Article: Flying Fortresses of the Arctic

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    “We operated such monsters as the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress,” recounts John Smith, photo survey pilot with Kenting Aviation Ltd. in a 1995 Canadian Aviation Historical Society article. In the late 1950s, Kenting, headquartered in Toronto, operated two World War II-era B-17 heavy bombers for photographic surveys of Canada’s Arctic islands. John Smith was pilot of B-17E, CF-ICB, which was stationed at The Pas, Manitoba, while Bob Pettus was named chief survey pilot and flew B-17G, CF-HBP stationed at Thule, Greenland.

    The crew of a B-17 photo ship could number as many as ten, depending on the type of survey being performed; however, a crew of four was most common. John Smith typically flew with a second pilot, a photographer stationed in the “chin gun” position, and a navigator who, as Smith relates, “… in most cases was my kid brother.” During a photo survey the plane had to be kept dead level. Smith explains that, “… any tilt and we would be photographing miles of terrain far away from what we wanted.” To ensure precision, the photographer would check their camera every 40 seconds.

    Kenting’s B-17s were stripped of all military hardware, including the ball turret on the underside of the fuselage. This left ample space for whatever equipment the crew required, making the B-17 an ideal photo ship. They were also easy to fly, requiring only one pilot’s attention. Smith reports that the biggest challenge a pilot might face was “… landing on the single grass strips in the Arctic; with that big dorsal fin it was really touchy in a cross-wind.” Another complication of flying so far north was ice, which would build up on the propeller blades and then be thrown off against the body of the plane. Kenting attached metal shields to the fuselage of their B-17s to protect them from this kind of ice damage; however, as Smith recalls, “… that ice sounded just like a shotgun going off; it would scare the hell out of us.”

    Due to the long Arctic days, the crew could operate nearly 24 hours a day, usually in 7.5-hour stints. To save time, Kenting would have their photo ships work two or more survey operations simultaneously. Their primary survey in the Arctic was flown at 30,000 feet, but if weather forced the planes to a lower altitude, a secondary survey could be performed at 16,000 feet without needing to land.

    Kenting’s photo survey of the Canadian Arctic was initially meant to take six years but, due to the crew’s tireless effort and some cunning multitasking, the job was completed in three. Over more than a decade of survey operations, Kenting’s pilots, including John Smith and Bob Pettus, flew from the top of the world to the bottom–photographing areas of Antarctica, France and even Papua New Guinea.


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