BY WILL CHABUN
Whatever it was, it was big -- and slow.
Searching the northern Ontario were a young RCAF pilot officer and his navigator, snug in the seats of an Avro CF-100 interceptor.
Terry Lyons' air force career typifies the RCAF in its postwar "golden era". Raised in Regina, he found himself a bit bored with high school. He graduated, then enlisted in the RCAF, moving through its aircrew selection unit in London, Ont., and a succession of schools:
* 3 Flying Training School at Claresholm, Alberta, soloing in a Harvard (on March 16, 1953);
* 2 Advanced Flying School at RCAF Station Portage (where he was in the first course on the new T-33A-N jet trainer;
* 1 Pilot Weapons School at nearby Macdonald, and finally, in the spring of 1954;
* 3 (All-Weather Fighter) Operational Training Unit at North Bay, using then then-new CF-100 Mk. 3.
So rapid was the buildup of the Cold War RCAF than none of these training units was in existence three years. The fighter squadron, No. 419, to which Lyons reported on Sept. 1, 1954 was one of nine CF-100 interceptor squadrons formed between April 1953 and November 1954; these in addition to the 12 F-86 Sabre units being created as the RCAF's contribution to NATO. Only during the first three years of the Second World War has the RCAF formed and deployed more units.
Only one problem: Lyons and his fellow hotshots had formed a poor impression of the CF-100, which had been beset by production and testing problems -- and bore uninspiring nicknames like "Clunk" and "Lead Sled". Lyons' course had been at North Bay mere days when its members watched a CF-100 roll onto its back and crash, killing both crewmen.
It was fortunate, then, that their mood was sensed by OTU instructors, headed by the highly respected W/C Bob Braham, a 29-victory RAF night-fighter ace who emigrated postwar to Canada. He even solved the mystery of that luckless CF-100's crash when his own Canuck went into a similar roll. The veteran Braham controlled and landed, whereupon the problem was spotted: a broken actuator on a flap.
Another instructor, F/L Jimmie Dyer, put Lyons into the back seat of a CF-100, took him up to about 20,000 feet -- and shut down one engine. "You guys don't think you like this machine...I'll show you what it's going to do," said Dyer, who proceeded to put the Clunk through a series of strenous aerobatics.
"I was convinced," Lyons said. "It was a good machine if it could do all that on one engine".
As the RCAF's Air Defence Command (of which 419 was part) gained aircraft and personnel it also came to grips with its assignment: protecting Canada from aerial attack. When Lyons arrived, 419 Squadron was responsible for having two aircraft on 15 minutes' alert. "At night, they usually called it off and went to the bar.
Very quickly, though, ADC got more serious. One of the hangars at North Bay was converted into an "alert barn" open 24 hours a day. A lounge, games room, and sleeping quarters were were constructed and hot meals brought over from the mess. In each 24-hour shift, an alert crew spent four hours on 15-minute alert, four on one-hour alert, four on five-minute alert (sitting in their cockpits) before repeating this cycle, "and then you were off for a couple of days." Lyons, logged his first scramble (a USAF B-47 at 36,000 feet) on Nov. 8, 1954. "I even went in front of him and did a roll -- which I got reported for. Nobody told me that I couldn't do that."
ADC's targets ranged from airliners that had gone off courses to B-29s ("at 500 feet!") to B-47s above 40,000 feet. Thusit was that he and his navigator found themselves high over northern Ontario one night, rolling in for an ident pass on several bogies.
"Oh, Jesus! Our overtake is too much!" Lyons heard his navigator say. "We're going to go right through him!" Dodging and slowing at the same time, they zipped past one target, then another until Lyons bled off speed by lowering the flaps. "What could it be?" they wondered -- until the Clunk's landing lights showed the massive outline of a 10-engined USAF B-36. "I'd never seen one at that altitude and it was just hanging in the sky," Lyons recalled, marveling 40 years later at the B-36's sheer size. "I've talked to B-36 crews since then and they said, yeah, they'd get up there and go around the world. It would take forever."
