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Ferry Command









by Frank Tibbo

A name that always stands out in Gander's short history is McTaggart-Cowan. He was a man who was held on a metaphorical pedestal by thousands of airmen whose very lives depended on his predictions.

Jeffrey Davis, in an article called 'ATFERO: The Atlantic Ferry Organization', wrote, "McTaggart-Cowan was possibly the most important person in an organization that depended so much on weather."

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1912, Dr. Patrick Duncan McTaggart-Cowan MBE, OC, was a Rhodes Scholar, director of the Canadian Meteorological Service. After the war, he became the first president of Simon Fraser University and executive director of the Science Council of Canada.

The next few pages are based on an interview with Dr. McTaggart-Cowan in his home at Bracebridge, Ontario, by Mr. Robert Banting, nephew of Sir Frederick Banting. The interview was conducted one week prior to Dr. McTaggart-Cowan's death.

In discussing meteorology he said:

"When I went out to Newfoundland, there were a few observing stations around the coast but nothing else. So we had to put that together (weather service). At the same time the telecommunications side was equally being developed. British Marconi came out to do the telecommunications side of Botwood and then at Gander. The installation was finished in Botwood by the end of 1937. Admiral Johnson of Marconi was in charge of that. He went back to England after he was finished and the Air Ministry took over. The chief telecommunications officer was a man by the name of Fever. He was recalled to Britain during the war because he was a very experienced man and Frank (Ratcliffe) took over. He was acting radio operator for Gilmore (when both men were killed). We lost two good men on that silly junket. Frank was in charge of the receiving equipment and staff and Morley Brant was in charge of the transmitters – he was the transmitter expert. That's the way the British divided the responsibilities.

I hired the best graduates of that year's crop from Memorial. I trained them to take weather observations and to plot weather maps – the technician's stuff. None of them, unfortunately, had enough education to become professionals. They were busy taking weather observations, radio operators were busy copying weather reports from Greenland, the Azores and England and anywhere I could scratch them up – and the States, because there were no land lines you see. The railway had run on the old sounder, but there was nothing you could put a teletype on, so that everything had to come in by radio and had to be plotted on weather maps. They didn't know what was going on in the hangar so anything they have written about (outside of their work) could be questionable history.

The first land-line operation we were able to mount was in the early days of the war. The British, for understandable reasons, got more and more tied up with secrecy and they wouldn't send their weather observations to us and yet we were having to send aircraft over (the Atlantic) – we needed to know what was going on and at that time they learnt how to multiplex the transatlantic cable and we got a meteorological channel on that multiplex. Up until that time everything came by radio. We would copy the Canadian and American data that were broadcast out of Arlington on a U.S. Navy channel and then the Danish government had a broadcast out of Greenland – a very poor one – and then we picked up one from Iceland and from Britain. We had a huge staff of radio operators – 24 hours a day. Most of the weather was broadcast on a scheduled basis, and if you missed it you missed it.

At Gander we would intercept signals going to the U.S. Navy in Washington who then decoded them and sent up to us and my cypher team would have them deciphered and plotted on the map before we got it back from Washington, so they weren't that hard to crack.

Hugh Bindon was a meteorologist who came out to Norris Arm first to begin these upper-air (tests) so that we'd have some idea of what the upper air temperature, pressure and wind speed and direction were in that part of Newfoundland. He preceded me by about eight months. I was still with the task-force in Britain and he went out and started these upper-air (tests) with the Fox Moth. (We operated with) floats in the summer and skis in the winter, and in Gander it was wheels in the summer and skis in the winter."

One may wonder why such a prominent forecaster was asked to go to Gander in 1937. The answer of course is because of the experimental transatlantic flights. Accurate weather was essential if the operation was to succeed. The Canadian government had agreed to provide the meteorological service and wanted the brightest person on their staff to take on the job.

"Newfoundland had a few reporting stations – just weather reporting – largely for fishing and coastline shipping. Then under the U.K.-Canada-Newfoundland Agreement, Canada undertook to provide the meteorological service on the western half of the Atlantic for the experimental flights. The same way as the British undertook to provide meteorological service, not only in U.K. but also in Ireland and the first thing that happened was I was offered the job to join the task-force in Britain and if everything was approved the respective governments to end up in Newfoundland to develop the service there. A counterpart of mine, who was also on this task-force, was to go to Foynes, Ireland and a third was to go to Poole in southern England, which was the starting point. The flying boats would go from Poole, to Foynes, to Botwood, to Montreal or New York depending on whether they were American or British."

