Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Good Samaritan

It doesn’t seem that long ago, but I guess it is – exactly 39 years to be exact!!  My good friend, Darrel Mawhinney, a former 408 Squadron fighter pilot was in the right seat of my Grumman Tiger and daughters Laura and Kirsten were in the back of the airplane.  We had flown out from Winnipeg to Cavendish, Alberta, where there was a small dirt landing strip, to drop the girls off at Aunt Rena’s farm. Then we flew over to Medicine Hat and, the next day, back to Cavendish to pick Kirsten up to return home to Winnipeg  .  

I had to make a stop in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan to visit one of our aviation medical examiners so we landed on the grass strip there and I caught a ride into town to visit the good doctor.

Back at the airport I started and prepared our little plane for our flight home to Winnipeg. As soon as I switched the radio on we heard, to our dismay, that there were severe thunder storms west of Regina, right on our flight planned route.  Since the Tiger was not equipped with radar, and therefore we couldn’t navigate around the storms, we decided to fly to Swift Current, Saskatchewan, to check the weather and file an IFR (instrument) flight plan so that we would have radar coverage from Regina.  It was raining fairly hard in Swift Current but the approach and landing proved to be uneventful.

We shut down the Tiger and hustled into the “terminal” only to find out that there was no radar coverage for the first half hour of our flight – not a good deal considering the threat of severe storms and being unable to fly around them.  While we waited in the terminal, we overheard an elderly American gentleman speaking with the operator asking “what is there between here and Winnipeg?”  At first we didn’t recognize him as an experienced pilot having misunderstood his queries.  He also inquired about where he could “get a bite to eat” as he and his wife were hungry and it was already past noon.  Unfortunately, there were no shops or restaurants near the airport and his face fell with disappointment.  I approached him and indicated that we had a bag of donuts in our plane, thanks to our Aunty Jean, and that we would be willing to share them with him and his wife.  He brightened up considerably and graciously accepted our offer of good Canadian donut fare.

Noting that our group seemed a bit down in the mouth, he asked if we had a problem.  When I told him about the lack of radar coverage, he stated in his southern drawl “Well sonny, I have a li’l old color radar in my plane and I could take off ahead of you, fly low and slow, and keep you informed regarding the thunder storms until you get coverage from Regina.  We accepted his kind offer with some trepidation.
As  we were about to leave the facility he donned a baseball cap and, lo an behold, the logo on the front of his cap was for the “Burma Hump Pilots Association!”  So he was one of those courageous pilots who flew over the Burma Hump to supply the allied armies in China with food, fuel, ammunition and other necessities of war as they fought the Japanese.  Any doubts that we had rapidly evaporated.

The “Hump” was the name given by Allied pilots in the Second World War to the Himalayan Mountains over which they flew. Military transport aircraft from India to China were used to resupply the Chinese war effort of Chiang Kai-Shek and the units of the United States Army Air Forces and other allied forces based in China. Creating an airlift presented the USAAF a considerable challenge in 1942: it had no units trained or equipped for moving cargo, and no airfields existed in the China Burma India Theater (CBI) for basing the large number of transports that would be needed. Flying over the Himalayas was extremely dangerous and made more difficult by a lack of reliable charts, an absence of radio navigation aids, and a dearth of information about the weather. Because of the huge number of accidents, the flight path became known as the “Aluminum Trail” and pilots joked that all you had to do was follow the path of wreckages in order to navigate to their destination. At least 510 aircraft were known lost from all causes, with 1,314 air crewmen and passengers killed. In addition, 81 more aircraft were never accounted for, with their 345 personnel listed as missing. Another 1,200 personnel had been rescued or walked back to base on their own.

Darrel and I were amazed at this revelation and I said incredulously, “You flew the Hump?”  Our new friend retorted in a self deprecating manner: “Yes I did, Sonny, but that was a long time ago.”  We now knew that this was an extremely experienced, courageous pilot and that we could trust him with our lives.

We stepped out of the terminal and rushed in the rain towards our aircraft.  The wind whipped around the building and our friend’s outer jacket shell swept aside and revealed a crest on his sweater.  To our astonishment, the crest read “Reno Race Pilot’s Association!”  Not believing my eyes, I queried “Do you fly in the Reno races?”  His reply was “Hell, no, Sonny, I don’t fly in them – I sponsor them.”
Then we saw his plane – a beautiful Cessna 420 – no wonder he

could sponsor the Reno races – it turned out that he was the president of a large aviation corporation, the manufacturer of sophisticated flight simulators.

True to his word, he flew low and slow and called us about every two minutes to provide us with a picture of the storm situation (“Still looking OK, Sonny”) until we reached Regina’s radar coverage.  Then he requested a climb to 27000 feet and headed above the weather to Winnipeg (Since the Tiger was not pressurized, we were restricted to altitudes of ten thousand feet and below.)

As we flew on, Regina informed us that the storms were dissipating.  However, we could see an ominous black wall of cumulonimbus in front of us and we figured that we were about to enter a pretty large thunder storm so I told the occupants to tighten up their seat belts as I expected a rough ride.  

Then we hit the wall.  To my surprise the air was smooth.  As we exited the wall, we found ourselves beneath what appeared like a huge dome of dark grey and black cloud, with a clear view of the terrain eight thousand feet below and, surprisingly, there was absolutely no turbulence – it was smooth as silk.  I have never experienced this phenomenon again.

When we landed  in Winnipeg and were taxiing in to our parking spot, we spotted our Good Samaritan’s plane.  I went over and left a note on the door. 

We have never forgotten this wonderful, thoughtful American who shepherded us to safety and we hope that all of his flights have been CAVU clear.

This was my final flight in our wonderful Tiger as we packed up and moved to Ottawa.

By the way, CAVU is pilot talk for “Clear Air, View Unobstructed.”