In 1953, just eight years after the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) became the first air force in the world with jet transport aircraft, the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a jet aircraft and the first operator ever, civilian or military, to offer a scheduled jet-powered passenger service across the Atlantic. The aircraft that made it possible was the breathtakingly beautiful de Havilland Comet 1A, a British design and the first jet airliner in full production. Canadians were at the leading edge of the new jet technology, regularly flying back and forth across the Atlantic a full four years before the first flight of the Boeing 707. Needless to say, the RCAF pilots of 412 Squadron (a Spitfire unit during the Second World War) considered themselves among an elite cadre.
Early in their service with the RCAF, the Comets were taken out of service, following a series of catastrophic inflight breakups of British civilian Comets. It took more than a year at a phenomenal cost to determine the cause of those disasters which claimed the lives of all on board. Never before had designers encountered metal fatigue from pressurizing the cabin over and over again. Tiny cracks appeared in the metal skin, particularly at the corners of the Comet’s rectangular windows, which, over time, caused the skin to fail, resulting in catastrophic depressurization. The Canadian Comet 1As were flown to England in 1956 and rebuilt with thicker skin material and the addition of oval windows. Upon their return to service the next year, they were re-designated Comet 1Xs. These continued to serve the RCAF as VIP flagship transports until 1963, when the two Comets of 412 Squadron were retired from service.
A beautiful shot from 1953 of the newly acquired de Havilland Comet 1A (RCAF serial 5301) in fresh Royal Canadian Air Force “white-top” livery. We can see the rectangular windows which marked the early Comet 1As and which were the Achilles heel of the Comet design. One can only imagine the prestige that would go along with flying such a spectacular aircraft at a time when no other air force in the world had a jet transport. Photo: RCAF
After the Comet’s tragic early problems, the two Canadian Comet 1As were modified at de Havilland in England, returning to Canada as Comet 1Xs. With new oval passenger windows, the Comets looked even more beautiful. Here we see Comet 5302, the second of two Comets of 412 Squadron. In addition to these two flagship aircraft, 412 also operated the DC-3, Canadair CL-5 North Star and, in the last two years of Comet service, the massive Canadair CC-106 Yukon and CC-109 Cosmopolitan. 412 Squadron was then, and is still today, based at Uplands in Ottawa. Photo: RCAF
Shut Out in Shannon – by Major General Bob Fassold
First, a word on the ‘airline-type’ operating procedures we used on the 412 VIP Transport Squadron de Havilland DH106 Comet jetliners. There were five of us in the cockpit; two pilots, a flight engineer (FE), a navigation officer (Nav) and a radio officer (RO). We did missions in full “dress” uniform, meaning tunic and tie. Tunics could be removed in the cockpit but had to be donned to enter an occupied passenger compartment (even just to go aft to the washroom); and hats had to be worn outside the aircraft. Our boarding door was on the port side aft of the wing and all cockpit crew (except the Captain) would board first and complete the pre-start checks while the passengers were boarding and getting seated. The Captain would board last; a ‘flight attendant’ then would close and lock the rear door and when the “door open” warning light in the cockpit went out, engine starting would begin. There was no cabin PA system so the Captain (facing the passengers from the front of the cabin) would give an informal short passenger briefing and by the time he entered the cockpit, removed his tunic and got organized in his seat, the aircraft would be ready to taxi.
We seemed to always have a full passenger load in both directions across the Atlantic and on eastbound crossings we quite often went into Shannon, Ireland for fuel. This commonly was on our twice-weekly “sked” flights to our fighter base at Marville, France, and for a few months we were doing weekly crossings to and from Pisa, Italy for a UN troop rotation (connecting with an RCAF North Star).
For a number of reasons the crew never minded “refuelling” at Shannon, and sometimes elected to do so when the need was at best questionable. The airport never seemed busy at our en-route to Marville early morning hour, and we always received good and fast service. Consequently our stops usually were quite short, even though from where the aircraft was parked for refuelling, the passengers had to walk some distance to and from the terminal. In those days the terminal building was a wooden-frame structure with a rather narrow elongated and well-windowed passenger ‘lounge’ facing the ramp. At one end there was a sort of gloomy closeted alcove with two or three vintage wood and glass telephone booths, so oriented that when using the phone everything was at one’s back and out of sight. Otherwise from that area one could get a partial view of the passenger waiting room, but not even a glimpse of the ramp outside. If making a phone call one could determine re-boarding time only by passengers departing the waiting room … which one couldn’t see!
