Many of our Army pilots have experienced unique situations and conditions during their service as army officers. An example, Air Observation Post (Air OP) pilots were required to have two years of experience as artillery Troop Commanders. This provided them with the necessary experience as artillery Forward Observation Officers (FOO) which included conducting most aspects of fire planning at the troop and battery or higher formation levels before selection for Air OP pilot training. This resulted in most being well experienced as gunners before pilot training. In the artillery, the use of aircraft was an extension of providing greater battlefield observation. Unification of the Forces led to the disappearance of the capability from each artillery regiment. Many Air OP pilots following unification selected to move to the pilot classification and were posted to the newly formed tactical helicopter squadrons, while a few others continued to fly with various RCAF units.
The following biographical sketch of Captain Lawrence (Joe) Thibedeau, CD, is but a brief example of some of the conditions of service during the period following World War 2, up to the unification of the forces and several years beyond. The biographical sketch has been pieced together through discussions, emails and telephone interviews between Joe and me. Appreciating that what Joe experienced is now forty-five plus years ago, lapses in the absolute accuracy of unrecorded events may be contained herein.
LCol AV Coroy, CD, Website Coordinator.
An Air OP Pilot's Story.
Artillery and Air OP Service
Capt Lawrence (Joe) Thibedeau’s service with the artillery began in 1947 with the 14 Field Regiment in Yarmouth Nova Scotia and ended in 1980 after approximately 20 years of service as a gunner, followed by another decade of flying with 424 and 429 Air Transport Squadrons. He enlisted in the regular force in 1951and was posted to 216 Independent Field Battery in London, Ontario. He later served with the 81st Field Regiment in Petawawa before being posted to 1RCHA in Korea.
Joe had met his troop commander, Captain Jack deHart, in London Ontario. Prior to going to Korea he had asked him if he could be considered for pilot training. Jack’s reply was that after he had gained experience in Korea, he would submit Joe for pilot training. Jack lived up to his word and Joe was selected for Air OP pilot training soon after returning to Canada.
As a footnote, Joe relates that in Korea, Jack was in an artillery observation post during a heavy enemy attack and Joe as the regiments Intelligence Officer (IO) was monitoring the regimental phone line at Brigade Headquarters. The phone lines were eventually cut by the very heavy enemy mortar fire and our own firing of the Defensive Fire SOS (DF SOS) onto the platoon positions, (a DF SOS was considered a last resort defensive fire task when under attack. The pre-recorded target is usually very close to our own troops). Joe says, “I did not speak with his OP but I did have brief contacts with Lieutenant George Ruffee in the other artillery OP. Conversation was lost after he (Ruffee) reported one of his men was a casualty”. Both officers were awarded the Military Medal for their heroic actions that enabled their units to hold their positions. Joe claims some very anxious moments during the action.
Joe began his pilot training in January 1955 at the Brandon Flying Club on the Cessna 140. On completion of the basic flying course he proceeded to the LAS at CJATC Rivers, MN, on the first course to fly the newly acquired Cessna L19 aircraft. Following his L19 training he was posted to the Air OP Flight, Camp Shilo. The flight was equipped with two Auster aircraft and one L19. The Austers had no VHF radios which required flying with NORDO procedures. Joe’s next posting was to back to CJATC Rivers, Manitoba as a fixed wing instructor with the Army Aviation Tactical Training School (AATTS) where he instructed L19 conversion courses and several courses on float operations. While in Rivers Joe took the helicopter H5 and S51 conversion courses. In 1960 he was posted to 1RCHA, Camp Gagetown as a troop commander with A Battery and later as the Battery Captain.
Joe started his operational flying career when he reported in to the Air OP Flight in Camp Shilo, on June 5th 1956. As soon as he arrived, he was informed that 2 RCHA and another artillery unit were conducting firing practices and wanted to practice Air OP shoots at 1000 hours that day. He was directed to carry out the shoot. He notes that during his flying training he only had the opportunity to engage in two or three artillery immediate neutralization shoots. The Air OP Section Commanders Course which formally taught Air OP procedures and tactics didn’t exist at that time. In any event, that was his briefing!
