At the helm of a Lancaster bomber

Ernie Baird is reflected in a collection of photos from his service in WWII as a pilot of Lancaster bombers, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Ernie Baird is reflected in a collection of photos from his service in WWII as a pilot of Lancaster bombers, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

It's perhaps fitting that Burnaby Second World War veteran Ernest "Ernie" Baird, who grew up dreaming of flying airplanes, was an airforce bomber pilot before he could even drive a car.

It's a dream that might never have come true growing up in the village of Nakusp, in the West Kootenays of British Columbia, if it wasn't for military recruiting teams that came to town.

So it was at age 19 that Baird began his string of good luck, or close calls, depending how you look at it.

After joining the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942 and going through training on the Prairies, he showed he had what it took and made the cut as a pilot, earning his wings and a commission.

Once overseas in England in 1944, assigned to 12 Squadron of the Royal Air Force  based out of Wickenby, it wasn't long before he had his first brush with the dangers of the job.

Baird had just taken off on a training flight when he saw the plane of another crew-in-training crash and burst into flames at the next base over, only 10 miles away.

That crew would never get a chance to fly a real mission, he thought to himself.

Inches from explosion

After working his way up flying increasingly larger planes, from the Wellington to the Stirling and Halifax, Baird was assigned to fly Lancaster bombers, the primary heavy bomber used by the RAF.

The Lancaster rarely had a co-pilot, leaving Baird responsible for entire flights of upwards of 10 hours long. He recalled on his first flight as first pilot, captain of a six-man crew, he experienced his first encounter with anti-aircraft fire from below.

"At that point, you weren't allowed to look scared. You had to show a lot of confidence."

He had to show that calm demeanour on every one of the 30 missions, or sorties, that made up the full tour he completed. Those ranged from participating in the infamous bombing of Dresden ("on the way back, from 50 to 60 miles away, we could see the huge fire"), to his final mission, bombing Berchtesgaden, Adolf Hitler's former hideout.

He also had to show it during the close calls, of which Baird vividly remembers two.

In one, a flight to Norway, his aging blue logbook held together with Scotch tape lists the mission simply as "gardening."

Baird laughed. "What it really was, you were dropping mines to land in shipping lanes. They were designed to float just below the surface of the water."

Norway was occupied by the Germans during the war and Baird's crew had been assigned to target the narrow fjord of Oslo harbour.

Such mining missions required that the mines be dropped in a line, then the pilot had to continue flying straight ahead for about 30 seconds so cameras on board could shoot photos of where they were located, allowing navy minesweepers to find them in future.

But this time, just as Baird started on his straightaway, the anti-aircraft fire erupted from below.

"I could see the flack, exploding anti-aircraft shells," he recalled. "It just looked like fireworks, like a sparkler."

He continued following his orders, to keep the plane flying straight and level.

"After a few seconds, with this stuff all around us, there was a huge bang. It just felt like we hit a brick wall."

Baird figured they'd had enough and took evasive action, flying the bomber into a corkscrew and by the time he'd straightened it out, they were out of the flack zone.

On the way home, the flight engineer and the rest of the crew checked the plane, and couldn't find any damage. They checked again, in the darkness, after landing back at their home base at night and still couldn't find anything.

The next morning, when Baird and his crew went to their plane, "the ground crew had taken the whole wingtip and removed it. A shell had gone right through the wing."

The hole was about four inches going into the bottom side of the wing and on the top side, where the shell came out, the hole was closer to the size of a large pizza. Just a few inches in one direction and the shell would have hit one of the Lancaster's gas tanks and caused an explosion.

When asked if the incident had the crew heading to the bar, Baird smiled. "It always warranted a drink after you came home."

Mid-air close call

Baird's plane wasn't even hit on his second close call.

They were on a night bombing mission over Germany with a long string of bombers. After the bombs were dropped on their target, pilots were told to fly for a few minutes before turning left or right and head home.

He had made his turn when he saw another Lancaster had turned the wrong way and was headed straight for Baird's plane.

"I threw my stick down and went underneath him," he recalled. "I looked back and he just flew right over top of us."

The sudden move had the rest of his crew losing gravity and hitting the ceiling, resulting in much cursing of the pilot.

"That was probably the closest we came. Just a fraction of a second difference, that'd be curtains for you."

Close calls likely happened more often than he knew. When flying through the clouds, pilots couldn't see through them, he noted.

"We never knew how many times we came close to hitting another plane."

Luck on his side

Baird figures he had luck on his side.

After completing his tour, he was on leave in London when Victory in Europe was declared.

"Everyone was just celebrating. Hundreds of thousands of people in London. You could hardly move."

After VE day, Baird and his friends figured they could get home to Canada more quickly if they volunteered to serve in the Far East.

It worked. The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. He arrived home in Nakusp on July 1 for a few weeks leave before being posted to Nova Scotia where he was  supposed to start training on planes even bigger than the Lancaster to help the Americans in their bombing campaign of Japan.

Before that training could take place, on Aug. 6 and 9, the Americans dropped the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan's surrender was announced Aug. 15.

Flying Officer Ernest Baird was discharged within a couple weeks, made his way back to his hometown and the following year took up the federal government's offer of free tuition and started studying civil engineering at the University of British Columbia.

Thanks to his military service, Baird was the only one of 10 kids in his "dirt poor" farming family who went to university, eventually working as an engineer at the City of Vancouver.

Baird, now 89, and wife Joan have five kids and 12 grandkids and have lived the past 61 years in Burnaby.

In 1950, he was presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the citation stating that while completing numerous operations he "displayed the utmost fortitude, courage and devotion to duty."

Of course, every year at this time, Baird remembers the friends he lost, in particular a buddy named Jack East.

East was a fellow small-town B.C. boy from Keremeos and they had done all their training together from their time in Edmonton to the East Coast, and were on the same boat when shipped overseas.

Once in England they were separated, East posted for a time in Scotland before ending up on a base only 10 miles from where Baird was stationed.

The plane Baird saw crash in the distance that day in 1944 was being piloted by East. He learned later that the aircraft had crashed into a farmer's barn and all but one crew member, the rear-gunner, had burned to death.

The rear-gunner somehow was thrown clear and survived. He relayed that in the last moments before the crash, East said, "I wonder what Ernie will think of this."

Almost seven decades later, the memory is still enough to make Baird choke back tears.

"Those were probably his last words."

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