TO RIO IN 27 HOPS
Sandy A. F. MacDonald
Anson trainers were never built for inter-hemisphere transport—How a group of airmen delivered Canada’s first aircraft sold to Brazil
HEMMED in by snowbanks piled mountains high, six old Avro Ansons lifted their voices on the frosty air in a rising crescendo of tumultuous sound as one by one the skippers ran up their engines for take-off. It was “D-Day” for the “Flying Circus” briefed out on the line at Montreal Airport, Dorval, that wintry day of Dec. 18, 1944. Our ultimate destination, Rio de Janeiro, lay 7,700 miles south, across the Caribbean, the torrential rains and tropical storms of the equatorial zone, the steaming jungles of the Guianas and Brazil.
In this age of global air transport, 7,700 miles doesn’t sound like any great dramatic adventure. For a Dakota, a Lancaster, or a B-24 it would be just a simple routine affair. But the Canadian-built Ansons we were flying were never designed for globegirdling flight. They were training planes that had done a fine job in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and had suffered their share of wear and tear in the process.
The ultimate endurance of the Anson Mark II is less than five hours. Reduced to practical safe limits, allowing for fuel reserve and return to an alternate airport, that means between three and four hundred miles between landings. It is no wonder, then, that it took us 39 days to make the trip, during which we made no less than 27 landings. Lacking supercharged engines to climb up over the top of the tropical storms, they must fly down below in the rain—and when you say rain in the equatorial zone, no one but a submarine commander can fully appreciate just what you have in mind! We were to learn, by long hours of toil, sweat and gruelling fatigue, that the old Anson, while a good enough ship in its field, falls far short of any ferry pilot’s dream for flight between hemispheres.
The migration of the Flying Circus to Brazil was not without historical significance—it was destined to open a new chapter in trade relations between Canada and Latin America. It had begun with the arrival in Canada some six months before of two very fine and astute businessmen from Brazil. They
were Roberto J. Taves, managing director, and Commander Ruy da Costa Gama, technical director, of the Linha Aeria Transcontinental Brasileira S.A. After six months of negotiation, unlimited patience and tireless perseverance in crashing through a dense maze of red tape, they had finally concluded the deal with the Canadian Government for the purchase of the Ansons. It was probably our first successful bid as a nation for the tremendous potential postwar market for aircraft which Latin America offers.
The Ansons were manned for the long ferry flight by all-Canadian crews. Qualification for captains was transatlantic flying experience with RAF Transport Command. Copilots were veteran bush fliers, who were also required to hold air engineer’s certificates, and who were qualified captains holding instrument, night flying and transport pilot ratings.
Lined up on the ramp at Dorval alongside the big. bombers in their grim, sombre camouflage or the new glistening silver, the old wooden Ansons, still in their chrome yellow training school battle dress, offered a picturesque contrast. The red, white and blue Air Force insignia which they had so proudly worn had now been removed. Instead, the green, yellow and blue national flag of Brazil was displayed on their tails. Block letters, painted on the wings and hulls, indicated their new South American registration, and up forward, on the nose, each ship bore the wings and crest of Transcontinental Brazil Airlines.
One by one the Ansons lumbered out of their snow-walled berths on the ramp and in a long procession rolled down the white taxi lanes for take-off. Delayed by a last minute snag in the radio equipment, PP-ATF, the ill-fated ship Da Costa Gama and I were flying, was the last to leave.
“Everything look all right?” I asked when we were cleared to position for take-off. Gama nodded.
“Okay—here we go!” I announced. He grinned— a big, broad LatinContinued on page 34
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American grin. After six months of tedious talk and paper work, the signal had finally flashed green. We were air-borne at 11.45, southbound for Rio.
We levelled off at 2,000 feet, picked up UL, the southeast leg of the Montreal range, and headed toward Burlington, the U. S. port of entry and our first stop south of the border. There was no hint of the torrid tropics in that first leg we flew. We were travelling light and our cabin heater lacked the capacity to keep the frost out of our fingers and toes. We took 10-minute turns at flying the ship and doing physical jerks to keep from freezing to death.
