Back in the Saddle - a Reunion of Man and Aircraft

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“There it is – on the left!” someone cried from behind us.  A wave of excitement swept over the crowd of visitors at the Vintage Wings Open House.  We all turned to the left, and searched the sky for our first glimpse of the Lancaster. Young and old, teenagers and veterans, pilots and history buffs, families with young children, serious airplane enthusiasts and those that were merely curious; we had all gathered together on this glorious September day to experience something special. 

Five miles to the southwest, veteran airline pilots Don Schofield and Andy Dobson sat in the cockpit of the fast-approaching Lancaster.  Today, it was Don’s turn to sit in the left seat and fly this history-making bomber.  Their flight from the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s home base in Hamilton, Ontario had been uneventful.  As they neared Gatineau airport – and the crowd that anxiously awaited them – Don called for more power: “Set 2400 RPM and four pounds.”  Andy manipulated the forest of levers that sprouted from the bottom of the instrument panel.  Carefully, he increased the RPM on the four massive propellers and then inched the throttles forward.  Out on the wings, four Merlin engines instantly responded to the demand for more power – and more speed.  With a smooth push on the control wheel, and a slight touch of trim, Don established the Lanc in a shallow descent – and the giant bomber accelerated even more.

Like an arrow, the Lanc hurtled towards its target, the show-line in front of the crowd.  With a firm twist of the semi-circular control wheel, Don tipped the massive bomber into an elegant left bank.  The Lancaster arced past the crowd, the nostalgic rumble of its Merlin engines proudly announcing its arrival and drawing all heads skyward, to catch a glimpse of living history.  Spontaneous applause swept over the crowd in recognition of this magnificent icon of Canada’s aviation history.  All eyes, some clouded with tears of remembrance and joy, were riveted to the ancient warplane, determined to capture every glorious detail:  the sunlight that sparkled off the highly polished canopy and turrets; the green and brown camouflage on the wings; the sinister black underbelly; and the markings - that proudly proclaimed this warplane’s RCAF heritage.

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The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum's Lancaster arcs past the crowd, the nostalgic rumble of its Merlin engines proudly announcing its arrival and drawing all heads skyward, to catch a glimpse of living history.  Spontaneous applause swept over the crowd in recognition of this magnificent icon of Canada’s aviation history. Photo: Peter Handley

But, the fly-past of a Lancaster is not merely something that you see.  It is something that you feel.  The melodious thunder of the Merlin engines reverberates in your chest.  Their unmistakable sound takes your breath away, makes your heart pound and raises the hair on your arms.   

Most importantly, the fly-past of a Lancaster is a profound and poignant reminder.  It reminds us of the young men, most of them in their early twenties, who flew night after night, through the dangerous, flak-filled skies over Nazi Germany.  It is a reminder of men like Winnipeg native Andrew Mynarski, who disregarded his own safety, and sacrificed his life for the sake of another.  It is a reminder of men who quietly did their duty; men who served and sacrificed, often with little or no recognition; men like Bob “Mac” MacDonell.

Eighty-five year old Cornwall resident Bob MacDonell stood on the grass next to the taxiway.  His family and friends surrounded him as he gazed upwards at the Lancaster, with tear-filled eyes.  Bob had not flown a Lancaster for sixty-three years. But today, this special guest of Vintage Wings would be reunited with his wartime mount. 

Bob MacDonell has generously given his wartime logbook and several photos to Vintage Wings for us to display.  The yellowed pages of Bob’s logbook and his other mementos record his wartime service in the RCAF; a journey that began in 1941, when a seventeen-year old boy from small-town Ontario, who was “looking for adventure” enlisted.  Bob’s wartime service included contributions to both the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) and to Bomber Command’s offensive against Nazi Germany – where he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Bob took his first steps towards becoming a pilot on Fleet Finches at No. 21 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) in Chatham, New Brunswick.  Bob’s first solo – which remains very memorable for him - was on a ski-equipped Finch.  From there, it was on to Harvards at No 2 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Uplands (Ottawa). 

