HMCS Shearwater on the 15th of August to have a “Weight and Balance Check” done on this aircraft before it was flown and handed over to the Army Aviation Tactical Training School (AATTS) in River at the end of September. Flying over the Bay of Fundy and near freezing water is very uncomfortable in a single engine aircraft and wearing a “Mae West” Life Preserver and a parachute did not make the flight more enjoyable. I hated crossing the Bay of Fundy so I followed the Trans-Canada highway on the way back. I nearly went to Germany when Lcol Crowe who was short one captain/troop commander proposed to take me to serve for one year as an “ordinary” troop commander and remain for the next two years as an Air OP Section Commander. I readily agreed but, the officer in charge of personnel rotating to Europe struck my name of the list because he did not agree to the proposition.
The months of September and October saw the start of the departure of the 1RCHA personnel to Germany, but there were very few arrivals from 2RCHA. I was flying a lot, doing orientation flights for new arrivals and familiarization flights for whole squadrons of air force cadets. I did have a very interesting flight around the whole base with the new BM, Major Paul Ranger R22eR, which included a hairy landing on an unused airstrip with bushes 6 feet tall. We had a ground party clearing all the airstrips of bushes and other obstacles all the next week. I undertook a long range flight from 16 to 18 of September (17hrs45 flying time) with Cpl Doherty, one of our RCEME technicians. We flew 16714, an A Model L19 to Rivers, Manitoba. When I submitted my August/September flying hours report, I received a message telling me to slow down, that I was flying too much… I had been appointed Base and Brigade Flight Safety Officer and had to start thinking about various safety procedures. The first one I put into application immediately was making the wearing of the Pilot Helmet compulsory. Up till now, most, if not all L19 pilots, were only wearing their beret or no head gear at all under their earphones. I had started wearing a helmet on the helicopter course and just naturally kept wearing it. Lloyd McMorran strongly objected, until one day he had a very bumpy landing and hit his head on the light affixed to the ceiling of the cockpit and was hurt seriously. He wore the helmet after that. On the 12th of October, Major Lavender, Capt McMorran, Sgt Johnson and I went to Winnipeg to take possession of 16732 and 16733 and fly them back to Gagetown. On our last leg of the trip home, after a refueling stop in Sherbrooke, we took off towards Fredericton and soon encountered deteriorating weather. Lloyd was flying 733 with Sgt Johnson in the back seat, whilst I flew 732 with Major Lavender in the back. After consultations between the two pilots, we decided to spread out laterally and climb through the clouds. We broke out at above 5 000 AGL and were relieved to see lights on the horizon.
In my capacity as the RCPO and Training Officer, I ensured that the officers and NCOs of the regiment were getting all the training required for the arrival of the new guns and vehicles. I attended the “Winter Bush Pilot’s Survival Course” in Edmonton from 1 to 15 November, where I tried out the newly issued Combat Clothing which was a great improvement over the old Battle Dress. Having been appointed V/PMC of the Officer’s mess, I found myself running it since Major Guy, the PMC, was away on course. It was not easy. The outgoing regiment had taken all their funds with them and the incoming regiment did not have any left, having blown them all away on farewell parties. The beer, alcohol and other deliveries had to be paid cash. We had no money in the bank and our credit rating was nil. All parties/events in the mess had to be self-sufficient. I flew regularly to either Grand Manan to fetch lobsters, or to Summerside for oysters for Happy Hour as a way to make a few dollars. In late November, I undertook a task for the Base Range Officer, Major Irwing, RCA. Bdr Doucette and I planned photo runs over the wooded areas of the Training Area and with the F95 camera mounted under the wing, took hundreds of vertical photos. Sgt Garon accompanied me to RCAF Station Greenwood to have the films developed. Having to cross the Bay of Fundy again with a “Mae West” and a parachute was the reason I arranged for RCAF Station Chatham to develop our films in the future. The troop personnel, under the supervision of Sgt Garon, including Bdr Bishop, Bdr Doucette and Bdr Wildon made a mosaic of about 4 feet by 8 feet with the photos we had taken. This was used successfully in reducing costs by Major Irwing in his negotiations with lumber companies to deforest certain zones, to enlarge the manoeuvre area. Lcol J.G. Henderson our new CO arrived in the middle of December and we were all very happy to revert to our Air OP positions and concentrate on our own training. The last members of 1 RCHA left in December and the regiment in Gagetown officially became 2 RCHA on 1 January 1967.
