Herb Padwick: flying and football

Herb Padwick remembers the day legendary Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Glen Dobbs arrived in town in 1953.

Padwick, after all, was the guy who delivered him to Regina, using a Cessna 195 owned by Herb's employer, Regina-based Kramer Tractor.

Herb's young daughter peered at Dobbs as the footballer -- wearing a business suit rather than the football jersey the child expected -- crawled out of the airplane. "You’re not Glen Dobbs!" the excited child exclaimed. "You’re just an old man!"

Just one more flight for Padwick, who wrote a particularly interesting chapter of Saskatchewan's aviation history as one of the province’s first corporate pilots in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. With the help of Reginan Murray Grant, a long-time Kramer colleague of Herb, I was able to track down Herb to the home that he and his wife share in the foothills southwest of Calgary.

Herb was raised in Winnipeg, where in 1934 he joined the RCAF's 112 (Auxiliary) Squadron. Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, the squadron was mobilized and dispatched to wartime Britain, where its Lysander aircraft were useless because (a) of their tactical vulnerability and (b) the eviction of the British Army from France. "It was just a useless effort in the sense that because of the occupation of Europe, we weren’t able to do anything in terms of the active use of the aircraft."

The squadron was renumbered as 402 Squadron and equipped with Hurricanes. Herb, however, was a grizzled veteran of the RCAF. He was a flight sergeant by 1940, and then a warrant officer and quickly commissioned as a flying officer. In 1941, he was returned to Canada and assigned to maintenance duties within the rapidly growing British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

After a stop in Dauphin, he was posted to 5 Bombing and Gunnery School at Dafoe, Saskatchewan, and given a brief to clean up the troubled air maintenance organization there.

"There was a lot of problems with maintenance serviceability, which was really low. And somebody was stealing parachutes; they’d turn up everywhere, like Montreal."

At the RCAF’s 2 Training Command headquarters in Winnipeg, Herb expressed concern that his lowly rank of flying officer might not be up to the bureaucratic challenge. He was quickly promoted to flight lieutenant and given assurances that 2 TC would back him up. "They said, ‘Don’t worry!’"

Of the Fairey Battle, which was the prime equipment at 5 B&G School, he has few kind words. Oh, the basic airframe was good, but its Merlin engine "was a leaking bomb ... for some reason, they just never fitted properly. But [they had] loads of power and when they were running fine, they were OK."

There was another problem. When he arrived, the station’s big double hangar had been deliberately flooded and used as a hockey and curling rink -- this when there was a war on! "My first job was to put the heat on and melt everything -- and tell everybody to get the hell out of there!"

His next challenge was the station's CO, who was monopolizing the Harvard trainer assigned for proficiency training by the station's staff pilots. Herb bluntly told him the other pilots needed it. The CO balked, so Herb said, "Just phone this guy in Winnipeg and talk to him about it. I don’t want to fight about it." 2 TC headquarters was as good as it word.

Herb well remembers the mini-town that grew up outside the borders of 5 B&G, where converted granaries housed plenty of families and businesses. None had any running water, electric lights or heat, save for that supplied by wood-fired stoves. "Oh, but it was fun!"

Of Dafoe maintenance organization, "when I left, I thought it was pretty good."

Herb went on to increasingly responsible positions at Vulcan, Alta, and Lethbridge and finally Greenwood, N.S. He ended the war as a wing commander. Though he had not trained as a pilot, his logbook showed two or three hundred hours unofficially at the controls of aircraft.

So good was RCAF pay that he would have liked to stay in the peacetime RCAF, but it was obvious the air force would be drastically downsized, with opportunities correspondingly smaller. Thus did he accept a position right after the war as service manager with Regina’s Kramer Tractor, then working out of quarters between 5th and 6th Avenues east of Broad Street.

