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

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Letter to old Squadron Pals

And now, look at this — out of a clear blue sky and just when I thought I might relax and concentrate on my innocent hobbies with peaceful tankard and pipe.  Now I am yet beholden to even more toil and service. 
My brief and modestly-extended flying career must needs be further extended it appears.  In fact it is my bounden duty.  This call comes in the form of this headline in newspapers of September 11th, 2011 —

“RCAF can’t train enough pilots: report”

It states that the air force needs 125 new pilots every year but airline companies attract too many in competition, etc.
So they’re “…enticing ex-service pilots to re-enlist to fill the gap...”

Well that’s it, innit?
With my record I just cannot refuse.
How about you other ex-WWII 805 squadron guys?  Should we all be together again?  Let’s meet in some low-down pub where we can furtively smoke our pipes at will and plan our proposals to the RCAF.
Will we insist on being provided with Seafire XVs?  Or at least the latest Spitfires.  None of those silly jet things.  Real aircraft. 

I’ve even had a bit of experience in this stuff…Viz:

During a brief 1949 interlude back home in UK, in between contracts with the Iraqi government when in charge of my 110-ton little survey vessel El Ghar with its crew of 20 Iraqis at the head of the Persian Gulf, I joined the RAF as a very casual spare time P2 reservist.  No uniform or anything, just show up whenever. So every now and then I’d take a London bus over to Hornchurch RAF air station and take a Tiger Moth for a jaunt around the skies over Essex.  Then take the bus back to Ilford, and stop in the Valentine public house at Gants Hill, for a few convivial pints with guys I knew who were still around.

Nine years later, in 1958, after five years sailing into the Arctic on six-month voyages of charting and mapping with the Canadian Hydrographic Service, and with the smouldering cold war threatening to heat up and burst into flame at any time, the Royal Canadian Air Force formed a spare-time flying program for ex-service pilots.  The intention was to allow such older people (I was then 31 years of age) to keep their flying skills alive so that in the event of war they would have a nucleus of flying instructors to build upon.  Passing the recruiting office in downtown Ottawa one day I went in and joined the program known as the Chipmunk scheme.
I was at once taken on and received a commission as a Flying Officer.  This was really ultra-informal.  Again no uniform or anything.  The two or three RCAF Chipmunks were looked after by the Ottawa Flying Club but kept separately just for the use of us Chipmunkers.  Though for the several times I popped into the place over those winter months I never met another fellow reservist.  Maybe I was the only one.
Ottawa airport was still quite a modest sort of place then.  The big passenger 707 and DC8 jets, requiring extra long and tough runways, were only just making their first appearances.  So the club aircraft shared the old runways with Vickers Vanguards and Viscounts and DC4s and stuff then in vogue.  But even those vintage turbo-prop commercial jobs seemed like big bullies from inside a tiny Chipmunk.  I remember once, while taxiing along the perimeter to the duty runway, suddenly having a Vanguard show up behind me.  Those commercial biggies taxied very fast and I was intimidated enough by the attitude of its crew looking disapprovingly down on me from their lofty cockpit high up on their dauntingly massive tricycle-undercart that I scampered well out of the way onto the grass just to be polite.
I had to.  If I’d increased my taxi speed to stay in front of the bugger I’d have become airborne.

Anyway, all this tied in well with a new interest.  Because talking with Bill Glenny, a good friend with whom and I’d spent many a convivial time in the southern fleshpots, and shared lots of flying adventures with up north, and who was now the government’s chief helicopter pilot, we had discussed the advantages of a hydrographer also being a helicopter pilot or a helicopter pilot also being a hydrographer.  In such a case a surveyor-pilot could fly another surveyor from the ship to one hilltop, leave him there to make his observations and fly himself to another hilltop, take his own observations and then fly back, pick up the other surveyor and proceed to the next two hilltops.  This would save all the wasted time when a pilot sat around on the hilltop waiting for the surveyor to finish his hour or two of observations.  It would raise the pilot from being just a glorified aerial taxi-driver.
Bill said that with my renewed RCAF spare-time flying I could easily get my commercial fixed-wing license and then he, Bill, using all the Department of Transport facilities he had at the airport, would teach me to fly a helicopter, during those days I could spare from my winter hydrographic office work, and then he himself would test me for my official license.  And of course, pass me. Thus the next season I would be a hydrographer-helicopter-pilot.
         We put this proposal into writing and I presented it to the Dominion Hydrographer.  He approved it and forwarded it to the Director of the Surveys and Mapping Branch who in turn sent it to the Deputy Minister who also approved it.  Things looked very good until the Treasury Board or Civil Service Commission turned it down by quoting from the rule book that there was no precedent for one person to hold two civil service classifications at the same time.  I appealed on the grounds that I would not want to have the designation of helicopter pilot but would just use my flying skills much as I used my ability to drive a jeep or motor launch or fill out crew paysheets to further my survey work.  All to no avail.  They blew me a raspberry and sent word down the chain of command that the subject was closed.  
As it was I spent many a stolen afternoon and a freezing Sunday morning driving out to the Ottawa Flying Club, pushing a little de Havilland Chipmunk from the hanger and doing aerobatics over the frozen Ottawa River. 
I was told to use Carp airport, a few miles to the west of Ottawa, for practicing circuits and bumps, but was cautioned to first make a couple of low passes along the runway to see where the potholes were.  They were very large potholes, which meant landings, and takeoffs were quite adventurously tortuous.  
I also noted the lakes where people were ice fishing.  Then later, after landing I would drive to those lakes and spend an hour fishing through a hole in the ice.
For enjoying myself like this I received pay of about ten dollars per flying hour.  This was too much for newly-elected Prime Minister Diefenbaker.  When he heard about it he cancelled the whole training scheme just as he did the wonderful Avro Arrow fighter plane project.  Well, I suppose he just had to look after his political well-being and go along with the American Bomarc program.  So I didn’t even get my commercial license.  I did have my private license, though.  It was endorsed for night flying.  It would have been suicide to have used it — I hadn’t done any instrument flying for a dozen years.

In the event, when the Chipmunk Scheme was terminated, being up north at that time for another long Arctic season. I was unaware of the fact.  So I was never  discharged from the RCAF or anything and so must still be a reserve officer.
For a couple of years I used my ID card to go shopping in the armed forces special markets on military bases.
And that was that.