Arctic & Northern History
by Lauchie Chisholm
(Gazette Staff Writer)
(First of a series)
RCAF Station, Whitehorse, The Yukon. - Aircraft flying from this base north of the 61st Parallel are correcting the map of Canada this summer.
New maps may alter only by inches the distance between Montreal and Toronto. The major alterations will be here in the north, along the international Alaska-Yukon boundary and up to the ice-covered islands within the Arctic Circle.
In the past, through aerial surveys in other parts of Canada, the old maps have been found to be in error by as much as 30 miles.
A detachment of the Air Force's largest squadron - 408 Photo Reconnaissance out of Rockcliffe - is here until the big freeze up in September and until the almost unbroken Arctic day turns into night.
It is a complex, large-scale operation, this aerial survey of the Yukon. It involves erecting radar stations on mountain tops and sending two-man teams of young airmen to these isolated sites - spots where no man would think of going unless necessary. Radar crews have been at such sites for as long as three months.
The aerial survey involves flights up to 12 hours duration and 29,000 feet in altitude in converted Lancaster bombers, an aircraft renowned for its Second World War efficiency.
The operation requires air crews to get out of bed shortly after the 2 a.m. Arctic sunrise, struggle sleepily to the airmen's mess for early breakfast, get briefed in the "ops room" on the long flight, and do a thorough check on every piece of equipment on the electronics-laden Lancasters.
Once airborne in the four-engined aircraft, the pilot points it upward and outward hundreds of miles from this central base.
Oxygen masks at the ready, the eight-man crew goes to work. What makes the aerial survey aircraft unusual is the amount of electronic equipment carried. Two radar operators are members of the crew.
The network of mountain-top short range radar navigation stations (Shoran) must be tuned in and operating if the old Lancaster is to put in a work day.
The aircraft flies high over the line between two shoran stations. In brief, the shoran equipment measures the time taken for a pulse transmitted from the aircraft to travel to and return to a radar station, divides this time in half, and converts the resultant time into units of distance.
Every radar pulse is recorded on a special camera. The development and co-relation of these radar readings is not a simple thing.
A section of the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys in Ottawa will be working on the calculations taken from the readings for eight months before the final map co-ordinates are set.
In about two years, the findings of 408 Squadron and the related government departments will be placed on new maps. That, of course, is the end result of the entire shoran and flying operations here this summer.
But the operation is more widespread than flying Lancaster bouncing signals off the 70-foot masts of lonely shoran stations.
There are other aircraft, other problems to be considered. A small fleet of amphibious Cansos, Otters and land-bound Dakotas are based here, flying out into the almost perpetual northern light.
In addition, the squadron has on loan a twin-rotor Piasecki helicopter. Normally, the banana-shaped flying machine is employed in far north search and rescue operations.
The pontoon-equipped Otters are useful in installation of the short range radar stations, The aircraft lands on a lake as close as possible to the height where the station must be installed. Elevation is necessary for proper radar reception.
As the task of aerial surveying moves steadily toward the Arctic islands, the only RCAF aircraft capable of doing the site installation job are the long-range Canso flying boats.
And the task of setting up shop (radar) within the Arctic Islands is continually hampered by the low ceiling fog of the warmer months. But surveying near the North Pole is not an immediate worry of the squadron.
The Yukon operation definitely will be completed before the continuous nightfall here. However, an accurate aerial survey of the Arctic Islands is expected to take another two years and countless hours of work under conditions difficult to imagine.
Dakota aircraft are used mainly in a logistic role, flying men and supplies from the permanent location of the squadron in Ottawa to this base 3,700 overland miles away from the capital city.
One Way Traffic
The passenger traffic is mostly one way - north - this summer. Practically all leaves and holidays have been cancelled for the duration of the operation.
Occasionally the squadron calls upon the services of C-119 Flying Boxcars to freight in the heavy equipment. The Air Force's boxcar squadrons are based at Edmonton and Montreal Airport.
Directing this flying and man-muscle operation here in the land made legendary by the poems of Robert Service, is Sqdn.-Ldr. Ken Brown, 34, Moose Jaw, Sask., a member of the RAF's famous Dam Busters of the Second World War. A career force officer with silver grey hair, Sqdn.-Ldr. Brown is in charge of the summertime detachment - approximately one-half of the squadron's strength.
No. 408 Squadron itself is commanded by Wing Cmdr. Jack Showler, 42, Winnipeg, a former bush pilot, authority on northern lore and long-time veteran of service flying.
It will be months before the map's inaccuracies discovered by the squadron this summer become known. Nobody expects the duplication of the startling inaccuracy uncovered by the Air Force some 20 years ago. An entire island in James Bay was practically upside down on all maps.
Despite the rugged life and the long weeks and months away from home, flying in the north and correcting the map of Canada is good training.
Officers with an eye for another stripe know that Air Marshal C. R. Slemon, chief of the air staff, once flew in the north. Aboard his aircraft was a crate of pigeons to fly back to base with messages in any emergency.
And he flew in an aircraft held together with piano wire.