Travel was a big part of his job because Kramer Tractor had acquired the Caterpillar Tractor franchise for Saskatchewan in 1944 and then, later, a number of Caterpillar-built portable diesel generators that it had resold to small towns and villages not yet connected to the grid of the Saskatchewan Electrical Power Commission, forerunner of SaskPower. But those generators had to be set up and serviced, not an easy task given the state of the province’s roads in those days. "A very tiring, exhausting period," he remembers. "I was on the road all the time. I was never home."

Thus he went to the company's president, Bob Kramer, and suggested the company buy a light aircraft for his use. Kramer eventually agreed and a Stinson Station Wagon was acquired. Building on his twin-engine time in RCAF aircraft, Herb quickly passed through ground school, got a private pilot's licence, and was checked out on the Stinson. (A photo of this aircraft, decked out in Kramer's markings, appears here: http://groups.msn.com/cahsregina/saskatchewanhistoricalaircraft.msnw?action=ShowPhoto&PhotoID=200

The results were successful and Herb was in the air. Herb was called out for emergency flying during the epic blizzard of February 1947, when highways were blocked and some locomotives so badly trapped by snow that they were simply left till spring.

Some of Herb's most unusual work during that crisis involved the grim, but necessary, work of flying the bodies of an couple frozen to death their sleigh overturned in the vicinity of Limerick in southwest Saskatchewan. On the flight to Limerick, Herb was accompanied by several of the couple's adult children -- one of whose female members grabbed Herb from behind and clutched him a viselike grip. "I didn’t know what was going to happen, but they eventually got her off," he recalled.

Eventually, they landed (despite three-foot drifts) and faced another challenge: getting the two bodies -- frozen in erect, stretched -out positions -- into the cramped confines of the 195. Several seats had to be temporarily removed before they could be fitted in and flown to an undertaker in Assiniboia. That, in turn, meant landing on the town’s golf course, which was also crossed by large snowdrifts.

That led to a macabre bit of knowledge for future flights of this kind: if you have bodies for us to deliver, kindly arrange for them to freeze in a sitting position, as this makes them much easier to fit into small airplanes.

Kramer Tractor got into the flying business full-time in about 1950 as Kramer Flying Services, doing charter work and selling Cessna aircraft. Herb was manager and part-time pilot; among its other pilots were Harold Townsend, Julian Audette (of Air Ambulance and soaring club fame) and Syd Jacklin.

Their work was varied. Herb recalls flying Kramer and his executives around the province and as far afield as Florida, Toronto, California, the Alaska Highway and Peoria, Illinois, home of the Caterpillar head office and plant.

The firm operated Cessna 140s, 180s and 170s, though Herb says the 195 was his favourite type. It had a reliable 230-horsepower Jacobs radial engine and tough sprung steel landing gear that could handle a landing almost anywhere. "With the big engine, it was the fastest airplane that Cessna ever made," he recalled. "It seemed to me that you could do just about anything with it. It didn’t matter what the terrain was or anything. Just a magnificent airplane!"

The Kramer firm liked it so much that it tried to upgrade the 195’s engine to a 330-horsepower Jacobs to give it even more speed and performance. "The problem was that the engine wasn’t capable of standing up to the sustained loads and speeds that we put on it," he said. The crankshaft could crack and oil would spurt out of the engine, covering the windshield.

"I had to make three forced landings like that," he said. "No problem, but you couldn’t see."

Another frequent stop was Uranium City in northern Saskatchewan. Bob Kramer then had an interest in a mining company called Gulch Mines, which was active in the area. Standard procedure was to head north to La Ronge, refuel, then head NNW to Uranium City. There was none of this GPS or LORAN stuff; navigation was by tuning into the radio beacon at Uranium City. That didn't allow for winds, of course, but Herb said the Kramer pilots evolved a system of flying until they reached the shore of Lake Athabaska, then simply following it to the townsite.

One winter flight carried a prospector, who packed so much equipment -- including a dog, plenty of gear and a portable stove -- into the Kramer aircraft at La Ronge that bystanders had to force shut the doors. Herb got him to Uranium City and made a landing despite poor weather and high snowdrifts -- at which point the prospector said, "Thank God nothing happened to the dynamite I was carrying!"

