Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dateline: Wave-hopping over the North Atlantic 1968

A Murky Jaunt to Marsailles and back

via Toronto, Gander, Keflavik, Dublin, Avignon, Paris, London

Not long after my 1967 visit to Sable Island where I gave a seaside concert to the local seal population, the operators of the Canso flying boat which had flown me there, Kenting Aviation of Toronto, called my Ottawa office. They had signed a contract with the French government to send three of their Canso aircraft, which had been modified into water-bombers, to Marseilles, to help fight the forest-fires in that region. Being pleased with my story and photographs which had been featured in dozens of daily newspapers and publicised their role in the Sable Island story (recounted elsewhere in this blog) they invited me, if I thought it would make a worthwhile story, to go along with them to France. Well, I certainly did. And I also thought it might be as adventurous as my ten-day Sunderland flying boat hitchhiking trip from Basra to England back in 1949.

So, off I went, and fairly adventurous and enjoyable it proved to be.

I flew down to Toronto and met the six pilots of the three Canso aircraft. The next day, in very loose formation, I picked one of the aircraft to fly in at random and we flew to Gander in Newfoundland, plugging along at an airspeed all of 120 miles an hour. That evening over a couple of beers the three teams of a pilot and a co-pilot prepared for the second, longest and most hazardous leg of our trip to Marseilles. On odd scraps of paper and half empty match covers, among our beer glasses, we plotted the next day’s course to steer for Iceland and estimated our time of arrival at Keflavik as sometime before midnight. It was all very high-tech stuff and took a good part of the evening and several more beers.

In the low light just before dawn I changed aircraft and joined the lead Canso, piloted by the senior pilot — he who had flown me to Sable Island a couple of months before and with whom I had spent several happy hours in Halifax taverns.

Soon after heading out north-easterly across the forbidding leaden water of the Atlantic the matching forbidding leaden cloud cover overhead, lowered and thickened. The skipper climbed up through the heavy murk in an endeavour to get above the weather. Unfortunately, the Canso, as the US Consolidated Catalina made in Canada was called. just can’t fly that high. At about 10,000 feet, as we struggled to gain height amid the dark of the thick murk we began to seriously ice up. The rime along the leading edges built up at a higher rate than it could be removed. When the propeller blades began hurling large pieces of ice against the fuselage with resounding bangs, our pilots, after consulting by radio with the other two Cansos, hidden somewhere out there a mile or two away in the murk, we decided to go right down on the deck and look for an air layer warm enough to melt the ice.

So cautiously we let down and down and down through the thick overcast. Then down some more. Then more. And more. Until finally at a couple of hundred feet the the grey rollers and white caps of the angry sea came into desolate and threatening view. But the ice did begin to fall off and we felt relieved that we were not faced with the prospect of landing our comparatively puny craft upon the roiling surface of that wide expanse of lonely and violent ocean.

Meanwhile through all this I was making like a steward, preparing coffee over the little stove and making sandwiches for my companions.

No sign of the other two Canso aircraft could be seen, but shortly after passing two or three hundred miles east of the southern tip of Greenland, one of the US weather ships, hove to on its lonely station in mid-Atlantic, inquired by radio as to who we three aircraft were and to where we were bound. After receiving our reply that we were three Catalinas headed for Iceland, they replied that they could see on their radar screens that two of us were headed for Iceland but that the third was way off course for such an intended track and looked as if he was more likely headed for far distant Spitzbergen. Getting this extremely helpful advice from those fine US Navy oceanic guardians, resulted in a flurry of radio contacts between we three players in this small but potentially deadly drama. Because unfortunately, the fourth, and now the most important player—our errant number three Canso—was the one member of the cast not in radio-contact with the other three. He was blithely and obliviously heading for some remote and disastrous point of no return. It appeared that not only was our off-course comrade having trouble with his compass, but neither was his radio working as it should. Try as he would, our skipper could only raise squeaky indecipherable replies to his urgent messages to his wandering lamb. Nor could our other companion Canso contact him. Once more the US weather ship came to the rescue. They finally contacted the wanderer, gave him a series of corrected courses to steer, and relayed messages back and forth from our flight leader.

