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403 Helicopter Operational Training Squadron (HOTS): The Early Years

I joined the Squadron in March 1968 when it was only three months old and owned a grand total of one CUH-1H. I arrived after three years with 1 Transport Helicopter Platoon RCASC in Rivers and St. Hubert along with Major CH Reid. Harry had been the first CO of 1 THP, so it was a considerable let down for him to become 2 I/C of 403 as he had commanded 12 Voyageurs, two Hillers, 30 pilots and 1st and 2nd line maintenance.

The first group of pilots was selected for their varied Army backgrounds. They were: Bert Casselman CO, Reid 2I/C, Murray McDonald Ops, Pat Thornton, Alf Tait, Leo Noiles, Dave Simmons, Don Day, Peter Dudley and myself. As 1968 was the year of Hellyer’s integration, we also received Pete Charlesworth from the RCAF and Bud Jardine from the RCN. Brian Cox arrived at the same time as the British Exchange Officer from the Army Air Corps.

We operated from a disused Hussar tank hangar in the main Camp Petawawa. A small sports field to the north of the hangar served as the heli-pad. It was surrounded on three sides by wires and the east side was a wooded drop off towards the Ottawa River. But the Squadron nonetheless operated from this facility for four years without scratching an aircraft.

While we were indeed a training squadron, we had no one to instruct. Much of 1968 was devoted to fetching all 10 aircraft from Fort Worth, working on course training material and getting ourselves up to speed. Towards the end of the year, we ran a course of about 10 students, a smattering of staff officers from the army side and DFS. We had the full complement of 10 aircraft by October 1968.

As the Hueys were the only game in town (along with the CH-113As), we were becoming popular and in increasing demand to provide support to the Army. Also any further helicopter expansion for the Army was in doubt. It was decided to give us a limited operational role. But with only 10 pilots available to fly 10 helicopters on any given day, it was decided to post in another group of pilots. By December 1968 Al Cooper, John Hugill and Gord Van Dyke had joined the Squadron.

In August/September 1968, we put one of the helicopters in the static military display at the Canadian National Exhibition and also flew a three plane demo during the CNE Airshow. By November 403 had already chalked up 1000 accident free hours in the CUH-1H.

Birds 4 & 5 at Bell’s Fort Worth delivery centerEnroute home

In early 1969 we received skis for the aircraft after AETE had done their usual certification flight testing of a proven Bell product. Much of the early part of the year was devoted to developing SOPs for Air OP, FAC, etc.

Meanwhile, Harry Reid had quite a falling out with the CO. Harry had worked tirelessly to improve the safety of our operation. A viable crash rescue plan was very slow to take shape and the heli-pad was still surrounded by unlighted wire obstacles. Harry downed tools and said the wires had to go. Casselaman did not take kindly to Major Reid’s methods and had him quickly removed to be replaced by Marsh Wright. It was a sad end to the flying career of the Army’s most experienced, respected aviator.

In April, Don Day, Bud Jardine, Peter Dudley and I took two machines to the Gaspe for exercise Pass Blocker in the Matane area. We spent a week back in the mountains operating with a company of the R22eR as the enemy force. It was a baptism by fire for the skis as the snow was so deep you would sink up to your armpits as you stepped from the skids. From then on we made snow shoes standard winter deployment kits.

Left – Pat Thornton Right – Peter Dudley
Refuelling during EX Pass Blocker

In April/May we ran a course for a mixed bag of six pilots. From the graduates, Ralph Johnstone, RCAF and Denny Hopping, RCAC stayed with the Squadron.

On June 27th, we deployed eight aircraft to Cornwall, Ontario for the 10th anniversary of the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway System. Prime Minister Trudeau and President Richard Nixon held a ceremony at the (appropriately enough) Iroquois Locks. We were tasked to fly the VIPs and Press from there to another ceremony at the Expo site in Montreal.

Our operations were taking us farther afield. We did trials on hoisting/rappelling, trials on slinging the L5 Howitzer, firepower demos in Gagetown, recces in Valcartier, VIP transport and a myriad of taskings including the CNE airshow again.

In mid-September 1969, we sent four birds to Denmark by C-130s from Ottawa. We spent a fabulous two weeks working with the Canadian Guards Battalion ( also from Petawawa) on NATO ex Green Express. The CUH-1H was easily air transportable by removing the main blades and main shaft from the transmission. Reassembly was pretty fast but the sealant used for the main shaft housing took 30 hours to set. Or so our maintainers said. We never complained during the many exercises where the Hueys were transported in because we always had at least a day to get the lay of the land and become familiar with the natives.

On completion of Green Express, we ferried the aircraft to Soest, Germany home of 4 CMBG. The trip down from Denmark included a very memorable RON in Hamburg. We spent a week giving briefings and famil flights to units of the Brigade prior to the start of another two week exercise (the last for 4 CMBG as part of the BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) prior to their move to the south of Germany in the Lahr area. As this was the first week of Oktoberfest, we managed to borrow a bus from the Service Battalion, complete with two German civilian drivers, and spent an enjoyable two days drinking our way through the wine centers of the Rhine and Moselle River valleys. The Exercise started against the East German border and advanced westward as we were part of the enemy force. The fog rolled in each afternoon around 3 PM and burned off next morning around 9 AM so we had lots of time to do foot patrols in the local villages.