In discussing the lack of weather observations on which to base his forecast, he told how he had pressed to get weather ships stationed at points across the Atlantic during the war.

"The British assigned two elderly freighters, I think their top speed was eight knots. So they couldn't use them on a convoy because they couldn't keep up with the convoy and they were armed with one gun, but as far as I know they didn't have a gunner or ammunition. The gun was just for show. They took up station about 500 miles east-southeast of Cape Race, which was a position that gave us the best help to get a handle on storms that came up between Bermuda and North America and developed very quickly when they got over the cold waters of the Labrador current and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. I knew what was going on in Cape Race and I knew that if I had something 500 miles away at least it would give us a start. One of the ships would do about a month on station before being relieved by the other. They would come into St. John's for refit and supplies. We had a meteorologist on each of them and they were supposed to take their observations every six hours and broadcast them and then change their position to try to avoid the subs. It lasted about eight months. The end was predictable, the U-boats got them on the change over, and they got both of them the same night. We must have sent 50 B-24s down over the area but there was no sign of debris or anything.

Just after that there was a U.S. Admiral who came through (Gander). I held his aircraft up for about a week because of weather. Well, this fellow had never been held up before by a civilian, and he was getting angrier all the time. Finally we got to know each other, and he finally got to appreciate what my problem was. At the end he said, 'If I get back from this trip I'm going to put some weather ships out there.' So I said that's fine; here's where I'd like them. He did get back safely; and within a few months, we had four stations manned with Coast Guard cutters armed to the teeth with every antisubmarine device that the U.S. Navy had. They never lost one to enemy action, and by the end of the war we had 20 ships on station across the Atlantic.

I had a fair staff of highly competent meteorologists but I elected to do the daily briefing myself. The crew that was scheduled out the next day would come in and I would give them the run-down. First I would tell them some dos and don'ts about flying the Atlantic because these people were fresh out of school. I'd tell them about icing and so on and not to be foolhardy and if anything went wrong to turn around and come back, because they were all gung-ho young pilots. So they got a lot more than the weather after listening to me for about an hour and then the following morning, of course, they would get the actual flight forecast."

Dr. Sir Frederick Banting, a Canadian Nobel prize winner, spent his last night at Gander and was hosted by Gander's chief meteorologist. McTaggart-Cowan recalled the following:

"They couldn't go over that night because I wasn't satisfied that the weather was suitable. So Sir Frederick came up and spent the night with us. Banting told me that evening while at my house, 'You know, I'm scared, I know I've got to get over that. I don't know why I'm scared. I've never been really scared in my life before.' I told him (Dr. Banting) there was no reason to be (scared) – I told him how that the reason for the crash was defective oil coolers. 'In Mackey's case the first oil cooler went as he crossed the Newfoundland coast and after he turned around the second one failed. I got this from Mackey himself. We had quite a talk, because part of my responsibility was that the weather back at Gander was good enough for anybody that had to come back, so I wanted to know that the weather hadn't played a significant role. He said, 'No.' He knew when the second one went as far away from Gander as that, that his chances of getting back to Gander was zero. That's when he told the three to get back aft and jump. He knew they were over land so they wouldn't be jumping into the ocean, and shortly after that he felt the tail of the aircraft go up and said, 'Fine, they're safe and now I have to decide what to do.' So he decided to try to get it down. At this point he was an overweight glider and he thought he had a sporting chance of getting down, and he did a good job of getting it down, the only trouble is he ran out of lake.

After he landed, he (Mackey) was shocked to see three bodies, he was convinced they had jumped safely. Now I heard from Mackey, and he said when reconstructing it himself that all three had been standing. The rear door had been jettisoned which is the first step to jumping, and that all three had been standing at the rear door, that the radio operator and co-pilot had their parachutes on and Sir Frederick's was still in the rack. He also said in hind-casting that if all three had been sitting on the floor with their back to the bulkhead looking aft, they'd all be alive. The bulkhead stayed put, – the bulkhead is just behind the pilot – they would have been shaken up but they would have been alive. Why the three were standing there no one knows."