Customs red tape delayed the expedition a day at Burlington, but the afternoon of the 19th found us riding the radio ranges south to Allentown, Pa., where our Jacobs engines were given a final check by engineers from the factory. From the subzero temperatures of Canadian winter to the blistering heat of the tropics was to prove a severe test of any motor’s endurance. Be it said of the 330 Jacobs that throughout the entire trip not one of our 12 engines ever missed a beat.
The following day ATF was required for a flight to New York, carrying Roberto Taves as passenger on official business. Owing to the complicated pattern of the radio range network within the New York control area, “Pat” Cormier, one of the other pilots, was added to the crew as radio operator for this special flight.
The morning of Dec. 22 found us at La Guardia Airport, cleared for take-off to Raleigh, N.C., where we were to join the other five ships proceeding direct from Allentown. Extra baggage and freight taken on at New York brought our payload up to 1,600 lb.—a pretty fair haul for an Anson Mark II! The distance from New York to Raleigh via the airways scales 460 miles, but with a three-hour and 35-minute flight plan, we decided to make it in one hop.
La Guardia gave us a forecast CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited) over the entire route.
Perfect weather conditions made navigation a humdrum chore as we rolled south, riding the radio ranges over Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington to Richmond. South of Richmond, at 4,000 feet, we were flying over broken cumulus cloud, which was closing in solid as we approached our destination. At 13.55 Da Costa Gama drew my attention, through a hole in the clouds, to a large town below. We were not due over Raleigh for nine minutes, but reference to the map we were using definitely identified the place below as our terminal.
An Airfield Vanishes
“We won’t need the radio range any longer,” I told Pat Cormier. “Contact the tower and get landing instructions, we’re going down to land.”
During the letdown we ran into light fog which commenced to build ice on the windshield and wings. I switched on the carburetor heat and continued the letdown without concern. Our map showed the airport located three miles southwest of the town and I expected to be on the ground in a matter of five minutes.
A run over the area where the airport was marked on the map failed to uncover any sign of a field. We circled the town and made a second pass at locating it. Still nothing but rolling wooded countryside lay below.
By this time the ice formation was becoming critical. I shouted to Pat that I couldn’t locate the field and to contact the tower and get us some help. But that was impossible—our radio was dead.
We were down to 300 feet now, over the rugged hill country that had provided the setting for “Tobacco Road,” with visibility a mile and a half in fog lowering to three quarters in patches, our radio out, and with insufficient gas to get us north out of the icing conditions. Our windshield was iced up solid, so that we couldn’t see a thing ahead. It commenced to dawn on us all about that time that we’d had it.
Finally the port engine ran out of fuel and went dead. We held her nose up with just sufficient flying speed to prevent a stall, hit the treetops, cracked our left wing off, and plunged head on down through to bury ATF in the soil of Carolina.
The ship was a total wreck. Miraculous luck rode with the four of us, however. We all came out of it without serious injuries which couldn’t be patched up at the local hospital.
Of the rest of the Flying Circus, three had landed at Richmond. Frank Hawthorne, the flight leader, and Doug. MacDonald had run into similar icing conditions down over Raleigh. Their radio, however, had stood up and they were able to get a Q.T.F. (radio bearing) which had brought them in over the airport. Tommy Douglas and Bill Monroe had been forced down in a field on the outskirts of Raleigh.
10-Mile Map Error
We learned afterward from the Civil Aeronautics Authority that the map we were issued was obsolete. The radio range we had been flying had subsequently been shifted about 10 miles farther west—so that the place we had been over had not been Raleigh at all, but Henderson, N.C. Following that, our map portfolios came in for a thorough overhaul.
Henderson* takes pride in a traditional mentality geared to a southern accent so slow that you can walk around the block and return to pick up a conversation about where it was when you started. Christmas caught up with our stranded crew, pooling the last of its cigarette resources, in an old southern hotel whose stairs and corridors creaked and groaned almost as badly as we did. Lightnin’, our bellboy, provided the one bright spot in an otherwise drab holiday. The old brown turtle-neck sweater and battered fedora in which he had tended our needs was replaced by a resplendent new green-and-gold uniform—the nearest approach to a Christmas tree that we saw during the entire day.
