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Mapping In Full Flight: Air Force, Part 28


A Lancaster conducting a postwar aerial survey.

The Royal Canadian Air Force’s aerial photography and mapping, a staple of operations from 1921 to 1939, was suspended during the Second World War, except where it would have direct mili­tary bearing, i.e. airfield construction. However, by 1944 the RCAF was performing limited photo survey work for federal and provincial governments, charging them $3.25 per square mile covered.

No. 7 Photo Wing was organized on May 29, 1944, at Rockcliffe (in Ottawa), to conduct photographic operations in Canada and to experiment—within the context of domestic aerial photography—with the combat techniques learned overseas. The unit began with an array of aircraft and people. As of May 31, 1944, it had 299 personnel, three Spitfires, a Hurricane, five Ansons, three Mitchells, a Canso and a Norseman. On occasion the Ansons went to 20,000 feet—the very limit of their ability—to perform tests on such equipment as photoflash bombs. Tests and training of new personnel aside, the first survey sorties began on May 16, 1944. On June 11, 1944, No.7 Wing conducted its first trimetregon survey with a Mitchell. A trimetregon is an array of three cameras that take overlapping images of the terrain.

In the spring of 1945, planning commenced to resume the extensive pre-war work, using methods and techniques developed overseas. An ambitious program was laid on which would have seen some 200,000 square miles covered by vertical photography and 300,000 square miles by trimetregon camera charting. Smoke from forest fires curtailed the work; during 1945-46 only 186,000 square miles of the first task were photographed and only 85,000 square miles from the second. In 1946-47, however, roughly 355,000 square miles were covered. These results were gained by phasing out older aircraft (Avro Ansons) and substituting newer machines (North American Mitchells, Avro Lancasters) capable of flying higher, and photographing more territory.

Curiously, 1946 through 1948 witnessed an American survey of the Canadian Arctic—Operation Polaris, conducted by the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron and later the 72nd Reconnaissance Sqdn. Three B-29 Superfortresses, stripped of armament, carried out more than 100 flights from March 20, 1946, to Aug. 11, 1948, sometimes with two aircraft in one day. The crews were chiefly American, but each sortie included at least one Canadian observer—normally an RCAF officer serving as astro navigator and sometimes as co-pilot. Flying Officer Arthur LaFlamme, a decorated former bomber pilot, took part in 33 such missions; Flight Lieutenant Robert G. Murray was aboard on 19. A mission flown on Aug. 29, 1947, had two RCAF officers plus Dr. Erling Porsild, chief botanist of the National Museum of Canada.

Aerial photos for mapping are processed at Rockcliffe, Ont., in March 1945. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA065599]

Aerial photos for mapping are processed at Rockcliffe, Ont., in March 1945.

The bomb bays held extra fuel tanks, enabling some sorties to last more than 22 hours. The missions were flown at altitudes from 2,500 to 20,000 feet. A few were made in near-total Arctic darkness with the intention of testing airborne radar as a survey tool. Flt. Lt. (later Brigadier-General) Keith Greenaway described one sortie in detail, involving a flight over the North Geographic Pole: “The aircraft left Ladd Field, Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 9, 1946, proceeding to a landfall on Ellesmere Island, then north to the pole and from there direct to Edmonton. A landing was made at Edmonton on May 10, after being in the air for 22 hours and 18 minutes, during which time the aircraft traversed 4,058 nautical miles (4,673 statute miles) of the Arctic. The weather forecast for this flight promised little cloud and almost unlimited visibility over practically the entire route, yet the aircraft was actually flown “over the top” (over cloud) for more than 3,000 miles. An extensive undercast (cloud coverage below the aircraft) prevailed from the north coast of Alaska to within a few miles of the pole and back to the vicinity of Coppermine in the Northwest Territories. The mountain peaks of northern Ellesmere Island, protruding through the undercast, provided the only glimpse of far northern terrain throughout the flight.”

In 1948, Greenaway, in conjunction with Lieut. Sidney E. Colthorpe of the United States Air Force, produced An Aerial Reconnaissance of Arctic North America, the first comprehensive guide for Arctic flying. It spelled out what was known and not known about the Arctic Archipelago. Initially deemed a confidential document, it was not declassified until 1966.

