Monday, 27 February 2017

Echoes and Whispers - Part II

As I've indicated, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan relied heavily on the civilian population.  No. 10 EFTS, run entirely by civilians, was no exception. It has its origins in August 1940, when the Minister of National Defence for Air invited the Hamilton Aero Club to sponsor and organize a school at nearby Mount Hope, Ontario (the present day site of the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport).  In what must have been a spectacular effort, the school was ready to accept its first students on October 14th of that year.  To add to the challenge, the inaugural course had swelled in size to twice what was anticipated due to the Battle of Britain being at its height.  From that day, training continued seven days a week, 363 days a year.
In the spring of 1942, the Air Force required more navigators and it was decided that the RAF's navigation school, which shared the Mount Hope base, would need to expand extensively.  No. 10 was then offered a brand new station on the existing field at Pendleton.  In the last week of August 1942, the school's staff made the 400 mile trip in 40 moving vans.  The aircraft followed - flown in, without incident, by the instructors and the senior class of students.  As there was a war on, training recommenced without delay on September 1st - even though most of the base's buildings were still under construction and wouldn't be completed until January 1943.  This herculean task rested on the shoulders of Mr. Gerry Moes, a Dutch-born engineer, hobby pilot and one-time Olympic swimmer.
The RCAF held Moes and the school in the highest esteem.  In May 1944, when the necessities of war forced the transfer of the entire base and operations into the hands of the Air Force, Air Marshal Robert Leckie, then Chief of the Air Staff, wrote:

Since the inception of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, (No. 10 EFTS) has been one of the governments earliest and most energetic civilians instructions schools.  A very high standard has always been set by Mr. Gerald Moes and the officers serving directly under him and the school has attained an enviable reputation in the quality and quantity of its output.  The RCAF, on its part, is grateful for the services so freely given when our need was so great and we trust that the friendships that have been formed during these years will remain.

An accompanying note from Squadron Leader A. R. Morrissette, commanding officer of the air force personnel on the base, relates the change to the breaking apart of a family and praises the efforts of the civilian staff writing "I hope that each one of you realize that we in the RCAF understand fully, and appreciate, the vital role that you have played these last few years in the training of pilots, who to-day are doing the job over there.  Without your efforts, and only could they be supreme efforts, that would have been impossible."  He then signs it, "your friend."
It's difficult to accept these words as mere pandering.  There is genuine feeling and affection that comes through and, when you consider the climate in which this work was undertaken, it's completely relatable.
A photograph of a crashed Fleet Finch Trainer (RCAF 4664) from neighbouring No. 13 EFTS at St. Eugene, 1 May 1941.  The pilot's parachute is next to the tail and part of the canopy rests by the left wing.  It's not known if the pilot, an LAC A. Thomson survived.  (Photo Courtesy: Library and Archives Canada PA-063938)
RCAF Station Pendleton was a thriving base where hard work was balanced with hard play.  After all, there was a war on and, naturally, spirits were to be kept high.  To that end, the base featured a swimming pool and a tennis court in the summer.  In the winter, staff and students could take advantage of the ski trail or "Little St. Moritz" - a skating rink.  There was also a pub christened "The Pig and Whistle" and a station library where, according to the station's 1944 yearbook, Esquire magazine was available on request. 
Leo Memorial Hall was the base's recreation centre where basketball enjoyed particular popularity as Pendleton sponsored both a men's and women's team.    The building was named for the beloved mascot of No. 10 - a goat who died on "active service with the Royal Canadian Air Force" during the station's move from Mount Hope.  A eulogy in the station's 1944 yearbook, equal parts feeling and humour, laments his passing with the following words:

The clatter of Leo's little hooves will not be heard on the parade square at Pendleton, no longer will he report to the Adjutant's office to masticate Training Command Instructions and cigarette butts.

Humour was and still is a way to make sense of the unique happenings on a home front base in time of war.  The follow snippets provide both a chuckle and insight into life on the station.

NOTICE - The regular official trip to Ottawa will leave at the usual time, some other day, but not today.

DRY CLEANING - On account of lack of water, dry cleaning is being practised by all personnel.

ENTERTAINMENT - The entertainment for the coming week-end looks exceptionally bright.  All personnel on the Station will provide their own.

CANTEEN HOURS - The canteen will be open for 15 minutes twice a day.  We don't know which 15 minutes, but the word will get around, so jump to it when you hear.

SPORTS - Same as yesterday, snow-ploughing and snow shovelling.

DRESS - It has been noticed that some of the personnel have got into the habit of going around unshaven and improperly dressed.  This practice should cease.  It is not likely that it will, however.

LOST - Flying suit complete with helmet and boots.  Last seen bobbing up and down among snow-drifts near the garage.

The Gatineau Gliding Club's "Boudreault" hangar and the only original building remaining on the former base.  The other was dismantled and moved to Prescott for use as a curling rink.  (Author's Collection)
The Grass Roots Squadron at Pendleton. (Author's Collection)
Today, as I climb out of the Smith's cockpit and stretch my legs, little of the wartime base remains.  The asphalt runways - save for a 30 foot section down the centre of the east-west strip - are crumbling, so most operations use the grass.  Only one of the massive RCAF hangars and the swimming pool remain - a far cry from the small village Pendleton was at the height of the BCATP.  The Gatineau Gliding Club, in continuous operation longer than any other club in Canada, now owns the airport.  The Club purchased it from the government in 1961 after permanently moving their operation from a farmer's field, now a golf course, tucked up against the Gatineau hills south of Camp Fortune.
Looking out across the airfield, one realizes the scenery hasn't really changed in more than 75 years.  I could have easily, just moments ago, unfolded myself from a Fleet Finch than the relatively modern Smith.
We walk across the old tarmac towards the Boudreault hangar.  The war time building is named for club member "Shorty" Boudreault who, in August 1948, flew a German-designed Grunau Baby glider for five and a half hours.  For this feat, balancing his open-air craft atop waves of turbulent air along the Eardley Escarpment, Boudreault became the first Canadian to be recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) with the Silver C Soaring Badge.
We push through the southernmost door and into what would have served as the ready room - where pilots lounged before embarking on a flight.  I recognized it immediately as I'd spent a fair amount of time in its Mountain View counterpart.  Here, however, the drywall had been removed to expose the studs and the open space of the hangar floor beyond.
While this shot was not taken at Pendleton, it gives you an idea of the standard construction and interior of the world war two hangars in Canada.  This is Tiger Moth 8958 - which tells us this was most likely taken in a hangar at Arnprior.  This Moth was taken on strength on 26 June 1942 and then used by No. 3 Flying Instructors School at Arnprior beginning 1 August 1942.  It was sent to No. 9 Repair Depot for scrapping on 20 December 1943 following a crash and struck off strength 13 April 1944 for spare parts.  (Photo Courtesy: Library and Archives Canada)

