‘A dead airman in Canada is just as dead as a dead airman in Europe’

News Article / September 26, 2016

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By Alexandra Baillie-David

Second World War pilot recalls time as flying instructor in Canada

Flying Officer (retired) John Robert Newell always knew he wanted to be a pilot.

From the moment he saw an R100 airship drift over his hometown of Ottawa, Ontario, as a child in the early 1930s, he began building wooden model airplanes in the hopes that one day he could fly, too.

That dream would soon become an unfortunate reality when Canada declared war on Germany nearly a decade later, and the Allied forces were in desperate need of aircrew. After finishing high school in 1942, Newell marched into the recruiting office and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) to become a fighter pilot.

“When we joined, we all wanted to go overseas,” says Newell, now 93.

He completed his pilot training in three stages (initial, elementary and service flying training) under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Based in Canada, The Plan was the principal aircrew training program that trained pilots, navigators, flight engineers, bomb aimers and wireless operators, many of whom went on to serve overseas.

By the end of the war, the BCATP had graduated more than 131,000 aircrew from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, and other British Commonwealth nations. Its success was recognized by United States President Franklin Roosevelt, who famously called Canada “the aerodrome of democracy”.

After training on the North American Harvard at No. 2 Service Flying Training School in Uplands, Ontario, near Ottawa, Newell received his pilot wings as the sixth top student in his class. He then eagerly awaited his fighter training so he could be sent to Europe.

But he never got the overseas posting he hoped for.  

“I was told I was going to be an instructor,” he says with a hint of resentment in his voice. “I gave them hell. I said, ‘I didn’t spend all this time training to be a fighter pilot to end up being an instructor’.”

 “We used to give our name in to the chief flying instructor for overseas postings,” he adds, “but we knew they were thrown in the garbage before we even got out the door.” Newell recalls some instructors being so unhappy that they took out their frustration where they wanted most to be: in the air. “One fella was asked to pick up a guy and bring him back to Ottawa,” he explains. “When he went into Camp Borden, he flew low-level, lower than the flag pole. He did aerobatics, everything that you’re not allowed to do over an airport.

“So when he landed,” Newell says, “he was charged with low flying and dangerous driving and every other thing you could think of. At his court martial, they asked, ‘Why did you act so stupid?’, and he said, ‘I’m so goddamn sick of being an instructor. I joined the Air Force to be a fighter pilot and I’m just fed up to the hilt’.”

Disappointment was high among the men who became instructors. These young pilots were some of the best in the world, which made it more difficult for them to accept that their superior flying skills were most needed on the home front instead of overseas. 

“They felt that teaching was not doing,” says Ted Barris, author of Behind the Glory: Canada’s Role in the Allied War. “They were eager to go [to war]. They didn’t want to be towing around a bunch of young men.”

Barris adds that instructors were also often plagued by feelings of guilt after their students graduated. “Here were young men who were teaching other men the skills of war,” he says. “They always went to sleep at night…but they always had that fear that was capsulized in the question they asked themselves: ‘Did I give them enough? Did I give them the skills to survive?’ That was a horribly difficult thing to live with if you sensed that maybe you hadn’t.”

Danger in Canadian skies 

While there were no air raids or dogfights in the skies over Canada during the war, instructors nevertheless faced their own dangers on a daily basis. “If you flew into storms, thunderheads on the Prairies, lightning storms in Ontario, or fog on the coasts, you could be lost there, and the weather was just as much your enemy as any enemy aircraft,” Barris explains.

In fact, more than 1,700 instructors and students were killed in Canada in training accidents, which were often caused by severe weather, pilot error or mechanical failure. “There was an instance in St. Catharine’s where some of the first Fleet Finches were not properly balanced as they rolled off the line in Fort Erie,” Barris adds. “They were not set to fly yet and the two guys who went up in them were doing an inverted spin or a loop, and the imbalance of the aircraft caused them to crash, and killed them both. So there was the problem of technical bumps that had to be smoothed out.”

On and off duty, 2,367 pilots died while serving in Canada, yet their deaths did not elicit the same sympathy as do those of the nearly 15,000 air crew who died overseas. This troubles Newell, who was no stranger to losing a comrade in a crash. “A dead airman in Canada is just as dead as a dead airman in Europe,” he says firmly. “It’s a loss to the family.”

It was for this reason that Newell tried to keep a strictly professional relationship with his students. At just 21 when he became an instructor, he was teaching 18-, 19- and 20-year-old men who, under different circumstances, might have been his friends. “I treated them all nicely,” he says. “But I tried not to [befriend them] because you never knew if something was going to happen to them.”

The unsung heroes of the BCATP

Despite their tremendous skill, patience and sacrifice, BCATP instructors were not given the same recognition as their comrades in Europe. “There was a myth that the men who were instructors were second-class, not as good flyers as those who went overseas. It was just the opposite,” says Barris. “These people had experienced weather, they had experienced the challenge of learning to fly themselves.”

Due to their skill and experience, flying instructors had a unique responsibility to produce as many capable pilots as they could.    

“It’s one thing to be able to master the skill or to be good at it, but it’s also important to be able to impart that in a young man,” Barris adds. “The true test and skill of an instructor was to be able to give the young man a second or third chance to make the mistake and recover. That’s not something everybody has.”

As an instructor, Newell was tough but fair. He wanted to give his students a truly hands-on experience, where they would learn by doing. This sometimes involved bringing them to a pre-flight weather or “meteorology” briefing, especially on days where there were storms in the forecast and flying would not be easy.

For example, Newell recalls one particularly scary flight he had with a student on a Harvard. Prior to takeoff, they were warned of potential icing, a condition where ice develops on the wings. Icing decreases the lift generated by the wings, which is required to keep the aircraft airborne and if not dealt with correctly, the consequences can be disastrous.

Newell began to notice the aircraft was acting strangely, but did not tell his student. Instead, he asked, “Do you notice anything different?” The student replied that he did not.

Newell, who brought his student to the weather briefing earlier that day, had expected him to be able to identify sudden changes in the aerodynamics of the aircraft.  

“The plane wanted to go into a spin because it had lost the speed necessary,” he explains. “So I said to him, ‘Do you realize if I wasn’t in this aircraft you would have been crashing on the ground right now?’”

The BCATP legacy

In the modern RCAF, flying instructors continue to play a critical role in shaping the next generation of airmen and airwomen. Without their knowledge, skill and guidance, today’s operational pilots would not be equipped to complete their daily missions.

And it all started with the BCATP.

“The level of professionalism [in the Air Force] is such a long tradition,” says Major Riel Erickson, a CF-188 fighter pilot and chief flying instructor with 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. “We are known as one of the best training [nations]. We train to this day pilots from other countries and I think that says a lot about what we’ve created over those seventy-five years.”

Major Erickson adds that an important part of being an instructor is being able to pass on what she has learned, both in and out of the cockpit.  

“To this day I carry a lot of the lessons that my first instructors taught me and I think about them on a daily basis,” she says. “I am responsible for the pilot that these people become. So if I have set a bad example for them and they go off and make a mistake down the road, it’s on me.”

Looking back on his time as a flying instructor, Newell says he is proud to have served his country. Though he did not become the fighter pilot he had intended to, having the chance to fly the Harvard every day was enough to keep him going.

After retiring from the RCAF in 1945, Newell worked for the British-American Banknote Company, which was responsible for printing Canadian money, certificates and other documents. He and his wife Lois reside in Ottawa, Ontario, and have been members of the Royal Canadian Air Force Association of Canada for more than 60 years.

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