Reminiscent of the retreat from Moscow was the slow procession of limping, bandaged Anson personnel led by Bob Taves — hobbling on crutches with a broken bone in his foot—that straggled along the deserted main street of Henderson in search of a sandwich and a cup of coffee—the sumptuous extent of our Christmas dinner followinjg our unscheduled arrival in North Carolina.
Having lost my ship I was shifted to the post of navigator. In this capacity I worked my passage with compass and dividers, flying with Howard Watt and Albert Racicot in ATD as far as Miami on New Year’s day.
Maintenance problems, customs and international formalities delayed us at Miami until Jan. 7. Meanwhile one of our crews, through a disagreement with the powers that be, had left the
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expedition. I had fallen heir to their aircraft, ATB, including the trouble and grief with which the thing was haunted.
Jan. 8 we were over the tops of towering cumulus castles at 8,000 feet, with patches of the blue, rolling, open Atlantic appearing below through the holes, southbound to Cuba. Rain and low cloud over Camaguëy forced us to seek an alternate airport at Ciego de Avila. The field there was little more than a cow pasture with a wind sock on it. When we left it, quick action on the part of my copilot in getting the wheels up at the take-off pi'obably averted another disaster. Had the wheels been down, we’d have hit a fence and a clump of palms at the end of the field as we staggered out.
At Camaguëy both Da Costa Gama and I showed signs of excessive fatigue due to flying so soon without sufficient rest after our accident. Hawthorne made a shift in his line-up of crews to afford us some relief. Doug. MacDonald, until recently a captain with American Air Transport Command, and an old crony of my bush flying days, was now to share the afflictions of ATB with me for the balance of the trip. Doug and I started right in arguing where we had left off in 1932. In the end I won by seven pounds. By the time we reached Rio he had lost 18 pounds, whereas I was down only 11!
From Camaguëy we took off for Guantanamo and had established a heading on the Guantanamo Range. About 140 miles out we ran into low clouds and rain which forced us into the treetops. Not feeling entirely happy about flying conditions down on this level, we decided to go over the top. Climbing, on instruments, up through the overcast, we ran into a hole in the clouds—to discover that we were flying smack into the side of a mountain! We were right on the beam of the Guantanamo radio all right, but apparently riding a split range. Doug and I exchanged glances full of deep understanding and solemnly shook hands. We swung down a valley which eventually brought us out over Santiago de Cuba—from which point we flew contact, following the coast line into Guantanamo.
Our next leg lay across open water to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and thence to Trujillo, Dominican Republic. We held over at Trujillo until Jan. 12 to clear up an accumulation of mechanical snags, mostly radio, brakes and hydraulic system failures. The following morning we landed at San Juan, Puerto Rico, to refuel en route to Antigua in the Leeward Islands, but further mechanical troubles delayed us another day. Proceeding to Antigua on the 13th, we were forced down at St. Thomas Island with a broken oil line on our port engine. Seeing us on the ground, PP-ATA landed. Hawthorne and Cormier remained with us for the day to lend a hand with makeshift repairs.
Early the following morning we taxied out for take-off. At St. Thomas Island it is necessary to take off over a mountain ridge, which means climbing with every inch of boost you’ve got from the moment you’re air-borne. With full power, we managed to get rolling down the single turf runway at all of 15 miles an hour. We closed the throttles immediately to see why we weren’t gaining speed—to find that our brakes had seized. At the same time both engines cut out and steadfastly refused to start again.
The difficulty in getting our engines to run was finally ironed out by draining our inner tanks, which we found to be filled with water, and not even high octane water at that! The U. S.
Marine Base at St. Thomas Island had been closed the previous fall, except for a security guard, so that the tanks we had refueled from had not been checked for moisture content for some time. As it turned out the brake failure was nothing short of an j act of Providence. Had our engines ¡ failed a few seconds after take-off, that, mountain ridge might have proved a mighty formidable obstacle to try to push aside!
The Island of Women
Flying the open water hop from St. Thomas to Antigua, the Island of Saba provided us with a check point on our navigation along the way. More than mere casual curiosity prompted us to go down to take a good look at the place, intrigued by the rumor that the island was inhabited solely by women. The menfolk were all supposed to have gone away to the war. One circuit at low altitude and we concluded that the rumor was a pure myth. The place looked too entirely imperturbable to be occupied by females alone.
