Air Force Museum of Alberta

Canada's Cold War Fighter Pilots

By Colonel W. Neil Russell, CF Ret.

Many Canadians have forgotten how close the World came to annihilation through global nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s. And many readers are not aware of the significant contributions to end the war that were made by Canada and by a small group of young pilots of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

This is a review of how the Cold War started and how it progressed; the story of 1 Canadian Air Division based in Central Europe from 1951 until 1967, and particularly the fine young fighter pilots of the Air Division, some of whom paid with their life to do what their country asked. Why do I tell this story? Because I was there and have subsequently done a lot of reading to find out details, some of them reported for the first time.

Part One, Background to The Cold War, 1946 to 1991

As Winston Churchill said in 1946, just as the World was looking for lasting peace at the end of the Second World War, "An Iron Curtain has fallen across Central Europe." The communist Soviet Union, which had been an ally of Great Britain, the United States, Canada and other nations as they fought against Nazi Germany, had ulterior motives. In 1945, as the war was ending, the Soviet Union gained control over the Baltic States, already occupied East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, creating what was first known as the "Soviet Bloc" and later "the Warsaw Pact".

Instead of de-mobilizing, like the allied powers, the Soviet Union and its partners maintained conscription, establishing large, strong armies and air forces which threatened Western Europe and North America.

In East Germany the Group of Soviet Forces numbered some 340,000 troops; its strongest formation, the First Guards Army, dug in its modernized tanks and artillery just a few kilometres from the border with West Germany. Behind the border, 47 airfields were established, equipped, first with MIG-15 and MIG-17s, and later with supersonic MIG-21s and other aircraft presumed capable of carrying nuclear bombs. In the other satellite countries, initially, there were only indigenous armed forces, but in several cases the Soviets moved in, distrusting an increasingly reluctant ally.

Further east in Russia, Belorussia and the Ukraine the Soviet Long Range Air Force [LRA] was activated, first with four engine piston aircraft, copies of the US B-29 Super Fortress, and later with modern jet engine long range bombers capable of launching thermal nuclear bombs and missiles against targets in North America. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the World's first intercontinental ballistic missiles, later, hardening their launch sites and equipping them with multiple war heads. The Soviet Navy was no match for the combined capability of the USA, UK and France, but it had the world's largest fleet of long range submarines, most nuclear powered, and many with ballistic and cruise missiles aimed at targets in North America.

Churchill's "Cold War," as he called it in 1946, soon heated up. In 1948, to test the determination of the Western Allies, the Soviets, with East German support, blockaded road, railway and canal access to Berlin. This resulted in the Berlin Airlift where hundreds of American transport aircraft flew round the clock, in good and bad weather, delivering food and heating coal to three airfields located behind the Iron Curtain in West Berlin.

The two million people of West Berlin nearly starved and froze, but they determinedly survived until the Bloc backed down. Later, in 1960, the Soviets and East Germans attempted to squeeze off allied air access to Berlin. This resulted in the Western Allies going to maximum readiness. The same year, 1961, in order to stop embarrassing defections, the East Germans started to build the Berlin Wall.

In 1962, the Soviet Union attempted to deliver and install medium range ballistic missiles in Cuba, resulting in the well known "Cuban Missile Crisis". The World watched with fear as American and allied forces, including Canadians, moved to high alert status. President Kennedy ordered Soviet ships carrying missiles on their decks to turn back. Luckily, they did, for the United States had contingency plans to strike Cuba, an act which could have lit the fuse of global war.

Other crisis of the Cold War, now mainly forgotten, included the shooting down or the unarmed American U-2 long range reconnaissance aircraft flown by Gary Powers, and the 1983 shooting down of a South Korean airliner with over 240 passengers aboard which, according to the Soviets, violated their air space in the North Pacific. Although the public was seldom aware, allied intelligence used to closely monitor Soviet nuclear tests; large exercises of the LRA, including the activation of deployment airfields in the High Arctic; deployment of Soviet submarines off the coasts of North America, and test firings of increasingly sophisticated ICBMs.

