27 January 2012

Ventura Lost

On the last day of August 1943, after completing the final four-month advanced flying training course at No.8 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Moncton, New Brunswick, I graduated with new RCAF pilot’s wings. I was very nearly posted to the RCAF Central Flying School at Trenton, Ontario to become an instructor, but before that could happen, through a happier combination of events I was posted with three other Pilot Officer classmates, to No.34 RAF Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Pennfield Ridge, New Brunswick. 34 OTU was one of the few wartime Royal Air Force stations in Canada, and though I did not know it at the time, it was actually a unit of 2 Group of the RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force. Complete crews were trained at Pennfield on the Lockheed, or Vega Ventura, which was then in use by the RAF in England as a daylight tactical bomber by medium bomber squadrons of 2 Group.

Pennfield was situated on the north shore of the Bay of Fundy near Black’s Harbour, roughly 40 miles west of Saint John on the highway to St. Stephen. 34 OTU was a solid little British enclave staffed almost entirely by RAF personnel, right down to the batmen.

The four of us got off the bus from St. John at the gate to Royal Air Force Pennfield Ridge, as proclaimed by a rather humble sign. After surveying the bleak landscape, someone said, “I wonder why they built an airport so close to that huge hill?” After a moment of thought, one of the others replied: “It probably helps pilots find the airport in bad weather.”

It is astonishing to think that most of us were barely 21, anyone a year or two older was called an “uncle.” At Pennfield, I was checked out in the Ventura with its two 2,000 hp engines and a takeoff gross weight of 32,000 pounds after six short instructional flights totaling four hours and 45 minutes, which contrasted sharply with the brand of training we had just completed flying the Anson II for four months at the SFTS. It is a miracle there were not more Venturas lying about the airfield at the end of each day.

At Pennfield Ridge, for the first time in our airforce careers we were thrown together with other aircrew trades, Observers, who were trained in the dual skills of Navigator and Bomb Aimer, and instead of a winged ‘N’ or a ‘B’ over their left pocket, they wore a gold-winged ‘O’ known as “the flying arsehole.” They were also Wireless Air Gunners, who were trained both as wireless operators and airgunners, and ‘straight’ airgunners, who specialized solely as airgunners. The normal four-men Ventura crew in the RAF used one of each.

Compared with the Mark II Anson with its 300 horsepower Jacobs engines, the Ventura seemed a big heavy machine, not a bit too small for its 2,000 horsepower engines. To hold it on the ground during takeoff until the airspeed indicator showed 110 mph convinced us we were in a completely different league.

After converting to the Ventura as a crew, events moved along a steady pace and, after what seemed a very short time we began to feel like old hands, throwing the Vent around with newly acquired confidence and respect.

At least 70 percent of the flying instructors at Pennfield were RAF, “Lymies,” which enriched the whole experience – we got along extremely well. The majority of the other instructors were Canadian. Most had flown daylight and night bomber operations on RAF squadrons in 2 Group, and many were decorated. All had survived one or two tours of operations, mostly in Europe, and a few twitchy ones had done three. Where flying was concerned, they all seemed to have a fine appreciation of the things that mattered. Unlike SFTS, there was no spoon-feeding and, in the pilot checkout phase, once one’s instructor had covered the main items at least once, and he felt you had a feel for the important aspects of flying a Ventura he was gone, and off you went to train yourself with a hapless WAG along to handle the radios.

The weather at Pennfield Ridge was anything but predictable and, if the powers that were had not pressed us into every possible flying opportunity, we would never have finished the course on time. We didn’t appreciate it at the time, but we were being well initiated into the sort of weather waiting for us in England.

One of our SFTS classmates, “Young” Lively, never got a chance to fly the Ventura. The first time he got into one with an instructor, it was immediately clear that, like Abraham Lincoln, although his leg did fit properly between him and the ground, they were just not long enough to fit between him and the rudder pedals of the Ventura – and at the same time allow him the luxury of a view through the windshield. After a few days Lively was posted to Bagotville, Quebec, to do operational training on Hurricanes – poor Lively. From then on we tried coming down the stairs with both feet together, and any other things we thought might shorten our legs, all to no avail. Fighters would have to wait.

Lively was replaced on our course by a poised, good-looking pilot who one of the first of our course to be sent off alone in a Ventura, and he quickly gained the reputation of being a very skilled pilot. One afternoon in the middle of the course, after my assigned flight had been cancelled due to a mechanical problem, I asked if I might go along with this new pilot and his crew to play with the mid-upper gun turret.

