LtCol Ted A. Morris, USAF (ret)
Note: This is an authorized abridged reproduction of an article written by LtCol Morris as it appeared in the 1991 summer edition of Coast Guard Flight Lines. It is presented as a first person depiction of Coast Guard air operations in a by-gone era. Photos were provided. During the period of this article, 1946-1948, Ted served as a Coast Guard Aviation Machinistmate, flying PBY-5A aircraft from the Coast Guard air detachment at Argentia Newfoundland.
Several LORAN stations providing coverage for the North Atlantic ocean were located in Newfoundland, at Port aux Basque, Bonavista, Twillingate and one very remote site was located at Battle Harbour, Labrador. The three LORAN stations in Newfoundland were supplied for the most part by land transport. About once a month, however, it was necessary to use airdrop resupply. The Battle Harbor station was supplied with mail, food, personnel and maintenance parts all year by PBY-5A missions. Water landing operations were restricted during the winter months because of ice. During this time, the supply portion of the mission was basically to fly over the station’s drop zone and dropping supplies by parachute. The pickup of outgoing mail, repairable maintenance items and used parachutes was a bit more challenging.
A Battle Harbour mission was approximately eight flying hours for two pilots and four crewmen: usually an aviation radioman (ARM), two aviation machinist mates (AMM) and an aviation ordnanceman (AOM). Prior to take off, the retrieving equipment was checked over and the cargo was loaded and distributed throughout the aircraft compartments.
The PBY-5As were “winterized”, which meant that heat exchangers were installed on the outboard exhaust of each R-1830-92 Pratt & Whitney engine. This supplied a hot wing anti-ice system for the wing, provided that the engine was operating. An inoperative engine meant no anti-icing capability on that side of the wing making it difficult to fly on one engine.
The heating system for the crew consisted of three Stewart Warner heaters located in (1) the tunnel compartment aft of the blisters, (2) the bunk compartment forward of the blisters where SAR equipment was stored, and (3) the navigator compartment immediately behind the pilots. These heaters used aviation gasoline for fuel, a glow plug for ignition and a minimum of 80 knots airspeed for air supply, which hopefully would mix with the fuel and be ignited by the glow plug. As the PBY did most everything in the neighborhood of 100 knots, the heaters should have worked. Most flights required at least one in-flight heater overhaul to keep at least two of the heaters in operation. The PBY had plenty of openings around hatches and windows to provide ample air flow of outside temperatures throughout the aircraft. It is safe to say that the crew members had to ensure that they were dressed warmly and to plan on generating their own body heat. During air drops and retrieving operations, heaters were turned off and the blisters and tunnel hatch were opened, making the PBY a very cold aircraft.
During the air drops, the pilots flew the aircraft manually just above stall speed for several hours. The crewmembers manhandled the cargo to the blister compartment, secured the parachute static line to the gun mount and heaved the bundles out of the blisters as the aircraft flew over the men on the ground. Eight or ten passes at heights of about 100 feet were required to drop all mail and cargo.
To make pick-up retrievals, the tunnel hatch, located at the bottom of the yellow SAR band around the aft fuselage, was opened and latched. The hatch, originally intended for a .30 caliber machine gun, was about 30 inches long and 21 inches wide. A special rig was installed on the gun mount, through which a two section wood catcher pole (3 inches in diameter and 20 feet in length) was inserted. At the lower end of the pole was a spring-loaded catch, into which a hook was attached. Spliced to this hook was a 30 foot length of one-half inch diameter nylon line. The pole and attached line trailed below and somewhat behind the tunnel hatch. It was, of course, very necessary to secure the other end of the nylon line to a specially mounted stanchion.
On the ground, the men from the LORAN station set up the ground portion of the retrieval gear. Two poles, 18 feet high, striped red and white, each topped with a small flag, were erected about 20 feet apart. Between these poles a 25 foot loop of one-half inch nylon line was stretched and attached. A cylindrical container, 20 inches in diameter by 30 inches in length and made of hard rubber, was shackled to the main nylon loop with a 10 foot nylon leader.
