Tag Archives: Air Force

Pilot by Profession, Soldier by Heart

by Captain Steven R. Harrison, CD (Ret’d). Steve served with the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada from 1971-1980, and then the Canadian Airforce from 1980-2013. He was awarded the Air Staff Commander’s Commendation in Afghanistan, and the SAR Commander’s Commendation while in Jamaica. 

I was born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario. I grew up in Highland Creek (east end of Scarborough). All of those raised in the sixties around that area were called ‘creekers’. It was your typical childhood of school and other activities such as fishing in the Rouge River or going on our bicycles through an area that had signs posted ‘future site for the Toronto Zoo’.

My father always told me his stories of being an air cadet in downtown Toronto and attending parades such as Remembrance Day at Old City Hall and the Warriors Day parade at the CNE. As early as I can remember I was wearing a uniform of some type: Cubs, Scouts, and Air Cadets.

631 Squadron Air Cadets on Eglinton Avenue (near Birchmount) was the squadron that inspired me the most. At the time it was considered the largest squadron in the country. The squadron has so many activities going on: band, drill team, target shooting, summer camp and glider camp at Mountainview (near 8 Wing Trenton). Rifle target practice and flying were my most exciting events. Using the .303 converted 22 calibre rifle, I could hit the center of the target every time with little effort, but when it came to flying it felt like I was born to be in the cockpit of an aircraft. The little glider was not what I would consider to be the equivalent of ‘Roger Ramjet’ but in my mind I was.

I was promoted through the ranks to Flight Sergeant and had finally reached my 17th birthday when a friend at Westhill Collegiate High School (Morningside Avenue) named Tom Fury (some of you will recognize this name) approached me to join the Army Reserve. I didn’t know much about the reserve but after hearing some of his stories I decided to give it a try. So off to Moss Park Armouries (from Westhill) we went.

The building was huge and full of activity: orders being given (especially from this tall guy with a big groomed mustache and wearing a uniform that had creases that would cut you and boots that looked like mirrors), platoon sections moving in response, everyone using this completely strange rifle with a big box thing hanging below it and everyone wearing these strange army fatigues… wow, what a time warp of the senses.

The next week I decided to join the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada at Moss Park (and not that other unit across the floor that wore some kind of dress, good unit I am sure but not my cup-of-tea).

Training started almost immediately. Thank god for my cadet drill training but never-the-less, it was faster drill then I was prepared for, way faster…

After being issued my uniforms and equipment, then they had us march down to the weapons lock up to be issued a rifle. When the MCpl recorded the serial number and had me sign for it, he handed me this weird weapon which I later learned was the FNC1A1. A 7.62 calibre, gas operated, semi-automatic rifle.

I didn’t even know how to properly carry it, assemble or disassemble it. The person assigned with ensuring I had all the knowledge needed for the FN was taught by WO Jerry Senetchko. He was the rifleman of riflemen. He was a crack shot and an excellent example of a Canadian soldier that I wanted to follow. To be honest, in my early days with him, he put the fear of god in me at so many levels that I would rather have been shot by the enemy then fear the wrath that would come down upon me from him if I screwed up. That being said, I later found out that there was someone even worse: that person was CSM Eric Simundson. The CSM was a man who commanded utmost respect and would not let a single error pass. He was absolutely confident on all matters of military life especially when it came to his regiment, the QOR. All members of the regiment would ‘tighten up’ when he was nearby.

One range weekend at the Niagara-on-the-Lake military rifle range, we had just finished a late afternoon shoot. While surrounded by other fellow riflemen, the CSM shouted “Harrison, clean my rifle’. I sharply retrieved his rifle and got straight to work. While everyone watched, I went to tap the butt of the rifle to assist with the opening of the rifle when what do you hear, but a loud ‘cuuurrrrackkkk’ as his rifle stock split right up the middle to the receiver and fell in two pieces. There was a deathly pause broken by “Steve, it was pleasure knowing you, for you are about to die’.

There are many members of the Queen’s Own that have had a major influence on my life but the individuals that I must mention are; Brian Budden, Ralph Schoenig, Harry McCabe and Rob Chan. They have always been strong leaders and have always provided the necessary guidance to us to be good soldiers.

