Visiting Historic Aircraft

Published on February 05, 2016
Cape Breton Post

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By Rannie Gillis

lockheed neptune

The Lockheed Neptune anti-submarine patrol bomber was in service with the RCAF from 1947 to the mid-1960s. With a crew of 10, the Neptune had a range of 4,000 miles. Neptune’s were stationed at Greenwood and Comox, B.C.

Submitted photo

It was a sunny and hot afternoon in early July, back in 2008, when I returned to Canadian Forces Base Greenwood in the Annapolis Valley. It was exactly 50 years earlier, in 1958, when I attended the last of my three air cadet camps at what was then called Royal Canadian Air Force Station Greenwood.

Today this station is the largest airbase in Atlantic Canada. It is also home to the Greenwood Military Aviation Museum, one of the finest such museums in the nation.

Consisting of four buildings, an outdoor display area with six historic aircraft and a memorial garden, this museum is a mandatory visit for anyone interested in the military history of Canada, especially with regard to the Second World War, and to Canadian efforts during the so-called Cold War (1947-90).

Three of the six historic aircraft on outdoor display at Greenwood are examples of planes that were actually stationed there while I was on the base as an air cadet.

The Lockheed Neptune and the Canadair Argus were both designed specifically for anti-submarine warfare, although neither were ever used in combat conditions, although the Neptune was used by the US as a surveillance aircraft in Viet Nam. The Avro Lancaster, however, is a combat veteran from the air war over Europe, with quite an interesting history.

The Lancaster was considered to be the finest heavy bomber used by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. With four Rolls Royce engines, and a crew of seven, it was a rugged, powerful flying machine, and the only Allied aircraft capable of carrying the Grand Slam, the most powerful non-atomic bomb ever built.

This British-built explosive device was more than 26 feet long, almost four feet wide and weighed more than 11 tons (22,000 pounds). Dropped from a high altitude, and designed to fall at almost supersonic speed, it would penetrate a considerable distance underground before exploding. How far could it penetrate?

The Grand Slam, which was known among aircrew as the earthquake bomb, could penetrate more than 100 feet of earth, or 20 feet of reinforced concrete, before exploding. It was designed to penetrate the concrete roofs of enemy submarine pens or reinforced bunkers. There were also plans to use it against enemy battleships.

There were two other reasons why I wanted to examine this particular type of aircraft.

Although a total of 7,377 Lancasters were built during the war, there are only 17 surviving examples left in the world, and most of those are in Canada.

The Lancaster at Greenwood was one of 430 that were built in Canada. It survived 26 missions over enemy occupied France and Germany, and was twice badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire.

When the European war ended in 1945, this plane returned to Canada and remained in service with the Royal Canadian Air Force for another 18 years. It was mostly used for photography work and map making in the Canadian Arctic, and was often based in Greenwood.

When the aircraft was retired in 1963, it remained in storage at Greenwood, where it is now on permanent display.

The other reason for my interest in the Lancaster was the tail gunner’s turret at the back of the aircraft. During the Second World War my uncle Rannie MacLean, who I am named after, flew as a navigator/air gunner on a Vickers Wellington anti-submarine bomber. He never returned from his seventh mission off the coast of France, so I never had the opportunity to speak to him about his wartime experiences.

Joseph Walsh, former owner of Dooley’s Funeral Home in North Sydney, passed away at the age of 81 in 2006. He was not only a very good friend, he was also an overseas veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who flew as an air gunner in a Lancaster bomber during the Second World War. At a time when few aircrew survived more than a dozen trips over enemy territory, Joe made a total of 21, but was always, like most veterans, reluctant to speak about his military experience.

The rear gun turret on this Greenwood Lancaster, with its four machine guns, was exactly the same type of turret that both Rannie MacLean and Joe Walsh would have used during the war. Just think of the stories they could tell, but then again, neither of them would probably ever say anything.

Rannie Gillis is a retired teacher and guidance counsellor who lives in North Sydney. An avid writer, photographer and moto-journalist, he is the author of several books and has written travel stories for various Canadian and American magazines. He specializes in the Celtic world. He can be reached at