Operation Polaris overlapped the beginning of the RCAF’s campaign to map the North; the sortie reports noted flaws in existing charts. Uncharted lakes were discovered on some islands. Other discrepancies between maps and observations were noted. Following an 18-hour mission on June 29-30, 1948, the operational summary flatly declared: “O’Reilly Island, Canadian Geographical Society Island and the large island shown at 68 15 N 99 45 W do not exist.” Other islands were noted as being placed at the wrong coordinates. These observations pointed to the importance of a comprehensive northern aerial survey.

The RCAF’s 1947 photographic flying season was impressive. Two squadrons conducted aerial surveys. One, equipped with Dakota aircraft and the latest navigational aids, completed 111,043 square miles of vertical photography. The other squadron, flying Lancasters and Mitchells, covered 293,000 square miles with trimetregon photography.

The next year was even better. With favourable weather and improved equipment—photo Lancasters in particular—the goal of covering 550,000 square miles was reached by mid-summer. The final total for the season was more than double that for the previous year—911,000 square miles. A highlight of the 1948 season was in July when Flight Lieutenant C.D. Bennett and the crew of Lancaster FM214 discovered themselves over land in Foxe Basin where only water had been charted. They had blundered upon two hitherto uncharted islands and thus added some 5,000 square miles to Canadian territory. One was subsequently named Air Force Island.

As a result of that year’s operations only 15 per cent of the Dominion remained to be photographed for the compilation of aeronautical charts extending to 75 degrees north latitude. In 1949-50, 870,537 square miles were covered and 869,000 square miles in 1950-51. Gap filling continued and by 1957 the task was complete. No. 408 Sqdn., the main unit in this program, then concentrated on northern reconnaissance work, related more to Cold War unease than domestic requirements.

Aerial mapping was, in large measure, a seasonal affair. Each spring and summer photographic units fanned out across the North to remote, even primitive airfields. Unpredictable weather might delay operations; long summer days helped. The crews followed precise tracks, photographing from 22,000 feet as they went. They were assisted by SHORAN (Short Range Aid to Navigation) which had grown out of wartime bombing technology. Portable SHORAN sites were established at increasingly remote sites. They emitted radar pulses that enabled personnel to establish precise distances between various points and thus draw the flight lines. Millions of photographs were forwarded to the RCAF’s Photo Establishment at Rockcliffe where they were assembled into mosaics which eventually became maps.


A 1949 SHORAN site at Hecla, Man.

The introduction of Lancasters into northern operations had many advantages. The aircraft’s four engines raised crew confidence. Also, the plane’s potential endurance of 14 hours airborne permitted selection of alternative mapping or reconnaissance sites if weather proved unfavourable in the primary area. Crew comfort (compared to Mitchells and Cansos) was also enhanced.

Nevertheless, it was a complex program, and although much of the technology was “state of the art,” some of it smacked of improvisation. The Lancasters, which came to symbolize the program, had been designed neither for northern nor photographic operations and needed extensive modifications, which slowed their introduction into service. Even so, tires wore out quickly on gravel Arctic airstrips. The Merlin engines had to be overhauled every 300 hours, yet it was not uncommon for a Lancaster to spend upwards of 400 hours per summer on detached operations. That meant frequent engine changes. In 1949 alone, No. 408’s eight Lancasters needed 62 Merlin changes in the field—44 because of time-expired engines, five due to valve failures, and the balance attributable to assorted mechanical problems.

The aircraft were not serviced in comfort at a Rockcliffe hangar, but in the open at remote sites where flies and mosquitoes attacked everyone, except on those days when it was too cold or raining.

Beer was welcomed, but in the Northwest Territories it was very expensive. In 1951, the men of No. 408 Sqdn. hit upon a method of getting cheaper “suds.” Lancasters flying to Rockcliffe with 450-foot rolls of film returned with canned beer which was lighter than bottled beer. But since Ontario sold only bottled beer at the time, a truck drove to Quebec and returned with the goods. On returning to Yellowknife (via Edmonton) the Lancaster delivered its special load. Technically, the process violated the liquor laws of Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

No. 408’s mapping program was considered one of the RCAF’s finest postwar achievements, although it was certainly not unique to Canada. In many ways it resembled the work done by No. 82 Sqdn. (Royal Air Force) with Lancasters in Africa and No. 87 Sqdn. (Royal Australian Air Force) using Mosquitos in Australia. All such units employed navigational techniques that had been developed during the war, notably SHORAN.

Squadron Leader Ian A.H. Macfarlane, an RCAF officer on exchange duties with the RAF, observed the RAF operations in Africa in 1950. Attached to No. 82 Sqdn., he reported similarities between British and Canadian operations, but also noted significant differences. No. 82 Sqdn. employed “almost unlimited native labour” in roles from barman to telephone operators. More significantly, each radar beacon site assisting the aircrews had approximately 10 persons; RCAF SHORAN sites needed only two or three.

