Remembering Don O'Hearne
By Will Chabun
It was a big day for the kids in Donald O’Hearne’s school class in Edmonton: they were getting a chance to see some of these newfangled motion pictures, taken right in their own city.
The subject was aircraft at the local aerodrome -- and there in the midst of the intrepid aviators was the visage of classmate Donald himself, at a time when he was supposed to be in school.
Don was born in Edmonton in 1916, oldest of four children. “I guess I’ve always been interested in airplanes, from building models driven by rubber bands, to jets.”
His father had served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 202nd Battalion with a young man named Wilfred “Wop” May, who later joined the Royal Flying Corps, survived an attack by “the Red Baron” and went on to make many kinds of aviation history in Canada.
Don is just old enough to recall seeing the Canadian-built Curtiss Jenny “City of Edmonton” hanging in the rafters of the Albert capital’s “horsebarns”. When Don took ill in the spring of 1927, a buddy brought him a crystal radio set with which Don followed the progress of Charles Lindbergh’s epic flight across the Atlantic. He still has an aviation book that his parents brought him around that time. He found his way out to Cooking Lake, the floatplane base near Edmonton, where he saw Bellancas and Fokkers. Much nearer was Blatchford Field (now the Edmonton City Centre Airport), where he had his “butt kicked” by pioneering bush pilot Matt Berry for hanging around when he should have been in school -- hence the film incident mentioned above.
Of course, Edmonton was not immune to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Don’s father lost his job and moved to take another in Saskatoon.
Don was enrolled in 1931 in The Bridge City’s King Edward School, where another of the students was a lad named Ray Crone -- by coincidence, another buff of Canada’s aviation history.
Sadly, the second job of Don’s father disappeared, too, so the age of 16 saw Don out working to support his family. He was a delivery boy and also worked in an abattoir, then a meat market. He eventually joined the local militia (army reserve) unit, the Saskatoon Light Infantry, where the attractions included pay of 75 cents for each day training. When he became aware that the RCAF had a new auxiliary (reserve) unit at Regina, No. 120 Squadron, he wangled a transfer to it -- even though he was too far away to join other members for their weekly training sessions. He also joined the Saskatoon Flying Club, taking flying lessons under Dave Dyck and even parachuting lessons under George Bennett, who offered not only instructions, but three jumps, for $10; Don still has the crest he received for completing the course.
“As far as the parachuting goes, they [the students] were scared -- but you couldn’t back out because the others were all doing it!” he chuckled. “You HAD to go along. They said. ‘You’ll get used to it, but after the third jump, it was still pretty scary!”
Some of the other members of the Saskatoon Flying Club joined Britain’s prewar Royal Air Force, which even then was building up its strength for the looming war in Europe. When it finally arrived in the late summer of 1939, members of the SLI and No. 120 Squadron were told to report for duty. Don’s membership in these units now became important, for he was considered to be an experienced recruit.
Don, as a new member of the RCAF, soon found himself at what became the air force’s manning depot at Toronto, in the “showplace for animals” at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds.
For such an early intake of men, preparations were crude. Food was poor and “there were literally hundreds of beds, but very little else,” he recalled. Soon, though, he was transferred to the RCAF Station at Camp Borden, then to the RCAF’s new technical training school at St. Thomas, Ont. He was to train as an instructor in airframe mechanics.
St. Thomas was one of those little-known, but vital, military training facilities that made an impression on all those who passed through it. “Anyone who’s ever been there will never forget it,” he said. “We were in a former mental home -- the windows still had bars on them!”
It was also huge: 25 buildings over 487 acres -- big enough that it took 10 minutes to walk across above ground and much longer in the underground tunnel system. “Honestly, you really didn’t know where you were,” he said. “We got smart after a while and stayed out of them.”
As a future instructor, Don got pretty good treatment at St. Thomas. The quarters were “elegant” and there were extra meals and passes. “Quite a change from Toronto!” There was also considerable flexibility in passes, which explains how he was able to use a three-day leave to take a train back to Saskatoon, marry his girlfriend Frances and get back. It actually took more than three days to do all this, but strings were pulled in the right places.
