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All posts for the month April, 2016

Sorry about the double posting from my old blog. I was a little wrapped up transcribing the records of First World War Newfoundland servicemen for the Trail of the Caribou, and trying to get ready for Sci-Fi on the Rock. Very different, I know, but I did represent dieselpunk at the Steampunk Newfoundland presentation about different branches of steampunk.

Dressed in dieselpunk, playing with the props at the Steampunk NL table at SFotR. Photo by Brent Slade.

Dressed in dieselpunk, playing with the steampunk gun made by FoamWerx Cosplay at the Steampunk NL table at SFotR. Photo by Brent Slade.

Anyway, I finished reading Mr. Cooper’s book a few weeks ago, but was really trying to figure out how to write a review of it. Tales from a Pilot’s Logbook by Royal Cooper is a fascinating read, and in a different way from many of the other books that are available. There are always official histories and memoirs written by decision makers, but often some of the most informative works are those by the average pilot. Cooper certainly paints himself as an average pilot, but with all of the adventures, near misses, and events in his career as a pilot, it makes a reader wonder what being an average pilot really means.

Cooper frames his book with his early brush with aviation, seeing Italo Balbo’s Italian Air Armada land in Shoal Harbour in 1933. In fact, it is an image of the Armada which he says looked like a “swarm of bees” approaching Shoal Harbour. This incident awaked the passion so often found in pilots, and gave Cooper the inspiration to be an aviation while the need for pilots in the Second World War gave him the opportunity. He uses an image of the aircraft to end every chapter, which consistently reminds the reader how a young boy in Shoal Harbour fell in love with aviation and kept that memory throughout his career.

Not the image used by Cooper, but one available at The Rooms. [Item A 57-149]

Not the image used by Cooper, but one available at The Rooms. [Item A 57-149]

Cooper’s career began with the 125 (Nfld) Squadron in the Royal Air Force. While I won’t go into details, he tells of exciting flights, near misses, and his run-ins with the enemy. What struck me the most was how Newfoundlanders are Newfoundlanders no matter where they are. Each person from the 125 (Nfld) Sqdn. was framed not just by their name and role, but also where they were from. It’s a strong Newfoundland feature, where one of the first questions you are ever asked is where are you from and where is your family from. No matter how modern we might get, Newfoundlanders always have that sense of place, especially when overseas and so very far from the comforts of home. Cooper also had a hand in creating the Airman’s Memorial at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum, a monument meant to remember those Newfoundlanders who lost their lives in Allied Air Forces in World War II (Shapleigh and Moss 2000).

Airman's Memorial at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum before their museum was remodeled. From https://www.cdli.ca/monuments/nf/gander.htm.

Airman’s Memorial at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum before their museum was remodeled. https://www.cdli.ca/monuments/nf/gander.htm.

One aspect that I found interesting about this memoir, and to me really cements the difference between the memoirs of the testers and decision makers and the average flyer is to look at Cooper’s discussion of the Fog Intensity Dispersal Of (FIDO) system versus Bennett’s experience in Pathfinder.  Bennett discusses the technical aspects of FIDO, the flares along the runway and the efficiency of the system. Cooper, on the other hand, really describes flying into a FIDO airbase:

The FIDO operation was located on a very long field with pipes parallel to and about 200 feet from each side of the runway. Fuel was pumped into these pipes under high pressure and ignited like a giant blowtorch. The result was two walls of flame rising about ten feet in the air which would burn off the fog near the runway and also provide visual reference for pilots when no other options were available. […] This saved a great number of aircraft which would otherwise have been lost. I got to use it once or twice at Bradwell Bay, and it was the most eerie feeling, to be running between two walls of fire. I could feel the heat in the cockpit and got out of it just as soon as I could (Cooper, 1999, 31).

Bennett (1958), on the other hand, does not actually specify what FIDO means (he does that frequently, whereas Cooper attempts to explain every acronym and abbreviation) and describes it much more technically:

They had 1,000 yards of approach and 1,000 yards of runway equipped with FIDO burners within about six weeks of my giving the OK to go ahead. The burners consisted of long lengths of pipe, with the feed along a pipe over the burners so that the flame from each jet impinged slightly on this top feed tube, thereby vapourising the petrol that it fed along it, and ensuring that no neat petrol came out of the jets, but only pure vapour. This was obviously essential if it were to improve visibility and not to do the opposite. These burner pipes were laid parallel with the runway and about 50 yards from it; thus the burners were a total of 150 yards apart. They extended along each side of the runway and out into the approach area, so that the intense heat which generate cut a chasm through the fog which could be seen from above and the aircraft could fly down into this chasm and land on the runway (214).

He describes his first landing with FIDO as “I had vague thoughts of seeing lions jump though a hoop of flame at the circus. The glare was certainly considerable, and there was some turbulence” (214).

