Early United States Navy operations at Shearwater

News Article / April 3, 2018

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By Colonel (retired) Ernie Cable

12 Wing/Canadian Forces Base Shearwater in Nova Scotia is now a
Royal Canadian Air Force base. It began its life, however,
as a naval flying station, and celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

The first aircraft to fly from Halifax, Nova Scotia, were United States Navy (USN) Curtiss HS-2L biplane flying boats. The seaplane base was actually established at Baker's Point, south of the city of Dartmouth, overlooking Eastern Passage, but it was known as U.S. Naval Air Station Halifax.

Lieutenant Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr., USN, was the station’s first commanding officer; he also acted as the liaison officer between the American and Canadian governments on naval aviation matters. The U.S. Navy flew six HS-2Ls from Halifax from August to November 1918 on anti-submarine patrols to protect convoys from lurking German submarines outside Halifax’s strategic harbour.

The USN also operated a seaplane base at Sydney, Nova Scotia, where an additional six HS-2Ls flew anti-submarine patrols to protect convoys en route to or from Halifax. The HS-2Ls at both Halifax and Sydney flew about 400 hours on patrols and were augmented by several kite-balloons also used for anti-submarine duties.

It was intended that the USN conduct the aerial anti-submarine patrols until the fledgling Royal Canadian Naval Air Service could be formed to assume the air patrol duties. However, the First World War came to an end before the Canadian Naval Air Service became operational, and it was subsequently disbanded. After the war ended in November 1918, Lieutenant Byrd returned to the United States and the USN donated the 12 HS-2Ls that were stationed at Halifax and Sydney, and the associated spares and ground handling equipment, to the Canadian government. These aircraft made up the nucleus of the newly formed Canadian Air Force in 1920, and subsequently became Canada’s first bush planes.

Lieutenant Byrd returned to Halifax on May 8, 1919, when two U.S. Navy-Curtiss (NC) flying boats, NC-1 and NC-3, landed at the former U.S. Naval Air Station Halifax, then under the control of the Canadian Air Board, on their historic world’s first trans-Atlantic flight. Three of the four NC flying boats that were built, NC-1, NC-3 and NC-4, had taken off from the U.S. Naval Air Station at Rockaway, New York, on the first leg of their trans-Atlantic flight. However, NC-4 developed engine trouble and had to divert to the air station at Chatham, Massachusetts. So, only NC-1 and NC-3 remained overnight on May 8 and 9 at Halifax, their first scheduled stop, before proceeding to their next stop at Trepassey, Newfoundland.

The Trans-Atlantic Team navigation project officer, Lieutenant Byrd, was one of two navigators on NC-3. His task was to verify the performance of the navigation instruments on the Rockaway-Halifax-Trepassey legs. Much to his disappointment, the plan called for him to remain behind in Trepassey and not accompany NC-3 on the trans-Atlantic legs to the Azores, Lisbon, and on to England.

Shortly after takeoff from Halifax on May 10, one of the aircraft developed a crack in its wooden propeller and had to return to Halifax to have it replaced, but it was discovered that neither aircraft carried spare hub plates. Lieutenant Byrd’s previous duty in Halifax proved helpful as he recalled that when he turned the 12 HS-2Ls over to the Canadians, he had also given them spare hub plates. Since he had left only a short time before, he still had many friends in Halifax and was able to call on them for the required spare hub plates. The aircraft was repaired quickly and departed for Trepassey with minimum delay. Due to fortunate weather delays in Newfoundland, NC-4 caught up—with an intermediate stop at Halifax—to NC-1 and NC-3 at Trepassey on May 15. The next day all three aircraft departed for the Azores.                                                                                                  

Because of a fortunate sighting of land through a hole in the undercast, only NC-4 arrived at its intended destination, the island of Horta in the Azores. NC-1 landed on the water in fog several hundred miles from Horta and broke up in the rough seas; the crew was rescued by a USN destroyer that had been pre-positioned in the area. NC-3 also landed on the water because bad weather obscured the mountainous islands in the Azores and the crew was afraid of flying into the peaks. Like NC-1, NC-3 encountered heavier seas than anticipated, and after two harrowing days of riding out a storm, a very badly damaged NC-3 water-taxied into the port of Ponta Delgada on the island of San Miguel in the Azores.

Only NC-4, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Albert Cushing Read, was able to continue on and successfully complete the first trans-Atlantic flight from North America to England, arriving in Plymouth on May 31, 1919, via the Azores, Lisbon and Ferrol del Caudillo (Spain). The total flying time from Rockaway, New York, to Plymouth England was 57 hours and 16 minutes.

A British duo, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Brown, made the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Galway, Ireland, in a Vickers Vimy bomber just two weeks later, on June 14-15, 1919. Their total flying time was 16 hours and 27 minutes.

On May 20-21, 1927 Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop solo crossing of the Atlantic from Long Island, New York, to Paris, France, in “Spirit of St. Louis”. His total flying time was 33 hours and 39 minutes.

Colonel (retired) Cable is a Shearwater Aviation Museum historian. He had a 35-year career in the Canadian Armed Forces, mainly associated with Argus and Aurora maritime patrol operations.This article appeared in the January 8, 2018, edition of Trident newspaper, and is translated and reproduced with permission.

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