This is a Fleet Finch I on skis in one of the hangars at Rockcliffe, 17 December 1942.  (Photo Courtesy: Library and Archives Canada)
Bojan inside the Boudreault hangar.  (Author's Collection)
The hangar is only half full as gliding is underway and most of the aircraft are on the flight line.  Still, the back end of the hangar protects a few gliders, ultralights and a handful of private planes - a cute little Champ, a classic Globe Swift, a rarely-seen Bellanca Cruisair and an aerobatic Rans S-9 in rebuild.  These monstrous old hangars were once omnipresent at airports across Canada but they're exceedingly rare now.  As we walk through the building, our footfalls echo softly throughout the cavernous interior.  It's difficult to believe this structure once housed a full-time maintenance facility where Moths and Finches subjected to the trials of flight training were serviced or patched up as needed and then sent out again.  On dark, quiet nights when everyone has gone home and the aircraft sit silently, I wonder if ghostly mechanics return to tighten a bolt or chase down a snag they overheard a pilot complain about.  I wonder if they gather in a corner, sitting on upturned buckets or an old pine bench and, in a cloud of cigarette smoke, have the same good-natured bitching sessions enjoyed by air maintenance engineers of today.
"Johnson hit '35 so hard this morning, he nearly puts the wheels through the wings," says one.
"Did you tear a strip of the silly bastard?" asks another.
"No," comes the drawn out sigh of a reply, cut short by a sharp drag on a half-finished cigarette.  "They sent the poor bugger out to fill in the holes the undercart left in the field.  That's bad enough, already."
A roar of laughter.
"Besides, there's no damage, nothing wrong with her," another drag and a wry smile.  "Johnson, on the other hand..."
Another roar of laughter.  A claxon sounds.
"Alright, lads," bellows another. "Back to work!"
Cigarettes fall to the ground and fizzle under the toes of scuffed leather boots.  The clatter of their steps fades as they return to their respective tasks.
We leave the hangar through the main door and amble back to the airplanes.  There's a tall, older gentleman standing by the Smith - blue jeans, ball cap, green windbreaker flapping in the breeze.
"A Smith?" he asks as I walk up and with a cheery hello, drop my knee board onto the seat.
"Yes, sir." 
"My dad built one years ago," he says.  "Early 60s."
"Where is it now?"
"Oh, no idea," he says with a chuckle, thrusting his hands into his pockets and rocking back on his heels.  "Lost track of it.  Where you from?"
"Rockcliffe," I reply.  "We're doing a little tour of grass fields."
"Come to think of it, that's the last place I saw a Miniplane," he says, the glint of memory in his eye. "Yeah, pretty little red and white thing.  Must have been, oh, more than 30 years ago now."
"It belonged to my Dad," I say.
I tell him a little bit of the story - about my Dad, about me and our Smiths.  We begin as two perfect strangers in a chance encounter on a little-used grass field near Nowhere, Ontario.  Our only tenuous link is aviation.  We part ways as friends - richer for the experience. This is one of those meaningful moments that makes this story and its continuing legacy worth telling. 
The Grass Roots Tour group with the Smith at Pendleton.  Cessna 172 C-GIGU is in the background.  (Author's Collection)
When we're ready to depart for Lancaster, we discover that it is, in fact, the Smith's starter that is the cause of our troubles.  Chris hand starts the biplane and I sadly tell him I won't be joining in on the rest of the trip but rather, returning to Rockcliffe.  The last thing I want is an issue en route or at Lancaster that forces me to leave the Smith away from her maintenance base.
The 150 departs first, followed by the Champ.  As I taxi along the pavement to the start of the grass runway, I hear someone call about a runway change.  I can see one glider just about to turn base for runway 26 but I can't be sure he won't try for 31 - the runway I'm waiting to take off from.  It's a lovely day, I've nothing but time and a warm engine is a happy engine.  And so, I'll yield until the glider is safely down.

