John Samuel Bailey
Born in Tilbury, Essex, England, August 30 1923, died in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada February 28 2019
Born of modest means to a working class family. They owned a garage and taxi service, I often joke that he was born in a toolbox with a wrench in his hand. He grew up fixing things from an early age, and spent most of his life as a very able mechanic.
When war began, Britain was still very class conscious, and becoming a pilot, usually reserved for commissioned officers, was helped with the right education and family background. But these were desperate times, and various rules were bent easily. Some of those called up were allowed to try out for flying training, and if they showed an innate talent for it, were allowed to continue, usually as what were called Sergeant Pilots, Non-commissioned officers. Dad was fortunate enough to show talent, going solo in a DH.82A Tiger Moth after 7 hours of training. It was on one solo flight that he had his first brush with adventure.
Returning to the airfield and joining the circuit in preparation for landing, he saw a rapidly approaching speck. It went past him rather close, at high speed, and he noted the lack of a propeller. What he had almost been hit by was the Gloster E.28/39, Britain’s First jet aircraft, and still highly secret. Upon landing he apprised his superiors of what had happened. He was then told, in no uncertain terms, that not only had he seen nothing, but he was not to tell anyone that he had seen nothing. Secrecy was maintained.
After his training had progressed sufficiently, he was selected for flying boat crew. For this he was sent to United States Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Here he earned his second set of wings, this time from the US Navy, flying the Boeing Stearman. Transitioning through various more high-performance types such as the Vultee Valiant and North American T-6 Harvard, he eventually moved to what he was sent there for; learning to operate large seaplanes, in this case the Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina. Here came a second adventure. While returning from a flight with an aircraft full of students, and after landing, some would take the opportunity to cool off by sitting on the wing on the PBY while it was returning to the beach. On one such occasion, dad was sitting behind the number 2 propeller when it suddenly hit a sandbar. He was pitched forward, and a friend who was watching from the co-pilot’s seat swore that he saw dad’s head go through the propeller arc. If so, he was lucky to miss any blades!
Returning to England for further training, he eventually wound up flying the Short Sunderland MkV, and the adventures continued. Before he was posted to an operational squadron, the war in Europe had ended, but in the Pacific it was continuing. He was sent out there with 209 Squadron, and thus began a long series of flights to get there. One of their stopovers was the RAF base at Lake Habbaniyah, in the desert of Iraq. It was an isolated posting, and therefore had many things to keep the inhabitants happy, such as games rooms, playing fields, air conditioning, and a very well stocked bar.
While they were there, word came down that Japan had surrendered, the war was over. That very well stocked bar was less stocked the next day, and none of the crew were in any state to fly. But, orders were orders, and they had orders to fly to their next destination, Bahrain, on the Persian Gulf.
Years ago I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with dad’s old Skipper, the late Ken Smithies. Dad was his First officer on many flights. Ken was remembering that day, and said to me “I’m going to tell you what a good pilot your father was. We were all extremely hung-over, and your dad was no better than I was. I got up to the flight deck, flopped into my seat, did my straps up, looked over at your father, and said “John, I can’t do it”. Then I passed out. When I woke up we were already in Bahrain. Your father, doing a job designed for two pilots, had single-handedly got it unmoored and started, and with the help of a bleary-eyed navigator had successfully got us all the way there, and landed it himself. And for the next few days the crew were taunting me, saying that your father had done a better job hungover and solo than I had ever done solo with a co-pilot!”
In those days, before the advent of modern flying aids, things were a bit more dangerous even without combat. While flying above storm clouds near the coast of Vietnam, the navigator called out that he wanted to get a land fix. This meant descending through the clouds and finding an identifiable spot of coastline to confirm their position. As they descended, the rain began to hit the window, and just past that was the side of a mountain. Shoving the throttles forward and spiralling up through the clouds, hoping there was no more mountain inside it, got them out of that.
Flying wasn’t the only dangerous thing in the Far East. After spending some time in Hong Kong, dad and some mates decided to go for a hike up in the mountains of Kowloon. Scrambling up a rocky hillside, he pulled himself over a boulder and looked straight into the eyes of a banded krait, one of the world’s more venomous snakes. After looking at each other for a minute or so, the snake slithered away, and dad started breathing again.
After leaving the RAF in 1946, the right job for someone who could fly a large four-engined aircraft was airline pilot. But pilots were not in short supply after the war had trained so many of them, and the class-consciousness was still there. No offers were forthcoming. A friend who had emigrated to Canada told him that mechanics were needed in a growing country, and with his wife Mary the decision was made to come here. On the day that they were leaving for the boat across the Atlantic, a letter came from British European Airways asking if he would like to come in for an interview. It was tempting, but too late. Everything was packed and plans made.
He had met Mary not long after leaving the air force, and together they helped establish the first Royal Air Force Association branch in their home district. They remained members of the RAFA the rest of their lives.
They were married on June 18th 1949, and had a very loving relationship. Just a few weeks ago, while he was convalescing, I decided to brighten up his room by taking in the wedding picture of him and mum. He was having trouble remembering who any of us were, but when I asked him who was in the picture he smiled and replied “That’s the lovely Mary”.
Life in Canada went well. In 1962 he found steady employment with the Ontario Government as a diesel mechanic, principally maintaining emergency generators in government facilities all over the province. They were also contracted to maintain federal facilities, which meant that when someone asked about him, I could say with a straight face, and not a word of a lie, that the nice man they knew had been in and out of almost every prison and psychiatric institution in the province multiple times.
Shortly after his retirement, he was back at work as a mechanic. In 1988 I was working at a camera store, and a gentleman named John Gourlie came in with a roll of film for developing. As they came through the machine I recognised it was of an aircraft called the Fairey Swordfish, a legendary WWII torpedo bomber. I engaged him in conversation when he returned for the pictures, and learned that it was being restored, by a crew of volunteers, working out of facilities at the old Downsview RCAF base in Toronto. he mentioned that they were making good progress, but had nobody who could repair the engine. I immediately phoned dad, and he came down to have a chat. A few days later he and his tool kit were on site, and on that first day he did more work on the engine than anyone else had managed in years. Numbered HS469, it was eventually restored to flying condition, and now resides in the Shearwater Aviation Museum in Nova Scotia.
Not long after that, some of the same people became involved in starting an aviation museum at Downsview, and Dad was among the first asked to join. From its inception until its unfortunate closing in 2011, Mum and Dad were dedicated volunteers; Dad maintaining various items, and Mum keeping the kitchen ready with a supply of coffee, tea, and muffins, for the hungry crew. Their volunteer efforts were officially recognised by the province, and kept them busy and happy while many others of their age would have been trying to stave off boredom. He was also a member of the Aircrew Association, even though he wasn’t strictly aircrew, but was asked to join anyway through friends.
In November 2008 we decided to surprise him with a flight in a Tiger Moth, just like the ones he had first trained in. The pilot for that flight was Dave Hadfield, brother of astronaut Chris, and he was very pleased to be able to help Dad relive memories. He allowed him to take the controls for a while, and said that he didn’t seem to have forgotten his skills.
On October 31st of last year he had a bad fall at home, and suffered a broken hip. He had a replacement, which worked well, but, unfortunately, his mind began to decline rapidly, and it was clear that recovery was not a realistic thing. He finally passed away on February 28 at Scarborough General Hospital, as a result of infection caused by pulling out his urinary catheter, which he fiddled with because he was a mechanic to the end.
Clear skies, Dad.