It was a new experience to be concerned about the members of one crew’s and the aircraft we expected to operate when we finally went overseas. Every flight I had made in the Ventura had been from the left hand pilot’s seat, and after some hair-raising fighter affiliation flying against a pair of ‘attacking’ Hurricanes, I had been looking for an opportunity to go on a flight with another crew to operate the mid-upper electro-hydraulic gun turret to get some idea of the problems the Gunners had to cope with in order to defend us against enemy fighters.

The weather was sunny but cold, and my pilot friend and his crew were signed out to practice take-offs and landings until the arrival of a snow storm which was forecast to close Pennfield down by late afternoon. A few other Venturas were also signed out to so air work within sight of the airport until the snow arrived. The Ventura in which we were to fly had only one radio transceiver for tower communication, and the course needle of the magnetic compass was stuck at 254 degrees which rendered it useless. As a result, until these snags could be rectified this aeroplane was restricted to takeoffs and landings at Pennfield.

Sometimes we can embark on what seems a perfectly innocuous event without any suspicion that we are walking into an experience we will be able to recall in stark detail for the rest of our lives. Prior to this flight, if I had the slightest idea of what was ahead, I’m sure I would have run in the opposite direction without a backward glance.

Although it was prohibited, the mid-upper turret was an exciting place to be sitting while the aircraft was doing takeoffs and landings, and I had a fine time swinging the very responsive hydraulically-operated turret around, bringing the reflector sight to bear on anything I chose as a target. I had evicted the crew’s air gunner, who wouldn’t have much to do while I was playing with his turret. He assured me before takeoff that he was quite at home between the guns, and said he would enjoy having a chance to look at the countryside around Pennfield.

On the third or fourth takeoff, we could clearly see a solid wall of snow bearing down on Pennfield from the northwest. As I watched, I could see it was moving so rapidly it was doubtful we would be able to get in any more circuits before the aerodrome would be shut down. Our pilot had been doing very nice three-point landings, which was the prescribed RAF technique for daylight landings, and I could see why he had impressed those who had flown with him.

After landing, the pilot turned around and taxied back down the runway to its south end. I expected him to return to the parking area, but on the intercom I heard him say he thought he might just squeeze in one more takeoff and landing, and asked the WAG to call the control tower for permissions to do “…one more quick circuit.” With no hesitation the control tower granted his request.

At the south end of the runway we turned around and roared off on a last takeoff. As we lifted into the air I remember thinking that this pilot was obviously a solid press on type. The snow was close enough that if I was honest, I’m sure I would have called it a day – particularly with an unserviceable compass. After retracting the landing gear, before we had gone much more than a mile or so we were into the snow. I heard the pilot coolly said that he was, “…going to do a 180 to the left to parallel the runway back to the airport.”

After a few minutes we emerged from the snow into the sunlight. Pennfield was at our ten o’clock on the left, and we were in a good position to complete the downwind leg and do another 180 to the left to the final approach heading.

I heard the pilot finish the landing check list, and as he rolled out of the turn to line up with the runway, the view ahead was a little daunting. The grey wall of snow had almost reached the opposite end of the 6000-foot runway, and we still had a good three or four miles to fly just to reach the airfield boundary. We were in a race with the snow which was fast approaching from the other end, to see which of us got to the runway first. At 120 mph I remember thinking that we should be able to reach the approach end of the runway before the snow could work its way toward us from the other end. We were flying faster than the speed at which weather typically moves, but we were flying upwind and the snow was moving toward us – downwind. As we approached in the sunlight with the runway slowly coming closer, with nothing from the tower, we watched as it and the airport were swallowed up by the oncoming snow just before we too were enfolded in its embrace.

In the snow we could see nothing, but for some moments we seemed to continue the approach. Engine power was finally increased and as the landing gear and flaps were retracting, we climbed away from where Pennfield aerodrome had been moments earlier. Not knowing what plan the pilot might have, I stayed where I was. There would be plenty of time to leave the turret before we landed. After a while, the power was reduced and I was fairly sure we were flying level. Then on the intercom I heard some conversation develop about the compass – the one with the stuck needle.

With a little interest but not much thought, I got out of the turret and went forward. I stood at the rear of the radio/nav compartment which was just behind the pilot’s seats, and plugged my headset into a jackbox to listen to the intercom and radio talk.