McTaggart-Cowan said of his time in Gander:

"We had a central building which housed the meteorological, control and communications offices and in which we ate and slept. And along side of that we had a power house, just a few feet away and a house for central heating. There was the railway station and the transmitter site buildings and two houses, one that the Pattisons lived in and the one that we lived in. H.A.L. Pattison was the airport manager; he had been a Squadron Leader in the RAF and was sent out by the RAF to be the Operations Controller at Botwood and then at Gander. He was a pilot of distinction from WWI, but unfortunately had a wife who was a complete alcoholic, when I say complete I mean 24 hours a day. Between the wars, she had followed him. He had a squadron in India, and then was posted to Saudi Arabia in the desert to do patrols there. Their house (in Saudi Arabia) was an old aircraft packing crate. They used to pack aircraft up in crates and send them to various places in those days. The heat got to her, as one would expect, and the water supply was (sparse) and she began drinking gin. They had two lovely children, one of them worked for me. Pattison's house (in Gander) wasn't exactly a guest house for visiting celebrities so Margaret (Mrs. McTaggart-Cowan) was the hostess of choice."

He wasn't a man who was shy about giving his opinion on various subjects. Commenting on why the runways at the Newfoundland Airport were so wide.

"The reasons are shrouded in mystery. The design was done in Britain and they had no concern about snow removal. The reason there's a hump in the middle of the main runway is because the original engineer, who came over from Britain, didn't bother running levels, and he just knew he had to do a lot of excavating, and he kept on excavating until he had removed far too much. Then the British ran out of money (which they had assigned to the project) and they hadn't even got one runway graded properly and it became a real political embarrassment and the British sent an emissary over to talk to C.D. Howe to say, 'Will you please bail us out?' because someone has to take this thing on that knows something about it. Howe agreed but said he would have to put in his own men. That's when Jewitt, who had been a divisional engineer on the Welland Canal and had done an excellent job, and had come to Howe's attention, was tapped on the shoulder and asked if he'd go down and straighten out this mess. Jewitt agreed but insisted that Chestnut come as his inside man and Bradley as his outside man. So the three of them came down. When Bradley got his level on these runways, he just blew his top. I think they were 20 feet below the level they should have been so Jewitt called a meeting of the airlines with C.D. Howe as well and said to them, 'How much of a hump can you live with because it's going to cost a fortune to get all that stuff back.' So they came to an agreement as to how much of a hump they could live with.

Jewitt said, 'We've got to have some houses here.' We were all living in the Administration Building and I said, 'I have a fiancé in Vancouver who I'd love to get out here.' So he got permission from the British Air Ministry to build a house for the airport manager and me and three duplexes for the senior radio operators, Brant and Wilcox and their lieutenants. And the cheapest place to put them was near the end of the runway where it would be easy to connect the services. The Canadian government paid the shot. The Shell Oil built a house near the end of the row for their man, Ron Hayden; they had the contract in Newfoundland for Botwood and Gander to provide all the fuel."

It was said that Gander's Hangar 20 had the largest one-piece door in the world.

"In Gander at that time we had the famous green hangar with the tremendous one-piece door – the whole front of the hangar lifted up as one door. It was there before the war broke out. We had done all of our experimental work with the flying boats and that was limited to the spring and summer – we couldn't do it in the winter. The British were developing the Albatross which was an airplane capable of flying the Atlantic, and the French were developing the Farman. So we were all set up at Gander to continue our experimental flights using land planes – this is before the war broke out."

He held strong opinions on many things and wasn't reticent when expressing his views:

"Gilmore (Gilmore Place, Gander) was our chief engineer. I don't know who paid his salary. It would either be Canadian Pacific Railroad – Canadian Pacific Airlines – or Ferry Command as it evolved. He certainly behaved as if he was on staff. The reason he died was because he was trying to save the neck of the C.O. (Commanding Officer) who had put our small airplane in the drink. This silly-ass Englishman had gone fishing with a float (sic) plane but the ice was soft. He had no right taking the airplane out fishing to start with, and he shouldn't have put it on soft ice. Gilmore went and fished it out, got it back to Gander, repaired it to where he thought it was airworthy; and he and Frank Redcliff, who was head of radio at that time, elected to fly it back to Montreal where they would do a complete rebuilding. They got as far as Prince Edward Island. We were worried enough that there was a PBY riding herd on them. They went into a cloud over P.E.I. and went straight into the ground. There was just enough turbulence that something rotted that had been in the salt water and gave out. It was a stupid thing to do. Gilmore nor Frank should have gone near the damn airplane. It should have just been written off. He was just trying to save the neck of the silly C.O."

