The Canadian Carrier

Owen Byrne owen@permafrost.net
Fri, 26 Apr 2002 20:40:10 -0300


The Canadian carrier:
(I'm just letting my nationalism run rampant):

Owen
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"However, the American Banshee pilots straight-out refused to attempt a
landing on Bonaventure.  The task was becoming so routine for the Canadian
pilots that they were doing it before sunrise"

http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Quarters/2230/bonnie.html
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By the early 50's, the RCN had realized that Magnificent was going to need a
successor.  She was slow, her aircraft were beginning to show their age, and
her straight deck made landings difficult.  There were several surplus
vessels available, including USS Tarawa and HMS Hermes, but the RCN had its
sights set on HMS Powerful.  She was a Majestic Class light fleet carrier
laid down for the RN in 1943, and was basically complete, but was in
mothballs in Belfast after the end of WWII.  Many military-types had argued
against acquiring Powerful because of her short, straight flight deck (only
207m/680') and relatively slow speed, both of which would make operating
jets very difficult.  However, the British apron-strings holding the RCN
were strong, and on April 23rd, 1952, the Canadian government approved the
$21 million purchase and refit of HMS Powerful.
To partially deal with the size limitations, the RCN had the carrier
completed with an angled flight deck (a British innovation of a few years
past), canted 8 to port.  This provided a longer landing run without
sacrificing forward parking space, and allowed the removal of the unpopular
crash barrier.  Also included in the refit was a newly-developed BS-4 Steam
Catapult, which shortened the take-off run to 40.8m (112')!  Also noteworthy
was the mirror landing sight, the first fitted to a Canadian carrier, which
took a lot of pressure off of the landing signals officer (A.K.A. LSO, or
batsman).
As the refit of the Powerful progressed in Belfast, the Canadian government
and the RCN began selecting a more modern batch of ASW aircraft and
protective fighters to equip their new carrier.  Grumman's new S2F Tracker
was the obvoius choice for the submarine seek-and-destroy role.  The Fairey
Gannet was the other main contender, but it was far inferior to the 'Stoof'.
The limited deck space restricted the fighter selection to a
straight-folding-wing type, and thus the Navy purchased 39 former US Navy
F2H-3 Banshees.  The final aircraft to make the cut was already in service
with the RCN; the proven track record of the Sikorsky HO4S made it the
obvious choice for sub-hunting and plane-guard, especially as there wasn't
anything on the market (at the time) that could do the job better.
The names "Warrior" and "Magnificent" were chosen by the Royal Navy.  For
unknown reasons, those ships were never re-commissioned into the RCN with
more 'Canadian' names, which would have likely instilled a greater sense of
patriotism in the ships' crews.  The Canadian navy decided that "Powerful"
was not a fitting name for the flagship of the RCN, so in Belfast, on
January 17th, 1957, HMS Powerful was commissioned into the Royal Canadian
Navy as HMCS Bonaventure.  Her name originated from l'Isle de Bonaventure,
which was, appropriately, an island bird sanctuary in the Gulf of St.
Lawrence.  Bonaventure subsequently inherited all the battle honours from
previous Bonaventures that had served in the RN.  She arrived in Halifax
five months and nine days later in a heavy fog that did nothing to dull the
spirits of the enthusiastic welcoming party.
The RCN pushed the limits of their new carrier.  That is not to say that
they pushed them too far.  For example, the Americans wouldn't consider
operating Banshees from such a small deck.  In joint RCN-USN exercises,
aircraft from both fleets regularly landed on the other's carriers.
However, the American Banshee pilots straight-out refused to attempt a
landing on Bonaventure.  The task was becoming so routine for the Canadian
pilots that they were doing it before sunrise.  Another example was the
Tracker.  It was so big that landing a few feet off the centerline would
risk a wingtip hitting the island, however, this was an accident that rarely
occurred.
Up until January of 1958, air operations aboard Bonnie revolved around day
flying, as they had since the birth of Canadian naval aviation.  However,
when Captain Bill Landymore took command he told his aviators bluntly that
it they couldn't fly around the clock, day in day out, that Bonaventure
wasn't worth keeping afloat.  He knew his crew, and he knew they were
capable of the task.  And so began "sustained operations", a.k.a. SUSTOPS.
The first goal of the project was to keep two Trackers in the air, around
the clock, for five days; plus two anti-sub HO4S choppers during daylight
hours.  Initially, the crew found it difficult to obtain the favoured
results, but what kept them from reaching their goals was aircrew fatigue,
not mechanical failure or deck crew energy or weather.  So the Tracker
squadron was boosted from twelve to eighteen crews - 1.5 crews per plane.
It worked.  Soon, the only navies in the world capable of continuous,
sustained, all-weather, all-hours flying were the USN and the RCN.
Eventually the SUSTOP standard was raised to four Trackers and two HO4S's
up, plus "Pedro", the reliable rescue and odd-job helicopter, when needed.
Slow and small as it was, Bonaventure could keep an area of ocean 200 miles
square saturated with ASW aircraft around-the-clock for six, seven, even
eight days.  ASW SUSTOPS became the hallmark of Canada's last carrier.
In 1964, new Sea King helicopters, built in Montreal to RCN specifications,
flew aboard Bonaventure.  All-weather machines, with sonar, radar, and
homing torpedoes, they gave a huge boost to ASW, and within two years the
Sea Kings had become so successful that they began to fly from nine
converted destroyer escorts.  It was the development of these escorts that
would eventually replace Bonaventure and the majority of the Canadian naval
aviation arm.
In the fall of 1966, Bonaventure went to Lauzon, Quebec to have what was
supposed to be a "mid-life" refit.  As the refit ran its course, costs
climbed steadily, until at completion $11 million had been spent, more than
two-and-one-half times what had been predicted.  Bonaventure was essentially
a WWII ship, and it should have been realized that a refit twenty years
after her initial construction would not come cheap.  The politicians were
blissfully unaware of this until the bill arrived.  But their shock was due
more to their underestimation of the cost, rather than overspending by the
RCN.  In either case, it left the government fuming, and may well have put a
nail in Bonnie's coffin.  The ship was out of action for eighteen months for
the refit, and in the meantime its squadrons flew from American carriers to
keep in shape.  Back aboard Bonnie in October, 1967, they found her flight
deck very small indeed.
Bonaventure's aviators prided themselves in their professionalism and skill,
but luck played a part as well.  In "Maple Spring 69", one of Bonnie's last
exercises, a catapult strop broke on takeoff.  The Tracker in tow couldn't
get airborne due to insufficient speed, gradually sunk and settled into the
sea, and was literally run over by the carrier.  Somehow the crew got clear
of the wreck, and they actually bounced along the bottom of the ship.  The
pilot actually passed right through a turning screw (although the engines
had been stopped, the force of the moving water kept it going), and popped
up in the wake.  The only casualty was the one of pilot's legs, sheared off
while passing through the screw.  In one year, and with an artificial leg,
he was up flying Trackers again, however, the year was 1970, and by then the
Trackers were based out of Shearwater.
By the late 1960's, Canadian government defence policy was moving away from
carrier-based ASW to a new emphasis on helicopter-carrying-destroyers.  The
unification of the three branches of the RCN, RCAF, and Canadian Army, into
a single Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), and the subsequent cutbacks, were what
finally sealled Bonaventure's fate.  On June 3rd, 1970, only three years
after her mid-life refit, the last Canadian aircraft carrier was
de-commissioned, sold, and eventually scrapped in Taiwan.