Month: December 2013

The Orenda Ring

Avro Arrow with Avro Canuck in the background. Both used Orenda engines.

Avro Arrow with Avro Canuck in the background.

During the cold war period after World War 2 the Canadian government contracted Avro Canada to develop a brand new all-weather interceptor that could meet and face the new Russian threat that may potentially invade the skies above our nation. A two seater, dual engined all-weather fighter began to take shape at Avro under the name of the CF-100 Canuck. Design of this new jet had to meet Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) specification for an all-weather fighter with advanced avionics and radar for all-weather and night sorties. The project was initiated at Avro Canada in October 1946.

The Canadian designed Avro CF-100 Canuck

The Canadian designed Avro CF-100 Canuck

Avro Canada asked another Canadian company to build the advanced jet engines for this new jet. The Orenda’s engine prototype was completed in less than a year, and the engine first ran in February 1949, a year before the CF-100’s maiden flight. Testing of this new top-secret, advanced jet engine took place in classified locations. When it entered production it was the most powerful engine in the world, a title it held until 1952. The Orenda engine also powered the Canadair F-86 Sabre fighter jet.

The Orenda jet engine (on display at Carleton University)

The Orenda jet engine (on display at Carleton University)

In 1953, Avro Canada once again turned to Orenda to produce an engine for the new ultra secret CF-105 Arrow project. Again, Orenda was able to prototype a new engine in a short period of time, starting development in 1953, completing it in May 1954 and building and running the prototype by December 1954. During the testing period, the new “Iroquois” was the most powerful jet engine in the world. It was aerodynamically matched for peak performance at 50,000 feet  altitude and Mach 2 speed. After some 7,000 hours of development testing, up to a simulated altitude of 70,000 feet (21,300 m) and a forward speed of Mach 2.3, the Iroquois program was cancelled, along with the Avro Arrow on 20 February 1959.

So where did these top secret jet engine tests take place? Local rumours and an area author in Prince Edward County believe secret Avro tests happened somewhere in a field 20 minutes south of Picton, Ontario, 15 minutes from my parents house.

According to the author of the book “Camp Picton: A Storied 70 Years in a Canadian Military Training Camp” by Joanne Courneya-Fralick, one day in 1951-52 the military stopped at a local school to offload jet fuel for a top secret operation near Point Petre. A CF-100 was on a truck and “for some reason it was being towed to Point Petre for testing.” The author visited Point Petre and recorded finding an asphalt ring in a field with a centre tether post of which the Avro test engines were attached for testing.

Avro technicians prepare an Avro Arrow test model attached to a Nike booster rocket to fire out over Lake Ontario at Point Petre in the 1950s.

Avro technicians prepare an Avro Arrow test model attached to a Nike booster rocket to fire out over Lake Ontario at Point Petre in the 1950s.

Rumour has it that experimental Orenda jet engines were tethered to a post in the centre of a large circular paved track in the middle of a secluded field. The experimental jet engine was bolted to a wheeled cart attached to a central post, then ignited. The accelerating jet engine would then spin around the asphalt track, tethered to the centre post, while engineers studied the performance of the engine as it spun around the track at high speed. Making notes and putting the new jet engine through its paces, the engine would scream around in this secluded field, far away from spying eyes.

Concept sketch showing how the Avro-Orenda field tests may have been conducted.

Concept sketch showing how the Avro-Orenda field tests may have been conducted.

The ultra-top secret test operations for the Orenda engines were only a few hundred metres from the Avro Arrow test facility that operated at Point Petre where scale models of the Arrow were fastened to Nike Rockets and fired out over Lake Ontario for aerodynamic study. It seems likely this Orenda jet engine test facility was used for both the CF-100 engine tests around 1950, and the later testing of the CF-105 Avro Arrow Orenda Iroquois engine.

Avro Arrow model launch pad at Point Petre

Avro Arrow model launch pad at Point Petre as it appears today (Bing Maps)

So does this Cold War era secret jet engine test facility still exist? Let’s find out…

I scoured the area of Point Petre on Google Satellite Maps and came across an unusual anomaly in a field that resembles a paved ring. Being in close proximity to the Avro Arrow test model launch pad, this seems the likely location of the Orenda Ring.