An aircraft landing at a FIDO airport. From Wikipedia.

An aircraft landing at a FIDO airport. From Wikipedia.

The contrast is that Cooper lets a reader who has never experienced FIDO a much clearer idea of what  it is, how it works, and what it’s like top fly into that situation, whereas Bennett is looking at it strictly from a functional point of view, which is fair seeing as he was one who had a say in its use and had to look at it more from a functionality point of view.

After the war, Cooper jumped around Canada as a pilot before settling in Gander working as a commercial pilot and as a bush pilot. Like his military career, his civilian career is equally exciting, and his memoir is full of terrifying, funny, and exciting stories. I plan to highlight a couple of those stories, but keep in mind each are told quickly in the book before he moves on to another.

Buchans Mining Co. crash of 1951

September 19, 1951, a Buchans Mining Co. Norseman crashed near South Pond, 25 miles north west of Buchans. Pilot Tom Mattinen, Dr. J. H. MacLean, chief geologist of the Buchans Mining Company, Ralph Barnes, George Pike, Patrick O’Keefe, all three geologists, and Roy Moran of Oakville and Douglas Derry of Toronto, engineers with Spartan Air Services, were all killed in the crash. Moran and Derry were visiting the pilot, and were going to be transported to Deer Lake where they were to work on Spartan helicopters who were having engine troubles (Dean 2000). On September 30, Captain Jerry McInnis and Cooper took DC-3 BXZ to pick up passengers in Buchans who held a funeral service while they flew over the wreck and dropped flowers from the aircraft. Such a service was not unusual for more isolated crashes, and a similar one happened over the 1946 American Overseas Airlines crash near Stephenville, NL.

Seal Spotting

Cooper was part of a long history of aviation seal spotting in Newfoundland and Labrador. In 1956, he went on his first seal spotting flight around the Strait of Bell Isle, and continued to work as a seal spotter for the next 15 years. Seal spotting started in Newfoundland with Sidney Cotton in the 1920, the sealing companies seeing the importance of aerial seal spotting and surveying for to guide seal hunters, making trips more productive and safer (Stone 2015). According to Cooper (1999) “unless you have seen a large seal herd, it is hard to believe that such a number of animals could concentrate in one area” (81) and “I did seal-spotting for over fifteen years, and to me, it seemed the herds were as large in 1972 as they were in 1956, the year I started” (82).

Seals at the Ocean Sciences Centre. Photo by author 2014.

Seals at the Ocean Sciences Centre. Photo by author 2014.

Stranded in the Snow

Cooper tells an exciting tale about getting caught in poor weather and having to make an emergency landing in what turned out to be a thick layer of fluffy snow (that’s not an oxymoron in Newfoundland) and ended up stuck in the bush for a few days in northern Newfoundland. I cannot do his story justice, but even knowing he got out, it was a great read. Something of interest that he does bring up during his story is that it happened mid-March and he was concerned about “Sheila’s Brush“, a storm that tends to happen around St. Patrick’s Day every year in Newfoundland. Cooper states:

I remembered that I had lost some very good friends on March 17, 1944. We lost two aircraft and crews on 125 Squadron in the RAF. Then on March 17, 1965, I lost two friends when EPA Dart Herald CF-NAF crashed in Nova Scotia, killing Captain Ray Murnaghan and First Officer Ross Clements (152).

Spirit of Harbour Grace. Photo by author 2012.

Spirit of Harbour Grace. Photo by author 2012.

Commemoration

Cooper seemed to have had a hand in quite a bit of the aviation commemoration around the island. He was involved in the annual reunions of 125 (Nfld) Squadron, which expanded to 125 (Nfld) Squadron and Allied Air Forces Association, and was involved in the erection of the above mentioned Newfoundland Airman’s Memorial. He was one of the founding members of the North Atlantic Aviation Museum (NAAM) in Gander, and flew many of the aircraft that are now situated as memorials around Newfoundland. Some of those aircraft including his last flight in a DC-3 being CF-QBI which became the Spirit of Harbour Grace. He also flew Beechcraft B-18 CF-VPK from Toronto to Gander for it’s final home as a display outside of NAAM and flew DC-3 CF-GHX, which is now part of the Gander aviation museum. This and his work on Gander town council is most likely Mr. Cooper has a street named after him in Gander (Cooper Blvd.; see more at the Gander Airport Historical Society).

DC-3 as part of the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. Photo by author 2014.

DC-3 as part of the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. Photo by author 2014.

Royal Cooper took his flight logs and used them to write a fantastic memoir that I would encourage anyone with an interest in aviation or in Gander history to read. It is interesting, and tells the story of someone who loved his work, and who helped shape Gander. From building the first house on Hamilton Street when Gander moved from next to the airbase, to serving on council, and as mayor, to helping form the museum, Cooper shows a passion for aviation and the aviation town that is Gander.

