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A Pigeon Aloft

Lieutenant-Colonel John Ross Farncombe MB CD

Following WW II, the Canadian Army began to evolve its own integral air component and by the early 1950s had established a small fixed wing component primarily in support of artillery. By the late 1950s here was a growing interest in helicopters. By 1960 the Armoured Corps’ evaluation of light helicopters led to a general call for army pilot volunteers. With this growth, a centralized Canadian Army Pilot Training Course was begun with primary pilot training provided by Royal Canadian Air Force staff at Centralia, Ontario followed by conversion to L19 Bird Dog and CH 112 Hillers at the Canadian Joint Air Training Centre (CJATC) in Rivers, Manitoba. A total of ten army Signal Corps officers were eventually trained as Canadian Army pilots between March 1949 and December 1966.

In January 1963, I found myself posted from the Royal Canadian School of Signals in Kingston, Ontario, to 2 Signal Squadron in Petawawa, Ontario where I was attached as understudy signal officer to the brigade’s artillery regiment. In the spring of that year two of us in the signal squadron applied for the offered pilot training, and Major Pruner, our commanding officer, selected me to undertake the assessment.

Off to Toronto I went, to be measured and prodded, to evaluate seemingly endless and obscure ink blots, and to try to turn and stop the Link Trainer in some semblance of controlled mayhem. I returned to Petawawa after the assessment. The summer was spent as Signal Officer with Major Ken Hollingberry’s 2 Canadian Guards Anti-Tank Trial Company trials, living for the summer in a ground sheet hoochy at the south end of a very dreary, wet Camp Gagetown, after which I returned to the “guns” in Petawawa.

In mid-October 1963, I got word that I had passed the pilot training assessment and received a posting to Primary Flying School (PFS) Centralia Course 64/1 beginning in January 1964.

I had never flown before so my first flight in Chipmunk 074 with my instructor Flying Officer Jack Myronuk, was a highly memorable experience. I admit that the incessant smell of avgas, coupled with some very disorienting flight maneuvers tended to make me routinely ill for about a week and a half. Our course graduated on 1 May 1964. I had a grand total of 87 hours.

We aspiring pilots then climbed into Captain Larry Springford’s new car and drove straight through to Rivers Manitoba. I will admit to the fact that I received a speeding ticket while driving at night in the state of North Dakota. According to the statement that I subsequently received in the mail, I possibly still have a record there to which any further infractions may be added.

Light Aircraft Pilots Course #38 began on 18 May 1964 on the L19 Bird Dog. My instructor for most of the course was Captain Ray Anderson. Experience in instrument flying (in the L182), message dropping, field wire laying, tactical photo runs, supply drops and formation flying filled our days and dreams. Low level cross country navigation was particularly challenging – it was surprising that so many small wayside towns seemed to be named UGG if you believed their grain elevators!

During our course the first CH113 Boeing Vertol “Voyageur” arrived at Rivers in its new, shiny olive- drab coat, did a high speed, low-level fly past then landed. It immediately become the “hangar queen” - a machine on which to train CH113 technicians. It was sad to see it grounded but it was evidence that Army Air was clearly evolving.

During our course the first CH113 Boeing Vertol “Voyageur” arrived at Rivers in its new, shiny olive drab coat, did a high speed, low level fly past then landed. It immediately become the “hangar queen” - a machine on which to train CH113 technicians. It was sad to see it grounded but it was evidence that army air was clearly evolving. Course #38 was completed and we were awarded our “army wings” on 21 August 1964. I had accumulated just over 205 hours total on the L19 and L182.

On August 25 1964 Basic Helicopter Course #62 on the Hiller CH 112 light helicopter, Flight Lieutenant Harris was my primary instructor. During this course Captain Nick Mulikow threw a rod while on a solo flight but landed safely. Our course was interrupted in late September and we went back to flying the L19 until November 16th. I finished the course on 11 December 1964 with a total of just under 62 hours on the CH 112.