Joe obtained a range map, air to ground radio and pre-flighted an Auster and took off about 10 minutes before the engagement was to start. He identified a trail running in an East to West orientation and selected it as his shooting fly-line. He flew along the trail looking for any obstacles before radioing the "Guns". The artillery commander began the process of identifying the target for him to engage. To get better observation of the target description he would pull up to improve his view in an attempt to verify the target and then use the target location to refer to another feature to confirm he had the correct target. This was normal procedure for target identification whenever conducting Air OP shoots indicated by a ground observer. Often this took considerable effort by both the target indicator and the Air OP pilot. With that phase over he returned to his tactical flight plan and ordered an "Uncle Target" (Fire orders were pre-NATO standard). He requested the "time of flight” (TOF) and ordered a five second stand by. (The two orders were normal procedures for an Air OP shoot, the TOF provided timing for the pilot to position his aircraft, and the five second stand-by radioed from the guns was the signal for the pilot to pull-up to observe the fall of the shot). He was radioed the fire order “All available”, which meant all guns that could bear on the target would fire on his orders.
Joe states that he "pulled up" to 150 to 200 feet AGL. He then needed to order “at my command” to better coordinate his flight and observation position. He also improved his pull-up position along his flight path so that he was closer to the observer target bearing for the next correction. Joe says that the Uncle Target fire for effect brought up a lot of smoke and dust (An Uncle target usually engaged more than one artillery regiment. At that time a regular force regiment consisted of 24 field (105mm) guns and six medium (155mm) guns). After terminating the shoot, Joe says he returned to the airfield and never heard a word about the whole engagement. However, he did consider that for training purposes a pre-engagement briefing would have been useful. He considered that in a war setting a mission could be flown at minimal notice and with the Air OP pilot being briefed while airborne. He also remembered that a high degree of concentration was required by the pilot while flying about 10 to 100 feet flight AGL, in addition to the demands of conducting the shoot. Carrying out a divisional level Air OP engagement was fairly unique. The last known one was by Capt Peter Tees, DFC in Korea. Joe surmises that there are not many Uncle Target engagements listed in Air OP pilot’s log books.
Joe was posted to be the Officer Commanding the Air OP Troop 2RCHA in CFB Gagetown, 1967 – 69. He considered that the loss of several pilots since he began his flying career, none of which involved air shoots and tactical low level flying, that pilot skills were a central contributing factor. He implemented several changes to some of the routine pilot practices. He flew with each pilot to assess their pilot skill levels, including their instrument flying procedures. Joe claims that during his time as OC he did most of his flying from the back seat. Instrument approaches to the Fredericton airport were routine for many flights. Night flying practices into short landing strips were conducted. During his time with the troop he planned a number of procedures such as having the deployment capability for each pilot to individually move one aircraft and a section’s equipment away from the airfield for up to a three day operation. He arranged to borrow a sniper scope from an infantry battalion and had Capt Lloyd McMorran fly after dark while the Air OP ground party assessed how far away the infra-red heat signature of an L19 aircraft could be detected.
Joe recalls his time during the Korean War as the regimental Intelligence Officer (IO); he had the responsibility for planning the harassing fire tasks. A problem existed with attempts to use flares in identifying targets after dark. The light from the flares would expose patrol activity on our side as well as the enemy and required considerable coordination. He proposed the use of flares for night shooting which became one of the Air OP procedures for night engagements.
At the Air OP Troop many "air shoots" were conducted with a passenger and Joe chose not to fly at low altitudes to allow his passengers to observe and learn as much as possible. It was common procedure within the regiment to take a regimental officer up to observe the engagement of a target in an air observation post. When solo he would fly at tactical low levels. Flying “nap of the earth” was far more challenging than shooting from altitude. As Joe notes, not only did one need have to be aware of obstacles such as trees, fences and power lines, but the pilot had to manage the artillery fire orders in relation to flying to a position where he could climb to observe the fall of shot. On top of this is the need to monitor the aircraft systems and to be able to respond to the artillery and the range control nets. It was a demanding environment to carry out low level Air OP shoots.
