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5045 Ralph Awrey Remembers: Life in the RCAF Following Graduation

Above: 5045 Ralph Awrey receives his navigator’s wings in 1961.

Article by 5045 Ralph Awrey

After graduation from RMC in 1961 we went back to Winnipeg for final training and to get our navigation wings. Then it was off to an Operational Training Unit. Many of our class went to the Maritime Command OTU in Nova Scotia. I went to the Long Range Navigation OTU in Trenton. After OTU training at Trenton we were assigned to different squadrons. My wish was 426 (T) Squadron which flew North Stars around the world supplying Canadian NATO and UN bases. Initially I was assigned to the local Search and Rescue Squadron. I raised a stink in the Officers Mess that night, which was overheard by the Base CO.  The next morning I was called into the Training Officer’s Office and told that my assignment had been changed to 426(T) Squadron. So I was off to 426(T) at St. Hubert, Quebec, near Montreal. A double bonus! 426(T) Squadron and proximity to Montreal

I remember my first flight from St. Hubert. It was as second navigator on a resupply run to our UN troops in El Arish, Egypt. This was the peacekeeping base for Canadian troops supervising the “peace” after the Suez crisis. The out bound route was Trenton to Gander to Langar, England, to Gros Tenquin, France to Athens to El Arish, Egypt. With layovers the trip took 7 calendar days and 30 flying hours. It was memorable to me for two incidents.

When we arrived at the Athens airport and were boarding a taxi to take us to our hotel in downtown Athens, the whole flight crew piled into the back seat leaving me the front seat with the driver. This was unusual as normally the Captain got the front seat. Ever naïve I thought that they were being nice to the rookie. Far from it. It was the scariest car ride I’ve ever experienced and they knew it would be. Greek taxi drivers are mad men. Our driver weaved in and out of traffic with umpteen narrow head on misses with incoming cars, busses and trucks. When we arrived at the hotel I was ashen faced and they were all roaring with laughter. The other incident was our landing in El Arish. Adjacent to the Canadian UN camp, was an Egyptian air base stocked with Russian MIG fighters. I was told that on most flights we were buzzed by these ill trained Egyptian pilots and that could be a terrifying experience too. Most of the Egyptians must have been asleep in the heat of the day because we were only half heartedly buzzed that day. In addition to ad hoc trips around Canada, 426(T) also did resupply runs to Canadian fighter bases in Germany and France (until the ever ungrateful Charles de Gaulle kicked NATO out of France).

Our other major routes were to UN troops in Cyprus and the Congo. The Congo was a futile UN mission to keep the peace between Congolese rebels and the Congolese Government anointed by the Belgians when they fled the Congo. Unlike the Brits when they left their colonies, the Belgians left no reliable, useful government infrastructure or trained civil servants behind. They simply fled regardless of the post Belgian havoc that ensued. The Belgian Congo became Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Regardless of name, the same cast of characters continues to kill one another. Civil wars seem to be the national sport in the Congo.

I have several memories of the Congo runs. The staging points for the Congo (Leopoldville) run were Pisa, Italy and Kano, Nigeria. Crews would fly the North Star from St. Hubert or Trenton to Pisa, a layover crew would fly the plane from Pisa to Kano, with a refueling stop at an RAF base in Libya, and another layover crew would fly the plane from Kano to Leopoldville and back to Kano. And then back through the staging points to Trenton. The crews changed but the cargo – Canadian soldiers and crates of supplies – stayed with the North Star throughout.

My first time through Pisa we landed about the same time as an Italian Air Force flight arrived from the Congo carrying the bodies of an Italian flight crew that had been mutilated by Congolese rebels with very sharp machetes. It wasn’t exactly like our current ramp ceremonies but relatives were there and there was a lot of wailing and crying. One woman ran over to us and after finding out about our destination and, crying, urged us to not go there. It was scary, but unlike the Italians we didn’t fly into the interior and always had armed Canadian troops on board either coming or going to their UN mission.

