William (Bill) Heath

by Frank Tibbo

Residents of Gander are aware that one of their streets is called Heath Crescent, but few know much about the man for whom it is named. When I came to Gander he was the Officer-in-Charge of Gander Aeradio (Signals); and when I bought my first house, I remember getting him to sign a document in his official capacity as Justice of the Peace.

William H. Heath was born in the small English farm market town of Newbury in Berkshire on October 1, 1899. When the Great War started Heath was fifteen, and he knew his father had served in the Boar War. Now Heath was anxious to serve his country. At sixteen Heath was robust and strong; so when he applied to join the Royal Navy, they didn't bother to check his birth certificate. He joined as student telegrapher and was assigned to the Engadine in the English Channel. A few months later he became part of a scheme to give the navy air surveillance capability. The Royal Naval Air Service was being formed, and Heath was among the first to pass tests to qualify for radio operator training at Pulham St. Mary in Norfolk.

It is interesting to note that when the Royal Naval Air Service was formed it became the second air arm, the first being the Royal Flying Corps. The British government later combined these two arms into one: The Royal Air Force.

Following six months of training, Heath was posted to a seaplane base in Dunkirk. Five months later, he was transferred to Polegate, England – the base for aerial patrols of the English Channel. The majority of Heath’s flying service was aboard cigar-shaped, propeller driven, gas-filled balloons called Blimps. The big gas-bags were primarily used for aerial observation; in other words, trying to see what the Germans were up to.

On one such mission, their own propeller almost did them in. It is not clear how it happened, but a propeller pierced the Blimp in which Heath was a crew member. There was no such thing as getting it repaired in flight, so the big bag of gas started to deflate. The captain ordered every expendable thing out – bombs included. The Blimp responded to the loss of weight and temporarily stopped its descent; it even gained some altitude. But calamity was not far away. It soon resumed its inevitable and inexorable journey to the cold English Channel. The crew was lucky; a destroyer plucked them out of the water.

After the war was over, Corporal Bill Heath remained in the RAF for another two years and spent most of that time assigned to the rigid airship base at Pulham. His biggest disappointment was being dropped as the radio officer for the Airship "R-34" because of a bout with the Spanish flu. The trip that Heath missed was indeed historic; the R-34 became the first to accomplish a two-way crossing of the North Atlantic in July 1919.

Following his departure from the RAF, Heath returned to his Newbury home. He discovered, however, that farming no longer held his interest, and he left home again in search for more adventure.

It was his connection with Blimps that brought Bill Heath to Newfoundland. The Newfoundland government obtained six war-surplus Blimps from the British government to be used for forest surveys and seal spotting. Heath was searching the newspapers for aviation-related jobs, and he saw a newspaper advertisement by the Aerial Manufacturing Company of Canada looking for crews. He quickly applied, was accepted for a position, and told he would be going to Newfoundland. He sailed from Liverpool aboard the S.S. Digby and arrived in St. John's on November 14, 1920. From there it was on to Botwood where the operation was to be based. In the meantime, the war-surplus materials were shipped to Botwood on the S.S. Cranley a vessel owned by the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company. A short time after, Heath and the other men arrived in Botwood, but the deal started to go sour. The men, with the exception of Heath, returned to England.

Mary Aiken of Botwood, the lady whom Heath married, had a definite influence on Heath's decision to stay in Newfoundland – a decision he never regretted.

Enter Major Sydney Cotton (for whom Cotton Street, Gander, is named) on the scene. Cotton, an Australian, had formed the Aerial Survey Company. He had entered on a commercial venture to provide aerial seal spotting for sealing vessels. He needed a wireless operator, and someone told him about Bill Heath. Cotton made him a job offer which included a standard monthly wage plus 5 cents for every mile flown.

Cotton's company had limited success. Although Cotton eventually became involved in several other endeavours, his entire Newfoundland venture folded in 1923. Heath then found employment as a time-keeper working on the Deer Lake to Bonne Bay Highway and later became night foreman in the machine shop at the Corner Brook paper mill. In 1924 he returned to Botwood to work in a similar position with the A.N.D. Company and held this job for 13 years. He was eventually made machine shop foreman.

In 1936 Squadron leader H.A.L. Pattison was in Newfoundland overseeing the preliminary preparation of a landing field near Hattie's Camp. Pattison found Heath's name through an application he had placed with the British Air Ministry for employment following his discharge from the RAF. He contacted Bill and offered him a job as a radio operator.

"I enjoyed my early days in aviation, so I decided to return even though the job offer held no security. It was explained to me in very clear terms that I would be let go if I proved too rusty for the job. The pay offered was $182 per month, which was $7 more than I was getting with the A.N.D. Company. I accepted Pattison's offer and commenced work on April 1. After two weeks or so of brushing up, I was as good as new."

Construction on the new Gander Airport was progressing rapidly, and the station was moved to Gander. Though Health was first stationed in Botwood, Heath moved to Gander on November 30, 1938. When Heath arrived here Gander was in a primitive state. A collection of makeshift huts plus a few finished structures built around the newly-asphalted runways was all that existed.

In October 1940, the airport was placed on a military basis, and all airport staff were placed under the jurisdiction of the British Military aircraft production organization which maintained headquarters at Montreal. Later this organization became the Atlantic Ferry Organization, then the Royal Air Force Ferry Command, and finally the RAF Transport command. At the conclusion of military jurisdiction in April 1946, the Civil Aviation Division of the Newfoundland government once more assumed control of Gander Airport. In 1949 the airport was taken over by the Department of Transport.


Bill Heath

Bill Heath finally retired on September 30, 1965, following an extensive career which took him into practically all of the varied fields of aviation. At the time of his retirement, he was officer-in-charge of Gander Aeradio.

Heath moved to Moncton in 1979 to live with his daughter Felicity and her husband Jack Austen, a former manager of the Royal Bank in Gander. Heath died in Moncton, NB, on August 3, 1982.

contributed by F. Tibbo


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