Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum
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British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

Just As Brave - Flying Instructors

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​                                 Just as Brave by Dan Black
                                Legion Magazine June 1988
 
Strapped to the rear seat of bright yellow Harvard 3209, pilot instructor John Sweet felt like the number two man on a horse: He was aboard, but for the moment control was in the hands of student pilot Ken Child up front.
 
It was January, 1944, and the two were returning to base at Aylmer after a day spent with other trainees flying target practice over the flat, snow- covered farmland of southwestern Ontario. Unknown to either airman, disaster was about to strike.
 
"We were four to five miles from base and went into a dive to drop to 1,000 feet, and I remember looking over to my right and seeing (Harvard) FE662 trying to fly formation," Sweet recalls. "I don't know why he did that, but there we were 30 feet apart and low on fuel." Seconds later, the other plane disappeared, "but as we turned into the wind on our landing approach, he came out of the blue and went through our wing. All that remained was three-quarters of a wing. We were upside down."
 
British student pilot Peter Stratton was decapitated as FE662 slammed nose first into the airfield 750 feet below. His Canadian instructor, Reg Scevoir, had the flesh ripped from his face and required extensive reconstructive surgery. The Harvard's 575 h.p. engine drove into the frozen
ground as the rest of the plane ripped free and landed 50 yards away.
 
Still upside down, 3209 was losing altitude. Rescuers ran to what remained  of FE662, while others watched in horror, then relief, as Sweet fought with the controls and righted his aircraft. "I don't know what went through my mind," recalls the former instructor, now 70. "For the longest time, I had trouble remembering anything after or before the crash."
 
When 3209 came down in a field behind a hangar it was doing 200 m.p.h. Normal approach speed is 110. "We lost our right wheel and headed toward the road," Sweet recalls. "I couldn't make the runway. Nothing was  said. It happened so fast."
 
Ripping up chunks of earth and grass, 3209 punched through a road fence, taking out eight posts before hitting the first ditch where it lost the left wheel. After skidding across the ·road, the nose of the plane slammed into the next ditch, before taking out another fence and sliding 80 feet into a field. Fortunately, the Harvard's fuel tanks, located near the rear seat, were almost empty. Sweet was pulled unconscious from the burning wreck with a rope tied to a crash truck boom. He had a broken arm, broken left leg 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  


The wreckage of two Ansons and a cenotaph dedicated by Col. Talbot Branch in Aylmer, Ont​.
and a gaping hole in the front of his skull. His hospital treatment would last a year and include psychiatric  examination. Ken Child came away with a broken left arm.
 
''A person can ask me today if being an instructor in Canada during the war was dangerous," Sweet says. "You bet it was." All volunteers who had freely offered their lives to serve Canada during WW II, most, if not all of the men who served at No. 14 Service Flying Training School under the wartime British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), wanted to go overseas. Sweet himself enlisted in 1942, and before advanced training at Aylmer passed through Manning Pool No. 1 in Toronto, initial training school and elementary flying training school on Tiger Moths, in Oshawa.
 
After receiving his wings in Aylmer, Sweet could have gone to Bagotville, Que., and then overseas. Instead, he was assigned to Trenton, Ont., for pilot instructor training. "Once you went to Trenton, you were stuck," he says. "There was no way out. You were going to be an instructor." Sweet recalls a lot of men purposely gave the wrong answers on their written instructor's tests, hoping they'd fail and be reassigned overseas. "But the teachers at Trenton were wise to this. They knew who was trying to fail. They knew the guys had the right answers in their heads, if not on paper."
 
The service flying training school was the student's introduction to heavy, high performance WW II aircraft-in particular the Harvard, and adds Sweet, those in his charge weren't all choirboys. "You'd have to knock the overconfidence out of them during the first month, “he says." It took the next month to teach them about flying, and in that month they learned so much they were scared to fly in the third month. Sometimes you'd have to go looking for them."


Instructors prepared students for the worst conditions, allowing them to learn from potentially fatal mistakes. The risk was understood. Says Harry Saelens of the Tillsonburg, Ont., Branch: "It doesn't matter whether you're pranging in a Tiger Moth over Neepawa or in a Halifax over Berlin, you're  just as dead." Mute evidence of the truth of that statement was found in the small cemeteries that dotted the countryside. Canada only servicemen would eventually comprise 10 per cent of the 44,000 Canadians killed in WW II. "These young fellows were just as loyal just as courageous, just as young and just as prepared to go and do those big and glorious deeds as those who got to do them, but they never got the chance and they got none of the rewards. Nobody ever talks about them any more and I think they should," says Saelens.
 
