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HISTORY OF THE 423 SQUADRON

CHAPTER IV

 

COLD WAR AND THE CANUCKS

 

423 Squadron is Reborn

The Eagles of 423 were not long from the skies. Once more, they were called upon to serve their nation in times of tension. The post-WW II period had seen the world go from hopes for world harmony and European democracy, to the rise of the Communist Bloc and the blockade of Berlin. The disarmament process, which was so quickly undertaken with the closing days of the war, was now hastily reversed. Canada was a key power in the world, finishing the war with the fourth largest air force in existence. It was expected that Churchill's "Aerodrome of Democracy" would fulfil its part of the NORAD and NATO agreements. Canada was in a position to meet its "contractual obligations" in the early 1950's in every sense of the word. At the end of the war, aircraft production was Canada's fourth largest industry.1 Despite subsequent drastic cutbacks, the RCAF was still able to make its wishes known and expect results. As the Cold War worsened, the RCAF knew it needed an all-weather interceptor of premium quality to accompany its impressive Canadair-built Sabre day fighters. A.V. Roe Ltd. responded to the call, and the Avro CF-100 Canuck was born. The air force also knew that it needed the best of units to operate the aircraft and 423 Squadron was reborn, this time as an All-Weather (Fighter) Squadron.

 

A New Start In St. Hubert2

The squadron was resurrected on 1 July 1953 in St. Hubert, Quebec, as the nation's second All-Weather Fighter Squadron. Just as the wartime squadron had started with only one man and an empty room in 1942, this new beginning also had a strange start. Three men met in an empty hangar on that special day, one of them in a body cast. The unfortunate pilot had ejected from a T-33 Silver Star a short time before; now, he had come here to take command of the unit. His name was Wing Commander R.J. Lawlor, DFC.

In short time the unit fleshed out, receiving its first two Canuck aircraft on 20 July. The squadron was originally equipped with the Mk. 3B version of the fighter. The first official flight in a 423 aircraft came four days later when F/L S.K. Woolley took NQ+149 (18149) out for an air test. Squadron aircrew had already taken part in operational flying, however, just as their World War Two predecessors had. Borrowing aircraft from No. 3 Operational Training Unit, several crews had participated in OPERATION TAILWIND ten days previously. This exercise, designed to test the air defences of NORAD, brought into play all the RCAF's airworthy fighters in Eastern Canada in addition to large fighter and bomber formations from the USAF.

It was only a month after the exercise that 423 Squadron had its first Canuck accident. On 11 August, Aircraft 18160 crashed just after take-off in Ville Jacques Cartier during an acceptance flight, killing Flying Officers Alan D. Wright and Allan Miles. The Eagles continued preparations for their first public performance. The highlight of the month was their appearance at the Canadian National Exhibition, followed by the National Air Show in Toronto on 17-19 August. Four aircraft took part, operating from A.V. Roe's Malton airfield.

By late September, the squadron had received its full complement of aircrew and "Clunks", allowing training to begin in earnest. The program was carried out in three stages. First, the normal flying practices were stepped up, with emphasis being placed on Airborne Intercept (AI) and Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) exercises to work each crew up as a fighting unit. On the fifteenth of October, the second stage began with a night flying program. The fledgling crews began their third stage of training with gunnery practice at the air-to-ground range at La Baie on 12 November. The latter would become a regular event in the unit's training schedule. The squadron also worked up an air display routine, which was first seen in a special airshow for the Minister of National Defence, along with a group of fifty Senators and Members of Parliament, on 24 November.

The year would not be complete without a grand exercise to test the freshly-sharpened talons of the new unit. NORAD was all too happy to oblige. Early on 5 December, the ringing klaxon announced scramble after scramble, as OPERATION DUST DEVIL I took place. Over two days, 423 Squadron showed its stuff by "killing" seven bombers over fourteen sorties, a very impressive performance for a unit scarcely out of the nest.

Another fine performance was by F/O Thompson on 23 December. While on a local flight in NQ+172, Thompson experienced an engine failure. Successfully landing the big jet, he became the squadron's first pilot to carry out a single engine approach and landing. His crew was one of the ten two-man crews which, along with nine aircraft, made up the squadron strength at the end of 1953.

