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'Ice Pilots' Help Re-Create 'Dambusters'

By Hal Bryan, EAA Online Community Manager, EAA 638979

Buffalo Air DC-4
Bomb's gone: the Buffalo Airways' DC-4 drops the replica bomb in the Dambusters re-enactment.

Buffalo Air DC-4
Buffalo Airways' DC-4 preparing for the Dambuster flight.
Photos courtesy: Channel 4 Television

May 5, 2011 — “How’d you get this number?”

That was Buffalo Airways Manager Mikey McBryan’s first response when, as he put it, “a couple British guys” called and said, “We’re looking for an aviation company that can drop a spinning bomb and hit a dam.”

His next comment will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with McBryan and Buffalo Airways thanks to the success of the reality television series Ice Pilots NWT:

“Yeah, it’s totally possible. And I can guarantee you that no one else will do this but us.”

As it turns out, the “British guys” were representatives from London’s Windfall Films who were producing a documentary called Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb. The 95-minute program is based, of course, on the famed World War II raids flown against dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley by the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron. These attacks, codenamed “Operation: Chastise,” used a revolutionary combination of tactics and technologies developed by engineer Barnes Wallis and were centered on the concept of a “bouncing bomb.”

Wallis’ bomb, known as the Upkeep, was cylindrical and carried in a specially designed framework aboard 617 Squadron’s Lancaster bombers. The rig was built to spin the bomb so that when it was dropped at the right combination of rpm, airspeed, altitude, and distance, it would not only skip across the water’s surface, but the bomb’s rotation would actually make it “crawl” down the side of the dam, where it would then detonate at a preset depth. This meant that a dam could ideally be destroyed in a single pass with a relatively small amount of explosives. Wallis’ bouncing bomb was a success, and the missions were immortalized in books and, in particular, the classic 1955 film The Dam Busters. In addition, director Peter Jackson is currently producing a remake of the film in New Zealand.

While the raids and their place in history were eventually well-known, the actual engineering that went into them hasn’t been. Because the technology was still classified at the time, the 1955 film’s portrayal was technically inaccurate, and, in the decades that have passed since, much of the original information has been lost. Cambridge University’s Dr. Hugh Hunt, an engineer who told the Daily Telegraph that he specializes in “spinning things,” set out to change that by recreating the bomb and reenacting the raid for the documentary. 

Hunt’s team set about planning the exercise and, for reasons of practicality, settled on the idea of constructing a 10-meter high dam in the remote town of Mackenzie, British Columbia, and attacking it with a replica bomb built to half-scale. At that point, all they needed was a way to deliver it. And that’s where Buffalo Airways came in.

Using one of Buffalo’s venerable Douglas DC-4s to stand in for the RAF Lancaster, the team spent six months planning the operation, including more than 10 hours of flight testing to satisfy Transport Canada’s legal requirements, and what McBryan described as an entire “month of paperwork.”

Of course they wouldn’t be using live explosives in the bomb; the recreation is split into two segments, the first being the drop to see if they could hit dam after skipping the bomb across the water, and the second to destroy the dam using a small amount of explosives placed at the dummy bomb’s point of impact. Even still, the bomb runs were challenging and absolutely not without risk. Flying a large, multiengine transport at 200 mph just 60 feet above the surface of the water would be bad enough, not to mention the fact that, without perfect timing and execution, the bomb could conceivably bounce back up and hit the airplane. Even the splash from the bomb presented a hazard, seriously damaging one of the Lancasters when the idea was originally tested prior to the raids in 1943.

The DC-4 was flown by Buffalo’s chief pilot, Arnie Schreder, most of whose impressive 36,000 hours of flying time was amassed flying fire bombers, including DC-4s, CL-2s, and A-26s, making it hard to imagine anyone better suited for the job. As the documentary unfolds, interweaving the history of Wallis’ efforts with the modern team’s, Schreder makes his part look all-too-easy, keeping his cool even when the airplane’s empennage was struck by a fair amount of water after one of the drops.

In the 1955 film, after a successful drop, one of the air crew calls out over the radio, “It’s gone! Look! My God!” While we don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, the unflappably Canadian Schreder, at a similar point in the reenactment, simply smiled and said, “I guess we busted it, eh?”

Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb aired earlier this week on the UK’s Channel 4, garnering nearly 2 million viewers. Luckily for those of us in the U.S., it’s slated to air on multiple PBS stations as part of the Nova series later this spring. In addition, McBryan told us that the first episode of the third season of Ice Pilots NWT will offer a detailed behind-the-scenes look at Buffalo’s involvement in this project.

Anyone with a love of flying, engineering, or history - and particularly those who appreciate all three - won’t want to miss it.

Listen to an interview with Buffalo Airway’s Mikey McBryan

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