“It taxis along the ground with all the ease of an arthritic stork,” Or, A brief look at the brief presence at British Columbia’s Centennial air show of an Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-104 jet-powered airliner, part 1
Greetings and salutations, my assiduous reading friend. As the northern half of planet Earth slowly emerges from another long winter, and submerges itself into another infernally long and fiery summer, yours truly thought that a look at a long forgotten aspect of the Cold War (Hello, EG and VW!) might be a good topic to add to the ever longer list of topics examined in our mouth watering blog / bulletin / thingee.
Indeed, have you ever wondered if, like the famous Captain Jack Sparrow, a gentleman (?) mentioned in several issues of said blog / bulletin / thingee since September 2018, yours truly plans it all, or just makes it up as I go along? To answer your question, to paraphrase Peter Jason “Star-Lord” Quill, one of the main characters of the very popular 2014 American science fiction / super hero movie Guardians of the Galaxy, sometimes planned, sometimes made up. Bit of both.
This week’s issue of our you know what is a case in point. You will of course remember that an April 2023 issue mentioned the centennial celebrations surrounding the creation of the crown colony of British Columbia from the pair of fur trading districts, New Caledonia and the Columbia Department, which made / make up the mainland of the province of British Columbia, in August 1858.
You will of course be unsurprised to hear (read?) that an air show was one of the highlights of that event.
Yours truly originally thought of using the expression auspicious event until a thought crossed my mind: did the First Nations of British Columbia think that said Centennial was an auspicious occasion? To ask that question was / is to answer it. White settlers had dispossessed them of their land and undermined their sovereignty as nations. And do not get me started on Canada’s infamous Indian residential school system, a mandatory network of boarding schools funded by the federal government but run by various Christian churches, including especially the roman catholic church. Thousands of children are known to have died in those hellholes.
Mind you, the utterly innocent Japanese Canadians who were forcibly interned during the Second World War and banned from returning to British Columbia until April 1949 might also have wondered if the 1958 Centennial was an auspicious occasion.
The same might also have been said of Chinese Canadians, who had been forced to pay a huge head tax to enter Canada, between 1885 and 1923, the year they were pretty well banned from entering the country, through the euphemistically called Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, an act repealed only in May 1947, but back to our air show.
The first public mention of the Centennial air show appeared in the press of British Columbia a few days before mid April 1958. Said air show was to take place on 13, 14 and 15 June, at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, British Columbia. And yes, 14 June was Air Force Day, an annual event dedicated to, you guessed it, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). By early May, the air show had gone from 3 days to 2, namely June 14 and 15. The only event held on 13 June would be a staged rescue operation by RCAF crews.
A variety of aircraft, both civilian and military, would be present at the air show. Among the civilian machines would be vintage bush planes like the Junkers W 34 and Fairchild Model 71 as well as modern airliners like the Vickers Viscount, Lockheed Constellation and Bristol Britannia. Visitors would also be able to glimpse into the future of air travel, a future personified by a Boeing Model 707 jet-powered airliner. And yes, my wing nutty reading friend, that visit of a Model 707 would the first visit of an aircraft of that type in Canada. Better yet, that machine was scheduled to fly a few times during its time in Canada.
Incidentally, the Model 707 would not yet be in service in June 1958. Pan American World Airways Incorporated, one of the major and great airlines of the United States, an airline mentioned several times in our mouth-watering blog / bulletin / thingee since November 2017, kicked off the commercial career of that world famous airliner in October of that year. Yes, 1958, not 2017.
Need yours truly mention that the gorgeous and glorious collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, includes a Viscount, not to mention a W 34 and an FC-2W-2, a machine very similar to the Model 71? Indeed, I wonder if the W 34 which might have been on display in Vancouver in 1958 was not the one on display at the museum in 2023. That unfortunately cannot be proven. You see, Pacific Western Airlines Limited of Vancouver was operating three W 34s in 1958, and…
How about the Model 71, you ask, my eager beaver reading friend? Was that machine operated by Pacific Western Airlines as well? Nay, it was not. The Model 71 which might have been on display in Vancouver in 1958 belonged to William B. “Bill” Sylvester of Victoria, British Columbia, the former president of B.C. Air Lines Limited of Vancouver.
