Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 27, 1977


The Communications Story of Jim Strong

It was a time when fascinating worlds were opening up in aviation and communications especially.  In St. John’s a church radio broadcasting station had gone on the air known as 8 WMC (Wesley Methodist Church), the forerunner of what is now VOWR (Voice of Wesley Radio).J Strong

Youths, of course, were curious then as they are now so they too were fascinated by this new thing they call broadcasting.  Among them at the time was one Wilfred James Gladstone Strong.  Spurred by a close neighbour who was associated with 8WMC , he would even take it on himself as a school boy to build a crystal set, with which to receive broadcasts.  This he was able to do successfully increasing his interest in communications all the more.

That boy, who was addressed as “Jim” for short is now at 64, a retired man of Gander.  He lived communications all his working life, basically taking him from the humble wireless key to modern, sophisticated, electronic equipment unimaginable by comparison.

He was actually born at Brownsdale, Trinity Bay but the father, a building contractor, moved to St. John’s when the boy was five or six years old.  The boy began attending school at the old Methodist College which needless to add and as the name implies, was owned and operated by a religious denomination that was synonymous with early radio broadcasting in St. John’s.

At 16 he finished school and, although he wanted to go into radio work or some other sphere of communications, he would first take up office work.  After various jobs as a clerk, he finally got to studying wireless and so took two courses in radio servicing.  In the end, he held a first class wireless operator’s certificate.

It was 1937 and a seaplane base was being established at Botwood by the British Air Ministry.  The man to see for a job there was Squadron Leader H.A.L. Patterson.  Mr. Strong successfully applied for a position finding himself at Botwood as a junior wireless operator by June of that year.

He had left St. John’s for Norris Arm by train, referred to as the Express, making the journey in 19 hours.  At Norris Arm he embarked on a motor launch for Botwood, going by the Exploits River.  The trip was made during night and not without fear either since strayed pulpwood on the river would often become water-logged, then sink just below the surface of the water, making it difficult if not impossible to spot, even during the day.

The launch was capable of traveling up to 25 knots an hour and the impact would be frightening to say the least if it happened to collide with one or more of these hazardous logs.  However, the Captain was quite able in his work and the trip to the delight of the young man fresh out of St. John’s was made without incident.

“It was exciting,” Mr. Strong recalls vividly, of his arrival at Botwood.  A new era was quickly dawning for the whole world in communications, coinciding with that of the airplane.

Trans-Atlantic flights were being formally tested by both Britain and the United States which were using Botwood as a service base on this side of the Atlantic for flying boats.  These flights were to prove themselves, as Britain used a flying boat which was a short Sunderland named Caledonia and piloted by Capt. Wilcockson, between Newfoundland and Ireland.  The American counterpart used was the Clipper, piloted by Capt. Harold Grey – between Newfoundland and Ireland.  The two pilots would exchange greetings at mid-Atlantic, marking the official beginning of northern Atlantic survey flights.

There were two types of aircraft at the time, noted Mr. Strong, one for takeoff from water and another for takeoff from land.  Seemingly, the flying boat had been more developed for use while the land-based plane was looked on as being the upcoming aircraft of the future.  This would become apparent, once Gander came into its own as a service centre for land-based aircraft.

Botwood provided a natural harbour for a seaplane base.  It was not only landlocked somewhat as a safe harbour for anchorage but Botwood was also strategically located for North Atlantic flying traffic.  Botwood also had electrical power immediately available.  The wireless station and staff house were located on King’s Ridge, a high range at the outskirts of town.  The staff house was crowded so some of the staff were accommodated at a boarding house in town.

Using wireless to aid flying traffic meant a new dimension for this particular means of communication.  Up until then wireless was known primarily by Newfoundland standards, as an aid to railway and marine traffic.  There were about 12 wireless operators engaged at Botwood and doing shifts in the novelty of controlling flying boat traffic in the North Atlantic.  Also a weather station was established at Botwood to complement operations.

One incident stuck out in Mr. Strong’s mind as he reminisced about Botwood.  Captain Douglas Fraser, now believed residing in St. John’s, had a seaplane operation at Norris Arm.  At the time of setting up the short wave direction finding equipment it was necessary to establish known geographical points quite distant from the home s station and to do this use of an aircraft was the most feasible means.  On one occasion Mr. Strong flew with Captain Fraser for this purpose.

They left Norris Arm in the morning, making a smooth takeoff, and headed for the coast but after flying over several locations and identifying them, the weather began to deteriorate.  The station at Botwood was so advised, yet Capt. Fraser decided he would take one more point before returning to base.  This he attempted but in order to do so it was necessary to find a hole in the overcast and drop down through it.  He found a hole all right but when he broke down through it the plane was right above the community’s graveyard where each headstone in the fog loomed the size of a mountain.  Capt. Fraser certainly did not linger for long.  Applying full throttle they were soon above cloud again and this time heading for home.  With both weather and daylight growing less in their favour a direct flight plan was observed.  As they came out of dense cloud, at one instance, Mr. Strong thought the plane was losing power but to his joy he heard Capt. Fraser switch to the reserve gas tank.  It was just about dark when they arrived back at Norris Arm. 

Mr. Strong was transferred out of Botwood and to Gander in November 1938.  By the following year, the new airport at Gander was already taking on real shape with runways completed.  Weather that summer was magnificent, said Mr. Strong, and as if it was ordered to meet an urgency to have the work done.

The prospect that communications held out, because of time, would be even more exciting at Gander.  In fact, besides being a base for land-based aircraft, which were coming more and more into their own, the weather forecasting office at Botwood was to be moved to Gander and the latter would also become an alternative to Botwood in servicing flying boats.  These were serviced from Gander Lake and at a spot known as Glen Eagles located in an area this side of Appleton.

Generally, at Gander, there were four permanent buildings – for administration, domestic accommodation, weather forecasting and for wireless operations.

In the beginning at Gander which would then assist Botwood in weather forecasting and traffic control, aircraft takeoff and clearance were conducted through wireless.  It was a common language for all people using it, said Mr. Strong and thus, without any racial barrier.

But time honoured wireless was soon to give way to a competitor.  It would indeed become obsolete for aviation as the last World War progressed and voice communication took its place.  This means of communication was much faster to conduct.  At Gander it could be Foynes, Ireland, on one side or New York or Montreal on the other, to be contacted, so as to gather information on both weather and flight plans.

Changes in communications were “fantastic,” said Mr. Strong – marveling in retrospect and mentioning the various phases.  Voice communication replaced wireless, then radar and sophisticated landing facilities came into their own.  High powered transmitters for Trans Atlantic traffic use were made available with radio teletype assuming a major role in high speed communication.  Finally, or as of now, there is cable communication linking major parts of the world, such as Canada, United States and the United Kingdom.  Soon aircraft will be programmed for landing at about the same time it receives its taxing takeoff instructions.  Satellite communication is the coming thing for air traffic control, said Mr. Strong.

Mr. Strong retired November 1, 1974 as the telecommunications area manager at Gander for the Department of Transport with 142 people under him.  He had actively participated in the greatest era of communications the world has so far seen.  For him privately, it took him from Wilcockson to Wilcockson, since it is seeming appropriate that the crescent he resides on is named for the pilot of that first British Flying boat at Botwood.


Webster note:

Jim Strong's (sr) Accommodation Bill 1938-39 at the Newfoundland Airport


researched by Carol Walsh

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