The following article of recollections and reminiscences was written and contributed by LCoI Dean Black, Executive Director RCAF Association and Editor-Publisher Airforce Magazine. The article is based on a personal interview that LCoI Black had with LCol McDonald, said article being originally published in a past issue of Airforce Magazine. Canadianarmyaviation.ca is grateful to LCol Black for his permission to post his article to the Canadian Army Aviation website.
Interoperability is not a post-Cold War fad. The effective integration of military capabilities has been an important pre-occupation for alliances throughout history. In the modern era more than at any other time, however, there is one particular element that is critical to the process of achieving effective interoperability: the liaison officer. These officers communicate allied success and failures thus helping to shape further developments and hasten the deployment of effective tactics, techniques, procedures and technology. This story reflects on the Cold War-era work of one Canadian Army aviation liaison officer – Murray McDonald – the first Canadian pilot to attend the US Command and General Staff College in Quantico, Virginia. McDonald made the Dean’s List, earning the admiration of the Chief of the Defence Staff General Dextraze.
The wider military-capability context underpinning McDonald’s story is the evolution of the Canadian Army’s air force per se. The fabric of Murray’s flying career is a tapestry through which his first-hand experiences with the armies of the United States and Britain are interwoven. His career path repeatedly crossed with those of characters highly regarded in Army aviation lore.
Murray’s Canadian Army flying career began not on a Canadian military base, but at the US Army Primary Helicopter School in Camp Wolters, Texas. While there, students learned to fly the Hiller H-23B & C models. Nowadays, Canadian pilots must first endure basic fixed-wing training before they even see a helicopter. In 1959 Murray and his Canadian Army buddies went straight on to helicopters.
Before solo, Murray and his fellow students had to parade around the flight-line wearing their Army baseball cap backwards. “The H-23 was a pretty basic helicopter”, Murray recalled, “but, they could still cause problems. For one thing the piston engine liked to quit”. Buck McBride, a Canadian Army Service Corps student, had an engine failure but managed to land safely. John Hugill, another Service Corps pilot, remembers his engine quitting in Gagetown, in 1965, while flying the commanding general around. Much later, McBride was flying a Kiowa on a mercy mission in Italy after a large disaster in a part of that country when he struck some cable-car wires and died in the crash. Locals honoured Buck’s memory with an Italian medal and named a street after him.
After 14 hours dual Murray was ready to solo. This was somewhat remarkable because Murray’s Canadian preparation consisted of two L-19 rides from the back seat. Maj Bert Casselman, Murray’s course-mate, had some orientation rides in helicopters at the Canadian Joint Air Training Centre in Rivers, Man, but was not allowed to touch the controls. However, Bert had more flying experience than he cared to let on, to which I will return later.
The lives of Casselman and McDonald were linked from this point forward, as both commanded 403 (Helicopter) Squadron later on, and both served as the Director of Land Aviation. Bert was a full Colonel while in charge of DLA, but after he left the post the air side down-graded the position to Lieutenant-Colonel. Bert was not impressed.
Murray scored an “A” on his “Military Progress Check”, after about 40 hours on the Bell H-23. Bert, scored a ‘AA’. “The course was so damn competitive”, said Murray, recalling the wave of disappointment that overcame him, upon learning of his mark. Bert had sensed Murray’s despondency. To help pick him up out of his funk, Bert slapped Murray on the back, and urged him to “’warsh” the instructor off his back”. Bert’s cajoling worked, and Murray perked right up. To this day he has never forgotten Bert’s encouraging advice.
There were 29 students on the course, including two Canadians. With a mark of 85 Murray secured the 4th spot. But, again, Casselman outpaced Murray, finishing in 2nd. Both results were impressive.
Few were aware, but Casselman had served as a fighter pilot in the Second World War. Much of his work involved flying P-47 Thunderbolts, in the Middle East. At five foot six inches, he was relatively unimposing, but incredibly strong. But those closest to him affectionately referred to him as the “little Clarke Gabel”. A 2005 issue of FlyPast magazine carried a sad but amazing war-time story of the demise of an entire flight of Thunderbolts near Cairo, Egypt. The Thunderbolt was prone to compressibility tuck – the huge engine in front of the aircraft made it virtually impossible to pull out of steep dives – and, that’s precisely what happened to Casselman and his four wing-men one day. Only Casselman managed to pull the aircraft out, at the last possible moment, after having placed his feet on the instrument panel and pulling back on the stick with all the strength he could muster. The other four pilots were less fortunate.
