01 November 2011

A dangerous time

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

After No.2 ANS closed it became No.34 Operational Training Unit (OTU), an RAF base, on 1 June 1942 flying the Lockheed Vega-Ventura. The Ventura was a twin-engine medium bomber designed to train crews destined for a Medium Bomber Squadron overseas.

It was during the tenure of No.34 OTU that close to 81% of the fatalities took place, almost 62% of those occurring in 1943 alone, with 12 fatal crashes and 5 additional aircraft being listed as “missing”.

In 1997 F/L John Park (Ret.) of Bass Hill, Australia remarked: "Such 'prangs' were quite common with 'circuits and bumps' as this was the last stop before Europe and the real thing."

Ventura AE950 would disappear over the Bay of Fundy 23 July 1942 with a crew of two; Ventura AE932 would crash 4 miles NE of Caledonia, NS and Ventura AE868 would crash on the aerodrome at “the Ridge”.

In regards to the latter crash it was witnessed by many airmen and has been recounted numerous times in print, video and verbal narratives. Anyone who witnessed the horrific crash has never forgot it no matter how hard they have tried to eradicate its memories from the pages of their mind.

The devastation of 1943 began 23 January 1943 when Ventura AE872 crashed at Hills Mountain (near Waweig) and did not let up until 10 August 1943. During this period at least one aircraft a month would crash – January and February would see 2 whereas June would see 3. To close out the year, on 19 December 1943, the Angel of Death would claim four more airmen when Ventura FD697 struck the 30’ water level indicator atop an 80’ water tower in the marshalling yards at McAdam Junction.

It was one of these crashes in 1943 that would claim the life of Sgt. H.J. (Hugh) Burnham and his crew on a cold February morning.

One of the more tragic tales is the crash of Ventura FN973 10 August 1943. On that day, the crew of Ventura FN973 was detailed to fly a cross-country mission lasting approx. 3 hrs. At 1855 they completed their task and upon return, radioed the control tower asking for permission to bomb the Utopia Range. The aircraft never made it to the range and at 1900 hours it was spotted heading out to sea. The following day Ozra Newman and his son Lawrence, of Wilson’s Beach, and another fishing vessel from Grand Manan came upon wreckage from Ventura FN973 about two hundred yards north of White Horse Island. One of the objects recovered was a life raft partially filled with water. Tangled within the ropes was the body of the Navigator, P/O R.A. Ledingham (RCAF) who survived the initial crash and later succumbed to his injuries and exposure. The other three-crew members were never found and the cause of the crash remains “obscure”.

Sometime between 1943 and 1959 an airman from the base, who was at the crash site at Hills Mountain, wrote: “We kept losing aircraft after aircraft and no one knew the reason. So many people were killed that we had to have practically a permanent funeral party. All the fatalities were among the student crews and never with the instructors. Naturally morale was rather low. It wasn’t until about mid 1943 that we found the answer.”

The answer the airman was referring to came from the investigation into Ventura AE678 that “forced” landed near the Burns Road in Digdeguash 29 May 1943. The crash killed the Pilot and injured the WAG but the aircraft itself, although it struck a tree, did not burn and was not extensively damaged. Upon examination of the wreckage it was discovered the Stromberg carburetors were full of air.

The practice of switching over to a full tank was to switch the cocks to the tanks required, then put the booster pumps on. However if the booster pumps were switched on first then it would pump air from the nearly empty tank into the carburetor stopping the engine dead. To correct this problem the carburetors were installed with a bleed pipe back to the main tank. No more aircraft were lost in this way again.

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 Friday: Remembering Sgt. Hubert John Burnham

SOURCE: The Saint Croix Courier (St. Stephen, NB) - November 1, 2011.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The above noted story as originally written vs the shortened one that appeared in the newspaper.

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