Originally equipped with Blenheim light bombers, the squadron was quickly upgraded to the Lockheed Hudson. In February of 1942, the 407 were retasked as an anti-submarine unit using the Wellington bomber. After stand-down in June 1945, the squadron lay dormant until its reactivation in 1952 to fly the reconfigured Avro Lancaster. The Lancaster was replaced by the Neptune, which was eventually replaced by the Argus.
In 1981, the Canadian Government took possession of eighteen P-3C Orion aircraft based on the Lockheed Electra, and promptly had them redesignated as the CP-140 Aurora. Perfectly suited for its role in anti-submarine warfare, the seventeen hour endurance made the Aurora ideal for countless other applications such as surveillance, ground support, reconnaissance, and search and rescue. Recent applications for the Aurora include regular patrols for polluters, illegal fishing, and the tracking of smugglers and drug runners in Canadian waters. Working closely with other agencies such as the RCMP, the Navy, and the Coast Guard, 407 Squadron missions are varied and diverse.
The CP-140 itself is an impressive aircraft. With a length of thirty-five metres and a wingspan slightly over the thirty metre mark, the Aurora stands just over ten metres tall. Powered by four Alison T-56-A-14 turboprop engines, it can comfortably cruise at 650 kilometres per hour to a range of over 9000 kilometres. Most impressive is its array of surveillance equipment including radar, sonobuoys, forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera, magnetic anomaly detector (MAD), electronic support measures (ESM), a fixed 70mm camera, hand-held cameras, night vision goggles, and gyrostabilized binoculars.
As it happened, my flight was a routine patrol into the ‘Middle Area of Responsibility’, a region of the Western Pacific roughly 800 miles off the coast of Alaska. It simply does not get any more “middle of nowhere” than this. My host and tour guide for the day was Captain Wade Bowman, pilot and Crew Commander.
“Our mission today is surveillance. We’re going to be looking at the ships and different liners out there. We’ll be looking for polluters, vessels of interest, or vessels that have been known to smuggle or for illegal fishing,” said Captain Bowman. “Each boat we’ll video, we’ll talk to them, take some still imagery to make sure it’s just normal routine shipping, and then we’ll be on our way. They know we do patrols, but we also want to keep the element of surprise so they don’t know when to expect us. Once we have video, we’ll talk to them on the radio, and then go find the next boat.”
Captain Bowman went on to brief specifics of the flight. “We’ll start our radar search at roughly 15,000 feet to plot the area, then we’ll go down to a few hundred feet to investigate the contact. We have a new camera on board that enables us to do this work at higher altitudes on clear days.” Today was not one of them.
As we stepped onto the ramp, the Aurora looked cold and wet, yet strangely comfortable in the predawn rain. Climbing the stairs and stepping on board, I was greeted with smells familiar to military aircraft. Hydraulic oil, jet fuel, grease... and omelettes. Breakfast was already cooking in the galley. Aside from the aroma of food however, the plane was empty.
Making our way to the flight deck, we passed the munitions and deployment section, along with several banks of radar, surveillance, and other bits of impressive techno gadgetry. The flight deck itself was cold and dark with only the occasional light blinking at random intervals. Within minutes, the entire plane became a hive of activity as the twelve crewmembers boarded sporadically behind us.
Joining the crew during pre-start, I watched the routine performed with typical military precision. Each engine came to life slowly and methodically, eventually settling into the same monotone pitch as the others. As the rows of softly lit gauges began to mimic each other from engine to engine, radio clearances were obtained and all stations onboard checked in. As the intensity of the engines increased, we slowly began to creep forward toward the active runway. After a few gentle turns, the pilot checked in with me, letting me know we were ready to go, and making sure I was strapped in.
“Good to go,” I said as I tightened myself into my seat.
“Demon flight, to position and hold,” Tower commanded.
Seconds later, the same lady gave the clearance to go. With over 60,000 pounds of gas and twelve crew members other than myself onboard, it was surprising how much “get up and go” this airplane had! We certainly got up and went! Within a few minutes, we were climbing through 26,000 feet, leaving the Island far off in the distance.
With our mission to patrol the waters 800 miles offshore, there were a few hours of transit time to take advantage of before the real fun started. I was treated to a tour of the Aurora and given an overview of each area, what it was for and how it works. And while each given area had its place in the grand scheme of operation, the surveillance and electronic stations were by far the most interesting and colourful. With seven stations and a multitude of lights, radar, cameras, and other equipment, this area functioned as the central communication and navigational core of the ship. As we approached the target area, screens became active and critical mission systems were engaged.
