For Ross McBain, before Canons there were Corsairs


(Featured in the September/October 2023 Newsletter)


Ross McBain’s Second World War flying experience was akin to a boxer training months for a fight that ends with the first punch.

Albertans knew Ross McBain (1924-2018) as the founder of McBain Camera, the go-to store for camera buffs and professionals since its founding by McBain in 1949. But before cameras, McBain took to the air.

Born in Edmonton in 1924, he took a course in photography in Vancouver and decided to get into the photography business. But before that, in 1943, he and a friend decided they were “missing all the fun” of being in the armed forces.

“We would hear the people from different forces come back and say how exciting it was – the people who were in the RCAF, the people who were in the army, the people who were in the parachute corps,” McBain recalled in a 2008 interview.  “And we felt that we were going to miss something if we didn’t do something about it.”

He and a friend decided to join the British Fleet Air Arm, despite the fact that they knew little about it.

“One of our schoolmates had joined it, and of course he sent back glowing reports of how exciting it was. So I sold my bicycle, and he sold his trumpet for a one way trip to Kingston,” where the Fleet Air Arm Base was stationed.

That was the first leg of a series of world travels for the then-19 year old.

“We got down there and the senior officer … had a look at us and found that we were both warm and gave us a pass down to Dartmouth out of Halifax.”

Just six days later they were on their way to England, even though they had no idea what was expected of them.

“We arrived in London in the middle of an air raid. I guess we were stupid Canadians because the one thing I do remember was the fact that all the Britishers were running for the shelters and we were running outside to see the fireworks. It was an amazing display.”

McBain recalls what it was like being a young, maybe just a little insolent Canadian walking the streets of London.

“We decided that we would only salute an officer if he had brass on his hat. So we were

walking across, strangely enough, London Bridge, and we walked right by an officer without even knowing that he was there.

“We completely ignored him. He stopped us. And he said, ‘Don’t you usually salute senior officers? And we said, ‘Yes, sir, but we didn’t recognize you as a senior officer. Oh, by then we noticed he had lots of gold braids on his hat.”

The officer wanted to know where they were from, and when they told him Canada, his response was a huffy “damn colonials, you’re all the same.”

The ‘colonials’ went to Gosport for basic training – very basic.

“We had it pretty easy because they (the trainers) had their tot of rum every day at 11 o’clock and slept most of the afternoon.”

Once the basics were done, the recruits had a choice of going back to Canada for elementary flying training, or go with the American navy and train with them.

“Well, naturally, all the Canadians wanted to go to the States to train, and the British boys wanted to go to Canada.”

The Canadian lads were then sent to a place just outside Detroit, Mich. called Grosse Ile.

“It was interesting there because the landing field was a big round circle of concrete.  And this is where we did our basic training.”

The training may not have been of the best quality, McBain recalls.

“I had an instructor who was a bush pilot from Florida. He flew an aircraft, I think it was a Waco in Florida. His only instruments were a tachometer and an oil gauge. He said that everything else was visual … he was bored stiff training”

After that, it was off to Pensacola, Fla. for “very strenuous training”. The rules were strict, which became a bit of a challenge for the Canadians.

“A bunch of us nearly got washed out because we were told that we must not do aerobatics when we were taking our night flying. Well, that was a challenge, and all of us did aerobatics.”

What they didn’t know was that a plane doing a loop was a noisy plane, and you could hear it for miles around. The noise brought them to the attention of their superiors.

“We were all called up on the carpet. None of us were washed out, but we were told that one more violation and we were through with flying.”

McBain finished at Pensacola and got his wings, and was immediately made second lieutenant, getting the British rate of pay – three dollars a day.

From there, it was off to Jacksonville, Fla., and they went straight from Harvards to the Corsair, “which was going from around 450 horsepower to approximately 2,000 horsepower.

“When you got into a Corsair to fly it, you were on your own, period. We had to do the

blindfold test, where we sat down in the cockpit and an instructor sitting above you telling you to

touch this, touch your undercarriage, touch your flaps, touch your master switches … you had to know blindfolded where everything was in the cockpit.”

