Volume 18, Number 105, October/November 2015 WINNER OF THE 2015 LEST WE FORGET: THE WALLY KASPER PRIZE Don’t Blame Me, I’m Only the Radio Operator by Roy W. Harrison
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I never made mistakes. I’ve made some big ones in my time. But this time - no way. We had a job to do and I did my part. Don’t blame me, I was only the radio operator!
In 1944, several months after my 19th birthday, I was stationed at Pat Bay Airport, just outside Victoria, the provincial capital of B.C.. During the war, the airport was taken over by the RCAF to conduct submarine patrols along the west coast and as a training centre for flight crews. I loved the PBY-5A Canso: twin Pratt and Whitney engines each 1200 horsepower, wingspan 104 feet and length 64 feet. A beautiful aircraft. Built to take off and land on water, it also had retractable wheels so it could taxi and be stored on land. It carried a standard crew of seven - pilot, copilot, navigator, radio operator, two observers in side pods and a gunner in the nose pod, directly below the cockpit. I was a radio operator for ten months - not a lot of experience, but you learned quickly in those times. Lots of flight time for practice.
Flight crews tended to stay together. They got to know one another and if things got rough, they knew they could depend on each other.
The pilot was a close friend, Gerry, with whom I’d gone through flight training. Our co-pilot, George, was a veteran with more than ten years of flying experience. Steven was the navigator. He lived on the west coast all his life and was flying float planes up and down the coast before he joined the air force and took navigator training. The gunner was Raymond, Ray for short, young, outgoing and lots of fun at parties. I’m Earl, the radio operator, youngest on the crew.
My flying experience before the war consisted of making and flying paper airplanes.
The observers were carry-ons. Trained in aircraft, warship and submarine identification, they could locate the tell-tail signs of a sub under water, spot an oil slick we could barely see and recognize almost any ship or aircraft - friend or enemy. We had our favourites - ones that could interact with the crew and help to break up the tension - but they all knew their place and could be counted on to help us out in a pinch.
We usually went out on submarine patrols two to three times a week. In between was on-going training, aircraft maintenance and of course R & R. Every couple of weeks we went out on a training run. Sometimes it was with observers, when they knew there were ‘friendlies’ in the local waters, giving them a chance to practise their skills. Once in a while it was a trainee for one of the flight crew. In that case, the standard rule was that the experienced crew member went along as back-up. The pilot was never replaced unless it was with an experienced co-pilot looking to move up.
It was the beginning of June, one of those days with a heavy overcast, not raining, but with the threat of rain coming to ruin your day. I was up early - 0500 - and already dressed in flight clothes. I made my way to the mess hall and some much needed coffee. Last night had been a late night. No drinking, not the night before a mission, just playing cards and spending time with the boys.
At the pre-flight briefing, our flight crew was given the details of today’s training run. We were introduced to John Stafford, a navigator who had been out on several short training flights already. Our two observers, along for the ride, were Colin Delange and Stephane Cosaires. The flight plan was simple. Fly out over the Pacific for eight hundred miles, do a 180 and fly straight back. At an average cruising speed of 125 mph, it would take about 13 hours. Leaving at 0700, we should be back by 2000, with just enough light to do an amphibious landing. This was going to be a boring flight.
We entered through the bottom hatch and did our preflight check - instruments, engines, fuel.
The ground crew did most of this already, including filling the tanks with fuel, but ultimately it was our responsibility as we were the ones in the air. I did my radio check with tower. Everything was ready. We could go. Gerry started up the engines.
“PBY Canso 9162, this is Pat Bay tower, over.”
“Pat Bay tower, PBY Canso 9162, over,” I answered.
“9162, could you send Lieutenant Maitley over to the briefmg room please, over.”
“On his way. Over and out.”
“What the hell?” said Gerry as Steven left the plane. “We’re on a tight schedule as it is without any delays. Let’s get this show in the air.”
“Do you want me to pass that message on to the tower?” I asked.
Gerry gave me a dirty look.
Fifteen minutes we waited, everyone impatient. The new navigator looked over his flight plan again. I rechecked our on-board radios. The pilot drummed his thumbs on the wheel.
“PBY Canso 9162, Pat Bay tower, over.”
“Pat Bay tower, PBY Canso 9162, over.”
“9162, we have a patrol flight leaving in 30 minutes. The navigator just showed up sick. Lieutenant Maitley’s going to take his place. I can get you another nav in one hour. Do you want to delay your flight, over?”
I looked at the pilot. He looked at the rest of the flight crew. Straight out, straight back. A milk run. An hour’s delay would get us back well after dark.
He looked at John. “Are you up to it, John? Otherwise we may have to wait several days.”
“I’m good to go,” said John. “Let’s do it.”
“Tower, 9162,” I said. “Negative on the delay. Permission to taxi to water, over.”