Many hours later, when we landed in the dark at Keflavik our number two aircraft was but ten minutes behind us. But we had parked the two Cansos, booked into the airport hotel, and even depleted a small percentage of the first case of beer that a kindly room service attendant managed to provide us with at that late hour, before our wayfaring brothers in Canso number three finally made it onto the runway and, seemingly very casually, joined us in a relaxing bottle.

The next morning, the weather remained overcast and bleak. So in order to spread my moral support around in fair fashion, I transferred myself to our wandering boy of the day before, Canso number three. Just before takeoff several Icelandic aircraft buffs gathered around to take photographs of what were then, in 1967, already vintage aircraft. A couple of them were really vintage, with much of their structure and fixtures cannibalized from other even older, and long-pensioned-off, other Cansos. Many of these flying boats still in operation were manufactured back in the mid 1930s.

Travelling aboard this third Canso was the seventh Kenting Aviation crew member, an elderly, senior aircraft engineer whom the Toronto company had sent along to be the three-aeroplane flight’s one-man expert maintenance facility during its stay in France. This engaging, and obviously thoroughly competent air-mechanic of the old school, put me in mind of the boys adventure books I had so avidly read back in the late 1930s. He could well have been, one of Biggles devoted comrades during that fictional hero’s wonderful aerial escapades of battling air pirates and smugglers.

And I did not have to wait very long to witness an actual demonstration of our company engineer’s mechanical prowess. As we in Canso number three were the last, as usual, to arrive over Dublin airport, our port undercarriage stuck halfway down. With one wheel down and the other in mid-position we circled around as our pilot tried to get both the wheels either fully back up or the stuck one fully down. Finally our grizzled air-mechanic passenger selected one of his handy, state-of-the-art tools—a full ten-foot-length of two-by-four sturdy spruce lumber.

Poking it through the open wheel well he jabbed mightily at the wheel’s oleo-leg in its stuck position. For two full circuits of Dublin airport his persuader went noisily bonk-bonk-bonk. Must have caused inquiring comment in many a quiet pub down below. But that cranky oleo-leg knew when it had met a skilled engineer. After taking a few more resounding thumps it gracefully bowed to superior technology and slid firmly into its locked down position.

Within the hour we were relaxing and listening to the peaceful playing of a live string quartet as we took afternoon tea in our big Dublin hotel, soon to be followed by a merry evening of real Irish pub hopping.

Early the next morning we assembled in the airport control tower. The controller regretted that owing to the foul weather he could not give our three Cansos flight clearance for our intended course across the Irish Sea, southern England, the Channel and then over France to Marseilles. The weather was clamped in, almost to ground level. And our Cansos were incapable of reaching the 15,000 feet of altitude needed to fly above it.

We all put as brave a face on it as we could. We sadly drove back to the hotel, animatedly planning our extra day in Dublin with its abundance of restaurants, enticing pubs and wonderful people.

The next morning, fairly early and much refreshed, we again drove out to the met-office. We spoke with the controller. It was just about the same weather situation, he said. We were halfway out the door, heading back to the hotel and another day of good bacchanal Irish life, when the control officer called to us. We paused, and looked back. However, he said, if we got off right away he could give us a low-altitude clearance for 1,200 feet.

It was good news. in a way. Such a clearance was right up our Canso aircraft’s performance alley. But we would have to forego another day of touring the pubs of Dublin.

So we readied ourselves to continue along on our bumpy way to Marseilles.

We went out to our Cansos, dispersed the usual group of local aircraft buffs with their cameras, taxied out, roared off down the runway and climbed up to just below the murky ceiling.

I had now changed back into the lead aircraft. Soon, within a half hour, the cloud base forced us lower and lower. Within the hour in the middle of the Irish Sea we were forced down to a couple of hundred feet. Looking out from the starboard observation bubble, I saw ahead a Royal Navy destroyer heading northwards up St. George's Channel. I visualized the scene on its bridge. The port lookout’s surprising sudden call to the officer-of-the-watch: ‘Catalina flying boat approaching on the port bow, sir!’ The OOW’s languid reply: ‘Oh, for Goodness sakes, Seaman Jenkins! Take another look. A Catalina? Of all things! This is 1967. Try something else, man. You’ll be seeing a Viking galley, next.’

Then again, Seaman Jenkins: ‘TWO Catalinas approaching on port bow, sir—no, sir, Crikey! THREE Catalinas, sir!’