Reassignment to pilot classification
Joe says his decision to leave the Artillery classification was based on several conditions, his age, the unlikely chance of promotion on the gunner list and the opportunity for an operational role as a pilot with a new unit. With the plan to unify the armed forces he elected to move to the pilot's list and was posted to 429 Tactical Transport Squadron in Mobile Command which was being formed in St. Hubert, PQ.
Less than three years later 429 Squadron was disbanded and the aircraft came under Air Transport Command (ATC). According to Joe, the purchase of the heavy lift (Chinook) helicopters employed in the tactical transport role was cited as the primary reason for the disbandment and transfer of the aircraft.
Training and Liaison Flight Ottawa
From St Hubert, Joe was posted to the Army Headquarters (AHQ) Training and Liaison (T and L) Flight at Rockliffe and later moved with the flight to Uplands Airport in Ottawa. During this posting Joe was sent on the C45 instrument and multi-engine course at RCAF Station Portage la Prairie in Manitoba.
Since the AHQ flight and the RCAF 412 Squadron were co-located, and with the impending plan to unify the forces he was able to fly the C45 frequently. Joe claims that “it was an interesting time since many of the air force pilots on continuation flying were "jet jockeys" and disliked the C45, “bugsmashers”. They were accustomed to nose wheel landing gear and not tail “draggers”. Our offices faced the runways and every one got a few chuckles watching the “porpoising” landings. About half of the jet jockeys just drove the aircraft on to the runway at about 100 knots rather than the 70 knot recommended landing speed”.
When the unification plan was announced, ATC headquarters in Trenton scheduled a briefing for their pilots on the new unified structure. Joe relates that as captain of the aircraft he flew to the briefing with a Squadron Leader in the right seat along with a HQ officer (Air Commodore Boyle). He had a “Cheshire cat” smile with the arrangement of a brown guy in the left seat (pilot), blue guy in the right (co-pilot) and the navy blue riding in the back.
Following unification the T and L Flight was disbanded and moved to 412 Squadron, and integrated into the 412 organization while continuing the T and L Flight operations.
Buffalo Aircraft (429 Squadron)
Joe relates the story that shortly after arriving at 429 Squadron in March 1972, engine flameouts on the Buffalo aircraft during light icing began to occur. “The aircraft and engines had been certified to be safe in icing conditions by the manufacturer. Naturally we were quite concerned and reported each flameout through the air Canadian Forces technical channels. There were no immediate corrections for the condition to follow for some time”.
“During flight in icing conditions aircrew kept a close watch of the engine’s air intakes where ice would form. Whenever an engine flamed out, aircrew noticed that the ice patch over the intake was gone. The conclusion was that the sudden ingestion of ice put out the flame and shut down the engine. Two years after the incidents were reported; authorities finally authorized a proper test to be conducted at Edwards AFB in California under the direction of the CEPE unit in Cold Lake. Ten of us, 3 pilots, 1 aeronautical engineer and 6 trade specialists spent seven weeks conducting over 400 test points, on electrical and mechanical, and anti-icing and de-icing systems”.
“Generally the procedures involved flying 200 to 400 feet behind a Hercules transport which was equipped with a large water tank and hose system. The hose had a large metal nozzle (like a shower head) from which a controllable flow of droplet size water was sprayed. Above the freezing level altitude I would fly into the spray and expose the propellers, engines, wings and tail and windshield to the spray as required for each checkpoint. The freezing level varied from 10000 to 17000 feet.
Consequently, oxygen was required for all crew members. After each icing test point, we had to descend to clear the ice and return to the Hercules for the next test. The entire program must have been successful since I am not aware of any further complaints. I was very satisfied in taking part in the testing since we probably avoided any future loss of a Buffalo aircraft and crew through the icing problem”.