The awful memory of this mishap might help to explain why Casselman joined the Armoured Corps, after the war. Our Air Force readers will have noted the RCAF wings on Casselman’s Royal Canadian Dragoons uniform. Nevertheless, he was unable to stay away from flying for long. He soon found himself back in a cockpit, but this time flying helicopters in direct support of his brothers in the Canadian Army. When the Camp Wolters basic helicopter flying training ended for Bert, Murray and the others, everyone moved on to operational flying, but each went in a different direction, based on their Army service background. Bert was Armoured Corps, so he went to Fort Knox, but Murray was Infantry so he went to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
By April 10th 1959, Murray was flying the Bell H-13. During that summer a BBQ-picnic was held for the entire division. “Everyone was eager to play a game”, Murray explained. “So, I suggested ‘Grease the Gun’. We found a long, sturdy table and covered it with talcum powder. I then handpicked six of the strongest soldiers. That’s when things got really interesting”, Murray recalled. “The division had a number of star football players – Rangers – huge men – extremely fit soldiers, who also happened to be pilots”. Mattresses were placed on the floor at the end of the table. The participant was handed a box of matches, and the rules were explained. Participants were tossed from one end of the table to the other; the goal being for the participant to light their match before they hit the ground (mattresses). Of course, it was quite a difficult task. Murray recalled “the first participant was so anxious to play but not one of my six paratrooper/pilots wanted to slam-toss their 2-Star Commanding General across a table-top. They feared for their careers. But, I was eventually able to convince them it would be okay.” The six burly rangers grabbed hold of their first “victim” – Major General Hamilton Howze – and let him fly. Before we delve more deeply into the life of Howze we first have to introduce a former Secretary of Defense.
If Robert S. McNamara’s mission in 1961 was to shake the crusty old army generals out of the overly conservative-minded army tree, Howze was brought in to cut the tree down. So entrenched were old attitudes that not much progress had been made through the 1950s, when it came to deploying new and effective military capabilities. Along came Kennedy. The “massive retaliation” strategic policy was overtaken by “flexible response”. For the Kennedy administration that meant fresh thinking, new ideas, and radical approaches. Soon, more funding was made available for conventional weapons. Kennedy and McNamara had their sights set on a particular conventional weapon – the helicopter.
Howze was appointed in charge of the Army Tactical Mobility Requirements Board. He knew he was dealing with an entrenched bureaucracy, but, according to author Frederic A. Bergerson (The Army Gets an Air Force: Tactics of Insurgent Bureaucratic Politics) since all twenty board members, thirty staff officers and supporting civilian counterparts were all partial to the utility of Army aviation (helicopters) the Board’s eventual recommendations were somewhat pre-ordained. Therefore, in order to succeed, an unorthodox approach would be needed. Everywhere he turned he confronted someone who stood to lose, if helicopters succeeded. Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s coined an interesting phrase, for this phenomenon. He described such efforts to innovate as “creative destruction”. Almost every branch of the Army saw the helicopter as a force that would destroy their way of business. All felt they would lose something that would be supplanted by the Army helicopter. This was especially true when it came to talking about arming the helicopter for anti-tank and close air support missions. For example, the Armoured Corps saw the armed helicopter as a replacement for the tank. Logistics organizations saw an end to Army trucks. When someone referred to the armed helicopter as an “Aerial Artillery Fire Support System” is it any wonder Artillery gunners got angry? “The fight between the Armoured Corps and Artillery got particularly nasty”, admitted retired Colonel James Bradin (author of From Hot Air to Hellfire). “One day, the Artillery had decided the armed helicopter belonged to them because, after all, it had been dubbed aerial Artillery”. Mere hours before senior Artillery representatives were due to brief General Don Starry on a completely different matter, a certain Armoured Corps official planted an especially sensitive rumour amongst the Artillery party preparing to travel. Essentially, he said “since self-propelled howitzer Artillery was now tracked, rather than wheeled, it stands to reason that it should come under the jurisdiction of the Armoured Corps”. The Artillery contingent was furious, and they stewed while making their way to Fort Bragg. When the meeting opened they broke into a tirade in defence of their beloved howitzers. Unfortunately, General Starry was expecting a completely different discussion. Needless to say he was caught off guard. He had no idea where the Artillery had gotten this crazy idea about the Armoured Corps taking over the howitzers, and promptly adjourned the meeting pending further study. The Artillery party returned home feeling somewhat relieved, but because they had been thrown so far off topic, they also dropped their bid to formally adopt the armed helicopter as their own. Finally, the Air Force was understandably upset with the idea of the Army getting its own (helicopter) air force. Despite all these setbacks and challenges, Howze was able to forge a path that promoted the further development of helicopters in support of the army. Part of the success derives from a decision to integrate – not supplant – the helicopter into each of the other branches (Artillery, Armoured and Service Corps). This turned out to be an especially effective solution for the Armoured Corps, and Bert Casselman watched these developments very closely, from his vantage point at Fort Knox.