Before he could instruct, Don needed some practical experience, so he was assigned as a crewman to the RCAF’s No. 4 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron at Uculet, B.C., located on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. It flew Blackburn Sharks, a couple of Northrop Deltas and several examples of magnificent old Stranraer flying boats, a huge biplane with two 875 Bristol Pegasus radial engines and an 85-foot wingspan. So many wires braced it that, “you could hear it coming for miles, screaming because of the wire,” he said.
On Don’s first shift on guard duty aboard a moored flying boat, he fell asleep. What woke him up was the sound of a small boat bringing a junior officer out. “The office cautioned me -- and didn’t do anything!”
The Stranraer was not amphibious, but a true flying boat. Beaching it -- pulling it onto shore -- meant attaching heavy beaching gear to the fuselage, which in turn required two swimmers and one more airman to guide the process. “It was very tricky with a running sea,” Don remembered. “You had to be a very good swimmer.”
The Blackburn Shark, a large single-engine biplane used for coastal patrol, was easier; just a large dolly was used.
The work that these aircraft did was of patrolling “and checking on fishing boats -- time-consuming and monotonous with the continuous watching.”
“We never did see very much and I don’t know what we would have done if anyone had taken a shot at us,” he added. “One of the other crews claimed they did see a sub ... we had to believe them, although it wasn’t confirmed.”
Don’s next postings was the brand new RCAF station at Coal Harbour, B.C., on the northern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands near the site of the present-day CFS Holberg electronic eavesdropping post. Coal Harbour was on a coastal inlet about 12 miles inland from Port Hardy. “It was isolated as hell,” Don said.
“Almost nothing there, just seagulls and bears.” Getting there meant sailing to Port Hardy, then driving (or more likely walking) along the logging road to the station, which, “didn’t look that good at night -- and in the morning, it didn’t look any better.”
It was cold and muddy, with wooden “duck walks” connecting buildings. Two Stranraers sat on the inlet. Duties, initially, were mainly guard duty (“with Lewis guns -- with no ammunition”) plus “a lot of foot drill and exercise and not much else. Coal Harbour consisted of a house, a store and not much else ... we really didn’t know why we were there, because nothing was ready.”
Power came from two Caterpillar tractor generators and heat from two boilers. Thus, one duty was shoveling coal and another was working in the station’s kitchen. “Every now and then, there’d be a [RCAF] Delta or Goose. We were glad when the navy came in because they had a lot of booze on board!”
Because wives and families were expected, some of the airmen decided to build a “condo” for them. They secured the services of a bulldozer and its operator and some of the construction workers on the station helped, too. Doors and windows were a problem, but the big day came when a squadron leader came to see their work. His suggestion: “To turn the plywood around so that the “GOVERNMENT” stamp couldn’t be seen!”
Finally, with Christmas 1940 approaching, an expedition was mounted to find suitable trees. Don remembers trekking through the area around the base and eventually finding a fine specimen that was cut and brought back to the apartments. Decorated, it was proudly shown to the owner of the local store and his wife; they mildly commented that they’d had an identical tree growing in their backyard -- until somebody had recently cut it down!
Was there a sense of foreboding about a war with Japan during 1940 and 1941? ”I can’t honestly answer that question because we didn’t give it that much thought. We knew we were there for a reason. But as far as anything happening, I’d have to be honest and say that we didn’t really think about it.”
Don and his new wife, Frances, had left the West Coast and were at the BCATP station at Fort MacLeod, Alberta, when history intervened.
“’Where’s Pearl Harbour?” she said.
“I said, ‘I don’t know where the hell Pearl Harbour is. “
“Something happened there,” Frances continued. “The Japanese bombed it.”
“Well,” said Don, “Then we were glued to the radio.”
Even bases quiet inland stations like Fort MacLeod were put on alert, though, “we were sitting there, at Fort MacLeod, with just a bunch of Ansons.”
When the Japanese rampaged throughout the Pacific and even shelled the lighthouse at Estevan Point on Vancouver Island, “we knew damned well that something was happening -- though we didn’t give it that much thought.”