This staging process required a full complement of aircrew to be on standby in Pisa and in Kano to ferry the North Stars to their next destinations. It was a one month tour of duty in each location. Since I was a bachelor I volunteered for both. There were side benefits, especially the Pisa assignment. One time we weren’t expecting a flight through for three days so the Captain suggested we take a train from Pisa to Nice for a mini vacation, which we did. We stopped off in Lugano, Switzerland and when we arrived in Nice decided to visit Ile du Levant which was a nudist colony off the coast of Nice. After a scary ferry ride we arrived to the sight of all naked bodies of all sizes and shapes. I got the nerve to disrobe when we got to the beach, but I never was able to walk around naked. Sadly, Ile du Levant has been turned into a French air force bombing range. When we arrived back in Pisa the Captain was in deep shit. We were never to leave Pisa unless granted permission. We might be needed case of an emergency. He took a risk and took us off without permission. The emergency took place and we were nowhere to be found. A crew was needed to fly a replacement engine somewhere else and we were it. Consequently, he was in deep trouble. No doubt his service record was duly amended and he lost any chance for promotion. Nice guy too, Captain Robert Black, and a highly skilled pilot.

Kano, Nigeria was another month long assignment as a member of a staging crew. We stayed in a motel like villa with a 24 hour on call house boy named Robert who was at least sixty years old. The poor fellow may have been killed during the Nigerian civil war. I think he was Ibo which was the wrong tribe during the war, especially in northern Nigeria. The room was nice but I was always terrified to get into the bath tub. There were no showers. One day a spider the size of a dinner plate crawled up through the drain and sat there in the tub staring at me. Robert came to my rescue. My major phobia is acrophobia but arachnophobia and entomophobia are close seconds. Phobias are scary things. A very, very large friend (Brian McAteer) gets panicky at the sight of hair on or near his food. One lunch time he made the mistake of telling his three dining companions about this. When he went to the washroom we immediately plucked hairs from our heads and beards and placed them on his side plate. We believed him about his phobia when we saw his reaction upon return from the wash room.

Our meals were taken at the English Club which was about one mile from the villa. The RCAF had negotiated associate memberships for RCAF crews. No doubt at a price. We walked to the club and as we did we passed a crowd of professional beggars. Wisely, we always kept a few Nigerian shillings and pence at hand. Some of these beggars were blind and most had missing limbs or leprosy stunted limbs, even the children.

There was a nine hole golf course attached to this club. It was all sand and rock outcroppings with oiled sand greens. There was little if any grass as Kano is in northern Nigeria in the desert region. We rented clubs and hired the mandatory number of caddies, one to carry the bag and two forecaddies for each golfer. The forecaddies were vital if you wanted to find your ball. It bounced anywhere and everywhere off rocks and rock outcroppings. They also were very competitive for their golfer. Most would pick up the ball between their toes and advance it 30 or more yards. Once I found my ball sitting on a broken tee. The forecaddie swore it had landed there. Who was I to call a Nigerian citizen a liar? The head, bag carrying caddie’s most important job was to pick your ball out of the cup as there were often scorpions in the bottom. Also, he was the general who told us when we could hit off the tee when a camel train was crossing a fairway. We liked these lads and decided that the club’s pay system was out of whack. The going rate was two Nigerian shillings for the head caddie and one shilling for each of the fore caddies. In Canadian dollars this was the square root of you know what. To the chagrin of the English we paid them a lot more but still not very much in Canadian dollars. What peed off the English was that the caddy group started demanding more from them. They were mad at us but we colonials didn’t care. Many a fight was threatened at the bar during drinking sessions. None came to pass.

Newspaper clipping of the last RCAF North Star flight into the Congo.

