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Me and the "B"... Bob Fassold and the B-25

 Me & the B

A classic warbird not in the VWC collection (yet?) is the B-25 "Mitchell". It served impressively in more theatres of war than any other aircraft in WWII. Not only was it flown by RCAF pilots during the war (in RAF units), but it also served in the RCAF in a variety of roles for almost two decades afterwards – few realize how actively or extensively, especially in Training Command, where I first met it. At one time we had well over 100 scattered throughout the RCAF, coast-to-coast, and I alone flew more than 60 different airframes.

It's fast, had good to long range, can carry at least eight souls, considerable cargo (in the bomb bay), and has excellent shortfield capabilities. To me at least, it's an attractively no-nonsense bird by sight and sound, and a thrill to fly…it's a pilot's airplane. It early on became and remained my favourite RCAF aircraft; the one I probably flew the most for the longest consecutive period (in a variety of roles) and that determinedly pulled us through a number of sticky situations. In fact, the B-25 (we just called it the "Mitchell") significantly changed the course of my life…it really did. But how could that be? Well… I joined the RCAF as a pilot on a Short Short Service Commission, sponsored by 420 Auxiliary Squadron in London, Ontario – to fly the P-51 Mustang with which it was then equipped. The deal with the SSSC was that if sponsored by a reserve squadron you could do pilot training in the regular force to wings standard and then return to civilian life with no obligation except to fly with the sponsoring reserve unit. My plan was to be an airline pilot, so I was hoping to get multi-engine AFS (Advanced Flying School) and my "wings" on the B-25, rather than fighter AFS on the T-Bird. It should be much easier, I figured, to get my Airline Transport Pilot Licence with 150 hours or more on the former, than with 80 hours or so on the latter.

I started my flying training on the Harvard at #2FTS (Flying Training School) at Moose Jaw, but before that, while still at Pre-Flight School at Centralia, the 420 Sqn Mustangs were retired and replaced with T-33s. And then, before I completed FTS, the Squadron was disbanded! It seemed now I could get my RCAF wings and leave the service with no obligations whatever.

I really enjoyed FTS and apparently had no difficulties with the Harvard. But we had done everything you could do with it – day and night circuits, stalls, spins, aeros, formations, tail chases, day nav trips including low level at 50', night navs – and I must confess, I wasn't pining to continue our relationship. Really, and with all due respect, it was a bit like flying a bathtub. To me the Harvard just never seemed to really enjoy anything you did with it – actually, I don't think it was cut out to be an airplane.

But the B-25 Mitchell, now that's a different story! As I got close to one for the first time at #1AFS at Saskatoon, I was first awestruck, then intimidated and then excited, in rapid succession…it was perfect… love a first sight!

For those not familiar with the B-25, there's tons of stuff on the web. But a bit on the interior layout may give a sense of our working environment. It was a heavily armed medium bomber and accessibility and comfort were not design priorities. Entrance is by belly hatches, one forward of the bomb bay to the cockpit and nose compartment and one aft to the waist and tail of the aircraft. The forward hatch accesses what was quite descriptively called "the well", the darkest, most confined and noisiest place in the aircraft. A transverse bench seat against the front of the bomb bay accommodated at least two. The back of the aircraft is accessible from the well (and vice versa), but you have to crawl the full length of the bomb bay through a small tunnel on top. The cockpit floor is elevated above a crawlway to the nose compartment and you climb up and into the cockpit from the well. Once in though, it is roomy enough and quite comfortable. With glass all around and on top, it's bright and the visibility is excellent.

In addition to completing training for pipeline pilots, the AFS provided multi-engine conversions for qualified pilots. So it was very active with an interesting mix of pilots flying with an instructor or flying "mutual" with another student. At the beginning we did 3-hour training sessions with an instructor and two students, usually twice a day. Each student would spend 1.5 hours in the left seat with the other listening and observing from the well.

The B-25 and I really connected, right from the start. To me it just oozed determination and purpose, always seemed to know exactly what it was doing and why, but clearly expected the same from the pilot. The union was exciting and rewarding…mutually it seemed. So…standby now…here's how it first affected my life: I loved it so much that I decided to stay in the RCAF…so I joined the permanent force before completion of AFS. No airline job and pretty stewardesses, for me…I had the B-25!

Me & the B

As testimony to our compatibility, I graduated top in my course and the AFS apparently was so impressed with our performance together that I was selected to be a VIP pilot at 412 (VIP) Transport Squadron in Ottawa.