He spoke of Sir Frederick Banting's tragic death in a Hudson bomber that was being ferried to the United Kingdom:

"The Hudsons as they were first delivered had round engine oil-coolers in the wings and they were efficient; and the Hudson had a good reputation – a rugged airplane. Then for military purposes, they decided to hot-up the engines; and I don't remember how they were doing that. I don't think they had a booster on it. Anyway for combat purposes, they felt they needed a greater amount of air-cooling ability; and some silly-ass felt that instead of a round cooler they could put an oblong shaped cooler in and get a much bigger cooler area. It's fine for them (Lockheed) to talk about engineering specifications; but during the war, the specification listing the changes usually came six months after you got the change.

And once Ferry Command took over, we had one unit in Dorval whose job it was to crawl all over every airplane that came on line before it was (cleared) for delivery and find out what changes had been made. Then a number of us had the job of assessing that to find out whether we should put additional limits on the conditions that had to exist in order to deliver it. I remember one had a gigantic oil cooler out in front which in our conditions just manufactured carburettor ice, and the quick fix I came up with there was to get pieces of plywood and covered the damn thing. The American-built aircraft were all underpowered compared with the German aircraft.

I think the first seven aircraft came with the round oil coolers; and after that they came with the square. The round oil-coolers did a lovely job. There was no problem, winter, summer. The square coolers came along and Gilmore spotted them right away (they were on during the first winter). The air was getting cold enough in Montreal. The oil is circulated by a pump and the oil is heavy, the stress goes to the corners of these damn oil coolers; and something's got to give, so they fractured any one of the four corners. And they were bound to. Anybody who knew anything hydraulics and the temperatures they were getting in Montreal, or Newfoundland or Winnipeg – well if you started them cold, that oil cooler was going to fetch. Gilmore got a whole stack of them, and he automatically changed both oil coolers on every Hudson as soon as it arrived at Gander to get it ready for the overseas flight. The standing instruction was that if the oil pressure dropped at all during the first hour after take-off, they were to turn around and come back."

Donald Bennett C.B. C.B.E. D.S.O. led the first squadron of bombers across the Atlantic during the war. Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, Royal Air Force Bomber Command, said, "Bennett is the most efficient pilot I have ever met." McTaggart-Cowan also thought highly of Bennett:

"Bennett was absolutely brilliant, not only as a pilot, but as a navigator, and as an engineer. The only problem was that he thought everyone should be as smart as he was, and he wouldn't make allowances for people. When he was running British West Indian Airlines, it was a disaster because he expected everybody else to be as capable as he was – and they weren't. Anyway, I don't think that kind of change (oil cooler) would have got past Bennett. He would have gone over his airplane with a fine-tooth comb, and he wouldn't have relied (solely) on technical manuals. They were to follow Bennett but after a while they ran into cloud and had to separate – just as we expected (forecast). Bennett was the only navigator. But we had worked out what we considered was a fail-safe detailed flight plan of exactly what they had to do, so when they separated the six reverted to the flight plan."

Civilian ferry pilots were paid well, but McTaggart-Cowan didn't think they were all qualified:

"Incidentally, all the pilots weren't that good. To prove the point, I had to go to Ottawa and coming back I got on one of the delivery Hudsons; and I felt we'd been in the air a long time, so I went up to the sharp end to see what the pilot was doing and he said, 'O, we're over the gulf.' This was about five hours after he left Montreal. I said, 'There's no way you're over the Gulf' – there was lots of ocean. And I looked back and way on the horizon – there were a couple of little pimples of islands and I said, 'I think those are the Grey Islands, and we're heading out over the Atlantic.' And he then admitted he really didn't know where he was; so I said, 'Look we're going to head due south, and you're going to contact Gander to see if they can DF (Direction Finding) you.'

We had long range DF which was reasonably good and we had short range DF which was marginal. So he tried to get Gander but his radio operator wasn't very good either. Heading down over White Bay you get into a very difficult area for radio communications. We flew due south long enough and picked up the railway, and I told him he was to stay on the railway until he got to Gander. By the time we got to Gander, there wasn't very much fuel left; and Gander, of course, was frantic and thought we were down in the Atlantic somewhere. So they turned that fellow around the next day and sent him back to Montreal; and going back to Montreal, he lost his way and parked the aircraft up in the Laurentians (Laurentian Mountains) somewhere. So that fellow didn't fly again. How that fellow got through the training program in Montreal, I don't know."

Dr. McTaggart-Cowan died October 11, 1997, at Bracebridge, Ontario, shortly after this interview. My sincere thanks to Mr. Bob Banting, nephew of the late Sir Frederick Banting, for allowing me to use his taped interviews. Mr. Banting taped the interview a week prior to Dr. McTaggart-Cowan's death.


Contributed by F. Tibbo

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