We first met in October 1958, at RCAF (that's Royal Canadian Air Force, for you youngsters!) base Cold Lake, Alberta. Born in a small prairie town, Lorne Dale Sparks was a true son of the Canadian West, while I was a just-off-the-boat Brit - still pronouncing my Ts, and happy to be in this beautiful and bounteous land.
We were there to train for the all-weather-fighter role, and convert to the Avro CF-100, at that time the BEST of its breed in NATO, if not the world. (The Yanks had the F89 Scorpion, which we could wax any day, and the Brits the Gloucester Javelin.)
Our first task was to team up as pilot and navigator, to become a permanent crew: a twin-celled embryo that thought and acted as one. Why did we individually decide that "Yeah, flying with that guy would be cool."? Lord knows! I was much more set in my ways, and conscious of my previous air force experience; Sparky was intelligent, but what these days would be called super-cool and laid back. I read what I hoped were thought-provoking books, Sparky was happy with the Sunday funnies! Definitely a Clash of Cultures!
Here we are at Cold Lake, about to take to the air. If it looks cold, that's because it was - minus 30
on a warm day!
My Flying Partner and Dear Friend
Once we got used to each other's idiosyncracies, we hit it off very well. My advanced age (I was a whole two years older, but had the benefit of four years experience in Britain's Royal Air Force) and English stuffiness combined well with Sparky's live-for-the-day attitude. I remember the occasion when, on Cold Lake's Winter Survival course, his insistence on building a "Jesus Great Fire!" by using all our wood at once clashed with my more disciplined make-it-last approach. Yes, of course mine was the right way, but it wasn't nearly as much fun ... or as warm!
Me, Sparky, and the remains of the J.G.F.!
Endless hours of training, in which we "bumped heads" with another crew practising combat attacks; scrambles to check out unidentified aircraft (remember, this was at the height of the Cold War); the occasional "jolly" where we over-nighted in Goose Bay, Labrador, flew NE over a cold ocean towards Greenland, then home as a fake enemy for the USAF to practice on; and countless NORAD (North American Air Defense) exercises with exotic names like Sioux Chief, Big Blast, and Cueball. On many of the longer flights I used to regale my captive audience with comic monologues and impromptu songs - Sparky wasn't a big fan, but said it kept him awake!
Sparky indulging in some heavy reading: the Montreal Star's Comic Section!
Some of the missions, however, were a long way from combat oriented. One Canada Day we took part in a massive 48 plane formation flypast over the Peace Tower, landing afterward at RCAF Upland. That evening, seeking relief from the boredom of downtown Ottawa, Sparky and I were roaming the streets of Hull, looking for any form of excitement. We heard music coming from the top floor of a building. On climbing the stairs we found ourselves in a Greek wedding party! Our uniforms made us instant heroes; the wine flowed like floodwater; and next morning we flew back to St. Hubert breathing 100% oxygen - a sure fire hangover cure!
After completing the Cold Lake course, we were assigned to 416 Lynx Squadron at St. Hubert, just south of Montreal. For the next 30 months we flew our beloved CF-100, more affectionately known as "The Clunk", on all kinds of missions.
"Punchbowl 16" (our crew callsign)
But - please pardon the cliche - all good things DO come to an end. Our first flight together had been on the 31st of October, 1958; we last flew together on the 13th of May, 1961. Sparky was posted to Holberg, a radar site on the north end of Vancouver Island; I stayed with 416 Squadron until September, crewing up with an assorted set of navigator-less pilots. We had shared that cramped Clunk cockpit - Sparky in front, me staring at either a radar screen or the back of his head! - for 560 hours, almost 24 days in total!
And we lost touch. A simple and common expression that usually indicates a dramatic change in life. Sparky left the Air Force a year or so later, returned to the West and in time became a highly respected school teacher in Edmonton. I served five more years before starting a civilian career in computers. We each divorced and remarried, while our first offspring - each born in our 416 days - grew up. Shame to say, I cannot recall the exact date we reconnected, it must have been at least thirty years later. But the magic was still there. There is no closer bond than that forged between two individuals who each have the other's life in their hands. Some civilians - firefighters, policemen, and the like - may taste it, but two men in a high and fast flying aircraft have to have it or risk dying.
Two "Grumpy Old Men" in Edmonton
in the summer of 2006.
Sparky left us on March 9th, 2010. His obituary says it all. He was my friend and companion in a highly specialised occupation, during an interesting historical period. We shared some great times, and I still cry a little when I think too hard about those years.
"Per Ardua Ad Astra"