During retrieval operations the pilots flew the aircraft manually, literally “buzzing” at the height of about 20 feet. Flying the aircraft at wave-top level made it easier to see the upright poles and make a run at them. As the aircraft neared the poles, the pilot eased up so the keel just cleared the line between the poles, dragging the catcher pole and its line across the loop line. As the loop was snagged, the hook pulled from the spring catch on the pole. The 30 foot of catcher line, 25 feet of ground loop and 10 feet of leder line, dragged the container into the air.
The pilot then gained altitude to prevent the container, which was strung out behind the tunnel hatch for approximately 50 feet, from dragging across the ground and into the water. A crewmember hauled in the catcher pole, while two others, crouching in the tunnel compartment, hauled in the swinging cargo container hand over hand. As the heavy container bounced along at the end of the stretching nylon line, fingers arms and legs were easily mashed. The limited space in which to maneuver made it necessary to keep everything clear of the catcher line in the event someone slipped or the container struck the ground. After the contents were removed from the retrieved container, it was dropped back to the ground crew for another round of use. Each pickup necessitated re-rigging both the aircraft catcher and ground retrieval gear. About ten passes were required to complete the pickups
On more than one occasion the nose of the aircraft was stuck through the ground loop. The container was snatched into the air, but there was no method with which to get the container into the aircraft. In this situation, it was necessary for a crewmember to open the bow turret top hatch, which then greatly contributed to the cooling inside the aircraft. As the aircraft flew over the ground party in the drop zone, a crewmember stood up in the wind and cut the loop line, hoping that the container would fall where the ground personnel could retrieve it.
During the summer months the ice melted, permitting water operations. Mail, cargo and replacement LORAN personnel were flown in. Water landings and takeoffs replaced the airdrops and pickups. The landings and takeoffs were not usually made in sheltered water. They could be hazardous operations and an experience in themselves. Below the flight mechanic’s station, located in the pylon attaching the wing to the hull, was an auxiliary power unit (APU) with a built in bilge pump. This APU was manually started with a pull rope and a good standing position was necessary, or the result could easily be a nasty fall into the bilges. In preparing for the landing the APU was started and the bilge pump suction laid out for immediate use. The APU ran continuously while on the water, providing electrical power for radio and restarting the engines, as well as operating the bilge pump. Prior to landing, all hatches, nose gear doors and locking pins were checked in place. Normal landing technique was to stall the aircraft unto the water.
The aircraft was taxied using engine throttles, rudder, sea anchors deployed from the blisters, and lowered landing gear to aid in steering the aircraft on the water. The small bay at Battle Harbor had an anchored mooring buoy, to which the aircraft could be moored. Depending on water and wind conditions, mooring was a wet job for the crewman in the bow. A catwalk, four inches wide four feet long, was built in, just above the water level on each side of the bow turret. An anchor and mooring post compartment was located on the port side of the bow. The crewman crawled out the bow turret top hatch and, crouching on the port catwalk, rigged the mooring gear. As the aircraft passed the mooring buoy, he would catch the eye splice.
To reach the aircraft, the men from the LORAN station used a small wooden power boat, which they inevitably tried to crush against the hull of the aircraft. Often it was necessary to use one of the aircrafts inflatable life rafts to ferry mail, cargo and personnel to and from shore. This frequently turned into considerable work, such as the time we hauled fifty sacks of cement.
Water takeoffs were usually aided by Jet Assisted Take- Off (JATO) bottles. On the aircraft were mounts for two bottles forward and two bottles aft of the wing struts, on each side of the hull. Normally, two or four bottles mounted on the aft mounts were used. Heavy and difficult to install from a boat or liferaft, JATO bottles were normally mounted onto the aircraft prior to departure from the home station. A crewman crawled out onto the hull, and leaning over the side, installed and connected the black powder JATO igniters. The mooring was cast off and the stations secured. The aircraft was then taxied to the takeoff area, engine power was applied, and takeoff run begun. The JATO was fired by the pilot as near to lift-off as possible to add extra thrust (1000 pounds per bottle) to assist in becoming airborne. It was then time to get as many heaters going as possible and head for home.