 

Burnin' Rubber

The new year began quietly enough, with all squadron aircrew attending the High Altitude Indoctrination Course (HAI) in Toronto at the Institute of Aviation Medicine.3 Flying rates continued to rise, and were further boosted when the unit began flying over the first weekend of every month in support of Quebec City's Auxiliary AC & W Squadron,4 starting in February. The end of the month saw the Eagles once again involved in a large-scale exercise, this one being EXERCISE HEATWAVE. In this operation, large numbers of USAF B-47 bombers carried out a simulated attack in the squadron's air defence sector over 18-20 February.

Four weeks later, the squadron would have a chance to redeem itself in another similar exercise. This one, DUST DEVIL II, was originally planned for a forty-eight hour period (20 - 21 March) but was largely cancelled due to poor weather. Still, in the one day phase which did occur, 423 Squadron flew twenty-three hours of interception flights over twenty sorties, and bagged three of the invading bombers.

April Fool's Day is also the birthday of the RCAF, and 423 Squadron received a present that day in 1954. The unit took a dual-seat CF-100 on strength, which allowed pilots to fly with other pilots, making the learning of new skills easier. One pilot was forced to learn new skills in a hurry. F/L Don McNichol had just set down 18170 when both starboard main wheel tires exploded. By the use of some fancy footwork on the rudder pedals, he was able to keep the aircraft on the runway. In another notable event, a crew "burned up the sky" on a flight from Rivers, Manitoba to St. Hubert on the last day of the month, covering the distance in two hours thirty-three minutes, quite a feat in the early Fifties. Two days later, the "burning" continued when an aircraft from 423 Squadron blew out its tires (and burned out its brakes) on an aborted take-off. The squadron historian at the time was kind enough to leave the crew unnamed.

 

Air Show Season

Ground training continued to advance and improve as needs were identified. Once such advancement was in the dissemination of Intelligence at the squadron level. Rather than mass lectures, 423 Squadron aircrew were initiated to a new system where each officer would be channelled through an Intelligence library at the unit every week. "Know Thy Enemy" was to be taken seriously.

In addition to significant training demands, the squadron found itself in air show season with an aircraft that was very much in demand. On 11 May, 423 Squadron put on a "private" air show for the Minister of Defence and his party. On the following day, the Dutch aircraft carrier KAREL DOORMAN arrived in Montreal, to be greeted by a low flypast of 423 Squadron Canucks in tight formation. One week later the squadron began practising for the annual Station Air Force Day, with the performance on 12 June featuring a high-speed low-level pass.

Some of the best shows put on by the squadron were never seen by the viewing public. In the first week of July, the crew of S/L G.J. Zaleschuk and F/O J.M. Arsenault flew from St. Hubert to Argentia, Newfoundland, in what was described as "unofficial record time," averaging a speed of 590 miles per hour. A few days later, the squadron participated in one of the largest detection-interception exercises ever arranged, known as OPERATION CHECKPOINT. The scope of the exercise was huge, encompassing the entire fighter strength of the RCAF's Air Defence Command, and a great deal of the USAF's Strategic Air Command. Over the three days and two nights of 9-11 July, the Eagles of 423 really showed their stuff, "destroying" twenty-four enemy aircraft in twenty-three scrambles, truly an exceptional performance. The squadron ended the month by performing at an air show in Newfoundland.

August held two more air shows for 423 Squadron, one being a four-plane formation flypast for the Royal Navy cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD as it left Montreal on 5 August. With that bit of work out of the way, the squadron prepared to take its show "on the road."

 

OPERATION PRAIRIE PACIFIC

From 12 August to 11 September, the squadron embarked on a public relations project of unparalleled proportions. Known as OPERATION PRAIRIE PACIFIC, the aim was to show Western Canada the front-line interceptors of the RCAF. The aircraft involved included seven Canucks from 423 Squadron, along with six Sabres (from another squadron), and six T-33's, with three C-119 "Flying Boxcars" and a loudhailer-equipped Canso for support. Included in the associated ground crew who accompanied the show were two female technicians, Leading Air Women (LAW's) Susan Soucy and Roddie Koehn. Although many units had female technicians, it was unheard of, in those days, to allow them to accompany deployed aircraft. Some of the aircrew who flew in the displays were: Squadron leader P. Bing; Flying Officers Cole, Pratt, L. Parakin, P.A. Hawkes, E.E. Hesjedahl and E. MacFarlane; and Flight Lieutenants D.W. McNicholl and S. Woolley.

Altogether, the show went to Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver, Portage la Prairie, the Lakehead (near Thunder Bay) and Toronto. The squadron flew a total of 188 hours five minutes, giving their four-plane performance to record-breaking crowds and rave reviews.