The types of military aircraft expected to be present were not mentioned in the press but machines from both the RCAF and United States Air Force (USAF) would be present.
Mind you, a replica / reproduction of a French-designed but British-made SPAD S.VII fighter plane dating from the First World War would also be on display. And no, that aircraft owned by James B. Petty of Gastonia, North Carolina, was / is apparently not the one owned by the shatteringly good Canada Aviation and Space Museum between December 1965 and October 2015. The museum’s machine and the one on display in Vancouver might have included components from the same SPAD S.VII, however, a machine completed in 1916 in England by Mann, Egerton & Company Limited.
And yes, you are quite correct, my savvy reading friend. The RCAF well and truly used the opportunity presented by the air show to show off its rescue capabilities. The crews of a Vertol H-21 helicopter and of a Consolidated Canso amphibian simulated a rescue operation in cooperation with a high speed rescue boat of the RCAF. Yes, yes, a rescue boat. The RCAF operated quite a few rescue boats along the Western and Eastern shores of Canada between the 1920s and the 1960s, and back to our story we go, but only after a brief reminder to the effect that the collection of the national museum of Canada mentioned in the previous paragraph includes a Canso.
Said collection also includes an Avro Canada CF-100 all weather fighter aircraft, a Canadair Argus maritime patrol aircraft, a Lockheed / Canadair Silver Star advanced training aircraft, three North American Harvard training aircraft and a North American / Canadair Sabre day fighter aircraft, not to mention the nose of a de Havilland Comet jet powered transport aircraft. Why does yours truly bust your chops with that aerial grocery list, you ask, my perplexed reading friend? Because one or more examples of these aircraft were present at the air show, either on the ground or in the air, or both, that is why.
The committee which organised the 1958 Centennial air show included some of the heavy hitters of the British Columbian aviation community. Frederick Maurice McGregor, president and co-owner of B.C. Air Lines, chaired the civil aviation section of the air show, while Francis Philip “Frank / Franco” Bernard, a hotel owner and president of the Aero Club of B.C., chaired its special events section.
Speaking (typing?) of Bernard, you will never imagine what thought went through his mind in the spring of 1958? Yep, you guessed it.
A few days before mid May, the British Columbian press announced that air show organisers were in contact with somebody somewhere to see if a Tupolev Tu-104 jet-powered airliner operated by the Soviet air carrier Aeroflot might be able to take part in said air show.
Initially, yours truly thought that said organisers had been in contact with representatives of the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) based at the embassy of that country, in Ottawa. I am not so sure anymore. You see, I wonder if the people chatting with the people at the embassy were not in fact people from the Department of External Affairs.
In any event, Bernard could count on the full support of a local Member of Parliament, on the government side, who happened to be a member of the Centennial committee, John Russell Taylor, and… Is that a glimmer of concern I see in your eyes, my reading friend? Fear not. The following digression will be brief.
Design of the Tu-104 began in the early 1950s at the Tupolev experiment and design bureau, at the request of Aeroflot and / or the main directorate of the civil air fleet. You see, Aeroflot’s management clearly saw the need to put into service aircraft superior to those it was operating at the time, aircraft which would be comparable to those of Western airlines.
Let us not forget that the world’s first jet powered airliners had flown in 1949, the four-engine British-designed de Havilland Comet in July and the four-engine Canadian-designed Avro Canada Jetliner, in August. While the latter never entered service, the first one did, in May 1952. In January and April 1954, however, two Comets disintegrated in mid air as a result of metal fatigue caused by a variety of factors. All Comets were grounded. Passenger carrying flights resumed only in October 1958, with a thoroughly modified version of the aircraft.