Life as an Air OP Pilot with 2RCHA (January 1967 to July 1968)
We started 1967 on skis. All three L19s had been fitted with them and Lloyd gave us all a check ride. I really enjoyed flying with skis underneath me because in New Brunswick, a region of forests with few open valleys, it gave us the possibility to land on a large number of frozen rivers and lakes in case of emergency. On January the 3rd, I flew RCEME Staff-Sargent Murphy to Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, Québec on a reconnaissance mission to plan the recovery of a 2½ ton truck of the RCD that had been ditched whilst on fire into the Saint-Lawrence River on a road move from Gagetown to Valcartier a month earlier. After having done his reconnaissance of the site of the crash, he came back to the airfield in Sainte-Anne where I had already checked the weather and filed my flight plan. We took off around 1600 hours and headed due South over the Chic-Chocs Mountains, heading towards New Richmond and the Baie des Chaleurs. It started to rain and the base of the clouds was getting lower. We had been airborne for about 45 minutes when visibility really started to close in. We were flying over a very hilly and forested area and the only visible reference was the road below us and we were getting closer and closer to the top of the trees. I immediately decided to climb through the clouds in a straight line south, heading towards the RCAF Station Chatham close by Newcastle. We broke clear of the clouds at about 10 000 feet ASL. The sky was clear and full of stars. My passenger was a little nervous but was reassured when he heard Chatham tower responding to my call that the local weather was clear. A while later, we could see CF86 Super Sabres of the “Golden Hawks” acrobatic flying team doing “Touch and Goes” in the far distance. I was the designated pilot flying the Grand Manan Cadet Corp Drill Instructor on his monthly trip to the island. It permitted renewal of friendship with the local fishermen and providers of lobsters and with the lone RCMP Constable who enjoyed our hard ration supply arrangement. The Commander of Camp Valcartier, had requested the help of the Regiment for his the Spring Pre-Promotion Exams Study Session. Being the sole francophone officer in the regiment, I was naturally selected. I flew in 724 to Québec City and was picked up by staff car and received like a VIP by Lcol Paradis CO of the 2nd battalion, R22eR who provided his suite in the BOQs. I gave lectures on fire planning in all phases of war and responded to questions concerning employment of the artillery in all circumstances. The mortar (4.2 in.) equipped K Battery of 4 RCHA, part of the Canadian contribution to the NATO Allied Mobile Force, held a winter exercise “Black Bear” in Gagetown and the surrounding country side at the end of February and the beginning of March. I was very much involved in taking air photos, air delivery of said photos, messages and other goods. The BC, Major Bill Dawes, used us effectively throughout his exercise. Capt Dough Kerr RCA, new Bde LO, accompanied me in my sturdy mount, 724, for a special delivery in a very restricted field. The landing on skis in a short field went without a hitch, but a few hours later, when it was time for take-off, I was very concerned about the length of the field. To put all chances on our side, we pulled the tail of the ac as far back as we could into the bushes, Dough held on to the tail whilst I warmed the engine. He jumped in when I gave him the signal and I then gave it full throttle. I was patient and did not try to pull her up. We skimmed on top of the snow, gathered speed and just before reaching the end of the field and a wire fence, I pulled and away we went. Dough was having kittens in the back seat! When the mortar battery moved into the training area and started firing live munitions, we of the Air OP had our first opportunity to engage targets from the air, and we did with gusto.