RCAF Lancasters also participated in tasks unlike any conducted by other Commonwealth countries. Most were routine, but on Aug. 14, 1948, a machine of No. 413 Sqdn. figured in a rare piece of high drama. From Goose Bay, Labrador, it was “scrambled” when a TCA North Star, en route from Britain, reported a double engine failure. The Lanc met up with the airliner and provided close escort to Goose Bay.

Photographic work was essentially an early summer operation, best performed after snow had melted on land—enabling distinction between land and water—and the final break up of ice—when open water encouraged fog and cloud.

In October 1951, No. 408 Sqdn. took atmosphere readings to help monitor Soviet atomic testing and expanded into the realm of ice reconnaissance. Concern for Arctic defences heightened in 1954, when the unit commenced photographing a strip 40 miles wide, coast to coast, in preparation for the Mid-Canada Line of radar bases. Also in 1954, No. 408 Sqdn. located and photographed Russian research camps established on floating ice islands. Some crews even took Russian language training, ostensibly in anticipation of forced landings close to the stations, but also to monitor simple radio transmissions. This work continued until 1964, when retirement of the Lancs deprived No. 408 of its long-range capability.

Particularly interesting work was performed in February and April 1962 in conjunction with the launch of an American weather satellite, TIROS IV. RCAF Dakotas, Lancasters and CF-100s photographed ice and cloud conditions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from different altitudes. Material was compared with satellite photographs, enabling experts to interpret better the pictures taken from space. Difficulties that affected the new generation of photographic satellites in distinguishing between cloud, ice and snow were resolved. The realm of aerial survey and reconnaissance was being revolutionized at the very outset of the space age.

The last Lancaster was ceremoniously retired in April 1964. Surviving machines were speedily dispatched to new duties as static display machines at parks and museums. No. 408 Sqdn. continued, however, flying a mixture of aircraft on assorted duties. These included a few Dakotas which could be used for relatively low-level photographic work. Some of their tasks assumed a “cloak and dagger” air; in January 1965 they were instructed to assign a camera-equipped Dakota to Uplands in Ottawa at two-month intervals to fly photographic sorties over “certain sensitive areas in Ottawa and Montreal.” The targets included the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, which was to be overflown every two months, the Polish, Czech, and Cuban embassies (every six months), four other Soviet offices in Ottawa (military attaché, press, consular and commercial, every six months), the Cuban Residence (every six months), plus the Montreal Consular Offices of Czecho­slovakia and Poland (every six months). The stereoscopic photography was to concentrate on target rooftops. The selection of a Dakota was understandable; it would be less conspicuous than a T-33 and would be able to execute more leisurely “flybys.” Material was to be delivered directly to the Chief of Intelligence, National Defence Headquarters.

The retirement of the Lancaster and reduction of mapping disturbed some. On Nov. 10, 1966, Colonel M.C. Sutherland-Brown wrote a memo to the Director General Intelligence in Canadian Forces Headquarters. He noted that as of that date No. 408 Sqdn. had retired not only its Lancasters but its Dakotas, leaving the unit only with T-33s—good for tactical reconnaissance, but not for mapping. The recent White Paper on Defence had stated that a mobile force should be available in support of United Nations operations anywhere in the world. He pointed out that only 25 per cent of the world surface had been adequately mapped. Forces deployed abroad might be called on to operate in countries where there were inadequate or out-of-date maps. Sutherland-Brown called for retention of a services mapping capability. This was done, taking the form of the Canadian Forces Mapping and Charting Establishment, which continues to produce maps for specific military tasks, from northern exercises to flood relief and from the Arctic to Bosnia, using aerial and land survey methods.

Formal honours were rare in the postwar RCAF. In 1951, Air Commodore A.D. Ross nominated not a person, but an organization—No. 408 Sqdn.—for the Trans-Canada Trophy, better known as the McKee Trophy. Awarded annually for outstanding contributions to Canadian aviation, there was no provision for a “group” award, but two officers associated with the mapping work received the honour. The first was Greenaway in 1952 for his expertise in Arctic flying, meteorology and contributions to devices assisting in high-latitude aerial navigation. The second, in 1958, was Wing Commander John G. Showler, who commanded No. 408 Sqdn. for much of its most intense work (1954-57).

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