An unusual ring shape in a field near Point Petre...possibly the Lost Ring oF Orenda.

An unusual ring shape in a field near Point Petre…possibly the Orenda Ring.

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There was only one way to find out if this is the actual abandoned 1950s Cold War Avro jet engine test facility…to hike in and find out what remained.

Ring shape in a field as seen from the air near Point Petre.

Ring shape in a field as seen from the air near Point Petre.

Using Google and Bing Map satellite images, a distinctive ring shape can be seen with a centre area clearly visible. This is most likely the once secret Orenda engine test site. Abandoned for 60 years after the Avro program was cancelled in 1959, the asphalt test track the engine sleds would rotate at high speed around could possibly still be there.

Despite the snow covered grounds of late December, I thought the ring could still be visible and maybe found…and it was.

Details of this fascinating discovery below…

Closer view of what looks to be the Orenda Ring.

Closer view of what looks to be the Orenda Ring.

After driving to Point Petre, I mapped out where the Orenda Ring would be and headed into the scrub brush.

After driving to Point Petre, I mapped out where the Orenda Ring would be and headed into the scrub brush.

Hiking through the deep snow, I broke through the scrub brush and came across the ring track. ATVs have used it.

Hiking through the deep snow, I broke through the scrub brush and came across the ring track. ATVs have used it.

The ring track has quite a large diameter, with a gradual curve to it.

The ring track has quite a large diameter, with a gradual curve to it.

Hiking in from the perimeter to the centre of the ring a post was visible.

Hiking in from the perimeter to the centre of the ring, a post was visible.

..and there it was...after 50 years of sitting abondoned in an overgrown field, the Orenda jet engine tether post sits as a lonely reminder of the Cold War tests that happened here.

..and there it was…after 50 years of sitting abondoned in an overgrown field, the Orenda jet engine tether post sits as a lonely reminder of the Cold War jet engine tests that reportedly happened here.

With the paint hardly worn, the 60 year old Orenda jet engine tether test pole looks almost brand new despite sitting in the elements since 1959. Tether chain and the rotator cap still remain.

With the paint hardly worn, the 60 year old Orenda jet engine tether test pole looks almost brand new despite sitting exposed to the elements since the 1950s. Tether chain and the rotator cap still remain.

Surrounded by vegetation that would have never been there during the jet engine tests of the 1950s, the tehter post has a visble anchor pad under the snow.

Surrounded by overgrown vegetation that would never have existed during the jet engine tests of the 1950s, the tether post has a visible anchor pad under the snow.

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Close Encounters Of The Ottawa Kind

A Project Magnet researcher monitors equipment at Shirley's Bay, Ottawa

A Project Magnet researcher monitors equipment at Shirley’s Bay, Ottawa

During the 1950s the world was gripped with paranoia dealing with the threat of nuclear war, and a new phenomena that was sweeping the world…UFOs. With reports of Unidentified Flying Objects growing each day, both the general public and government agencies from around the world quickly reacted. Canada was not without its own concerns over these new “alien spacecraft” roaming the skies, and set up a special investigation unit in Ottawa under the name “PROJECT MAGNET”.

Project Magnet was an unidentified flying object (UFO) study program established by the Canadian Department of Transport (DOT) on December 2, 1950, under the direction of Wilbert B. Smith, senior radio engineer for the DOT’s Broadcast and Measurements Section. Smith, the Defence Research Board and the National Research Council (NRC) were trying to determine that if UFOs did really exist, they might hold the key to a new source of power using the Earth’s magnetic field as a source of propulsion for their vehicles. The top secret project in Ottawa was also working with their American counterparts in the CIA to determine if this new UFO “power source” could be studied and harnessed.

The man who headed Project Magnet at Shirley's Bay, Ottawa, Wilbert Smith.

The man who headed Project Magnet at Shirley’s Bay, Ottawa, Wilbert Smith.