Entering the area, blips began appearing on the screens. It was explained how each blip, or vessel, was to be plotted at altitude and the most efficient way to investigate each would then be determined. Once we had an idea of who was where, it was down to 300 feet to inspect each liner up close. It was not long before we were sneaking up on our first unsuspecting group of sailors. Following along on the radar and surveillance cameras, I watched the target inch increasingly closer at a 250 knot closing speed. A few minutes prior to first contact, I joined the guys up front for the best view.
It was about this time I got to thinking about the poor sailors on the ship we were steadily and rapidly approaching. Still several days from land in any direction, the last thing they would be expecting is outside human contact, let alone a pass from something like an Aurora. They were, however, about to get one.
About five miles out, a ship appeared on the horizon. Small and indistinct in the clouds and fog, my first glimpse was nothing more than a blur in the distance. The blur grew bigger as we moved closer. Surprisingly big, in fact. About the same time I felt I could reach out and touch this massive boat that just appeared in front of me, the radio came alive with a transmission from the back.
“We are a Canadian Forces Patrol Aircraft and we have a few basic questions for you sir, then we’ll be on our way,” the radio assured in a polite but firm tone. We had the element of surprise all right, and you could hear it in the reply.
“Uhhhhhhhhhhh,” said the ship’s captain as we thundered overhead. “Okay.”
After a few basic questions established the identity, timeline, points of departure and destination along with a handful of other random items, the captain was wished a pleasant voyage. With nothing out of the ordinary and nothing suspicious to speak of, a new target waypoint was transferred to the flight deck computer.
While on our way to the next ship, I was informed that this was the extent of the excitement for this trip. Apparently, sub hunting is considerably more exciting! Regardless, I thought this was pretty cool too. Not long afterwards, we were closing fast on a new target.
“Spotters, two minutes, port side,” someone announced through my headset.
I grabbed my camera and headed for the closest window. I could see the boat off in the distance, but I could not make out anything more than a subtle shape on the horizon. Glancing over at the “toy section” on board the plane however, I was surprised how crisp and clear the picture was of the same ship. With capabilities far exceeding anything I am allowed to talk about, this newly installed high fidelity camera unit was impressive to say the least. The video feed was both amazingly clear and rock solid from our impressively classified altitude.
As the radio crackled the one minute warning, I made my way back to the forward spotter’s position on the left hand side of the plane and readied my camera. As the massive vessel entered my viewfinder, the Communications Officer once again announced our presence to the captain on the ship below in much the same way he did the first boat. After the same routine questions were answered in the same routine way, the next target was locked into the computer and once again we began to climb into the clouds.
“If there is a ship in distress, in our bomb bay where we normally carry the torpedoes, we carry what’s called a SKAD, a Sea Survival Kit-Air Droppable, which consists of two ten-man life rafts, water purification, dry clothing and other survival items. We carry two SKADs at once while we’re out here, just in case,” Captain Bowman informed me.
It did not look like we would need any SKADs today however. As we investigated boat after boat trudging through the icy waters below, I eventually lost count of how many we had talked to. Close to two dozen I would guess, with each captain correctly answering all questions to the satisfaction of everyone on board the aircraft. Eight hours after takeoff, and still 500 miles off the coast of nowhere, we set course for 19 Wing.
Climbing through 26,000 feet with a heading of “home”, a cumulative relaxation seemed to envelop the aircraft. Gear was stowed, and the arrays of radar, cameras, and other informational screens were powered down. Attention turned from intercept coordinates and shipping routes to roast pork and mashed potatoes as the smell of food became increasingly apparent.
A few hours later, lights began to appear in the darkness. The last active radar screen clearly showed us overflying the coastline of a familiar island in the waters below. The long silenced radio came to life with a welcoming demeanour and vectors to final. The monotonous tone of the engines slowly receded until the wheels gently touched down where they had left over ten hours previously. We were back on the ground. Mission accomplished.
After a brief taxi to the hangar, the engines were shut down and the door was opened to reveal the awaiting ground crew. An icy blast of ocean air swept through the confines of the climate controlled airplane as twelve exhausted crew members filed down the stairs onto the wet tarmac below.
“We just need to sign the airplane in, and we’re done for the day,” Wade said, stepping out of the rain into the 407 Operations Centre.
A few minutes later with the paperwork complete, I thanked him for his assistance, we shook hands, and I made my way towards the officers parking where I had left my car. Just an average day for an Aurora pilot, I thought. The only daylight we saw was through the window of an airplane. The only thing we really saw through that window was an awful lot of water and a handful of boats. We did not find any subs. In fact, the squadron has not actually been out hunting submarines since the cold war. Adapting to modern times however, the 407 has proven its usefulness in so many other ways vital to the nation’s security and the seaborne threats that have come against her in recent years.