And yes, you are quite correct, my reading friend. When the Tu-104 entered service, in September 1956, that pride and joy of the USSR was the only operational jet-powered airliner on planet Earth, but back to the origin story of that machine.
In order to save time and moolah, the engineers of the Tupolev experiment and design bureau combined the wings, engines and tail surfaces of the Tupolev Tu-16, a twin engine strategic bomber tested in April 1952, with a brand new fuselage capable of accommodating 50 passengers – a number which reached 70 in a version introduced in 1957 and up to 115 in yet another version. And yes, one of the aims of the Tu-16 was to incinerate various Western European targets with (thermo)nuclear weapons.
Incidentally, the jet engine which powered the Tu-16 and Tu-104 was arguably the most powerful operational aeroengine devoid of an afterburner / reheat in the world at the time. Western aviation experts, both civilian and military, were undoubtedly aware of that somewhat disturbing state of affair.
You will remember that an afterburner is a tubular thingee mounted at the rear of a jet engine. Fuel injected in that tube is ignited by the very hot exhaust gases rushing out of the engine, greatly increasing thrust – and fuel consumption.
The first Tu-104 flew for the first time in June 1955.
Western eyes might, I repeat might, have glimpsed a Tu-104 for the first time, for afar mind you, in July or August 1955 at the air show / aviation day held at Tushino, near Moscow. Other Western eyes saw one of those machines in March 1956, before its introduction into service, when one of them landed at London Airport, at Heathrow, England, not too far from… London, England. Yet another Tu-104 landed in the United States, at a USAF base to be more precise, in September 1957. Incidentally, that aircraft was the first Tu-104 to set foot, err, wheel on Canadian soil. The large machine made a brief stop at RCAF Station Goose Bay, Newfoundland. All right, all right, Goose Bay, Labrador. Chill, my flustered reading friend, chill.
By the way, access to the Tu-104s which landed in the United Kingdom and United States in March 1956 and September 1957 was seemingly quite limited. Mind you, the access granted to the crew of the Tu-104 which landed at RCAF Station Goose Bay was also quite limited. You see, there was a (thermo)nuclear weapons storage area on that base, for the strategic bombers of the USAF which frequently / constantly flew in and out.
Yes, yes, (thermo)nuclear weapons. The Earth was shivering in the grip of the Cold War in 1958, do not forget that, my reading friend. (Hello, EG and VW!) If yours truly may be permitted to paraphrase, out of context, the dwarf Thorin II, better known as Thorin Oakenshield, king of Durin’s folk, the Longbeards, if more of us had valued food and cheer and song above world domination, it would have been a merrier world.
To answer the question forming in your noggin, the Tu-104 landed at a USAF base because the roar of its engines apparently grated on the sensitive ears of the staff and / or neighbours of New York International Airport. Indeed, before long, the Tu-104 was banned from all the airports located near New York City, New York.
At the risk of sounding impertinent, the descendants of these people proved equally intolerant when the Aérospatiale / British Aircraft Concorde was banned from operating near that city for some months in 1977, and this even though it made no more noise than at least one aircraft type in use at the time, but then this aircraft type was American, not European.
In fairness, yours truly has to point out that London Airport also banned the Tu-104. The Soviet airliner was just too noisy, but I digress.
A formal note asking the government of the USSR to send a Tu-104 to Vancouver was sent on Friday, 6 June 1958, I think. Said note was signed by the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, the nominal head of state of the province, Frank Mackenzie Ross.
Would you believe that the Cabinet of Canada, then chaired by Prime Minister John George Diefenbaker, a gentleman who has been mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2020, had to or saw fit to approve the note before it was sent to the USSR?