OK…I'll confess…I had no competitive course mates at AFS…mine was a course of one…me! So I suppose you could just as well say that I graduated at the bottom of my class…but that wouldn't be very nice. Besides, Base Saskatoon laid on a "Wings Parade" just for one person…lonely me. I don't think they would do that if I were at the bottom of my class…would they?

But one needed a minimum of 1500 hours (I think it was) as "captain" to go to 412, so I was posted to #2AOS (Air Observer School) at Winnipeg as a staff pilot to accumulate the required hours as quickly as possible. Usually just called "nav school", it was comprised of Basic, AI (Airborne Interception) and LR (Long Range) sections, utilizing the Beech 18 Expeditor, B-25 Mitchell and DC-3 Dakota respectively – each fitted with appropriate consoles in the cabin. New staff pilots started on the Expeditor, flying it solo with a nav instructor and 2 or 3 students in the back, and then "graduated" to either the Mitchell or the Dak. Operationally, AI was really the lead unit on the base, and because of school requirements and my currency on the Mitchell, I found myself flying it sooner than normal…which of course suited me just fine…it was really hard to "love" the Expeditor!

Me & the B

In AI we were training CF-100 "backseaters" for airborne radar intercepts. A number of the Mitchells were modified with radar noses and were designated as "fighters", and those without as "targets". The missions for paired aircraft would be 3 hours on location with an AI instructor and 3 students in the back, each student receiving one hour of instruction/practice. The fighter captain would fly the first student, the copilot the second (from the right seat) and the captain again the third. If the weather was questionable (often) the target of one pair would take-off early for an airborne weather check for all the schools. If it appeared marginal for AI work (good visibility required) it would proceed to one of the designated training quadrants for an on-site check. If OK it would hold there until joined by the fighter for the training session. If not, it might check out another quadrant or return to base depending on the prospects. Although we preferred flying fighters to targets, we did like doing the weather checks because it meant extra time in the air.

Unlike the LR and often the Basic training flights, that were usually quite boring for the pilots, the AI work never was! Avoiding midair collisions on student intercepts kept the pilots of both the fighter and the target very alert at all times, and especially when the training had progressed to LCCs (Lead Collision Courses). So we never received a rocket, as did the LR pilots, warning that the student (who in the Dak brought heading changes to the cockpit on a slip of paper) was not to find both pilots fast asleep!

We AI pilots were an especially "spirited" group…thoroughly enjoying ourselves…due of course to the character of the B-25. This was demonstrated in various ways, sometimes with unforeseen results. One such happened to one of our most popular pilots, who ejected the cockpit's overhead escape hatch…in flight! Not due to exuberance however, but a need to get to the "pee tube" provided in the well. We wore backpack parachutes, he was tall, and in exiting his seat the parachute snagged the release lever for the hatch, and away it went, luckily not hitting the aircraft. But it was the middle of a very cold Winnipeg winter; a priority recovery was required and conducted without incident. So…what's the connection? Well…on the long taxi back to the AI flight, the "offending" pilot elected to stand on the seat, sticking well out of the top of the hatchless cockpit, gesturing to everyone and everything in sight in the manner of Royalty on a state visit…to the amusement of the B-25 crew, but apparently not to all. While there were no repercussions for losing the hatch (never found), the pilot was severely chastised for his "unseemly" behaviour on the taxi in…one can only hope, with tongue-in-cheek!

We seemed to be flying all the time, but without complaint. The student load was heavy then, we also were required to do regular local training flights – and a long range cross-country on at least one weekend each month. We could go wherever we wanted, except to the USA, but our planned destinations and scheduled stops were to be at RCAF bases with accommodation and fuel available; little limitation then as there were lots of RCAF bases. You departed Friday afternoon and came back on Sunday. The B-25 cruised easily at 200K and had about 6.5 hours of fuel, so bases on either the west or east coasts of Canada were common destinations. We nearly always had passengers because base personnel would regularly check with the AI flight to see what was going where…and frequently made requests. Requests were welcomed because we did so many "weekenders" that often neither pilot had any place left that they wanted to go to (again) …and you were not allowed to "decline" your monthly trip! As might be expected in flying such distances from our home base, incidents occurred (rarely reported). And especially in winter, nasty weather conditions were often encountered, sometimes getting us into a real "pickle" (rarely reported). But with the nature and the amount of flying we did (no autopilots… hands-on every minute), we could hardly be more proficient or current on the aircraft, and very challenging flights were undertaken routinely and confidently. We accumulated "real" flying hours probably more rapidly than in any other RCAF flying job of the day. In little more than a year I had well over the minimum required for VIP flying and at the two year point was posted to 412(VIP) Transport Squadron at Uplands (Ottawa)…just as planned…quite amazing!