“9162, permission to taxi, over and out.”
Gerry revved up the engines, and the plane slowly taxied along the runway to the water’s edge. He eased the plane into the water until it floated and George raised the three wheels.
“Good to go,” said Gerry.
“Pat Bay tower, PBY Canso 9162, over.”
“9162, Pat Bay tower, over.”
“Tower, 9162. Permission to take off, over,” I said.
“Roger 9162. Permission to take off. Over and out.”
Gerry throttled the engines up to full speed and the plane slowly started to move through the water. There was a slight chop on the ocean. You could sense everyone holding his breath as we always did when taking off.
We had all seen or heard what could happen when things go wrong. Once you’re airborne, you’re in control. Until then, not so much. There could be a deadhead in the water. A larger than usual swell could bring the nose of the plane down. One of the pontoons could submerge in the water and swing the plane around.
Picking up speed, the plane started to lift.
“Give me a hand, George,” said Gerry. “It seems a little sluggish today. Maybe the full load of fuel. Are you sure all the wheels are up?”
“Got a green light on that,” said George as he gave him a hand with the controls.
As we sped along, the plane refused to lift up to the planing position to reduce the drag.
“Colin,” yelled the pilot at one of the observers. “Go down below and check that the wheels are all up in the locked up position.”
“Holy crap,” came the reply seconds later. “We’re filling up with water!”
“Pat Bay tower, PBY Canso 9162. We have a situation here and are returning to shore.” I radioed without waiting for a reply as Gerry quickly turned the plane around and headed back.
“9162 are you declaring an emergency?”
control. No equipment or personnel needed.”
“Roger. We will monitor. You have clearance. Tower out.”
Gerry kept the speed of the plane as fast as possible as we headed towards shore. If the plane sank deeper, we would take on more water. This would slow us down and compound the problem. Closer than usual to the runway, he throttled the engines back and George lowered the wheels. As we crept up onto the tarmac, water could be heard splashing on the runway.
“Alright,” said Gerry. “Who left the bottom hatch open? ‘Fess up.”
There was a chorus of ‘not me’ as everyone looked at each other. The two observers chimed in with the fact that they weren’t the last ones in. The navigator said he was in the plane going over the flight plan with the pilot. I wasn’t taking responsibility. The gunner finally admitted he was the last one in but he had closed and locked the hatch.
“Well, someone’s responsible,” said Gerry.
“Hey guys, is that water I see splashing down on the tarmac?” came over the radio.
“9162 to tower. Were you trying to contact us?” I radioed.
“Negative 9162. Do you have a problem?”
“Negative tower. We couldn’t get confirmation that the wheels were up and locked and we were having considerable drag,” I lied. “We wanted to put the wheels back down to check that there was nothing blocking them. 9162, over and out.”
“George,” said Gerry. “Go down and check the wheel well and be sure to close and lock the hatch on the way back up.”
“Roger,” said George as he rose from his seat and went down to the lower hatch.
“Tower, PBY 9162,” I radioed when George returned several minutes later. “Permission to taxi and take off.”
“9162, tower. Do you need to refuel? Another navigator in 45 minutes? Over.”
Another navigator! That’s how the hatch was left open! When Steven left to go to the briefmg room, he expected to come back so he left the hatch open. No one thought to go back down and close it.
“Negative on both tower. We’re good to go, over.”
“Roger, 9162. Permission to taxi and take off. Over and out.”
We taxied the short distance to the water, raised the wheels and rose like an eagle into the sky. No drag. No water. Just smooth sailing ... er flying. George raised the pontoons up to the wings.
We climbed to 4000 feet - higher than the usual altitude for submarine spotting but that was not our primary purpose. Cloud cover was mostly low - about 2000 feet. Not very good for our spotters but this flight was all about the navigator. Gave him a bit of a challenge.
Can you imagine flying in a straight line for over six hours? From 50 miles out, we maintained radio silence, according to protocol, so I had nothing to do. The pilot handled the controls for the first two hours and then handed them over to the copilot. At first there was playful banter back and forth between the crew. The observers came up to the cabin as they could see very little through the clouds. After several hours there was little more than grunts or comments about how boring it was. By three hours, there was complete silence except for the drone of our Pratt and Whitney engines.
We were about 500 miles out. We were flying in and out of clouds for the last hour or so. Whenever we broke cloud cover, we could see the wind swept sea below, white capped waves showing the wind blowing steadily from the north.
“Holy crap,” came the excited voice of Ray, the gunner, as we came out of the cloud bank once again. “There’s a battleship down there!”
Now, we were maintaining radio silence as I mentioned. An unidentified plane coming out of nowhere was an obvious threat. Standard procedure for a warship if it spotted a plane was to circle once and then open fire.
