Austin Garrett

by Frank Tibbo

Some have their name in Gander history and on street signs because of their connection with the early days of Newfoundland Airport, some because of flying feats, and others because they gained recognition with the RAF and RCAF during WWII. Austin Garrett seems to qualify on all fronts. He was around when the airport was being built, he is famous for his flying feats (particularly during the Czech crash in 1967), and he is a WWII veteran of the Royal Air Force.

Garrett was born in Port Blandford, Newfoundland, in 1922 where he grew up and attended school. It was during the summers when school was out that his character began to develop. He landed a job in Gander as a cookee at the tender age of 14. He continued that work for the next two summers; and as Garrett puts it, "I became an experienced cookee."

Austin was working as a cookee in Indian Bay the day the war broke out. It was a Sunday and on Monday morning, he was on his way back to Port Blandford. The company that he was working with had been loading pulpwood for overseas; but the declaration of war meant that the ships were called back, and young Garrett was laid off.

It wasn't long before Garrett heard that they needed forestry workers in Great Britain. Garrett convinced his mother to give him permission to go overseas as a member of the Forestry Unit. He left Newfoundland January 23, 1940, and arrived in Scotland on February 7. Six months later, he was in Aberdeen volunteering for the Royal Air Force.

It was now August 1940. He was taken on as a member of the ground-crew and performed various duties such as working on flashing beacons. That was too tame so he re-mustered to air-crew. His instructor shocked him by telling him after only 4 hours and 25 minutes that he was to do his first solo on the Tiger-Moth. He told the instructor that he couldn't fly, but the instructor would have none of it. "You've been up with me for the past two hours. You may not realize it, but you've been doing all the flying – off you go!"

When Garrett told me that, something that Cy Rowsell told me about him flashed back to my mind. Garrett is a notorious card player, and Rowsell was a frequent participant. I asked Cy if Austin is a good card player. He shot back, "Yeah, but he plays everybody else's cards better!" Anyway, Garrett obeyed his instructor and took off on his first of thousands of take-offs.

Garrett received his wings and was promoted to sergeant. His next assignment was to an Operational Training Unit where he attended 'Bat School' and was taught to fly Standard Beam Approaches. That was followed by a conversion course from single engine to twin engine Oxford aircraft.

His talent as an instructor soon became evident, and many RAF and Commonwealth pilots received training from this affable Newfoundlander. He soon was promoted to the rank of Flight Sergeant and finally to Warrant officer, the rank Garrett calls "The best damn rank in the Air force." At war's end, he had logged one thousand flying hours

Six years and one day after joining up, Garrett returned home in June 1946. Six weeks’ work in a machine shop in Buchans was followed by a job in Toronto with the Canadian National Railway's Express Office. In 1952 he was transferred to Gander as an Express Agent. He stayed with the Gander Branch of the CNR from 1952 to 1955. It was sometime in 1955 when a friend advised him that they were looking for a dispatcher at EPA, and he took the job with no intention of going back flying, despite the fact that he had a valid licence.

EPA, of course, knew of his war-time experience and asked him to fly part-time. The incentive was three cents a mile on top of his salary as dispatcher. He acceded to their request, and the next request was that he go flying full-time.

Ask anybody about the Czech crash, and the conversation will soon come around to Austin Garrett.

A Czechoslovakian IL-18 crashed on taking-off Runway 14 on at 2:40 a.m. on Tuesday, September 5, 1967. The aircraft crashed about 3,762 feet from the end of the runway, and the wreckage came to rest about 5,344 feet from the end of the runway. This area is almost entirely bog and very dangerous to walk on, particularly at night. Several rescue workers, including the Fire Chief at the Airport, stepped into holes and sank up to their waists before being pulled out. The remains of the aircraft were about 2000 feet from the nearest road, and it was impossible to get rescue vehicles across the bog to the scene. It would take many hours to carry all of the injured out across the bog. Rescue officials accordingly agreed that a helicopter was essential if the injured passengers were to get medical help on time. The closest RCAF Rescue Unit was in Halifax. An emergency call went out to Eastern Provincial Airways.

EPA boss Jim Lewington called Marsh Jones; Jones knew that the man for the job was Captain Austin Garrett. One of Garrett's first questions when he was called by Marsh Jones was, "What do they want a helicopter for?” When Jones told him the rescue vehicles could not get to the crash, he dressed faster than any time since the war.

When members of the RCMP Gander Detachment and rescue workers arrived at the scene, the aircraft was found to be completely demolished and engulfed in flames. Most of the passengers were burned, cut and had broken bones. Others were still strapped in their seats which had been thrown clear. The dead were left where they were. The injured were placed on stretchers and moved away from the wreckage and fire and kept warm while waiting for the helicopter to remove them.