Chris (top) and Bojan (bottom) with Champ C-FILL at Pendleton.  (Author's Collection)
I watch the glider, the Club's two seat Puchacz, approach.  Even minor movements and adjustments are exaggerated in a glider thanks to their requisite large wingspan.  I had seen all manner of curious flying in my relatively brief time in the air cadet gliding system - including a Schweizer flying backwards and a skidding turn to final that, were it not for the radio calls of an instructor, would have surely ended in a catastrophic stall and spin.
The Puchacz, however, flies as if on a string.  There are no wasted movements.  The turn from base to final is deliberate, calculated and paradoxically beautiful.  The right wing of the Puchacz sweeps soundlessly overhead - casting a momentary shadow as I look up to watch, squinting.   There is no noticeable flare.  Rather, the pilot flies his craft onto the grass and keeps it balanced there.  As it slows, he adds a boot of right rudder and the glider turns gracefully onto the asphalt. Stopped now, the pilot ground flies it for a moment, using the breeze to keep the wings level.  Then, he allows the left outrigger to fall gently into the grass - kindly leaving most of the runway clear for my departure. 
Moments later, we're galloping across the turf - a fantail of trembling grass and decapitated dandelions in our wake.  Pendleton is by no means a manicured golf green.  It's a bumpy ride and so I've taken care to keep the tail low throughout the roll.  We're still hopping along comically as we pass the glider.  Both the pilot and instructor are leaning against the nose of the Puchacz, arms crossed, smiling wistfully.  One casually flips his hand up to his brow in salute and best wishes for a safe trip home. 
We hit another furrow in the field and are catapulted into the soft cushion of ground effect.  We linger here for a few moments while the airspeed builds before climbing into the wind spilling over the pine trees at the end of the field. 
As we climb away and leave Pendleton behind, a sense of loneliness sweeps over me.  My squadron mates have flown away, melting into the blue sky to the south-east.  In a little more than half an hour, they'll touch down in the fly-in community near Lancaster, Ontario - a small town on the edge of the St. Lawrence between Cornwall and Les Cedres where I learned to fly fifteen years ago.  A cup of coffee and enthusiastic conversation surely await them there as Lancaster is famous for its hospitality.  Instead of sitting on a cedar deck overlooking the airfield, my feet up on the bannister, I'm heading home early.  The sense of missing out leaves me feeling empty.
As we ply westward for home, I think of how the landscape around me wouldn't have changed all that much since the war.  Orleans, the eastern sprawl of the capital, is but a smudge on the horizon and no threat to the reverie.  The Smith is faster than the Moth and the Finch but not by much so the pace would have been comparable.  Our higher wing loading means we'd handle turbulence with greater ease than either trainer...but the sights, sounds and feel would be eerily similar. 
I lower my goggles to shut out the wind and quiet some but not quite all of the noise.  I roll my shoulders back and relax into the seat.  In light of the starter issue, I have a strong feeling this will be our last flight of the season and I'm determined to relish it. 
I imagine I'm leading a three-ship formation.  There's a Moth bobbing about off my left wing and a Finch plowing along on my right - Kinner radial engine pop-pop-popping away merrily, gleefully belching grease at her pilot.  He tries to wipe his goggles with the back of a gloved hand and only succeeds in making it worse.  Pushing his goggles up, he flashes me a jovial grin topped by a handlebar moustache ensnaring several globs of grease.  The Moth pilot is more reserved, very business like.  His eyes, cold and hard even behind the shelter of his goggles, don't leave my ship.  He offers only a curt nod. 
Tiger Moth 4388 in flight over Canadian countryside likely near Windsor Mills, Quebec in 1942.  This Moth was taken in strength in February 1941 and assigned to No.1 EFTS at Malton (present day Toronto Pearson) before being damaged outside Toronto in November.  After repairs, it was sent to No. 4 EFTS at Windsor Mills then sold into civilian life in February 1945. (Photo Courtesy: Library and Archives Canada)
Their bright yellow paint jobs stand out vividly against the blue sky and green patchwork below.  That's by design.  It screams "I'm learning.  Give me a wide berth!"  Still, I'm the only one that can see these two.  I know it's a dream and that they're not really there.  I'm watching an imprint - an echo cast aloft seven decades ago that continues to careen across the heavens, revealing itself only to those who look for it.
We crawl westward at 1500'.  I make only minor heading changes which my ethereal escorts match with fluid precision.  We make quite the group, flying only feet apart but separated by 75 years.  I wonder about their names and hometowns, whether they have sweethearts and what spurred them to take up the fight.
Soon, I sense my wingmen grow restless.  We're flirting with the eastern boundary of Orleans and they're wondering where these buildings have come from and why they don't appear on their charts. A glance to my left reveals that the Moth has already peeled off and is now a tiny yellow cross diving away to the southeast.  The Finch remains on station, chugging along merrily - but not for much longer.  The pilot has lowered his goggles again, still smeared with grease.  He rocks his wings.
I'm sure I hear a voice in the rush of the wind.  I can't be...and yet, it is.
"That's as far as we can take you, Skipper," says the voice, barely more than a whisper - faint and thin but unmistakably Aussie. "The field's at your 12 o'clock by 6 miles.  See you at the pub."
And, with another grin and a wave, he guides his craft into a graceful climbing turn to the north.  I watch him go, afraid to blink lest I shatter the illusion.  Soon, my aching eyes can barely pick him out against blue of the sky and I lose him forever.
"So long, boys," I whisper to myself.  "Godspeed."
Rockcliffe today looks nothing like it did when the Finch and Moth would have landed there.  Only one runway, 09/27, still exists.  15/33 has been erased from the face of the earth and most of 04/22 is now taxiway Delta and home to the pieces of the national collection too big to fit into either of the museum's buildings.  

The Evolution of the Rockcliffe Airport - seen here in an aerial photograph from 1928.  There are two grass runways (including 09/27) and a collection of buildings at the north end - including a hangar and what looks like a construction site.  (Photo Courtesy: GeoOttawa)

An amazing shot from Air Force Day at Rockcliffe on 14 July 1934.  The picture is taken from the control tower of the smaller prewar hangar seen in the next photo just east of the larger 1939 hangar.  The road at left is present day Airport/Marina Road.  The aircraft in the foreground are Hawker Furies of No. 1 Squadron, RCAF.  (Photo Courtesy: Canada, Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

An aerial view of RCAF Station Rockcliffe from 1943.  The surviving runway 09/27 is nearest the river, seemingly recent resurfaced.  The three large hangars to the south of the field (middle left of the frame) were built in 1940 and housed the country's national aviation collection until the late 1980s.  The small hangar at bottom right remains in existence today as part of the RCMP facilities. (Photo Courtesy: Canada, Dept. of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, PA-064459)

The Rockcliffe site in 1965.  15/33 has been closed.  (Photo Courtesy: GeoOttawa)

The Rockcliffe site in 1976.  04/22 has now also been closed.  The three buildings in the infield (middle of frame) are the hangars and terminal for the short-lived Air Transit Ottawa to Montreal Short Take-off and Landing (STOL) commuter operation.  You can also see that runway 09/27 has had a section marked out for the aircraft flying the route.  By the late 80s, both north hangars would be demolished with the smaller hangar's footprint now serving as boat storage for the marina. (Photo Courtesy: GeoOttawa) 