How soon we forget that the 50's and 60's were very tense years, resulting in the establishment of the North American Air Defence Command [NORAD] with its hardened command centre under Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado and the alternate, Northern NORAD Headquarters, deep underground at North Bay, Ontario. The Canadian Government's underground four story emergency command centre at Carp, near Ottawa, as well as provincial hardened survival centres are just Cold War curiosities now, but they are reminders that governments were serious enough to spend millions of dollars to help ensure the survival of key national leaders.

The Cold War unexpectedly came to an end in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The United States under President Reagan, supported by NATO, increased military, diplomatic and economic pressure on the Soviet Union, which was already suffering economic stagnation. The newly appointed Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced "Perestroika" [restructuring] and "Glasnost" [openness], under which the satellite states, starting with Poland and spreading to East Germany and others, elected non communist governments which withdrew from the Warsaw Pact.

The Soviet Union itself broke up in 1991, leaving the United States the world's dominant military power, although Russia retained most of the massive Soviet nuclear arsenal. We know now, that towards the end, the Soviet Union was spending 25% of its gross national product on armaments; it could not keep up with the combined economic strength of the western allies. The history of the Cold War is a success story of how economic strength, defence preparedness and the maintenance of a balance of power prevented a potentially disastrous global nuclear war.

Part Two, 1 Air Division, 1951 To 1963

While the preceding paragraphs gave an overall view of the Cold war, there is much more to relate from the Canadian perspective. In April, 1949 Canada signed onto the multinational North Atlantic Charter under which an attack against any member was considered an attack against all. Military planners concluded that Canada needed an air defence force of nine squadrons of all-weather fighters, while also assisting the defence of Central Europe by deploying twelve fighter squadrons.

The Canadian commitment to Europe was designated "1 Air Division". Temporarily its headquarters was in Paris, but it later moved to Metz in North Eastern France. In addition to an Air Officer Commanding with his headquarters staff, the base at Metz included a state-of-the-art British made long range radar unit code named "Yellow Jack" a combat operations centre, a communications centre and a support unit. A logistics base was established at Langar, England, supported by a detachment of multi engine transport aircraft, Dakotas and Bristol Freighters, flown by pilots from Air Transport Command.

Initially, one wing of the Air Division was formed at North Luffenham, England, but by 1955 four wings were located in Western Europe as follows: No. 1 Wing, Marville, France; No. 2, Grostenquin, France; No. 3, Zweibrucken, West Germany; No. 4, Baden Soellingen , West Germany. Looking from above the four wings formed an irregular diamond, all within a day's drive of Metz.

Each wing, commanded by a Group Captain [Colonel], was like a small city with a large airport. Wing Operations under a Wing Commander [Lt Colonel] was responsible for the airfield, including an air traffic control tower and ground control approach radar which could recover aircraft when cloud ceilings were as low as 200 feet. The "city" included housing for single and married personnel, food services in officer, NCO and airmen's messes, a hospital, schools for dependent children, civil engineering, supply, ground transport, ground communications, and the most vital element, a large aircraft maintenance unit responsible to keep the air squadrons supplied with serviceable aircraft.

The operational forces at each wing consisted of three fighter squadrons, each originally equipped with 25 Canadian-built F-86 Sabre aircraft. 1 Air Division's total of 12 squadrons with 300 aircraft [plus spares] constituted "...the largest RCAF fighter force ever assembled". [Quote and details above from Canada's Air Forces, 1914-1999, by B. Greenhous and H. Halliday, air force historians]

This mention of the Canadian F-86 Sabre aircraft introduces a good time to describe the Canadian production of this highly successful aircraft. Designed by the [American] North American Aircraft Corporation, the F-86 first flew in 1947 and, in the hands of pilots the United States Air Force, plus 22 selected Canadians, achieved success against Russian-designed MIG-15s in Korea.

