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.