And finally in 2014.  15/33 has been torn up to make way for the parkway and 04/22 is now taxiway Delta.  The 1939 and World War Two hangars have been demolished and Canada Aviation and Space Museum now occupies the two new buildings at centre.  (Photo Courtesy: GeoOttawa)
When I arrive overhead Rockcliffe, I see there is a strong wind blowing across the field from the north - precisely as forecasted.  While not a howl, it can be characterized as a robust shout.  75 years ago, I would have approached from the south and taken runway 33 almost directly into the wind.  Today, however, I am forced to weather the wind's broadside if I'm to bring this flight to a safe conclusion.The Smith's small cross-section and high wing-loading make handling a crosswind a little easier.  The control feedback and roll authority is terrific and so the approach is steady and beautifully controlled.  With a fair amount of into wind aileron, we sweep over the fence and into the flare - rounding out to balance ourselves mere inches above the asphalt.  I ease the right main down and it touches almost exactly at the same time as the tailwheel.  For a moment, we ride along on only two wheels.  The little biplane leaning heavily into the wind but rolling faithfully straight ahead.  I let the left main drop onto the runway and, as we slow, progressively add more right aileron.  The Smith slows to a brisk jog and then a walking pace.  My feet are aching and I realize they've been working the rudder automatically - small movements but at a furious pace.  My legs are trembling.  Adrenaline.  I've 900 hours aloft and now more than 100 in this slick little ship but it still gets my blood pumping.

Building the north side land plane hangar on 12 December 1939.  This hangar can be seen nearest the river in the previous aerial photographs of Rockcliffe before 1976.  The present day Club's parking lot now occupies its former footprint.  You can plainly see the scale of the work.  The BCATP hangars, built later, were more than twice as large.  (Photo Courtesy: Library and Archives Canada)
FAM in 1985 at Rockcliffe.  The 1939 hangar is in the background, marked for demolition.  (Family Collection)

My squadron mates return two hours later as I'm elbow deep in the Smith's engine compartment - trying to clear a gummed-up starter bendix.  It's of little use as I'm sure we'll need a new one and less confident that it'll arrive and be installed before the end of the season.
I can hear the excitement in their voices as they spill out of their airplanes and walk across the tarmac.  It was a good trip but they're glad to be home.  Bojan walks over, full of concern for me, the Smith and the maintenance issue that forced us back early and (not quite) alone.  He tells me about the trip.  I tell him about the Moth and the Finch and sheepishly admit that I know I'm silly for having imagined it.
There's no ridicule, however - just a smile.  Somehow, in him too, this trip has stirred whispers and echoes of a time long ago.

The Smith waiting for a new starter.  (Author's Collection)
The insights from early in the piece come from a special edition of the "Pendletonic" - a No. 10 yearbook of sorts produced for the occasion of the base's complete handover to the air force.  It includes amazing scenes of life on the base, including photographs of Pendleton before and after the station's construction.  I highly recommend having a look.  It has been posted by the BCATP Air Museum in Brandon, MB and can be viewed at the following link:

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Echoes and Whispers - Part I

Chris, both hands folded around the trailing edge of the down-going blade, rocks back on his heels and drives the propeller downward - his momentum carrying him away.
The Lycoming coughs once and then catches. The propeller blades instantly disappear into a silver whirl reflecting the flat, early morning light sweeping across the field.
Chris gives me a grin and a thumbs up before walking over to the Champ, hand starting it and then climbing into the front seat.  My friend Bojan is in the back seat.  He's backlit and so appears only in silhouette - but I can tell he's smiling.
Hand-propping the Smith has been an increasingly regular occurrence.  The 50-year-old Remy-Delco starter has taken ill of late and can no longer reliably spin the prop with enough force to start the engine.  On this morning however, given the chill of the air and a period of relative inactivity, we've incorrectly diagnosed the issue as a low battery.  In the end, it's of no great consequence.  Fox-Alpha-Mike did not have a starter - so my Dad hand-propped it for every flight.  Al told me he put a starter in Delta-Sierra-Alpha because he was "lazy".  Given my lack of interest and education in the finer points of hand swinging a propeller, I'm thankful for Al's sloth.
I'm very excited about today's flight.  It's the Club's 3rd annual "Grass Roots Tour" - where a small group of airplanes visit three grass fields in the area.  I missed the tour last season and, despite flying an airplane best suited to grass fields, have never landed it on anything but pavement.
The planned flight route for the September 25th Grass Roots Tour.  (Photo courtesy:
The planned flight route calls for stops in Pendleton, Lancaster Airpark and Embrun before returning to Rockcliffe.  Legs are between 20 and 40 miles forming an almost perfect quadrilateral or "kite" shape across the land between Ottawa and Montreal to the east.  Four aircraft carrying ten people will make the trip: myself in the Smith, two in the Champ, two in a privately owned Cessna 150 and three more in one of the Club's Cessna 172s.  The Smith and Champ will fly the trip in formation, alternating lead and wing positions. I will, however, forego the landing in Embrun - simply overflying the field and continuing on to Rockcliffe.  The runway at Embrun is but 50 feet wide, hemmed in by power lines and there is also stiff direct crosswind forecast for later in the day.  While I am quite comfortable with the Smith, in this case, I've taken to heart the old adage of "discretion is the better part of valour."