With Canada’s need for a fighter for home defence as well as in Europe, the Government encouraged an agreement between the North American Corporation and Canadair Limited, Montreal, to manufacture improved versions of the F-86 in Canada. The prototype Canadair Sabre Mark I and production Mark IIs used the original American engine, but had better, power-assisted controls. Between 1952 and 1953, 350 Mark IIs were produced, most for the RCAF, but 60 for the USAF for use in Korea. There was only one Mark III, used as an engine test bed and for publicity, Jacqueline Cochrane's Woman’s Speed Record.

The Sabre Mark IV, of which 438 were produced in Montreal, was outwardly similar to the Mark II, but transferred directly to the British Royal Air Force for use in NATO. By July, 1953 the first Canadian jet engine was ready, the Avro Canada Orenda 10, rated at 6,500 pounds of thrust. These improved engines, plus a larger solid leading edge wing, gave the next generation Sabre, the Mark V, improved rate of climb and ceiling. Canadair produced 370 Mark Vs, most for the RCAF to replace Mark IIs, with 75 transferred to the newly emerging West German Luftwaffe.

The ultimate version of the Canadian F-86 was the Mark VI. This carried the two stage Orenda 14 engine rated at 7,275 pounds of thrust and reintroduced leading edge slats which had been developed for earlier versions of the Sabre. The increased thrust gave the Canadian fighter more speed and a higher ceiling [54,000 feet], while the leading edge slats allowed a tighter manoeuvring radius.

The Mark VI, like its predecessors, was armed with six .50 calibre machine guns, controlled by a radar ranging gun sight. As again quoted from Greenhous and Halliday, "In its day the Mark VI, was known as the best "dog-fighter" in NATO and probably, in the World". It certainly was highly respected by pilots of other NATO air forces and in the event of war would have measured well against aircraft flown by the Warsaw Pact.

Canadair produced a total of 655 Mark VI Sabres; 390 of these went to the RCAF for use in the Air Division; others ended up in a total of ten friendly air forces, as well as Canada’s celebrated aerobatic team, the Golden Hawks. In all, a total of 1815 F-86 Sabre aircraft were built in Canada. These, along with the advanced Orenda engines, contributed to the building of Canada's significant aerospace industry.

Returning to 1 Air Division, I will now describe a typical squadron… 427 (F) [Lion] Squadron which I joined in January, 1959. The Squadron was based at Zweibrücken, in the Saar region of West Germany, three kilometres from the French Border.

In NATO terminology, 427 was designated "Interceptor Day Fighter", meaning that it was expected to operate mainly in daylight. The squadron's war mission was to help protect Central Europe from air attack by the Soviet Bloc. Squadron personnel included an Officer Commanding [OC] with the rank of Squadron Leader [Major], two Fight Commanders, nominally with the rank of Flight Lieutenant [Captain], a maintenance officer, an admin clerk and 30 line pilots, mainly Flying Officers [Lieutenants]. Aircraft maintenance was provided by Wing Central Maintenance with a detachment of technicians assigned to the Squadron for daily servicing. Normally the Squadron operated from home base; however, it was to be prepared to deploy on short notice.

Every nine months there was also a pre-planned deployment…to Sardinia, for the use of the NATO air-to-air gunnery range. Squadron pilots practiced their war mission through daily exercises during which Yellow Jack, the long range radar at Metz, vectored them to intercept "aggressors" from another wing. Periodically there were larger exercises sponsored by the Air Division's higher authority, 4th Allied Tactical Air Force, and, a few times per year, NATO wide exercises, simulating a large scale attack from the East.

For these rehearsals of the war role, the whole Wing would go to high readiness, including the activation of semi hardened bunkers to protect key personnel in the event of nuclear and/or biological attack. If no formal exercises were scheduled, the Squadron could organize its own training. In this case a flight of four aircraft would take off, climb through the haze and cloud until "on top" and look for targets of opportunity.

