Friday, 8 November 2013

Final Flight


October 20, 1975

“Golf Echo Golf Uniform, Winnipeg Tower, you are cleared for take off.”  I checked for traffic on the approach and pushed the throttle forward, taxiing onto the active runway and, with a quick glance at the instruments and performing my line up check, applied more power and accelerated.  The Tiger picked up speed quickly, the tires thumping above the roar of the engine at an ever increasing cadence on the strip, and then silencing as the plane lightened its grip on terra firma and entered the beautiful realm of flight.  I quickly scanned the instruments and set up a cruise-climb configuration, trimming the plane until there was no pressure required on the yoke and it was flying hands off.  Airplanes are meant to be in the air and I began to relax like all pilots when they reach this familiar environment, of course remaining vigilant, “keeping an eye out” for conflicting traffic.  I glanced at my partner to see if he approved – we would take turns being pilot in command and safety pilot. 

Bill SlaughterThe gentleman occupying the right seat was non other than Bill Slaughter, a pilot’s pilot, often said likely to be the best pilot in Canada.  With experience ranging from flying Sabres in Germany to a term as Canada’s esteemed Red Knight and lead solo (call sign Gold Seven) in the famed Golden Centennaires aerobatic team, he was an aviation legend and it was postulated that he could probably fly a laundry basket by sitting in it and pulling up on the handles.  He had left the RCAF and was now employing his skills as a flight safety crusader in the Ministry of Transport.  I knew that I could benefit a huge amount from his knowledge and experience and was more than willing to learn from the best.redknight_1

Bill was truly a gentleman and ever humble about his own accomplishments, rarely bragging or carrying on about his exploits except for relating, through his pearly white grin, humorous incidents that he had experienced as an airshow pilot thereby incurring the envy of every red-blooded aviator within earshot.

We climbed to 8000 feet and followed our IFR (instrument) flight plan on our way to Estevan and then on to Regina, Saskatchewan where we both had business, Bill as a Flight Safety Officer and me as the Regional Aviation Medical Officer.  We were about 45 minutes east of Estevan when we heard the adrenaline stirring squeal on 121.5 of an ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) that is usually activated in an aircraft accident.  We immediately called ATC and cancelled IFR and, with Bill’s guidance, flew a pattern in order to pinpoint the signal by locating the position in the air of the maximum volume of the sound.  After about 20 minutes we were able to call Search and Rescue and direct them to the site.  Luckily it turned out to be a false alarm, but I now had a pretty good idea of how to pinpoint an ELT signal.

After an uneventful flight to Regina for fuel and then on to Medicine Hat, we had a pleasant visit with my dad and then retired for the night at my Auntie Jean’s place where she was wowed by Bill’s good looks and personality – enough to cause her to treat the two of us with her famous BLT’s.

The next day we flew to Maple Creek and then on to Moose Jaw, leaving the Tiger at the local flying club where we were entertained into the late evening until it was time to retire to one of the local hotels.

Arriving early at the flying club the next morning, we headed into the club house in order to warm up with a couple of cups of coffee before we trundled out to the Tiger.  It was bloody cold that morning and the wings were covered in frost.  We spent the better part of an hour in the frigid air scraping the offending accumulation off the wings with our American Express cards (don’t leave home without them!), becoming thoroughly cold-soaked and then beat it back to the club house, making the still to be seen mistake of quaffing down a couple of more cups of coffee.

It was my turn to fly, and after filing an IFR flight plan we took off into the early morning frost, climbing to 9000 feet, shivering until the cabin heater took effect.

Both exposure to cold and coffee (and also night caps) have similar effects on the kidneys, i.e. acting as powerful diuretics.  It was soon evident that my bladder was rapidly filling up and there are no bathrooms on these airplanes.  Noticing that that I had loosened my seat belt somewhat and was squirming with discomfort, Bill enquired as to my well-being at which time I had to admit to him my indiscretion with the coffee.  I winced as a sly grin crept over his face and his eyes began to sparkle with mirth.

We were now approaching Winnipeg Terminal air space and it would soon be time to begin our descent from altitude.  As the weather had deteriorated this would be a true instrument approach, requiring much concentration and multi-tasking and I was not certain that I was capable of such complex tasks as the only thing that seemed to be occupying my mind was the unobtainable comfortable sensation of urinating from a full sump, thus putting to rest the current agony, warnings of overpressure.

