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Maiden Flight on Two Wings and a Prayer

by Ron Stewart

Shortly after arriving on station at Chatham, N.B., in the spring of 1958, as a student fighter pilot in the RCAF, I was indoctrinated into the world of jet fighter aircraft by the senior pilots of the Sabre fighters, the proven combat aircraft of the Korean conflict. What impressed me most was the implied statement of one ace that during his first flight, a real fighter pilot would deviate slightly from lesson 'plan 1' and climb up and punch it through the 'mach', or sound barrier. These were still the early days of jet flying and being 'swept-back and supersonic' was the first priority of almost every young aspiring fighter pilot. So, when the day of my first flight arrived, I was determined that I too would be a real fighter pilot.

After getting airborne and keeping the aircraft more or less right side up, I went into a peak climb for maximum height which, turned out to be 35,OOO feet, being the limit of my tired old steed. I then performed my next 'should have known-better' trick ... a roll over into a full-throttle vertical dive, which scared me to the point that should have restored some self-preserving common sense, but didn't.

My attention was riveted on the mach meter as it approached the magic number 1 and then began to back off as we screamed down into denser air. Never having flown anything that didn't have a built-in speed restriction, I wouldn't have believed that one could travel close to seven miles in such a short time! As the landscape was rapidly filling the windscreen, I had only one option and that was yank the stick back as fast and as far as it would go.

The following sequence of events are somewhat hazy as my g-suit, my body and then the airframe were subjected to forces far in excess of any design limitations. When consciousness returned I was overjoyed to realize that by the grace of God, the transition from a suicidal dive to horizontal flight had been accomplished. I didn't know and didn't want to know how close I had come to making contact with Mother Earth.

This miraculous recovery did not come without a price. During the extreme severity of this reckless maneuver, the elevators, undercarriage D-doors and, other assorted bits and pieces parted company with the aircraft! The right main gear-up lock snapped, allowing that gear to fall down, which no doubt acted as a speed brake of sorts. I had not deployed the regular-speed brakes, but then, one can't think of everything. Thankfully though, the important parts such as the wings remained in place, although subsequent inspection showed they were not the same shape as when I took off. The rest of that first and memorable flight ended with me in one piece, although the final approach and landing must have been a sight to behold.

My sturdy old Sabre deserved a somewhat more honourable end to her career than the one she met while in my care ... as a pile of scrap metal in Chatham's infield. At least one of us was able to walk away from the scene. A Canadair engineer later told me that the main gear-up locks were designed to withstand a G force in excess of 16.

Recently, when I told my six-foot teen-age son about this experience I pointed out that when I climbed into that Sabre that day, I too was close to six feet tall, and have been only five-foot-nine ever since.

During the cold war period, Canada maintained 12 combat-ready squadrons in Europe and lost more than 100 flight-crew members of the RCAF in accidents. They are all buried in the Canadian Military Cemetery at Cheloy, France. After Europe, Ron had a long career as a commercial pilot and retired from Air Canada as a senior 747 Captain. Ron passed away in 2009-(link). He had submitted this story as one of a series of wartime experiences, as a prelude to the 70th anniversary of our General Nelles Branch 124 of the Royal Canadian Legion. Any service veteran interested in having one of his or her wartime experiences published, please contact Bill Newell, who is editing the series, at 905-892-9337 or

Ed. Note: Bill still solicits service veterans experiences and would be most pleased to hear from any of you.