These sorties occasionally resulted in as many as 32 fighters, American, French, Belgian, Dutch and eventually German, swirling on high in a grand aerial circus. In peacetime, of course, guns were not armed. The objective of each pilot was, while avoiding getting an "enemy" on his own tail, to get behind a target aircraft, close to 1500 feet or less and capture the "enemy" on the film of a cine camera which recorded images through the gun sight. On return to base, each flight would "debrief" and a fighter weapons instructor would assess each pilot's film after which he could, or could not, claim a "kill".

Beginning in 1956, one squadron of each 1 Air Division wing was replaced by a squadron of CF-100 all-weather fighters; however, for simplicity and continuity, the text which follows will continue to concentrate on the Sabre aircraft and their pilots.

Part Three, The Sabre Pilots of 1 Air Division

The previous two parts described the Cold War and the origin of 1 Air Division, its role and organization, now its time to talk about the Sabre pilots of 1 Air Division. A typical pilot would be a Flying Officer [Lieutenant], 21 or 22 years old. He had to be at least a high school graduate and accept a five year short service commission as an officer in the RCAF. After background security checks, comprehensive medical examinations and a battery of aptitude tests, if accepted, he would be sent to initial pilot training on the Harvards at Centralia, Ontario or one of three bases in Western Canada.

Later on the DeHaviland "Chipmunk" became the initial trainer then continuing on Harvards. If still successful he would go on to advanced training on the T-33 Silver Star at one of three bases in Manitoba, graduating with the coveted RCAF pilot's wings. If still successful and recommended, approximately a year after entry, he would enter the most exciting part of his training, the Sabre Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Chatham, New Brunswick.

Few pilots can forget their first flight on the Mark V Sabre at the OTU. There was no two seat version of the Canadian F-86; your first flight was "for real." Granted, there was a simulator of sorts. It replicated the cockpit instruments and controls, and experienced F-86 pilots could lead you through engine starting, taxi and some basic emergency procedures; but on the day of your first flight, an instructor would stand on the wing of your aircraft, watch you get the engine started, then pat you on the shoulder saying, "Its all yours; good luck." Although first landings were a little bouncy, most of my group of students had no trouble; however, one classmate got a case of the nerves, had to be talked down by an instructor in the control tower and decided that single seat jet flying was not for him.

After three solo fights at the OTU, my group immediately started close formation flying. Flying in close formation is basic for all fighter pilots. It's not just for "show" but for "efficiency", to allow four aircraft to take off, join up, and climb through cloud making one radar "blip". Once above cloud, Canadian fighter pilots used a loose, "finger four" battle formation.

The flight [section] leader was the primary hunter/shooter; Number Two was a wing man, guarding his tail. Number Three [element leader] was also a hunter/shooter, flying abreast or behind the section leader, with Number Four guarding his tail. Returning from the "hunt" and "battle", the four aircraft would re-assume close formation, descending to base as if they were again one radar blip. While practicing both close and battle formation on every trip, student pilots at the OTU soon went into air-to-air fighting, first one-on-one, then two-on-two, and four-on-four. It was exciting for young pilots, and not without risk.

After acquiring some 50 hours on the Mark V Sabre, OTU student pilots joined the real fun, firing the guns, first, against stationary targets on the ground, then air-to-air. In the latter, four aircraft lead by an instructor would take off, fly to an air-to-air gunnery range located off the coast and space themselves in line-a-stern, above and abeam a 15 metre long drogue ["flag"] towed behind a target aircraft.

Taking turns, each pilot would dive his aircraft in a curve of pursuit toward the flag, watch while his range-finding radar acquired the target, and close in to 1,200 to 800 feet, smoothly tracking the target, firing for a few seconds, slipping past the flag and returning back up to the "perch". Each of the four firing aircraft was armed with .50 calibre bullets tipped with a different coloured wax.