A conference was in session concerning the arithmetic required to reset the gyro compass to our actual heading. The pilot, employing a common practice had set it to zero, when he lined up with the runway before each takeoff to facilitate the rectangular orientation of his takeoff and landing patterns. As a result, the gyro indication differed from our magnetic heading at least by the difference between zero degrees and the magnetic heading of the runway we had been using. A directional gyro is a very nice steady directional reference for turning or for accurately steering a course, but it knows nothing about direction until a pilot sets it to the heading indicated by a magnetic compass. The magnetic compass on the other hand knows everything about direction but is unwieldy to steer by due to number of effects which cause its needle to wander about if the aircraft is disturbed by turbulence or normal pilot handling.

With the useless magnetic compass, different suggestions were being made as to what setting should be put on the directional gyro, bearing in mind that it had previously set to zero on the runway before our last takeoff. They wrestled with the problem for a minute or two until someone made the mistake of saying, “Isn’t that right Bob?” The simplest solution I could suggest was to turn the aircraft until the directional gyro indicated zero degrees, which was where it had been set on the runway just before out last take-off, and then manually reset it to the known magnetic heading of that runway – which did not require any arithmetic.

After the gyro was reset everyone looked happier, but we were still surrounded by an extensive area of snow with no idea as to how much of New Brunswick it covered. Significant fuel had been used during the circuits, and the afternoon was beginning to fade.

A voice on the intercom suggested going to the Blissville radio range 30-odd miles northwest of St. John, and doing a range approach to the small airport there. So we headed for Blissville. We had learned some radio range procedures in the Link Trainer at Pennfield, but because no such radio facilities would be available when we got to England, only one or two beacon or range approaches were ever practiced in the air.

We began the approach to Blissville and, during the letdown, someone said, “Look at that!” Through the snow we saw the grey top of a hill go by on the right, altogether too close for comfort. We turned away from the hill, and at the same time lost touch with the approach procedure. It was sensibly decided that the weather was too thick for a range approach, and engine power was increased as a climb was set up to a “safe” altitude.

Someone tentatively suggested to the WAG that he call Pennfield and ask if they could suggest an alternative destination where the weather was better. He tried this and said he didn’t think the radio was working properly, but Pennfield came back on the tower frequency to tell us that they were closed in, but the weather was better less than a 150 miles to the northwest at Caribou, Maine. When we heard this the observer, who was sitting with a map on his lap in the co-pilot seat beside the pilot, worked out a northwesterly course to Caribou and gave it to the pilot. The observer had been doing his best to keep track of fuel and time, and he also tried to monitor the course we were steering.

One of two weeks previously, I had flown with an instructor on a shopping expedition to the US airbase at Presque Isle, Maine. Presque Isle was south of Caribou, and neither were very far west of the Maine/New Brunswick border.

We flew on in the snow, but the windshield and windows stayed white and the weather showed no sign of changing. After almost an hour on instruments, the pilot began looking ahead through the windshield, and downward from his side windshield, and downward from his side window – possibly in the hope of making visual contact with the ground. His preoccupation with looking outside was affecting the accuracy of his course flying. He was holding altitude quite well but the heading deviations increased to the extent that for periods of time we were well off the course that had been given to him by his observer who occasionally pointed to the directional gyro in a tactful effort to restore his attention to it.

I didn’t envy the pilot. Our training to wings standard had not emphasized the fact that one must not lose visual contact with the ground without a clear understanding of the means by which it could be safely re-established. More to the point, as pilots, we had acquired no wisdom which told us what to do if w did lose visual contact with the ground in an aircraft which was not equipped with appropriate radios and a dependable magnetic compass, an admittedly rare possibility.

One other crew member had slipped into the radio/nav compartment, and quiet conversations erupted from time to time. One opinion expressed was that “…at least we have parachutes, we could always bail out.” I remember mumbling something to the effect that with street shoes, a battle dress blouse over a shirt and tie, and a wedge cap in my inside pocket, I was not fitted out very well to wander about the New Brunswick bush in early winter, and added that I for one would never leave the aircraft until the fuel gauges showed empty.

Our concerns grew as to where we were, and where we were going. We had not been able to tune the radio beacons at Caribou or Presque Isle. I had been watching the directional gyro from a distance, and it was difficult to estimate our average heading. With a useless magnetic compass, I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that the directional gyro just might have a high drift rate which, in the time since it had been reset, could cause us to be flying in almost any direction. At our SFTS, it wasn’t unusual during cross-country flights, where we were expected to regularly check the directional gyro against the magnetic compass, to discover that the gyro had drifted a good number of degrees in a fairly short period of time. The gyros were not quickly replaced due to high drift rates to impresss in student pilots with the need to regularly check and reset them to the magnetic compass which was the basic directional reference.

