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Holy Smoke! - A Casual Wave From Death

 Holy smoke

Photo Illustration by Dave O'Malley

In this excerpt from his new book A Memory of Sky - a Pilot's View of Canada's Century of Flight, Jim Shilliday takes us back to a dark, miserable night near North Luffenham, England where, 55 years ago, his century of flight nearly ended.

A tapered brick smokestack towering 300 feet broke the horizon at Ketton, about three miles off the east end of Runway 26, and was affectionately referred to by returning pilots as the ‘Luffenham Beacon.’ Pilots could see the chimney tip poking out nonchalantly when the ground was hidden by a layer of low-lying cloud. We had compass and radio aids, sure, but the pipe was a friendly, reassuring sight.

Unlike some of their wartime predecessors, our young flyers were getting the time to sharpen their skills. Their official status was "operational" and they were becoming exceptionally good at their job. In the Cold War RCAF, before the all-weather CF-100 Canucks debuted, Sabre jet “jockeys” were expected to fly their day fighters at any time, unintimidated by weather or dark of night. They were scrambled on exercises in rain and low cloud ceiling, sometimes having to divert to some distant Royal Air Force field because they could no longer land back home. They came down from the stars in battle formation, landing in darkness like night fighters.

I had been with 410 Squadron two weeks, fresh from Operational Training Unit at Chatham, New Brunswick. Early Monday evening, Jan.18, 1954, I was being briefed for my fourth flight since arriving by Flight Lieutenant Fern Villeneuve, of 441 (Silver Fox) Squadron, practice interceptions during an official exercise. Before the day was out I had teetered on the edge of that chasm that can open with such stunning abruptness in front of pilots when they extend themselves, so often in conflict with the immutable laws of nature. Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.

Holy smoke

The author, Jim Shilliday, poses with an RCAF Sabre at the OTU in Chatham, New Brunswick. Shortly after he would have his dark night over North Luffenham. Photo via Jim Shilliday.

Holy smoke 2

The author, Jim Shilliday (bottom left) poses with members of his flight at 410 Squadron RCAF in the mid 1950s. The photo was taken at RAF Coltishall during Exercise Dividend - the biggest "atomic" war exercise ever held. Photo via Jim Shilliday

Villeneuve, who would become the first leader of the famous 1960s Golden Hawks Sabre aerobatic team back in Canada, and later have his image on a Canadian theme coin, said we would contact radar control after getting to altitude and do practice interceptions, which amounted to exercise for the radar controller and a test of the eyesight and alertness of the pilot being vectored onto the "enemy." It was 4 or 5 p.m. when I walked out to Number 159. Pre-takeoff check on the mnemonic HHHTPFFGSO: hydraulics, harness, hood, trim, pitot, fuel, flaps, gyros, switches, oxygen.

Leader glanced across, made a circular motion indicating advance throttle to full take-off power. Down the runway, noses up, lift-off, wheels up, flaps up, into the climb flying as one, dirty JP-4 exhaust blasting from our tailpipes, filth, evident only in the Mark Two, that left a black-grey signature line for miles across the sky that, pilots joked, cost three dollars a yard. The two jets gradually faded into the blushing west, diminished not only by distance, but also by gathering clouds piling ever higher and promising a premature twilight.

Holy smoke 4

Jim Shilliday ina tight formation on a photoship near Marville, France - given there were no two seat Sabres, the pilot of the photoship was in fact the photographer. Photo via Jim Shilliday

Holly smoke 5

410 Squadron Sabres in close formation. Tight formation flying was hard work at the best of times. But doing so at night in the clag was extremely difficult - especially if it was your first night flight in a Sabre. Photo via Jim Shilliday

Working with the radar controller, we completed several pilot interceptions on each other, the last proving difficult because the light was fading. I located the switches and turned on the cockpit lights, suddenly realizing that this was my first Sword flight at night. Still a half light at altitude as we headed back to base on radio compass, enough light to outline the sulking cumulonimbus clouds jostling a few thousand feet below, dark ragged pillars seemingly waiting to engulf our puny planes and play catch with them. We started a procedure let-down, 350 knots indicated airspeed, leader on the dials and my eyeballs, pupils dilated, fastened onto his aircraft, now not much more than a silhouette in the thickening murk.

The sudden appearance of a ghostly envelope engulfing leader’s aircraft awed me, a sharply undulating white mist ballooning and contracting over the surface of the lead Sabre— shock waves were piling up, outlined by condensation. We switched to tower frequency for weather. Ceiling 1,000 feet, rain, visibility two miles (Hah!). As we approached Luff, I was sent line-astern. A vast loneliness engulfed me. We had descended into dead night. The red taillight of the Sabre ahead was obscured by rivulets of rain twisting stickily down and across my windscreen, splayed and squashed by the tremendous pressure of the slipstream. I could see now, dimly, the lights of the station and runway approaching ahead and below.