Landings at Antigua, St. Lucia and Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, concluded our navigation of the West Indies. The exotic tropical settings of the swiftly changing scenes, with their colorful pageant of strange races, manners and customs, proved a source of neverfailing interest to the birds of passage manning the Ansons. From a strictly ¡ ferry pilot’s point of view, however, the trip had developed into a nightmare of low flying in continuous heavy rain and long hours of toil dôing an endless routine of running repairs in j sweltering heat.
Jan. 16 found us preparing for takeoff at Piarco Airport, Port-of-Spain, bound for Georgetown, British Guiana. Paddy Baird and Ash Hayward were the first to get away. We watched them take off and climb a few hundred feet. Then suddenly we all went white ! around the gills. Their ship commenced to wallow and lose height out over the jungle that lay beyond the borders of the field. An engine had gone dead on take-off and it looked like one of those things. A moment later, however, we were able to breathe normally again. It became apparent then that the boys had everything under control. We saw them level off over the treetops, slowly regain altitude, and make a turn into the traffic pattern of the field, apparently coming back in for a landing. At that point the propeller on the dead engine started revving again. Climbing on course, a few minutes later they disappeared from sight, headed out on their track toward Georgetown, British Guiana.
Farther along Paddy explained to us what had happened. In pushing open the throttles his sleeve had caught the mixture control on one engine, putting the engine into idle cutoff! Well, that’s one of the reasons why aviation gets in your blood. It hasn’t yet reached the ripe old age of dull monotony.
Two hundred miles over the open Atlantic southwest out of Trinidad we crossed the coast line of South America and had our first glimpse of the steaming jungle that we would be flying over most of the time for the next 3,700 miles. Even flying very low, the tropical growth appeared so dense we couldn’t see through it anywhere. We ceased to wonder then why so many aircraft had disappeared without a trace on the inland routes farther back from the coast. Sluggish rivers, mud brown in color, were the only relief to mile upon solid mile of green, swaying jungle wilderness.
Between Georgetown and Belem, our customs port of entry into Brazil,
lay Zandery, Dutch Guiana; Cayenne, French Guiana; and Amapa, Brazil. Aircraft repairs and weather held us overnight at each of these points. We began to realize now that the rain we had complained so much about farther back in the Indies was merely a passing shower compared to the deluge that we were to encounter when we hit the tropical front characteristic of these latitudes. We were fortunate enough, at least, to obtain a fine view of Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana, as we were running in the clear between tropical storms.
“Poor devils,” I observed, as I gazed down on their grim little island fastness.
“Lucky devils, you mean,” Doug snorted. “With nice dry solid earth under their feet down there—while we get the kind of punishment we're taking up here in the doggone rain!”
Southbound on the leg between Amapa and Belem we crossed the Equator at 12.24 G.M.T.
On the 22nd, flying between Sao Luiz and Fortaleza, I found myself becoming restless and unable to sit still in my place at the controls. Presently I detected an ominous smell in the cockpit. In due course it became evident that a cigarette ash had dropped in my pocket and set my pants on fire. Never a dull moment! Screaming my head off at Doug, who happened to be peacefully sleeping back in the cabin at the time, I finally managed to rouse him. He rushed up forward to take over control while I put on a fire-extinguishing act that shook his sides.
It was after dark when we arrived at Fortaleza. After landing and rolling to a stop on the runway, we were unable on our radio to contact the tower for taxi instructions. We made a bad guess, turned left on the first taxi strip we could locate, and managed to get ourselves thoroughly lost on the airport in the dark. We finally ended up on the edge of the jungle, beyond which point we could lose ourselves no further. Sitting out there waiting for a jeep to come to our rescue and lead us in like Bo Peep’s lost sheep was an embarrassing experience for a couple of full-grown men.
Strategically located on the “hump” of the South American Continent, Natal, the western terminal of the South Atlantic ferry system, throbs with activity that ranks it as one of the world’s great air traffic centres. We arrived there on the 23rd and remained overnight.