I didn’t envy our pilot. He looked tired and was becoming a bit edgy. Neither of us had likely ever flown on continuous instruments for more than an hour – or two at most. Every one of us in the aircraft was a rank amateur, and nothing in our training had prepared us for the ridiculous situation in which we found ourselves. Snow down to the ground. A useless magnetic compass. Radio equipment that would only raise the Pennfield tower – if we were close enough. At the SFTS we had only flown aircraft equipped with radios once or twice, and we had very little familiarity with the available inflight meteorological facilities.

Our particular Ventura had been signed out only for the purpose of doing six or eight takeoffs and landings. The crew had not been given a detailed briefing of the weather outlook other than a warning that an extensive area of snow would be moving into the Pennfield area. I was at the advanced age of 21. Our pilot might have been one or two years older, but no more. There were no old hands on board with experience to draw upon.

Rather abruptly, the pilot turned around, and after motioning me forward, he said he was getting tired and asked me to change places with him. With his crew clustered around, this seemed awkward. I didn’t want to be injected into a situation where I was flying an aeroplane with a crew that was not mine. I told him he was doing fine and to hang on while we tried to get a line on something.

After a few more minutes, the pilot unsnapped his seat harness and parachute, and when his observer asked what he was doing, he said he had to “…go back for a leak.” The observer gave me a wide-eyed look. We both knew there was a relief tube under the pilot’s seat, but it didn’t seem the proper time to mention it.

The observer held the wheel awkwardly while the pilot climbed out of the left seat, and I slipped into it was an eagerness that surprised me. His parachute cushion was quite warm, and as I clipped on the parachute and seat harness I felt a relief I hadn’t expected, but I well remember thinking, “What the hell do I do now?”

Once strapped in, I asked the observer what he thought was the average course we had been steering since we climbed away from Blissville. Palms up, he rolled his eyes toward heaven and said he “…didn’t have a clue.”

At first, the only thing I could think of was to return to the northwesterly course on the gyro compass that the observer had given the pilot for Caribou, Maine, almost two hours earlier. That done, I wondered where that gyro, heading might actually take us, particularly since the gyro had not been reset for so long. How long should we hold this course? The only things we knew for sure was that we didn’t have much fuel or daylight left.

We were fairly high, so I came down to 6,000 feet which was the highest spot-height listed on the observer’s map. With less than 300 hours of flying experience it was the only thing I could think of, and it seemed to be at least a start. I asked the observer how long the remaining fuel would last. He came back with the gallonage, and said that at the existing cruise power it should last “…more than an hour?”

My thoughts told me that we couldn’t bail out, but we couldn’t just fly around until we ran out of fuel. The only thing we could try to do was to get the ground in sight and, with no navigational or approach radio aids, that could be more then a little dangerous.

Before I did anything else I sent the air-gunner back to ask the pilot if he would like to come up front and resume flying. A moment later the gunner came back and told me the pilot had said for me to stay where I was.

I asked the observer if he was sure that we were at the highest terrain height listed on his map. He confirmed that it was. I said that I was going to descend a thousand feet, and I set up a slow rate of descent. I knew that groping for the ground with no idea of where we were was sure way to kill oneself; but with no compass, and faulty radios, I couldn’t think of anything else. I looked at the observer, and the other faces for an idea, and all I got were raised eyebrows and a few shrugs. I wondered if any of them fully appreciated the predicament we were in.

I reduced the airspeed to have a little more time to react if we encountered anything in front of us that required a quick pull-up. I put down a small flap angle, and increased propeller rpm so that I could apply higher power if I had to pull up suddenly. Because I was flying solidly on instruments, I asked the observer and the others to call out if they saw the ground or any obstacle.

After we had descended to our first target altitude without seeing anything, I asked the observer for the next lowest altitude tint on the map. After he gave it to me, I again did a slow letdown to that altitude. I remember that our barometric altimeter setting was now probably inappropriate, but there was nothing we could do about that. Time and fuel were running out, and I had no better idea than to leave altimeter setting where it was. The fact that nobody had any objection to what I proposed gave me a small dose of unjustified confidence.