My active flying training came to an end at that time and in January 1965 I found myself in 1 Signal Squadron, in Calgary, Alberta. To keep up our flying skills (and pay) army pilots were required to complete continuation training at local flying clubs and I did so at the Calgary Flying Club getting hours on their Colts, Cherokees and Musketeers and a bit on their Apache. One experience stands out. Jon Pellow (also on continuation flying) and I decided to fly a Colt into Banff one clear day and commenced to do so. As we advanced into the mountains we felt ourselves suddenly drop and our VSI immediately registered 10,000 feet a minute DOWN. We were level but dropping rapidly. Jon managed to side-slip us out of what was apparently a severe downdraft off the mountains. We both chimed “not today” and returned to Calgary. A great lesson in the need for mountain flying training! And one that stayed with me throughout the years making me appreciate Mother Nature’s invisible powers.

By mid-summer 1965, I was posted to 3 RCHA in Winnipeg as their Signal Officer and remained there until late in the summer of 1967 while Winnipeg hosted the Pan-American Games there that year. It was a very busy time for all of us there during that event. Late in that period, integration of the Canadian Forces began and the need to complete ongoing proficiency training was rescinded. I was offered and accepted the Communications classification as a primary qualification and Pilot as a secondary. Great, best of both worlds – alternating employments!

In late 1967 I was posted to 1 Canadian Signal Regiment in Kingston, Ontario. As I sat in my office one day in the early spring of 1968, General Anderson, who was visiting the regiment from Force Mobile Command Headquarters, Montreal, stuck his head in my door and asked if I was the pilot. I answered affirmatively. He proclaimed the situation as a “colossal waste of money” and stated that I “should be flying”. On 13 June that year I found myself in Camp Borden, ordered to get as many refresher hours on the Chipmunks as I could in five days in preparation before commencing conversion to the H21B Search and Rescue helicopter. A couple of interesting experiences occurred during this refresher.

The Chipmunk was by then an old machine. The first ones had been delivered to Rivers, Manitoba on 10 April 1948 for advanced flying training for Canadian Army pilots who graduated from the Light Aircraft Pilots Course (LAPC) with the Canadian Army Flying Badge. The air force accepted its first Chipmunk in 1952. It was not too surprising then, when, on my pre-solo check, I pulled the flap lever to full on the final leg, the flap cable snapped and the flaps went to full up. After the now clean landing, I was given another aircraft in which to solo. The Chipmunk required half-brakes in order to steer on the ground and to line-up on the runway. As I reached down to disengage the brakes, the brake lever came off in my hand! With some difficulty I got the airplane on a side runway and managed to clamor into the back to pull on the rear brake lever. Not an auspicious start! To make matters worse, I could not get my next machine to start! A ground crew member walked up, flipped on the rear magnetos and stated “You’ll be fine now Sir”. I was, although more than a little embarrassed! I managed to accumulate a total of 10 hours.

I reported to Trenton and began the one-student H21B Conversion training on 2 July 1968. Flight Lieutenants Bill Leslie and Nels Gesner were my primary instructors. I finished the conversion course on 31 July that year with 63 hours on the machine, gathered my family and reported in to Canadian Forces Base Bagotville, Quèbec – a land officer, wearing a brown flying suit and army blue wings in an air force environment. Wasn’t integration grand!

Captain Bruce Wright commanded the Base Rescue Flight at the time. He had been a Warrant Officer pilot on heavy bombers during WW II and had many stories of bombing sorties and one of returning home with an allied bomb lodged in a wing of his plane. He had also flown the H21 during the construction of the mid-Canada radar line in the mid-1950s. He told the story of a pilot who, experiencing engine failure during the construction period, settled the limping machine onto a river surface, let the crew off in the dingy, then, not knowing which direction the turning rotors would throw the machine as it went over, threw it left only to find that it had been actually sitting firmly in only six inches of water!

It was common for Bruce to sit in the H21’s cockpit and lay his hand on the sill of the cockpit door in order to feel the vibrations of the 1450 horsepower Wright R1820-103 engine. Occasionally he would move his hand to the top of the instrument panel, and if he felt vibration there, he ordered the engine changed! In the two years that I worked for him there was only one engine ordered out that showed no reason for removal.

Over the three years that I was on the flight, there were many examples of searching for and rescuing lost hunters and fishermen, searching for overdue aircraft and many relatively minor incidents. There were several major ones. My first major SAR operation was to the location where a CF101 Voodoo, while undertaking a radar directed low level stern attack on a target T33 and had pulled through instead of up and had plowed headfirst into the Precambrian shield, killing both crewmembers.

