by Margaret Gosling (31 July, 1980)
In 1943 Squadron Leader Leslie Gosling arrived as Squadron Commander at the No. 2 R.C.A.F. Flying Instructors School at Pearce to train pilots to become flying instructors.
The base was built a year before on the flat Alberta Prairies situated within a horseshoe shaped loop of the Oldman River. It was an excellent spot for an airfield to train instructors, having been found to be too windy for elementary training as originally intended. The wooden buildings glowed with fresh paint, the neatly kept roads and paths spoke of smart efficiency. Four large hangars housed many planes and the apron and runways were bustling with activity. Squadron Leader Gosling spent a successful, happy, hard-working thirteen months there. His wife came to Canada and they lived in a small house next to the airfield. Their son was born during his term at Pearce. They returned to England in 1944 when Squadron Leader Gosling went to Bomber Command and a tour of combat duty.
His wife died in February 1979, and I was married to him later that year.
In 1980 Captain Leslie Gosling, (British Airways Senior Captain, Retired) drove up the well remembered roadway and turned into the entrance to Pearce Airfield.
Leslie could see with his mind’s eye the station as it was. The sight that met my eyes was very different. A sagging barbed wire gate barred the way onto the land. A herd of in-calf heifers and dry cows contentedly grazed on the grass amongst what looked like odd piles of broken concrete. The summer evening air was calm, and the only sounds were the birds and insects.
We got out of the car and parted the loose strands of wire and stepped through. We walked along the main entrance road, once smooth and trim, now broken, and the cracks filled with grasses and wild flowers. As we walked along Leslie was trying to remember which foundations had housed which buildings.
“This, I think, was the hospital. I spent several days here. I had reported sick and they put me to bed. I had wished I had kept quiet about it, I was better in two days!” he told me as we stepped over the foundations of the buildings. Here was obviously the floor of a shower cubicle, this must have been an engine house, here are the hot air ducts. As I stepped over one wall I stepped on to the original wooden floor. Narrow hardwood boards laid diagonally across what had been a huge hall, still in position but worn to a silvery grey by wind and weather.
Pieces of wood lay everywhere. Leslie picked up a small piece. “Look, this was a shingle, still showing the green paint. All the buildings were clad with wooden shingles. They were well built, efficient, well insulated and heated. The place was built within a year, and was only in use as a training station for four years. It seemed such a waste to close down a well built and efficient aerodrome.”
We walked on over the foundations of the buildings until we came to huge areas of crumbling concrete. “These were the four hangars where the aeroploanes were kept,” Leslie Said, “They were heated in the winter so that we could fly every day.” Many winters of snow, ice and hard frost had reduced the once smooth floors to shattered and crumbled stones. The thistles and wild grasses were firmly established in all the cracks.
In front of the hangars stretched another huge area of pavement. This was the apron on front of the hangars. Once this was a busy place where young pilots and their instructors climbed into planes to go and fly high over the prairies, learning the skill and aerobatics needed to become flying instructors to train the many pilots needed to fight over the skies of France and Germany. As we walked over the apron and onto the airfield itself and found what was left of the runways I began to sense the presences of the spirits of the past. They were young men in their twenties, about the ages of my sons I supposed, and I wondered how many of the bright eager young men that Leslie had taught here in the sun-filled skies of Alberta had sent their students to perish all too soon amid the terror of fire and smoke-filled cockpits as their mortally wounded planes fell from those anguished skies over Europe.
We found the remains of the runways, now divided up into cattle fields with wire fences strung across them. As we stood there, Leslie’s mind in the past, mine in the present, a lone hawk flew over our heads mewing his plaintive cry, he circled twice then landed on one of the fence posts. His tawny feathers took on a golden glow in the light of the nearly setting sun. As I stood there imagining those early planes taking off and landing, a large commercial jet drew its shining contrail across the evening sky, so high that one could only see by the flash of sunlight caught on its sides, that it was a plane. A thought crossed my mind. From those early days of flying, and the need for inventions during the war came the technology to enable that far off jet to safely fly and carry passengers so far and so fast.
The jet flew on, how many of its passengers realized that they owe their comfortable seat and speed of travel on that plane to the young men who flew and learned to pass on their skills from where I was standing. The sound of the jet diminished, and was gone. The evening was very quiet and still, the sun was just about to set. We turned and retraced our steps back over the ruins of the buildings. I walked over to the hump of the water reservoir. On the top of each corner there was a square of concrete. As I reached one of them I saw that it was a hatchway with a ladder built into the wall, down into the reservoir itself. It was a long way down, and dark. I called “Coo-oo” into it, my voice rang and rang and echoed around that empty tank. On the edge of the concrete I noticed some letters. When I stepped round to read them I saw 17 August, 1943. A.L.H. Another echo of the past. I wondered who A.L.H. was, and if he took pride in having built this reservoir and its hatchways. I called once more into the tank, “Goodbye!” My voice rang round and round the tank once more and eventually died into silence.
I walked back to where Leslie was looking at a foundation where there were hundreds of rusty nails all over the floor. As I reached him he handed me a small piece of the green painted shingle. “Here is a piece of history for you, keep this as a memento of a little piece of my past.” I slipped it into my pocket.
A cow mooed, the circling hawk over head mewed once and silently flew away to the river valley a mile away. The sun was just setting behind the distant Rocky Mountains as we slowly, wordlessly, walked back to the car.