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West Coast interceptor

STORY by DICK BENTHAM – first published summer 1996

409 Squadron crews WPU 1958

Comox-based aircrews outside their ops tent at the Second annual Air Defence Command rocket meet, Cold Lake, September 1958. Entered in the competition were, left to right: F/Ls K. Hester and J. Coates, S/L B. McFadden and F/L B. Johnston. (DND)

When I was a CF-100 fighter pilot serving in Comox, British Columbia, in the late ’50s, the Cold War was hot enough that most of us wouldn’t have been too surprised to suddenly scramble against Russian bombers on any given day. We practised against USAF B-47s and B-52s of the Strategic Air Command, against each other and against nearby USAF fighter squadrons, and considered how we would perform if and when the shooting began.

Those of us who were there for the CF-100’s shining moment remember our squadron as being much like a family, with the usual assortment of human strengths, weaknesses and secrets. We particularly remember the young members who were cut down in flying accidents while serving their country in peacetime. The following accounts of specific events offer a snapshot of the period, the procedures and the attitudes that prevailed at the time.

Cudgel 55
Cudgel 55, a CF-100 crew on 409 Squadron, bailed out of their stricken airplane (18499) on the stormy night of December 16, 1958.

The tag end of a winter southeaster was churning up the Strait of Georgia near RCAF Station Comox on Vancouver Island. Gale-force winds were still blowing and huge rollers crashed around Cape Lazo off the end of runway 11. Although the driving rain had mostly stopped, there were still a few showers moving over the strait. It was a lousy night to survive a Martin Baker let-down.

Cudgel 55 was a relatively new crew. Red McLaren, the Nav/Radar Operator (Nav/RO), was a tall, red-headed 20-year-old with a big smile and a friendly manner. His pilot, John Callahan from Dawson in the Yukon, also about 20, was an irrepressible, outgoing character with a keen and ready sense of humour. He was also an excellent swimmer and very strong–no doubt this played its part in his survival.

Callahan ejected successfully (apparently through the canopy) and without serious injury at about 20,000 feet. After descending in his parachute in the blackness for a while, he heard the swishing of what he assumed, with much relief, to be the wind in the trees of Vancouver Island. As he went into the water, he quickly realized that the swishing sound had been coming from the combers in the Strait of Georgia. What followed was a desperate struggle in complete darkness while being flung about by the freezing waves.

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