As members of the RAF Transport Command (RAFTC), the names of a captain, co-captain and a navigator had come up on the rotating lists to fly a twin engine Douglas-C3 cargo plane from Montreal to Prestwick, Scotland. The entire crew was not happy about this assignment for three reasons: the Douglas-C3 was designed for short distances, had only two engines and the departure date was December 31st 1944.
Informed by the senior pilot that their cargo was very precious and also perishable, the three men were told to get to Scotland as soon as possible. And what was the cargo?
There were three large connected cages carpeted with saw dust and populated with about thirty rats! “Our only clue was the name of a medical clinic on the cages,” explains co-captain, Frank Sloan. Their first stop was Goose Bay Labrador to fill all the fuel tanks, have the DC3’s two Pratt and Whitney Motors carefully checked, have a short rest, a meal and attend the usual weather briefing. Their scheduled departure time (ETD) was eleven p.m.
After the weather briefing, customary before all trans-Atlantic flights, they headed for the dining hall. The three men had no problem finding the hall because that is where all the noise was coming from. The entrance was two or three steps above the mess hall level which was packed with Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) uniforms – all men. “I felt we were on a stage,” says Frank. Then, to Frank’s surprise, he heard his name. “Frank.” It was coming from a young woman in uniform with long blond hair!
Her name was Barbara Rawlinson. She was one of the only two women at this RCAF station and she was a school chum of Frank’s younger sister, Barbara Sloan. Barbara came through the crowd and gave Frank a huge welcoming hug. “The crowd noise changed to sort of a whimper. You see, everyone was secretly in love with Barbara,” says Frank. Frank explained to her that he was worried about the rats being out in the cold so she suggested they go to the kitchen to get some dry cereal, then go to the DC3 and feed them. Of course, she first needed to get permission from the Wing Commander.
So Barbara went across the crowded floor, spoke into the Wing Commander’s left ear (because of the noise level) and got his permission. As they were leaving, the Wing Commander got on the microphone and announced to everyone: “Our dear Barbara has just informed me that she and her friend in the funny uniform have to leave us to go and feed the rats! I have never heard that excuse before!”
Because the DC3 was not designed for long distances they had to plan on stopping in Iceland for fuel before going on to Prestwick Scotland. As the plane was making its final approach to the only airport in Iceland, the crew was told, from the tower, that there was no radio contact with a De Havilland Mosquito plane which was on final approach ahead of them. The runway started at the top of a tall cliff that dropped straight down to rocks at ocean level. As their plane came out of the clouds, Frank informed the control tower that they had the Mosquito in sight. Then Frank said they heard the tower yell to the pilot of the Mosquito, “Pull up!” “Pull up!” “You are coming in too low!” But the Mosquito made no changes and crashed into the cliff. Hundreds of pieces of wreckage fell down onto the rocks. There was no fire. “Then we heard a hysterical voice from the tower telling us a plane had crashed on the runway so we were told we could not land due to the fire trucks that were heading out,” explains Frank.
So they had to set course to go back to the nearest alternate airport which was Bluie West-1 (BW-1) in Greenland. But there was a huge problem; according to the navigator’s careful calculations where wasn’t enough gas in their tanks to get them there! In the meantime, the captain was in such a panic that his brain shut down. He was a former crop-dusting pilot. Fortunately, Frank Sloan, the co-captain, had graduated in Meteorology (except for the required six months apprenticeship) and was very knowledgeable about aircraft engines. Frank picked up a lower altitude for the most favourable winds, leaned out the fuel to air mixture until the exhaust pipes were dangerously red hot and picked a lower cruise speed.
“To get to the runway at (BW-1) Airport, we first had to fly over the cone of silence of the radio beacon at the shore, which is like the hub of an electronic, four spoked wheel. Then we had to fly inland on the east spoke of the navigation guide for exactly twelve minutes and eleven seconds and then do a spiral let-down to the only runway,” Frank enthusiastically explains.
This emergency airfield was officially closed because the cloud and fog levels were solid from about 6,000 feet right down almost to water level. The only runway was at the end of a long fjord with 3,000 foot rock walls. So Frank said they had to fly in from the coast on instruments at close to the 11,000 foot level. “
“On our first attempt we were caught in the turbulence of the only other plane to land at BLUIE WEST ONE. I insisted we go up 300 feet to make sure we would not fly into its tail, says Frank. The other captain was communicating regularly with the tower and it was obvious that he was panicking. His voice was cut off and instantly; they knew he had crashed. “On our first try, when my stop-watch told me, I told our captain we had to spiral down and NOW! He hesitated which meant we had to go back out to the coast and try again. By now, we were being subjected to the continuous nerve racking very loud sounds of low fuel alarms,” says Frank.
This would be their last chance! Frank told the navigator to take the fire extinguisher and bash the captain’s head if he did not agree to spiral down at the right moment. Fortunately, he got the message. So they spiraled down blind on instruments with all eyes on the rapid changes on the altimeter. “Then, as we broke out of the clouds, we saw we were lined up and at the right height to land at the only runway at BWI. This was the first land we saw since leaving Iceland,” says Frank.
The next morning their plane was the last to leave. When they went out to their DC3, the three men were greeted with handshakes from the airports entire ground crew! “They wanted to meet us to let us know that the amount of fuel required to fill our tanks was exactly the amount of fuel the manual said was the total capacity of all the tanks.” explains Frank. When the plane finally landed in Scotland on January 2nd, 1945, there appeared to be only three surviving rats! The others had eaten each other from starvation!
Frank Sloan was Canada’s first “Culligan Man.” He had an extensive background in both water and air as it pertains to good health. His eclectic career includes being an engineer, an intercontinental pilot and an inventor with several inventions and patents.
This was written based on a true story.
Written by: Melanie Vollick (Write Way Communications), Frank Sloan (Inventor)