Chip lights were a common occurrence in the H21 – mostly false but occasionally serious. My first serious incident occurred during the search for a missing clerical brother at a retreat on Lac Panache, near Roberval, Quebec in mid-November 1969. The chip light came on while we were waiting for the crew to clear a cabin that was located on the edge of a remote lake. Dropping the filter proved clearly that the engine was in the process of disintegrating. Within a few days a replacement engine was slung into our lake-side location by a CH113 Labrador from Trenton. The engine was changed on the sand beach of the lake and, after a quick, but cautious run-up, we flew the machine the seven miles to the nearest civilization for a more complete check and then home. I experienced more than a dozen chip light emergencies in the local area over the following years. Two that occurred during low level handling exercises required engine replacement in farmer’s fields and a chip light fortuitously occurred while carrying the national Defence Headquarters Pay Study Team on an area sightseeing tour on 8 April 1970. We undertook a precautionary landing in a farmer’s field, dropped the filter, found no reason for concern and flew back to base. The study team now had a story to tell about the dangers and responsibilities of being an armed forces pilot! And they did!

In January 1970, the powers that be decided that all remaining “army trained” pilots should be instrument rated, so eleven of us were sent on Special Instrument Rating (SIR) Course 700 at Portage La Prairie, Manitoba where we were exposed to the C45 Expeditor for the next three months.

My introductory flight was enlightening when Lieutenant Williams, my instructor, decided to show me how to handle single-engine flight in the circuit. He shut-down and feathered the starboard engine only to find that it could not be started again in the minus 30-degree temperatures we were experiencing. A single engine landing had to be made! I ended the course with just under 68 hours on the “bug smasher” including 32 hours of instrument time. Plus, of course, another 27 hours on the “Boxcar” simulator which none of us that I know were ever able to land without crashing!

On a Sunday in April 1970 back in Bagotville, a civilian rented a small plane at the local flying club, filled it with fuel and five passengers (overloading it considerably) and left the circuit to which he had been cleared. He proceeded to the Lac Epinglette area south-east of the base to show his passengers a cottage. They got caught below cloud among the hills and could not find a way out. The Bagotville controller tried to give him a radio ADF bearing home but the pilot eventually skidding the plane onto a hill top, experiencing only minor injury to himself. An RCAF Dakota transiting the area picked up the distress call and guided us to his location. Because of the altitude and our power constraints, we were required to lift the plane’s personnel to the bottom of the mountain individually and then together back to the base.

On a return formation flight from Loring, Maine, USA on 21 August 1970, two CF5s based out of Bagotville collided in midair about eighty miles directly north of the base. We were dispatched immediately and the next day found one of the downed pilots waving from the edge of a lake. We picked him up and he showed us where the burning aircraft had scorched a hardly distinguishable path down through the nearby tree tops. We were asked to guide a Labrador onto the crash site and began to position ourselves to do so. As I backed the H21 over the crash site, I suddenly heard a change in engine sound. Looking into the cockpit I saw that the engine/rotor RPM was dropping rapidly. By “bouncing” the collective several times the RPM stabilized at 2200 but could not be build up further. I tried to develop translational lift by slipping the machine down a slight hill. Unable to develop sufficient lift to get over a slight rise, I elected to bring it to rest over a small clearing and let it settle into the trees. As the wooden rotors disintegrated around us our wheels hit the ground, we bounced and came down again this time at rest on our starboard side. The engine suddenly surged and I pulled it into idle cutoff. The investigation found particles in the fuel tank which could have caused a partial blocking of the fuel filter. No one can know for sure. 9640 was down for good!

The only crew injury was Corporal Ron Service’s broken collar bone when he fell against a rock that had folded the hoist door into the cabin.

The next day a Trenton Labrador that had come to help backed into the shore line of a small lake to let off the search team and hit trees, bending its rear pylon. There were now four machines in the bush and our own Bruce Wright, who had piloted one of the single engine Hueys up from 403 Squadron in Petawawa where he was now stationed, was the one to find the body of the second CF5 pilot. An expensive, sad operation all round.

A quite bizarre incident occurred the fall of the same year.

