Shoran recollections of a 19-year old Airman

Shoran recollections of a 19-year old Airman – the kid in the Squadron

By Ron Blessin

I was only a short-timer in the RCAF.   I joined at the age of 17, right after High School graduation in Chilliwack, B.C.   There were a number of reasons why I chose to join – a spirit of wanderlust as I’d never been anywhere in my life and the offer to put me through No. 1 Radar and Communications school in Clinton, Ont. I graduated as a “Radar Technician Air” having taken extra courses in airborne radar and navigation equipment.   I was assigned to 408 Squadron at Rockcliffe, ON in November of 1956 and immediately went to the Shoran Unit.

I found out about the Shoran Operations that had been conducted for the previous 7 or 8 years and was quite excited about getting in on the final one in April of 1957.  It was this operation which was to map the archipelago of arctic islands flying out of Thule AFB in Greenland and Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island.  I attended classes daily for a few weeks and became familiar with the airborne Shoran equipment.  Then I, along with 3 other newcomers, learned to operate the airborne gear.   Early on, that brought sweat to the brow in sub-freezing temperatures.

Shoran, as the Squadron used it, was an adaptation of an old World War II navigation technique where an aircraft could determine its position by sending out a pulse to two ground stations which in turn, sent an answering pulse.   By measuring the time it took at the speed of light plus delays in the ground repeaters, the aircraft could determine the distance to each ground station.   Since the ground stations were at known geographical points, the navigator could plot the exact aircraft location.   This proved to be a vital means of determining exact bombing plots for relatively deep penetrations into Europe.   The display on the airborne equipment was a round trace with two blips sticking out.    The operator adjusted the equipment by turning a crank superimposing the received blips on the static ones on the display.    The delay was displayed on mechanical counters calibrated in miles from the ground stations.

In 408 Squadron’s Lancasters, the Shoran equipment was placed on a large box which had two cranks on the outside.   On the inside were the counters with their digital displays.   On the opposite side of the box was a 35 mm camera which took a picture of the counters every few seconds.   As I said, learning how to operate this equipment took a lot of eye-hand coordination.   Picture for example, an aircraft flying perpendicular between two ground stations which might be 200 miles on each side.   As you approach the base leg between the stations, the distance would slowly decrease until the aircraft was directly between the stations.   Then, the distance would slowly increase as the aircraft continued on course.   Now, picture flying a figure eight pattern between the stations where the distance on one side decreased at a faster rate then the one on the other side.   All of a sudden, one hand is cranking faster than the other and the process reverses once the baseline is crossed.    Remember, the operator is trying to keep the blips on the display superimposed on one another.   It all took a few hours of airborne practice with ground stations set up at Rockcliffe and another some (I’m guessing) 100 miles away.

In late March of 1957, some of the Squadron flew off on North Star aircraft to Thule AFB and the rest of us got on a “troop train” bound for Churchill Manitoba.  From Churchill, about 15 of us flew to Thule while the rest took C-119 and North Star flights to Cambridge Bay, Foxe Basin and Resolute Bay.  We had ski-equipped DC-3 and C-119 aircraft flying the personnel to their assigned sites on the various islands. I’m guessing there were about 15 ground stations in place with three airmen at each station.    They were housed in a Jamesway hut with a gas generator for power, primitive cooking, and a 30 foot high tower with two corner reflector antennas on top.   Each station had communication equipment to stay in contact with Mission Control as well as the Lancasters.

As I said, the ground stations were at known geographical points but it was the distance between these points which had to be determined.   The four Lancs we had on the operation flew out of Thule and Resolute Bay.    Sometimes the signals from the ground stations was so weak, we had to fly as high as 18,000 feet and we had to put on oxygen masks.   Cranking the handles and communicating with built-in microphones was awful at best.   Then, there was air sickness!  I think each leg was flown in a dozen figure eight patterns with the 6 most consistent legs being averaged as the best measurement.

There were no creature comforts on the Lancasters.   For takeoff, we sat unrestrained in the middle of the aircraft with our backs to the main spar which ran through the cabin just aft of the radio officer’s position.   Once airborne, it was generally only an hour or so ride to the first figure eight patterns.   Should nature call, there was an “Elsan” bucket against the rear wing.   The law was, whoever used it, emptied it!  So, we all did our business before getting airborne.   Those Packard Merlins had a full-throated roar or bark which stayed in one’s ears for many hours post flight.  The only serious mechanical problem I remember was a supercharger on one engine “blowing” and, when gas fumes could be smelled in the main cabin, the captain ordered everything electrical be turned off.   The only thing electrical running were the spark plugs on the remaining three engines.   As the aircraft headed toward Thule ahead of flight plan maintaining radio silence, they scrambled a few F-89 Scorpions which intercepted the Lanc and escorted it in.    I wasn’t on that flight but there certainly was one crew happy to get on the ground again.  At the end of the operation, I opted to fly back to Rockcliffe via Resolute Bay in one of the Lancasters. On arrival we were given a few days leave and congratulations for a job well done.  I did find out that, as a result of our operation, some islands had been moved by as much as twenty miles.   Also, the average error in our distance measuring was less than 20 feet in typical 300 mile legs.  Not bad!