Smith C-GDSA warming up on the tarmac at Rockcliffe (top) and together with Champ C-FILL (bottom). The photograph at top gives you a clear idea of the lack of forward visibility in the three-point attitude.  (Photos Courtesy: Ernie Szelepcsenyi)
The Cessnas depart first - the 150 followed by the 172.  Chris and I had briefed a take-off in trail, followed by a formation fly-past before departing for Pendleton.  We taxi onto the runway together and Chris takes off first. 
The Lycoming waits patiently at 1000 RPM as the windsock is already beginning to swirl.  While the northwesterly wind will present only a slight crosswind from the Smith's right broad, the impatience of the ten feet of brightly dyed nylon foretells a strengthening wind. 
The corners of the chart tucked under my left thigh tremble in the wind.  Folded inside are photocopies of each airport and my notes.  In any case, I've committed runways, frequencies and procedures, at least for Pendleton, to memory.  Reading charts and notes in an single-seat, open-cockpit, high-maintenance biplane like the Smith is difficult bordering on dangerous.
Now, where is the Champ?  Surely, they must have taken off by now.  I scan the sky ahead just in case I've missed them - but no. Part of the Champ's charm is it is never in a hurry. Its plodding pace is an integral part of its constitution.
I occupy myself with simple tasks - a final scan of the instruments, a jockey of the rudder pedals, exploring the limits of control with the stick.  Finally, I see the Champ slide into view above the Smith's long cowling. 
We bound ahead, reaching 75 miles per hour relatively quickly.  In our first season, I discovered we could run at full power on the main wheels as long as the runway ahead permitted without edging much past 75.  A deft movement of the right wrist and the wheels free themselves from the bounds of the earth.  And so, our open defiance of gravity begins anew.
The Smith joining up on the Champ. Although it's dark, you can see the end of Rockcliffe's runway 27 at top left. (Photo Courtesy: Bojan Arambasic)

The wind has kicked up small waves on the surface of the Ottawa River - little mounds that now bounce off each shore and crash into one another.  This, coupled with the effect of a low-slung, early morning sun, has created something of a kaleidoscope of black, white, silver and grey.  It is against this shimmering canvas that, from the Champ's rear seat, Bojan watches me approach - a shadowy mass against a field of diamonds. 
By mid-downwind, abeam the field to the north, I am tucked in as number two on the Champ's right wing for our formation fly-past.  Two turns and not quite sixty second later, we sweep over the eastern perimeter fence and across the old field at Rockcliffe.
It is the last bastion of undeveloped land in Canada's capital city - and its once substantial footprint is, even now, dwindling.  Lost behind the roar of our engines and masked by my concentration on the lead ship, are the sights and sounds of change and repurposing.  Lorries and heavy construction equipment shuttle back and forth just outside the airport's boundary - digging a drainage system for the new development atop the stony bluffs from which the airfield takes its name.  Years ago, the airport was bordered to the south by homes for the men and women stationed there as well as a school, theatre, recreation centre, ball diamonds and a general store.  Now, only stone walkways and heritage oaks remain.  
Its very being is somewhat secured by the presence of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum as the facility requires the airstrip to accept new additions to the national collection.  Still, despite having no military function for decades, its fight is far from over.  The airport was threatened by talk of another interprovincial bridge in the 2000s.  It will inevitably find itself in the public's crosshairs once its new neighbours to the south realize an airport's actual purpose.
Holding the Number Two position on the Champ as we're about to cross the perimeter fence.  Note the construction activity in the background.  (Photo Courtesy: Bojan Arambasic)
As I've related many times before, this old airport has a soul.  As our little two-ship races across the old lady's aging face, I can't help but wonder if she finds our display amusing.  After all, her window panes were once rattled by the Merlins of the Lancaster and the Wright Cyclones of the Flying Fortress.  In those days, fly-pasts would stop conversations cold - if only because the participants could not hear each other well enough to continue.  Now, only a few would stop to watch - and most out of annoyance.  Even at an airport, I'm sure there are a handful of poor souls who remain unmoved by our passing.

Two shots of the formation fly past with the Champ leading and the Smith as No.2.  (Photos Courtesy: Ernie Szelepcsenyi)
We leave home behind and I assume the lead position for the flight to Pendleton. My notes call for a course of 100 degrees for 23 miles but the chart remains stowed under my thigh.  I don't bother looking at the compass.  Its presence is but a regulatory requirement.  In practice, it provides little more than added weight and comic relief.  Upon climbing to our agreed upon altitude of 1700', I point our nose to where I know Pendleton, as of yet still unseen, must be.

Leading the formation towards Pendleton.  We're almost past Orleans and the Gatineau Airport is just out of frame to the left.  Note the almost three point attitude of the Smith .  In normal cruise, the airplane sits in more of a tail up stance.  However, I've slowed down here in order to not over tax the Champ which flies at a slower speed.  (Photo Courtesy: Bojan Arambasic)
The Champ is holding close formation on my right wing - even Chris' small movements are barely perceptible from my danger close vantage point.  Bojan is still grinning.  He gives me a wave.  Even across the chasm between our machines, his enthusiasm is infectious.
It's a pleasant day with clear skies and terrific visibility.  To the south, the patchwork of fields and forest stretch to the horizon.  To the north, the river meanders east while the land rises gently in an endless green sea of undulating hills.  We are floating in an immense, empty sky and our emotions are chiefly tranquility and peace.
One of my favourite photographs from the BCATP era.  Here, an RCAF airman in tropical dress checks himself in the Rockcliffe exit gate mirror.  As an air cadet almost 60 years later, I would be drilled in the very same points of uniform wear and maintenance. (Photo Courtesy: RCAF)
The last time the world was locked in large-scale bloody conflict, these same skies were home to the same tranquility and peace we enjoy now - which made them ideally suited for flight training.  In Canada, far from the dangers of wartime skies, the military machine could churn out thousands of aircrew for service.  Between 1940 and 1945, more than 130,000 pilots, navigators, observers and wireless operator/gunners were trained in Canada alone through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP).  The governments of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia ran similar training schemes in tandem. 
The land around us was once dotted with BCATP fields and you'd be hard pressed to find a pilot (or any Canadian for that matter) who hasn't flown into a former Plan airport.  In fact, Rockcliffe itself was home to No. 7 Manning Deport where RCAF personnel, mainly Women's Division recruits, were drilled in military basics.  RCAF Station Uplands, now the Macdonald-Cartier Ottawa International Airport, was once home to No. 2 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) operating the Harvard and Yale.  In the midst of a war, they even found time to shoot a movie: Captain of the Clouds starring James Cagney with a cameo by Billy Bishop.  Service Flying Training Schools were typically served by two nearby relief fields.  These smaller airports came in a wide variety as some were paved, others simply turf and some also featured hangars, maintenance facilities and barracks.  The role of these airports was to provide alternate landing areas in case of maintenance, weather, overflow or emergency.  In the case of No. 2 SFTS, famous for turning out High Flight poet John Gillespie McGee, these airports were Carp to the north (which still exists) and Edwards to the south (which is now a solar farm).
Carp in 1944.  (Photo Courtesy: Library and Archives Canada)