In the summer of 1973, we attended summer training in Petawawa. Many regiments were represented, and good training was received. For the final exercise the QOR were advancing towards the RCR (enemy). We were supported by artillery and air support (specifically CF-5 Freedom Fighters). On a low pass, I was waist deep with my FN over my head in some swamp water when the aircraft came over rather low and fast. I thought at that moment I wish I was in cockpit flying rather than being in a swamp, cold and wet…maybe someday.

The QOR later proved to be the best regiment that summer and we went on to win the Coffin Trophy. It was a great honour to be part of that.

The Queen’s Own has an outstanding history as Canada’s oldest regiment. The regiment has participated in and has been awarded several battle honours through the years to include the Boar War, many WWI and WWII engagements such as Vimy, Passchendaele, Normandy Landing and Calais. They also included recent participation in Afghanistan. One battle honour that caught the attention of CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) was that of the North-West Rebellion in 1885 at Cut Knife Hill. Mr. Pierre Burton wrote a book called “The National Dream” about building a railway across Canada. The book became an eight-part television series.

Re-enacting the North West Field Force

The Queen’s Own Rifles was approached and asked if they would participate in the series illustrating the movement of troops through Canada’s north to the battle site. Now as a member of the QOR’s Regimental Pioneers and Skirmishers, I was able to be involved with the filming (a budding star sort-of-speak). During one of the several sequences of filming, there was a scene where we were conducting close order drill inside the old CBC complex. The stage was set for a realistic training environment with snow falling and temperatures below zero Celsius. The director at the time, approach RSM Eric Simundson and asked if he could ‘dress up’ a soldier for doing something wrong during the drill. Well, I was catching the sling of my Snider Enfield rifle. So, I became the target of his wrath once more. Even when he was acting, he would put the fear of god into you. Filming the movie was a great experience and a close representation of what the regiment endured back 1885.

Many of the members of the regiment, myself included, were police officers or firemen for Toronto and surrounding areas. I was enrolled into the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force in 1974 and later resigned in 1979. During those years, I was assigned to 55 division located in the Beaches area of Toronto. Being a police officer in Toronto during those years was exciting to say the least. An officer could find himself involved in many various activities such as undercover work, uniformed patrol, walking a beat on the Danforth, or simply directing traffic at the CNE Princess Gates during the summer. Often, the schedule would conflict with parade night with QOR, so I had to balance my QOR training with my police schedule.

One fateful weekend I decided to help instruct our newest members of the regiment during an exercise north of Toronto. We took several vehicles and various weapons with us for the training. One of the old transport trucks (deuce and a half) had some reported issues with steering but was found to be serviceable. After the training was complete, we headed back to Toronto on the Sunday afternoon. I sat in the back of this truck with the recruits. I was sitting on the right side by the tailgate as we drove south bound in the middle lane of the Don Valley Parkway just north of Bloor St. Located on the same side of the truck but leaning in the corner near the cab was Rifleman R.N. Gurung. He was trying to catch some much-needed sleep after a hard weekend. Suddenly, the vehicle seemed to turn out of control to the right at highway speed, crossing the shoulder lane and slammed into the guard rail. The rail was the only thing stopping the huge truck from falling 20 plus feet into the valley below. We continued to bounce along the rail. The combination of the truck height and the slope of the soft shoulder caused the right-side bench to sit over the guard rail with a significant angle. I am now looking at all recruits and ordering them on the floor of the truck as we continued south over the rail. In the flash of a second, a straight standing lamp post hit and tore through the right side. At that instance, I was looking at Rifleman Gurung when he fell onto the floor, thinking for a moment that he was responding to my order. The truck finally came to a stop just south of Bloor St. My next order was telling everyone to exit the truck and rally off the highway just north of where we stopped. Everyone exited promptly but there was Rifleman Gurung lying motionless on the floor. I immediately went to the emergency call box and stated “listen carefully, I am a police office located on the DVP just south of Bloor, I need an ambulance RIGHT NOW …. “. It seemed that the entire city exploded with the sounds of sirens. An ambulance quickly arrived on the scene and subsequently rushed Gurung to St Michaels hospital on Queen Street. A point of note is that the first police officer to arrive was one Larry Hicks (I believe he was a MCpl in the QOR at that time). Later, at Rifleman Gurung’s funeral, I met his parents and only then realized that his father was a Parking Control Officer at 54 Division that I worked with often. I was filled with sadness for his family that day.

