only search the 427 site

Planes, Plains, and Planes

1.  Seattle, Washington

Early in April, Bill Marr, retired Air Canada Captain and wartime Mosquito pilot, organized a bus trip to the Museum of Flight at Seattle’s Boeing Field. Vancouver aviators and aficionados assembled at a hotel, just south of the tunnel, driving on to pick up the balance of the passengers near the border. U.S. Customs inspection was relatively quick, with only about half-an-hour to process the 51 passengers.

Cruising through downtown Seattle, we arrived just before noon at Boeing Field. After paying our entrance fee, and given schedules for the Air Park visitations, we set down for a brief lunch. With a little over an hour before my scheduled time at the Air Park, I chose to visit the World War II exhibit hall with its superb displays of aircraft, historical narratives and short videos. Particularly noteworthy were displays featuring Doolittle’s Tokyo raid and the ambush of Admiral Yamamoto. The Battle of Britain zone with Spitfire and BF-109 gave a comprehensive analysis of that critical battle.

Crossing the Memorial Bridge to the Air Park, I met up with Bill Marr, designated tour guide for the Lockheed Super Constellation. With its porpoise-like profile, it is arguably one of the most attractive aircraft ever built. The Connie had been trucked from Toronto to Rome, NY, for structural repairs and fresh paint in Trans-Canada Airlines livery, thence to Seattle where it is undergoing interior restoration. Entering from the rear stairs, a cavernous fuselage manifested. Previously, this aircraft had a tour of duty as a bar in Toronto, leaving the interior devoid of seats and furnishings. The cockpit however, has been fully restored and provided a suitable backdrop for Bill Marr to recall his flights across the Atlantic on this very aircraft. Alex Bull, another Connie pilot pointed out the sextant port where he had to extinguish a fire in mid-Atlantic due to an electrical short. Bob Bogash, a key museum volunteer is still awaiting the Performance Manual promised him by a retired Air Canada pilot some time ago.

Next stop was the Concorde where Peter Duffey, retired British Airways Concorde training Captain gave personal insights into the Concorde operation. Although prohibited from supersonic flight across Europe or the USA, on flights to Bahrain they would routinely cruise at Mach 2 across the Iraqi, Syrian and Saudi Arabian desert. BA had a team on the ground whose sole function was to dish out cash to any herders who complained of a stillborn cow, camel or goat resulting from the 40 mile-wide sonic boom. Avoiding the impact of a combined double boom in a turn or during descent required careful handling.

During Expo 86, I had organized a 427 Squadron reunion in Vancouver. Privileged with friends in high places, we received V.I.P. treatment at major pavilions; and at the Abbotsford Air Show, guest access to the Boeing chalet on the flight line. On the final reunion day, I chartered Captain Ken Green’s 75-foot schooner for a harbour tour. After lunch on the lawn at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, we motored into False Creek. Just as we turned under the Granville Bridge, a Concorde appeared on a low-and-slow pass down the length of the Expo site. Many exclaimed, “Dick, how did you arrange that?” Blind luck of course, but I recently learned that Peter Duffey was on the flight deck that day!

After a quick look at the Air Force One B-707, I returned to the museum to spend the rest of the available time in the main hall. The variety of aircraft and exhibits are truly exceptional, rivaling the Smithsonian if not in quantity, certainly in quality. The museum web site proudly proclaims, “Come and see the largest and most comprehensive air and space collections in the United States” Boarding the bus, we returned to Vancouver, myself with a definite commitment to return for a more thorough visit.

2.  Death Valley, California

Next day I flew to Las Vegas where I met up with Dale Horley for the USAF Sabre pilots reunion. With a day-in-hand, we hired a car for a trip to Death Valley. Saturday morning we drove northwest to the small town of Beasley, at one time a booming mining town, but now a rather forlorn and desolate backwater. As we fueled up the proprietor remarked that there was snow just to the north of town. Shivering, I wondered what I was doing in shorts! We departed the town, climbing slightly to the pass at 4100 feet and then commenced a descent towards the valley. Within a short time it became much warmer. At the rim of the valley, we stopped at an area known as Welders, where a considerable quantity of gold was extracted in the 1860’s. The entire area is cordoned off, for it is underlain by a dangerous honeycomb of shafts and tunnels.

At the valley floor we proceeded to the Ranger Station at Furnace Creek to register and pay a $20 vehicle fee. Despite a vast amount of information at the Ranger Station, some of the volunteers were rather ill-informed. I asked about what looked like a steam engine just across the road, and the volunteer said it was not a steam engine but a water wagon and commenced to tell us it was hauled by 20 mules.