Bill, in an uncharacteristic bout of sympathy failure, cracked up!!  When he could finally gasp for breath through his laughter he told me a story that had happened to him:  He had been flying a CF100 Canuck, an all weather interceptor, when he encountered similar circumstances.  Things happen rather quickly in jets, so he had to find some innovative solution to his dilemma, else he could screw up – the pilot’s worst fear.  What on earth would be relatively waterproof and accommodate a suitable volume of fluid?  Then, in a fit of genius, it hit him!  What about a flashlight?  Bill quickly removed the batteries from his military issue flashlight and used the case to drain off enough fluid to relieve some of the pressure, a previously unheard of feat.

Good idea!!  I searched around the cockpit and finally found my flashlight, realizing to my chagrin that it was only a penlight that could hold only a few cubic centimeters!!  Darn!!  That wouldn’t do – it would be close to impossible to quell the deluge once it began. I thought that if I couldn’t do something, I would throw up.  That’s it – a honk bag (airsickness sack) of which I had a couple stowed for potential back seat passengers in the event that – well, you know what.

By this time Bill was clutching his sides with laughter as I fumbled with the restraint harness, zipper, etc. beginning the complex and awkward process.  But it worked and I could smile with relief once more.  And I was able to fly the approach to a smooth landing and then taxi to our spot.

grumman-american-tiger-wiring-diagram-aircraftNow, the Grumman Tiger has a sliding canopy which means that you have to muscle it rearward and then stand up in order to climb over the side wall of the airplane onto the wing.  Well, you can guess what happened – yup, I stepped on the darn bag and it burst!  This had a number of effects, including wet socks, wet carpet and causing Bill to fall of the wing still clutching his sides as we both dissolved into fits of laughter and rolled around on the grass.

Bill and I had many other adventures together investigating accidents, flying together and sailing with my family, sipping McWhirters (Rusty Nails) and telling lies after we docked.

Today, Pat and I watched, with tears in our eyes, as the hearse carrying our old friend, Brigadier-General Bill Slaughter with full military honours , escorted by 18 thundering Ottawa Police Services Harley-Davidsons, headed to his final resting place.  At too young an age, having lived a life at full throttle at the limits of the flight envelope,but succumbing to the “big C, ” this gentleman fighter pilot and aviation safety pioneer had permanently “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”


"High Flight"
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Flying Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr.

Killed in a Spitfire four weeks after writing this poem, he was an American flying in the RCAF during the Battle of Britain.  This is the pilot’s mantra.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Three R’s–Good Old Golden Rule Days





Before I start this section, I want to go back to the series, Death in the Arctic.  I know that this sort of topic may not be pleasant, but my life was not always butterflies and rainbows and I want you to try to understand the things that make up “me.”

We were at the annual Doctor’s Dinner last year, hosted by one of the investigators with whom I have worked for many years.  Robbie McLeod, a brilliant engineer and his wife treat their physicians to a wonderful catered dinner, five courses, served with fine wines and lively conversation.  We got onto the topic of the Panarctic accident and Robbie reminded me of an interesting aspect of that hostile environment in the high arctic:Arctic Fox

I have described how the little arctic foxes at the site, unafraid of us human interlopers, would wander around, sometimes almost underfoot.  The reason that they were drawn to the scene was there had been about a thousand pounds of chocolate chip cookies among the supplies for the camp.  At impact the cookies were scattered all over the ice and the foxes absolutely loved eating these delicious morsels.  However, they were like the proverbial canary in the coal mine – when they disappeared, we knew that a polar bear was nearby and that we had to be extremely vigilant, because we were next on the menu!  I actually witnessed polar bears chasing these little critters and man, could those bears ever run!  Just like a snow white freight train, their huge paws leaving ginormous tracks, as they attempted to chase down their prey.


Now, on to the Three R’s, that is “Reading, WRiting and ARithmatic” (it would appear on the surface that spelling was not important, but it certainly was in reality) “taught to the tune of a hickory stick.”

I stayed with my grandparents in the ‘Hat for some months before starting school as I had been quite ill (from a black widow spider bite, no less) and the doctor recommended that I be close at hand after being released from the hospital.  So my schooling began at a kindergarten run by a Mrs. Flagg.  That was OK but I was more interested in airplanes than coloring flowers and making paper butterflies.

My very first flight followed later that winter when I flew back to Bindloss in a chartered airplane – I told you about that earlier.  I had two little friends the same age as me: Billy Herman and Harvey Stoltz (the one who may still be in China after plunging into the slough).  We were too young to start Grade One, so we found other ways of passing the time and getting into mischief.  But one of the things that I liked to do was sneak up and peer into the window of the one room school house, curious about what the different grades were learning.Dick and Jane

Finally, I was old enough to start Grade One.  What a proud day that was as I trundled along the dusty path leading to the white and green school house and then going home clutching my “Dick and Jane” reader walking along kicking puff balls to see the spores taking off like a little cloud of brown smoke.

