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News Articles - War training program flying on website

War training program flying on website
The Edmonton Journal, November 11th, 2003
By Jim Farrell

(Copyright Edmonton Journal 2003)

EDMONTON - A dozen old pilots and aircrew gathered at an Edmonton aviation museum Monday to launch a website dedicated to the massive Second World War training program that taught them to fly and fight.

Between 1939 and 1945, the British Commonwealth Air Training Program instructed 130,000 pilots, navigators, bomb aimers and radio operators at a network of bases across Canada. Wings Over Alberta, an Internet site created by the Heritage Community Foundation, describes the program and tells the stories of some people involved with it.

The web launch took place at the Alberta Aviation Heritage Museum, housed in one the City Centre Airport's hangars. Cedric Mah, 81, didn't have to be shown around the museum to find his seat for the web launch. During the Second World War, he worked out of the hangar as a pilot instructor.

"I was here from September 1943 to April 1944. I piloted one of those Avro Ansons," Mah said, pointing at a bright yellow twin- engine trainer, one of the museum's permanent exhibits.

The training program helped transform Edmonton from a small Prairie city to a world centre of aviation. The city was also the launch point for the Alaska Highway construction project and a major way-station for the relay of warplanes flying from the United States to Russia. On a single day in 1943, some 820 aircraft landed or took off from City Centre Airport.

"You have to remember that Edmonton was still a pretty small city back then, with maybe 60,000 people," said Mah. "The farmhouses outside Edmonton still didn't have electricity in those days, so that when you were flying at night you had no lights to show you where the ground was, until you got near the outskirts of the city."

Mah and his older brother became pilots during the Second World War. To catch up to his brother, Mah, then 18, travelled from his family's home in Prince Rupert to take an instrument flying course while still a civilian. That got him a position as a night-flying instructor when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.

It was a dangerous job.

"One night, during a snowstorm, I was flying above the clouds when I spotted another Anson ahead of me. I got the pilot on the radio and asked him what he was going to do," said Mah. "He told me he was going to land and he dropped into the clouds."

Mah waited awhile before descending. When he landed at the Edmonton airport, a controller asked him if there were other pilots still in the air. Mah told him another Anson should have landed.

"They ordered a search. Eventually, they found a hole in Cooking Lake where the other guy had gone in."

In the spring of 1944, Mah travelled to Asia to become a transport pilot carrying war supplies from Burma over the Himalayas to Chungking, China.

In the summer of 1945, monsoon clouds towered 30,000 feet into the sky as U.S.Treasury workers loaded 54 paper-wrapped bundles into the belly of Mah's plane at an airstrip in the Burmese jungle. A U.S. Army sergeant armed with a pistol and M-1 rifle guarded the cargo until it was offloaded in Chungking.

As his plane gained altitude to fly over the mountains, a film of ice spread over its aluminum skin. As Mah neared 20,000 feet, one of the two engines on his plane quit. The only way to ease the load on the remaining engine was to lose some weight, fast.

Armed with a large knife, Mah went back into the cargo hold, opened the door, slashed the ropes securing his cargo and with the help of the guard began pitching out the bundles.

Forty-eight went out the door. When there were only four left, Mah returned to his pilot's seat. When he landed at a friendly airport, Mah had some explaining to do. The bundles were filled with cash to pay the expenses of the Chinese government. The millions of dollars that went out the door of Mah's plane were never found.

Wings Over Alberta can be found http://www.abheritage.ca/flyboys/

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