When the off-station crash alarm sounded, we started up the helicopter on the pad and awaited the tower’s instructions. A Russian Aeroflot passenger aircraft heading to Montreal had declared a low fuel emergency and had requested landing at Bagotville. When he landed, the refueler-probe-equipped 101 interceptors that Canada had just a few weeks earlier exchanged with the US National Guard, were lined side by side on the open tarmac! Whether there were cameras rolling in the Aeroflot no one was sure but it felt like it. The Russian aircraft fueled at the commercial terminal on the airfield under RCMP guard and when he taxied out, all of the interceptors were now out of sight. The tower held the Aeroflot at the intersection of the two main runways until an interceptor came barreling across his front, cut-in its afterburners and spired upward into the sky. A good show just to let the Aeroflot personnel know that we suspected their true motive.

Just after midnight on 4 May 1971, the Base Rescue Flight was called upon to assist the Sûreté du Québec in locating a woman whose car had gone over a cliff. They reported that a woman and her brother had heard on the late news that the earth had collapsed near Shipshaw north of St-Jean-Vianney, Québec and while driving to see what had happened, had driven off the end of the road when it disappeared in front of them. Her brother had gotten out and climbed back out of the hole but his sister had not.

We flew into the abyss having no idea what had happened to create it and, using our search and landing lights tried to locate the missing car and woman. We did see a house flow past us and disintegrate in a raging whirlpool at the north end of the abyss but no woman.

After about a half hour it was beginning to rain (we still had wooden blades on the H21) and accordingly we were forced to abort for the night with a promise to return at first light.

As it became light enough to re-approach the site, we began to realize what had transpired and to understand the massive implications of the event. The hole was huge and deep! It was also clear that when we had entered the hole in the night the clay had already almost stopped flowing and had even then begun to re-solidify.

As we approached, a ground party had already spotted the woman sitting on the top of her car, stuck on its wheels, on a sandbar created at the junction of the Rivière des Vases and the massive hole’s exit channel. We were unable to land to pick her up due to the muddy sloped walls of the channel so were required to drop the pickup collar. The crew instructed her in how to put it on and we lifted her to safety. She appeared to be none the worse for her long nightly ordeal. She had seen our lights in the night as her car tumbled slowly down the exit channel, but we had not seen anything of her.

We revisited the site seven times in the next three days searching nooks and crannies in the crevasses and for other possible anomalies in the area. We found only one body - on the burm where the Rivière des Vases outflow entered the Saguenay River. A further three days were occupied in ferrying Members of Parliament and other dignitaries to and from the cave-in site. It certainly drew a lot of interest.

In 1973, Governor General Roland Michener personally presented Captain Tiny Wennas, my flight companion, and I with Medals of Bravery for our efforts and Master Corporal Rod Verchère, a SAR Tech who was attached to the flight, was fittingly awarded the Star of Courage for his work in clearing buildings lying within the hole.

In the spring of 1971 I received a posting to 444 Tactical Helicopter Squadron then in Edmonton. I was a little surprised assuming that I would most likely rotate jobs since my Officer Classification selection had been Communications first and Pilot secondary. While I was pondering this potential move, I got a phone call from the Pilot career manager Bud Hill. “Jack”, he says, “we have been going through your file and find that you have not elected to transfer to the Pilot list. You are eligible, qualified and fit, how about changing?” I did not know that I had ever been required to select Pilot as my primary classification but apparently, when “unification” as opposed to simple” integration” had occurred that was a change made. I had not been so advised and, of course, had not done so. Did I want to change?

I spent a full two weeks weighing the pros and cons from my perspective – I very much liked the work in communications and it was steady; I had found that being a pilot on flight line involved a lot of just sitting around waiting for something to happen, it was exciting when it did to be sure but I had even taken up editing the Base newspaper in order to alleviate my boredom. Pilot only, I concluded was not what I really wanted. When I advised Bud accordingly, he, of course, cancelled my posting and I spent several days convincing the Communications career manager that I was one of them. “No, you are not” was the retort, “The computer says …”. A month later I received a posting to the Signal Squadron in Calgary – I was a now a retired army pilot. I now had a total of 730 hours on the H21 and a total of 1268.2 hours total.

Fun while it lasted! I am extremely privileged to have experienced it all!

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