I attended the 2nd unified “Staff School Course” from 24 April to 28 July. I did fly back to Fredericton for a weekend on a Maritime Command NEPTUNE ac and flew 2 hours on the 7th of May. My wife Annette and I decided that instead of being alone in our house in Oromocto, she should go to Germany to be with her family for this period. She came back and joined me in Toronto at the end of June. After Staff School, I attended the “Unit Flight Safety Officer’s Course” from 1 to 5 August, also in Toronto, run by Capt John MacGregor. We went on leave in the Montréal area and attended various events of EXPO ’67 and returned to Gagetown on the 27th of August and I had a check-ride with Lloyd the very next day. My extended absence on courses deprived me of the Instrument Flying Course (GREEN TICKET) on the C45 EXPEDITOR at RCAF Station Portage la Prairie in Manitoba, which was now being given to all army aviators. I also missed flying the float mounted L19 in Gagetown and the International Soaring Competition, towing gliders for the Air Cadet League in Hawkesbury, Ontario. I had missed a lot, had flown little, but did not think of the consequences at the time, until I realized much later that someone, somewhere, had been preparing me for something unexpected.
Capt Joe Thibedeau had arrived as OC of the Air OP Troop and life in the troop changed. We had been flying a lot individually. We had done many long distance ac exchange flights. Capt Lloyd McMorran and Major Lavender had done some pilot testing at irregular intervals but we had not done much precision flying like Joe liked to do. He insisted in regular check-rides, flew often in the back seat of our ac and made sure we followed approved practices and procedures to the letter. No cowboys here! I had my first flight with Joe, an Instrument Check Ride on the 20th of September. Precision, precision! On the 26th of September, I was in Grand Manan when Annette went to the hospital to give birth to our son Éric. I returned in time for the big event. The regiment had completed the conversion training and was now ready to go firing the big guns. At the end of September, I did two battery shoots with Capt Gord Shellard who had joined the troop but was condemned to fly in the back seat until he went on a conversion course. The regiment went firing continuously the following months and we of the Air OP were involved. Jim White delivered 16735 from Rivers on 27 November and I did the acceptance check. I flew him to Summerside, his home, the next day. At the next Happy Hour, I had a very long conversation with Lcol Henderson on the subject of Air OP pilots, their employment and where they fitted in the grand scheme of things of the Artillery! He asked quite a few very pointy questions and wondered what the future held for Army Aviators.
The year 1968 started with a bang. After the festive season, the batteries restarted going out to fire and we went with them. I did high, low GT and flank shoots, at 4 000 and 6 000 feet as far as 14 km away. I engaged targets from 50 feet directly behind the guns, under the trajectory and as far as 8 km away and also at 8 000 feet, 13 km away. We were being used almost every day by the CO and the BCs and we enjoyed it very much. In March, Joe Thibedeau deployed the troop to Swan Lake on a winter exercise: “Blizzard Two”. It was a mitigated success. The ground crews and maintenance personnel of the troop drove the vehicles onto the ice of the frozen lake at the amphibious vehicle launching ramp on the South side of the lake and drove across to the North-West side to set up camp on that shore. Joe, Lloyd with Gord as a passenger and I each flew in with our ac. We did touch and goes on the lake whilst the troop was setting up camp, and when the bivouac was ready, we stopped flying to go have lunch with the troops. We did some fire missions for the next three days and flew most GPOs, TLs and TSMs on famil flights, landing and taking off from just behind the gun positions. Joe and I were the only two pilots who slept in the tents on the lake shore. The other two absolutely refused to sleep in sleeping bags on the ground in tents…so every night, after the day’s scheduled events, they went home to their cozy beds in the PMQs! For the next Happy Hour, I had flown to Summerside and brought back a couple of cases of oysters that the cooks prepared to perfection for us. The CO and I had a few beers together and we had a very interesting conversation on the subject of flying helmets decorations. Till now, most army pilots had black or white helmets. Some of us wanted to decorate them. I convinced him that for the pride and joy of the individuals, sober, tasteful decorations and colours should be allowed on helmets, to which he agreed. Annette set about designing a pattern of paint decorations for mine. In March 1968, I had a fully decorated blue helmet with a white stripe down the middle and a “fleur de lys” on each of the two panels covering the plastic visor. I also had a sketch of “Snoopy” chasing the “Red Baron” on both side of the helmet.