RCAF Station Arnprior which, during the war, hosted one of the BCATP's three flying instructor schools. (Photo Courtesy: BCATP Museum)
To Carp's north was Arnprior, still in service today as a major general aviation field, which hosted No. 3 Flight Instructor School.
No. 10 EFTS at Pendleton, Ontario during the war.  (Photo Courtesy: BCATP Museum) 
Pendleton, our immediate destination, was first built in the late 1930s as part of a network of emergency landing fields for Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA), Air Canada's predecessor.  It was little more than a leveled field with a lit beacon flashing a Morse code identifier to mark its location at night.  When war erupted, the site was selected and developed for use as a BCATP field - welcoming its first trainees in September of 1942.  RCAF Station Pendleton was home to No. 10 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) where recruits selected for pilot training cut their teeth on the de Havilland Tiger Moth and Fleet Finch.  Its relief field at Limoges is now a private grass strip where I had, at one point, considered basing the Smith.  Roughly 30 miles east of Pendleton was the airfield at St-Eugene, home to No. 13 EFTS operating the Fleet Finch.  That airport is gone now with only the faint outline of its overgrown runways and an old road still visible from the air. 
No. 13 EFTS during the war.  (Photo Courtesy: Flight Ontario)
The former site of No. 13 EFTS - about two miles south of the town of St. Eugene.  The school operated the Fleet Finch from October 1940 to June 1945.  You can plainly see the triangular runway arrangement characteristic of BCATP fields. (Photo Courtesy: Google Maps)
My own connection to the BCATP runs deep.  Over three days in September 2005, I learned to fly gliders at Mountain View (No. 6 Bombing and Gunnery School) and Picton (No. 31 Bombing and Gunnery School).  The old Royal Air Force base at Picton, in particular, has changed very little since its BCATP days with most of the H-hut barracks, hangars and support buildings remaining in use as storage space.  At Mountain View, you can still see the pockmarks of bullet strikes on the huge concrete walls that once served as targets to sight aerial weaponry. 

At top, Picton (No. 31 B&G) and at bottom, Mountain View (No. 6 B&G) during the war.  Picton has remained largely unchanged while Mountain View is hardly recognizable.  (Photo Courtesy: BCATP Museum)

In the many summers spent working with my Dad, we flew out of the former BCATP fields at Dunnville  (No. 6 SFTS - Harvard and Yale), Welland (Dunnville's relief field) St. Catharines (No. 9 EFTS - Moth) and Oshawa (No. 20 EFTS - Moth).  Just before the Club acquired our Super Decathlon in 2009, I flew out to Boundary Bay, British Columbia to get reacquainted with the type.  Boundary Bay was home to two BCATP schools, No. 18 EFTS on the Tiger Moth and No. 3 Operational Training Unit - the last stop before overseas assignment for B-24 Liberator and B-25 Mitchell crews.

BCATP fields at St. Catharines (top), Oshawa (middle) and Boundary Bay (bottom).  (Photos courtesy: BCATP Museum & RCAF)

The Plan drew heavily upon the civilian population - employing thousands in support jobs.  In the post Depression years, the construction and operation of 80 new airfields meant an instant economic shot in the arm for small towns neighbouring these facilities.  It was a monumental effort - a tremendous mobilization of man and machine, ingenuity and innovation that raged for nearly five years.  It cannot be denied that the Plan played a significant role in the Allied victory.  And yet, many Canadians don't know of its existence let alone its importance.  If a BCATP field survived the post-war dismantling, any sign of its former role would be forgotten or slowly erased altogether in line with present and projected needs.  At Uplands, for example, thousands of passengers a day pass a plaque detailing its wartime function and importance.  Few stop to read it. 

August 23, 2005, Picton, Ontario.  At top, my 21-year-old 2nd Lieutenant self about to close the canopy of Schweizer SGS-233A C-FCIV for my first glider solo.  At bottom, landing on the grass next to runway 35 after an 11 minute flight on a 2500' tow. (Author's Collection)
Today and in these parts, we can navigate in the purest form - watching the landscape below unfold and knowing where we are with wonderful precision, even without the aid of a chart.  We've only just said goodbye to Gatineau over the radio.  The riverside village of Cumberland lies over our left shoulder.  Ahead and stretching to the south-east are two rather large forests flanking a swath of farmers' fields.  Without looking at my chart, I know that the larger town on the south shore of the Ottawa River is Rockland and the smaller towns at the northern and southern extremities of the near forest are Clarence Creek and Bourget.  The field at Pendleton is on a heading roughly between the two towns on the westernmost border of the far wood - two miles north of its namesake town (really more of a crossroads).  On a clear day such as this, it first appears as a triangular patch of green much lighter than that of the surrounding forest. 
I glance over at the Champ and wave my hand.
"See it?" I call over the radio, pointing forward with my gloved hand. 
"Yep," comes the reply. 
"Okay, we'll stay as a two ship until two miles out, then break off and join the circuit separately," I say.  "Switch to Pendleton Traffic on one-two-three-point-three."
"Two," comes the acknowledgement from Chris.