On Monday, 9 June (!), a representative of the embassy of the USSR in Ottawa indicated, albeit unofficially it seemed, that a Tu-104 would attend the Centennial air show, as long as sufficient amount of the fuel burned by the Tu-104 would be available on Canadian soil and as long as assurances would be given that recognition signals would be shared with the RCAF to avoid any unfortunate incident / disaster. And yes, yours truly assumes that a similar sort of assurance had to be been given for the entire Moscow-Vancouver journey given the need to cross the skies of various member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Now I ask you, did members of the Soviet government meet over the weekend to come up with an answer for such a minor question, or was a positive answer already in the back pocket of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the USSR stationed in Canada, Dmitry Stepanovich Chuvakhin? Enquiring / inquiring minds want to know. Incidentally, Chuvakhin was mentioned in a March 2021 issue of our non communist / non dictatorial / non egregious blog / bulletin / thingee.
And yes, Vancouver International Airport would the first place on planet Earth where an American jet powered airliner and of a Soviet jet powered airliner would be displayed side by side. Indeed, that airport would be the first place on our planet where a Tu-104 would take part in a North American or Western European air show.
For some reason or other, the planned brief stop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, raised some issues which required the assistance of representatives of the no less than 3 federal departments: the Department of Transport, the Department of National Defence and the Department of External Affairs. Department of Transport officials would ensure that the fuel required by the Soviet aircraft would be available when necessary, for example.
RCAF representatives, on the other hand, were not necessarily thrilled at the idea of having a Soviet crew near one of their bases, not to mention its proximity to the Canadian-designed Mid-Canada Line, one of a trio of detection networks created across North America to detect incoming Soviet strategic bombers whose aim was to incinerate various North American targets with (thermo)nuclear weapons.
Entirely financed by the Department of National Defence, the Mid-Canada Line was a relatively inexpensive network capable of detecting the passage of aircraft but not their precise location. Sadly, a flock of birds flying near one of the 105 or so detection stations scattered between British Columbia and Newfoundland, all right, all right, between British Columbia and Labrador, consistently confused the equipment – and significantly raised the blood pressure of the RCAF and USAF personnel keeping watch on the North American air space. Declared operational in 1957-58, the Mid-Canada Line was taken off line in 1964-65, but back to our story.
Would you believe that the planned stop in Winnipeg of the Tu-104 was cancelled? And no, the good people of the RCAF seemingly had nothing to do with that decision.
Newspapers reported that the Soviet aircraft would alight in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and not Winnipeg, because the federal government feared that anti-Soviet protests would take place there. Interestingly enough, that particular reason for the switch was quickly denied by said government. While acknowledging the possibility that protests could take place, a government representative added that the main reason for the change of landing venue was to facilitate the refuelling and servicing of the Tu-104. Of course.
Protests, you ask, my puzzled reading friend? Was the USSR really that unpopular in Winnipeg? Well, you see, in late August 1955, a delegation of Soviet farm leaders led by the first deputy minister of agriculture of the USSR, Vladimir Vladimirovich Matskevich, had arrived at Montreal (Dorval) Airport, in… Dorval, Québec, after spending several weeks touring the United States. Although warmly welcomed by various individuals representing various organisations, from the mayor of Montréal, Québec, Jean Drapeau, to the federal Deputy Minister of Agriculture, James Gordon Taggart, the delegation had found itself at the receiving end of copious insults shouted by a small number (50?) of outraged Ukrainian Canadians present at the airport.
In Winnipeg, Manitoba, a city with a sizeable number of Ukrainian Canadians present within its limits, things got worse. A number (300?) of outraged people welcomed the Soviet delegation with placards and copious insults. As the delegation left by a side exit, in taxis accompanied by a large police escort, four men, seemingly plainclothes members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, hopefully not sent as decoys, found themselves surrounded. They quickly got into an automobile but, as they carefully drove away, one of the windows of their vehicle was smashed.
The Soviet delegation also found itself faced with a hostile reception in London, Ontario.
Why were Ukrainian Canadians so angry, you ask, my reading friend? Well, you see, in 1932-33, the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture and, possibly, a desire to crush once and for all any independence project, led to an artificial famine, known as the Holodomor, which killed a sizeable fraction of the 30 to 33 or so million Ukrainians living in the USSR.