At the break, the lead aircraft entered a steep bank to the right through 180 degrees onto the downwind leg. I followed, dumping undercarriage and 15 degrees of flap. I could see ahead the red light on his tail; below to the right was the line of runway lights. But another glance ahead and the red tail light was gone, swallowed in the clag. I’m no longer formating and my eyes dart to the instrument panel. Up to me now, have to orient to the dials.

Tiny dim-red bulbs illuminated the instruments. They showed clearly which way the numbers and needles were moving. Holy…! No altimeter. How high am I? The altimeter was a black hole, the bulb burnt out. A struggle to mentally adjust. I glanced down at the runway lights in the sodden mess below. What the hell! The line of lights was shortening; only two or three...then there were none.

I sat, engulfed in black, the cockpit interior faintly orange-pink—except for that black hole where the altimeter should be telling me how high above the ground I was. I decided against calling the tower; it was up to me. The plane ahead would bank to the right in a descending turn onto final. Then I heard my leader notify the tower on final, three greens down and locked. Prudent thing would be to continue my downwind leg until there was no danger of turning into the lead aircraft.

Alarm squeezed the throat but was deep-breathed away. Holding direction, maintaining airspeed, but how high? Tried to gauge the altitude by checking changes in airspeed and by watching the vertical speed indicator and the artificial horizon. But the VSI was hard to trust. It was a static pressure instrument subject to lag, and when you started a descent, it registered; but you could move into a climb and, for a few seconds, the VSI needle still registered a descent.

Time. I eased the Sabre around to the right, gently descending (I figured) through a half-circle turn until bound again on a heading of 260 degrees. I couldn’t see anything ahead or below. I flew on, nervously checking instruments and the darkness ahead. My concentration was so intense, I could only mutter, "Final!" to the tower.

A light! A red light! It sifted casually from right to left and was gone. A red flare? The tower telling me to overshoot? Then I froze—that light had not hung enough, did not have the trajectory for a red flare. It had just appeared and gone, like a reflection on the canopy. That’s what it was, a reflection of the red light on the Ketton smokestack about three miles off the east end of the runway. I had just flown past the brick structure, missing it by how many inches? Close enough for the canopy perspex to pick up the reflection and throw it at me while passing by—a casual wave from Death. That light was 200 or 300 feet above ground.

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The 300 foot high smoke stack of the Ketton cement factory was jokingly referred to as the "Luffenham Beacon". However, if it stood between you and a safe touchdown in the dead of night in zero visibility, it was no laughing matter. Photo via Jim Shilliday

Holy smoke 6

An aerial photo of RAF North Luffenham. The 300 foot chimney was a few miles off the end of the main runway - to the left of this photo. Photo via Jim Shilliday

Abruptly, my senses registered new alarm. How can the black below get blacker? It seemed to be vibrating. Even as horror gripped me, my left hand already had slammed the throttle full forward. The engine yowled and as the Sabre labored sluggishly, I picked up the undercarriage, the flaps. The blacker black, the vibrating black, was the ground, the treetops. The plane had been settling right into oblivion. I could sense the menace of a vengeful presence reaching, testing, expectant—eager to rip and devour this insignificant being so smugly intent on being its master.

I flew straight on, knowing the Sabre must be gradually climbing because the VSI was up all the time and my speed wasn’t building much. I eased the throttle back a little, straining to see some approach lights ahead. I was close to complete disorientation when...there they were, those beautiful orange approach lights, advancing out of the rain and mist. Back with the throttle, wheels down, a little flap. Now, there’s the runway, dimly illuminated by one row of lights along the left side. The plane was too high. I chopped the throttle. Really hot—still at 185 knots, about 60 knots too much. The runway was sliding away beneath me and I shoved the aircraft down heavily and braked, released, braked, released, braked...but the heat had built up and, as I turned off the runway and taxied towards the Cougars' apron, the tower told me casually that my main tires were burning. Didn’t really care that much. I was back.

I parked and the handlers snuffed the fires. They were not impressed.

The Engineering Officer told me that, because North Luffenham was a wartime bomber airfield, its runway lights had been constructed to not shine more than necessary as a landmark for enemy night fighters and bombers. They had never been modernized. The lights were capped on top. They were covered on the sides for about 280 degrees, meaning that less than 90 degrees gave out light. The lights on one side shone towards one end of the runway, the other side shone towards the opposite end of the runway. On the break, things would have been better if we had turned left rather than right.

Fifteen minutes night flying is credited in my logbook to that long-ago flight. The most concentrated quarter of an hour of my life, I’m sure. The closest thing yet to the “blind flying” heroes of my boyhood. And too close to being remembered by the locals as “The bloke wot ‘it the chimbley.”

Jim Shilliday is a writer living in Winnipeg. His new book, A Memory of Sky is due out in October. The forward is by Vintage Wings of Canada volunteer BGen Paul Hayes (Ret'd). If you wish to pre-order a copy, please contact Great Plains Publications at

Holy smoke

The front gate at RAF North Luffenham with Canadian Sabres sweeping past on parade. Jim Shilliday is flying one of the aircraft. Photo via Jim Shilliday

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