During his tour with 429 Squadron, he recalls a trip to Brussels with the Buffalo to demonstrate flight characteristics of the aircraft for the Belgian military. The transatlantic flight was from Trenton, Gander Nfld. to Brussels via the Azores. A landing was required at Lages, Azores on the eastbound flight and Santa Maria, on the westbound flight. During the flight demonstration Joe remembers they lost the right engine and had to return to Amsterdam (Schipol). As Joe states “My first Mayday. I was the co-pilot and we spent two days as tourists after we landed”. He further relates that on two other occasions he experienced very severe clear air turbulence (CAT). One was over the Mediterranean Sea just South of Cyprus. He claims it to have been the one of the most violent of his entire career, “like flying through Niagara Falls”. The next severe turbulent flight occurred during Service Flight 33/34 after departure from Ottawa to Andrews AFB, Washington. Joe claims that it was so turbulent that he had to disconnect the auto pilot. The airspeed was jumping 25 to 35 knots and he had to take over manual control of the aircraft. There were 10 or 12 passengers on the flight and most became sick. Wisely, he waited until the next day to make the return trip.
Joe recalls the Buffalo to be very versatile aircraft. He states that “we were always faced with calculating the amount of fuel load after the destination distance and the cargo weight were known. For most tasks a full fuel load was normal. During the summer periods the Squadron was tasked to fly supplies in support of an Arctic airfield improvement plan. “During the period, 1970-80 we usually deployed one aircraft and crew for a week. The aircraft would depart Trenton on Monday and return on Friday. Some operations required two aircraft and three crews. With 24 hours of daylight operations we managed to get a lot done. On one particular trip I had completed the Trenton to Winnipeg leg where we were carrying mixed cargo, frozen food, vehicle engine parts, and perhaps one or two replacement personnel. The following day our flight went from Winnipeg to Churchill to Iqaluit. The next day we flew to Pond Inlet, dropped our cargo and then carried on to Resolute Bay for fuel. We were to return to Churchill or Winnipeg since there was no fuel available at Pond Inlet. About 30 minutes from Resolute our radio call for weather was a surprise. The airport was closed, the visibility was zero in blowing snow and the wind was across the runway at 55 knots. A quick check with the navigator and the weather at Thule, Greenland (a USAF base) we set a new course for Thule which was about an hour away. A call on our HF radio to Thule resulted in a report that the airport is closed on the weekends, and the day was Saturday! Thule suggested that we go to Alert, which was still a bit further away. Joe explained that he would have close to minimum IFR fuel limits by going to Resolute. After a request to stand by, Thule called to say that they would open the airport for us, but that we could not depart on Sunday. “With great relief I accepted and watched the frigid, dark purple ocean below give way to the coastline and the outer islands. After a beer and dinner the base commander approached us and made an offer that he would open the field on Sunday. He explained that one of his NCOs had received notice that his parents had been killed in a car crash in North Dakota and needed a lift to Winnipeg, we left the next day. It was a typical challenging flight for the Buffalo aircrews flying in Canada’s north”.
United Nations operations, Egypt 1974 (424 Squadron)
“While flying with 424 Squadron they were directed to provide two Buffalo aircraft, personnel and equipment for an extended operation in support of a UN force. The purpose of the force was to enforce a demilitarized zone between the Egyptians and the Israelis. The news set off a never ending series of meetings in an attempt to determine answers to a myriad of questions. Advance parties were sent to Cairo, aircrews and ground crews were organized, the aircraft had to be painted in UN colours plus all the administration paper work to meet a January 1975 departure date”.
Joe states that at the Squadron meetings that he attended, he pressed the point that they should take parachutes considering the presence of ground to air missiles. He remembers saying that if they lost an aircraft it would likely be the result of being hit by a missile. He later made the same point at an Air Command meeting and was told by the Wing Commander chairing the meeting that they would not be taking chutes. Apparently the ATC philosophy was that the sight of the aircrew walking up to the flight deck with parachutes, and in view of the passengers, would create a huge problem. Joe says that they ended up taking parachutes with them to Cairo with the support of their CO. During operations, they were not worn. Joe believes that some of the crew on Flight 461 would have survived had parachutes been available. He found it so obvious that operational flights over a country with lots of ground to air missiles should not have been compared with flights in Canada.