As we descended through the next thousand feet, though we couldn’t see anything, we noticed the light outside was becoming noticeably darker, particularly below us. I thought it might result from us being closer to the ground, or was it due to the waning daylight? As I slowed the rate of descent for the last few hundred feet, I was more than a little tense but tried to be a convincing fraud and appear calm. For the observer it must have been more difficult. He was working with a pilot about whom he knew nothing, and at the time he was knowledgeable as to what our apparent altitude meant relative to the altitude tints and contours on his map.

After a few more nerve-wracking letdowns, I felt we had run out of altitude for any further descent, and I was certainly not as relaxed as when I had bravely begun the first thousand-foot letdowns. Still alive, and not hit anything, it seemed best to hold our height in the hope of seeing something of ground. If it could be believed, the altimeter told us we were getting about as close as one could to sea level over New Brunswick without scrapping the ground or getting wet. For all we knew we might have been letting down over one of the many bodies of water in, or adjacent to New Brunswick.

The observer and I were making a few speculations about our height above the ground when everyone yelled at once! I looked up from the instruments as we flew across a small opening in the cloud, and through the snow for several second I could see the fuzzy tops of trees not more than what looked at best, a few hundred feet below. I called out our altitude and gyro heading to the observer and asked him to alert me if I got below that height if another opportunity came to sneak a glance outside. It stuck me then that I had become increasingly absorbed with catching any glimpse I could of the ground. After a few more breaks we again lost sight of the ground, and I decided then to treat our indicated altitude as ground level for the time being. At least we were over terra firma!

After we had lost contact with the ground, a few more flickering breaks occurred and I decided to do a slow 360 while maintaining the altitude we had stopped at, in the hope of coming back over the breaks.

Maintaining a shallow bank angle I commenced a turn to the left and held out altitude as accurately as I could. During the turn we had few fleeting glimpses of the ground, but we held out height, and before we had turned through the complete 360 degrees, we flew across a good-sized hole where we could see the ground. This hole seemed larger, and as I straightened out on the original heading, I could again see treetops. I tried losing a few feet, and for a short time I could keep the trees in sight while we flew level just above them. I had persistent thoughts of hills and power lines.

We stayed on the original course for a number of minutes while we flew through almost solid cloud and snow. For a short periods of time we could fly one or two hundred feet higher and still get occasional snapshots views of the ground, there was simply no rule to apply, but we looked to be dammed low. At best, forward visibility of the ground for these meager periods could not have been more than a few hundred yards. We were sure the altimeter setting was in error as it showed us to be higher than we obviously were, but we had no idea as to how much the ground below us was above sea level. We had more fleeting glimpses of small clearings and open areas, but the visibility and lack of detail gave no opportunity to map read.

I began to have thoughts that if I could find a large clearing or a road I might be able to put the Vent down on its belly. I kept this to myself. Almost as though the thought gave birth to fact, we angled across a narrow road, and just as suddenly it was gone. I did a low turn to recapture it. We crossed it again at a smaller angle, and with a quick turn I was able to stay parallel with it on my left. The consensus in the cockpit was that, “A road should lead somewhere, after all that’s what roads are for.”

The road became slightly wider and we could occasionally see wheel tracks in the snow that mostly covered it. We cross a smaller road, but decided we could stay on our “original” road which seemed more prominent. After crossing two more small roads, we glimpsed fields on both sides, which looked so good I again did a large 360 to have another look. There were no houses, but the clearings looked woefully small for a Ventura, so on we flew. In a matter of minutes, we came upon a few good-sized fields. I was about to begin another turn for a better look when we flew off the shore of what at first we thought to be a lake, but we quickly saw that is was a river. Now this was something!

Again I commenced a turn to the left, and after a few moments someone in the cabin said they had seen some lights on our right. Sitting on the left side of the aircraft, I had missed seeing them. My best view of the ground was from the left side, with the result that I usually did turns to the left. I continued the turn, and after a few moments, the fellows again said they could see some lights. I reversed the turn, and in moments the snow I could see a number of lights against the snow-covered ground, and adjusted the turn to bring us more directly over them.

As we came over the lights, I was surprised to see that we had found what looked to be a large town on the bank of the wide river where it made a big 90 degree bend. The town even had a race-track! Railway tracks went through the place which made it seem of some size. We speculated that it might even be a city. In the ‘come and go’ visibility in the snow, the best we could see was intermittent fuzzy views of streets and houses on the ground in front of us.

The observer said, “Caribou, Maine, is on a river.”

It would be the most amazing luck if this was Caribou.