DSC03759I only hope that those teachers were well rewarded – there were seven grades in one room and they had to balance their attention among all of those kids!  One of the advantages of this system was that we could hurry through whatever exercise was assigned and then listen in on the more senior grades.  In fact, we were learning so fast that the teacher approached our parents and suggested that we could complete the first three grades in two years.  Discipline was, of necessity, strictly enforced so that we quietly paid attention to our lessons.  Those miscreants who broke the rules, for example putting snakes or frogs in the teacher’s desk drawer, suffered the indignity of being strapped in front of the class and/or standing in the corner while the erstwhile pupils suppressed their mirth. 

Requiring medical attention, I did spend some time at Alexandra School in Medicine Hat, again living with my grandparents and Aunty Jean.  That was a culture shock to be sure – moving from a one room country school to a three floor brick building.  The first three grades and high school were in the same building and I can remember how big those grade twelve boys looked.  Like many schools at that time, there was a separate entrance for boys and girls.  The first time I went into the boy’s washroom, I was initially puzzled by the rows of white porcelain objects that looked like bathtubs, but standing vertically against the wall and towering over my head.  Quite a change from the two holer outhouses at the Bindloss school!

After a few months, I returned to the familiar bucolic surroundings of Bindloss and resumed my country schooling.  I was surprised to find that the old schoolhouse was being demolished and a new facility was under construction.  We spent a few months using the town hall as a class room and then moved into the new building with beautiful freshly painted rooms, new desks and even electricity.

old school deskSpeaking of desks, do you remember or are you familiar with those old school desks with a built in seat with a drawer underneath and a top that tilted up so supplies could be stowed?  How about the ink wells and the nib pens that we used to practice hand writing and the teacher coming around from time to time and refilling the ink wells?  Do you recall cleaning the blackboard and dusting the brushes?

When I was in Grade Three, my father decided to leave Modern Service and take a job as a cat skinner (caterpillar operator) with a company in Medicine Hat, F.R. Gibbs, so we moved back to the city.  Once more, a new culture shock as I adapted to a large school with large classes at Connaught School where I stayed until Grade Eight, moving once more to Alexandra.

I guess that I thought that I knew everything by Grade Nine as my previously impeccable grades rapidly diminished and I entered the world of the rebellious teen.  The saving grace, I suppose, was that I started to play the trumpet, which I adored after seeing the movie “The Glenn Miller Story” with Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson.  From my music teacher and bandmaster I learned a lot about discipline, concentration, perseverance, teamwork and perfection, factors that carried me through my career.

High school started off OK, but again I slipped into mediocrity or worse.  I think that I may have been bored.  In Grade Eleven, I actually failed science (!) and French.  However, during the summer two things happened that made me smarten up:  One – I met Pat and Two – I worked on a pipeline for the summer.  When the school year began, I asked the principal of the school if I could take Grade Twelve chemistry and physics while repeating Grade Eleven science.  With not inconsiderable persuasion, he finally relented and I was off to the races!  I worked really hard – I was very busy with music, playing in the city band, South Alberta Light Horse band, Med Hatters big band, the symphony and my own jazz quartet as well as teaching music on Saturdays.  The big band played gigs on the weekends and I used to prop the chemistry text on the music stand with the sheet music and study between sets.  Consequently, my marks soared and the future was secured!  I do owe a great deal to those teachers who believed in me enough to give me a second chance.  They are long gone, but I hope that they were satisfied with their careers – it was a great pleasure to meet them after I was convocated  with an M.D.

The day after I finished high school I went downtown to the RCAF recruiter who had rented a room in one of the hotels, hoping to enlist to become a pilot.  He informed me that the air force was reducing the number of pilots and that the only chance was for me to get a university degree.  Since I couldn’t afford to go on to secondary education, he suggested that I enrol in ROTP (Regular Officer’s Training Plan) and I would be sent to military college.  I hitched a ride to Calgary to enrol, but I was a day late!

What to do?

Life is full of surprises and and serendipity. Being open to unexpected turns in the road is an important part of success. If you try to plan every step, you may miss those wonderful twists and turns. Just find your next adventure-do it well, enjoy it-and then, not now, think about what comes next.
Condoleeza Rice