"And the first thing I knew, the aircraft was off the ground. And I tell you, it was the biggest thrill that I ever had in my life."
So I was 20 years old when I joined the Air Force and I had never seen an aircraft until, up close, until I was 20 years old. And it was a Cessna Crane [AT-17 Bobcat] from Saskatoon. It was flown by a fellow student from our school in Lockport [Manitoba], he was a couple years older than me. He had joined the air force a couple years before that and had graduated, and he desperately wanted to go overseas. He eventually did, but they picked him to be an instructor and he did everything that he could do, everything he could do to try and get them to send him overseas. I think he even crashed a Tiger Moth one time, flying it too low or something. And he flew this airplane out from Saskatoon to a field just across the road from, or just really close at least to our farmyard and I remember running down to that field to see this aircraft.
He got out of the aircraft and he left the engines, twin engines, he left them running at high idle, which is really exciting because the wind blowing off of those engines is really something. The grass is blowing around and, of course, he’d leave the brakes on and he had student in the airplane to hold it down. But he got out of the aircraft and talked to us guys. And I said, “That’s what I’m going to do.” That’s when I decided, that’s what I want to do. And so from then on I enlisted, and I remember we landed there after about eight hours of duo and somthing like eight hours, got out of the plane and he turned to me and he said, “Williams, what size shoes do you wear?” And I said, “Size ten, but what do you care about that?” “I just wonder,” he said, “if you can stand on your own two feet.” I said, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” “Go ahead,” he said. He just waved me off. I opened the throttle, it was not on a runway, a grass field, so not too smooth. And I turned into wind and had the throttle wide open and down the field I went. And the first thing I knew, the aircraft was off the ground. And I tell you, it was the biggest thrill that I ever had in my life. I can’t hardly describe it. Not ever seeing airplanes until I was 20 and then all of a sudden, I’m flying them. It’s amazing.
I graduated with wings, with the whole course of about 100 people. And it was course number 91. Out of that course, seven of us were picked to go to Number Two Flying Instructor School at Pearson, Alberta. I trained pilots for, from 1944 until October 1945. But in the meantime, I was sent to Deseronto, Ontario twice to what they called Instrument Flying School. And that was a course where you took standard beam approach. Standard beam approach was a beam they used overseas, broadcast from the airport that you were to land on. It didn’t go very far out so you didn’t follow it for a long distance or anything like that. When you got back near the airport, you could pick up this beam and it was a radio beam and you could listen to it on your earphones and you could follow it to the station. And when you got to a certain place, it was, there was, like, they called it a cone of silence, it just went dead. You knew exactly where you were then. From there you did your maneuvers and you got into position to line yourself up on the runway. And if you did it properly, you aligned yourself up right on the runway whether you could see it or not. If you were in the clouds or whatever, you came out of the clouds, the runway would be right ahead of you.
I was sent back to Instrument Flying School at Deseronto in June of 1945, to take a course on radio range. Radio range was another system of flying on the beam. If we were ride across the country, you’d have the stations from across the country and the airlines used it for years and years after the war. If you fly on that beam, just like a highway. If you got on the right-hand side of it, you got them, in Morse Code, you got an A in your earphone. If you got it off the beam on the other side of it, you got a B, which was a dash and two dots. And in the middle of the beam, you just had a steady, steady hum, so you knew exactly where you were all the time. On the top of the aircraft, you had a, what they called a radio compass and this radio compass would pick up regular commercial radio stations as you were flying along. And you could tune in a radio station and the radio compass would automatically turn and to face the station. It would just actually turn and it would show you the number of degrees that it was from you. Taking the reverse degrees from that, you could draw a picture, a line on your map and it would show you exactly where you were on the line that you were following, which would be the beam.
We had a little computer on our leg and it was called a Dalton computer. Not a modern one or anything like that. But by putting in these numbers, you could get your groundspeed and therefore be able to estimate your time of arrival at your destination. Which worked out really, really well.
We trained pilots from all over the world. We trained Norwegian, we trained Free France, we trained Australians. I’m just really amazed that I was part of that whole system. It was fantastic. You know, there was hardly any, I think there was just a very small permanent air force in Canada at the start of the war and they built all these stations across the country from one side of the country to another. They just went into farmer’s fields and built a station there. And all across the country they do this, it’s an amazing feat of a country that was only, what, ten million people at the time. And just coming out of a depression and very, very bad droughts in western Canada, and the worst depression the world had ever seen. And they came out and they built this. And then we manned it. And we did a superb job of manning it.