Super Secret Missile Station (1956)

By George Bryant



Six years ago the howl of wolves and the crackle of ice serenaded trappers in the muskeg swamps and scrub growths that separate this hamlet from Edmonton to the south. Now the wolves are gone, and the trappers too, and over 4000 square miles of wilderness the whine of jets and the roar of rockets sing strange songs to squatting machines. And in a land where she was once all-powerful, nature is almost ignored.

            Centre of this new activity in an old, wild land is the RCAF’s super-secret Cold Lake Station, a city of 5000 set at the end of nowhere. Here new weapons are tested and proved, CF-100 crews get to know each other and the wonders of their machine, active squadrons get a chance to prove their worth with rockets, and a civilian sometimes wonders if all the noise is necessary.

            The RCAF’s only completely post-war station, with permanent buildings and a growth potential, Cold Lake inventories at $200,000,000, keeps over 100 jets in seemingly perpetual flight and handles more scheduled arrivals, departures and instrumentation than even Toronto’s Malton airport.

            The mere existence of this modern city with its schools, hospitals, movie, shops and other amenities is staggering to a stranger. But the activities here task one’s comprehension even further.


Mechanical Brain Needed

            The site was selected because in 1950 Canada needed a big, remote area to test weapons and guided missiles. Just 25 miles north of here, the perfect spot was found, a 113-by-39-mile tract of waste with fewer than 150 people in it. These were asked politely but firmly, to move, paid for their kindness and helped on their way. Then, because the land, once the haunt of Louis Riel, was in the midst of Indian reservations, rights were bought and the RCAF took over. The station opened in 1954.

            It is on the range that the air armament evaluation detachment of the Central Experimental and Proving Establishment tests weapons of all kinds. As the commanding officer of the station, G/C Richard C. “Dick” Stovel, 36, says: “That’s where they drop things and make noises.”

            And make noises they do. Over Primrose lake, the spot in he weapons range where their instruments are set up, the roar of rockets has produced some pretty insomniac animals. But every explosion adds to Canada’s knowledge of weapons, and points the way to improvement.

            On the ground, theodolites (twin-telescoped visual tracking instruments) and radar follow planes and missiles, with photographs keeping track of every recording. Height, speed, accuracy and, in the case of guided missiles, control, are all recorded. From the instruments it can be determined if not only something goes wrong, but where and, soon after, why it went wrong.

            “In the old days,” says W/C R.D.H. Ellis, who commands the detachment, “you lined the machine-guns up to shoot straight ahead of the plane and the rest was up to the pilot. He led the enemy plane with the nose of his own, as if he were shooting ducks, and fired at what he thought was the right instant.”

            Today two aircraft converge at well over 1000 miles an hour and a pilot’s judgment just isn’t good enough. He has to carry a mechanical brain and other aids to do the job, and they’re the responsibility of the detachment.

            “He has to fire at a unique millisecond in time, and his judgment and reflexes just can’t be good enough.” Says W/C Ellis. “Even the machines have tiny relay lags we have to take into consideration.”

            So complex are the machines involved that it’s reaching the point where the pilot of a CF-100 merely has to aim his plane and they do the rest. Ground-control radar sends him to the area of the target, in this case a towed, non-lethal one, and he locks his radar on it. Then he aims at the little dot and, when close, pulls the trigger. But nothing visible happens.


$6000 a Shot

            Out of sight, however, the electronic brain is clucking away to itself in an absent-minded fashion. It computes the enemy’s speed and direction, that of its home plane and other data. Then it decides when the rockets have to go to be in the same spot in space and time as the enemy, and fires them then.

            The detachment has other problems, too. Take the rockets themselves. Testing them on the ground is an easy job if you are just measuring thrust. But to measure stability in flight you must test them in the air. Since they are not spun like bullets at the moment of firing, they need initial speed for a straight course. Fired from an aircraft they get that. But fired on the ground they veer dangerously before hitting a high enough speed to travel a straight line.

            “Which means we can’t set up a ground-firing range,” says the wing commander. “We must use instruments to record flight in the air.”

