Goose: Key Air Base
Slashed from the wilderness in record time, Canada's giant new airport in Labrador is a mainline base in war or peace
DAVID K. FINDLAY
THE VENTURA droned on above Labrador. We had crossed the north shore of the Gulf. For hours there had been nothing below us but snow and spruce and muskeg and the flat white loops of lakes. A range of navy blue mountains pushed up on the horizon and the bomber hung its nose on a mark below it. The mark expanded into a geometrical design of runways and below us there was a city of roofs. A city alone and surrounded by nothing.
We stepped from the Ventura in the blinding light of the spring sun on crystalline snow. Around us swarmed uniforms of Air Force blue, the brown of the Army and the sheepskins of the United States Army Air Force. The address is simply “Goose Airport, Labrador,” and this is the biggest place in Labrador.
This base which receives aircraft from both sides of the world has paved runways 6,000 feet long and 200 feet wide. The edges are banked high with snow
but the runways are bare and black and shining. Outside the paved strips are the gravelled surfaces used in winter. The field is not cleared like the usual airport, the centre of its field is virgin bush.
Around it are series of buildings, miles of waterworks and sewers, miles of power lines. The streets have five-foot snowbanks which run merrily in the short spring melt. Jeeps and Army trucks bound and splash. With the mud and the piles of raw lumber and the carpenters swarming everywhere you might imagine you were seeing the birth of a mining town in Idaho.
A base is not important for how it looks, but for what it does and this is a very important base indeed.
It was hacked out of the Labrador spruce and sand because our world is round, and the shortest distance between two points on it is not a straight line but a curved line or an arc of the sphere. This the pilots call the Great Circle route. If you want to go from one side to the other, you do not go east or west but over the top of the sphere. The northerly routes are the shortest to Europe—a fact of growing significance to Canada, and this base, set down on the edge of a continent, looking north and east, is the jumping-off place.
It is a station on the road to war. Here the fighting aircraft on the way to Britain sit down to have the fuel tanks “topped,” the pilots to get weather reports, a meal and a sleep. All these hundreds of men and masses of equipment are stuck up here
in the bush to speed them on their way. If you like you can call it a glorified service station—but a service station with a great future.
Look at the northerly coast of Labrador on a globe. From here to Greenland it is three to four hours by plane. If there were a road, you could do that in two days in a car. From Greenland to Iceland it is another short hop. From Iceland to the tip of the British Isles the distance is slightly less.
There is another great transatlantic route, of course, the hop straight over the ocean from the big base in Newfoundland. This is still the best route for long-range aircraft when the weather is good. But there is a good deal of fog and icing conditions off Newfoundland—and the weather around this new Labrador base is proverbially good.
The more northerly route via Labrador is 300 to 400 miles longer but close to it lie the land masses of Greenland and Iceland. It is now no secret that we have bases in Iceland—we’ve all seen them in the newsreels—and the nearness of these bases is an important safety factor. It is of much more importance to medium bombers and aircraft with a shorter range. Sometimes the big four-engined bombers coming north from the United States do not know until the last minute whether they will hop from Newfoundland or Labrador.
Besides its main business of being a ferry stop this is an operational station. From here go out antisubmarine patrols, defense and intelligence
patrols and those other groups whose activities are shrouded by the censorship.
The base is a Canadian show. It is run by the RCAF.
What is more, it was planned by the RCAF, it was built by engineers from the Department of Transport, and the McNamara Construction Company of Leaside, Ontario. The Station Commander is 31-year-old Group Captain tumm mm" Minnedosa, Manitoba. There is an RAF Ferry Command here under Squadron Leader mm ■Mi Over on the other side of the field there is a wing of the United States Army Transport Command—the equivalent of our Ferry Command— under the command of Colonel A. D. Smith, exArmy pilot, ex-air-line operator.
When Colonel Smith took over his command he said to the Canadian C.O., “I figure on being a good neighbor. I’ll tell you my idea of a good neighbor. Say you’re getting in your hay and it looks like it might blow up rain, I’ll send my men and my horses over to help you with your hay. Come harvest time and I’m a little behind with my crop, I’d look to see your men coming to give me a hand.” “I know what you’re talking about,” said the Canadian. “We can go on from here.”
The Americans and the Canadians get along well. They play baseball together and the Americans are learning to ski. They borrow each other’s equipment and the Yanks invite the Canucks over to see their first-run movies.