When the flag was towed back to base, retrieved and inspected, the great hope was to find holes made by your colour of bullets. An eventual passing grade was to have a score of 15 or 20%; a few instructor "aces" could achieve more than 50%. I was never an "ace" in air-to-air gunnery at the OTU, but I passed the course and before long, in January, 1959, I was on my way to my first operational posting as a fighter pilot of 1 Air Division.

Friends have asked me if I had any particularly interesting flights while on Sabres overseas. Yes, especially one where I saw the real "enemy" and I armed my guns. The occasion was the first time I was a member of the special standby flight, with six guns fully loaded, called by NATO "Zulu Alert". My log book showed 500 total hours of which just 130 hours were on Sabres.

We were "King Formation", King Lead being F/L Mart Eisner, an experienced WWII pilot upgrading to section lead; his wing man, King Two, was F/O Eddie McKeogh, Squadron Fighter Weapons Instructor. King Three was our highly experienced OC, S/L Hal Knight. I was "Tail End Charlie", King Four. We had inspected our aircraft, set parachutes and helmets in the cockpits ready in case of the need of a quick start, and had just returned to the readiness hanger expecting a quiet morning of knock rummy, when we received the command, "King Formation, take off on a live scramble; head 090 degrees [East]; make angels four zero zero [40,000 feet]".

The OC was sure it must be a mistake, stating, "The Air Division always uses practice scrambles; never a live one [Real emergency]." But half an hour later, still flying east, and having been handed off from Yellow Jack to an allied radar, "Race Card", we were informed that there was an unusual amount of air activity across the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia. Our job was to mount a show of force on our side of the border. No sooner had this been explained when King Two, Eagle Eye Eddie McKeogh, transmitted, "King Lead, Bandits, 12 o’clock, 30 miles, level".

From behind, squinting my eyes, I couldn't see any "bandits", but I didn't have long to look before our formation leader transmitted, "King Formation, arm your guns". "Arm our guns?!?", I questioned, "Does Lead remember that with just a slight squeeze of the trigger we could spray bullets all over Germany"? But, that's what the leader had ordered, so quickly I went through the three steps ending with the arm guns switch. There was a bumping vibration and sound, ker-chunk, ker-chunk, as six armour piercing rounds thrust forward into the breach blocks of the six machine guns in the nose of my Sabre.

I remember my heart was beating fast as I tried to fly as smoothly as possible, my head and eyes on a swivel, when Race Card finally gave us the order to turn left to 350 degree [North], parallel to the border. Then, as we turned, I saw them. at least three, possibly more, silver, swept wing aircraft, probable MIG-17s, flying parallel to us, approximately 15 miles distant. Being low on fuel, we didn't have long to impress the Czechs with our little show of force.

Released by Race Card, our throttles back to idle, we glided into Erding, a NATO air base near Munich, waking up the sleepy air traffic controller with the announcement that we were, "four Canadian Mark Six's, landing with hot guns". The significance of the hot guns was that, once the Canadian F-86's machine guns were armed, it was not safe to shut off electrical power until the guns had been de-armed. Fortunately, no member of King Formation had itchy fingers and Eddie McKeogh was able to go from aircraft to aircraft, pulling each belt of .50 calibre shells out of the breach blocks so we could safely shut off battery power.

Later, after taking off from Erding and uneventfully reaching home base, we debriefed. S/L Knight complimented Eagle Eye Eddie as the first to see the bandits; he also agreed with King Lead, Mart Eisner, with his order to arm our guns. As the OC said, "For every bandit you see, there can be more; we could have been bounced at any time". And to me, squadron rookie, he thought I had flown a good battle formation position, "...except, perhaps, just a little too close toward the end." I explained, "Thank you boss; I was doing my best to look out and guard your tail; however, once I had seen the enemy, there was no way I was going to lose you."

