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Saved twice


Getting lost is one of the most frightening experiences imaginable - getting lost in an aircraft is even worse. It happened to me once when my passenger Jim Lorenzen and I were returning from Frenchman's Cove on the Burin Peninsula. I calculated the course based on the winds received earlier and set off for Gander. Clouds, that were not forecast, began to form. Foolish-like, I flew above them and could only see portions of the ground - insufficient to determine whether we were staying on course. When I decided to descend below all clouds there was nothing that looked familiar. I discovered later that a weather front had gone through earlier than it was forecasted which meant that the heading I was flying put us considerably off course. A call to 119.5 (Approach Control) brought Doug Mercer on the radio, and shortly thereafter we were heading in the correct direction.

Aviation - Getting lost is one of the most frightening experiences imaginable - getting lost in an aircraft is even worse.

It happened to me once when my passenger Jim Lorenzen and I were returning from Frenchman's Cove on the Burin Peninsula. I calculated the course based on the winds received earlier and set off for Gander. Clouds, that were not forecast, began to form.

Foolish-like, I flew above them and could only see portions of the ground - insufficient to determine whether we were staying on course. When I decided to descend below all clouds there was nothing that looked familiar. I discovered later that a weather front had gone through earlier than it was forecasted which meant that the heading I was flying put us considerably off course. A call to 119.5 (Approach Control) brought Doug Mercer on the radio, and shortly thereafter we were heading in the correct direction.

During the Second World War, the Allies were desperately trying to stop the U-Boat menace on the North Atlantic. F/L James Leach told an interesting story about his involvement in what was first referred to as "fire control and pulse generation" - the basic technology of radar, and how getting lost could have delayed the project considerably. The development of the magnetron marked a major breakthrough in radar performance. Its capability to generate high pulse power at frequencies of 5,000 megahertz made it possible to build an anti-surface-vessel (ASV) radar which could detect surfaced U-boats at greater ranges (20 to 50 miles) than any previous equipment and, more importantly, to detect snorkel tubes and periscopes at shorter, but still significant ranges.

It took a conversation between Churchill and Roosevelt to get one of the new radar sets sent to MIT where they developed an antenna and modified it for installation in a B-24 Liberator bomber number AL 507. The modified B-24, owing to its elephantine proportions and fat chin, was christened "Dumbo," after Walt Disney's famous flying elephant. The bomber was to be the trial aircraft for the new equipment and was flown to Montreal. The next day it took off for Gander on its way to Prestwick but things didn't go as planned.

"After a few minutes in the air I hoped to see Quebec City on our port side but all I could see were trees. Later when we should have reached Gander, I was still looking at trees. We were very concerned especially since the navigator admitted he didn't know where we were. We then tried to match the navigational charts with a coastal outline as pictured on the radar. We asked the captain to fly due east in order to reach the Atlantic as soon as possible. Lady Luck was with us. The radar eventually painted an excellent picture of a section of the east coast of Labrador. We were 500 miles north of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and off course by 365 miles. We arrived in Gander safely, albeit more than two hours late - saved by the radar."

It was March 1942 and to no one's surprise the flight was delayed two days by a snow storm in Gander. "We took off with walls of snow 10 feet high." The aircraft droned eastward for hours. "After almost 14 hours in the air we spotted a mountainous coast line ahead on the horizon. We were afraid that we were approaching Norway. We dared not turn on the radar for fear of detection by the Germans. I was somewhat familiar with the topography of Scotland where Prestwick Airport was located and to the best of my knowledge there were no mountains there."

They soon found out they were right. "While we were discussing what to do, two RAF Spitfires suddenly appeared, one on each wing tip and scrutinized our aircraft because it was a German practice to use captured Allied aircraft to gain advantage in a situation whenever they could and the Spitfire pilots were not about to let that happen in this case. Our captain called for the colour of the day, but the navigator didn't know what it was.

Now, it was the captain's turn to save the day. He smiled at each Spitfire pilot and gave Churchill's famous 'V' for victory sign. Grins broke out on their faces as they performed wing-overs across our aircraft. They signalled us to follow them as they headed almost due south to Prestwick where we landed with barely 25 minutes of fuel.

"After thanking the two pilots for saving our lives, we inquired as to how they had found us. We had been picked up by a ground radar in northern Scotland which alerted the RAF, as we had indeed been heading directly to Norway. The pilots were vectored onto us. This saved the aircraft, the radar and our lives."

"The loss of this particular aircraft would have spelled disaster for our coming anti-U-boat program."

The famous North Atlantic Squadron (10 BR Gander) became a common sight here during the last years of the war as they flew everyday protecting Allied convoys and hunting German submarines.

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