After a or two I said, “That river has mudbanks, which would normally be caused by a tide.” After a little thought, the Observer agreed. “That’s right,” he said “but Caribou is nowhere near a seacoast.”

There are not many large centers of population in New Brunswick, and we had a mind-set that we had flown far to the northwest. We were stumped to find anything on the map in that direction that made any sense. I speculated that if we ignored the fences we might be able to get down in one piece on the racetrack, which I immediately regretted – but it seemed to give us a lift.

While I was wheeling around the tops of the houses trying to hold altitude accurately, in the middle of the town I noticed what looked like one or two wooden RCAF hangars surrounded by wet pavement. All wartime RCAF hangers were the same, and I knew that these were the standard variety. At least we were over Canada, but what would hangars be doing in the middle of a town? It very slowly began to sink in. The only place I remembered where there were hangars in towns was where they were used as drill halls or gymnasia! The last place in living memory where I had seen any RCAF hangars in the middle of a large town, was the place where I had trained for four months before I went to Pennfield – and that place was Moncton! We were looking at the RAF Personnel Reception Centre in the centre on Moncton!

I turned to the observer: “I know this place,” I said. “It’s Moncton!”

He looked at me with a grimace and echoed, “Moncton?

He was now sure that this stand-in pilot has gone bonkers, and I can’t say I blamed him.

“How could this be Moncton that’s only a short distance east of Pennfield?”

I said that was true, and gently observed that we had no idea where we had been flying for the last three hours or so.

I then said that I was going to look for my cousin Fred Ward’s house which I had visited several times during my four-month stay in Moncton. In less than half of another circuit of the town I located the house and saw Fred’s back yard disappear beneath us. I now had no doubt as to where we were, at the same time, my mind rebelled at the thought that after the hours of flying we had done, of all places we had reached Moncton? We could have flown to Moncton several times in the past few hours.

I said this to the observer, who looked back at me forlornly and said, “There is a big bend in the river at Moncton, but…”

I said, “I’m going to fly east from the town along that main road, and if we don’t see an airport in less than five minutes, I’ll bring you back and we’ll land on the racetrack.” I had no stomach for belly landing on that racetrack.

With a helpless shrug, and meager enthusiasm, he stayed at his map and said, “OK.”

I finished the turn to line up with the Lakeburn Road. As Moncton disappeared behind, we were again following a road, but this one had cars on it. The familiar bus ride from town was covered in minutes, and when the airport materialized, there was great hooting from the area behind the cockpit. We flew across the Moncton Airport and No.5 SFTS, both of which were behind us before I had a chance to say anything.

I wanted to get back to the airport on a heading that lined us up with a runway, so I turned left to fly back past the airport parallel to the main runway which I had seen when we flew across the airfield. After I was sure we had passed the airport coming back, I started a left turn back to it, and hoped the resulting racetrack pattern would bring us back over the airfield on the original heading. It did, but the gyro heading made no sense, and we went too close in to do anything.

I couldn’t get lined up with a runway, but after a small turn to the right to parallel the longest runway, I reset the gyro to zero to simplify our orientation to the runway.

We were still forced to stay very low, and we regularly lost sight of the ground. I concentrated on an accurate but shallow 180 degree turn to the left. Flying very low in such poor visibility meant that extended turns had to be done carefully.

Again when the clock told me we had passed the airport on the return leg, before entering the final left turn, we performed the landing check, lowered the landing gear and approach flap. After straightening out on the approach heading, I slowed to the approach speed and waited for the airport to appear. The runway came up well to my left but we were too close and too low to do any aggressive turning to get lined up. Reluctantly I increased power and we flew on past for another circuit. I looked at the fuel gauges and decided that at this stage if I had to do a dozen approach patterns, I wasn’t going to lose the airport or try a risky landing from a bad approach.

As we passed over my old alma mater, I had a fleeting glimpse of people standing in the snow out in front of the RCAF control tower building. They were not waving at us. On the previous pass I noticed we were attracting the same kind of attention on the civilian side of the airport, and I remembered seeing people stopped on the sidewalks in Moncton who seemed to be looking up at something. I had a gnawing feeling that when this was all over I would probably be court-martialled.

When I turned onto the approach heading, I didn’t like to think about how we would go about re-finding the airport if it didn’t come into sight within the number of minutes I had allotted to the approach leg. I hadn’t adjusted the return leg and final approach headings enough, as this time we were to the left of the runway, and too close in when it came into view. It was just not possible to get safely positioned for a landing. With an Anson, maybe – with a Ventura, never.