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Left: A young Bob MacDonell steps onto the wing of a Fleet Finch at No. 21 Elementary Flying Training School, Chatham, New Brunswick in 1941. Right: Wearing a similar winter flight suit, Bob strikes a determined pose. Photo: MacDonell Family Archive

The elation of graduation – and the relief of finally completing the challenging training program - was followed by bitter disappointment.  Bob was not posted overseas to realize his dream of flying fighters.  Instead, he was seconded to Canadian Pacific Airlines and posted to several training units in western Canada. Bob flew a wide variety of types including the Fairey Battle, Lysander, Tiger Moth, Fleet Fort, Norseman and Anson.  In this role, he helped navigators, bomb aimers, air gunners and wireless operators to learn their vital trades.  While he loved the flying and credits his BCATP experience with helping him to perfect his flying skills, Bob was very frustrated.  He desperately longed to be posted overseas so he could get into the fight that was consuming so many of his comrades.

Throughout the war, Bomber Command suffered tremendous losses.  Over 55,000 aircrew – including more than 10,000 Canadians – lost their lives in the brutal air offensive against Germany.  During 1943-44 Bomber Command’s losses were particularly heavy, resulting in a need for new aircrews.  Bob’s many requests for transfer were finally answered, and the twenty-year-old received the orders he had longed for.  He was finally being sent overseas to fly bombers; he was finally going to have his chance.

Bob arrived in England in April, 1944.  Britain had been at war for five years. Bob was struck by the poor living conditions – and vividly recalls the scarcity of good food.  He greatly admired the British people “who had endured so much and were still determined to carry on”.  Bob quickly made many good friends in England, some of whom he still corresponds with today.

Although he was already a very experienced pilot when he arrived overseas, Bob needed further training before he could fly “on ops” (operational flights against the enemy).  Bob received advanced training on Airspeed Oxfords at RAF Little Rissington. From there it was on to operational training with Wellingtons at RAF Market Harborough and Stirlings at RAF Winthorpe.  Finally, Bob moved on to RAF Syerston to complete his bomber training with No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School (LFS). With just 15 hours on the Lanc, Bob was posted to 9 Squadron, based at RAF Bardney.

9 Squadron has a special place in the history of the RAF.  Along with the more famous 617 “Dambuster” Squadron, 9 Squadron was an elite unit which carried out special operations – including raids with “Tall Boy” bombs. Bob flew several missions with these enormous weapons, which were both devastating to the enemy – and also very dangerous for the crews that carried them.  The targets attacked by Bob and his squadron mates were some of the most valued assets of the Third Reich; they were also some of the most heavily defended. Tall Boy missions were flown during daylight hours which made the Lancasters even more susceptible to flak and enemy fighters.

The Tall Boy was an “earthquake bomb” that was specially designed to destroy hardened structures such as submarine pens. It was developed by Barnes Wallis – who also invented the special bouncing bombs used during the Dambuster raids.  The Lancasters that carried the 12,000 pound Tall Boys had to be specially adapted.  Armour plating and defensive armament were removed and the bomb-bay doors were modified to accommodate the large bomb - which protruded from the belly of the aircraft and hung perilously close to the runway.  

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A Tall Boy on its way to a target in Europe. This powerful and single-purpose weapon was designed by Barnes Wallis, who was made famous by his other invention - the Bouncing Bomb of Dambusters fame. When dropped from a high altitude, the streamlined shape of the Tall Boy caused it to accelerate to a terminal velocity that exceeded the speed of sound.  Like the V2 rocket, the sound of the Tall Boy’s fall was heard after the sound of the detonation.  The bomb’s fins were given a slight twist so that it would spiral as it fell - the gyroscopic effect improved the aerodynamics and accuracy.  The bomb casings of Tall Boy bombs were cast in one piece high tensile steel, so they could penetrate the ground or hardened targets before detonating.  When dropped from 20,000 ft the “Tall Boy” made a crater 80 feet deep and 100 feet across and could go through 16 ft of concrete.  Photo via Nanton Lancaster Society Air Museum

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Long after the war in the 1970s, Bob poses alongside a Tall Boy bomb.  The bombs were extremely expensive to manufacture and so top secret that crews were instructed to return with their load if the target could not be acquired. Given the power of the Tall Boy, it's no wonder that the crews were not too happy to land while still carrying one.