We see that co-operation smoothly at work in the control tower. This morning a young RCAF officer is in charge. The men are from the American ATC, mostly boys from the south, Kansas, Alabama, Georgia. There are two or three microphones. Before them on the ledge are powerful field glasses. The sky seems empty but the loudspeaker is pouring out a stream of voices. About 20 miles from the airport the incoming pilots begin to talk, identifying themselves, asking about wind variations. As the specks appear in the blue glasses are focused on them to pick up their markings. A swarm of gnats on the horizon becomes a fleet of Flying Fortresses which land and taxi over to the American side of the field.
These big boys move in big formations. Fighters which have been playing about above the clouds land with the utmost grace and ease. A fat white Liberator with RAF marking sits down and grunts and rumbles her way into a hangar. She has just come from a place you associate
only with Arctic explorers. Then in quick succession comes a string of Lodestars, the station’s flying freight, its one slender link with the supply bases when navigation is closed by winter. They are unloaded and in 20 minutes are on their way again.
Watching a plane coming down from the North, you see a spot away out on the ice. The technical sergeant puts his glasses on it. “It’s a dog team. Probably an Eskimo looking for seal.”
Question of Cold
IAB RADOR is synonymi mous with snow and cold and freezing gales. It is so cold that on the trail you have to guard all the time against the exposure of bare flesh, and wet feet may mean frozen feet and amputation. In the winter nights are long and days are short. At midwinter the sun is scarcely clear of the rim of trees at noon and the shadows are long and blue. There are blizzards and winds that blow straight off the polar icecap. But the boys don’t seem to mind the cold
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particularly. They grouse about, the weather as people grouse about the weather everywhere but the climate has its defenders. “Sure it’s cold, nice and cold; last winter we got: heavy snow and it got down to 40 below. Just about the same as it was in Ottawa.” The lowest recorded temperature hereabouts is 69 below. On the other hand, colds are practically unknown. Colds are brought in from “outside.” The health of these stations is away above average.
Equipment and technique help mitigate the hardships of winter. The big snow-go’s keep t he runways clear. Aircraft that have to be left in the open even for a few hours are shrouded in canvas coveralls to keep t he frost out of the wings. Mechanics who work in the open use a portable heater, a gasoline engine on runners, which generates enough heat to warm up a pocket of the outdoors.
The buildings are heated by steam which runs through insulated pipes stuck up on wooden scaffolding. The men are issued plenty of cold-weather clot hing. The fliers have one parka of which they are proud. Outside it is the usual huff and leather; turn it inside out and it is dazzling white gabardine, smart as paint and invisible against the snow. And boots— everyone has a different taste in footwear. It is the camp of a thousand shoes, everything from dress oxfords to Indian moccasins, Eskimo mukluks, flying boots lined with sheepskin and many odd mixtures which are being tried out.
The army up here is the guinea pig for all sorts of cold-weather tests. They have fish-net underwear and lined battledress. They are sold on the theory that it is not the clothes which keep you warm but the air between the clothes. And they should know because they are cut in all weathers day and night. Theirs is a tough and lonely job. Their patrols are on the move day and night threading the silent bush in carriers or on snowshoes.
The soldiers have picked up the tricks of the country. Headquarters was mystified by the speed with which one patrol was covering the ground. They went out to see and found the men on skis skijoring behind two or three sled dogs which they had acquired in some manner known only to themselves.
They have motorized toboggans up here for carrying personnel, towing supply sleds, etc. They are oversize toboggans with a motorcycle engine and a caterpillar track running down the centre. If you want a thrill, take a ride on one of these wild wagons, driven lickety-bang through the bush by someone like the colonel of a Canadian Army unit.
The coast of Labrador is rather like the coast of Sweden, with its long deep fjords and great sand beaches left by the retreating sea. On the shores of one of these arms there occurs one of these tremendous deposits of sand which has been added to by the Hamilton River, which drains into the inlet. It forms a natural plateau about 70 feet high.
The plateau was discovered in July, 1941, by Eric Fry of the Department of Lands and Forests. He had flown in with two Piskimo guides to look for airport sites. One look at the plateau was enough—it was a natural. There was one family of Indians living on a nearby creek. There was a Hudson’s Bay Post not far away, and there was a direct water route from the open sea to the edge of the muskeg below the plateau.
In September the first ship, the ice-breaker McLean, smothered with a deck cargo of bulldozers, shovels and cranes, sailed into the basin and stuck on the sand bar. The first tractor unloaded from a raft squattered through the shallow water to the consternation of the natives who had gathered to watch. The advance parties set about making a dock to unload the ships which were following with the 75,000 tons of material necessary to build a base.
