Story and photos by Steve Finkelman
Jim Gillespie and Ron Sharpe have been on a mission since retiring from the Canadian Air Force more than 30 years ago. They have been working to ensuring the history and camaraderie of their former Edmonton squadron does not disappear.
Both Gillespie and Sharpe were members of 418 (City of Edmonton) Squadron, which began its post-war life in Hangar 14 at Blatchford Field in 1946. Sharpe signed up as a teenager in 1961 and spent most of his 27-year military career with the unit. Gillespie transferred into the squadron in 1987 after almost three decades and 10,000 hours flying everything from F86 Sabres and to C130 Hercules.
“It seemed to be a natural fit,” says Gillespie. “I thought I had enough flying in me so I would continue and contribute something.”
For Sharpe it was a chance to grow up in the military and learn discipline and a strong work ethic starting from the bottom.
“I was busy servicing airplanes, polishing (Beechcraft) Expediters and sweeping the hangar floor,” he says. “We used to do that every week.”
418 Squadron was first born during the Second World War mostly flying fast DE Havilland Mosquito Bombers on Night Intruder and later Day Ranger missions. In 1944, the squadron was adopted by the City of Edmonton, which sent care packages of gum, cigarettes and candy to the pilots. By the war’s end 418 (City of Edmonton) Squadron became the RCAF’s top scoring unit thanks to its ace pilots including Russ Bannock and Johnny Caine of Edmonton.
The squadron was disbanded after the war only to be reactivated in Edmonton during the Cold War as an auxiliary or reserve squadron flying part-time. At first the Squadron used B-25 Mitchell bombers in defence of Canada’s North. It later converted to a transport and search role using Beechcraft Expeditors, de Havilland Otters and finally Twin Otters.
Sharpe’s arrival in the unit coincided with the departure of the Mitchells. He was trained to be a crew member on the Otter.
“We did a lot of parachute drops of cargo and took part in searches as spotters. I received my officer’s commission in 1970 and became the Senior Maintenance Officer.”
Gillespie joined 418 as the Deputy Commanding Officer for the squadron, which by then had moved to the Namao air base.
“The Senior personnel had full time jobs, and this was a part time job for them.” Gillespie recalls. “I did not have a civilian job and I was full time, so I was the continuity factor.”
“We had 20 pilots on strength. Our main role was light transport, training, and search and rescue in cooperation with 440 squadron, (a regular forces unit also based at Namao.)”
“We supplemented them. We were available on weekends to do flying and the regular forces people would fly Monday to Friday. We would take over the search on a Friday and stay until Sunday, then they would be back for Monday and carry on the next week.”
Both Gillespie and Sharpe had retired from the military when 418 was shut down and the Namao base turned over to the army.
But the spirit of 418 was still strong. Former members of the squadron, which had always had some kind of social group supporting their operational squadron, wanted to carry on those traditions.
“The history of the squadron itself it was just too important to let go,” Gillespie says. “The aviation museum here on Kingsway was starting up at the hangar (and looking for member organizations.) We were in from almost day one.”
Gillespie picked up the reins and became President of 418 (City of Edmonton) Squadron Association with about 100 members.
“In 1995 I was still living in Edmonton at that time but in 1999 I moved to Camrose and for 15 years I drive in to the hangar here in Edmonton every Tuesday. In 15 years, I missed three Tuesdays.”
The association got a casino licence to raise money. It funded a number of projects including hiring an archivist to organize records and artifacts from the squadron’s history. It also provided more than $400,000 to fund the ground-up restoration of a B-25 Mitchell, named Daisy Mae completed by museum volunteers.
In the past few years Ron Sharpe stepped up to lead the association, as well as play a leading role in the Edmonton Aviation Historical Society, another sister group at the hangar.
“Jim had done a wonderful job of looking after the association and collecting artifacts. We owe him a huge amount of credit.
And it was Sharpe who got the call two years ago from Lieutenant Colonel Derek Jeffers. He had been given the job as Commanding Officer of a new Search and Rescue Training Unit to be based at Comox. It would be named after Edmonton’s 418 Squadron.
“After he introduced himself, I stumbled a bit and then finally said, ‘Derek can I call you tomorrow when I get my head screwed on.’ No one could have imagined it was going to happen.”
The new 418 Squadron will be an operations training unit that will teach search and rescue methods to air force members and train those who maintain Canada’s new CC-295 fixed wing search and rescue aircraft being purchased from Spain.
For Gillespie the decision to reactivate 418 in its search and rescue role is a bit bittersweet.
“I think we wasted 20 years of aviation not keeping it going. It’s a shame. But the name does so yeah, I’m glad to see it happen.”
But Sharpe is honoured to see the storied history of the squadron be recognized.
“When I talked to the C/O I asked, ‘Why did you pick 418?’ And he was very specific. He said the war time record was unimpeachable and that before we were stood down, we were fulfilling the search and rescue role on the weekends out of Namao. Those two things tied together for them.”
Sharpe says it is a clear indication that the routine work of 418 Squadron in Edmonton really mattered.
“Its humbling. Saving the country on Wednesday nights and Sundays actually meant something to the wider members of the RCAF.”