Another look at Pendleton in 1942 (top) and today (bottom).  We landed on the grass parallel to the northernmost runway, nearest the hangars. (Photos Courtesy: BCATP Museum and Gatineau Gliding Club)
"Glider Ground" at Pendleton comes in faintly and I strain, cupping one hand to my ear and cowering behind the windshield, in an effort to hear and understand.  After a few attempts, it's clear that they're using the east-west runway.  In order to not conflict, I offer to take Runway 31 which points directly into the north-west wind.
The Citabria tow plane pulls a glider up away from Pendleton. (Photo Courtesy: Bojan Arambasic)

I fly my downwind leg tight to the runway.  Under my right main, a Citabria tow plane has just broken ground.  At the end of a long line is the elegant form of a glider - long, slender wings turned gently upwards at the tips, canopy glinting in the sun.  The tow plane will labour for the next ten minutes or so, dragging its charge to altitude where they will part ways at the top of a graceful curve. And while the Citabria pilot will aggressively return his ship to earth and another waiting glider, the sailplane pilot will linger aloft, searching for invisible columns of air to carry him higher and higher still with only the whisper of the wind as company.
A long, deep sigh - almost mournful.  Nearly ten long years have passed since the last time I piloted a glider.  And yet, I can still hear the wind as if it were yesterday.  I've not forgotten the intoxicating feeling of buoyancy as unseen hands carry you aloft.
An admonishing growl from the Lycoming - a call for mental discipline, a warning to not allow the mind to wander.  I sweep into a left hand turn, still tight to the field and rapidly shedding altitude in the biplane's classic circling approach.  I roll out as we cross the perimeter road and, vaguely aware of the gaggle of bystanders watching, set up for my first grass landing in the Smith.
We hover over the grass, dry in spots, tinged with dandelions and buttercups in others.  Corn stalks, stark yellow against so much green, whip by on our left as crumbling pavement provides vivid contrast on our right.  The little ship drops the last few inches onto the turf.  The wheels respond with a soft rumbling sound as I feel the biplane fishtail gently, sliding ever so softly from side to side. She rolls out straight ahead and with hardly any brake, slows to a walking pace.
We've just passed 100 hours, the Smith and I, and marked the milestone with another first - appropriately, on the same ground where hundreds of aviators had their first taste of flight's magic and freedom.
The Smith and I at Pendleton after breaking 100 hours and our first landing on grass.  (Author's Collection)

Monday, 9 January 2017


In August, the Super Decathlon was grounded.  After having the right hand fuel tank replaced the season before due to cracks, the left hand tank developed the same issue - but with greater severity.  This effectively ended the aerobatic program for the 2016 season.
While I was still picking up some work on a privately owned Super D out of Cornwall, the loss of our ship did mean I now had some extra time for the biplane. 
Alone in the hangar.  (Author's Collection)
And so, on an early September morning, I rolled up the doors of the canvas hangar and wheeled the Smith into the sunshine for a look.  Aviation is heavy with rituals and the walk-around inspection carries perhaps the most weight of them all.  It can be as slow and thorough or as quick and cursory as the pilot's wishes and sense of self preservation dictate.  Still, one forgoes this rite at their own peril.  After all, $80 million airliners have been brought down by nothing more than a sliver of overlooked masking tape.
Getting ready to go.  (Author's Collection)
Now into my third season, I know the Smith well and yet, a walk around inspection takes me about ten minutes - more if I need to replenish oil, grease or lubricate a part or adjust a loose inspection plate. 
I've already participated in the ritual of checking the weather.  Today's flight will be a short one so a simple check of the written report sufficed.  The prognosticators have peered into their crystal ball and come up empty - no weather, light winds and clear skies save for the sparse scattering of cotton ball cumulus floating overhead.
A few minutes later, I'm climbing over the cockpit rim and lowering myself into the fibreglass seat.  I strap in, take my gloves off the narrow glare shield, slip them on and reach out to pick my helmet up off of the cowling, placing it in my lap. 
Now, scribbling in my note book, I begin the next ritual - start up - by memory and reflex. 

Throttle - set 1/2 to 1 inch open.
Carb heat - off.
Prime - three strokes.
Magnetos - both.
Stick - full aft.
Starter - engage.

I hear the battery relay click behind my head and the starter motor spin - but the propeller struggles to turn.  I've noticed the starter beginning to fail in recent weeks.  Another blip of the starter, the propeller swings around - once, twice - and the Lycoming coughs to life.
The engine settles into one thousand revolutions per minute.  The Lycoming engineers, far more intelligent than I, decree that the airman must wait until their engine has reached at least 200 degrees at the cylinder heads before advancing the throttle beyond 1200 RPM.  Not having the education and intelligence to question their calculations and based on the testimony of their product's continued performance over four decades, I'm quite happy to follow their instructions.
Next, the pilot is tasked with ensuring that the engine gives all indications that it will be able to sustain him for the duration of the flight.  This involves checks of the engine's ability to faithfully produce power under various settings manipulated by the pilot.  Of course, this "run-up" is no guarantee against engine failure - as many have painfully discovered.  Rather, it is a final opportunity to uncover any mechanical mischief before casting off into the wild blue yonder - where options are far less gracious and results largely cruel. 
The take-off can be a nail-biting affair in the Smith.  As we've established, the little biplane requires the pilot's complete care and attention.  Things happen quickly.  At a certain point, the pilot has a final opportunity to check his progress along the field and the airplane's systems before committing to take off.  Always in his mind is a grave calculation that, if called upon, he must make at lightning speed.  The potential consequences of aborting a take-off must be balanced against the possibility of alighting and bringing the ship around to a successful landing.  In other words, is the problem so severe to risk crashing through the perimeter fence when a take-off and modified circuit to return is all but assured?
Once the wheels break ground, the pilot immerses himself in the next ritual - expecting a loss of power at any time and deciding whether he's able to return to the field or put it down somewhere else.  Early in their flying careers, pilots are taught to not attempt the "impossible turn" - returning the field - unless they've attained at least one thousand feet of altitude.  Otherwise, they're taught to shove the nose down and aim for a plot of land able to accommodate their premature arrival.  Over time, the turn has become more improbable than impossible - some have made it, far more have not.
Soon, we've climbed above these earthbound concerns.  It's true that they still exist at greater heights but more air beneath us means more time and correspondingly more options should any inconveniences arise. 
And so, the threat of their bite is dulled.  The pilot rolls his shoulders back and allows his spine to fall against the seatback.  The right hand's grip on the stick relaxes as the left hand flexes around the throttle, shedding any residual tension.  The boots may give the rudder a playful kick as the pilot delights in the soft rocking of the biplane's nose.  A flick of the wrist produces an instant response from the wings.  Sounds fade, melting into a whisper of engine, wind, wires and heart.  The world, while terrifyingly vast, seems to close in on man and machine so that one doesn't feel quite so small anymore. 
The abandoned airpark at Pontiac on the north shore of the Ottawa River opposite Buckham's Bay.  It was intended as a fly-in community but never materialized.  (Author's Collection)
In this aerial refuge, we float across Gatineau and along the hills to Pontiac then across the river to Buckham's Bay.  The air is so still and the face of the river so calm that light from the sun appears to both reflect off the surface and go clear through to the silt bottom.  The result is a spectacular display of light and colour.  The radio is quiet and while I can't be sure, I like to think only the Smith and I have been blessed with this view and that we are very much alone. 
While taken on an earlier flight much later in the day, this shot nicely depicts the light phenomenon described above.  (Author's Collection)
We double back north away from Buckham's Bay, overfly Mohr Island and retrace our route in reverse.  Same route, new perspective - as I like to say.  I've spent the majority of my flying life above these hills, fields, lakes and rivers and I always manage to spy something new, interesting and inspiring.   

