Achtung Sabre!


COPA Director Paul Hayes recounts glory days of flying Canadair Sabres during Cold War era

By Adam Hunt


The October Flight 8 meeting fell on a cool and crisp autumn night as it often does. But inside the warmth of our usual meeting place at the Ottawa Flying Club a good crowd gathered to hear COPA Director Paul Hayes recount the glory days of flying Canadair Sabres in the middle years of the Cold War, with stories and photos.

These days Hayes is one of three COPA Directors from southern Ontario, the Captain of COPA Flight 44 and President of the Buttonville Flying Club, near Toronto, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s he was a Sabre pilot in Germany with the RCAF. He joined the RCAF as an airframe technician in 1951 and in 1952 his reserve unit, 411 Squadron, Downsview sent him for pilot training.

His pilot training course was held at RCAF Station Clarsholm, Alberta during the fall and winter of 1952/53. In those days the de Havilland DH82C Tiger Moth had been retired and the de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk had not yet entered service, so initial training was done on the North American Harvard.

The Harvard is a large, handful of an aircraft for an ab initio student pilot with retractable gear and a constant speed propeller. The pilot wings course meant flying 330 hours in ten months on Harvards, plus many hours of ground school, of course.

The usually VFR winter weather of southern Alberta helped keep the course on schedule as they flew basic manoeuvres, instrument flying, aerobatics, formation, air combat manoeuvres and weapons delivery training using rockets, bombs and machine guns, all flown on the versatile Harvard.

When Hayes had finished his course and graduated with his RCAF pilot wings, he went home to his reserve squadron in Toronto to attend university and fly part time. The Cold War was on and NATO faced the Warsaw Pact armies across Western Europe, with the threat of nuclear war being unleashed any day.

As part of the defence of North America 411 Squadron was equipped with the de Havilland Vampire jet fighter. Hayes described its wooden twin-boom construction and its formidable, if slow-firing, four Hispano-Suiza cannons. Hayes indicated that the Vampire was a great introduction to jet flying, even with that aircraft’s limitations, including its lack of ejection seat. He put in 400 hours on the wooden jet, flying it solo from the first flight, as Canada had no two-seat Vampire trainers.

It was during this time that Hayes started civil flying, obtaining a commercial licence on the basis of his military training and checking out on the Piper J-3 Cub and the Aeronca Champion at Maple airfield, north of Toronto with legendary instructor Marion Orr.

In 1955 411 Squadron was given six T-33 jet trainers and the following year was equipped with the Canadair Sabre Mk 5 These Mk 5s had been replaced on the front line RCAF squadrons in Europe by the Mk 6 and thus came to reserve service. After flying the F-86 for just a short while, Hayes decided that the life of a full time RCAF fighter pilot would suit him and he went down to the recruiting centre and joined the regular air force on the promise of a posting to Europe.

Hayes was soon posted to 422 Squadron at 4 Wing, Baden, Germany. In those days a squadron had a full complement of 25 aircraft, with three Sabre Squadrons to a Wing and a total of four wings and 300 Sabres in Germany.

Later one Sabre squadron per wing was replaced by an Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck all-weather fighter squadron to complement the Sabre’s day-fighter capabilities. Hayes reports that when he arrived in Europe Sabre squadrons were flying 1,000 hours per month and maintained about 80% serviceability, an accomplishment he attributes to the Wing’s ground crews.

By December 1957 Hayes had been in Germany for four months and was sent to Scottish Aviation at Renfrew, Scotland to pick up a Sabre for the newly formed West German Luftwaffe and ferry it to Oldenburg, Germany. Flying a Sabre with the “Ritterkreuz” on it instead of the maple leaf roundel was a new experience and marked the beginning of Hayes’ long association with the Luftwaffe.

He soon found himself as one of several RCAF pilots assigned as “Tactical Advisers” to the new German Air Force to help them get their units trained and up to NATO standards. For his part Hayes was sent to Flugplatz Pferdsfeld to help train Jagdgeschwader 73, (Fighter Wing 73). The Wing was named in honour of Second World War German fighter pilot Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff, by then an officer in the new Luftwaffe.

The wing’s two squadrons were equipped with Sabre Mk 6s, with some donated ex-USAF T-33s for IFR training. The unit’s pilots consisted of about a quarter WWII veterans. Hayes helped train the wing in air combat manoeuvring. All in all Hayes spent two and half years with the Luftwaffe.

Over the years Hayes has kept up his association with JG73 as they gave up their Sabres for the Fiat G.91 ground attack aircraft and later for the McDonnell-Douglas F-4F Phantom. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 the unit was moved to Laage in the former East Germany and equipped with the MiG 29 “Fulcrum” air superiority fighter. Today the wing is refitting with the state-of-the-art EuroFighter Typhoon.

Hayes emphasized that the Cold War was a great time to be a fighter pilot and that back then the RCAF had the best aircraft, pilots and groundcrews as attested by their constant wins in NATO competitions.

It wasn’t all smooth flying though, Hayes was involved in two accidents. While flying a Vampire the engine flamed out on short final and the mud under-run tore off the plane’s landing gear, Hayes emerging uninjured. In another accident, while taking off as part of a four-ship formation of Sabres Hayes’ aircraft suffered a hydraulic control system failure. This normally would not have been critical as the engine-driven hydraulic pump had an electrical back-up that should have automatically taken up the load and provided hydraulic pressure, but it didn’t. Without hydraulic pressure the pilot becomes a passenger and Hayes’ Sabre hit the ground, one external tank catching fire. Once the aircraft stopped he safely egressed and lived to fly again, unhurt.

When the Sabre was retired from Canadian service in the middle 1960s Hayes did not convert to the replacement Canadair CF-104 Starfighter and instead went onto various air force flying positions on transports and helicopters, retiring in 1990 as a Brigadier General. Today he has an aviation consulting business and flies a Cessna 172RG and 182RG from Buttonville, maintaining his instrument rating.

Hayes still puts his years of Sabre flying to good use, though, as an adviser to Gatineau-based Vintage Wings, who recently acquired a Sabre and now fly it regularly in air displays. Hayes doesn’t get to fly the single-seat aircraft anymore, but his knowledge of the aircraft and its strengths and weaknesses help keep Vintage Wings operations safer.