By now the OOW has picked up his own binoculars. ‘Good God! Jenkins, you’re right. Where on earth are they from? The Twilight Zone? Did they fly out to sea twenty five years ago and are just now coming back through some mysterious time warp...?’

Sheering off to starboard to avoid the Welsh hills we crossed the north Devon coastline. Now we were rising and dipping and weaving to keep between the low cloud base and find a safe path through the lowest parts of the undulating land below. Thankfully there were no continuous heights of land across our track but our constrained close proximity to the ground was exhilarating enough by itself.

I can still recall one particular well-remembered scene. As we passed over a small town centre, I peered vertically down from my observation plexiglass bubble. It was like looking down at a tabletop layout of a model town site. There was the centre-town shopping district agog with midday activity. Perhaps it was market-day. In the middle was a fairly busy cross-roads complete with a helmeted policeman on traffic duty. As we passed over, pedestrians and shoppers, cyclists, mothers pushing baby carriages, school children, all looked up in unison at our sudden and noisy overhead appearance. On that murky, overcast day, the spectacle of those pleasant, all-white Devonshire faces of forty-three odd years ago, all turned skyward simultaneously, was akin to the flashes of a battery of press cameras at the arrival of a celebrity. People in shop doorways and cars joined in, poking their heads skywards from out of doorways and through the opened windows of halted automobiles.

And best of all, was when I looked straight down at the bobby on point duty. With one arm stretched out sideways, the other commandingly to his front with upturned palm, and surrounded by a medley of little English automobiles, I looked directly at his upturned face. Even a month later I could have picked him out from a police line-up with ease. Even a line-up of policemen all wearing helmets.

The recollection of those four or five seconds of our low passing over that little town is amongst the most vivid of my life.

And then we were crossing the south coast and again flying over the sea. The angry cloud base lifted somewhat so that over France we were at a more comfortable height for keeping clear of uplands. But just below the roiling cloud base there was very heavy turbulence, and in fact, I seem to remember a domestic Air France Caravelle flight was lost that day. Of our two Canso companions we saw nothing more until we had jostled, shuddered, and stirred our way down onto the ground at Marseilles.

After taking photographs and talking with the French officials conducting the forest-fire-fighting operations, I left my Canso companions, except for one of the pilots who was originally from Avignon and who I accompanied to that pleasant town. There I spent a couple of idyllic days of ease in the local caf├ęs, and then flew to Paris and then over to England to visit my own family members.

Hearing that Canada’s Shakespearean company was playing at the recreated Globe Theatre in Chichester, Hampshire, I hied off thence and took several photographs of actors, including William Hutt, applying make-up in their dressing rooms and then performing on stage. Thinking that was enough to contain my Canadian National Film Board cultural commitments for a while I returned forthwith, via several country pubs, to London, the Big Smoke, as it had long been called.

By this time, though, the big smoke had became fairly smokeless owing to new and effective regulations. And even Old Father Thames, befouled for hundreds of years, had been largely cleansed and was welcoming back the first salmon along its reaches for nearly two centuries.

Reflecting on these evolving aspects of a brave new world, on a sudden whim, I turned into Canada House by Trafalgar Square. I asked the staff, therein, what sort of photolibrary they maintained in order to quickly and efficiently service any British magazines or newspapers who wished to illustrate some exciting aspect of our modern, upcoming, and leading-edge nation. Well, said a local young lady staff member, a native of Clapham Common, we let them sort through this filing cabinet drawer.

I slid open the indicated drawer. It was half empty. I pulled out the first photograph to hand. It was creased and stained. It was a picture of several despondent-looking horses. The attached, yellowed and curled up, stuck-on caption read: Some of the wild horses of Alberta now being rounded up to feed the starving peoples of Europe. It was dated July, 1945. Few of the other photos in the drawer were better than that sparkling tribute to Canadian progress and humanitarianism. The girl from Clapham Common grimaced when I asked her how often she ate horse meat. She said she preferred New Zealand lamb.

Back in Canada I spoke with the people over at External (now Foreign) Affairs) and they arranged for copies of our modern photostories to replace the outdated contents of those sorry filing cabinets.

Then I flew home to Ottawa using one of the complimentary Con D passes which Air Canada often provided me with.

All in all, thanks to Kenting Aviation, an enjoyably adventurous excursion.

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