There was need for hurry—the water route is only open for four or five months in each year. The muskeg was bridged—once there were five tractors stuck in it at one time; a gravel pit was found and a road built to the plateau. The big LeTourneau bulldozers went through the bush three abreast knocking down trees. The graders followed levelling the landing strip. The winter runways were serviceable on Nov. 21, just six months after the discovery, and on Dec. 9 the first aircraft landed.
In the meantime several permanent installations had been completed, including storage tanks, a saw mill, radio-range stations and living quarters. This is easy to write and quick to read—actually it was an extraordinary feat. Work went on 24 hours of the day, every day, fly season or no fly season. All sorts of construction records were hung up; and this is all the more extraordinary when it is remembered that Montreal was the shipping base.
They used up all the lumber in the creek beds; a tree would be growing one day and be part of a building the next. Today with acres of hangars, barracks, administration buildings, messes, recreation halls, construction is still going on. There is an old gag often heard up here, now with some truth in it. One chap asks another what that building is and the other chap says, “Dunno, it wasn’t there when I went by this morning.”
One of Biggest
SOME of the new RCAF buildings, such as the new dining hall, are a tribute to their designers. It looks like a big city restaurant with its shining fittings, its two big wings and anterooms. The color scheme is cream with two shades of green. One wing will seat hundreds of men. By the time it is finished they may need another one.
Goose airport is one of the biggest in the world. It is certainly the most self-contained. Its cost was somewhere between 12 and 20 millions, about twice what it would have
cost to build in Canada. Labrador, of course, belongs to Newfoundland. The base is part of a tract of land leased under a three-party agreement between Canada, U. S., and Newfoundland.
There are three kinds of natives in Labrador: Eskimos, Indians and Labrador natives or “Liveyores.” The last mentioned are the descendants of Scottish and English settlers who have intermarried for generations with Indians and Eskimos. The Indians are mainly Montagnais who usually speak only their own dialect and a few words cf French. The contractors tried to hire them to work without much success. They would work a couple of days and then drift away.
Some Montagnais children have been brought into the RCAF hospital there by pilots and missionaries. They are pathetic little specimens, with sad brown eyes and limbs like twigs, suffering from malnutrition. As soon as they arrive their heads are shaved to rid them of lice. One of them, sixyear-old Napoleon, felt this so keenly that he wore a baseball cap asleep or awake.
Everyone has a good word for the Eskimos. They never lose their temper and they are clever with their hands. They make good carpenters. John Clarke, boss for the McNamara Construction Company, has some anecdotes about them. When they first came to work at the station they had loese ideas about the white man’s system. They drifted about engaging in the work that appealed to them. If they were attached to one gang and they didn’t like the boss they joined another gang. If they saw someone doing something interesting they helped him do it.
Once the boss couldn’t find the Eskimos at all, but they all turned up helping in the cookhouse. This was their idea of the best job of all. Another characteristic is their habit of all sitting down for a communal smoke and talk — nothing could persuade them that this was not reasonable in working hours. They are also subject to sudden fits of homesickness. Just before Christmas last year seven of them started off casually to walk home to Ungava.
There is a laundry on the station staffed by 17 Eskimo women. We found the sign outside rather curious. It said, “No money accepted.” No one uses money up here for anything but gambling. Everything is paid for in commissary tickets.
To the natives here the airplane is more or less commonplace. They are quite used to them but they show a superstitious reluctance to go near a crash. What really thrills them and reduces them to giggles is a ride in a truck.
THE station has its own atmosphere due to the fact that it is an outpost and halfway house for roundthe-world travellers. In the mess the globe seems to have shrunk and place Continued on page 44
Continued from patje J+2 names that had a strange and distant connotation are ordinary stops to air crew. The officer across the table may have just flown in from Iceland, the one beside you may be taking off for Europe in an hour. Another pilot just off a flying-boat patrol tells of an attack on a submarine off Trinidad. They talk of the Greenland icecap and the lakes that appear and disappear there. Their talk would make great stories but they would never get past the censor. Scott Alexander, formerly of the RCMP, the Station Security Officer, tells an anecdote about Frenchy Chartrand, the only man to be buried at the Magnetic Pole, All the compasses in
the world point to Frenchy’s grave.
Flight-Lieutenant Al Cheeseman, one of the band of bush fliers who opened up our Northwest, had just come back from a mercy flight to David Inlet. There were reports of starving Indians up there. He flew in a doctor, Flight-Lieutenant H. A. Fraser, and Nursing Sister N. Bersodsky. They found the Indians huddled in their tiny tents, groaning. Out of a tribe of 78, 68 of them were down with pneumonia or flu. The babies were being fed on flour and water which was all the food they had. They had missed the caribou and for the Indians that means that many will starve. The doctor gave the poor Continued on page k 7
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creatures injections ofsulphanilamide and all the food they had in the plane, which would help them out for a few days. The nursing sister came away in tears over their plight.