Me & the B

At that time the 412 fleet included a gaggle of VIP Daks, two VIP B-25s, two de Havilland Comets and the unique Canadair C-5, the "Queen's airplane". While I was on the squadron the Cosmopolitans (turboprop Convairs) arrived, and later two VIP Yukons. All 412 pilots first became "restricted captain" (meaning for passengers below one-star or equivalent rank), and then were upgraded to unrestricted "VIP captain". All remained qualified on and flew operationally at least two types of aircraft. The Dak was the basic and initial aircraft, so I was sent immediately to the Dakota OTU (Operational Training Unit) at Trenton. On completion I flew the Dak operationally at 412, but soon was flying the Mitchell…and in an unusual utilization of the aircraft.

Highly polished, spic and span Mitchells 5248 and 5220 were equipped with the latest in avionics, and the rear was quite nicely appointed as a VIP passenger compartment. They both had a fuselage tank (always kept full) installed in the top portion of the bomb bay giving us a total of 8.5 hours of fuel. Below that in the bomb bay was a large cage for cargo or luggage. This could be lowered and hoisted to and from the ground for loading and unloading. A priority role for the squadron's Mitchells was their use by "Air Members" at RCAF Headquarters for duty travel. What that meant was Air Commodores and above who had pilot wings, could, if they wished (almost all did), fly the aircraft from the left seat on such trips. Accompanying personnel, if any, would travel in the passenger compartment.

Me & the B

The once “highly polished, spic and span” RCAF Mitchell 5248 of 412 squadron VIP flight fame still flies the skies, but in an alltogether less dignified livery. Restored and flying as “Sunday Punch”, to honour a famous B-25 of the USAAF. Photo: Jack Snell

We never knew if an Air Member was or had been qualified on the B-25, however some were quite good, knew their limits (sort of) and were popular with us. The squadron crew included two pilots and at least one crewman. The captain would be in the right seat trying to ensure the proper and safe operation of the aircraft and conduct of the flight. The other pilot (available to replace the VIP in the left seat if required) and the crewman would be in the well. Many if not most of our Air Member missions were to the USA, often to American military bases, but often not. In fact, Washington, DC was one of our commonest destinations, usually Washington National Airport.

Air Member flights were always interesting and usually enjoyably challenging for the captain. Often the VIP would voluntarily turn the left seat over to the FO (First Officer) for landings at high-density airports or in IFR conditions, but sometimes a switch had to be requested by the captain. Of course as junior officers we were reluctant to do so, and often didn't when we probably should have. On the other hand, we became quite used to having to do everything ourselves from the right seat. Also, changing seats in flight was not that easily or quickly done, and situations could develop or worsen too fast for such action. As you might expect, this feature of the operation could lead to "interesting" occurrences, some quite amusing, and some not.

We were a small and closely-knit group on the two VIP Mitchells and were devastated when 5220 was lost with all six souls on board. It was on a typical Air Member mission one night from Ottawa to Truax AFB, Wisconsin, when an engine failed near Milwaukee. Engine failures were very rare in the B-25, single-engine performance normally very good, and Milwaukee had a good airport for recovery. But tragically, through a series of bizarre happenings, it ended in an unsurvivable crash in Lake Michigan, just off the Milwaukee airport that ironically was named "Mitchell Field". It was a sad time for the whole squadron.

The aircraft was not replaced and we carried on the Air Member role with 5248 for only about another six months. Appropriately, her last operational flight in the RCAF was an Air Member mission, which we shared. Mitchell 5248 was then retired from the squadron and soon after from the RCAF. Luckily I went on the Comets, and that turned out to be the highlight of my whole flying career. But it was dramatically different, and flying a Comet back and forth across the Atlantic, reaching altitudes then as high as 41,000', was quite unreal…and unforgettable. But, as much as I enjoyed the Comet, it could at best only equal, not surpass the B-25 as my favourite.

