The Ot­ters and the Air­craft Car­ri­ers

RCN News - - Contents - by Ma­jor Bill March RCAF

One of the more de­light­ful things about his­tor­i­cal re­search is the in­ter­est­ing nuggets that I find when comb­ing through old records and files. Of­ten the nuggets that I un­cover have noth­ing to do with the pri­mary fo­cus of my re­search (much to the cha­grin of my boss), but they do of­ten tend to gen­er­ate a great story.

As a case in point, a few years ago I came across an ap­proved unit crest for 115 Air Trans­port Unit (ATU). Given the Egyp­tian im­age within the crest, I was cu­ri­ous to find out more about this par­tic­u­lar unit of the Royal Cana­dian Air Force (RCAF). In truth, I found many sto­ries, but one of the best was that 115 ATU be­came the first, and to my knowl­edge, only RCAF unit to op­er­ate fixed-winged air­craft off the deck of one of Her Majesty’s Cana­dian Ships.

This par­tic­u­lar RCAF com­pos­ite unit was part of the Cana­dian con­tri­bu­tion to the United Na­tions Emer­gency Force (UNEF). In its first it­er­a­tion (there would be a sec­ond UNEF cre­ated in 1974), the UNEF was de­ployed be­gin­ning in November 1956 dur­ing the Suez Cri­sis.

In a nut­shell, the Suez Cri­sis re­volved around Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser na­tion­al­iz­ing the An­glo-French Suez Canal Com­pany and the wa­ter­way from which the com­pany got its name. When Is­rael and Egypt went to war in Oc­to­ber of that year, the British and French gov­ern­ments, who had al­ready worked out a deal with the Is­raelis, in­vaded Egypt os­ten­si­bly to safe-guard the canal.

It be­ing the height of the Cold War, there was a sig­nif­i­cant dan­ger that the Sovi­ets (sup­port­ing Egypt) and the West (sup­port­ing Is­rael, Bri­tain and France) might get drawn into the con­flict, re­sult­ing in a ma­jor war. The UN bro­kered a cease­fire and, as a re­sult of the ef­forts of the Cana­dian Min­is­ter of For­eign Af­fairs, Lester B. Pear­son, a peace­keep­ing force was ap­proved and de­ployed dur­ing the re­main­der of the year to serve as a buf­fer be­tween the bel­liger­ents per­mit­ting a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict.

In the 10 years of its ex­is­tence (peace­ful res­o­lu­tions be­ing some­what hard to come by in the Mid­dle East), 115 ATU pro­vided ster­ling ser­vice. How­ever, for the pur­poses of this story, it is the very be­gin­ning that we must turn our at­ten­tion to.

On November 7, 1956, the Cana­dian govern­ment im­ple­mented the ap­pro­pri­ately named Op­er­a­tion Rapid Step. In recog­ni­tion of the need to trans­port large quan­ti­ties of sup­plies to sup­port the Cana­dian con­tri­bu­tion to UNEF 1, the Royal Cana­dian Navy’s air­craft car­rier HMCS Mag­nif­i­cent, or the Mag­gie as she was af­fec­tion­ately re­ferred to, was re­called from Belfast, Ire­land.

On De­cem­ber 29, Mag­gie de­parted Hal­i­fax for Port Said, Egypt, car­ry­ing 100 tons of sup­plies, 233 ve­hi­cles, one H04S he­li­copter (the naval ver­sion of the Siko­rsky S55) and the mighty ae­rial ar­mada that would form the back­bone of 115 ATU: four sin­gle-en­gine CC-123 Ot­ters.

Laugh not, Oh Reader, at the per­ceived util­ity of such an air­craft. The de Hav­il­land Canada Ot­ter was well­suited for the sur­veil­lance and light-trans­port du­ties it had to per­form. Its short take off and land­ing (STOL) ca­pa­bil­i­ties and over­all rugged­ness per­mit­ted it to op­er­ate from the less-than-ideal (i.e., vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent) air­fields that 115 ATU used through­out its oper­a­tional area.

Fur­ther­more, from the per­spec­tive of the RCAF se­nior of­fi­cers, whose minds might have been on other is­sues in 1956 – such as com­mit­ments to the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion (NATO), the soon-to-be-im­ple­mented North Amer­i­can Air De­fense Com­mand (NORAD) agree­ment, and a po­ten­tial new fighter (the CF-105 Ar­row) – it was plen­ti­ful, cheap to op­er­ate and main­tain, did not come with a high per­son­nel bill, and was con­sid­ered to be ef­fec­tive in the kind of mis­sions planned for the UN. The Ot­ter had cer­tainly proven its worth in the Far North.

By the sec­ond week of Jan­uary 1957, the Mag­gie

had ar­rived at Port Said. On Jan­uary 13, the RCAF main­tain­ers on board sprang into ac­tion, bring­ing forth the four Ot­ters from where they were stored be­low decks, and be­gan to get them into shape for take­off. Fi­nally, five days later they were ready to go.

With the Mag­gie at an­chor, the air­crew revved their en­gines and took off down the rapidly dwin­dling flight deck. One by one they lum­bered safely into the air…ex­cept for one. Just as it strug­gled to gain altitude, one of the Ot­ters dropped its star­board wing and “kissed” the Mag­gie’s flight deck. For­tu­nately, the dam­age was mi­nor and the four Ot­ters made their way to their new home at El Ar­ish, Egypt.

The de­par­ture of the Ot­ters would be the first, and last time, that RCAF fixed-winged air­craft flew from a Cana­dian war­ship.

Even­tu­ally, 115 ATU added two RCAF CC-129 (DC -3) Dako­tas to the fleet and op­er­ated pri­mar­ily out of El Ar­ish for the next decade. Of the four RCAF Ot­ters, No. 3675 crashed near Rafah, Egypt, on April 15, 1957, and No.

One of the four RCAF Ot­ter air­craft trans­ported to the Mid­dle East on HMCS Mag­nif­i­cent and flown off the ship at Port Said for ser­vice with the UNEF.

An RCAF Ot­ter takes off from the flight deck of HMCS Mag­nif­i­cent.

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