When we went back to re-examine the artifact, it was clearly a steam boiler with piston and rod. The volunteer was obviously referring to another exhibit somewhat further away comprised of 2 wagons and a water tank. Borax was gathered from the dry lake bed and hauled by the iconic “Twenty Mule Team” to a processing plant 165 miles across the mountains and desert. Later the steam engine did the hauling.

As we were departing, a Ranger came out of the building, fully armed with a rifle, a taser on one hip, and a pistol on the other. I asked, “Who are you going to shoot today?” He replied, “Hopefully nobody, but there are a lot of crazies hiding in the hills.” Apparently a lot of “Minutemen” and like-minded anti-government folk inhabit hillside caves and occasionally take potshots at the Rangers.

Leaving town we took the advice of another Ranger and diverted onto the one-way road known as the Artist’s Palette. A short distance into the hills we parked and I climbed up to a lookout point overlooking a vista of contorted rocks of diverse colors, ranging from crimson, brown, yellow, greenish, bluish and so forth.

The one-way loop took us back to the highway, and then descended to the very bottom of the valley at the “Golf Course.” Here a vast field of crystalline minerals lay in a jumbled field. Rejoining the highway we proceeded to Badwater, the lowest point of North America at 282 feet below sea level. On the cliff above, a white sign marked the elevation of “Sea Level.” Well warmed now with a temperature of 75 F, we strolled out half a kilometer to the dead-level salt plain for a photo op. Continuing southbound we passed the end of the salt flats and climbed out of Death Valley, returning to Las Vegas in time for the cocktail hour.

3.  18th USAF F-86 Sabre Association Reunion, Las Vegas, Nevada

After Saturday’s visit to the nearby Death Valley salt plain, Sunday morning we assembled on the convention floor of the Gold Coast Hotel to register for the 18th United States Air Force F-86 Sabre reunion. The welcoming package included an attractive coloured medallion emblazoned with 4 Sabres fronting the US flag.

At the evening meet-and-greet we joined 427 (Lion) Squadron members John & Susi Shute, and Dale & Marilyn Horley. Also joining us were honorary “Lions” Kay & Bob Custer, having been inducted at the recent Penticton SPAADS *1 reunion. It was at the Las Vegas Sabre reunion 4 years ago that Dale first encountered Bob Custer. "What squadron were you with?" asked Bob. Dale replied, "I’m just a visitor, from the RCAF." Then Bob asked, “What base?” and Dale replied "Zweibruken." "Wow- that was the party of the century!”

In the early 60‘s at the height of the Cold War, the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall, triggering the activation of Bob’s unit, the 197th Fighter Squadron of the Arizona Air National Guard. Transferred from sunny Phoenix to the American Base at Ramstein, 30 kilometres northeast of Zweibruken, their F-104 Starfighters often tangled with the Canadair Mk VI Sabres of # 3 Wing, Royal Canadian Air Force. In the time-honoured aviators tradition, the 197th pilots were invited to the aforementioned party at Zwei.

Next morning bright and early we boarded buses for the short drive to Nellis Air Force Base. Once there we broke into two groups, one to the flight line to examine the F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle. Further down the flight line, the F-16’s of the Thunderbird aerobatic team prepared for takeoff. A close-up examination of the Raptor revealed aspects of its stealth technology. Amongst other features, all weapons are concealed in internal bays. Afterwards we proceeded to the briefing at the Weapons School formerly known as “Fighter Weapons,” but now there are so many diverse units involved it is known merely as “Weapons School.” Following a short video demonstrating airpower from the First World War to the present, the briefing Colonel gave a very comprehensive overview of the unit’s role.

During the question period, I remarked, “With the current election in Canada, the F-35 purchase is somewhat of a political football;” and asked, “Could you shed any light on the relative merits and capabilities of the Raptor versus the F-35 and the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter.” The Colonel prefaced his reply by saying it was his opinion, and not necessarily that of the US Air Force, but he felt that “The F-35 program was a complete waste of money and resources. The program was well behind schedule and the actual cost per aircraft was not yet known. The capabilities of the Raptor are superior to that of the F-35, and it has two engines. The government had cut the Raptor program from 750 aircraft to 350 and then again to 186 and the production line is now closed.”(*2) He thanked me for my question and we boarded the bus for the return to the hotel. It is all rather moot from the Canadian perspective, for early in the development program, congressional legislation prohibited export of the Raptor.