But by the spring 1945, Western Canada was under actual attack. That spring saw him seconded to No. 11 SFTS at Yorkton, to which the RCAF’s 135 (Fighter) Squadron had sent three Hurricane fighters and their pilots to search for, and hopefully, shoot down Japanese balloon bombs that were then being launched over western Canada. The detachment had only about a dozen airmen, but “we used to pride ourselves on the time that we could get them off the ground. There were times when it took an hour; there were other times when it took 10 minutes. It depended on when we got the call. They (whoever spotted the balloon) had to telephone and we’d have to find the pilots.”
The men operated from a “blister” or a small room on the side of one of the hangars. The Hurricanes -– one of which survives today in the collection of Gatineau’s Vintage Wings of Canada flying museum -– were kept fully armed and fuelled; their pilots were supposed to sit in readiness, playing cards drinking coffee. As for the Hurricanes, “they were always armed and fueled and ready to go.”
If a call came in, “a fitter would usually start it up and have it running; then the pilot would get in there -- and away they’d go. We could see the odd one (balloon) flying over, but they (the Hurricanes) could never get up there in time.”
“We had a little hut; we called them blisters. Usually, the pilots would sit in there and drink coffee and play cards.” There were only about a dozen groundcrew, but they “did a helluva job”, he said.
When a balloon was spotted, a call was made to 11 SFTS, then put through to the mini-dispersal area, a klaxon would go off. “We used to make sure that we had a fitter available to start the engines.”
He heard a rumour that a Yorkton-area farmer brought in a suspicious device, supposedly from a balloon bomb. Part of the hangar was immediately blocked off. The security surrounding the entire balloon bomb operation was “so tight that a mouse couldn’t even have got there.
He recalls that 11 SFTS at Yorkton flew Mark 5 Ansons and had recently taken over all of the Cornell trainers that had been operating from the EFTS at Davidson, plus some Mark 2 or 3 Ansons.
Don remembers being at Yorkton on VE Day – the cessation of hostilities in Europe. I asked him if there was a party. “There sure as hell was! He said.
“The mayor of Yorkton wasn’t very impressed. The guys had strung toilet paper all over the town and the restaurants and hotels were just booming.”
What would be next? “We were all set; we’d had our shots and had our tropical gear and we were ready to go east when they (the American armed forces) dropped the atomic bomb and, of course, they (RCAF brass) cancelled everything.”
Don remained in the postwar RCAF and, at one point just after the war headed a reserve equipment maintenance unit (REMU) team with a truck, about 15 men and a “Queen Mary”, a long, specially built trailer that could carry the fuselage of an aircraft needing repair or salvage. They went from closed BCATP base to closed base, preparing aircraft for storage or sale. He remembers presenting the team at the guardhouse of what had been Moose Jaw’s 32 SFTS, where a fiercely mustachioed British service policeman barked, “Where you going?”
Where the ground instruction building is now located, there were barracks. They were “absolutely filthy” and the men initially were billeted in the downtown Grant Hall Inn before suitable quarters were found in what had been the station’s chapel. He recalls Moose Jaw as being a collection point for RCAF Cansos, Ansons and Oxfords. For the record, he remembers Mossbank was a storage site for Cornells and Hurricanes, while Swift Current had Cranes, Ansons and Cornells, all lined up”. Some aircraft –- like those that had to be returned to the U.S. or were needed by the postwar RCAF –- were ferried away by the RCAF’s No 170 Squadron, which specialized in such work. But as for the rest, “they’d bring in the accounting people and the supply people and you could buy whatever you wanted.”
By 1951, Don was stationed at the RCAF training base at Centralia, near London, Ont., when a W/C Miles, a senior engineering officer, asked him, “How would you like to go to Moose Jaw with me?”
“I said, “For what?’”
“He said, ‘They’re going to open up Moose Jaw for a training school.’ He said, ‘We’ve got to do some evaluation, to see what’s required.”