Like many of his generation, Bob never talked very much about his wartime experiences during the decades that followed the war.  But in recent years, with much coaxing, he has finally shared his stories with family and friends who were very grateful to hear them.  The details are riveting…  On one mission, Bob’s crew was attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 which knocked out two engines and shot off a sizeable chunk of one wing. On a daylight attack on a bridge spanning the Rhine, Bob and his crew encountered severe flak and fighter defences - including Germany’s new twin-engine jet fighter, the Me-262.   Tall Boys were expensive and difficult to manufacture, so crews were under strict orders to bring them home if a mission could not be completed. One of Bob’s least favourite memories was an intended attack with a Tall Boy on the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.  The target was obscured by cloud, and Bob had to land with one of these enormous, high explosive bombs dangling beneath his Lanc.  He will never forget how he and the crew anxiously held their breath during that touchdown.  In acknowledgement of his service with 9 Squadron, Bob was presented with a Distinguished Flying Cross.   

The deadly skies of Nazi Germany and occupied Europe are now many decades behind Bob MacDonell.  The searchlights that pierced the cold night sky in their merciless hunt for allied bombers have long been dimmed.  The cruel flak and lethal fighters that once hunted Bob and his crew, are now gone.  But he still vividly recalls the sight of the fighters’ tracers; the arcing curve of flak reaching upwards for his aircraft and the pungent smell of cordite. 

Bob fondly remembers Lonesome Lola?, the aircraft that faithfully carried his crew to war.  By the end of the war this veteran Lancaster had flown no fewer than 97 operations. 

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The nose of Lonesome Lola? was adorned with a luscious blonde figure.  Lanacaster L - Lola was a true combat veteran as indicated by her bombing mission marks. Inset, P/O Mike Chorny, MacDonell's navigator and a fellow Canadian, poses with Lonsome Lola?. Photos: MacDonell Family Archive

The composition of Bob’s crew reflected the combined efforts of the commonwealth countries to fight Nazi oppression.  Bob and his navigator Mike Chorney were Canadians.  Wireless operator Wally Plan was Australian.  Bomb Aimer Tony Fricker, Flight Engineer Dirk Philps, and mid upper gunner Barney Davis  and rear gunner Norman Green were Brits.  During practice bombing, Bob’s crew achieved a remarkable record of success, being credited with a bombing accuracy equivalent to 21 yards from 20,000 ft.  The war forged strong friendships and lifelong bonds, with several crew reunions after the war.  Sadly, Bob is now the last surviving crew member of his crew.  His wartime comrades have passed; the victims of time’s relentless pursuit.  But the memories of Bob’s crew – and our enduring respect for their service and sacrifice - live on.

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Bob MacDonell, would not consider a story on his experiences during the war without mention and a photo of his whole crew. Bob is the only living survivor of the seven-man crew. Photos: MacDonell Family Archive

On that glorious summer day, at the Vintage Wings Open House last September, Bob was once again reunited with his wartime mount; reunited with the memories of joy, triumph and heartbreak that define his youth.  Sixty-three years after his last flight in the Lancaster, Bob was given a special tour of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Lancaster.  As his admiring family and friends looked on, Bob jubilantly climbed the ladder and disappeared through the crew hatch.  He crouched as he steadily climbed forward in the constricted fuselage.  With a dexterity belying his age, he clambered over the main spar and entered the cockpit; returning once again, to what had once been his wartime office.

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As his admiring family and friends looked on, Bob jubilantly climbs the ladder to the Lancaster’s crew hatch. Photo:  Charles Dumaresq

From down below, on the airport ramp, Bob’s family and friends could see him beaming in the cockpit.  We cheered and applauded as this veteran pilot leaned jauntily out of the cockpit and gave a brisk thumbs-up.  As we looked up at him, we all tried to freeze this wonderful moment in our memories.  We furiously snapped photos, determined to capture and preserve this splendid event.

