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Tony’s tale of the night nav


It was a dark and starry night. Harvard 3771 climbed steadily sou-south east for Farrell Lake, a dried up slough some 40 nautical east-ish of Penhold, Alberta, then north to the tiny settlement of Rosalind, and thence home, a round trip of about two hours, in the dead of night! The soft glow of the instruments created a cozy cockpit cocoon for RAF Flight Cadet Swain, searching for a nowhere swamp 9,600 miles from his Yorkshire home. The Mark 2’s trusty Pratt & Whitney Wasp thundered into the night, muffled somewhat by the cool headsets of the day. It was Sept. 9, 1953. With 163 hours under his belt, Cadet Swain felt atop of the world. A senior cadet, he was proud to be trusted with this historic 1940’s flying machine.

The junior guys had to make do with the easy new Mark 4s. Hah! He reveled in his status on the flight line.

It was a beautiful night. Leveling off at 6,000 feet, pulling power back to 24 inches and 1,750 rpm, the invisible black landscape slid below, marked by the occasional porch or yard light at the scattered farms, mirroring the starlit heavens, resplendent with Milky Way, Big Dipper, and the North Star. Sigh. He was suspended in time and space.

Ahead, sky and the ground merged invisibly into one. No clustered lights pinpointed any town or highway, just gentle glows, off to the sides and far away. Man and steed rumbled on at a steady120 knots.

The virtual lake should hopefully appear in about 10 minutes. But if not? In this black soporific nothingness, how would he know if he’d arrived at the said dry slough? Such was the reason for the exercise. He would simply turn on ETA. In the panel’s comforting glow, those minutes ticked by.

Then, boom! The lights went out! Everything went blacker than black. Thank god for the pilot’s pencil-light, up in the shoulder pocket.

Some sort of electrical failure, reset all those breakers. Click, click, click! No joy.

Whoa! Not easy keeping headings and altitude via flashlight.

Pick a star! Which star? Is that the right heading? Look at the map, whoops, almost dropped it. Damn. Dropped the flashlight! Boing de boing down to the cockpit floor.

Except the Harvard has no floor, the seat and foot trays are suspended in space, about six inches above the centre section, where-on sat the light, way out of reach, shining uselessly at the fuel gauge. What to do?

Black Hole

Maybe if he loosened the harness, he could twist around and reach it with his right hand.

Here goes. He strained and strained, trying not to touch the stick. Almost, just a bit further, nudge the stick just a bit. Then oh oh! Old 3771 is vibrating! “Jeez!”

She’s picking up speed and spiraling down! Scramble back in the seat to find plane and boy sucked in a rotating Black Hole. Porch lights and stars swirl around, blending together!

“My God, which way is up!” The ‘clocks‘ were dark and invisible. Nothing! The dreaded vertigo. Aaarrrgh! Swirl-swirlswirl. Which way? Which way?

Whoa! There goes a gas well flare! They’re on the ground! That’s gotta be down. So pull the other way! Really heavy Gee, the swirling slows, the roaring quieted, stars and porch lights become more normal. Where are we? Turn on ETA? Yeah, right? The exhaust casts a ghostly dim flickering light, badly placed to read chart, watch, or compass. What to do. A few clumps of habitation glow far away, but which is which? After much peering at the irretrievable flashlight, and some time to settle and get organized, the Senior Cadet concluded he’d flown off the edge of his chart. Eventually he located the North Star, and was somewhat oriented. A sparse row of distant floodlit grain elevators led north to a town. Way to go!

A fly-by of the theatre might identify the current movie, hence the town, and voila!, as French cadets were wont to exclaim. It was ‘The Robe.’ So hey, this is

Stettler! (We cadets kept track of such stuff). Then Red Deer must be off to the left, and that flashing beacon must be Lacombe, about a half hour away.