Less spectacular targets included F-86 Sabres, the RCAF's two DeHavilland Comet jet transports and occasionally the CF-100's American USAF equivalent, the underpowered Northrop F-89 Scorpion. Lyons said Clunk crews took great delight in getting up to, say, 35,000 feet, pulling alongside a wallowing Scorpion, "which had taken a week and three days to get up there, roll and then climb away from him. They couldn't believe that! "Such things were particularly easy on the Mark 4B version of the Clunk. "The difference (between it and the 4A) was basically that the autopilot worked," quipped Lyons. There were also upgraded electronics for instrument flying, electric deicers on the wings and windscreen and "alcohol (de icer) came on automatically and sprayed into the intakes."
"You didn't mind flying in the 'crud' because you knew you'd be all right!"
The 4B also featured improved engines and wingtip rocket pods. "Takeoff to 35,000 feet in six minutes," Lyons marvelled. "The engines (Orenda 11s) were more powerful than the airframe could stand; that was the only drawback." Even better things seemed in store when W/C Ireland got his charges into the Malton factory of Avro Canada, where Lyons sat in the cockpit of a prototype Avro CF-105 Arrow. "That was our hope, we figured, coming from the CF-100 when it became obsolete. We figured we'd transition onto it."
At the other end of the technological spectrum were RCAF auxiliary squadrons' DeHavilland Vampires. One particularly sad day saw one of the RCAF's Montreal auxiliary squadrons, operating from North Bay on a summer exercise, have two aircraft collide (killing one pilot), while another Vampire went off the end of the runway, with the tiny plywood aircraft breaking up and killing the pilot. "They just packed up and went home," said Lyons.
Life in 419 Squadron was not all work, nosirree. Unmarried officers lived in the mess, making for "a lot of activity and camaraderie" and an exhaustive regime of sports and parties. W/C Ireland would appear in the ops room daily at 0700h, check the weather and inevitably get ready to fly, sending his aircraft off -- including himself -- at 15-minute intervals, often with instructions to shoot landings at Uplands, home of 428 Squadron's CF-100s. He'd phone W/C "Big Ed " Smith, (CO of 428) and say, "Ed, is it noisy? There's nobody in the air there! This, of course, made for rivalry. They really liked to do this at F-86 bases because those dudes never flew in bad weather."
A deployment to Uplands while North Bay's runways were repaired saw the high-spirited Moosemen deposit a 250-lb. boulder in a 428 Squadron NCO's bed. "Not too surprisingly, a couple of nights later," said Lyons, "there was a goat in our washroom."
A visit by members of Bagotville's 440 Squadron to North Bay climaxed the disappearance of 419's venerable mascot, a huge stuffed moose head thought unstealable because it was wider than the mess's door. Lyons, who had missed the Saturday night "gams of skill and cunning" and was therefore capable of flying, received orders to fly to Quebec City. With army help, Lyons and his bilingual navigator, Gerry Lepine, staked out the main highway to "Bagtown". for two days, checking every military vehicle that came through. No moose -- Whereupon, Lepine had a brainstorm: he had his father call every taxidermist in town, asking if a moosehead had just been brought in. When one turned up, the matter was duly reported to 419 Squadron brass. "Fine, we'll look after it from here." And it was.
**There was serious work, too. Crews practised a tactic code-named "Harlequin", designed to allow multiple aircraft to attack targets in a electronic countermeasures (i.e., jamming) environment. Put very simply, it saw CF-100s take off at short intervals and fly in a strung-out line-astern formation until a ground radio operator gave them a simple signal to turn at a similar angle and attack. "We never had to do it, but we knew we could," said Lyons, who also went with his squadron in 1956 on a deployment to the RCAF's Weapons Practice Unit at RCAF Station Cold Lake; in fact Lyons was loaned to the WPU for two months. It was in March of the following year that he and his nav were motoring through northern Ontario toward Cold Lake when they were stopped by police and told to go back to North Bay. 419 Squadron (and three other CF-100 units) was being sent to Germany to bolster NATO's all-weather interception capability. Lyons, whose three-year tour on 419 was nearly up, was being permanently posted to the WPU. Accepting this with equanimity, Lyons retraced his route -- stopping in Regina to get married! "I thought that this might end my flying," he laughed. "But my wife was tolerant and let me continue. It took another five years for her to get me under control." WPU business trips took him to Colorado Springs and the USAF air weapons range at Yuma, Ariz. Closer to home, the new range adjacent to Cold Lake saw CF-100s using the new air-to-air Folding Fin Aircraft Rockets, dubbed the "Folding Fin Fails-to-Fire Aircraft Rocket" because of its ability to malfunction, with rockets either zipping off at a 90-degree angle to the launch aircraft's path or enscribing huge spirals ahead of a CF-100. "Until they got it worked out, it was a real hair-raising experience because you ever knew what was going to happen".