Any other incidents? Yes, a short, but significant, one. On one of those flying circuses north of Zweibrücken, with perhaps 16 aircraft swirling high in the sky, I had got behind an "enemy" aircraft and was concentrating on tracking him through my gun sight, when my aircraft shook and a shadow passed over me. Back at base, when another pilot and I were reviewing my gun sight cine film, we saw the cause of the bump and shadow. A French Mystere IV had passed from above to below, its profile nearly filling the windscreen, perhaps less than 50 feet in front of the nose of my aircraft. I'm very lucky to be alive!

Many other Canadian Sabre pilots were not so lucky. RMC classmate, Bob Hallworth, and OTU course mate, Jack Faulds, were killed in mid air collisions. RMC classmate, Eddie Gagosz, wrote himself off by crashing his Porsche into a tree. In all, between the years 1951 to 1963, 107 Sabre pilots were killed in accidents in Canada and overseas. Most were buried with military honours in the RCAF Cemetery, Choloy, which in grim sense of humour the Sabre pilots used to call "Five Wing". A memorial to the 107 stands on the grounds of the RCAF Memorial Museum at Trenton, Ontario.

There are many other stories which could be told, some of them humorous. Deployment for air-to-air gunnery in Sardinia was always a high time for squadron pilots.

At first we slept in bunk beds, as many as 30 men in a large barrack room dating back to the Second World War. Late one night Norm Guizzo and Hank Gritter, coming home from the mess, invited a donkey into the barracks. The only trouble, the poor creature backed into a hot space heater. What a stink! Another incident, not so funny at the time, a tow plane while above cloud, got too close to the coast. Four sabres scattered .50 calibre bullets onto a tourist beach.

No one was hurt; there was no damage; the mistake might have gone unnoticed, except, oh,oh, on holiday, near the beach, was none other than Air Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst, Commander 2 ATAF. As I recall, no one was punished; however, a rule was soon published that the pilots of aircraft towing drogue targets must at all times be able to see the coastline and be 100% sure they were flying in the published air-to-air range over the sea.

These incidents, while perhaps not completely typical, represent the type of flying which was done by 1 Air Division's Cold War fighter pilots. The young short service commission officers worked hard, played hard [they drank a lot, particularly when letting off steam at Friday Beer Call]; but they flew well and many were good leaders. While a squadron had an OC and two flight commanders, the informal leaders were the young most experienced pilots who had qualified to be four plane formation leaders.

The best formation leaders were renowned all over the Air Division. And if one had been chosen to go back to the OTU to train as a "Fighter Weapons Instructor", he was "god". As stated by Greenhous and Halliday: "Canadian Sabre pilots regularly bounced and outflew their rivals in other air forces. On three occasions RCAF Sabre teams won the Guynemer Trophy, emblematic of gunnery supremacy in NATO air forces. The Sabre years were the happiest times for those serving in 1 Air Division; in retrospect, many would consider it the RCAF's golden age".

Part Four, From Golden Age to Silver Service

To review, by definition the "Cold War" was the period of tension which existed between the Soviet Union and its allies and the United States and its allies, during the period 1946 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Canada contributed to the balance of power by joining NATO and supplying military forces among which the most effective was 1 Canadian Air Division, headquartered at Metz, France, with its twelve squadrons and over 300 front line fighter aircraft.

The mission of the Air Division was to help protect Central Europe in the event of air attack. In their day, from the mid 50s to early 60s, the pilots of 1 Air Division, flying the made-in-Canada Canadair F-86 Mark VI Sabre, were known as the best air fighters in Europe, proving themselves unquestionably by consecutive winnings of the Guynemer Trophy for excellence in air-to-air gunnery.

Among the pilots of the Air Division, the most effective were young high school graduates on a five year short service commission, many of them just 21 or 22 years old. These young pilots worked hard, played hard, were fearless in air combat, and made excellent leaders. Was their style of life and type of flying dangerous? Yes, some 107 died, many of their bodies interred in France and all of their names recorded in granite on a memorial at the RCAF Memorial Museum in Trenton, Ontario.