Kramer Air Services was sold in the mid-1950s to several Regina businessmen, who renamed it Prairie Flying Services. However, Kramer Tractor long retained aircraft for its own use, flying 180s and Cessna Model 337 Skymasters for many years.

One of the saddest elements of the local aviation scene in the late 1950s was the spectacular 1959 fire that destroyed the hangar of rival Canadian Aircraft Ltd., wrecking not only its aircraft and some machines stored there, but a large number of brand new Cadillacs stored there by Mid-West Motors.

Even more frightening was what happened in 1967. That must have been the date because Herb was bringing Bob Kramer back to Regina from the official opening of the Gardiner Dam on the South Saskatchewan River near Elbow.

"The weather was perfect everywhere -- and all of a sudden I’m right in the middle of a huge thunderstorm," he recalled.

The 195 was pulled up into the storm and Herb "completely lost control".

It eventually emerged from the storm in a spin. Herb got out of it, but when the duo arrived over the Regina airport the rain was so intense that Herb and the tower couldn't see each other. "Bob Kramer was just terrified and I wasn’t too happy either."

The tower helpfully told him to keep away from Regina, as there was a storm lashing the airport. "I said, ‘Well, I’m in the middle of a storm anyway!’"

In the face of what he figures to have been 100-mph wind, he worked the 195 toward the airport and landed it across the main runway, keeping the aircraft, with its engine running at full power and its tail up, facing into the wind. "I stayed that way, it must have been 10 minutes before the winds went down to about 80."

He was able to taxi to the Prairie Flying Service hangar, the rain still so thick that the tower could not see him.

The largest aircraft in the Kramer corporate fleet was a rare DeHavilland Dove, a twin-engined, British-built transport, which charmed Bob Kramer when he saw one operated by a Toronto firm called Carruthers in the early 1950s. "They were so impressed with this airplane that he decided he just had to have one. It was a pretty good airplane, but it was underpowered and hard to fly."

That’s because if it lost one of its Gypsy engines, it simply could not maintain altitude with the other. Moreover, those engines had a bad habit of hitting 75 hours since the last cleaning and replacement of their spark plugs, and then abruptly quitting. There would be "a miss and a shake, and the next step, it had stopped."

(Herb recalls the registration of the Dove as being CF-HGR, which shows up (on the web site http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Hangar/7774/dove.htm) as having c/n 04444, initially registered as G-AMXO, then CF-HGR and next N420D. Another web site, http://www.baaa-acro.com/archives/accident_1970.htm, shows this aircraft as having been damaged (without fatalities) in an accident on April 16, 1970 at Morris, Illinois while flying for Mid Continent Airlines, a feeder airline that at the time used Doves and Beech 18s. If anybody has photos or details of this aircraft’s use, please contact the author.)

Padwick and colleague Harold Townsend first faced this unnerving problem on a flight home from Peoria, making an successful one-engined landing at a tiny American airport.

Another time, they were flying south from La Ronge with only one passenger, a Kramer sales rep, but a heavy load of technical manuals and luggage.

Somewhere over Saskatchewan’s northern boreal forest, one engine sputtered and quit. They were between eight and ten thousand feet at the time and steadily lost altitude. Not only did they have to use "tremendous rudder pressure" to keep it flying straight, but "near Saskatoon, we were just about to the point of deciding whether we should jettison it [luggage and manuals] when we finally made it in. But it was touch-and-go and we weren’t happy with it. It was a hard airplane to fly."

In time, the Dove was sold to another owner. Murray Grant reports a rumour that it went to American trumpeter Al Hirt. Herb isn't sure.

"I was glad to see it go," he said. "I didn’t care who got it."

Herb Padwick stopped flying around 1970 with about 5,000 hours in his logbook, and retired from Kramer Tractor a few years later. Now 90 -- and looking about 10 years younger -- he and his wife, Isobel, live near Priddis, Alberta.

                    -by Will Chabun