Ralph Annis was to become one of the great all-time Sabre pilots in the RCAF. Besides being known for his famous Vancouver-Halifax speed record in a Sabre, and as a Godlen Hawk pilot, Annis was one of the originals with 441 Squadron. Some of his memories and impressions of 441 days follow:
I, along with several other pipeliners, joined 441 Squadron in early October, 1951, after completing our gunnery school on Harvards and our OTU on Vampires. It was quite an experience taking the swept-wing, flush riveted F-86 into the air for the first time. It was the hottest airplane in the world in 1951 without any exaggeration. This thrill remained throughout my years flying it.
I initially flew out of St. Hubert and my last flight there was February 8, 1952, before the squadron was transferred to North Luffenham, England, aboard the Empress of France on February 13, 1952. Our aircraft had already preceded us on HMCS Magnificent and it didn't take long to start operations in England, my first flight being on March 4. Most of us had only 40 or 50 hours on the Sabre and our job in England was to work up battle formation, fly the aircraft to its limits and learn to be comfortable there.
While our equipment and personnel were the best in the world, there were a few things missing. When Air Marshal Curtis, Chief of the Air Staff, visited us about five weeks after our arrival in England, we naturally put on a Wing flypast and met him upon landing. I never will forget the startled expression on his face, as we were in all manner of clothing. Only three or four people in the squadron had proper flying suits. The rest of us had a mixture of whatever we could obtain. I flew that day in a pair of khaki drill trousers and a T-shirt. It wasn't long until we were outfitted in carpenter's overalls, which certainly weren't flying suits, but at least we now looked as if we belonged to the same air force.
The flying in England was superb. The war had ended only a few years earlier and the Russian threat was steadily increasing. We were all into the gung-ho attitude of the Royal Air Force and worked with them and the USAF on a daily basis. Our missions were everything from tree-top level to 40,000 feet. Our gunnery officer, Ray Jolley, worked to develop our cine camera program so that we could assess our capability in dogfighting. Each mission on which we used the cine camera (which was almost always) was followed by an in-depth review to determine whether we would have shot down the other guy or how well we did on air-to-ground strafing. We spent long periods of time sitting on cockpit alert, starting a half hour before dawn to a half hour after dawn. These boring periods were usually followed by a scramble and on many occasions we were assigned to "wake up" some RAF or USAF base by doing a beat-up over the field. You can be sure that four screaming Sabres, at tree-top level, making multiple passes, woke everyone in the area up. I shall always remember one refuelling man jumping from the wing of a B-29 as I was doing a simulated attack. I had him on cine film and often wondered how he made out on that long drop to the tarmac. The missions were supposedly designed for the air base defence forces but we all loved them.
A mere three months after arrival in England, our boss, S/L MacKenzie, took three of us with him to visit an RAF wing at the old Luftwaffe base in Wunstorf, Germany. It was our first introduction to the Continent, and of the Sabre to that part of the world. It was quite an experience for us young people, but one of the things that sticks in my mind was the way the urinals were designed in the Officer's Mess, whereby you would lean your forehead on a specially designed release mechanism and flush as you threw-up. We called them honk-bowls. True German efficiency.
In June of 1952 our wing carried out trials in air-to-air fighting against the elite Central Fighter Establishment of the Royal Air Force. They flew Meteors, which were much inferior to the Sabre, but the pilots were probably the best in the world. At that time our pilots still had less than 100 hours in the Sabre. 439 Squadron flew the trials from 25,000 feet up, 410 Squadron between 1500 feet and 25,000 feet, and 441 Squadron the high-G gut-wrenching trials from ground level to 1500 feet. We were supposed to maintain two-plane integrity but soon after interception the Meteors fought individually, which immediately gave them a two-to-one advantage. Flying number two to Dean Kelly took about all I had as I tried to keep from blacking out even with a G-suit and still keep him in sight. It was only on our final flight against the Meteors that we dropped our two-plane attempts and took them on one-to-one. Over all, with our relative inexperience and our attempt to "play by the rules", the RAF made the decision to send the Meteors to Korea, where they performed adequately but proved no match for the MiG-15.
Our training continued in two-plane and four-plane and often large exercises where the entire wing of 36 Sabres would be launched on exercises against "enemy" bombers arriving from the Continent. I don't think there is a pilot from North Luffenham who doesn't remember the final day of a week-long exercise where nearly every fighter in southern England was launched against a tight box of 24 B-29s; not only was our Canadian wing involved, there was a wing of F-86As and at least three wings of Meteors, plus a few Vampires and Venoms. The air was full of airplanes making attacks on that poor bomber formation from every conceivable angle. Fighters were flashing by each other and the bombers without much regard for who might be in the way. Why we didn't have at least one mid-air is nothing less than miraculous.