And so it proved, cruising at a setting that sounded right, he soon saw the car lights teeming along the main Edmonton-Calgary highway, turned left, and shortly overflew the flashing red and green nav lights of circulating Harvards at Penhold, cautiously let down to join the daisy chain like a ghost intruder. No radio, no nav lights, and landed. But hey, the landing lights worked!

It was almost 2 a.m. My planned two-hour flight had taken over three hours. “Where the hell have you been?” demanded my instructor, F/O Les Benson, “You were lost weren’t you?”

“No, no, no!” said I, “Lost my cockpit lights.”

“Well where’s your bluddy flashlight? That’s what it’s for!” says he, and stormed off. Sigh. I signed the required books, and went to bed.

The life of Bessy… Our back-east spies tell us that after 39 years, ‘Bessy, The Fish-Lady’s ‘Delta Air Force’ livery is deteriorating badly, and so the CHAA, is returning her to her roots by repainting her in 1950s RCAF colours. Sigh! Would be nice if Mary and I had the moula to donate a genuine ‘Bessy’ paint job.

Ah well. Back in the day, many Delta aircraft sported the Delta triangle; airport owner Darmel Diston’s magnificent Gull Wing Stinson, sundry Flybabies, Cubs, the Turbi, and some still do.

The Mary’s bustling Royal Seafoods allowed us to fly the shows with the Western Warbirds, so for some PR, we titled Bessy, ‘The Fish Lady’ with suitable nose art of a sexy happy cod.

We distributed Mary’s special Salmon Bar-B-Q recipes on our travels. It was a lot of fun. An iffy work is in maybe progress of the ‘Life of Bessy’, but due to age related problems and domestic ‘stuff’, some critical pics are astray.

Delta doings

The weekend weather hasn’t been the best these last couple of months, so there’s not been much flying about. But the guys make many plans. Meanwhile activity in the newly shared COPA Flight 5, Boundary Bay Clubhouse in the Old Coffee Shop is a great success with numerous events taking place.

Chapter 85 RAAC held their Annual Awards Banquet at the excellent Town & Country Inn, and Mary and I were honoured guests with Metro Vancouver Parks Mitch Sokalski and Sandi.

Mitch congratulated the Chapter, and the tenant’s committee DAPCOM, for their excellent work over the years, and stressed that without that volunteer administrative work, the airpark would not exist. So keep up the good work. And please heed the call when asked. Right now, Mark and Roberta Garner of the BBFC/Flight 5, have repainted the clubhouse, and are refurbishing the picnic tables and the general area. Other volunteers have taken on the flower garden, mowing the runways, etc.

The BBFC hold regular Saturday scrumptious Pot-Luck dinners, with various themes, Robby Burns, Valentines, Saint Patricks, Easter Bonnets, etc. These are great social gatherings, and often other Metro Park users drop by, walkers, cyclists, twitchers, et al. This is recreational aviation doing its bit for the community.

Ex-Harvard guy Chris Mc - Lean and son Scott, on leave from flying the current Harvard 2’s at Moose Jaw, flew in from Duncan in their RV-6, to meet a friend.

Wandering the hangars that same day, I came on David Marsden with his Skylark, a pretty hitailed plane he told me he designed himself! An all metal, side by side two place, low wing aircraft, powered by a Rotax 914. Apparently the original nosewheel version cruised at 117 knots, however he has reconfigured his to tail-dragger hoping for another five knots or so.

An old school chum of mine from Yorkshire, Gordon Holmes, recently finished re-building his Consolidated Canso, one of my favourite amphibs. I designed some SAR equipment and a dipstick for them in the early 1950’s, when CPA(R) in Calgary had a contract with RCAF. Gordon’s is powered by two single cylinder radials, and is hangared in his mobile home at Barriere, B.C. Flies pretty good he says.

So that’s it

That’s all folks. Sad to say we’re both a bit creaky these days, I turned 78 last month, and with one thing or another, am missing deadlines. So henceforth, this will

be an occasional column. Sigh. Thanks for reading it… Fly safe now!

— Tony Swain & The Mary
copaguy@vcn.bc.ca