Inside the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. Photo by author 2014.

Inside the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. Photo by author 2014.

 

Sources

Bennett, D.C.T.
1958    Pathfinder. Guernsey Press, Guernsey.

Cooper, R.
1999   Tales from a Pilot’s Logbook: A Love Affair with Airplanes. Flanker Press Ltd.: St. John’s

Dean, P.
2010   Crash Victim’s Daughter Seeks Closure, The Telegram. September 21, 2010.

Shapleigh, P. and R. Moss
2000   The Newfoundland’s Airmen Memorial“We Will Remember”: War Monuments in Canada World Wide Web Site. Accessed 14 April 2016.

Stone, Robert C.
2015         A Gentlemen’s Agreement: Newfoundland and the Struggle for Transatlantic Air Supremacy. Boulder Publications: Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s.

 

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First published on August 2, 2013, this is a site that I have not yet been able to return to. I won’t get into the details as to why, but some reasons have been due to health. I do have a few more documents than when this was first published, so I do plan to update the information a little and share a better analysis. I do still hope to return to the site, or if nothing else, visit the memorial at the top of Crash Hill. There are still many people in Newfoundland who remember this incident, and some who were directly involved who have stories to share. I do not have notes or recordings of these stories, but I hope they do get shared publicly as it is another important part of our aviation history.

———
Adapted from Daly and Green 2013.

On 3 October 1946, an American Overseas Airlines (AOA) NC90904, a DC-4, took off from Harmon Airfield in Stephenville, NL at 0833 GMT. Moments later it crashed in to Hare Hill, killing all 8 crew and 31 civilians (Wilkins 1946). This was “the worst disaster in the history of American commercial aviation” (Canadian Press 1946) with a larger death toll than the Sabena disaster which took place in Gander, NL, two week previous. The aircraft had departed from LaGuardia, New York, destined for Berlin, Germany, with stops scheduled in Gander, NL, and Shannon, Ireland (Author Unknown 1946b). The AOA aircraft had been diverted to Stephenville due to thick fog around Gander (Canadian Press 1946). The passengers consisted of 12 women and 6 children en route to be reunited with family stationed in Europe as well as businessmen bound to assist in the rebuilding of Berlin (Wilkins 1946).

Stephenville had strong ties to the United States Air Force, as seen by the monuments found throughout the town. Photo by Shannon K. Green 2012.

Stephenville had strong ties to the United States Air Force, as seen by the monuments found throughout the town. Photo by Shannon K. Green 2012.

The DC-4 was scheduled to leave from runway 30, but a sudden wind change diverted the aircraft to runway 7. The aircraft impacted the side of Hare Hill about 2 and a half minutes after take-off (Wilkins 1946). The subsequent explosion could be seen from the airport (Landis et al. 1947). At first light, the site was checked for survivors by passing aircraft, but none could be found (Author Unknown 1946a). A recovery mission departed at first light that morning to investigate the incident and cover the wreckage. Initially, the plan was to blast above the site to cover the wreckage and human remains, but when the size of the site was established, it was decided to create a mass grave near the wreck site for the human remains (pers. comm. Leo Fitzgerald 2013). Over the next couple of days, bodies and personal effects were recovered, and where possible, identified. The rocks above the site were then dynamited to cover the aircraft, but the site was too large to be completely obscured (Fagan & Fitzpatrick 1946). Personal reports from Nelson Sherren (2011) indicate that the hill may have been blasted again in the 1970s in an attempt to cover more of the aircraft. In 1946, only days after the crash, a memorial cemetery was built at the summit and a large monument which lists the names of the victims was air lifted to the memorial cemetery. Family members were invited to view the site and drop wreathes from an aircraft passing overhead. A Catholic, Protestant and Jewish burial service was held on the helicopter for those who had perished (Time 1946). In 1989, the memorial cemetery was redone when Dixie Knauss, a surviving family member, visited the cemetery and found that all of the crosses had fallen. She attempted to secure acrylic crosses, such as are used in United States military cemeteries, but could not and the site was redone with wooden crosses (Knauss 1989).

More of Stephenville's aviation history as seen by a repair hangar and a Cold War scramble station. Photos by Shannon K. Green 2012

More of Stephenville's aviation history as seen by a repair hangar and a Cold War scramble station. Photos by Shannon K. Green 2012

More of Stephenville’s aviation history as seen by a repair hangar and a Cold War scramble station. Photos by Shannon K. Green 2012

Over time the site was lost. The hill was now known as Crash Hill, and it was common knowledge in Stephenville that a plane crash had taken place, but the location and specifics about the crash were less known. In fact, hunters and hikers had been exploring the area trying to find the site, but could not (pers. comm. Don Cormier 2012). It was believed that when the site was dynamited it had been successfully obscured and researchers were unsure that anything would remain.

