30 October 2011

Would-be rescuers mark first station fatalities

Column: first of a four-part series of columns remembering those who served at Pennfield Ridge Air Station.

A lot of changes have occurred at the former Pennfield Ridge Air Station since it closed towards the end of 1945.

This column, along with the next three to follow, is intended to focus on the 170 accidents and/or mishaps (“prangs”) at the Pennfield Ridge Air Station and ultimately honour Sgt. Hubert John (Hugh) Burnham, RAAF (Pilot). Burnham, a 19 year old from Worthing, Sussex, England serving in the Royal Australian Air Force, was chosen to represent all those killed at Pennfield Ridge due to a recent visit by his younger brother Frank V Burnham this past July. Frank, now age 86, made the journey from his native England to Canada to say his final goodbye to his beloved Hugh 68 years later. Frank represents, for many of the Commonwealth airmen killed at “the Ridge”, what numerous families have not been able to do – bid farewell to those brave airmen lost so long ago.

The former base holds a special place in the hearts and minds of those who served there. For many airmen it would be the last place in Canada they would spend their time before being posted overseas. It was here friendships would be forged that would be life long, especially those who “crewed” up and later served together in battle squadrons overseas. We have discovered that once a Veteran begins to talk about Pennfield Ridge it is hard for him to share any other memories. Family members, the next generation, have often heard the stories about Pennfield Ridge or have come across the name when they begin their own research. This is why we have heard from 24 Veterans and over 120 family members since 2007, many of whom we still maintain fairly regular contact.

There were fourteen fatal crashes in various parts of New Brunswick (9), Nova Scotia (4) and Rhode Island (1) that account for the loss of 40 airmen. Another seven aircraft crashed into various bodies of water accounting for 21/22 airmen and 1 seaman (passenger) being listed as “missing”. Families struggling with the sudden loss of loved ones were further compounded with the waiting for additional word. Long after all the searches were abandoned and all hopes for a positive outcome were exhausted; “presumption” of death was finally issued. The remaining seven airmen died from natural causes.

The base officially opened 21 July 1941 as No.2 Air Navigation School (ANS), an RCAF base, operating the Avro Anson, the mainstay of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Sixteen days after the base opened the first minor mishap transpired when an Anson “…overran the runway into a ditch”, and then nineteen days later the first fatal crash befell the base involving two aircraft and nine airmen.

The first aircraft, Anson 6649, was out on a night navigation exercise with a crew of five when it became lost near Liverpool, NS. Dropping flares and flooding the shore with a landing light, the crew was unable to find a suitable place to land. The pilot, F/O John Barneson, a native of San Francisco serving in the RCAF, climbed to 6,000 feet and ordered the crew to bail out around 3:30 a.m. The entire crew, save Sgt. J.H. McKay who fractured his arm when he struck the tail of the plane while bailing out, escaped unharmed.

Before the crew of Anson 6649 was reported safe, a search party from Pennfield Ridge was organized.

One of the searching aircraft was Anson 6644 with a crew of four, including the pilot F/L Walter Samuel “Leslie” Smallman (RAF) who had been residing in St. George with his wife Mollie and young son since July 1941. Spotting a bonfire around 7:00 a.m. Smallman put the aircraft into a steep diving turn toward the East and as it banked, possibly with the pilot’s vision being aggravated by glare from the rising sun, the port wing struck a tree and disintegrated killing the entire crew.

This was to be the only fatal crash at No.2 ANS which existed for just over 10 months and the final line of the Station ORB reflects the mood of the station that day: "A very 'blue' Monday."

Since January 2007 Pennfield Parish Military Historical Society (PPMHS) has been working hard to record the history of the Pennfield Ridge Air Station and A-30 Canadian Infantry Training Centre, CA (Camp Utopia). Our primary focus is honouring and remembering the 78 service personnel, along with the 7 civilians, killed at the Air Station and Camp Utopia.

On Tuesday: A dangerous time

SOURCE: The Saint Croix Courier (St. Stephen, NB) - October 25, 2011.

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