Thus it came to pass that Don, W/C Miles and a few others were bundled into an RCAF Expeditor and went to the site of the wartime 32 SFTS south of Moose Jaw. It was, as he recalls, November or December of 1951 and “it was cold, cold.”
Don’s impression of the state of the base was blunt: “It was a mess.”
The wartime barracks, for example, were so shabby that the evaluation team could not stay in them, so they once again headed to the Friendly City’s Grant Hall Inn.
Their work eventually done, Don and the rest of the team returned to Centralia. But in February or March of 1952, the same wing commander appeared again and told Don he was returning to Moose Jaw –- permanently. “My exact words were, ’What the hell did I do to you?’” Don remembered.
Renovations to the old 32 SFTS to convert it into RCAF Station Moose Jaw (and ready it for a new generation of pilot trainees) were by the spring of 1952 well under way -– though there were no training aircraft at the base yet. “First of all, we had to set up maintenance.“
Access to the station was via Highway 2, which went south from the east side of downtown Moose Jaw; the new highway that went from the city’s west side to the base was still under construction.
No. 7 hangar (now home to the Snowbirds air demonstration team) was then occupied by civilians: specifically, charter pilot Don Walz and his family, which was living in the northern part of the hangar, while the southern half of the hangar was used to marshal passengers for a civilian flight. Don thinks it was Pacific Western Airlines, but this firm did not yet exist. But Canadian Pacific Airlines flew from Moose Jaw to Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and North Battleford, eventually adding Edmonton to this route. In this period, Don’s own family remained in Centralia, while he lived in a barracks at Moose Jaw.
The mess hall was in Hangar 4 while a permanent one was being built. Hangar 5 housed supplies and CPR staff handled landline telecommunications until the RCAF’s own personnel arrived. Don’s impression of the reopened base during this perioid was, “an awful lot of mud … it was an awful mess.”
“It was just mud. Everything was under construction. When we moved into the married quarters in 1953, we had to have a bulldozer pull the moving truck down the street. It was all mud!”
The main fleet of Harvard training aircraft arrived from RCAF Station Gimli, Manitoba, in Operation GIMJAW, which spanned May and June of 1953. The station had its own small fleet of Expeditors for transport duties, such as flying the commanding officer to RCAF Training Command headquarters in Winnipeg. “They were more of communications aircraft than anything else. The CO had to go to Winnipeg? He’d go on an Expeditor. He had his own; we kept it pretty well polished.”
Don stayed at RCAF Station Moose Jaw until the summer of 1957, when his family’s vacation of Waskesiu was cut short by another airman’s news: Don was being posted overseas – specifically, to the RCAF’s 2 (Fighter) Wing at Grostenquin, France. He would be working on the CF-100 all-weather fighter. Don was surprised. Putting his fingers together he said, “I knew THAT MUCH about jets”
But orders are orders, and the family soon got into action. After packing their goods, they took a train east to Toronto, where they visited Don’s parents in Toronto, then preceded to Montreal, where they boarded the ocean liner SS Hibernia. It took them and a number of other families across the Atlantic to Le Havre, where an RCAF officer met them and got them onto a train to Paris, from which they caught another train to the northern city of St. Evaux and then the base at Grostenquin.
Don’s posting was to 423 Squadron, which flew grey/green/light grey camoflauged CF-100s alongside two squadrons of Sabres. “We were armed all the time,” Don said. “We were on 24 hours readiness and the pilots slept in the hangars. When we’d get an alert – what they called a ‘yellowjacket’, and when it was yellow, they’d sit on the cockpit right in the hangar.”
Don took particular pride in the ability of RCAF personnel to work minor miracles while on deployments to other NATO bases to -– a tribute to the RCAF system of cross-training personnel in each other’s groundcrew specialties.
As for the CF-100s themselves, Don said, “we called them ‘the Clunk’ and a lot of other bad names, but they were a good airplane.”
The ‘Clunks’ were not without quirks, though. Fuel normally was carried in two places –- fuselage tanks and wing tanks -– with wingtip tanks replacing rocket pods when long flights were planned. The price of the complicated fuel system was that when maintenance personnel would pull down the CF-100’s internal gun pack of eight .50-calibre machine guns, “there would be a fuel leak”. Overall, though, “it was an easy plane to work on; it wasn’t difficult. Canadians built it and it was built for ease of maintenance.”