From there, it was time for solo flying, “a rather terrifying experience”. And for some, a tragic one as well. McBain recalls a mid-air collision between a Corsair and a DC3 that resulted in multiple deaths, including 17 nurses.

“We saw it happen, actually, and it was a little bit shattering as we were in the air behind it.”

After Corsair training, McBain was on the move again, this time to Lewiston, Maine, where he was trained in British tactics.

“British formation was virtually wingtip to wingtip. And you spent more time watching your leader than you did watching for anything else, because you had to keep in tight wingtip to wingtip.

They called it twitch formation, and by the time you were through your first couple of flights, you were twitching.”

After that, it was back to England, and then on to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) for yet more training.

“We had some interesting experiences in Ceylon. One of the pilots decided that he would find out how his propeller worked as a lawnmower. We did a low level flight and he just wanted to take the tops off some of the trees, forgetting two things – one that he was doing 200

miles per hour, and two, the trees were all hardwood. When his aircraft came back, the leading edge of the wing looked like somebody had peppered it with a shotgun. He was severely reprimanded, but he did have an excuse. He said, ‘Sir, I bent my head down to look at my map, and all of a sudden there were the trees right in front of me’. And he got away with it.”

The world travels continued. The next stop was Sydney, Australia, to become replacement pilots on the aircraft carrier Victorious. That didn’t last long.

“I was coming in too fast on a deck landing. And when you ease your stick back, you’re supposed to stall onto the deck. I had enough speed on that I started flying again when I eased the stick back.

“I was told that I had to get off the ship and go to the Admiralty Islands for further training. There I was told something that I should have been told at the beginning – when you’re landing an aircraft on a carrier, never pull the stick back. This is what we were told in our initial training. You get down to stalling speed, you pull the stick back, you’re going to land on the deck. If you’re

coming a little fast, of course, you start to fly. So the senior pilot told me to push the stick forward. If you hit the deck, the hook will catch. So, once I got that information, I had no more trouble with deck landings.”

After all that, it was time for action against Japan.

“Not being experienced in this, we didn’t really know what to expect. We had two 500 pound bombs under the wings and a 1,000 pound belly tank.

“Well, we took off on this flight, belly tanks and all. We changed the belly tanks as soon as we were airborne, and went inland over Japan. Well, we saw a bunch of fishing boats and at that time the navy was trying to destroy all foodstuffs going into Japan, feeling that they could be starved out quicker.

“We were doing dive bombing attacks on the fishing boats. I dropped one bomb. Nobody told me you’re supposed to drop both bombs at the same time.”

He went back and dropped his second bomb. But after all that training, that was the extent of Ross McBain’s action. The U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb the same day as his first flight. The war was over three days later.

“So I had one operational flight after all the training I had. “

When the war was over they flew the Corsairs to Sydney.

“We parked them wingtip to wingtip – well, wingbutt to wingbutt because the wings were all folded up – and we were told the next morning they went after the Corsairs with an acetylene torch and cut them all up for scrap metal.

“It was a sad sight to realize the next morning they were going to be starting on them with an acetylene torch.”

Some of the Canadians contemplated stealing one of the planes and taking it back to Canada, but nothing came of it.

While most airmen left the armed forces at the end of the war, McBain wasn’t done with flying just yet. Upon returning to Canada, McBain opted to become a permanent force flier.

“I decided that I loved the flying, I loved the British, I loved the troops, the treatment we got on the Victorious, (and) I would become a permanent force flier.”

Unfortunately, the daily routine of flying in Canada paled in comparison.

“All we were doing was a daily flight, over Halifax, over Nova Scotia. It was good fun, actually. We didn’t accomplish anything, but it was a lot of fun.

“Then, I got married down in Halifax, and I decided – or we decided – that Halifax and the navy were not a secure, permanent lifestyle. So I requested a discharge.”

He and his wife hitched a ride back to Edmonton with a fellow ex-flyer, driving from Halifax to Edmonton.

“I think I arrived home with something like 75 cents in my pocket.

“It was all good fun and I wouldn’t have exchanged it for anything.”

(This story is based on an interview conducted by Monte Stout with Ross McBain, recorded in September, 2002)