            Using the range, too, for the same purposes but different reasons, are the men of the weapons practice unit. Since this is the only range of its kind in Canada, each of the country’s nine CF-100 squadrons comes here for weapons training and practice.

            Machines can calculate a collision course for rockets and enemy, but only if the plane is aimed correctly. And in these days of supersonic speed the pilot is apt to have only one chance. This is where he learns to seize it.

            Because chances to intercept are going to be instant and lone, and because of weight and other factors, each plane carries only two pods, or nests, of rockets, one at each wingtip. Each pod fired is a loss of $6000, but every practice firing is worth more than that to the pilot. When and if Canada needs its interceptors, the training he gets here will make the difference.

            “It’s not like the days when you had bags of bullets,” says /C John Sutherland, commanding officer of 440 Squadron, now using the range. “Today you get two shots. They must count.”

            Out over the range, too, go fledgling CF-100 crews from the No. 3 all-weather operational training unit, new out of school, meeting each other for the first time, learning together the silence and the speed of high altitude flying and the joys of a great aircraft.

            “And it is a tremendous aircraft,” says W/C D. MacWilliam, officer commanding the unit, who works and worries over his “boys” like a nest-bound mother eagle. “People complain to me sometimes there have been a lot of CF-100 crashes. Let me tell you that all but one, which is still under investigation, have proven to be pilot error. It’s a great ship and we love it here.”


Man Crowded by Machine

            “The boys” arrive in two groups, one from pilot training in Harvards and T-33’s, the other from navigation school.

“In a two man ship like the CF,” says the wing commander, ‘the crew must be very close, work like one. So we let them choose their partners and we leave it that way.”

First the pilots hold an “engagement party’ at which everyone meets. Then, a week later, the navigators hold a “marriage,” at which the crews that have paired up during the week are toasted. On some occasions they’ve even gagged it up with a wedding dress and organ music. From that point on each pair is a team.

The two men take separate training at first, but at some point they must get into the same aircraft and go together. And, since the CF is a two-seat plane, they must go alone on their first unsupervised trip.

“From that point on they’re on their own,” says W/C MacWilliam. “We have to stay on the ground and sweat that first trip out. We can never go with them again.”

The OUT includes a medical section that can compare with any in North America. In it pilots learn the ways of man at low-pressure heights and the effects of explosive decompression (which occurs if a canopy blows at high altitude). A $170,000 machine can reproduce this, free fall and artificial altitudes up to 200,000 feet.

In this section, too, the new birdman learns the operation of his ejector seat. He moves a switch to blow his canopy off, then pulls a rip cord and a cover down over his face.

Then another machine takes over. It blows itself out of the aircraft, opens a parachute to keep steady, then, at the right altitude, tumbles him forward free of itself hile it pulls his parachute out and switches his oxygen from the main supply to an emergency bottle.

“We’ve only one worry,” said one student pilot. “These machines are getting so smart they may one day jump themselves and leave us in the plane.”

W/C MacWillliam agrees the crew are being rather crowded by the machine, and may some time be replaced entirely. “But until that day comes,” he adds, “we’re producing the best pilots there are, right here in Canada.”

Keeping tabs on all this aerial activity around the station is a complete and fully manned ground control interception unit.

“Papa keeps a gimlet eye on all the little boys,” says S/L J.T. Hall, who commands the unit. Certainly nothing moves in the air near the station without being plotted, contacted or intercepted. Scores of radar screens lance out of the “Persian Palace,” the nickname the building has won by virtue of its huge white plastic domes which protect the radar scanners from the elements.

The station is operated by Air Defence Command, under which all the units, except for the air armament detachment, which describes itself as a “lodger,” come. It is, in fact, the backbone of the training section of the command, which is charged with Canada’s aerial defence and, under NATO with that of North America.

But despite the serious work that goes on, the station is, in navy parlance, “a happy ship.” There’s a bit of grumbling about the scarcity of dates (80 single women to 1000 men) and the wait for married quarters (555 up, 300 more abuilding), but 98 per cent. of the personnel like it here.

“And that’s the way we’re going to keep it,” says G/C Stovel, whose own personality- he was hand-picked for the job- has a great deal to do with it.


(Copyright: 1956. The Star Weekly)