Being low man on the totem pole, I often found myself “volunteered” for odd jobs here and there. In March 1968, the regiment received a request from 3 RCHA for the loan of one pilot to reinforce their Air OP Troop stationed in Shilo. They were short one pilot and were proceeding to the Chilcotin Area of BC for Exercise “Panther Leap” with the 2nd Bn QOR of C. The exercise was to test the ability of the battalion to deploy rapidly to Northern Norway, on the left flank of NATO, in an emergency. I got the job. Joe briefed me thoroughly on high altitude flying, take-offs and landings and the precautions to take flying between and around high peaks. I flew Air Canada and arrived in Winnipeg on the 3rd of April. Capt Ned Nethercott, OC of the troop, was waiting for me on the tarmac with 16715. We flew directly to Rivers where he had to arrange second line maintenance on 702. The next day, I got an orientation tour of the camp and a flight test. After a few days of flying with the troop in Shilo, we took off on the morning of the 8th of April, in a 3 plane formation towards our destination, the exercise area West of Williams Lake, BC. The rest of the troop was already on the road. Ned had the lead ac with a crewman in the back, Ron Adam was second with an Avn Tech aboard, Dick Rogers and I were in the last ac. We stopped overnight in Swift Current. On the 9th, we went as far as Calgary. On the morning of the 10th, we attended the Met briefing and were surprised to see that the crew (RCASC plts) of a BUFFALO, tactical transport ac and the crew (RCAF plts) of a T33 SILVER STAR, or T-BIRD ground attack jet fighter were also present. The weather was not good at all and the ceilings were not great but after a long discussion with the Met man, Ned decided we would go ahead and cross the Rockies at Rogers Pass. The BUFFALO and T-BIRD crews decided to wait for a day or two! We took off and headed West following the Trans-Canada highway. We climbed with the terrain and managed to stay below the clouds that were getting dangerously close. Ned was leading, a few hundred yards ahead of Ron Adam who was 2nd. I was 3rd at the control of 16715 with Dick in the back seat, also about 200 yards back. We were directly above the road and had to hop over the cement tunnels protecting road traffic from avalanches, our wheel nearly touching the ground at times. The thermometer starting us in the face indicated 0 to -1 and we were on the lookout for icing! We were at automobile height when we started the descent on the West flank of the mountains. What a relief. We refueled in Revelstoke and finally landed in Kamloops. We were stuck here for 48 hours due to weather, so the Air Force guys had been right! On the 12th, we resumed our trip and arrived in Williams Lake late in the afternoon. We saw a nice restaurant and a motel at the airport but they were not for us. The ground party had already arrived and had set up the bivouac in the exercise area, around Riske Creek, 40 km West, on the Chilcotin river. The exercise area was to extend past Alexis Creek, a further 40 km West where we had another airstrip called “CARIBOO 1”. The infantry battalion of the Queen’s Own had set up their pre-exercise bivouac across the road from a ranch house at Riske Creek. It was perfect for us because the rancher had an airplane and his own airstrip where we landed and joined the ground party. We spent the next few days flying infantry company commanders and platoon officers around the area, taking many air photos. The BUFFALO and the T-33 arrived in the training area after us and set up shop at the Williams Lake airport and motel! No tents for these gentlemen.
After “airspace violations” on the 14th and the 16th the hostilities began. We simulated everything from gun fire, high level bombing and low level strikes. We had at least one ac in the sky at all time during the day, sometimes two for bombing strikes. I encountered the T-33 on many occasions and he chased me down in the canyons of the Chilcotin River. He probably could have shot me down many times but he really enjoyed the chase and would follow me right down to the river bed at times. We were now operating mainly from “CARIBOO 1”. After very intensive “fighting”, the “enemy” asked for a truce and a “cease fire” was agreed on the 21st. We moved back to Riske Creek and prepared for the move back to Shilo. We left on the 22nd for Kamloops, Revelstoke and arrived in Calgary at dusk. We crossed the Rockies at 10 000 feet and enjoyed a CAVU day. We flew from Calgary to Regina and landed in Shilo after more than seven hours of flying. After a day of rest, Ned and I flew 702 and 715 to Rivers on the 25th prior to going to Winnipeg. There, I met Pete Baldaro on the tarmac and asked him what he was doing in Rivers? He replied that he was on an L19 refresher course prior to his posting to the troop in Germany. I was astonished. I had always thought that I was the next pilot on the list for Germany. Ned flew me to Winnipeg in 715 where I caught my Air Canada flight back home to Fredericton.