However, the vast majority of Sabre pilots would not trade their life for anything. They were confident and proud that they were performing a worthwhile function, contributing to the balance of power, during the years which many would consider the "Golden Age of Canadian Aviation".

But, the "Golden Age" could not last forever. In 1961 NATO was confident that it had enough day fighters and asked Canada to amend the role of 1 Air Division. Canadair reached an agreement with the American Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to build under licence the high performance F-104 Starfighter, improved in Canada, as the "CF-104".

The Canadian 1 Air Division was reduced from 12 Squadrons to eight and later six, with two squadrons in the role of tactical photo reconnaissance and the remainder as low level nuclear strike bombers. It could be said that the new war time role of the Air Division was to deliver tactical nuclear bombs "with sterling silver service". Flying the supersonic, single seat CF-104, with its sophisticated all-weather sensors, navigation and fire control systems was undoubtedly the greatest challenge ever faced by Canadian pilots [For an excellent description read "Reflections of a Nuclear Strike Pilot, by Eric Mold, Legion Magazine, Jan/Feb 2009".]

Pilots completing a tour on Sabres were natural first choices for postings to fly the new fighter bombers. But many on the short service commission were not given the chance. In 1963, calculating that there was a surplus of aircrew, Air Force Headquarters published the list known as "The Famous 500". While the list, contrary to public perception, included navigators and air traffic controllers as well as pilots, many on the list were Sabre pilots of 1 Air Division.

The pilots which were affected, many by then married with family responsibilities, were extremely disappointed, feeling betrayed by their government. Times were tough at first; however, eventually nearly every Sabre pilot released turned out to be successful, either in business or as a senior airline pilot.

There was also another change which effected the change from "golden age" to "silver service". In 1966, France, lead by President Charles de Gaulle, withdrew its military forces from NATO and announced that Canadian and American bases in France must be closed. Eventually, 1 Air Division became 1 Canadian Air Group with headquarters at Lahr, Germany and just two air bases, Lahr and Baden-Soellingen. Ultimately, in 1994, these two bases were also closed and all of Canada's forces in Europe returned to Canada. This also was a great disappointment to the personnel involved; however, not entirely a sad event, but full confirmation that the Cold War was over and NATO had won.

In total, during the period of the "Golden Years", 1951 to 1963, in the order of 1,625 Canadian pilots flew Canadair F-86 Sabres. Almost without exception, if interviewed today, every one of those pilots would say that the years of flying the Sabre were the best in his life. It was not just a matter of the human-machine interface that pleases all pilots, but the comradeship among squadron mates which surpassed rank, background and position. There was the sense of pride, knowing that you were among the best and most respected military professionals in NATO, fulfilling an important function, contributing to the balance of power that helped prevent global nuclear war.

This sense of comradeship and status among Sabre pilots has outlived the Cold War. Today, the 21 to 22 year old pilots are in their 70’s, many active in "SPAADS", the association with the name contrived to give it a connection to the fighter pilots of the First World War, "RCAF Sabre Pilots Association of the Air Division Squadrons". Due to age attrition Association membership has declined from its high of 729 members; however, it is still one of the most active veteran associations in Canada. If interested further visit SPAADS.

So, that's the story of Canada's Sabre cold war fighter pilots, starting from the first, a review of the Cold War, then through the forming of 1 Air Division in Europe to the pilots themselves, their wartime role, how they trained for it and the results. This is intended to be a living story. If you have comments or if you wish to add to the story, the author would be pleased to hear from you via Wneilrussell3 AT

Colonel Russell

Colonel Russell served as a Sabre pilot and later as tactical intelligence officer in 1 Air Division Headquarters from January 1959 until November 1963. He was on duty in the 1 Air Div Combat Operations Centre during both the second Berlin Crisis and Cuban Missile Crisis. Later he was posted to the Directorate of Air Intelligence, Air Force Headquarters, Ottawa where his work included monitoring the daily activity of the Soviet Long Range Aviation and Rocket Forces. That is why, in relation to the Cold War, he says, "I was there".

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