Joe says that when they began operations at the Cairo International airport, the security guards would not allow them to get to the weather and the flight planning offices. To overcome the problem they engaged the guard in friendly conversation in English while the Navigator and First Officer cleverly slid over to the stairway, went to flight planning and completed the flight plan. Shortly after, this situation was sorted out by the Air Liaison Officer. The airport air traffic controllers were probably military. They expressed themselves very ably in English and their delivery was swift however, their accent proved to be a problem. Often the aircrew looked at each other and asked "what the heck did he say”? The answer most often resulted in a short discussion of the most probable meaning, which was a challenge.
They lived under canvas for the first three months in Cairo. Eventually they moved everything to the airport at Ismailia close to the Suez Canal. They were accommodated in old World War 2 wooden huts. Joe relates that the most aggravating restriction to operations was the approved routes in and out of Cairo International Airport with a further inconvenience of being provided space on the west side of the airfield and all of the facilities were on the east side.
Joe recounts that the UN supply bases were in Nicosia, Cyprus and Beirut, Lebanon, that required direct flight times of approximately one hour between the two centers. The approved route was to the southwest to a beacon in the desert, then northwest to a beacon on the Mediterranean Sea, then northeast to an airway intersection, finally east to Beirut. The flight required an extra one hour and thirty minutes more than necessary which meant that an additional 2000 lbs of fuel had to be carried. This not only wasted fuel but considerable reduced the cargo load. The explanation about the reduced ground to air missile threat was that since all the Syrian air defences were focused toward Israel to the east, the danger of being shot down was minimal. Since he was one of the first aircrew assigned to the United Nations force in Egypt in 1974 he made the first flight to Damascus and recalls his anxiety level rising as his flight entered Syria. It took an entire day to fly to Beirut and return. IFR fuel requirements meant that it was often an anxious flight in the event of a large sandstorm or airport closure. Sand particles begin to be lifted when the winds reach fifteen knots. Most flights had to fly at 10000 to 12000 feet to top the sand layer. Joe says that the white UN paint on the aircraft lasted only about 2 months.
Joe says that his flights were made without a significant incident before he was rotated back to CFB Trenton. He was at home working on his boat when he heard the news on the radio. Buffalo Flight 461 had been shot down with the loss of all nine crew members on board. He claims that the loss of the aircraft and crew might have been prevented if the aircraft had anti-missile flares installed. Joe considers that it could have been him on that flight had he not returned to Trenton.
The above photo was taken a few years ago at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Mount Hope Ontario, and includes Lawrence Thibedeau and his wife Irene. Lawrence has described in his article his tour in the Middle East flying Buffalo aircraft with 116 ATU. His tour ended just prior to the time the aircraft was shot-down in 1974. The occasion for the photo was to honour the nine members aboard the aircraft who lost their lives when the Syrians shot-down Buffalo 461 that was enroute Damascus at the time. The Buffalo in the photo has been painstakingly restored, painted in the UN colours of the time and numbered accordingly to commemorate the ill-fated Buffalo aircraft and those on board.
For Joe’s leadership and application while with CCUNEF, he received a letter of commendation from BGen D.E. Holmes, Commander CCUNEFME which in part stated “ in my opinion your contribution to the CCUNEFME has been significant…..both LCol Taggart and LCol Tupper relied upon you in assisting the personnel of 116 ATU to adapt to the living conditions of the contingent …..In short Joe, I regard your service here to have been in the finest traditions of the Canadian Army and the Canadian Forces”. Joe was released from the regular force in 1977 and continued to serve and fly as a reservist until 1980 with 424 Air Transport Squadron.
Joe’s Flight times
Engine: 2 X 3060 HP engines Cruise airspeed: 200 K.
Stall speed: 70 K at 36-37000 lbs.
Max weight: 45000 for TO and 39000 ldg.
Later upgrades: 45000 ldg and 50000 TO on hard runways.
Full crew: 5, 2 pilots, 1 flight engineer, 1 navigator, 1 loadmaster.
Fuel: 13500 lbs fuel capacity, 600 to 800 lbs fuel flow per engine per hour.
Note: Operated in the Arctic on 1500 foot gravel strips with light loads and no obstacles.