The flights to Leopoldville were often “hairy” as air force types would say. For political reasons we couldn’t fly directly from Kano to Leopoldville. Rather we had to fly directly south to the Gulf of Guinea and head inland from the west of Leopoldville. What made this hairy were thunderstorms – cumulonimbus clouds (CBs). They were big black buggers that went up to 60,000 feet or more over the Gulf. Since the North Star’s operational ceiling was 10 to 11,000 feet we had no choice but to fly through or around the beasts. The navigator’s job was to use the radar to find the least frightening gaps – slight grey on the screen vs. dark black. So we bobbed and weaved through the turbulence with lightning all around us, sometimes hitting the airplane. Once we got back over land it was back to no sweat territory. On September 8, 1962 the last North Star flew into Leopoldville on the RCAF’s United Nations run. I was the navigator on that crew.

As noted above, the operational ceiling was 10 to 11,000 feet but the North Star could fly up to 20,000 feet if needed. This meant oxygen masks for the crew and no passengers. I recall a Captain who was hell bent on setting the record for North Star travel from Trenton to an air base in Germany. At our meteorological briefing we were told that the jet stream was such that there would be a hefty tail wind at about 19,000 feet. So this daft glory hound filed this height on the flight plan. Sure enough we rocketed (for a North Star) across the Atlantic and set the squadron record. The downside was that we had to wear oxygen masks for 9 or 10 hours. The pilots and radio officer had it easy. They just sat in their seats doing their jobs. I had to get up to the sextant quite often while wearing an oxygen mask stretched to the limit. My neck was sore for weeks – OK, maybe days -afterward.

Canadian bases in Europe employed contract, civilian teachers for the schools of service men’s children. It was a good deal. They got paid their back home wages, a living allowance and the opportunity to bring back a car from Europe duty free. And they were members of the Officer’s Mess which gave them a whole bunch of other privileges. On one trip I met a school teacher in the mess and she invited me for dinner at a castle in the Black Forest. I accepted reluctantly. To get there we had to drive about 100 miles on the autobahn which had no speed limit. She had a new Mercedes and was tootling along very quickly. I noted the speedometer was at 140 kph. I asked her what that translated to in mph. “Oh no.” said she. “My odometer has been converted to mph”. So we were going 140 mph which made me wish I was avoiding thunderstorms over the Gulf of Guinea. The dinner was great though and she paid. With a lot of German beer and wine in me the return trip was much more pleasant. She drove a bit like my daughter-in-law Susan does now. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Susan’s father Richard Baird was a teacher at a Canadian base in Europe when Susan was a child.

426 Transport Squadron was disbanded at Saint-Hubert on 1 September, 1962. The North Stars and Squadron personnel were dispersed. I don’t know where the aircraft went, nor where most of the personnel went. I was assigned to 436 (T) Squadron stationed in Downsview, Ontario. We flew the Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar, which was replaced by the C130 Hercules in a few years.

We went from rather exotic trips around the world in 426 North Stars to milk runs in Canada. Downsview to Ottawa to Shearwater in Halifax and return, was the most common trip. Not too exciting except for the time the Captain decided to land at Shearwater despite almost zero visibility. We spotted approach lights about 300 feet above the ground. It was thought that this Captain had a girl friend in Halifax and he wasn’t about to abort the trip. I don’t remember his name but it certainly wasn’t one of my two favorite pilots, Randy Ellis and Doug Hargreaves. Both were expert pilots and responsible gentlemen. Randy was the father of Hall of Fame hockey player, Ron Ellis. Doug became the coach of the RMC Redmen football team (and later athletic roles at Queens). He is a member of the RMC Athletics Wall of Distinction.

The boredom of the domestic milk runs was sometimes broken with re-supply trips to the Alert radar station; not far from the North Pole.

C119 aircrew at Alert in 1963. Ralph Awrey is the one petting the husky.

My last significant flight before leaving the RCAF was as a navigator with crews ferrying Dakotas to India. (See here for that story.)

Shortly thereafter I became a civilian. I had decided to leave the military after Paul Hellyer implemented his insane plan of integrating the three services. It saved no money and succeeded in damaging the morale and some of the fighting effectiveness of the Canadian military. I had no wish to trade my air force blues in for the Texaco green uniforms of unification. Coincident with Hellyer’s insane policy was severe budget slashing that resulted in further reducing the morale and effectiveness of the military. Senior officers who opposed this plan were unceremoniously turfed from the military. This was a sad day in our history. Hellyer became totally insane and established an anti-American party called the Canadian Action Party. He has now gone to his just rewards. May God have mercy on his soul.

