Crossing The Pond
As we make our way from St. John’s Newfoundland to Ayr Scotland the drone of the turboprop engines of the 130 lulls me into a relaxed, almost meditative state. The airplane is behaving as it should. The cockpit is in order. There is nothing to look at except the ocean as it passes slowly beneath the airplane. The sky is cloudless. There are twenty-three windows up front. Making the view amazing. In front of me, at eye level, are nine windows that give me over a one hundred and eighty-degree view. I look back at the wings and engine nacelles. I’ll get out of my seat and stand behind the pilot’s seat for a bit. Below the pilot and copilots side console, at floor level, are two windows on each side. These windows present a nice view of the ocean at my feet. I’m usually a bit tired, a little bored, so naturally, my mind wanders. I’ve often wondered who else has followed this path over the Atlantic to Europe over the years? I was wondering if B-17s would have flown a similar route as they made their way to England?
I discovered that there were two routes that bomber crews took to England. The North Atlantic Route and the Mid-Atlantic Route. I’ve never done the Mid-Atlantic Route but the North Atlantic Route is pretty much what 130s take today to get to the UK, Europe and on to the Middle-East. Some of the base names have changed or are no longer bases but civilian airports. Some are gone altogether, runways bulldozed clean and hangers leveled. Repurposed from busy war centered activity to suburban sprawl. For the most part though the route across the Atlantic is the same.
I stumbled across a B-17G flight engineer/top turret gunner’s personal mission log while surfing the Internet. It’s interesting to look at some of the parallels of that crew’s trip to England and the places I’ve spent time during my military career. During the War aircrews were assembled in the States, finalizing their training as a crew prior to arriving at the theater of operations they would operate in. Today we still use the hard crew concept but as individual crew members we are already trained and current. The training is such that individuals from different bases could intermix with another unit with no issues.
His crew started their journey from Kelly Field, slowly working their way to England. I was last in the reserves as an FE on the C-5 at Kelly. Now it is JBSA Lackland AFB. Lackland is a bit smaller than it was in the 1990’s but it still dwarfs the base as it was during the War. During the hight of the War, there were about 30,000 people working on the base at any one time. This population was split about fifty-fifty between civilians and military. Today the base population is over 100,000.
The next stop for them was into Scott Field, home of the mighty 8th Army Air Force, currently Scott AFB. It was here they picked up their sealed orders, not to be opened until they reached an altitude of over five thousand feet. I’ve spent many months at Scott. An AE crew would join us and we’d fly two-week stints with them. We would fly medivac and HR missions throughout the Midwest. Our missions took us as far south McAllen Texas. To the south, we could see the mountains that divide us from Mexico. We also flew to El Paso Texas, into Biggs Army Airfield. Similar looking mountains and the RioGrande flowing through them also.
One of my fondest memories was flying from Scott back to Peoria. The controller asked us if we’d like to fly the river route. Our AC, Catfish said “Sure but what is it?” Basically, we got to do a low level, flying several hundred feet above the Mississippi River, working our way north. As luck would have it the Cardinal’s were at home. We didn’t quite fly over Busch Stadium but we got a good look inside. I’m sure our engines were heard inside the stadium. That was quite the departure out of St Louis.
Just a little farther north is Peoria, about forty-five minutes flying time from brake release to parking on the Air Guard ramp, wheels in the chocks. This is where I would start most of my trips to Europe and the Middle East. For fifteen years I spent a good chunk of time either in Peoria or on a mission from here. There is something amazing when I walk out of the OPs building alone at 4:30 in the morning. It’s a few minutes walk to get to the airplanes. The air is usually still. There is very little noise. My pro gear is in a wheeled case, the noise from the wheels echoes from the hangers. The blue taxi lights remind me of driving on Lake Shore Drive back in the seventies. Blue lights guiding your way. I hated getting up at O’Dark thirty but that was one memory I’m glad I have.
From Scott Field, they flew towards the island of St John’s Newfoundland and to RCAF Station Gander. At this point, Newfoundland still was a British Dominion. It remained such until 1949 when it became Canada’s tenth province. There were three bases on the island of Newfoundland during the war years: Stephenville Air Base, Canadian Forces Base Gander and RCAF Station Torbay.
Because of weather they diverted into RCAF Station Torbay, today known as St John’s International Airport. The same place that I would fly into as a 130 crew some seventy years later. The runways have been lengthened and some of the buildings are still standing. I’m sure some of them got into as many shenanigans as I did while spending a night or two in St. John’s. See my blog post: Interesting places that I’ve been: St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, for the details. Its one of my top five places in the world, drunk or sober.
From St John’s we would fly into Glasgow Prestwick Airport just outside of Ayr Scotland. During the early years of aviation, as trans-Atlantic flights were getting underway, Prestwick Airport was about the only airport allowed to handle these flights. Due to a geographical anomaly, there would be no fog at Prestwick while the rest of the UK was socked in. It was known as “Britain’s only fog-free airport.” Another interesting “fact” is that this is the only place that Elvis set foot in the UK. It was during a refueling stop on his way back to the States from Germany while in the Army. The latest news involving Prestwick is that President Trump is in partnership with the airport to make it the Scottish base for all Trump Aviation Operations. He owns nearby Trump Turnberry Resort. He promises to make it great.
At Prestwick the bladder tanks were removed and the B-17 was readied for war. The crew spent several days here waiting for the aircraft to be prepped. They spent the time in a transient tent. Probably with several other crews who were also waiting for the weather to clear at their destination or maintenance to be performed on their aircraft.
It was a short flight to Sudbury. Similar to the flight from Scott to Peoria. The flight was made during daylight hours to help with the acclamation of the area. They flew at about thousand feet so that they would not conflict with the many other bombers and fighters making their way to and from the continent.
I’ve never spent more than thirty-six hours in Ayr in my coming and going from Europe or the Middle East. I usually get a good dinner in at a local pub. On my first trip through here I discovered “Real Shepard’s Pie.” It was a seafood pie. One of the most amazing things I’ve ever eaten. The crust was flaky, browned to perfection. The white cream sauce was rich, creamy, made from real heavy cream I’m sure.
From Ayr we might continue to Romania or Turkey, usually Romania. It is there that all things familiar quickly disappear. As difficult as the Scottish are to understand, they do speak English. The grass is naturally green. Not so as I got into the Middle East. The first trip to that part of the world I imagined what the early explorers must have felt like as they got out of their boats and scanned their surroundings. It was totally alien. Hundreds of years later I felt the same way. The landscape was unlike any desert in the US. The way people dressed was so different from the women in full burkas and men in dishdashah. One of my first memories of being in the Middle East was of us just landing and there was a very large electronic thermometer right outside the terminal building. The thermometer was about eight feet tall. The display was digital but was made to look like a traditional exterior thermometer. It read one hundred eighteen degrees Fahrenheit, that’s 118ºF. It was 9:00 pm.
Great blog Jim! I seem to remember, vaguely, some of these trips with you.