Often we were asked to put on a demonstration of the Sabre's capabilities and these invariably included dropping a sonic boom. The phenomenon was new to the world and everyone was fascinated by the shock waves created when an aircraft flies faster than the speed of sound. One of our pilots was even invited to the Royal Aeronautical Establishment in Farnborough to drop sonic booms for the boffins of the RAF. We were cracking the sound barrier all over England at the time and in fact one of my log book entries reads, "North Luffenham to Horsham-St. Faith, boomed Horsham with 6 planes". I can't recall what the event was but we undoubtedly created some excitment. Unfortunately some damage did occur on the ground and dropping sonic booms became a no-no. On September 20, 1952, I did a Battle fo Britain Air Show at RAF Watton. Naturally they wanted me to break the sound barrier and I still have stapled in my log book a waiver signed by the Commandant declaring that he accepted "all responsibility in respect of complaints received or damage caused as the result of aircraft 19165 exceeding the speed of sound in the Watton area".
All this high-intensity flying and training soon made the RCAF ruler of the skies in Europe. Nothing could touch us, including the USAF, who in their defence, flew an older model Sabre. Some of them tried, however, and to my personal knowledge we had three aircraft credited without firing a shot; one Meteor and one Vampire that broke up in mid-air while trying to stay with the Sabre and a Venom that ran out of fuel and couldn't make it home after tangling with us. Fortunately no one was hurt.
When Andy MacKenzie left for his ill-fated tour in Korea, our acting squadron commander was Dean Kelly, probably the best solo aerobatic pilot in the RCAF. One day Dean wanted to go to RAF Leuchars in Scotland to visit some friends and took me along as his number two. In those days it was standard procedure to do a low pass when arriving and departing from strange bases and, of course, the RAF were always happy to see the Sabre in action. As we approached the aerodrome at approximately 500 kts, I was flying on the right wing and Dean was turning right so that I couldn't see the ground but we were low enough that I saw a pole of some sort flash by and I tucked in my formation as tight as I dared because I knew that my right wing wasn't far off the ground. During lunch our RAF host congratulated us on our close formation flying and this must have gone to Dean's head. On take-off, Dean called for the inevitable low pass and I was quite comfortable since we flew across in a reasonably level attitude but then he pulled up and proceeded to do a slow roll with me hanging on for dear life. After landing in Luffenham he casually mentioned the roll and didn't think that I would mind but didn't want to tell me beforehand in case I was nervous. Casual, that was Dean!
This little incident probably was the seed that grew into the 441 Squadron formation aerobatic team and of course I volunteered. Our leader was Gar Brine, who was later killed in an F-86 in Chatham, NB, right wing was Fern Villeneuve, who later flew with the Golden Hawks, myself on left wing and John Gaudry in the slot. We did quite a few air shows in England and on the Continent but the two most important in my mind are one at North Luffenham for HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on May 21, 1953, and one for the National Air Races at Southend-on-Sea, on June 20, 1953.
The following incident will give you some indication of how our Wing was dedicated to flying. I was doing a low-level cross-country in mid-March 1953 at 300 feet and 360 kts (not very fast but 360 kts works out to 7 miles a minute which makes navigation pretty simple) when a bird flew through my canopy and hit me on the head. Fortunately at the time I had looked down to check my map and my crash helmet took the beating instead of my head. However, flying plexiglas cut me a bit around the eyes and sheared off my radio cord. I made a precautionary landing at Brize-Norton, got patched up by the MO, who thought I had fallen off my motorcycle, and called home base telling them I needed a new canopy. Our ever-fathful ground crew arrived that evening, replaced the canopy, cleaned up the feathers, etc., gave me a throat mike, and I flew the machine home the next morning, where we were both back in business, the machine and I, in no time at all. Minor incidents like that were laughed off regularly.
I left North Luffenham and those wonderful days to become an instructor at the instrument flight in Zweibrucken, working for Ken Lett. We rarely flew less than 50 hours a month on a seat made of two-by-fours and a single layer of rubberized horse hair. Every new Sabre pilot in the Air Division went through our flight and every one of them became a hard-assed pilot. Maybe that's the reason the RCAF ruled the skies in Europe for 10 years.
Updated: May 26, 2003