In the meantime, returning to the 82nd Airborne Division BBQ, six burly aviators managed to throw Howze too hard, too high, too fast and too far. The 2-star General overshot the mattress, and came crashing down onto the floor. “Incredibly“ said McDonald, “he had managed to light his match before he had come to the end of the table! Everyone screamed with joy and soon there were more willing victims flocking to the table to be tossed”. The next victim was Brigadier Von Kan – a big strong airborne paratrooper. Within a few minutes suitable candidates had been exhausted, just as McDonald’s six “tossers” had themselves begun to run out of steam.
One or two more “good guys” were thrown, and with each toss the crowd responded with a roar, so popular was the game. Amazingly enough, the next morning Murray found himself hauled up on the carpet in front of his boss. For some reason Murray forgot to have his own Battle Group Commander tossed during the game, and the Lieutenant-Colonel did not like having been left out.
By November 1959 Murray returned to Canada to rejoin The Canadian Guards in Petawawa. Before he left Fort Bragg he had been joined by another Armoured Corps pilot, Capt Bruce Muelaner of the Fort Garry Horse. (of Ansbach Trials renown) They spent about a month together, before Murray had to go.
He had been a member of The Canadian Guards since 1953. He served as the Adjutant for a time, while constantly encouraging the career manager to get him back on to flying, knowing how much had already been invested in that part of his career. Eventually they agreed and sent him to Rivers for a conversion course on the L-19. “It was a difficult time for Army aviation”, Murray recalls. Trained helicopter pilots were coming out of the US – mainly Service Corps guys – and National Defence Headquarters was trying to figure out what to do with them. There was a nascent plan to purchase larger transport helicopters and in this way the Service Corps pilots were to be put to some very meaningful work.
In March 1961 he began continuation flying with the Air Observation Post Flight (Royal Canadian Artillery) in Petawawa, Ont. On May 17th Murray was out doing “dirty-darts” at the armoured vehicles on the Mattawa Plain, when he had a fire in the cockpit of his L-19. He followed the checklist point-by-point, and shut the engine off, after setting up for a glide into the nearest airfield. He dead-sticked the airplane to a perfect landing at the Silver Dart airfield, but was surprised to see the crowd that had gathered to witness his landing. The Commanding Officer of the Air OP Flight, Maj Sam Pinkerton, ran out to greet him, to express how very impressed he was with Murray’s skills. Murray had accidently depressed the transmission button so that he could hear his own voice, as he rattled through the checklist – something pilots prefer to do even when no one else is there in the cockpit. But, he was supposed to depress the intercom button instead. Consequently, everyone on the ground and everyone flying heard Murray’s play-by-play. In any event, the innocent gaffe actually worked to Murray’s favour. He got a check-out on the floats, and was the first to be trained on the Cessna 182 before any of the other Artillery pilots did, so impressed with Murray was Pinkerton.
Soon thereafter, Murray joined the Army Aviation Tactical Training School, at Rivers, Man. This time Bert Casselman was his boss. It was January 1963. The aim of the course was to teach Army pilots how to employ their aircraft operationally – meaning Artillery shooting, low-flying, snoops and pop-ups, reconnaissance and surveillance, etc. Murray was now seasoned enough to serve as an instructor. While there Murray managed to sneak some time on helicopters and on the C-119 Boxcar.
Group Captain Cliff Black was the Station Commander at Rivers at the time and Wing Commander Ganderton OC Air Training Wing. Ganderton had been Squadron Commander of 427 “Lion” Squadron, 6 (RCAF) Group in England, during the war. He is today fondly remembered as a big Saskatchewan farm-boy who was sorely missed, when he perished in an accident sometime later. Ganderton managed to secure some helicopter flying lessons at Rivers, but he retired a few years later and got a job flying helicopters for a civilian firm out west. He was killed in an aircraft accident soon after joining the new firm.
Light Aircraft Pilot Course #35 photograph includes (Rear Row L to R-students): Stan Cote, Jim Kendall, Stu Green, Hank Thompson, Chuck Penny, and John MacGregor. (Front Row L to R-instructors): Bill Charland, Nick Mulikow, Wing Commander Ganderton (OC ATW), Harry Reid, and Murray McDonald.