The very next day, I asked to see the CO. Lcol Henderson received me in his office and asked me to close the door. He then said, “I will have to tell you a secret which you must not discuss with anybody, not even your wife! The Government and the Department of National Defence are soon going to announce a very important reorganization of the CF and that will affect you directly. The changes will affect the three services. Existing Formations will be reduced in numbers to created truly francophone units that will be added to the Order of Battle: A ship and other support units in the RCN; a Tactical Fighter Squadron and a Tactical Helicopter Squadron in the RCAF; and, the 4 existing Brigades will be reduced in strength to create a 5th formation in the Army. These formations will be called “Combat Groups”. “Le 5e Groupement de combat” will be created in Base Valcartier and will include a new artillery regiment, “le 5e Régiment d’Artillerie Légère du Canada”, a new armoured regiment, “le 12e Régiment Blindé du Canada”, a new service battalion, “le 5e Battalion des services du Canada”, and other small sub-units. The two R22eR battalions presently in Valcartier and in “la Citadelle” in Québec City plus a the RCR battalion from Gagetown will complete the Group. You have been chosen to be the first Adjutant of this new artillery regiment. It will be a great undertaking, full of obstacles. I wish you all the success in your endeavours. But, remember, this is all secret and cannot be discussed with anybody.”
The next two months flew by extremely quickly. The Government made the announcement and that created a lot of insecurity in the Forces. Many serving members did not believe in bilingualism and were against the creation of French speaking units. The francophone members, on the other hand, were looking forward to the creation of those units to finally be able to work in their own language. It was not going to be easy. I received my posting instructions with a 1st of July report date in Valcartier. My Last flight appropriately took place on the 24th of June, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, the National Day of French Canadians. Farewell Gagetown. Hello Valcartier and 5e RALC.
Grand total Hours Flown in the Air OP: 502.20
I have had hundreds of passengers during my employment as an Air OP pilot and for the record, the following is a list of some of the officers that Army Aviators and Artillery readers might recognize. A few became pilots themselves later so I did not scare them off! In alphabetical order: Baldaro Pete, Beno EB, Crowe DB, deHart Jack, Elkins Dave, Fraser JJ, Gallant Fred, Henderson J.G., Kerr Doug, Laforge Fred, Lavander Keith, MacGregor John, MacInnis JA, McMorran Lloyd, Miller Dave, Nethercott Ned, Oliver Gerry, Ranger Paul, Rogers Richard, Schott Dale, Shellard Gord, Vernon Brian, White Jim.
List of some of the Other Ranks of the Air OP who flew with me, in alphabetical order, by rank: Gnr Desforges, Gnr Doucette, Gnr Wilson, Bdr Bishop, Bdr Crowe, Bdr Desforges (can be gnr promoted?), Bdr Didham, Bdr Doucette (not same as gnr), Bdr Horbal, Bdr Leblanc, Bdr Leyte, Bdr Tomaso, Bdr Wilson (can be gnr promoted?), Cfn Hanna RCEME, Cfn Seelye RCEME, Cpl Briter (RCEME?), Cpl Burns, Cpl Doherty, Cpl Good RCEME, Cpl Jarmyn RCEME, Cpl Masson, Cpl Porter, Cpl Quinn, Cpl Sirois, Cpl Thompson RCEME, Cpl Villeneuve, Sgt Garon, Sgt Hall, Sgt Irwin, Sgt Johnson, Sgt Oderkirk, Sgt Stewart, Sgt Sturgeon, Sgt Wall, Sgt Wesley, WO Gaudet.