During my days with the Police Force, I was able to save a bit of money and decided to drive to Oshawa Airport to take a ‘familiarization flight’ in a Cessna 172. A tall, well dressed Newfoundlander with a small set of civilian pilot wings approached me asking me if he could help. I stated that I did some glider flying when I was a young cadet and that I wanted to pursue my interest in flying and maybe getting my private licence. Before I could change my mind, we were in the aircraft climbing towards Port Perry. Once at level flight, he carefully allowed me to have control for some very gentle turns, climbs and descents. The flight seemed to have lasted only 10 minutes but it probably lasted over an hour. I was hooked and decide to commit to getting my licence and that he (Roger Eastman) would be my instructor. After that, every opportunity I had, I was at the Oshawa Flying Club learning how to fly as fast as my savings would allow. After a year of working hard, I was now a licenced pilot.

The police force was starting to be an issue with them taking most of my time off for court, extra duties and such. One good thing that came from the police force was my wife. I had a driver stopped on east bound Queen St E near Kingston Rd. After releasing the driver, my partner and I began to walk back to the car. The next thing we see is a white car pulling in behind us. Because the police lights were still on, she thought it was a spot check. On that cool September night, the police jacket I was wearing popped a button that went through her window, straight into her top and disappeared out of site for obvious reasons. She looked at me and I stated that I couldn’t have planned it better. A year later we married, and she has been with me all these years.

One night on patrol, my partner and I were working the ‘gun car’. The car is equipped with additional equipment and some extra firepower to handle adverse situations. We received a call to quickly respond to the Benlamond Hotel and Bar on Kingston Rd for a man caring a gun. I was first into the bar. Based on the description given on the radio, I identified the person in amongst 20+ near a pool table. Besides the description, he was the only man in the bar pointing a .44 at me (who would have thought…). My partner was close behind me. I froze, did NOT reach for my gun as it was in a locked covered cross draw holster (he had the draw on me already). I stated that “son, you are in trouble but not the real trouble if you decide to shoot me” at which point my partner exposed the 12-gauge shot gun from behind his leg. After what seemed to be forever, he placed the gun on the pool table and we then arrested him. It wasn’t until that moment that I noticed that the room was completely empty. The 20+ people headed for whatever cover they could find. My focus was on the end of his barrel. I don’t know why, but a .44 looks like the business end of a howitzer during times like these.

After finally going to court on this case, he was given only a few months in jail when he should have received several years. I saw him on the Danforth not much long after he was released. I was so upset that I decided the police force was not for me due to the lack of support by the court system for such cases and decided to release. A fellow police officer asked me what I was going to do for work, I had no idea. He asked “Steve, don’t you have a pilot licence? “. “Did you know the Canadian Forces are looking for pilots right now? “. I promptly walked into 4900 Yonge Street Recruiting. After several months of testing and evaluation I was given a two week notice to get my butt out to Chilliwack, BC to begin basic officer training and to be enrolled and employed as a pilot if I passed all jet training in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

I found basic training to be relatively easy due to my background with the QOR. During one class about various weapons, Sergeant Marsh (drill sergeant) pulled two recruits from the class to perform a strip and re-assemble of the FN…blind folded.  As the class watched in disbelief, I remember methodically breaking down the weapon and re-assemble as quickly as possible. I heard on person say “gee, I cant do it that fast in daylight “.

I finally arrived in Moose Jaw to commence jet training. The training was exciting, and I took to flying jets as if it was meant to be. On completion of pilot training, they determine what aircraft you are best suited for based on flying ability and academics. As a result of being the oldest at 27 on course, and had some life experiences already behind me, they felt I was best suited to fly the CP-140 Aurora Anti-Submarine Aircraft. This aircraft is a 4-engine monster full of computers and sensors that are used to search for hostile submarines, search and rescue as well as fisheries and Canadian coastline patrols.