One weak point was the CF-100's radar, which wasn’t “all that reliable –- at least that’s what the radar people would tell us.”
And aircrew had to make sure that they’d drained the fuselage tanks before emptying the wing tanks. There were, sadly, quite a few casualties, including one spectacular accident that saw two aircraft collide right over RCAF Station Grostenquin and crash into the station’s hospital, with several fatalities. There were frequent rotations to the NATO air gunnery range at Decimomannu (nicknamed “Decchi”) in Sardinia, where a deal had been struck with local fishermen: aircraft would have to be airborne by 0400h, then finish early, giving the fishermen time to work. There was a benefit, though: the Canadian airmen thus had each afternoon off and were free to go to the local beach –- which Don recalls as being superb.
Back at Grostenquin, Don recalls the dispersal for the station’s two Sabre squadrons, Nos. 421 and 430, was close to the station, while 423’s was “way out in the boondocks, as we called it.” This, and the long road to the dispersal area – which even had traffic lights controlling the passage of cars over a runway -- set the stage for an unusual incident involving Don’s wife, Frances. Two things happened on the same day: Frances needed the family car for an errand and heavy fog was blanketing the area around the station, so flying was temporarily suspended. Frances and Don drove to dispersal, whereupon Don got out and Frances departed, secure in the belief that no aircraft would be flying that day when she headed for the road that crossed the runway.
Alas, “one guy decided he’d go out and check the weather,” Don recalled. “She said the wheels rolled over the roof of the car.” I said he wasn’t THAT low, but she said it WAS – and she remembered that.”
In 1962, Don and his family were posted back to Canada. Initially, he was told he’d be going to RCAF Station Saskatoon, home of 1 Advanced Flying School. But the station was soon to close, and Don received word he’d be going back to Moose Jaw. “I went right back to Moose Jaw – and back to the same office that I’d left.”
Sources: Will Chabun's Aug. 27, 2008 interview with Don O’Hearne, plus follow-up e-mails as well as the author's notes of Don's talk on his career to the Regina Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS) in 1994.
Here is the second article I wrote in 2007 after interviewing Don about his work with the Vintage Aircraft Restorers group at the Western Development Museum in Moose Jaw:
The story of the Vintage Aircraft Restorers volunteer group that has operated from the Moose Jaw branch of the Western Development Museum starts only a few years after the museum itself opened in 1976.
Inside the large, new, pyramid-shaped museum building on the northern edge of Moose Jaw there was clearly display room for additional aircraft to supplement the Norseman and Swallow biplane that entered the museum right after it opened. Asked to help secure and restore additional aircraft was RCAF veteran Don O’Hearne, who had served in the RCAF as a maintenance NCO from 1939 until 1965, then joined what used to be called Canada Manpower. His team’s first project, around 1980, was overseeing the restoration of a Cessna Crane twin-engine trainer for the museum. “I took on the job and gradually took on some people and we restored the Crane,” he said 28 years later.
That led to the restoration of two Canadian-built trainers of the Second World War: an Avro Anson and a Cornell. A Stinson 108 was restored in the markings of the Saskatchewan Flying Farmers -- by the Flying Farmers themselves), a Tiger Moth, a Funk high-wing monoplane and a Piper J-3 Cub.
Also constructed by VAR members were the front section of a Tutor and Airspeed Oxford (as children’s’ hands-on displays, a scale-model dioramas of a Snowbirds formation display and the wartime No. 5 Bombing & Gunnery School at Dafoe, replica (overhead in Snowbird Gallery) and a pair of Link Trainers, the state-of-the-art air training simulators of 1940.
Being restored by the VAR in 2008 were a complete Airspeed Oxford (for Saskatchewan aircraft historian/collector Frank Thompson) and a Canadian-built Vickers Vedette used by the RCAF in the late 1920s and then by the fledgling air service of the Saskatchewan Government in the mid-1930s.