Shearwater 100: Commemorating the centenary of a Canadian aviation base

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Member of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society
Author Don MacNeil and father
Author Don MacNeil and father, Shearwater 1956.

By Don MacNeil

Sometimes in life, we get the chance to return to a place we hold dear to our hearts. Such was the case this past August, when I was able to visit a historic Canadian aviation airport where I spent four wonderful years of my youth.

Shearwater circa 1947

Shearwater circa 1947

In 1953, as the ten-year-old son of a former Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fixed wing pilot, newly-minted Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) officer and soon-to-be helicopter pilot, the MacNeil family moved to what was the principal RCN aviation base, HMCS Shearwater. Acquired as the main shore base for the RCN aviation branch when it was formed in 1947 and equipped with a fleet of surplus, post-war, Royal Navy aircraft, this base was established on what had been a Royal Canadian Airforce Station that also served as the civilian passenger airport for the town of Dartmouth and city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

Shearwater was essential for naval aircrew training and maintenance of navy aircraft. At the time, Canada was operating the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent as the country’s anti-submarine warfare contribution to the NATO’s defence against the growing threat of Soviet Bloc submarines prowling the Atlantic Ocean and coast of North America.

RCN Sea Furys in formation

RCN Sea Furys in formation

Back in 1953, the day of our Shearwater arrival was filled with the excitement of having my own bedroom for the first time, unpacking my comic books and other personal treasures, as well as my first exposure to Canadian naval aviation. On that beautiful, sunny afternoon, the quiet of my bedroom was shattered by the silky roar of not one but many of what I would later learn were the massive and powerful Bristol Centaurus radial engines powering the RCN’s Hawker Sea Fury fighter aircraft. Jumping up to my bedroom window I saw multiple Sea Fury aircraft zooming down from all directions, flying at rooftop level over the base. HMCS Magnificent – or the “Maggie” as she was affectionately called – was returning from a cruise and had launched her aircraft when approaching Halifax harbor, in order to undergo shore-based maintenance. It was customary for the pilots to “beat up” the base, letting wives and families know they were home. As a kid who loved airplanes, I knew that I’d arrived in aviation heaven.. and it only got better as the next four years went by!

Earlier this year, after learning that two significant, historical events were planned at Shearwater, I quickly made plans to return.

John A. MacNeil and Robert Stewart Decker

L to R: Pratt & Whitney Canada test pilot John A. MacNeil, and Sikorsky’s assistant chief test pilot Robert Stewart Decker.

Organized by the men and women of RCAF 12 Wing — as well as Shearwater Aviation Museum staff and volunteers — this three-day event was branded Shearwater 100. The intention was to commemorate a century of base history, including the induction of an RCAF Sikorsky Sea King, anti-submarine helicopter Serial Number 4001[1] to Shearwater’s small but excellent aviation museum. 4001, the first of four Sea Kings built on Sikorsky Helicopter’s Stratford, Connecticut production line for the RCN, was first flown by none other than my own father on April 30, 1963. Leaving the navy in 1957 and joining Pratt & Whitney Canada who represented Sikorsky Helicopters in Canada, Dad as Chief Test Pilot and his staff would test fly all remaining Sea Kings built for the RCN at their Longueuil and St. Hubert, Quebec manufacturing plants.

Held from August 1 to 3, Shearwater 100 was filled with memorable moments. On the first day, I toured the Shearwater Aviation Museum, photographed 4001 for the family history file, and met some museum friends. Museum volunteer and retired Col. John Orr, former Sea King Squadron Commanding Officer, invited me to join the guest speakers for snacks and to meet Lee Byrd, the granddaughter of United States Navy (USN) Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the founder in 1918 of the first military establishment built on the current Shearwater site, a base for USN Curtiss flying boats brought in to hunt for German U-Boats.

That afternoon, a history workshop kicked off with introductory remarks by Lieutenant-General Larry Ashley (Ret’d), Workshop Chairman. Larry is a Canadian Naval Aviation icon, former squadron CO and base commander at Shearwater. Col John Orr (Ret’d) CD provided the historical context for the speakers that followed him with his “Seven Flags Over Shearwater” presentation, which provided an overview of the station’s 100-year history under seven different military flags.

Curtisss HS-2L Flying Boat

Curtisss HS-2L Flying Boat


One of the highlights of the afternoon was a talk from Christopher Terry, former Director General of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. He provided a fascinating history of the Curtiss HS-2L flying boat aircraft used by Admiral Byrd’s Squadron, the first aircraft to fly from Shearwater. The remains of a Byrd Squadron Curtiss, located years later by the museum, was used to build a replica of this famous aircraft which is still part of the collection today.

A number of other speakers delivered a range of interesting talks. Topics included the Catalina/Canso flying boats (which at one time operated from the base), 1950s to 1960s era aircraft, and the RCN Air Branch history, from formation to the early days of the Cold War.

Col. John Orr and speakers

Col. John Orr and speakers

Grumman Tracker pilot Colonel Ted Gibbon (Ret’d) CD gave an engaging talk about this robust fixed wing submarine hunter, which served onboard HMCS Bonaventure and on land from the 1960s through the 1980s. These rugged Grumman, twin engine aircraft were frequently launched into the dark and stormy night of the North Atlantic to search for Soviet submarines, and after their missions brought their aircrews safely back onboard in the worst of flying conditions.

Following the workshop was the official induction of the Sea King 4001 – in its original 1960s RCN two-tone grey and florescent “DayGlo “ orange colour scheme – into the Shearwater Museum collection. In a short speech, Col Sid Connor, current 12 Wing Commanding Officer, described the contribution made over 55 years by this very capable and reliable multi-role aircraft.

Sikorsky Cyclone

Sikorsky Cyclone

The remaining two days were packed with formal and family-oriented events. One of the main highlights was a dedication parade to celebrate the grand opening of the Shearwater Aviation Memorial Park, which honours fallen RCN personnel and displays aircraft that played a vital role in Shearwater’s history.

On August 2, a gala dinner was held in celebration of Shearwater’s long aviation history. Guest speakers Eleanor “Lee” Byrd, granddaughter of USN Admiral Byrd, spoke about her family’s Shearwater ties. In addition, two former Shearwater 12 Wing Commanders, LGen Larry Ashley (Ret’d), Col John M. Cody (Ret’d), provided insights into the century of aviation at Shearwater. The dance floor was then opened for the evening, with music provided by the swinging jazz band component of the Canadian Forces Stadacona Band.

The final day of the event included a picnic and tours of the Shearwater Aviation Museum, the newly-dedicated Aviation Park, and the new Sikorsky Cyclone helicopter. An afternoon anniversary golf tournament was held on the beautiful Hartlen Point course, bordering the Atlantic Ocean in Eastern Passage.

This historic, three-day event was capped off by an evening concert. Conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser and Symphony Nova Scotia offered a lively, stirring, concert and multimedia program honouring the centenary of 12 Wing Shearwater. The music – mixed with my fond, childhood memories – were the perfect conclusion to my incredible experience at Shearwater 100.

[1] RCN Sea Kings were originally numbered from 4001 and up but later renumbered by the Canadian Armed Forces from 12401 (e.g. 4001 became 12401).

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Don MacNeil

Don MacNeil’s passion for aviation was germinated at the Royal Canadian Navy’s Air base, HMCS Shearwater in his early teens. Unable to fly professionally due to colour blindness, he pursued his passion by working for Pratt & Whitney Canada and, in later years, volunteering with the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and Vintage Wings of Canada. He is the speaker program convenor for the Ottawa Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.