Alder Pond. Crash Hill is visible in the distance. Photo by author 2012.

Alder Pond. Crash Hill is visible in the distance. Photo by author 2012.

In 2012, a small group of researchers, lead by guide Don Cormier, and based on a picture found in Our Lady of Mercy Church on the Port-au-Port in comparison to GoogleEarth images, located the site. Unlike what was expected, most of the wreckage remains. Much is obscured by blasted rock, which also makes the site extremely treacherous, but the aircraft remains. Archaeologists did a preliminary survey of the site, taking GPS readings and photographing pieces, but it was obvious that the site was too large to fully survey in the little time the team had on site. On a second trip that year, videographer Dave Hebbard and Cormier returned to the site and found further wreckage that was not photographed nor mapped on the first trip.

Route taken from Little Long Pond to the crash site.

Route taken from Little Long Pond to the crash site.

View of the route from the highest data point.

View of the route from the highest data point.

Our Lady of Mercy church and museum in Port-au-Port. Photo by Shannon K. Green 2013.

Our Lady of Mercy church and museum in Port-au-Port. Photo by Shannon K. Green 2013.

Next week, a slightly larger team will return to the site for a two to three day stay in an attempt to properly survey the site, find the extent of the site boundaries, and survey the memorial cemetery at the top of the hill. The site is difficult to access as Crash Hill is a fairly isolated site and the incline of the hill seems to be around 60 or 70 degrees. That coupled with the loose rock leftover from blasting makes it a difficult site to navigate and impossible to bring out much in the way of archaeological equipment. Researchers will be limited to a handheld GPS and measuring tapes and a compass to survey the site.

In an attempt to illustrate the slope of the hill, the top picture is of the author coming down from the crash site, and the bottom is of Shannon Green climbing up the hill toward the crash. It is a difficult hike.

In an attempt to illustrate the slope of the hill, the top picture is of the author coming down from the crash site, and the bottom is of Shannon Green climbing up the hill toward the crash. It is a difficult hike.

In an attempt to illustrate the slope of the hill, the top picture is of the author coming down from the crash site, and the bottom is of Shannon Green climbing up the hill toward the crash. It is a difficult hike.

Once this survey is complete, the data will be mapped to give a better idea of site distribution. As well, when the top of the hill is mapped, it will show the extent of the damage that time and the elements has done to the memorial cemetery, which will hopefully end in the site being redone, perhaps with the plastic military crosses that Dixie Knauss wanted in 1989 (Knass 1989).

The museum entrance is around the back of the legion. It's a great museum, well worth the visit. Photo by author 2013.

The museum entrance is around the back of the legion. It’s a great museum, well worth the visit. Photo by author 2013.

*03 October 2013 update: Myself and my team did not make it out to the site this year, we were kept away due to poor weather. I hope to get out next spring or early summer to continue to work. The presentation at the Stephenville Regional Museum of Art and History was well attended, and I had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people from the area, many of whom were happy to share stories with me. I hope to have many more conversations with the people of the area, and do much more research that will be of interest to them.

*04 April 2016 update: Poor health has kept me away from the site. It is a difficult hike and while the research is important, I must put my own well-being first. I have gotten much stronger since my health scare in 2013-2014 have hope to soon be able to push myself into more strenuous hikes.

References Cited

Author Unknown
1946a Fears Expressed All of 39 Occupants Perish in Crash; Plane Bursts Into Flames. Evening Telegram, 03 October 1946.

Author Unknown
1946b Fire on the Hill. Time Magazine, 14 October 1946.

Canadian Press
1946 Twelve Women and Six Children Are Among the Victims. Daily News, 04 October 1946.

Daly, Lisa M. and Shannon K. Green
2013 Crash Hill: A Survey of the 1946 AOA Crash in Stephenville, NL. On file at the Provincial Archaeology Office, Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Fagan, J. and G. Fitzpatrick
1946 Report on Wreck of American Overseas Airlines Airliner on Mountain Eight Miles North East of Stephenville. Report to the Chief Newfoundland Ranger, GN 13/1/B Box 355 File 3.

Knauss, Dixie L.
1989 Personal communication from D. Knauss to Francis Walsh, 18 April 1989. On file PANL GN 4/5 AG 57/7 Box 2 Aviation.

Landiss, J.M, Oswald Ryan, Josh Lee and Clarence M. Young
1947 Civil Aeronautics Board Accident Investigation Report American Overseas Airlines, Inc. Stephenville, Newfoundland, October 3, 1946. On file PANL GN 4/5 AG 57/7 Box 2 Aviation.

Wilkins, F.S.
1946 Accident to American Overseas Airways Aircraft NC 90904 at Stephenville 3rd October 1946. Royal Canadian Air Force Accident Investigation Report Newfoundland Government No. 2. On file PANL GN 51/21.

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