Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Guiding the big guns on target

Simulations for the attack on Japan

On foul weather days when we were socked in as regards flying our squadron’s Seafire XV fighters we had various training aids to keep us busy.  The most notable and best enjoyed was the Operational Crew Trainer.  This elaborate contraption took up a sizeable amount of space in a large darkened building.  Its purpose, already somewhat outdated in 1945 though probably still ready for operational use in the forthcoming final assault on Japan, was to teach us to direct the guns of large warships onto their targets.  
Of course, by this time most of the world's great battleships had been sunk by attacking aircraft, but we carried on in proper naval tradition.
  Two of us at a time, one to act as pilot the other as observer, would climb up into a mock model of an aeroplane and, as the lights dimmed right down, instrument dashboard lights would glow, the aircraft would come to pulsating life, earphones would hum and curtains would draw back to reveal, down below and seemingly ahead a couple of miles, the vista of a shadowy coastline as viewed by moonlight from about a 3,000-foot altitude.  By using his controls, the pilot could turn the aircraft and fly along the coast in either direction with harbours, towns and villages, rivers, inlets, railway lines and stations, woodlands, hills and factories all passing by in realistic fashion and appearance.
The observer would receive information and instructions regarding the selected target, perhaps a railway marshalling yard or dockyard.  Then the code word ‘Flash’ (the guns have fired) would come over the headset followed by a varying number, ‘seventeen’ (meaning the warship’s high-explosive shells will land near the target in seventeen seconds time).  And sure enough in seventeen seconds the shells would burst with a small flash of light down below.  Perhaps a fountain of water would rise up if the shells missed short and fell into the sea or a river, or several trees rise up and fall down if the salvo fell in the woods, or perhaps buildings in a nearby town would be seen to topple.  
As the pilot turned the aircraft to pass by that part of the coast again, the observer would be radioing the compass bearings and distances off of the shooting errors back to the ship. 
 Then again we would hear: ‘Flash, seventeen’ (or sixteen or eighteen) and the game would go on until the target was hit.  The realism was amazing.  After a few minutes of turning this way and that in the dim, muted light, the murky illusion of actually flying became very real.
After many sessions, we were allowed to see the trainer's workings.  The aircraft was mounted on a stationary pedestal, but could be turned through 360 degrees.  The mock-up coastline and inland topography was a vast relief model resting on a thirty-foot-diameter turntable, which had its turning speed synchronized in ratio with the aircraft's heading and indicated airspeed.  
The relief model itself was a mass of little pegs which when activated by electrical impulse would rise up differing fractions of an inch accompanied by a flash of light.  These pegs underpinned tiny model houses, trees, locomotives, factory chimneys and other fragments of infrastructure and landscape, some of them hinged so they could topple over in lifelike fashion.
Underneath the turntable was a bewildering spaghetti-like mass of electrical wires and tiny electric bulbs of varying intensity.  Through a wonderful system of relays and switches, the controller, hidden away in her hidden cubicle, could select appropriate pegs to rise up sharply with a burst of light and then sink back more slowly into their recesses.  All this long before transistors or computers appeared.
We loved playing this game.  Especially Goff Parker.  His Wren girlfriend, Mary, who was one of several who shared many of our evenings in the lounge of the nearby Ugadale Hotel, was one of the trainer's controllers.  At war's end they were married and I expect carried on playing similar such games by moonlight happily ever after.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Manned Mars Lander to be strawberry free

Helping to filter out any strawberry-obsessed Captain Queegs

(Explanation:   Captain Queeg was Politzer Prize winning author Herman Wouk’s fictional US Navy officer whose erratic mental instability as commander of the destroyer-minesweeper USS Caine culminated in his paranoid belief that one of his officers was stealing spoonfuls of his personal supply of preserved strawberries.  This best seller book, The Caine Mutiny, also became several Broadway plays, and in 1954 appeared as an excellent film with Humphrey Bogart in the title role). 

