Flight Cadet Swain and
Sweaty Goggle Award
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This hero photo in my RAF pilot gear at 1952 Grading School says it all. The helmet, goggles, gauntlets, flight boots and parachute made it all real! And I, little Tony Swain, an 18 year old cobbler’s son, found it hard to believe.
It was all made possible by a scholarship to a posh school, by Dad springing for a few flying lessons and the Brit military draft of the day.
But what really did the trick was my impressive Student Pilot License, a fine blue booklet, bound with blue ribbon in a bow. The first page carried my photo, authenticated by an embossed government seal. Wow! Wish I could find it today!
SO TIME ROLLED ON
In 1962 I moved to Vancouver, met The Mary in 1969, and discovered a mutual interest in airplanes, cos her brother once had a Luscombe.
I sighed for big round engines, and was entranced by Jack Pickup’s old Cabin Waco, and by Mark and Laurie Hoskins’ His and Hers Ryan Sportsters.
So in 1971 we bought Darmel Diston’s Harvard at Delta, and the fun began!
NOT AS LIGHT AS IT LOOKS
After military 4,000 foot runways, I was leery that 2,000 feet on grass wasn’t enough! My ex RCAF check pilot Mel Lee, opined that the three other Harvards there got in somehow. ”Just pour on the coals, and don’t change your mind!” We were off half way down the runway!
We named our Harvard ‘Bessy’ because when under stress in the Air Force, felt it necessary to speak to them directly, I called all their planes that, as in, “Phew! Good old Bessy.”
We used Bessy pretty much like a Cub, and went flying-about with our homebuilder friends at Delta, Chilliwack, Arlington et al, and after crossing ‘The Rocks’ to Calgary and Penhold, we could go anywhere.
So it was no big deal to go see a couple of old sports car friends now living at Duncan. The strip there was a clear cut over top of a mountain with a hump in the middle, 1,600 feet gravel. The cliff drop-offs at each end likened it to an aircraft carrier. No sweat, our homebuilder friends went in all the time!
However the landing got a bit fraught after ‘The hump’, trying to stop three tons of Harvard from hurtling over the cliff at the far end! As the club-house sped past, I frantically left braked and ruddered hard, into a spectacular slithering ground-loop at the brink, impressing all with the clouds of dust and gravel flying about. Taxiing thankfully to the grassy parking area, we waved casually to Art, Silvia and the kids, who were most impressed. Just like the old sport car days!
After the obligatory guided tour of Bessy, we whisked off to admire their place, devour photo albums, and relive the good old days. After a bit, I made noises about getting off home. Wouldn’t hear of it! Silvi had prepared a fancy candlelit dinner! Well okay, but must eat and run.
ANOTHER PIECE OF CAKE
It was September, “Look. It’s beautiful outside! Have another piece of cake. You’ve lots of time, Silvi has made a trifle! Gotta have some of that!” They pooh-poohed my fears of sunset and grounding times.
They had the car, and I got a bit testy. My entire pilot planning info was in the plane. After some chuntering, we headed back to the airport. There it started again. Got to get pictures, show little Tommy the cockpit, etc., etc. I filed a ‘Flight Note’ with Art, and said he should call the RCMP if he hadn’t heard back from me in an hour. No sweat… thrilled to be on the team!
After we’d shooed them away and started the engine, Bessy still needed 15 minutes to warm-up. It was only a 15 minute flight home, and those days, no radio chatter required. Dusk was approaching, but it was a lovely sunlit evening, and you could see clearly for miles.
So away we went, wagging Bessy’s wings in farewell in a climbing turn to the east. Beautiful! But as we climbed away, the sky went purple, and the ground went black, with just little scattered pinpoints of light. The airstrip just disappeared! Oh my God. We’d never find Delta in this! Quick decision.
“We’re going to Nanaimo!” I told Mary, “We’ll follow the headlights on the highway.” About 10 minutes. At 1,000 feet, and hard right by the highway to avoid the mountains, I headed for the bright lights of Duncan, looking north for Chemainus, about 8 miles away. Bingo! Thank God I’d got a civil night rating a couple of years back and was somewhat up to speed.
It was 17 years since I’d flown a Harvard at night, and the warm cockpit lights glow brought those days back in a rush. At least I wasn’t lost this time! And I was familiar with Nanaimo, from taking some of Yellow Point Lodge staff for rides.
TO THE DRIVE-IN
The runway at Nanaimo was parallel with the highway, and started just beyond the local drive-in theatre, which should be open. Four miles out over Ladysmith, I called “On initial” for a long straight in approach, reduced power, lowered the gear, set 15 degrees of flap, and trimmed for the approach. I would dump full flap after I identified the runway, over the drive-in. It was tense, but failing this, it would be Vancouver with the old military frequency 126.2 or 121.5 Bessy’s military ICA 67 was a 10 channel crystal radio!
By now except for the cars, everything below was a black nothing! But there! The drive-in screen drifted into view, floodlit lot, cars and all. Beyond was nothing, but a single white light just right of the highway. The Flying School porch light!
On with the landing lights, boom, and there right ahead, two big numbers, 34, and a lovely runway stretching away into the gloom.
Throttle closed, full flap, trims all back, call on final, and bumpety bump, we were down, and looking for the far turn off. We parked on the grass by the flying club, and checked at the Air Radio, but it was dark, everybody was gone. We started walking the couple of miles to the Cassidy Hotel.
After about a half mile, I remembered Art. He would faithfully call the RCMP if he didn’t hear within the hour! Thank goodness, right there was a café. Locked, and a cleaning lady clearing up. No we can’t use the phone, go to the hotel. Argh!
We ran and ran, eventually puffed into the lobby to use the phone before anything.
Art was cheery; Hey! He was just about to phone. Phew!
So… Remember; just because you can see good near sunset, doesn’t mean you will after take-off! It can fade to black, bang, right now.
END BITS & PIECES
This tale brought back a lot of fond memories for the old days. Peter Chick and Gogi and their Ryan PT 22, my RAF recruiter, Ginger Lacey, long retired, visiting Delta and flying the EAA’s club Turbi, early days at Arlington, and the wonderful Western Warbirds of Alberta and B.C., and our annual gatherings at Penticton and Oliver.
Past President Wayne Watson, of Camrose tells me his kids fly the Harvards now, and the group still flies on! John Mrazek ditched his Harvard off Victoria, and won the W.WBDS Pacific Squadron’s Sweaty Goggle Award for choosing the ocean not the freeway, and for saving his passenger who couldn’t swim.
John is now a popular local Harvard acrobatic performer, and Transport Canada General Aviation Inspector.
And further to last month’s story about my show at the Air Crew Association, WW 2 RAF pilot Jack Meadows gave me a gentle rebuke for making members sound like a bunch of old folks. The local group welcome all Aircrew, whatever era, mine and younger included! They meet monthly at the Crescent Beach Legion.
So that’s it for another year. Merry Christmas… the Old Copaguy, Tony and The Mary