The crowds were not as large when four aircraft from the squadron put on a flypast over Molson Stadium in Montreal, a scant week after the return of the PRAIRIE PACIFIC aircraft. Given, however, that the display was to support the annual charity football game for paraplegics, it was well worth the effort.

 

Gains and Losses

423 Squadron gained more aircraft on 21 September, when two T-33 Silver Star types were added to the unit's inventory. The two-seat aircraft would be used for pilot instrument training and liaison flights. On the same day, the Eagles strutted their stuff for a crew from the National Film Board. The fly-by sequences shot were to be featured as clips in several films that the NFB put together over the 1950's.

The beginning of October saw the squadron make gains in the operational field. As of the first of the month, a programme was instituted in which four crews would hold daily stand-by on twenty-four hour readiness.

Misfortune struck the squadron in October. Flying Officers S.J. DesBrisay and P. Hawkes departed on 2 October for a routine flight to Bangor, Maine, in one of the newly-arrived T-33's. At destination, the aircraft crashed, but both aircrew escaped injury. The following day, Expeditor 1526 of the Communications Flight at St. Hubert flew down to Maine to pick the men up. Upon return to St. Hubert with their passengers, this aircraft also crashed, this time killing F/O Hawkes along with one of the pilots of the Expeditor, F/O G.G. Singh. In addition, F/O DesBrisay was seriously burned and another passenger seriously injured. Ironically, Hawkes and DesBrisay survived their own crash, only to fall victim to their relief aircraft.

With the squadron stood down from 20-24 October for runway repairs, S/L L.P.S. Bing took over command of 423 from W/C Lawlor.

Additional acquisitions, in the form of crews and aircraft, ushered in 1955. Two new crews joined 423 in the first week of the year and were followed by Mark IV CF-100s in February. Unfortunately, these gains were accompanied by a number of incidents and more losses.

The first incident, on 7 March, was handled with skill when F/O Howlett managed to "dead-stick" his jet into Dorval airport after a rare dual flame out. On 29 March, however, F/O Armstrong experienced aircraft problems on take-off from St. Hubert and was also forced to land at Dorval. This aircraft was damaged on landing. The very next day, Armstrong undershot the runway at St. Hubert in another CF-100, the undercarriage collapsed, and the aircraft was destroyed by the ensuing fire. Crashes of a T-33 and CF-100 in April and June, respectively, resulted in four fatalities. F/Os Carter and Allen were lost when their T-Bird crashed near Hamilton during an air-to-air firing deployment. S/L Zaleschuk and F/O Arsenault were killed when their CF-100 crashed at La Touque, Quebec. July and August were relatively quiet months but September brought a change of direction with W/C J.H.L. Lecomte, D.F.C. taking the helm of 423 Squadron.

 

Record-breaking Hours

The flying routine during the Fall of 1955 included the air show circuit and CF-100s were featured performers, once again, at the Canadian National Exhibition. Pilots and planes of 423 teamed up with 425 Squadron in October to form a joint formation team. On the twenty-seventh, they impressed the Canadian Preparedness Association at St. Hubert, along with Sabres and Vampires.

A trend toward more flying coincided with the arrival of the new CO. The squadron flew 405 hours in November, twice the normal monthly average, and exceeded W/C Lecomte's 500 hour goal for January. During this time, the squadron participated in OPERATION CRACKERJACK, achieving nine B-47 intercepts over six scrambles. With the addition of "twenty-four and seven" servicing (twenty-four hour a day, seven days a week) and round-the-clock alert crews, 423 was clearly adopting front-line status in the Cold War. 1956 would bring the squadron to the very front.

Early in the year, meanwhile, the unit continued to participate in several routine exercises. Airborne intercept (AI) missions were interspersed among "harlequin" exercises. It is believed that F/O Millar introduced a new type of two-plane hunter-killer system in April. One aircraft flew an identification run on a suspected hostile contact, and if the contact was enemy, the other aircraft on lead collision course would finish the job.

The squadron flew another record-breaking 509 hours in May, most of the time being accumulated through basic training. 423's operational experience for the month was gained in OPERATION PAYDIRT, another set of scrambles against B-47s from England. 423 and 425 Squadrons had been the first all-weather units to be fitted for rockets, but an inadvertent firing incident in May saw the removal of these systems for investigation.

 

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