Anyway, this day we landed for refuelling at Shannon on our way to Marville and on reaching the terminal I proceeded directly to a telephone booth, hoping to connect with an “acquaintance” in London (a British European Airways “crew member”). To my surprise and delight I was successful … and subsequently completely lost track of time in conversation. I suddenly realized this, and interrupted my call to get a view of the waiting room … it was empty! Oh “shucks” thought I … “everyone’s on their way out to the airplane”… so I quickly terminated my call and rushed out to the waiting room. Not a soul in sight anywhere, inside or out as I dashed outside … and discovered the Comet was sitting where parked, but all buttoned up with engines running, chocks removed, no stairs, power unit or anybody in sight. Panic … I was the Captain … and they were leaving without me!
I then spotted a small pickup truck more-or-less heading towards the terminal (possibly from the Comet). I ran out on the ramp sort of jumping up and down and waiving both arms frantically at the driver … quite improper of course … me being an RCAF officer in full uniform, service cap and everything! I guess the driver couldn’t miss seeing my bizarre performance so he headed my way … probably out of curiosity rather than in response to my antics. But he stopped beside me and to his obvious surprise I (uninvited) jumped into the cab shouting “Take me out to the Comet … hurry … I’m the Captain!” And when he hesitated (staring at me incredulously) … “Go, Go, Go!”
So he headed out … but what was I going to do? I couldn’t have the aircraft shut down … that would cause a major delay as we’d have to get the ground power unit, stairs etc., back out … and I couldn’t let the “world” know that a flight (a Comet no less!) of the RCAF’s elite and strict (3 minute tolerance on ramp departures and zero tolerance on arrival times) 412 VIP Transport Squadron was trying to leave without its Captain! No … I was going to have to somehow sneak on board … but how, on a closed up Comet with all engines running? Well another soon learned characteristic of 412 was its expectation that crews would find a way to overcome any difficulty surreptitiously … oops, I mean “quietly”… in fact it was a squadron culture of which we were all proud (secretly).
I instructed the driver to drive up close to the left side of the aircraft … we were coming up from behind so no one on board could see us. The Ghost jet engines on our Comets generated a very unfriendly loud squealing noise at idle power … which of course was even louder closer … and that’s where we were getting. “The engines are running”, yelled the anxious driver as we approached the aircraft. “I know, I know … drive up under the door” I shouted back … and he proceeded to do this in a rather catatonic state, looking up the tailpipes of the two “burning and turning” port engines far too closely. Not a place to be … even in a truck!
Things got worse as I tried to get out of the truck in the jet blast and barely saved my officer’s hat from playing tumbleweed across the tarmac. I fell back into the truck and with both hands worked my hat down tightly on my head to the point where the top of my ears protruded horizontally like little wings and the peak was so close to my nose I could only see forward by tipping my head way back.
From this photograph, one can see how difficult it would be to attempt to enter the rear passenger door of a de Havilland Comet without the aid of a stairway. The door appears to be a full eight feet above the tarmac. With the sailors in this photograph and the design of the hangars, it is likely that this is at Royal Canadian Naval Air Station Shearwater, Nova Scotia. Note the old Canadian ensign on the tail. The Comets went out of service in 1963, while the present day maple leaf flag came into being two years later. Photo: RCAF
A nice shot showing the in-wing intakes for the Comet’s four Rolls-Royce Ghost engines. The Ghost turbojet had a fearsome reputation for an unbearable shriek at idle—standing behind them when they were running while you were trying to balance on the roof of a truck was not advised—for many reasons! Photo: RCAF
I then struggled out of the truck in the deafening noise and jet blast, but with my pant legs flapping and uniform otherwise glued to my body I managed to climb into the truck’s box at the back. A minor achievement because already feeling battered (but with my hat still uncomfortably secure on my head), to even reach the door I was going to have to get up on top of the truck cab … in the jet blast. Being no gymnast and wearing leather-soled black oxfords (well polished in the squadron tradition) this proved to be difficult. Not as difficult, however, as trying to stand up after I did manage to get up there, on my hands and knees! But hey, I was a Comet Captain on 412 Squadron so I soon, but very precariously was on my feet, necessarily facing the engines (feeling like a small tree in a hurricane might feel?). The fuselage and door were somewhere to my right, but of course all I could see from under my hat was my nicely polished shoes.