Then, as now, the air force was highly cash-conscious, with a launch of the 100 FFAR rockets in the CF-100s' wingtip pods restricted to once every three months. More usually, only three rockets would be loaded.
Particularly memorable for Lyons was the first time he launched a full load of rockets at night. Usually, one of every 12 rockets carried a magnesium "spotter charge" that helped pilots track the trajectory of the rockets. A fun-loving armament officer thought it would be interesting to give his pal, Lyons, about 20 spotter charges at the same time. "When I fired my full load, it just lit up the sky and I was blind," Lyons winced. "Fortunately, I was at 40,000 feet."
Lyons's air force career took some intriguing twists from there, including an ground controller's course at Tyndall AFB in Florida, a stint at St. Sylvestre, Quebec, as a controller, a course at Eglin AFB, Florida and a tour with the RCAF's 447 Squadron (equipped with BOMARC surface-to-air missiles) at La Macaza, Quebec. He got back into the air for a year as the pilot for a one-Otter military "airline", shuttling between military radar bases in northern Ontario. He instructed on T-33s at CFB Moose Jaw, attended staff college, then returned to "the Jaw", retiring about 15 years ago as base operations officer.But of the 1950s,he says: "It was probably the best time for aircrews and groundcrews, to have served their country."
**spare data:With a total of 390 flying hours (more, Lyons noted, than some Second World War airmen logged in their entire training AND operational careers) Lyons was now ready to be assigned to a squadron. He drew No. 419 "Moose" Squadron, also at North Bay, joining it on Sept. 1, 1954. The average age of its pilots was between 20 and 25 with one only 19. Of the 36 pilots and navigators on the squadron, only four were married. Most of their leaders, however, were combat veterans of the Second World War, typified by the CO, W/C E.G. "Irish" Ireland, DFC and a fine leader. Their professionalism masked a cool cockiness traditional of fighter pilots. recalled the rookie Lyons (who had trained on the sharp-nosed Mark 3 version of the CF-100) remembers reporting to the unit, being given the pilot's notes for the Mark 4 version (there being no dual-control versions) and told, "You're going flying in two hours!"
The mid-1950s were what many commentators called "the golden years" of the RCAF. Money and aircraft were plentiful, and there was a job to do, specifically protecting the West from the Red menace. To do this, the RCAF's Air Defence Command had nine squadrons of CF-100s plus an OTU and later a weapons practice unit. Backing up the CF-100s were 12 squadrons of reservists, 10 with Mustang or Vampire fighters and two with B-25 bombers. Overseas were 12 squadrons of Sabres. There were also new tactics to learn: the CF-100 Mark 3s on which Lyons and his buddies had trained were equipped with a radar system designed for a traditional "pursuit" attack from directly behind a target aircraft. The new "lead-collision" radar aboard the Mark 4s called for an attack from 90 to port or starboard before firing, then breaking off. "So we had to learn a new concept and it was all fun".
Like any new aircraft, the "Clunk" had problems "and the maintenance people were learning the aircraft as much as we were learning the aircraft, " said Lyons, who once found himself moving down North Bay's runway just before rotation when he glanced at his instruments "and they were nonfunctional". Wisely rejecting the idea of aborting takeoff, he pressed on, unstuck and quickly entered cloud. Fortunately, he was vectored by ground control to another CF-100, with which he made a formation approach and landed. "I didn't lose him that time!"