Me & the B

The elegant de Havilland Comet in the service of the RCAF was the apogee of VIP flight operations with 412 Squadron. Bob Fassold had the good fortune to fly this remarkable aircraft during his RCAF career. There were only two Comets in RCAF service. Photo: Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Centre PCN-519

Of course, I, along with many others, was very lucky to have started as an RCAF pilot in the halcyon days with lots of aircraft, lots of fuel, lots of flying, and few restrictions. Totalling just the Harvard, Expeditor, Mitchell and Dakota, I flew well over 200 different airframes. The Mitchell and I spent four years and over 1500 flying hours together, doing over 600 missions and probably over two thousand take-offs and landings…and we both enjoyed every minute…well almost. We did get ourselves into a couple of situations that took a lot of teamwork (and good luck) to get out of. We've enjoyed a number of amusing occurrences, also done some silly things and maybe one or two not-too-bright ones – like late one night trying to land on a wharf at Summerside. But, hey…it had been a long day and it did have lights on each side, just like a runway, albeit a bit short!

I certainly did love the B-25, it really did change the course of my life...and I hope to fly it again! I must admit though, that it really was noisy, and our kapok headsets were noise amplifiers, not defenders. In ignorance, we had no concern or complaint, in fact the noise just added to the thrill of flying the aircraft. But the fact is, it's a rare B-25 pilot who hasn't suffered a noise-induced hearing loss…but probably also a rare one who complains about it…it was worth it!

As an aside, many moons later I was at a reception for WWII flying aces that included, among others, Douglas Bader, Johnnie Johnson, Adolf Galland (with his young mistress)…and…Jimmy Doolittle. I could hardly believe it when I was actually introduced to Doolittle…Mister B-25…wow! What do I say to him? The noise level was a bit high with music and chatter, so in a somewhat raised voice I rather awkwardly blurted, "I've flown your B-25 a lot and I loved it…but it's very noisy!" Oops…he didn't respond…he just stared at me with a puzzled expression. Then he rather shouted, "Sorry, what did you say? I've spent too much time in the B-25…I don't hear very well!"

Me & the B

Winnipeg Officers Mess - 1977 - Second Wartime Pilots and Observer Reunion. Though this photograph barely survived a flooded basement, it is still a remarkable record of the above-mentioned reception for Second World War aces - the photo a gift for Bob Fassold upon leaving Air Command HQ in Winnipeg. To the right stands that great predator, Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland (104 kills) with his arm around Douglas Bader (22 kills) the remarkably resilient RAF leader of men and their flying machines. At the left front stands American Francis “Gabby” Gabreski (34.5 kills with the USAAF and USAF), then to his left stands the indomitable Jimmy Doolittle, former air racer and the greatest B-25 pilot of them all. To Doolittle's left stands Gen. Bill Carr, Commander Air Command. Second from the left at the back is Johnnie Johnson, with 38 kills, the highest scoring RAF ace to survive the war. Two to the left of Galland stands John Fauquier (former Head Boy at Ashbury College here in Ottawa) the highly regarded Second World War bomber pilot. Fourth from the left at the back is Moe Gates, the Winnipeg Base Commander. If anyone can identify the others, it would be appreciated. Photo via Bob Fassold

Curiously, our last VIP flight did not mark the end of my relationship with 5248. While at university in post-graduate training after completing my tour on 412 Squadron, I was tracked down by an individual who had purchased her from Crown Assets. The aircraft was being overhauled by a company in Toronto, and he wanted me to do the test flight and other flying for him. Would I be interested? Guess!

The quite festive debut was on a clear-blue summer Sunday at Toronto International, with a lot of spectators. The aircraft had been stripped of all RCAF equipment and accoutrements, including the bomb bay tank, and now was designated CF-NWU, but it looked the same…and we immediately recognized each other. The first flight was to be with the owner in the right seat and a company tech in the well. I noticed on pre-flight that the undercarriage selection lever was lockwired in the down and locked position and asked the tech to free it.

The flight was turning into a bit of an event at the airport and we wanted to put on a good show. Boy…on take-off, 5248 was sure doing her part…we were going like stink! At first I thought there was something wrong with the gauges, but then realized with all the RCAF stuff gone and only a partial fuel load, the aircraft was much lighter than I had ever flown it. What a display…so far...but when I went to retract the gear…(you guessed it)…the selector was still lockwired down! So we disappeared into the blue with the gear hanging down, as the tech in the well, with no tools, struggled to remove the lockwire. How embarrassing…and 5248 was not at all happy with me!

There were a few other flights, but then the company contacted me; the owner had defaulted on the overhaul bill, they had taken possession of the aircraft, had it up for sale and wanted to put me on reserve to demonstrate or ferry it. But it wasn't until many months later that I was contacted again. They had found no buyer, needed to get rid of the airplane, and asked if I wanted to buy it? Price $6000.00!

Me & the B

The North American Aviation plant in Kansas City, Kansas at the height of production during the Second World War. 412 Squadron VIP Mitchell 5248 began life in this facility.

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