Profile of Courage: Leading Aircraftman Kenneth Gerald Spooner

News Article / June 3, 2016

In 2016, the RCAF is commemorating the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, one of the largest air training programs the world has ever seen. By the end of the Second World War, the BCATP had graduated 131,553 aircrew for the air forces of Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand.

But there was a human cost: more than 900 students,
instructors and groundcrew died during the training.

By Major Bill March

Kenneth Gerald Spooner was working for the Canadian Pacific Railway in his hometown of Smiths Falls, Ontario, during the summer of 1942 when he decided to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

A modest athlete in high school who had enjoyed playing rugby, hockey and basketball, Spooner was assessed by the recruiting office in Montreal as “good potential for aircrew”. In short order, on July 31, the 20-year-old found himself part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) at No. 5 Manning Depot in Lachine, Quebec. After his initial introduction to the joys of military life, he was transferred to No. 4 Manning Deport at Quebec City on September 11, while he waited for a slot to open up at an Initial Training School (ITS). Finally, on November 8, he reported to No. 5 ITS in Belleville, Ontario.

At the school, he studied a variety of subjects including navigation and math, while at the same time going through a battery of physical and psychological tests. The examinations included a “hop” in a Link Trainer, an early flight simulator, to ascertain his aptitude for the various aircrew trades. Spooner graduated from Course No. 66 on February 4, 1943, with a score on his academic subjects of 818 out of 1000, and was described as being “mature for his age, cooperative and well disciplined.” Rated as an above-average candidate for either navigator or bombardier, Spooner was sent to No. 4 Air Observer School (AOS) in London, Ontario, three days later to begin navigation training.

Located at the Crumlin Airport, No. 4 AOS was operated by Leavens Aviation, a civilian company with ties to Toronto and Belleville, Ontario. The school’s primary training aircraft was the Avro Anson, a two-engine, low-wing monoplane aircraft that had seen limited operational service during the war before being regulated to training duties. It was a mainstay of the BCATP.

On May 14, 1943, Leading Aircraftman Spooner climbed into Anson No. 7064 for what should have been a normal training flight. Accompanying him were the pilot, Sergeant D.A. Nelson, Sergeant W.J. Brown, Leading Aircraftman R.H. Bailey, a wireless air gunner, another student navigator, and Leading Aircraftman J.A. Curtis, a student bombardier. Anson No. 7064 took off at 2 p.m. for a combined bombing and navigation exercise. Everything was routine for the first two and a half hours of the flight. Then, the pilot informed the crew via intercom that he was feeling unwell. Not wishing to lose a training opportunity, the crew decided to make one more practice bomb run when Leading Aircraftman Curtis saw that the pilot was “slouched back in his seat in a kind of daze”.

Curtis took control of the aircraft while Bailey attempted to revive the pilot. Meanwhile, Brown contacted the AOS to report the emergency. And an emergency it was, as none of the other personnel on board had ever handled the controls of an aircraft. Unbelievably, they received instructions by radio from the school to place the pilot, Nelson, in a parachute and “throw him overboard”. Spooner took control of the aircraft while Curtis went to get a parachute to place on the unconscious pilot. Still in radio communication with the school, Brown was verifying their position and getting instructions on how to change the gas feed to the auxiliary tank, because the Anson was running low on gas.

Spooner was trying to keep the aircraft in level flight while Bailey attempted to remove Nelson from the pilot’s seat. At that moment, Nelson momentarily revived and, disoriented, attempted to grab the controls. A brief struggle ensued before Nelson slipped back into unconsciousness, fouling the control column. With the aircraft low on gas and losing altitude, and the pilot still incapacitated, Spooner took charge and ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft; he would remain at the controls until everyone had exited the Anson. Hastily donning their parachutes, Bailey, Curtis and Brown bailed out. Brown did not survive the descent.

The Anson struggled on with Spooner at the controls. Ronald Nelson, a civilian pilot with No. 4 AOS, had been sent aloft upon receipt of the distress message. He witnessed the final moments of the Anson as it plunged into Lake Erie about five kilometres southeast of Port Bruce, Ontario. There were no survivors.

Spooner’s body was not recovered for three months, until August 17. He was buried with full military honours on August 21, 1943, in his hometown of Smiths Falls. Based on the testimony of his fellow students, on January 1, 1944, Leading Aircraftman Kenneth Spooner became the second member of the Royal Canadian Air Force to be awarded the George Cross. The citation reads that “this airman, a student Navigator with no pilot training, displayed great courage, resolution and unselfishness…[and] with complete disregard for his personal safety and in conformity with the highest tradition of the Service sacrificed his life in order to save the lives of his comrades”.

He was 20 years old.

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