My first official posting as a 1st Officer on Auroras was to Comox, BC. It was great tour and we found our fair share of soviet submarines and other activities off of Canada’s western coastline. After a short five (5) years I was now in charge of a crew and an aircraft commander.

However, the military loves to post people. I asked the career manager if they could post me to fighters before I was too old (certainly a young man’s game). They decided that it would be better if I went back to Moose Jaw to instructor new pilots on the CT-114 Tutor (same aircraft used by the Snowbirds today).

Moose Jaw proved to be a good three (3) year posting but I still felt the need to fly fighters. Once again, the career manager stepped in but this time he had a compromise that I might be interested in: not fighters but something very close. I was to be selected as Canada’s representative to the United States Airforce to teach their qualified pilots to be instructors in San Antonio Texas. The USAF flews a supersonic trainer called a T-38 Talon (seen in the movie Apollo 13). The T-38 Talon and the CF-5a Freedom Fighter are built on the same airframe but are painted and configured differently for the role that they are to fill. The T-38 was also painted with ‘U.S. AIR FORCE’ on both sides.

In order to achieve this, I was sent to Cold Lake, AB to learn how to fly the CF-5 fighter before going south. It only took about one week of ground training and four (4) flights in the jet with instructor before I was sent up flying solo in a single seat CF-5a equipped with all the bomb rails, nose gun and air-to-air refueling probe on the front. Here I was, 17 years later, in a CF-5a at about 20000 feet and moving at 350 knots (about 320 mph) when I suddenly remembered my days in the swamp looking upward. It was that moment when I realized I had filled my dream despite the 3500 hours I had already gained on many aircraft before then. This was the one moment that meant everything to me.

I reported to 560 Squadron “Chargin’ Cheetahs” at Randolph AFB, Texas. I relieved the Canadian who was currently in position and quickly became a member of the squadron. Other countries were also represented there including the UK one of which was a Flight Lieutenant, named Stuart Reid (who later returned to the UK to fly their memorial Lancaster Bomber).

I was in 560 Sqn during the height of Desert Storm. During one flight over the state of Texas, Air Traffic Control had stated that the ground war for Desert Storm had started. My student and I returned to Randolph for a full stop landing. As I pulled up to my assigned parking position, I noticed that there was a Humvee with two well-armed Marines. I was still strapped into my ejection seat while the engines were winding down and my canopy was coming up when they approached my left side. “Sir, are you Captain Harrison of the Canadian Airforce?”. “Yes” “well you are to come with us!” “Why, am I under arrest?”, “No, on the contrary, we have had a bomb threat because of the war and we are here to protect you because of your foreign diplomatic status here”. “Well, what about my student?” “No” they responded “he can walk. “

Needless to say, it was a great tour and I returned to Canada. I continued to fly in various aircraft gaining much experience along the way.

One such experience was being assigned to a twelve (12) man team for a ‘Risk Analysis’ study. They needed people from various trades, and I was to fill the fixed-wing pilot position. The study was to analyse the risk that was endured by trades during operations around the world. During this twelve (12) month study, we would participate and perform the key trades in all three (3) elements: Navy, Army, Air. During this time, I was able to fire artillery (155 m), lay mines with engineers, take part in a fighting patrol with the RCR, command a destroyer (under the watchful eye of the real commander), fly F-18s, fly the CP-140 Aurora (again) and also go to Bosnia.

While I was in Bosnia, I was designated as “Defence Personal Special Security (DPSS)” which required an escort by two members of the PPCLI. I had my own 9mm while on patrol, but they had C7s and C9s. One night the Warrant Officer stated that we were going to a town that had been destroyed during the war but was still occupied. The night before, a small Canadian Patrol was ‘bullied’ by some tough guys in a small bar located near the town. We pulled up to the front of the bar and the escort Warrant Officer got out of the LAV. Unknown to him, I also got out of the LAV and followed inside only to see several people enjoying some beer, but specifically 3-5 members of the local mafia at this one table with their AK-47s leaned against the wall. It was deep inside the bar when the WO noticed I was there. He paused but a second but continued to the table, spoke to them in a deep tone saying we are Canadians and we don’t frighten easy. He banged the table with his hip, sending beer everywhere. I thought “OMG, a gun fight , here we go”. But nothing. We returned to the vehicle. Once inside the LAV, he unloaded on me in anger. “What the hell did you think you were doing?” I replied “I cannot evaluate the risk unless I am also exposed to the same risk, besides, I am a former Toronto Police Officer and a former member of the Queen’s Own….don’t piss me off”. We were now close friends.