Aside from signing some papers, getting final monies and turning my bedding into stores, my last military act was to get my tonsils removed at Sunnybrook Hospital. I was advised to do so by the base Medical Officer because the operation would be fully paid for by the government. This was in the days before Medicare so as a civilian there would have been some cost to me. Off I went to Sunnybrook to have the buggers removed. As an officer I was in a room for two which was more or less a private room because the other bed was unoccupied. Like most males I don’t have a high pain threshold so I felt mighty sore and sick after the operation. On day two the nurses were making up the bed next to me. A WW1 veteran (yes, WW1!) was to have a serious operation the next day and they didn’t want him to be in a ward bed after the operation. I asked and was told that he’d be in tough shape and making a lot of noise. That did it for me. I had to get out of there. I asked my Doctor when I could get out. He said probably the next morning and that he’d need to see me four weeks after the operation. The next morning I got up, put on my uniform, went down to the parking lot and drove to my mother’s house in Hamilton to recuperate under her tender care. When I returned to Sunnybrook four weeks later I told the Sergeant at the out-patient desk that I was F/O Awrey here to see Doctor so and so. “No you aren’t.”, says he. “I certainly am.”, says I, showing him my I.D.  “You can’t be”, says he. “F/O Awrey is still in the hospital.” This was like a scene out of Catch 22. Apparently I was too quick on the trigger when I left. I should have waited for the Doctor’s rounds and got signed out of the hospital before leaving. So the Sergeant was theoretically correct. Once this was settled I had to do the bureaucratic thing post facto and travel around the hospital signing form after form.

All in all life in the RCAF was a great experience. One event later in life brought back a traumatic experience in the air force. A few years ago there was a horrendous accident while Joan and I were watching the Canadian International Air Show. While sitting on a stretch of Lake Ontario beach just south of our house, we saw an RAF Nimrod crash into the water right in front of us killing all 15 of the crew. This brought back my memory of the aftermath of an air accident in the RCAF which killed a friend. It still bothers me to this day. After the Nimrod crashed a woman seated next to us asked if the crew would be hurt. I wanted to respond but she just didn’t know better. I just shook my head and Joan and I left for home. We haven’t been to the air show since that day.

The Flying Log Book is a record of flight times over a flying career. My record is:

  • Total flying hours – 1779
  • Day flying hours – 1278
  • Night flying hours – 501
  • C45 Expeditor – 63 (many air sick episodes)
  • DC 3 – 137 ½
  • Albatross – 2 ½ (searching for some fool lost in a sail boat)
  • North Star – 761
  • C119 Flying Boxcar – 815

4 Comments

  • Chris Chance

    April 21, 2020 at 12:39 pm

    This series has been fascinating throughout. Ralph, you are a very skilled author. Thanks for providing us with these tales that had me laughing on many occasions. I grew up next to RCAF Rockcliffe and remember well the drone of the Merlin engines of the North Stars and Lancasters (408 Sqn).

    10209 Chris Chance

  • Tim Baird

    April 21, 2020 at 3:20 pm

    This was a great read Ralph. Thank you for sharing. I loved the part about my sister Susan and my father Richard. Totally unexpected and gave me quite a laugh.

  • Layne Larsen

    April 21, 2020 at 3:26 pm

    Great series by Ralph….shows what I missed by being posted to Maritime rather than Transport Command. By the way, the Maritime OTU was in Summerside, PEI where we trained on the P2V7 Neptune. If you were fortunate enough to be posted to 407 Squadron (which was still using Neptunes) in Comox, you required no further training. If destined for 404, 405 or 415 Squadrons, you had to attend the Argus Conversion Unit, at Greenwood, NS.

  • Michelle Moore

    April 24, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    Uncle Ralph

    It was a very interesting read, and gave me a whole new perspective on your work
    You have definitely had some adventures
    Looking forward to hearing more of them