When I increased the power for another overshoot, I glanced at the fuel gauges to get an idea of how long this could go on. At least the needles were still moving. The observer noticed and said: “We are getting low on daylight too.”

On the next try, suspecting the wind might be behind us on the final approach, when I punched the clock I added a little more time to the return leg to give us more distance for a sensible final approach.

The timing and headings of the circuit procedure were also adjusted in the hope of splitting the difference between the previous two approaches. On this our fourth approach – or was it the fifth? – hoping to have a bit more time for a close-in course adjustment. I reduced power, and after slowly pushing the propeller pitch levers all the way forward, I put the undercarriage and approach flap down earlier, and slowed to the approach airspeed well before the runway came into view.

It worked. We were a little to the right, but there was enough time to select full flap and make a small jink to the left.

At the threshold I eased the throttles back to idle. As we crossed the edge of the runway the airspeed was correct, but we seemed fast. This was the lowest weight at which I had ever landed a Ventura, and with the flaps still creeping down to the ‘full’ position, we floated. Were we landing downwind? I didn’t much care.

The feel of the wheels on the snow-covered pavement was wonderful. While we were using up runway I noticed a few men running to the right side where some others were standing. I had landed on a runway under repair – and downwind! Using the brakes gingerly the Vent finally came to a halt just before reaching the last few yards of the runway. The combination of a slippery snow surface, a large aircraft, and a tailwind, made a runway that for four months I had thought was quite long for an Anson II, seem very short. But we were stopped.

The end of the runway was just visible over the nose, and turning around looked a bit tight unless we could let the right main-wheel go off the edge. Somebody said the ground should be frozen, which was not comforting. With the left wheel held stationary with brake, (bad handling), I did a sharp turn to the left, and it was quickly clear that we could turn around without any trouble.

With all of 260-odd hours total flying time, including 16 hours on J3 Cubs, I was back at my old SFTS, and all I now had to do was successfully taxi the Vent to the RCAF tower building. The pavement was slippery, and I went so slowly the crew thought we never make it.

We parked on the apron in front of the tower beside a huge Curtiss C-46 Commando. We could almost park under its wing. For all its size, the Commando had only two engines, and I remember thinking that they were the Pratt and Whitney R-2800 engines we had in the Ventura. After we were waved into position beside the Commando, a number of people congregated around us. I thought they were probably waiting to grab me. Things looked black.

The last time I had been on this pavement I was LAC Fowler, R.H., R-175475. It would be an understatement to say that I enjoyed parking the Ventura.

When I got the signal to shut down, I took a last look at the fuel gauges. With the tail on the ground, there wasn’t enough fuel to move the needles. Somebody asked how many more approaches we could have completed before the tanks went dry. I didn’t even want to think about that. The only thing I was sure about that we were actually on the ground. It seemed to have taken a hell of a long time to get to Moncton – of all places!

All was quiet after the propellers stopped turning. I didn’t want to miss anything on the shutdown check, and by the time I had unbuckled the parachute and seat harness, everyone had left the aircraft. A few heads were shoved through the rear fuselage door, and one of them with a very mature voices said, “The OC Flying would like to talk to the captain of this aircraft.”

I walked aft and jumped to the pavement, almost into the arms of the Squadron Leader who owned the voice and introduced himself as the OC Flying.

He asked, “Are you the captain of this aircraft.” I replied that, no, I was not the captain.

He said that I had taxied it in, and I said that was true.

He asked if I had landed it, and I said that was also true.

He then said he would like to have a ‘chat’ with me in his office as he had to fill in the Air Traffic Control people on the details of our flight.

While we walked in, I told him I had received my wings at Moncton in August. For a moment he became almost friendly and said, “Well, we must have done something right.: Only supreme self control prevented me from observing that we had encountered a few things they had not covered.

During our chat, I learned that Pennfield had put out an alert to watch for three Venturas that had been unable to land due to a snowstorm. Two hours after the alert was transmitted, two of the Venturas, both flown by Dutch Navy crews had landed near Montreal, but we were unreported for two more hours after that, and Pennfield had become very worried.

The S/L asked why we had not been able to fly to Montreal where the weather was better. When I told him we had radios that were not working properly, and an unserviceable magnetic compass, he said: “They didn’t mention any of that in the alert.”