I have often wondered what career success I would have had if I had stayed with the army rather than the air force. Through all my day, the QOR has always been the basis of my military life. This was the constant composure I carried with me when later years I was deployed to Afghanistan (Nov 2009 – Oct 2020). I filled the role at the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) as J3 Aviation (J3AVN) (Air Operations to the Battle Commander in Kandahar) and I was also double hatted as the Tactical Aviation Lessons Learned Officer (TALLO). Many of you who were deployed to Afghanistan know very well the daily threats and dangers while we carried out our duties. We were only a moment away from harms’ way. Many of us returned to our families without injury. Unfortunately, many of our countrymen and women did not have such luck. As I sat in the TOC, many a moment of calm was interrupted by a 9-liner message or TIC (Troops in Contact). As Air Ops, we were responsible for all Canadian fixed-wing and helicopter air assets for air support to allied ground troops in our district. On a daily basis, we sent CH-147 Chinooks and CH-146 Griffons towards the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) for transport, operations, supply however when a TIC or 9-liner came in, everything becomes very serious.

In most cases, TICs and 9-liners involved ground forces in the battle area during operations, however on one day that all changed.

On 05 August 2010, we had scheduled a typical three (3) ship of helos to move through the battle space to the various FOBs dropping off troops, supplies and water. This particular flight was comprised of one CH-147 Chinook and two escort CH-146 Griffons. The CH-147 was being flown by Captain Feilding while one of the escort CH-146 Griffons was being flown by our very own wing commander, Col Drouin.

As they were approaching a FOB and were in somewhat of a vulnerable state of flight (low, heavy, slow) they were engaged by enemy forces and subsequently received sufficient damage creating an onboard fire. Captain Fielding (later commended and decorated for his immediate actions) managed to land the aircraft quickly thereby saving the lives of all those on board.

[Note: Then QOR Corporal Chris Hinds was a door gunner on the Chinook helicopter that was forced to land and was mentioned in dispatches for his efforts in evacuating the burning chopper.]

The TOC was informed of the TIC and 9-liner which caused us to immediately scramble additional escort helicopter aircraft for air support. The United States Airforce CASEVAC and MEDEVAC H-60 helicopters were also scrambled to support and render assistance to the injured. The TOC further directed that the local FOB deploy their Quick Reaction Team (QRT) ground forces to support and secure the area from a possible continued enemy contact.

Upon return, Col Drouin approach Captain Dan Belanger (CF-18 pilot working as Flight Safety) and myself and told us to tac up with our gear and go to the crash site via CH-146 Griffon to capture information, analysis and lessons learned. He further stated that we were going in hot, standby for close contact. Before we could depart, the QRT stated all was secured and further support was no longer needed at this time.

Throughout the tour, such contacts (both air and ground events) would result in unwanted deaths of our troops. It always followed by the late parade ceremony with us on parade and saluting the fallen as they were ceremoniously carried in a Canadian Flag draped coffin followed by a lone piper onto a C-130 Hercules or a CC-177 Globemaster for their final ride home.

On one such occasion we were dismissed and were returning to the base, I turned and saw the proud and easily identifiable maple leaf of a Queen’s Own Rifles cap badge. I made it a point of introducing myself as current air force member but definitely a former member of the Queen’s Own. We had a great meeting and were immediately brothers-in-arms. I asked if he knew Captain Andrew (Andy) Sarossy. He stated that if fact he was on the same rotation but was in Kabul. It would have been great to have seen him again, especially in theatre, but it was not to happen. Andy and I went to Reforger 5 in Germany together in 1973. Great memories.

