Over the past year and half of Vintage News stories, there has been much research to verify facts and find images that help tell the remarkable stories of Canada's aviators. Throughout that time, I have come across many spectacular images which, though beautiful, have no bearing on the story being researched. For many months, I simply viewed these images on line and then moved on with my quest for illustrative photos.
About a year ago I came across a photo of two US Navy Douglas Dauntless dive bombers flying through some pretty dramatic cumulus and I simply could not pass it by. I dragged it into a new file folder and I called it “Random Beauty”. After that, if I came across other aviation photos that struck a chord, regardless of whether they related to our stories, I dropped it in this miscellaneous file. At first I had no idea what I would do with these photos other than just collect them. The file grew to more than 100 photos of aircraft, aviators, aircraft manufacturing and aviation miscellany.
The images range from the dramatically sublime, to the poignantly voyeuristic, to the almost artistic to the just plain quirky. Critical mass was achieved earlier this year, and I knew that these photos should be shared even though they do not necessarily jive with our goal to promote Canadian aviation history. If for no other reason than that they paint a dramatic landscape of the beauty, the violence and the determination of military aviation, we present them here.
Most photos in this first group are from the Second World War since they were found during photo searches for that period, but a couple are not. It will be our goal to do one of these Random Beauty pieces at least once a year. Enough blather, let's let the photos tell a story.
Not since some of the flying shots in Catch-22, have I seen such a revealing image of the tight confines of one of America’s medium bombers. Here one of my favourite aircraft of the era, a Martin B-26 Marauder, closes in tight to the photographer, while members of the crew get a real close look - and I mean real close! Given the quality of the lenses back in the 1940s, this was probably a lot closer than it looks. The mid-upper gunner cranes his neck between the pilots (who look like twin brothers), while the bombardier in the nose blister hauls nonchalantly on a fag. It’s a surprisingly intimate photo of men at work in a flying world where we almost always see only the aircraft.
I found this photo in a couple of places on the internet including the collection of Steve Donacik on flickr.com. Steve’s collection amounts to one of the best of Second World War imagery out there and eventually Random Beauty contained about ten photos from his group. USAAF photo via Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik
A Royal Air Force Avro Shackleton sails across the North Sea bound for home. The silver disc of a full moon illuminates a metallic sea and a meadow of high cloud. I can’t be sure that this isn’t a stopped-down daylight photo, but regardless, its beauty took my breath away.
In the Random Beauty file, there are many photos with similar themes. Here are two images showing the wakes and contrails from a large formation of bombers streaming to the Fatherland. The one above caught my eye because of its simple geometric beauty. A single Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress thunders toward the war through a sky thick with the sun-lit “cons” of other Forts just a few hundred yards deeper into the stream of bombers. German fighters used a technique of flying up these contrails from behind, hiding in the blossoming white wakes of the bomber stream and surprising tail gunners. Photo via Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik
Judging by the dark curve at the bottom of this photograph, it was shot upwards through the perspex blister known as the astro-dome or perhaps a mid-upper gun turret. The lowering light of a setting sun backlights not only the exhaust contrails from these two B-17s, but also the propeller vortices as they churn their way through some pretty moist air at altitude. Photo via Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik
A formation of A-20 Havoc bombers of the USAAF catch the glint of the sun as they go “feet wet” on their way across the English Channel. Photo via Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik
A Blackburn Buccaneer jet fighter from 801 Squadron, Royal Navy lines up perfectly with the angled deck centreline of HMS Victorious in 1964. The main screws churn up a frothing wake as Victorious makes full steam into the wind, The photo conveys the feeling of imminent chaos as the whistling jet crashes headlong onto the deck, oleos banging, tailhook smashing and scraping, engines throttling up fast to full afterburn, and the whip slash of steel cable playing out across the steel deck, steam pistons banging. Beautiful.