Smith’s geo-magnetic studies grew, and in 1952 the investigation was moved to Shirley’s Bay, a government facility on the Ottawa River approximately 15km west of Ottawa. UFO detection equipment was installed and by the end of October of 1952 the installation was complete. It became the world’s first UFO research facility. The 12 foot by 12 foot building housed instruments such as a gamma-ray counter, a magnetometer, a radio receiver  (to detect the presence of radio noise) and a recording gravimeter within a 50 mile radius from the station.

Newspaper article describing the new UFO monitoring station built at Shirley's Bay, Ottawa.

Newspaper article describing the new UFO monitoring station built at Shirley’s Bay, Ottawa.

UFO Monitoring equipment installed at Shirley's Bay. It was the world's first UFO detection site.

UFO Monitoring equipment installed at Shirley’s Bay in 1952. It was the world’s first UFO detection site.

Smith and his UFO research team at Shirley’s Bay conducted a number of experiments trying to attract UFOs to the area using their newly installed equipment. After months of potential UFO activity being recorded in the area, the facility soon had their most unusual occurrence. At 3:01pm on August 8, 1954 the instrumentation at the Shirley’s Bay installation registered an unusual disturbance. In Smith’s words “the gravimeter went wild”, as a much greater deflection was registered than could be explained by conventional interference such as a passing aircraft.  Smith and his colleagues rushed outside their research building at Shirley’s Bay to view the craft that was creating such a enormous reading on their equipment. Once outside the building they were disappointed to find a heavily overcast sky with limited visibility.  Whatever kind of craft that was up there was well hidden under the cover of clouds.  The only evidence the researchers had of this large UFO was the deflection registered on the chart recorder paper.

Newspaper article describing the event at Shirley's Bay.

Newspaper article describing the event at Shirley’s Bay.

Two days later Smith and the Shirley’s Bay research facility were abruptly shut down upon orders from the Department Of Transport. Many speculate the findings and strange occurrence at Shirley’s Bay prompted the project to go “underground”, with all findings entering the “TOP SECRET” status of operation elsewhere. Smith was allowed to remain if he chose to, but all government funding to conduct his UFO research was halted. Without government subsidies. Smith continued his research, funded by “other sources”. Smith carried on working at Shirley’s Bay, developing what he claimed was a breakthrough anti-gravity device. In a 1959 presentation Smith stated “ We have conducted experiments that show that it is possible to create artificial gravity (not Centrifugal force) and to alter the gravitational field of the Earth.  This we have done.  It is Fact. The next step is to learn the rules and do the engineering necessary to convert the principle into workable hardware.”

As Smith was about to finish work on this anti-gravity device he was stricken with cancer and died at the age of 52 on December 27 1962. His work on UFOs and anti-gravity devices came to halt and the research facility at Shirley’s Bay was closed. The Project Magnet building he worked in apparently still existed until 2011 at the Shirley’s Bay Department of National Defence complex now known as “Defence Research and Development Canada” off Carling Avenue. It was simply marked as Building 67. His research building off Carling Avenue was torn down in 2011 and nothing remains but an empty lot.

All that remains of the world's first UFo research facility is an empty lot at Shirley's Bay.

All that remains of the world’s first UFo research facility is an empty lot at Shirley’s Bay.

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Aerial view of Building 67 off Carling Ave. before 2011 demolition.

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Aerial view of the current Shirley's Bay Defence Research and Development Canada complex located off Carling Avenue.

Aerial view of the current Shirley’s Bay Defence Research and Development Canada complex located off Carling Avenue.

The Mail Birds Of Ottawa

RCAF aircrew with a B17 mail plane from Rockcliffe, Ottawa

RCAF aircrew in the desert pose with a B17 mail plane from 168Squadron Ottawa.

The thunderous sounds of radial engines, chirping tires and the activity of a bustling airport have since been replaced by a museum and the chirping of birds at Rockcliffe, but the remnants of this important World War Two airport still remain. In October of 1943 Rockcliffe airport became the site of 168 Heavy Transport Squadron which was formed to handle the large quantities of mail that needed to be delivered to personnel serving in the European and North African campaigns. 168 Squadron Rockcliffe became the site of a bustling hub of mail from across Canada that needed to be delivered to the troops and service personnel overseas. Love letters, family correspondence, birthday and holiday gifts as well as freight were all transported to the men and women far from home, boosting morale and keeping them connected to loved ones back home.