He asked me why I was flying the aircraft. I told him the other pilot had to relieve himself, and while I was doing the flying we had found Moncton – which was true. He asked how long I had been doing the flying? I said I didn’t know – which was also true. He then asked how we had found Moncton, and in as few words as possible, I told him. His were the second set of eyes to be rolled to the ceiling that afternoon. He then wagged his head a few times in the no sense before giving me a funny stare and left it at that. His parting remark was, “In case you are interested, Trans-Canada Air Lines did not get in here this afternoon. You caused one hell of a stir in Moncton, and also with a lot of people who watched you trying to land here. I will say one thing – you have great patience.”

That night there was an unexpected reunion in the officer’s mess, with instructors I had known when I was a pupil, and a few others I had trained with before I attended the SFTS at Moncton, but were now instructing there. I had gone through No.4 Elementary Flying School at Windsor Mills, Quebec with David Lewis, a good friend from Pittsburgh. I had known Don Douglas from Peterborough, Ontario, as No.3 Initial Training School in Victoriaville, Quebec; Steve Forhota and I had learned to march together at Manning Depot in Toronto – and others.

The snow continued until the next morning, and after it finally stopped, a Ventura arrived from Pennfield bringing a pair of instructors and technical crew to prepare and ferry our aircraft back to Pennfield. I went back in the Vent that had just arrived, and the others returned later in the day in the other aircraft after it had been fueled and a new magnetic compass had been installed and swung. By then I had lost all interest in the gun turret.

On arrival at Pennfield again I was taken in tow at the door of the aircraft by a Squadron Leader, this time C.R. Skinner RAF, DFC and Bar, the Chief Flying Instructor of 34 OTU, and another senior instructor I had seen many times but did not know. We went straight into Skinner’s office where he treated me to a very detailed chat. I learned that he had been talking to the people at No.8 SFTS in Moncton and was aware of most of the details of our flight. His last question was, “What do you think might have happened if you had not been in the aircraft?”

I guessed that the pilot might have burst his bladder.

Skinner spun around in his chair with his back to me, and for several seconds his shoulders jiggled and he made funny little noises until he took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and without turning around said, “Thank you, Fowler, you may go.” – and I went. No mention of our flight was ever made again while I was at Pennfield, and I was never court martialed.

Over the years, I have often thought of that flight with the stuck compass.

From a more mature perspective, I have always wondered if my presence might have caused the other pilot to have been less relaxed than he might have been if I had not been in the aircraft. He might not have bothered to attempt the extra circuit, and even if he had, he might have had no problem getting into Pennfield, Blissville, Montreal, or – Moncton, even if his bladder had burst. I will never know, I have never felt entirely at ease with the thought of what might have happened had our positions been reversed.

I don’t know how he spent the rest of his war, but I do know that to get away with such a grope for the ground without even having to figure out the name of the town we found, was a one-in-a-million piece of the greatest of good luck.

During my training in Canada, and later in England, before and after I became involved in daylight tactical operations, like many other wartime aircrew I witnessed a number of flying accidents in which all or most of the aircraft occupants lost their lives. In a few of these instances, we were assembled for a briefing in which we were informed in great detail, of the circumstances which led to the accident and with particular emphasis on the error, invariably assigned to the pilot, which led to the accident. We were sometimes treated to heavy preaching on the course of action which should, or might have been taken which of course would have prevented the accident. Accidents which took the young lives of pilots who only a year or two previously had been ridding bicycles – before they had any real experience, or had been in action, always seemed a sad waste.

I still wonder just where we went during the hours it took to make the 30-minute flight to Moncton.

SOURCE: The Journal of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society - Spring 1999 (Vol.37, No.1).

TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE(S): 1) Copy of the magazine was presented to "Pennfield Parish Military Historical Historical" by Robert H. Fowler, OC, 16 December 2007; and

2) In regards to the caption written on the above photograph Bob remarked: "I forgot to refer to the picture on the title page of the Ventura article, of the intrepid-looking pilot leaning on a Vent' with his head encased in a leather helmet and goggles. We had been issued with a comfortable headset of earphones which we used routinely, but some RAF mind felt that when we got to the UK, and would be flying on ops, we would be wearing an RAF leather helmet with earphones etc, to which an oxygen mask and goggles would be attached which would likely be encased in a leather-covered steel flak helmet, and thus we should 'now' be wearing the basic leather helmet etc. Feeling intensely operational, and not knowing what the future held, a number of us took silly pictures of one another for future 'historical' purposes." (29 December 2007)