While researching images for our P-40 stories over the past year I came across a massive collection of marvelous wartime photos - mostly of P-40s collected by Steve Reno. This P-40 pilot is risking his life only a little less than the man taking the photo of this ridiculously low level pass across the runway. He’s not much higher than he would be if he was standing on his landing gear! If you trace the invisible line of his prop arc, this skilled numbskull’s tips are only about 4 feet off the ground. Photo via Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik
Over the past year, we have watched the three Harvards of the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team practicing formation flying with the Vintage Wings Harvard in the skies over Ottawa and Gatineau. This was a very common sight in Ottawa skies during the Second World War and even up until the early 60s. Here four Harvards from No.2 Service Flying Training School form a loose group over Ottawa Valley farmland in the 1940s. Nothing has changed, but the formation flying skills of the four pilots. DND Photo
In another photo in the flickr.com photo collection of Hawk914, a P-40 flies down the beach at extreme low level as Marines practice an amphibious landing somewhere in the Pacific. In order to get this photo, the photographer standing on the beach would have had to have his back to the oncoming P-40 trusting that pilot would do a “buzz job” of the beach and not his hair. Photo via Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik
Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers thunder towards their target on the Japanese mainland. I like this image for its thrashing and flailing propellers and the closeness of the formation - there seems an air of purpose and determination and certainly hell to pay.
Four Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair fighters set up a nice little photo op in front of the carrier USS Boxer. The Essex Class carrier Boxer far below has two Grumman Panther or Cougar jet aircraft at the catapults and a squadron of Corsairs on her aft deck. This was probably during or around the Korean War years right at the last days of the Corsair’s front line service. Jets like the Grumman “Cats” would soon push the Corsairs out to pasture with reserve units and eventually to the scrap yards. I love the fact that all four Corsairs are tight together but none are overlapping in the photo.
While steaming with HMS Formidable during the Second World War, HMS Warspite launches a Walrus from her catapult station.The photographer has caught the launch at the point where the Walrus has just left the rails and though still technically aboard the battleship, is indeed now on her mission to reconnoitre ahead of the task force looking for submarines. There must have been a pretty decent crosswind coming down the side of the big ship at all times. Royal Navy Photo
A Douglas C-47 (DC-3) flies low over burnished water along the Italian coastline, silhouetted by the sun. I liked the fact that the sun shines right through the “Dakota” as she picks her way through the islands. Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik
Nothing is more revealing about the enormous risks undertaken by Allied airmen in the Second World War than images of bombers at the moment of their death. Here an A-20 is turned into a flying blowtorch in her own slipstream after taking a direct hit. Perhaps this is somewhat voyeuristic, but there can be no avoiding images such as this that portray the terrible costs. It is the only way we can fully grasp the enormity of their sacrifice. It would be a stretch to call this photo beautiful, but it is indeed powerful. Photo via Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik
A Consolidated B-24 Liberator chases its own shadow across Europe following an “Iron Compass”. Here we see the skills and comfort level of Allied pilots at the end of the war as they cruise their massive and unwieldy strategic bomber low across the countryside.
An Avenger pilot staggers across the deck of a “baby flattop” as she rolls wildly. Naval pilots were known to launch into such weather if the target was important enough. US Navy Photo
A beautiful silhouette study of a P-40 in the setting sun. Photo via Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik
My identification skills proved inadequate to identify what this was. Looking more like some sort of space craft than a Second World War Royal Navy torpedo/dive bomber, this is actually a Fairey Barracuda with wings folded for hangar stowage. Photo via Colin Davidson
One of the greatest war photographers of all during the Second World War was Luxembourg-born Edward Steichen who headed the Naval Photographic Institute during the war. His portrayal of US naval operations in the South Pacific theatre is stunning in its beauty and power. One of my favourite photos of his is this group of Grumman Hellcat drivers celebrating aboard USS Lexington after a successful fighter sweep in support of the Marine landings at Tarawa. They have reason to smile – they shot down 17 of 20 Japanese aircraft heading for the island.
The word Kamikaze conjures up images of honour, bushido, desperation and poignancy on the side of the Japanese and unmitigated threat for the Allied warships of the Pacific Theatre in the waning months of the war. No photo I have ever seen demonstrated the slashing violence of these desperate attacks than this famous image of a Japanese fighter in the last millisecond before exploding into USS Sangamon. US Navy Photo
One last image of a B-24 Liberator, flaming and rolling right, out of formation. It seems that this was caught by a crewmember at the waist gun just as she dies. You can almost hear the cries of “Get out! Get out!” over the radios. It makes one shudder to think of what the members of the crew in the photo ship thought at this time and how they were able to go up again the next day.
Anti-aircraft tracer rounds create an artistic display in the night sky in this time exposure during an attack on the North African coast.
VJ-Day, the formal surrender date with Japan, officially marking the end of the Second World War was Septmber 2nd 1945. Here a lone USAAF officer (George White) photographs himself on a beach in Manila when warships in the harbour let loose with flares in an impromtu display of fireworks. Photo by George White via his daughter Marion (Fizzx)