An overseas aircrew member removes mail from Canada out of the belly of a Rockcliffe B17

An overseas aircrew member removes mail from Canada out of the belly of a Rockcliffe RCAF B17

From the time it was created in 1943 to the time it was disbanded in 1946, Rockcliffe aircrew had delivered almost ten million letters and 2.5 million pounds of freight across the Atlantic to the European and North African theatres of war.

When the RCAF Rockcliffe mail service began, 168 Squadron was handed six well-worn, ex-United States Air Force training B17 bombers. These tired, old, used training planes were stripped of armour and modified to carry mail instead of bombs. Painting over the old USAF markings with new Royal Canadian Air Force paint schemes, the B-17s were then loaded with letters from families, wives and sweethearts from across the country. The mighty Flying Fortresses then carried their important morale boosting cargo across the Atlantic to the war raging in Europe and North Africa to their eagerly awaiting recipients in the field.

After unloading the thousands of letters overseas, the planes would re-load with return mail from the service personnel and head back to Rockcliffe for distribution across Canada. These Air Mail Birds made Rockcliffe a busy airport, with B17s coming and going week after week, through sleet and snow, the mail got delivered. After each successful mail mission, a mail bag “kill” was painted on the side of the fuselage.

RCAF aircrew paint a mailbag "kill" on the side of the B17 after another successful mail mission from Rockcliffe to the war in Europe/North Africa

RCAF aircrew paint a mailbag “kill” on the side of the B17 after another successful mail mission from Rockcliffe to the war in Europe/North Africa and back again.

However this mail run was not without danger, and tragically one day in December 1944 one of the B17s and its crew from Rockcliffe met an untimely end, just days away from Christmas….

CHRISTMAS TRAGEDY: B17-9203

In researching the history of 168 Squadron and its planes, I discovered that they operated a total of six B17 Flying Fortresses out of Rockcliffe. I managed to trace the serial numbers of each of the B17s and learn what happened to them. Most were either damaged or scrapped, but one in particular, #9203, went missing. This is the story of the missing B17, #9203.

Having delivered a load of Christmas mail to the troops in North Africa through an air base in Morocco, B17-9203 from Rockcliffe loaded up with return Christmas mail on December 15 1944. Pilot Horace Hillcoat and his crew of eight prepared the B17 to return home for the holidays with their precious Christmas cargo. Throttling up the four radial engines, Hillcoat lifted the mail-laden B17 into the Moroccan skies, heading for the Azores, then over to Newfoundland before reaching its destination at Rockcliffe, Ottawa. Leaving the African shoreline, Hillcoat powered the B17 across the Atlantic for the islands of the Azores some 1,500 km away. B17-9203 and its crew were never heard from again.

Map showing the flight path of Hillcoat's B17 heading back to Ottawa and where it was presumed to have disappeared.

Map showing the flight path of Hillcoat’s B17 heading back to Ottawa and where it was presumed to have disappeared.

After contact was lost with Hillcoat’s B17, a search and rescue mission scoured the area of the ocean where the plane could have disappeared. No signs of wreckage, survivors or debris were ever found, and there were no distress calls or radio contact made before the plane unusually disappeared. B17-9203 had simply vanished. Hillcoat and the crew were classified as “Missing”.

Was Hillcoat and his crew ambushed by attacking German Luftwaffe aircraft, sending them to a watery grave? Did the well-used B17 suffer a mechanical malfunction and Hillcoat had to unsuccessfully ditch his plane in the Atlantic?

There is not much information I could find about Hillcoat and his B17, however I did manage to discover a photo of his plane in its Rockcliffe 168 Squadron RCAF markings from a United States Air Force photo archive of B17s. The serial number “9203” is clearly marked on the nose of the aircraft.

USAF file photo of Hillcoat's B17-9203 painted in RCAF markings. Note serial number "9203" painted on the nose.