Since our departure from Montreal,
on Dec. 18, we had long ago shed the prima donna complex that has affected pampered air crews in World War No. 2 and reverted to the Jack-of-all-trades status Canadian pilots enjoyed before the war—if they wanted to eat regularly. We had loaded our own freight, manhandled our ships on the ground and anointed ourselves regularly with grease and oil as we tackled snag after snag with pliers, wrenches and words that belong nowhere beyond the precincts of a broken-down airplane.
American Bases Abound
We had long since dug the last clean shirts out of our kits and we were a grimy-looking crew. Despite our travel-worn appearance the immaculate U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps had always a warm welcome for us. The hospitality and appointments of their officers’ clubs and messes were at our disposal at every base we went into. The fact that 16 out of the 22 landings we made south of Miami were on American military fields will give some indication of the scope of the hemisphere defense system set in motion since the beginning of the war by our neighbors.
We saw several half - submerged wrecks of torpedoed schooners off the coast en route from Recife to Sao Salvador on the 24th. That brought home to us the extent of Axis submarine operations in these waters before the Battle of the Atlantic turned in favor of the United Nations.
Delayed at Sao Salvador, due to further difficulties with our hydraulics, we arrived at Caravelas late in the afternoon of the 25th and decided to go on to Victoria that night to catch up with the other crews. Reference to our route book indicated the field at Victoria to be equipped with a beacon and full night-landing facilities. We arrived at 22.00 on a murky night, with a low ceiling and light rain, in an area surrounded by mountains, to learn to our amazement that no arrangements had been made to have the field lights turned on for us. The airport lay swallowed up in the velvety depths of the darkened world. We were able, however, to observe clearly the twinkling lights of the town. Laying off a bearing on our map from the town to the field, we circled the vicinity as low as we dared, switching our landing lights off and on until we managed to pick up the outlines of the single concrete runway in their beam. Doug MacDonald was handling the controls on this run and did a very fine job of
getting us in under conditions that were anything but comforting.
Journey’s end was signalled on Jan. 26 as Frank Hawthorne led his Fying Circus through the mountainpillared entrance to Rio harbor in close echelon formation after a twoand-a-half-hour flight down the coast from Victoria. Rio de Janeiro, bathed in golden sunlight that morning, was thrilling to see for the first time from the air. Concentration on our formation flying prevented us from enjoying our fill of it on our first run over the city while the movie cameras ground out the newsreel record of our arrival. As we strung out and peeled off to go down and shoot our landings individually, however, we were able to get a fuller view of the magnificent combination of natural beauty and architectural artistry that has made Rio one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Only four ships took part in the formation. Ted Blockley had been hung up with generator trouble back along the route. He arrived two days behind us, flying on instruments through heavy weather most of the way, to find the approach to Rio harbor completely closed in by fog, low clouds and rain. Working the Santa Cruz range, he headed a safe distance out to sea, climbed up through the overcast, and came back in over the top to look for a hole that he could get down through into the airport, inside the moutain barrier.
Vision in the Clouds
Skimming the tops of the clouds at
2.000 feet, he and his copilot, Rod McRitchie, were suddenly startled by a vision that caused them to stare with openmouthed expressions of reverence and awe. It was the figure of the Savior standing on the clouds and welcoming them with open arms. Apparently they had lived right, for the same thought flashed instantly through both their minds—they’d had it!
Sculptured in stone, the 150-foot figure of Cristo Redentor looks out across the city of Rio de Janeiro from the summit of Corcovado Mountain,
2.000 feet above sea level—on the day on which Blockley and McRitchie caught their first glimpse of it, the level of the top of the clouds!
Brazilian Government officials accompanied the Canadian Ambassador, who was on hand to extend an official reception to us on the day of our arrival at Santos Dumont Airport. We were later to learn from the Brazilian people themselves of the magnificent job that has been done by Jean Désy, the Canadian Ambassador, and his staff, in selling Canada to the people of Brazil. When Canadian businessmen wake up to the vast potential market that is open to them in Latin America, they will find that the way has been painstakingly and permanently paved for them by Canada’s popular and dynamic present Ambassador to Brazil.