After the completion of the final Shoran Operation, we started to remove all of the equipment.   There were wiring harnesses which ran along the ribs from one end of the aircraft to the other.   Removing the clamps which were screwed to the ribs with screws and those nuts with the plastic inserts so they wouldn’t vibrate loose proved to be quite a job.    Working through access holes, I left a lot of my DNA in the form of skin and blood inside the Lancs.   We even had parts of the rib break off which probably indicated some serious degree of metal fatigue.   I remember a Flight Sergeant named L’Abbe who was in charge of the Airframe Technicians who worked on the Lancasters.   The man knew the Lancs from stem to stern and, as a result, in-flight problems, particularly in the high arctic were almost non-existent.  One boring summer day at Rockcliffe, my NCO supervisor asked me if I felt like helping out with a “problem” one of our Lancasters had made an emergency landing at Cambridge Bay which is on the south coast of Victoria Island.  Why not?   I flew from Trenton to Churchill to Resolute Bay on a North Star and then southwest to Cambridge Bay on a C-119.  On arrival, I saw the Lanc with one of the dirtiest flight engineers I’d ever seen.  His flight suit was a mass of oil smears.   It turned out, he had serviced the Lanc at Resolute Bay and topped up the oil tank which is in the wheel well.   He forgot to screw on the tank’s filler plug.   The plane took off headed south when oil warnings went off and the Lanc diverted to Cambridge Bay.   The runway is gravel and about 5000 ft. long.   As the Lanc touched down, the oil which festooned that large tire and the entire wheel well had the consistency of molasses at relatively cool arctic temperatures.   When the tire hit the runway, the entire wheel well was peppered by small stones which stuck to everything including all the engine control wires, harnesses, etc.   The poor hapless flight engineer had spent a day in the wheel well with Varsol and a bale of rags wiping everything down.   There were lots of pulleys and wires which were contaminated.   A number had to be disconnected, cleaned and inspected.   Standing on that large tire with one’s head in the wheel well is not pleasant!  About three days later, we all flew back to Rockcliffe with a new oil cap on the oil tank.

With the end of Shoran, the Squadron was again on its photo mission.   Radio Units in Whitehorse and, I believe Quebec, were receiving Russian radio transmissions.   By triangulating these signals, it was determined the source was on “our” side of the North Pole.   Lancasters MN-839 and MN-882 were prepared for a reconnaissance mission to determine the source of the radio signals.   You’ll note in the slides I sent of MN-839, there is a radome under the nose which housed a 3 cm search radar and another dome located near the tail.   The one near the tail was a highly classified rotating antenna and its associated broadband receiver could detect signals from all directions relative to the aircraft.   Based on triangulation, the navigator had a fair idea where the Russian station might be.   A typical flight was non-stop to Resolute Bay or Thule.  Then, the fuel was topped-up including the two bomb-bay tanks which gave the Lanc an 18-hour endurance.  The Lanc would then fly north to the Russian station at 5000 ft., then a pass at 2000 ft. followed by a pass at 500 ft.   That generally had them all waving their hands!   All along, the Lancs were taking wonderful photos of the facility.   On leaving the Russian facility, an airman would shove radar reflectors every few minutes out a tube located in the tail gunner’s position.   The radar reflectors had a tripod legs and landed on the ice of the Arctic Ocean.  On the next mission to photograph any changes to the Russian station, the pilot had his radar display which showed a straight line of targets ending in the Russian station.  The problem was, the ice is in an ever-shifting pattern caused by the earth’s rotation.   A station might move a few miles geographically in a week.   As I remember, we located at least eight stations on our side of the pole.    This entire operation was super-secret until it was a cover story in Time Magazine a year later.   I’ve often wondered why it was kept such a secret.   Obviously, the “enemy” knew what we were doing.

These missions were called “Romps” and typically lasted two or three days round-trip out of Rockcliffe.   The crews arrived back dog-tired and ready for some real rest.   I was honorably discharged from the RCAF in July of 1958 having served just three years.  I was ready for something new and was recruited by RCA in Montreal to work on the “Astra” electronics on the CF-105 or AVRO Arrow.   With my background, they put me to work on ground-based radar facilities near Barrie, ON as well as Clinton, ON for two months as there was a lot of political arguing going on in Parliament regarding the future of the Arrow.   By October, it was determined that the AVRO Arrow would be relegated to the dust heap of history and I was recruited by Federal Electric Corp. which was operating DEWLine.   DEWLine had great pay along with free room and board.  I was young and single and, so my plan was to go north just long enough to buy a nice sports car.   What really happened, was I stayed 3 ½ years after two promotions.  After that, I moved where there is no snow or mosquitoes to Phoenix, AZ where I lived for 47 years.  Had a wonderful career with Honeywell but that’s a whole other story.

Ron Blessin

2120 E Woodhaven Pl

Springfield, MO 65804