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Bob shares Lancaster stories with CWHM's Craig Brookhouse, a member of the CWHM Lancaster crew. Photo: Charles Dumaresq

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Back in the day, Bob's Bomb Aimer, P/O Tony Fricker would have the best seat in the house. Today, a more peaceful scene can be enjoyed by those lucky enough to get a ride.   Photo:  Charles Dumaresq

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During the war, this is the scene Bob MacDonell would have encountered on his way to a daylight bombing target.

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The same view today shows the ramp during the Vintage Wings of Canada Open House. Photo:  Charles Dumaresq

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Hands go immediately to the yoke, eyes turn steely and at the same time wistful. Bob thinks of all those friends all those years ago. Photo:  Charles Dumaresq

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Looking as though he could start the Lancaster up  and get airborne. Photo:  Charles Dumaresq

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Bob and a fellow Lancaster veteran stand in the cockpit looking like they belong there - at ease, proud and perhaps a little sorrowful for all the terrible waste of the war that saw so many of their friends die. Photo:  Charles Dumaresq

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Bob McDonell beams from the Lancaster’s cockpit.  His family and friends cheered and applauded as this veteran pilot once again jauntily leaned out of the cockpit and gave wave - something he would have done countless times to groundcrew as he started each operation during the war. Photo: Rob Kostecka

With his tour of the cockpit complete, Bob made his way back through the fuselage to the crew hatch, as he had many times before.  Sixty-three years ago, after completing many missions over Germany, Bob made this slow trek with feelings of intense fatigue, immense relief and sometimes profound sadness.  Today, the delight on his face showed that Bob felt the appreciation, respect and admiration of all of us, who remembered.  He paused, peering through the open hatch, as the throng of family, friends and admirers applauded, cheered and furiously snapped photos.

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With the delight on his face evident, Bob peered from the open hatch at the end of his tour, as the throng of family, friends and admirers applauded, cheered and furiously snapped photos.  Photo: Rob Kostecka

Standing under the wing of the Lanc, Bob met eight other veterans who were being given the same opportunity to tour the Lancaster.  These included several Lanc pilots and wartime navigators, one pilot who flew Wellington bombers, and a member of the Resistance (who was in the occupied Channel Islands). They were all delighted to meet each other.  In a scene that was undoubtedly played out many times during the war, the veterans excitedly talked about their experiences.  It was wonderful to see these old warriors enjoying this day and reliving their youth.  We smiled when we heard them conclude that they needed to continue their discussion – over some beer!

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Nine veteran Lancaster crewmen visited the Lancaster during the September Open House.  Bob MacDoonell stands fourth from right. Photo: Rob Kostecka

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Bob and his family pose for Kostecka's camera with a fellow Lanc pilot and the crew of the CWHM Lancaster..  Photo: Rob Kostecka

That night, Bob MacDonell and his family, as well as some of the other veterans and their families, joined the folks from Vintage Wings at the RCAF Officers’ Mess in downtown Ottawa.  During the evening, there were a few brief speeches.  There were moments of thoughtful reflection and a poignant toast that recalled “the Few”.  But this was mainly a night of relaxation and enjoyment.  Old memories were rekindled and new memories were made.  Cold beer flowed and stories were told.  Off in the corner, the pool table was the scene of several high-spirited rounds of “Crud” (a traditional Air Force game which can best be described as combination of snooker and rugby).  Happy laughter and warm friendship filled the room.  Bob MacDonell and our other special guests delighted in all of it.

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Rekindling old memories and making new ones…  Bob MacDonell and his wife Norma at the RCAF Officers’ Mess.  Once again they are guests at a Squadron party! Photo: Rob Kostecka

The haze of blue-grey cigarette smoke that typified wartime parties was missing.  But in many other ways, this joyful get together was reminiscent of the Squadron parties where Bob MacDonell and the other veterans celebrated their triumphs and tried to forget their tragedies.  For these veterans – and for those of us given the incredible opportunity of expressing our gratitude and appreciation to them - it was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Vintage Wings of Canada expresses our sincere appreciation to the Canadian Warplane Heritage for their generous assistance in making this event possible for our veterans.

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