An international team of six researchers in Russia are spending 520 days (that’s one whole  year and five months) locked into artificial spaceship quarters as an isolated company to mimic the expected psychological effects during proposed interplanetary travels to Mars and back.

Having experienced two uninterrupted small ship voyages lasting 180 days (six months) in duration myself, plus many other months-long trips on other ships, all added to my 1,500 or more or less sustained days and nights in charge of a small vessel manned only by myself and a crew of twenty Iraqis plying the waters of the Persian Gulf, all probably totalling the equal of one return trip to Mars, perhaps gives me provenance to make comment.

Here is one little drama I observed while sailing in lonely northern waters.
After a few weeks, as our chartered sealer lay at anchor off the northwest uninhabited  coast of Hudson Bay, it was plain to me that Vic Goodwill, our chief of party, was annoyed by something occurring daily in the vessel’s small dining room.  As the hydrographers mess table  and the Theron  officers table were separated by half-a-dozen feet I knew there was no friction there.  At meals, Vic and I faced each other at the head of the long table.  Vic, somewhat pudgy and rather a landlubber, was a meticulous engineer seemingly somewhat out of place in a  working vessel.  His passions were: strawberry-flavoured (oh-oh!) ice-cream; his strawberry-coloured Studebaker sports car; and his constantly meticulous diary keeping — which I would be very interested in reading these sixty years later on.  He was an exceedingly keen and knowledgeable bird watcher (which rubbed off on me and for which I must thank him) in connection with which hobby he recorded hundreds of feet of 16 mm movie film .  He was also a teetotaller. 
   Mindful of Vic’s edginess at the dining table, one day when I was in Vic’s office-cabin, I asked him if he would like me to shift further along the mess table.  Oh, no! he replied.  Not at all.  It was the fellow next to me he couldn’t stand.  His face reddened a little. Not that there was anything wrong with him in general, he said.  Vic’s face reddened a little more, became almost strawberry tinted.  It was just that the chap next to me insisted on spreading butter over his bread again and again and again and again even when it had already been thoroughly and evenly spread the first time, the second time, the third, the fourth, the umpteenth time.  By now Vic’s face was almost livid.  Why did he do it, Vic asked.  Again and again and again—right through the length of the meal.  Kept spreading it like this and this, Vic’s hearing aid dropped from his ear and dangled by its cord as his hands went through repeated precise and decisive butter-spreading motions, again and again.  Then Vic shook his head, regained his composure, put his hearing aid back in and muttered something about it all being a joke.
I went and confided to my trusty sidekick, Barrie Macdonald.  Between us we engineered some excuse to move the butter spreader to the far end of the table on Vic’s side so he was unseen by our party chief.   
From then on all went well.  
  Vic’s other passion apart from wild bird life was Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce which he would sprinkle liberally on his several pieces of buttered bread at every meal time.  He would also remark, three times a day, week after week, that he rather liked the taste of that particular sauce.  Though facing him across the narrow mess table this long-lasting savoury obsession of his and his oft repeated daily, weekly, monthly, soliloquy regarding it’s desirability left me quite unaffected.  Happily, I use it very often even to this day.  Honest.  
Luckily, NASA take note, the MV Theron carried a goodly supply of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce.
  As well as butter.

It was unfortunate, or maybe fortunate, that as an arctic-bound vessel the MV Theron  was classified by the customs office as a foreign going vessel and therefore allowed duty-free alcoholic supplies.  Though such privileges did not come into legal effect until the ship had reached Cape Chidley at the northern extremity of Labrador.  Yet we were often stuck half way up the coast by heavy ice formations for weeks on end.  So whether that particular legal stipulation was strictly adhered to by all our ship’s officers I’m not quite sure.  But it certainly applied to we six law-abiding hydrographers, even ones like me who happened to be friendly with the chief engineer whose cabin was right next to mine.  Well, at least mostly.  I’m pretty sure about that.
As far as I can remember...