Pilots and instructors weren't the only ones at risk. John French, 67, of Langton, Ont., was an airframe mechanic based in Yorkton, Sask. He recalls one close call while flying as a passenger in a Cessna. "It started to snow heavily and we got down to 50 to 60 feet off the ground to spot the lights of a town or village . The pilot followed a railway line, figuring we'd come across a grain elevator with the name of the town on it. We spotted an elevator, but while making a pass we barely missed a water tower. We felt awfully lucky."
 
Before moving to Kingston, Ont., in August 1944-where it operated for another year-No. 14 Service Flying Training School enjoyed three productive years at Aylmer with 4,144 pilots earning their wings. The school had an excellent safety record considering the high-pressure training. But by 1944, there were up to 500 landings a day and accidents were inevitable. During its four years of operations, including the time in Kingston, 26 fatal crashes killed 12 instructors and 26 students.
 
Overseas, a tour of operations called for 300 hours flying before a leave was granted. "Back here in Canada," says Sweet, "an instructor would have close to 2,000 hours. He'd be flying the seat of his pants off to keep his students up on their time."
 
The diary from No. 14 describes forced landings, nose-ups, ground loops, bent air screws, collisions with trees and even a Harvard's run-in with an outhouse. "A dense ground fog closed in with 13 aircraft away from the field," notes a booklet by M.L. Mcintyre. "One found its way back, 10 landed at London, one was forced down near London and one force-landed near some cottages at Port Bruce on Lake Erie. The plane was undamaged, but in the attempt to fly out, an instructor had the misfortune to hit an outhouse on his takeoff run. Luckily the outhouse was unoccupied and its damage appears to have been slight.
 
With planes buzzing overhead-some occasionally crashing in farmer's fields the war arrived in Aylmer as it did in other towns with a training base.  Newspaper accounts tell of practice bombs crashing through greenhouses and bullets dropping from the sky. A March i7, 1943, story in the St. Thomas Times-Journal describes how Mrs. A.S. Taylor, of Port Stanley, had a narrow escape when a .303 bullet tore through the roof of her kitchen, grazed her left arm below the elbow and then bounced onto a  breakfast plate.
 
But despite narrow escapes for civilians and military personnel, communities were proud of their training bases. Students and instructors  were invited into private homes for Thanksgiving dinner and other celebrations.  
Romances blossomed and the towns' economies grew. It was a sad day when a base closed. "No. 14 brought the war very close to home," says Aylmer high school history teacher Kirk Barons. "It made the war very real for this community and if you compare the small number of fatal accidents that happened in this area last year to the number that occurred back then, you can recognize the element of danger that existed.''
 
Former flying instructor Archie Londry, 66, a service officer with Gen. Hugh  Dyer Branch in Minnedosa, Man., recalls working on a broken radio receiver in the back of an Anson one night. About 30 miles from Brandon and at an altitude of 3,000 feet they ran into a severe ice storm with lightning. The starboard engine kicked out. ''We had to maintain our flying speed to avoid a complete stall," recalls Londry, who took control of the training aircraft.
 
The lightning helped Londry spot a small slough, which cushioned the plane before it crashed into a bush, losing its wings. There were no injuries,  but the crash marked one of many close calls for the instructor, whose room-mate, also an instructor, died in a mid-air collision between two Cessna Cranes. "The students didn't learn by you telling them the mistakes," he says. "You had to go as far as you could go and let them make and see the mistake and then show them how to recover. It was a  necessary part of training and it's how the majority of accidents happened."
 
Saelens says that, as host of the BCATP, Canada trained 125,000 men from all over the Commonwealth, including 50,000 pilots. During the five  years it operated, more than 800 trainees died. "In my army service I never knew of anyone being killed, but it did happen," he says. "Navy men drowned during training, but the largest losses were suffered by the air force .''
 
"People are just beginning to realize what the training casualties were," adds Londry. "Forty five years ago people didn't talk about it because they were preoccupied with the war effort. But the sacrifices were made here as well as overseas. From my graduating class alone, about the same number  of graduates died in Canada-only service as those who died overseas.''