As of 2023, more than 10 individual countries, including Canada and the United States, as well as the 27 members of the European Union, have recognised the Holodomor as an act of genocide committed by the Soviet government against the Ukrainian people. Given the denialist attitude of the USSR and of post-USSR Russia, the total number of victims (4 million? 5.5 million? 7 million? 10 million?) will probably never be known.
Now, please do not get me started on the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in February 2002 by a certain Russian dictator who shall remain nameless. Yes, yes, the one named after a dish of French fries and cheese curds topped with a brown gravy developed in Québec in the late 1950s. So, back to the delegation hailing from the paradise of the proletariat. Слава Україні!
Clearly embarrassed by the protests, the federal government officially apologised to Matskevich, through an Assistant Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Stanislas Joseph Chagnon, who was accompanying the Soviet delegation. The situation was all the more embarrassing given that said delegation had apparently not met with a single protest during its stay in the United States. Yes, I know, I too find that rather hard to believe.
According to a senior federal official, seemingly from the Department of Agriculture, and I quote, “It is inexcusable that a small minority who obviously do not have the interests of Canada at heart have behaved in such a fashion.” If yours truly may be permitted to paraphrase, out of context, a line or two from a 1994 song interpreted by Canadian songwriter / singer / author / actor Jann Arden Anne Richards, that official might have had some advice to give on how to be insensitive.
And yes, you are correct, my well read reading friend, the Department of Agriculture had to organise the tour of the Soviet delegation because the Department of External Affairs seemingly did not want to deal with that potentially touchy issue, but I digress.
Another brief digression if I may. While Winnipeg housed a sizeable population of Ukrainian origin, the fact was that Saskatchewan also housed a sizeable population of Ukrainian origin. Many / most of these people lived in relatively small towns and cities, however, not in Saskatoon. Diverting the Tu-104 to that city at the last minute gave little time to community leaders to organise a protest. Just sayin’.
The newspaper articles containing information about the upcoming visit of a Tu-104 also mentioned that the British government had agreed to send a pair of Avro Vulcan jet-powered strategic bombers to Vancouver, not to mention a transport plane transporting the required ground crew and equipment. And yes, the main aim of the Vulcans was to incinerate various Eastern European targets with (thermo)nuclear weapons.
On a peaceful note, the newspaper articles confirmed that a recently delivered Bristol Britannia airliner would be on hand. Would you believe that this very machine officially went into service in early June 1958? Despite its British origin, that large and long range turboprop-powered machine was not owned by a British air carrier. Nay. It was owned by Canadian Pacific Airlines Limited of Vancouver, British Columbia, a subsidiary of Canadian Pacific Railway Company Limited of Montréal, a Canadian transportation giant mentioned in many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since April 2018.
Need yours truly need to mention that Canadian Pacific Airlines was mentioned moult times in our interstellar blog / bulletin / thingee since May 2019? I thought not.
Interestingly, the same newspapers articles mentioned that, and I quote, “it took string-pulling in Ottawa to get a Canadian flight permit” so that a 1947 flying replica / reproduction of a 1912 Curtiss biplane could travel from Seattle, Washington, to Vancouver and take part in the air show.
Yours truly wonders if that particular aeroplane got the nod simply because it was available or because members of the air show team knew that an example of an earlier version of that Curtiss biplane had been involved in the first aeroplane flight in British Columbia, in Richmond if you must know, in March 1910. The pilot involved in that British Columbian first was an American aviator.
The day after that first flight, the crazy man of the air, as Charles Keeney Hamilton was sometimes / often called, flew from Richmond to New Westminster, British Columbia, and back, thus covering a distance of 30 or so kilometres (almost 20 miles) in 30 or so minutes, but back to our story. Again. Sorry.
Yours truly is also sorry to end the telling of this story at this particular stage. There is in fact a lot left to say but you will have to be patient, my reading friend. Uvidimsya na nedele.