On completion of the exercise, we flew the four machines to Lahr for redeployment to Ottawa. The weather throughout the Rhine valley was IFR for the flight to Lahr. Unfamiliar with European regulations, we nevertheless climbed out of Soest at 15 minute intervals and airfiled IFR flight plans to Lahr. On arrival in the south, Lahr was below limits so we all managed to recover at Hann AFB in 220 foot ceilings. My clock showed 3 hrs 15 mins airborne, not bad for 2+30 fuel on board. On arrival at the CF-104 flight line in Lahr the next morning, Denny Hopping jumped out of his machine and with white paint proceeded to paint big ‘Hs’ on the tarmac. The Base Commander was not amused. He had not recovered from the news that 4 CMBG would soon be moving into his backyard.

No sooner back in Petawawa by the end of October, we immediately ran another course to boost our strength of pilots further. We added Marty Jacques, Gary Merritt, Ron Phillips, Chris Caldwell, KC Pettman, Bill Abbott, Lanny Harbord and John MacGregor to our numbers.

In December, I took three aircraft to Fort St. John, BC for exercise Old Hat. We provided two weeks of support to the ‘Army of the West’ during a good exercise up the Alaska Highway. This was a build up for Arctic Express to be held in Norway in February/March 1970. I never was one to complain, but during the time we were freezing in Northern BC and the Yukon, the other half of the Squadron was enjoying the Caribbean sun on an exercise in Jamaica with the Jamaican Defense Force. This was one time it did not pay to be known as an old hand in winter warfare.

In January 1970 the Squadron reached 5000 hours accident free. On 20 February, we flew four Hueys to Ottawa for C-130 flights to Norway. The crews deployed a week later for the two week Arctic Express exercise in the Bardufoss area of Northern Norway with the Queens Own Rifles from Calgary. I had flown in the area previously with CH 113As but for the others it was quite a good area for winter and mountain flying operations.

We arrived home from Norway in mid-March and by mid-April we were on our way again compliments of 4 C-130s. This time we ended up in Fort Irwin, California for a two week desert warfare exercise with the 8 CH (again our neighbors in Petawawa). We all had a chance to fly down Death Valley and watch our altimeters descend below sea level. Pat Thornton and I flew to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas to pick-up some parts on a Friday afternoon. The wind picked-up and the place became IFR with sand up to 6000 feet. They shut down the airfield operations. Oddly enough, we had our civvies with us and managed to rough it on The Strip for the whole weekend.

During the summer, it became known that the Twin Huey buy had been approved and that we would soon be receiving a course of 20 students. We became quite busy qualifying new instructors, finishing lesson plans and reorganizing to receive students. We broke the pilots (now numbering about 24) into A, B and C Flights. Denny Hopping was Flt Comd of A, Leo Noiles of B and I had C Flt. Those with little tac hel experience were given to me to provide the IF and Nav training for the expected courses.

In September we ran the first big course of 20 pilots destined for the newly formed Tac Hel Sqns. In that group was the designated COs: Norm Ramsey 422, Paul Argue 408, Peter Harrison 427, JJ Veronneau 430, plus a number of experienced RW aviators, i.e. Ron Hall, Doug McMillan, Jim Macfie, Cam Mathias, JP Filteau and George Zvanitajs. Bob Chisholm was also in the group having been named 2 I/C of 427 Sqn.

The first month of the course ran very smoothly with good weather, high serviceability and meaningful lessons. Then, suddenly in October, the actions of the FLQ precipitated the October Crisis and for 403 Sqn a three month involvement in Operation Essay a St. Hubert. Initially, the whole Squadron deployed for the first three weeks. But as the operation became quieter, we moved two flights back to Petawawa and rotated the third flight on regular intervals. We took our students with us and provided them some very realistic training throughout the operation. The R22eR was billeted next to us in St. Hubert so we used the opportunity during taskings to get in some very mutually beneficial training such as recce, troop insertions and airborne assaults. The supply system also reacted quickly and provided us with ‘fire-fly’ illumination kits and video cameras for recce. We found the cameras were not appreciated as some wag tried to film the go-go dancers in the bar of the St Hubert Motel.

We managed to graduate the first course by X-mas 1970 and started the second course right after the New Year 1971. It was another large course of 24 pilots all destined for the new squadrons. We managed to complete their training in three months.

In the second quarter of 1971, A and B Flts began their transitions onto the CH 135s while my flight continued training with the Single Huey. From April to end June we ran two Base Rescue courses. On completion of the second course, we deployed the aircraft to Moose Jaw, Cold Lake and Chatham, NB. 403 Sqn was out of the CUH-1H business by 1 July 1971 and I left the Squadron for HQ 10 TAG.

We had flown the Single Huey for three and a half years, operating from the mountains of Norway, the desert in California, the heat of Jamaica, in Europe, the Alaska Highway and coast to coast in Canada and never had an accident in 17000 plus hours.

The CUH-1H was a superb machine. The maintenance flight under Bob Atken provided serviceability rates above 90%. He was ably assisted by the Bell Technical representative Joe Sangemino and an engine representative Bob Cameron from Bristol Aero engines, Winnipeg.

CUH1H 8102 flown by Peter Dudley and Pat Thornton on a fire power demonstration on Gust Plain Petawawa on 5 June 1969

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