USAF file photo of Hillcoat’s B17-9203 from Rockcliffe painted in RCAF markings. Note serial number “9203” painted on the nose. It was on its way home when it disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean in 1944.

I also found a 1944 newspaper clipping from December 21 that reports the missing plane, with a listing of all those on board. It turns out that the pilot, Horace Hillcoat was actually the only crew member from Ottawa. He and his wife lived on Kirkwood Ave. in Westboro, and the house is still there today.

Newspaper article that reports the missing plane and all aboard.

Newspaper article that reports the missing plane and all aboard.

B17-9203 was never found and with the crew deemed missing, they joined the hundreds of other missing aircrew from World War Two that form the Commonwealth Aircrew Memorial for those missing in action. It is located here in Ottawa on Sussex Drive.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS: This story has a happy ending…another perilous B17 mission to Rockcliffe

On a cold November day in 1944, mere weeks before the disappearance of Horace Hillcoat and his B17, another B17 had a close Christmas call.

The pilot of a Rockcliffe B17, Flight Lieutenant Clark Ready, lifted his plane full of Christmas mail and presents from Canadian troops in Europe from a stopover in Stephenville, Newfoundland. He and the crew began their journey home to Rockcliffe, Ottawa. Without any incident during the long trip across the Atlantic, Ready suddenly found his landing gear was malfunctioning after take off. Without properly working landing gear, Ready and his crew were faced with two options, bail out or make a controlled crash landing without being able to lower the wheels.

Knowing the importance of his Christmas cargo, Ready made a swift decision as he approached Ottawa. Circling the skies above the city, Ready decided to land without landing gear. Burning off as much excess fuel as possible to reduce the chances of a fireball explosion upon impact, Ready braced himself and the crew to land at Rockcliffe without any landing gear down. Dropping in altitude, Ready piloted the mighty B17 down to the surface, screeching the aluminum fuselage across the icy ground, and in a flurry of snow, grinding metal, and bending propellors, the B17 came safely to a rest, with all crew and cargo safe and sound. Merry Christmas. Ready was later commended for his bravery and his decision that saved the aircraft, the crew and all Christmas mail aboard.

Farewell to The Fortress

After 240 flights across the Atlantic from Rockcliffe to to the war overseas, the old, hand-me-down B17s were retired from service and replaced by newer, more reliable and sturdy Consolidated B24 Liberator bombers. Sporting shiny new polished aluminum finishes, these B24s replaced the B17s in August of 1944 and continued operation until 168 Squadron was disbanded at Rockcliffe in April 1946.

A new B24 bomber ready for mail duty at Rockcliffe, Ottawa 1944.

A new B24 bomber ready for mail duty at Rockcliffe, Ottawa 1944.

168 Squadron Rockcliffe aircrew load a B24 with mail on a cold Ottawa day.

168 Squadron Rockcliffe aircrew load a B24 with mail on a cold Ottawa day.

Through sleet and snow, Rockcliffe aircrew made sure the mail was delivered to the troops overseas, and back to families in Canada. Here they work on the engines of the mighty B24 at Rockcliffe.

Through sleet and snow, Rockcliffe aircrew made sure the mail was delivered to the troops overseas, and back to families in Canada. Here they work on the engines of the mighty B24 at Rockcliffe.

Mail trucks load the B24 with mailbags on a winter's day at Rockcliffe Airport 1944.

Mail trucks load the B24 with mailbags on a winter’s day at Rockcliffe Airport 1944.

Same scene as above and how it looks today.

Same scene as above and how it looks today.

The airport hangers, runway and planes are all gone, but the ghosts of World War Two remain...

The airport hangers, runway and planes are all gone, but the ghosts of World War Two remain…

In addition to the 240 flights completed by the B17s, 332 mail missions were carried out by the new B24s. Mail continued to flow in and out of the busy airport, from moms to sons and sons to sweethearts all throughout the remainder of the war. When the war ended, Rockcliffe and its B24s continued to operate, with one very special B24 being modified for a special duty…

PART 2 – Rockcliffe’s VIP B24 – COMING SOON