Flight-Lieutenant Cheeseman is in charge of the Rescue and Salvage Department, a very necessary adjunct to a ferry base. When aircraft are forced down by lack of gas or weather on these routes they can usually find a frozen lake to do a belly landing. The problem, which is much simplified by radio, is to find the aircrew and bring them out.
To the crew of a forced-down airplane it is a bleak and cruel coast with disaster waiting around the corner. In winter they must have some smattering of woodcraft or they will perish before they can be found. They must remember to do simple things, like keeping the snow off their airplane so that it can be seen from the air; like making signal fires and blackening the smoke with a can of engine oil when they hear other aircraft. They must avoid frostbite and wet feet and overexertion. They must know how and when to leave the coast and follow a river upstream to find the trees, which mean warmth and shelter.
Recently an Eskimo came to a radio station with the number of a missing airplane for which they had been searching for days. By means of his directions they found it. Only the tail was sticking out of the snow. Under the wing four of the crew were dead in their sleeping bags. Three were missing; presumably they had wandered off on the ice and died of exposure. Not one of them knew how to live in the bush. There was an Eskimo camp within walking distance.
Manuals of woodcraft and coldcraft are being prepared for the use of our pilots. The American ATC is considering giving its pilots practical courses by sending them out with guides to live in the bush for a few days.
Rimmed By Eternal Bush
1HAVE remarked on the blueness of this country—thebluedistances, the blue mountains, the blue tinge to the woods. “Too much blue around here,” says an aircraftman. “It gets you down.”
When trappers and prospectors are too long in the woods they develop a psychosis which they call being “bushed.” It may mean anything from a temporary confusion of mind to a nervous breakdown. I enquired of the medical officer in charge of the excellent 167-bed hospital if any malady of a similar nature had made its appearance. I learned that after some months there are a few men who succumb to the feeling of isolation, usually those without much initiative or adaptability. They develop vague sicknesses, lose interest in their surroundings and think of one thing only —getting out.
While Goose Airport, Labrador, has all the mechanical amenities of civilization it is still an outpost.
Living space is rimmed by the eternal bush. The roads go nowhere but around the station. Off the station there is nowhere to go. After six months of it the boys feel that they would rather be somewhere else. The boys can get leave to go to the bush and hunt. On the station there are no store windows, or girls walking by, or ice cream sodas, or beer. On the other hand, there are movies, rinks for hockey and curling, courts for badminton and basketball. There is a Y MCA. They are just completing another big hall which will serve as a church and a theatre and provide more badminton courts.
The troops stationed here give a weekly dance. There are seven girls on the station, all nursing sisters but Mary Stevens, the messing officer. They are worn to a frazzle by their social obligations.
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What will happen to Goose Airport after the war? Already a school of thought has been established. Many of the officers think it has a promising civilian future, not only as a stop for transatlantic passenger traffic but as a tourist resort. They point out that air lines can carry passengers cheaply to such a point, dropping them here before filling up with fuel for the long hop across the ocean. There are plenty of sites for summer hotels. There are swimming and sailing. The air is pure and healthful and there is trout and salmon fishing. There are the handsome blue mountains rolling on the horizon, waiting to be explored. Besides it belongs to the North; it has a fascination all its own.
We came back with Wing Commander Bruce Middleton, A.F.C., in one of the Lodestars of the Flying Freight. Sitting on the mail sacks we watched Goose Airport, that future famous resort and playground of the nation, fade into the skyline. The emptiness from blue horizon to blue horizon all around it emphasized its loneliness.
Going south in the sunshine under a clear blue sky we saw the Gulf at its most picturesque. The water was a royal blue, with deeper blue where the wind or current moved its depths. It was covered with patches of white mosaic—the floe ice breaking up and moving off to sea. We crossed Anticosti — still winter-bound — and moved into another climate. There was Prince Edward Island, deep in spring, and blushing all over. The red of its earth had imbued the blue sea all around its coast. As straight as an arrow flight we held on our radio controlled course, heading toward a smudge of smoke on the horizon. The mainland moved up the curve of the world and under us and the wheels went bumble and bump on Moncton airport.
The mail was unloaded as the ground crews were refueling the Lodestar for another trip. Within half an hour she would be ready to fly north again with her two tons of assorted steel, nails and roofing.