That afternoon we attended a talk by the legendary aviator, Bob Hoover. His address was scheduled for one hour, but in the event, we sat enthralled for 3 hours as he related fascinating stories of his flying career. Having commenced flying as a teenager, he was already an accomplished aerobatic pilot when he joined the US Army Air Corps shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite being a enlisted man, he was put in charge of a group of 67 pilots when they shipped overseas on the Queen Elizabeth. Lacking sufficient aircraft, the US Air Corps assigned them to the Royal Air Force flying Spitfires. Two months later they shipped out to North Africa. Although keen to engage in combat, Bob was relegated to test flying the recently assembled aircraft off-loaded from American ships. Eventually he was able to join an American Spitfire combat squadron based in Sicily. Jumped by four FW-190’s, his external tank failed to drop, resulting in severely degraded performance, and he was hit by a 90° deflection shot. Fished from the drink by the Germans, he eventually wound up at the notorious Stalag Luft I. After numerous attempts, he managed to escape towards the end of the war, commandeering a German FW-190 that he flew to Holland and freedom.

After the war he joined another renowned aviator, Chuck Yeager as a test pilot on the Bell X-1 program, and later flew as a test pilot for North American Aviation. It was while testing an innovative control system on the F-86 Sabre that he demonstrated his phenomenal skill. After take off from Los Angeles, he found himself with a frozen control column. As he describes it, ”As soon as the landing gear was retracted, the nose of the airplane pitched straight up. The airplane was out of control. I pushed forward on the stick with all my strength, but it could not be moved fore or aft. Somehow both the normal and the emergency systems had failed. The F-86 then pitched up, stalled, started to spin, and headed straight down. It was difficult to keep my bearings, but then the rudder control, which was mechanical, permitted me to stop the spin. The horizontal tail was free-floating and completely out of control, but the plane recovered, barely missing the ground. The plane climbed right back up, and the same process started again. I called a Mayday, unsure of what response would come next. For the next forty minutes, it was stark terror. I was so certain that a crash was inevitable that I asked Los Angeles Airport to stop all air traffic. An airliner that was ready for takeoff on the other runway was told to hold his position, leaving one clear runway for me in the event I could regain control. I went through all sorts of gyrations to figure a way to gain control.” (*3)

Eventually. Bob managed to find the “sweet speed,” the airspeed at which the vertical downward force on the horizontal stabilizer equalized, and balanced the upward forces from the airfoil. Gently he climbed over the coastal mountains to the Mojave Desert, another dry-lake bed not unlike the aforementioned Death Valley, a plane on the plain so to speak! Meanwhile, Joe Lynch a fellow North American test pilot, had scrambled a Sabre, joined up with Bob and was flying his wing.

Bob continued, “I had been increasing the power in an effort to get the nose up for landing. Joe had advised me to bail out before I set up the approach. Now he was telling me that I was going 240 knots and wouldn't survive the landing at that speed. Instead of the hard landing I expected, the swept wings on the F-86 picked up ground effect. To my surprise, I experienced one of the smoothest landings I've ever made even though I had no real control of the airplane. Later, after some further inspection, I found that I couldn't have ejected even if I had wanted to. The ground crew had not pulled the safety pin on the ejection seat. I'd have gone down with the F-86.

People have asked me over the years what's the most terrifying ride I've ever had. There have been many, but none scarier than the one in that F-86.” (*3)

After that memorable tale, we adjourned to make ready for the evening formal dinner. The Custer’s, 2 Norwegians who had trained in Canada, and 2 very amusing Americans joined our table. As the honour guard marched in, we rose for the obligatory question, “Oh, say can you see....?” Following his introductory remarks, James Alley the President asked all those who owed their life to the ejection seat to stand, whereupon about 40 pilots popped up, including one of our Norwegians- Siegfried Hernes.

With the RCAF ensign proudly flying over our table, several pilots stopped to chat; the conversation of fighter pilots encompassing a universal language, with both hands depicting aerial maneuvers. And so to bed, and thence to home.

Dick Dunn, April 2011



*1. SPAADS - Sabre Pilots of Air Division Squadrons (Membership restricted to those who flew the Sabre with one of the 12 Squadrons of the RCAF’s 1 Air Division in England, France and Germany, 1952 to 1963.)

*2. Not a direct quotation, but the Colonel’s remarks paraphrased.

*3. With the kind permission of Bob Hoover, extracts from his book “Forever Flying,” ISBN: 067153761X (1996)

Photos Link here