Our wing rotation was noted as being the largest and most flexible air wing in recent times while employed in an area of operations. To capture those experiences and lessons learned, I wrote a book called “Project Laminar Strike“ for Post Op Athena (ISBN 978-1-100-54041-2) which was commissioned by the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Center (CFAWC Trenton). This was an opportunity to capture the input and experiences of everyone who served in the Air Wing during that roto.

While on the ‘Road-to-High-Readiness’ for Afghanistan, we conducted many high-level meetings to ensure we were ready to go. One objective was to try to engage all capabilities of the Airforce: transport, fighters, helicopters, unmanned airborne vehicles (UAVs), etc.

One capability that was talked about but not engaged was Search and Rescue in a combat SAR role as the USAF did during TICs and 9-liners. The observation was recorded but never acted upon.

I soon returned to Canada to now work with 1 Canadian Air Division in Search and Rescue as a staff officer for systems and readiness. This position required knowledge of all aspects in aviation both fixed-wing and helicopters. It also required sound knowledge in all policies and procedures that would maintain sound response capability in all regions of the country. It was now June of 2011 when A3 SAR Lieutenant-Colonel Lalonde approached me asking about my experience in Afghanistan and my connection with helicopters. He determined that it was sufficient enough for the task that needed my somewhat reasonable skill sets. However, since I had just returned from a lengthy tour in Afghanistan, we needed General level authorization for me to be deployed again within a year after my return overseas. He instructed that we would be heading to Ottawa (from Winnipeg) to attend a high-level meeting in CEFCOM (Canadian Expeditionary Force Command).

The task was to support LCol Lalonde as Air Operations officer in Canada’s support to Jamaica during the upcoming hurricane season. Jamaica had reported that the entire helicopter force operated by the Jamaican Defence Force (JDF) was grounded for various reasons. To support, we ordered an Antonov 128 cargo plane and loaded up three (3) CH-146 SAR helicopters for transport from Trenton to Kingston Jamaica for immediate employment. I directed that the helicopters be drawn from SAR Squadrons as they are yellow, where army helos are camouflage green. In Jamaica, the JDV supports the police during drug raids etc. and are fired upon often. We raised a force of 65 members of various ground trades and aircrew to fly on Air Canada to Kingston for a four-month deployment (tough life I know but someone had to do it, why not us…).

Once down there, my briefing to all of the staff aircrew was that we would use the term “SAFIRE” (Surface to Air Fire) (as we referred to it in Afghanistan) if they were engaged for some reason. They were instructed to break contact and clear the area as they can’t stay and fight anyway then land safely to check for damage or injury before returning to base. Thank god we never had to use this procedure.

Once we were declared IOC (Initial Operation Capable) we were task to our first incident, a boy in Montego Bay with life threatening injuries. SAR deployed to Montego to stabilize him then return him to the Kingston hospital. We continued to various country wide support roles of SAR and humanity while we waited for the inevitable hurricanes to arrive, but they never came. Not a single hurricane hit Jamaica or its surrounding territories during our stay. The word quickly went out to the Jamaican Government to request the Canadians during future hurricane seasons to keep them away. During our deployment in Jamaica, Canada and her Search and Rescue capabilities were still responsible for rescuing and saving 31 lives. Our deployment was later awarded the SAR Mynarski Trophy for our actions.

I soon retired from the Canadian Forces after a combined 42 years of service with the Queen’s Own Rifles and the air force.

As recent as 27 Oct 2020, I was returning from Winnipeg via Highway 11 through Latchford Ontario when my cell phone email sounded. It was retired Regimental Sergeant Major Rob Chan asking me if I would be interested in writing this article to reflect on my continued connection with QOR and how my path has crossed so many on similar circumstances through my career. Only a few kilometers later did I realize that I was in Sergeant Audrey Cosens VC hometown and crossing the large bridge dedicated to such an outstanding individual. The connection and bond with the QOR will never break for me.

I continue to look back on my years of service, and have come to know many incredible people, soldiers, aircrew and leaders in my day. One thing that stands absolute, the military has been the foundation of my life and what I stand for: country before self, family is always first, and respect those you have served with for their sacrifice.

It is with honour that I can call you all my brothers.