Shuffling around to the right slowly, with very wobbly balance, I executed a not parade-like right turn to find the fuselage and door very close in front of me … (good driver!) … but with the bottom door sill just above waist height. Whew! But now I could support and balance myself with one hand on the fuselage and pound on the door with my fist, which I did…very hard!
A wide-eyed face appeared in the door’s small porthole-type window, staring down in disbelief (the small truck not being visible) at an apparition suspended in space … like the “Flying Nun” but not smiling sweetly like actress Sally Field always was in the TV series. Head full back trying to look up from under my crammed down hat peak, mouth open (a tendency with the head in that position—try it), I surely looked if not like an alien, a baby bird urging to be fed. Whatever, the door was soon opened … thankfully … but then this was 412 … and I was the Captain!
Not over yet though … due to the height of the door sill I had to hoist myself up and struggling, managed to crawl in on my hands and knees … not the approved entrance for a 412 or any passenger aircraft captain. Then, staggering to my feet, I quickly brushed off and straightened my uniform as best I could, pried the hat off my head (with difficulty) and with no word to the stunned “doorman”, I marched briskly forward up the aisle, eyes front. No passenger briefing (facing them) on this leg! I entered the cockpit trying to regain my composure while doffing my hat and tunic. No comments were exchanged and when I was settled in the left seat the departure proceeded as normal.
Of course the cabin crew thought I was in the cockpit and the cockpit crew thought I was in the cabin. The door had been closed by a cabin crew member after the last visible soul had boarded … not noticing that I wasn’t included. Door light out … start engines … SOP … and that part was all in accordance with 412 procedures … but leaving the captain behind was not, nor was the style of his eventual entrance!
So there I was … and here I am … quite certain that of all the RCAF’s “elite” Comet captains, I’m the only one that the aircraft and crew tried to leave behind! There was no mention of the incident during the remainder of the mission or to my knowledge at any time or anywhere in any manner thereafter. (The seated passengers couldn’t see the door so the only thing they might have been aware of was a delay in moving off … and perhaps a strange acting Captain?) The driver of the pickup truck probably wasn’t backward about regaling his buddies with the story (in the right setting), but Squadron pride and culture seemed to be such that the incident has never been revealed by any involved crewmember … except now of course by me with this article. But I know the carefully selected recipients of this revelation won’t pass it on to anyone!
Two Comet pilots prepare for flight on the ramp at RCAF Station Uplands, Ottawa. The standard seven-person operating crew for the Comet included pilot, co-pilot, engineer, navigator, radio operator and two stewards in the passenger compartment. Photo: RCAF
In the passenger compartment, things were exceptionally roomy, if a little smoky in 1953 and 54. Here we see officers and enlisted men of the RCAF bound for or coming home from service with the Air Divisions in France and Germany in one of the earlier Comet 1As of the RCAF (the rectangular windows tell us this). These were some of the first people to enjoy the benefits of jet-age flying over the Atlantic, as the RCAF was the world’s first air carrier with jetliner service across “the pond”. An RCAF Comet 1A flew non-stop, Goose Bay, Labrador to London, England, on 4 October 1953, in just under 6 hours—a distance of 2,500 miles. Photo: RCAF
P.S. But you know, I’ve come to regard this differently from how I did at the time, when it might have proved to be an embarrassment to the Squadron … and that or even worse to those involved. Surely the innovative manner in which “we” (the driver and I) solved the problem was “remarkable” (maybe even “heroic”), but more important, to the credit and in the best tradition of our beloved 412 (VIP) Transport Squadron … don’t you think??
A gorgeous period photograph of RCAF Comet 5301 in flight over Canada. Photo: RCAF
Close-up of the previous photograph. It was a huge feather in a transport pilot’s cap to be flying one of the RCAF’s Comets. Photo: RCAF
Another nice angle on the Comet. The aircraft was a very photogenic creature, and the Royal Canadian Air Force took plenty of photographs, both in the air and on the ramp. The badge on the fuselage below the pilot’s window is that of 412 Squadron. Photo: RCAF
The Comet had a unique engine layout with her four Ghost engines set tight to the fuselage and embedded in the wings. Photo: RCAF
Comet 5302 parked at the door to the 412 Operations Room at RCAF Station Uplands, Ottawa. Photo: RCAF