Shearwater History

HMCS Shearwater
(Royal Canadian Naval Air Station Dartmouth)

Fixed Wing Aircraft

As the fourth largest air force in the world during the Second World War the RCAF was in the process of downsizing to its peacetime compliment in the post-war era. This included reducing the infrastructure and personnel at RCAF Station Dartmouth. However, the reductions conflicted with the RCN's fledgling Naval Air Arm which was building up to its authorized strength. Therefore, on 1 December 1948 the RCAF turned the air station over to the RCN and it officially became known as Royal Canadian Naval Air Station Dartmouth. The RCN followed the Royal Navy tradition of naming air stations after sea birds and simultaneously commissioned the air station HMCS Shearwater.

Building on the foundation established by the RCNAS, Shearwater became the new home for 803 and 883 Squadrons, equipped with Seafire aircraft and 825 and 826 squadrons flying Firefly aircraft. The sole purpose of Shearwater was to provide a shore base to support flying operations aboard the RCN's aircraft carriers. Also, No. 1 Training Air Group comprising 743 Fleet Requirements Unit and an Operational Flying Training School provided trained aircrew for the operational squadrons. Similarly, a Naval Stores Depot and the School of Naval Aircraft Maintenance provided spares and trained aircraft technicians.

In March 1948, HMCS Warrior was paid off and replaced by HMCS Magnificent , which arrived with the first batch of Hawker Sea Fury aircraft to replace the obsolete Seafires on 803 and 883 Squadrons. In 1950, the Firefly aircraft on 825 and 826 Squadrons proved to be unsuitable for the anti-submarine role that Canada agreed would be the RCN's specialty after becoming a signatory to the 1949 NATO agreement. Consequently, the Fireflies were replaced by Grumman Avenger aircraft purchased from the US Navy. In 1955, the acquisition of eight Airborne Early Warning Avengers brought the total number of Avengers to 125, the most numerous type of aircraft in the RCN's history.

In 1951, the squadrons were renumbered to better identify Canadian formations within the Commonwealth numbering system. Accordingly, the fighter squadrons, 803 and 883 were renumbered 870 and 871 respectively, while the anti-submarine squadrons, 825 and 826, became 880 and 881 respectively. As Canadian naval aviation became more closely entwined with the US Navy in continental defence, the Air Arm adopted the US Navy letter prefixes to squadron numbers in November 1952. Hence 870 and 871 Squadrons became VF 870 and VF 871, with "VF" indicating a fixed wing fighter squadron while 880 and 881 Squadrons were redesignated VS 880 and VS 881, with "VS" identifying fixed wing anti-submarine squadrons. In the same process FRU 743 became a fixed wing utility squadron designated VU 32.

Shearwater ushered in the jet age in January 1955 with the arrival of the first T-33 Silver Star jet training aircraft, loaned from the RCAF. In November 1955 the first of 39 McDonnell Banshees, purchased from the US Navy, arrived at Shearwater to replace the Sea Furies on VF 870 and VF 871 Squadrons. In 1959, VF 871 was absorbed into VF 870, which flew the Banshees from the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure until September 1962 when the Naval Air Arm's first and last jet fighter was retired without replacement.

In October 1956, the first of 100 deHavilland-built Grumman Tracker aircraft arrived at Shearwater. The first version of the Tracker, the CS2F-1, was delivered to VS 881 in February 1957 and the squadron embarked in the newly arrived aircraft carrier H.M.C.S. Bonaventure in September 1957.  

VS 880 received her Trackers in October 1957. After conversion training that squadron embarked in H.M.C.S. Bonaventure for their first Tracker operations in January 1959. 

The following July, VS 881merged with VS 880 to form the RCN's sole ASW squadron and the largest squadron in the Commonwealth with 24 operational CS2F-1's and 450 personnel. With the demise of H.M.C.S. Bonaventure as an aircraft carrier in 1968 the Tracker was re-rolled as a land based maritime reconnaissance aircraft and VS 880 was redesignated a Maritime Reconnaissance squadron, MR 880. Tracker operations ceased at Shearwater in the summer of 1981 when MR 880 was transferred to Summerside PEI. The Tracker was finally retired in 1990, 34 years after the first flight of the Canadian built CS2F.

Rotary Wing Aircraft

In August 1951, the RCN's first helicopters, three Bell HTL-4's, were delivered to Shearwater and assigned to the newly formed No. 1 Helicopter Flight. The HTL-4's roles included search and rescue, aerial photography, recovering ships' practice torpedoes and light transport. The RCN also required the HTL's for the newly commissioned icebreaker HMCS Labrador for ice reconnaissance. Later the RCN took an additional five HTL-6's on strength, which were used to train fixed-wing pilots who were to fly the larger HO4S helicopter in utility roles.

In April 1952, the helicopter inventory at HMCS Shearwater expanded with No. 1 Helicopter Flight taking delivery of three Sikorsky HO4S-2's. These helicopters were used primarily as a plane guard during flight operations from the aircraft carriers. On 1 December 1952 the helicopter strength had increased to the point where No. 1 Helicopter Flight was elevated to squadron status and designated VH 21.

In 1954, a third type of utility helicopter was added to VH 21's inventory when a number of ex-U.S. Army Piasecki HUP-3's were taken on strength at Shearwater. In April 1955, VH 21 was redesignated Helicopter Utility Squadron 21 (HU 21) to better reflect its role. The HUP-3's, flown by HU 21, were intended primarily for use aboard the ice breaker HMCS Labrador to provide a heavy (900 pound - 408 kg) lift capability. When not embarked on the icebreaker the HUP-3's were used for search and rescue and general naval utility as well as providing support to other government departments.


The exhibit shown above includes a model and large photo of HMCS Bonaventure .

On 4 July 1955, a new helicopter squadron, HS 50, was formed at Shearwater to provide a rotary wing anti-submarine capability for the aircraft carrier, HMCS Magnificent . HS 50 was initially equipped with six HO4S's, which were fitted with dipping sonar and carried depth charges and homing torpedoes. HS 50 was tasked to further study the use of helicopters in anti-submarine warfare by investigating the feasibility of operating helicopters from small destroyers. In 1958 the trials culminated with the first landing of an HS 50 HO4S-3 aboard a St. Laurent class destroyer. The HO4S's from Shearwater successfully pioneered what may be one of the most important innovations in naval aviation, the operation of helicopters from the small flight decks on destroyers. Navies around the world including those of the United States and Britain adopted the concept.

In May 1963 the first of 41 Sea King helicopters arrived at Shearwater to replace the HO4S. The Sea King served with HS 50, HU 21, and VX 10, the squadron responsible for engineering development and testing. The Sea King operated at sea from both the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure and from helicopter-destroyer escorts (DDH's). The carrier normally embarked four to six Sea Kings along with the normal complement of Trackers and a single HO4S plane guard. The St. Laurent and Annapolis class DDH's carried one helicopter whereas the larger Tribal Class DDH's accommodated two Sea Kings.

Shearwater continued as the home of naval fixed and rotary wing aviation until 1968 when Canada's armed forces were unified.


The Museum exhibits a CS2F Tracker, certified airworthy.