Overflying the Ontario side of the practice area near Fitzroy Harbour.  Mohr Island is at left of frame.  Note the stillness of the water and how the sky reflects. (Author's Collection)
Suddenly, the radio crackles to life.  The sound is almost shocking given I haven't heard another voice since leaving Rockcliffe - but at least it's a familiar one.  The Champ, with Chris at the controls, is rounding the southern tip of the escarpment and entering the practice area.
"Lima-Lima, Sierra-Alpha," I call out.
"Hey," comes the informal reply.  "Form?"
"Why not?"
We'd crossed paths on the ground at Rockcliffe and briefed for the possibility of meeting in the practice area.  Still, a quick discussion on the company frequency reviews the parameters.  We'll rendezvous over Breckenridge at 2000' and the Smith will fly lead.  I set up a wide orbit over the town so that Chris, climbing slowly towards us, may visually make contact and form up.
Aircraft move considerable mass at relatively high speeds and while it certainly is a big sky, a good look out must be maintained to mistakenly coming too close to another aircraft or worse.  Pilots are taught not to simply scan the skies but to divide it into segments to scrutinize.  This is because the human eye picks up movement.  Therefore, the view should be locked off to help spy an aircraft moving relative to a stationary background. 
The Champ does not fly quickly and climbs even slower.  Given my higher altitude, there's a greater likelihood that he'll see me first.  All the same, I push my goggles up and peer through narrowed eyes at the countryside below. 
After a short while, I pick out a tiny smudge of white emerging from the ground clutter to stand out against the green of the escarpment.  Before long, the smudge sprouts wings and a tail.
"I've got you," Chris reports over the radio.  "My ten o'clock by about two miles."
I rock my wings.  "Tally ho!"
The Champ is clawing skyward, hanging on the whirling disc of the prop.  It seems to be hardly moving, really just floating off the Smith's port broad.  I watch as Chris checks the climb and turns gently towards us before accelerating and sliding into echelon left. 
"Two on station," crackles his voice.
"Lead," I acknowledge. 
Chris and Champ C-FILL in formation echelon left near Luskville.  (Author's Collection)
For the next twenty minutes, our two-ship formation plies back and forth between Breckenridge and Luskville.  We practice turns as well as climbs and descents.  I concentrate on giving Chris the most stable of platforms to fly off and he does a nice job holding position. 
I lead us in a descent to the south-east and then around the tip of the escarpment to overfly Gatineau.  Abeam the Chelsea dam, we climb to 1700' and prepare for an overhead arrival at Rockcliffe.  Throughout, the Smith and the Champ fly as one. 
Author's self portrait with the Champ on the wing.  (Author's Collection)
As we turn south to overfly the river, I hear my Cornwall-based student announce his impending arrival.  Given he is flying the much faster airplane, our formation will join the circuit as number two for a low and over. 
Given its proximity to the ground and to other aircraft in the circuit, the formation low and over requires even greater discipline and precision than a run-of-the-mill two-ship.  We've already briefed an altitude of two hundred feet above ground with the lead aircraft calling the wing's break on the overshoot. 
Despite the lovely weather, it's been a sleepy morning at Rockcliffe.  Our arrival and the combined roar of two hundred and five horsepower shatters the peace.  As we cross the eastern perimeter fence and ease into a climb, I wave Chris off to join the crosswind for the circuit to land.  The Smith and I continue climbing to the east and will join the circuit behind the Champ - mindful to give him a wider berth to allow for our faster approach speed.
With the Champ turning final and downwind checks complete, the Smith and I sweep left out of the downwind and throttle back to begin the final descent for landing.  In only 25 seconds, our wheels will touch the pavement.
The landing is more art than science.  There is no concrete formula and the pilot must use all their experience, judgement and skill to execute the appropriate actions for an ever-changing set of variables.  Inputs - airspeed, glide slope, wind - come in and outputs - movements of stick, rudder and throttle - come out.  The approach continues and the pilot's focus narrows on the patch of pavement that will host their return to earth.  And then, finally, that sublime moment just before touch down when time seems to slow.  The pilot can almost feel the runway below his feet - as though the ship's undercarriage is an extension of his own legs.  A chirp, a rumble - the biplane wants to pull left but - no, damn you, this way! A stab of opposite rudder, perhaps a measure of brake, horses the ship back into line. 
Once clear of the runway and stopped, the pilot folds back his glove, checks the time and adds to the scribbling in the notebook kept wedged under his thigh.
In the shade of the hangar, another ritual - brakes on, throttle idle, magnetos to off then on again, one by one.  Now, throttle up to 1700 RPM, sure to be on the brakes, and slowly draw the red mixture control out until the engine gives a final sigh and the propeller ticks slowly to a stop.  Switches off, helmet off, gloves off.
To the ticking sound of the cooling engine, I unfold myself from the cockpit and stretch out my back - running a hand along the biplane's long cowling.  I rub my fingers together and chuckle softly before retreating into the hangar and rummaging through the Smith's pine kit box.  I emerge again into the sunshine with a spray bottle and a blue shop cloth. Now, to perform my penance for flight and the last ritual of the morning - wiping the smashed bugs off of my little biplane.
The final ritual - cleaning the airplane.  (Author's Collection)