The battleship was already circling. “That’s the USS Missouri,” said one of the observers. “Get the hell out of here!”
Gerry, who was back at the controls, took a quick look down, banked sharply, pulled back the throttle to take us up to our top speed of 179 mph and headed to the nearest cloud bank. We all held our breath and waited.
“OK, John,” said Gerry. “Get us back on course.”
“Give me a second,” said John. “I have to allow for your little manoeuvre back there. OK, I’ve got it. Heading 265 degrees should do it.”
That little excitement stirred us up for a while. At least our milk run gave us something to tell the boys back home and brightened up the conversation for a while. But it quickly settled down into the same monotony as earlier with conversation at a minimum.
We had a bit of a break for lunch. George took over the controls for a while and Gerry joined me and the two observers seated on the floor in the cockpit. Ray ate in his gunners pod and the co-pilot and navigator remained in their seats. They would eat later.
“Hey, Earl,” said Gerry. “You know things always come in threes. Maybe we’ll meet the battleship on the way back. Or maybe he was searching for an enemy warship and we’ll break cloud cover over it.”
“Not a chance,” I replied. “The battleship will be long gone off our flightpath by the time we get back. No more surprises, OK.”
“Amen to that,” said George. “Enough excitement for one day.”
By early afternoon, we reached our destination and turned back. With the sun behind us and the sky clearing, we flew along with only the ever present sea swell and the sound of the engines to break the monotony. Once in a while, someone would try to start a conversation but it was short lived. The only break was a brief one for dinner about half way home.
As we got closer to the coast, the sun was setting behind us, the sky was gradually darkening. Everyone was feeling tired, bored and anxious to get home. Most were thinking only of a quick snack and some shut-eye after a long, tiring flight.
At 50 miles out I broke radio silence.
“Pat Bay tower, Pat Bay tower. This is PBY 9162, over,” I radioed. No response.
“Pat Bay tower, Pat Bay tower. This is PBY 9162, over,” I repeated.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING IN OUR AIRSPACE!”
“This is PBY Canso 9162 returning from a training flight and coming in for a landing at Pat Bay Air base.”
“What Pat Bay Air base? This is LA, Los Angeles.”
“LA, PBY 9162. We are incoming to Pat Bay Air base, Victoria, British Columbia. You say this is California? Over.”
“9612, LA. You’re dam right it is. We’ve got planes in the air around you .. Head north and I’ll clear a flight path for you. Over.”
“Roger, LA. PBY 9162 changing heading to 360 north. Can you contact the American military and warn them that we’ll be following a flight plan up the coast to Canada. Wouldn’t want to get mistaken for an enemy plane. Over.”
“9162, LA. Roger that. We have military personnel in the tower with us. Over and out.”
Eight hundred miles out. Eight hundred miles back. A thousand miles off course. What the ... ?
“John,” barked Gerry. “What the hell’s going on?”
“I don’t know. I gave you the coordinates. Even corrected for the wind. You must have put us off course when you banked to avoid that battleship. It’s not my fault,” said John rather sheepishly.
“Hey. Don’t blame me,” said Gerry. “That little dip wouldn’t put us off by a 1000 miles. There will be some explaining to do when we get back
“If we get back,” said George. “Our range is only 2545 miles and we still have a 1000 miles to go. And it will be pitch black when we get home. Fortunately, we can land anywhere on the water if necessary, but I don’t like the idea of swimming to shore.” “We can follow the lights along the coast to get back home,” said the navigator.
“Not very likely,” I said. “Remember the blackout along the coast.”
The sky had completely cleared and the moon, though only half-full, was bright. We dipped down to 1000 feet. It’s surprising how well you can see the coastline from that height. We flew along the coast, keeping a constant eye on the fuel. Occasionally, we were challenged on the radio, but they were forewarned about our coming and there was no concern.
As we got closer to Victoria, I radioed the airbase.
“Pat Bay tower, Pat Bay tower, this is PBY Canso 9162, over.”
“PBY 9162, Pat Bay tower, over.”
“Tower, 9162. Requesting permission to land. We’re coming in from the south, very low on fuel. We could use a little light on the water.”
“Roger 9162. American military advised us. Lighting is set up. You are clear to land. Good luck. Over and out.”
I must say, they did a good job on the lighting. Search lights over the water. Vehicles lined up with lights on to show the shoreline and tarmac.
Solid ground never looked so good.
As we taxied up onto the tarmac, shut the engine down and stumbled out of the plane, we were all dogtired. It was almost 0400. We were in the air for 21 hours. Our debriefing and recriminations would have to wait. We were dead on our feet.
As I started back to the base, one of the ground crew called out to me. “Hey Earl. What were you up to? Delivering water to California?” Without a backward glance, I replied, “It wasn’t my fault. Don’t blame me. I’m only the radio operator.”