Murray flew the Skeeter – which was the first light helicopter that had a fully-articulated rotor-head - with the Brits. He admired the Brits for their discipline and attention to detail. Nothing was bandaged over. The Brits were inclined to return to first principles to find the root cause of problems and challenges. It was early December, 1964, when Murray found himself flying with a LtCol who was an old Army Auster and Beaver pilot from the Second World War. They had a total tail-rotor failure. Murray had already been through one of these and he recognized it right away. He grabbed the controls and shouted over the intercom “I have control”. But, nothing happened. The colonel had froze at the controls; he clearly had no intention of letting go. The aircraft was not in an ideal state, and Murray needed to gain control before too long. He tried again to wrest control from Robertson, to no avail. He then tried something unorthodox, but something that probably saved both their lives. Murray leaned back and drove his fist into the colonel’s face as hard as he could manage. It worked. Although the colonel had an awful bloody nose, he had let go of the controls. Murray got things under control almost immediately, narrowly missing a fifteen-foot high manure pile and a bunch of cows. The two quickly unbuckled, and exited the aircraft. For some unknown reason, however, the colonel was concerned the cows might get struck by the spinning main rotor. Had he managed to grab a hold of the rotor it would have torn his arm from the shoulder or throw Robertson into the helicopter. Murray’s protests were simply not registering, so fixated was the colonel on stopping the rotor. So, Murray tackled the colonel to the ground. Two days later Murray was invited into the Chief Flying Instructor’s office. To his surprise, the RAF CFI – a Wing Commander, chastised Murray for having struck a senior officer and, yet nothing had been said about the fact both had landed safe and sound. Only later did he realize that both the CFI and the colonel were RAF, not Army!
On the subject of Bert’s worst day: McDonald was working in NDHQ DERA (Director of Equipment Requirements Air) just after being promoted to Major, around 1970. He was working for LCol Jim Grant, who, in turn was working for Col Frank Kaufmann. BGen Johnny Buzza was the head of all the DERA sections and more, while Kaufmann was in charge of DERA. Chester Hull was the VCDS, and the CDS was General Dextraze.
During the presentation for the first Chinooks, in the old “A” building, Chester Hull fell asleep. Murray thought the presentation was blown when the VCDS fell asleep, but the day was won anyway.
Gen Dextraze was sent to Rivers on a Senior Officers’ Light Aircraft Pilot Course but he left Rivers for the Congo shortly thereafter. He was having trouble with the ground-school, on the phone constantly with Ottawa making other arrangements, as he felt threatened by what was going on in Rivers – he knew he wasn’t performing to the same standards as the other students.
Bill McNinch (page 152 in Meade book) and Colin Kennedy (he was the Brigadier of Middle Wallop when Murray was there). McNinch used Murray as ballast in his sailboat. Murray had some go-karts and he used to ride them in the hangar and McNinch did not like it. Murray also went golfing with him. McNinch was returning from France in a Beaver that hit a thunderstorm. The wings were torn off and the aircraft went into the channel nose first, killing all.
General Sir Frank King – Murray golfed with him often. Murray was at Farnborough one year when he was DLA. King spotted Murray, remembering him from years before, and gave him a big bear hug – Kings entourage was beside themselves, wondering who the Canadian was. King was a captain when he jumped at Arnhem.
Some of Murray’s students deployed to Borneo and Aden and Muskrat and Yemen, after getting their wings. Months and years later they would present Captain McDonald with a special memento collected on deployment – a hunters old rifle, with leather drooping – a very impressive catch.
Simon Little, Claude Surgeon – Murray was there from 64 to 67. Murray had to go to Ternhill – a four-month course run by the RAF – this was the deal the RAF imposed on the Army Air Corps, and was the evidence Murray needed to understand the politics of army aviation. Murray also did not fully appreciate the fight that was going on inside the army.
Reggie Perbright was one of Murray’s students. Murray knew he was from money – he owned a couple of whippets, and was a member of the Blues (an established Armoured Corps regiment). One day Murray is preparing one of two flying lessons and Reggie convinces Murray of a special route. Murray agrees but asked him to draw up a low-level route. Reggie put it together and off they went. Enroute Reggie convinced Murray they should stop for lunch. Murray agreed and before too long the helicopter is circling low level a very, very large mansion. Reggie explains it is his family home and lands the helicopter. They get out and go in for a big meal, upstairs maids, downstairs maids, and servants everywhere, Murray’s eyes as big as saucers.
There was a tremendous rivalry within the Army: Artillery versus the Armoured Corps regiments. On page 197 talk of Francis Chamberlain – his father owned a scotch distillery – Queen’s Dragoon Guards – was at Middle Wallop for his conversion course – threw a big thunder flash into one of the toilets in the Officers’ Mess and blew it all to hell. The Commandant hauled him up on to the carpet and fined Chamberlain who responded by saying he would be happy to pay for it, and donate thousands more dollars to replace the curtains in the Mess.
Note: Murray was one of only 24 Canadian Infantry officers to be awarded the Canadian Army Flying Badge. Of the 24, five of said officers were officers in the Regiment of Canadian Guards (Brocklehurst, Gilchrist, Hunden, Marshall and McDonald).
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