The records at Gander International Airport recall that between 4:09 a.m., when Garrett first had the helicopter airborne, and 5:50 a.m., he made 18 round trip flights from the crash site to the Airport Terminal where the injured were transferred to ambulances. Each round trip was approximately 4 miles in distance and took between 4 and 11 minutes. By 5:50 a.m., all 39 injured passengers and crew had been removed from the scene. It was noted that it was not daylight at this time, as the sun did not rise until 6:30 a.m.

Austin Garrett continued bringing out bodies and taking equipment to the scene. By 8:08 a.m., Austin had completed 36 round trips to the scene. He ended his effort at 1:04 p.m. after completing a total of 45 round trips. When he started, it took him 12 minutes to fly from the tarmac to the crash site and back; later in the morning, Garrett was making the round trip in just 6 minutes.
Garrett's efforts in the rescue operations greatly reduced the time required to evacuate the injured from the scene. He completed his mission during hours of darkness when a helicopter is not normally
operated. The lack of wind that night also complicated matters, as the smoke from the burning wreckage blanketed the crash site and also drifted slowly toward the airport. As Garrett approached the scene, he had to fly over the smoke and occasionally had to fly through it.

It should be remembered that in this type of operation, the aircraft has no flight instruments of any value to the pilot who must rely entirely on visual reference to the ground for their execution. The only landing aids were the lights of the helicopter (which gave out after the first few trips), flashlights held by rescue workers, and the light from the burning wreckage.

Taking into consideration the environment in which Mr. Garrett was working, it is not surprising that he was awarded the OBE (Officer of the British Empire). On July 1, 1967, Garrett was also awarded the Centennial Medal. Garrett managed to save many lives by quickly transporting the victims with the least amount of suffering possible despite the darkness, fire, smoke, wreckage, and somewhat confused rescue workers on the ground who were trying to direct his helicopter with flashlights.

Eastern Provincial Airway was first and foremost a "bush" airline and one of the best. During the unpredictable temperature during spring, snow and ice was sometimes too soft for skis yet or unsuitable for floats. An airline has to fly in order to live, and ingenious methods were used to "get the freight through."

For a number of years, it was the custom to break up the thin ice in some of the ponds in order to use the float planes. It was on one of these spring days when Austin Garrett was told to go to Deadman's Pond with his helicopter and break up the ice. The procedure was to use the weight of the helicopter to break through the surface. The company knew that Garrett had done this many times and thought nothing more of it until they got a telephone call saying he was in the hospital.

When he got the call, EPA dispatcher Bert Patey went along for the fun. He soon wished he had stayed in his dispatch office. Garrett was doing fine breaking up the ice along Deadman's Pond, lifting the helicopter up and down. Butut suddenly during one of his lifts, the helicopter rolled over, struck the ice, and became inverted!

I'll let Austin tell you what happened next.

"We went under the water, and I could feel Bert down there wiggling. We were inverted and we had those army straps on. No straps on the shoulders and was I hangin' upside down under water. Couldn't see anything and I thought 'I've got to get Bert,' and I couldn't get my belt off. Finally I took some water in and the belt came off. I reached for the emergency latch to pull the door off, but the door had fallen off. I got out through the opening and was going back for Bert when he grabbed my foot, and we both came up through the ice. Of course nobody knew we were there; and there was no phone down there, and we were soaking wet and freezing.

Bill Bennett had an aircraft on the bank and Bert suggested that we see if the battery was in it, so we could use the radio to call the Tower. Well sure enough the radio worked and they sent somebody down to take us to the hospital. Bert broke his arm but other than that we were O.K."

The problem occurred because the helicopter ski got caught under a big piece of ice.

Austin Garrett told me many stories. Many helicopter pilots know that if you fly helicopters long enough, you'll have a story about the tail rotor. This story happened in Fogo in 1965 when a tail rotor failed through metal fatigue.

Eric Facey, senior partner in the law firm of Easton, Facey & Hillier, was aboard and tells it this way.

"About 50 or 60 feet in the air, the tail rotor disappeared; but Austin kept the aircraft under control and somehow managed to get it down without capsizing, despite the fact that it was still rotating. He was pretty cool 'under fire.'

I had just gotten my flying licence and one of the things I had learned was to get away from an aircraft as soon as possible after an accident because of possible fire and explosion. I was sitting on the starboard side; and as soon as the helicopter touched the ground, I threw the door back and jumped. Had someone been there to take the measurements, I'm sure I would have qualified for the Olympics in the broad jump.

It was a super skilful job to get us down without any injury, but Austin was his usual modest self about the whole thing. Austin Garrett saved my life!"

Years later when EPA purchased a Dart Herald (an aircraft) and went into main-line operations in a big way, Austin turned down an offer to transfer and decided to retire.
Andrew Crosby heard that Garrett was available and offered him a job flying a new Beaver that he had acquired. Austin spent many happy years while in the employ of Mr. Crosby, and later Mr. Harry Steele.

Ed note, also read; Most Excellent Order of the British Empire For Gallentry

Contributed by F. Tibbo

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