This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Airforce Magazine.
With these qualifications, Curran applied to the RCAF and was accepted. Curran began his military career in 1958. He received his pilot training at Centralia, Ontario, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and Gimli, Manitoba. Curran was commissioned to the rank of Flying Officer and received his pilot’s wings in May of 1959. After receiving his wings, Curran was sent to the OTU at Chatham, New Brunswick to learn how to fly the F-86 Sabre jet fighter. Following his conversion to Sabres, Curran went overseas to serve in France. He was posted to 430 Squadron with No. 2 Fighter Wing of the 1st Canadian Air Division. In 1961, when the Sabre jet was replaced by the CF-104 Starfighter in Europe, Curran returned to Canada and became a T-33 flying instructor at Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. It was during this period that Curran ran into Fern Villeneuve, the Leader of the Golden Hawks, in the Mess one day. As Dave recalled, “We were having a discussion and I was making derogatory remarks about the show. Villeneuve told me to put my money where my mouth was. He said, ‘Don’t tell me, if you feel something like that you should apply.’ So I applied for the 1964 team, unfortunately, the team was disbanded in February of 1964.”
In May of 1964, Curran was posted to Rivers, Manitoba, as a low-level support pilot with 408 Squadron. The posting at Rivers lasted for six months, after which Curran was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Curran was then posted to Moose Jaw in late 1964. His primary duty was to instruct pilots on the T-33 Silver Star but it was also the period when the CL-41 Tutor jets were beginning to be delivered to the RCAF. Curran did some of the initial and extended flight trails and ferried a number of Tutors from the Assembly Plant in Cartierville, Quebec. As he recalled, “I would fly to Montreal in a T-33 with a second. The second pilot would return in the T-bird while I flew back a new Tutor. We never thought of any potential hazards, but after bringing a dozen or so of them back, the maintenance people called us in and said, ‘Look! Here’s what we are finding in these airplanes.’ There were pliers and screwdrivers and little bits of wire and all sorts of FOD in the aircraft. Well, as we’d been flying them back we had been doing aerobatics. Fortunately, we never had any control jam but from then on we flew them back straight and level!”
In October 1966, Curran returned to Portage la Prairie where he instructed on the T-33 and Tutor with the Central Flying and Navigation School Detachment. By the time he got back to Portage it was too late to apply for the Golden Centennaires, the aerobatic display team formed to celebrate Canada’s Centennial in 1967. Many of the Golden Centennaire pilots, however, had not flown the Tutor, so Curran spent some of his time checking them out on the aircraft. The “Unification” came into effected on February 1st, 1968, Curran became a Captain in Air Command with the new Canadian Armed Forces.
Curran finally got the chance to “put his money where his mouth was”, on March 1st, 1968 when he was named as the Red Knight. Dave recalled when he began practicing for his display; “I started to practice Red Knight low-level [aerobatics] in T-33 21490 on March 12th, 1968. Most practices were about 1 hour or less, due to little or no fuel in the tip tanks. Aircraft 21592 was used extensively and these aircraft were monitored for over-stress or “G” damage, as well as the back seat being set up for solo aerobatic flight, but [these] were “line aircraft” and not painted in RK colours.” Dave went on to describe how he put his routine together, “Putting together the show, you put it together yourself. No crewman in the backseat, nobody else there. No one told you what to do, no one told you the pit falls. You learned by yourself. Starting off at maybe 8,000 feet, with a cloud deck below, you’d use the cloud deck as the ground. Then you’d do manoeuvres over this cloud deck and if you weren’t consistent then “Oops!” you’d go into the cloud. But it was only cloud. After you got consistent, you’d move the display down to the ground. But there wasn’t any instructor.”
Of course, as with any presentation, you have to know your audience, as Dave explained; “Putting together a show, there were several [types of] people you had to play to. You had to play to your fellow pilots, you had to do something that in pilotage was pretty good. Maybe it may not look good to the crowd, but [other pilots] knew you were doing something. You had to do something “smaltzy” that the crowd liked. You had to go by and wave your hand or something like that, or upside down and you are waving your hand — “Now, he’s waving to the crowd!” You had to do somethings that were just attractive to the crowd — landing off a loop, doing manoeuvres like that. You really needed those three things, when preparing for a show.”
On March 20th, Captain John Anton Reid, a Flight Instructor at Portage La Prairie, applied for the position of Deputy Red Knight. The next day, Dave Curran demonstrated the Red Knight aerobatics routine to Reid in a dual flight. On April 1st, Reid was selected as the Alternate Red Knight pilot. As Dave Curran recalled; “John Reid had gone through the pipeline and was one of the first pipeline [CF-]104 pilots. [He] had come back from Europe and was being trained as a T-33 Instructor. So he volunteered to be the alternate, and also do the commentary. The intention was if I was ill or something like that, he would be able to go out and do sort of a partial show, but it wouldn’t be a fully aerobatic show.”
Reid commenced his Red Knight practice sessions on April 29th, after completing his FIS course. He began practicing his aerobatics routines, adhering to a minimum altitude 1000 feet above ground level limitation. Reid attacked his Red Knight training with vigour and in a professional manner. He performed seven practices above 1000’ AGL, before reducing to 500’ AGL for two more practices. On May 9th, he signed out for a Red Knight practice at 300’ AGL. He had mastered the display in only 16 practice trips. In addition to his flying training, Reid was enthusiastically planning an air show commentary.
On Tuesday, May 21st, 1968, the Red Knight display team was preparing for a flight to obtain some publicity photographs. The Regional Information Office at Winnipeg required the photographs for an intended brochure. Plans also called for a television film clip to be made of the Red Knight T-33 taxiing, taking-off, performing aerial manoeuvres and landing. They decided to shoot the take-off, some high speed smoker passes and some dirty 360 degree turn smoking passes from the ground, to burn off fuel before taking the air-to-air photos. The aerial photography was to be taken at an altitude of between 3,000 and 6,000 feet above ground level. The manoeuvres were to consist of an inverted pass, a vertical climb, a diving quarter attack type pass on the camera ship and some level flight pictures. There were also plans for a practice over the airfield after 19:00 hours, hopefully with the Red Knight T-33, S/N 21620.
A T-33 was not available to take pictures of the Red Knight aircraft and so it was decided to utilize a Tutor as the photo aircraft. Given that Curran was fully qualified Tutor pilot, while Reid had less then 27 hours logged in the aircraft, it only made sense that Dave should fly the camera plane. As Dave Curran remembers, “We finally got these red airplanes and had them certified fit for flying. Some people came out from Winnipeg to take some publicity photos and some film clips that could be sent around the countryside to go on television. I was supposed to fly the thing and we weren’t going to do any aerobatic manoeuvres. Just fly by and they would take pictures of the plane pulling up and smoking and all that sort of stuff. Well then, these people didn’t have enough time to spend with us so they said we’ll interview you while the airplane is getting ready to go and John Reid will fly.”
Reid lifted off runway 12 at 1403 hours, Central Daylight Saving Time. He gave a small puff of smoke to test the smoke generating unit and then headed north as he climbed to an altitude of between three and four thousand feet. Reid made a couple of 360 degree turns to the west as he waited for the traffic on the aerodrome to clear. He re-entered the circuit at 1408 hours. Reid made his first pass, a normal high-speed pass, from west to east down runway 08-26. At the end of the runway, he commenced a pull up with a quarter turn off the top. Reid vented some fuel and then departed towards the south. He did a 270 degree turn to the east and came down runway 08-26, from east to west, rolling the aircraft to the inverted position. At the far end of the runway, Reid rolled back upright, turned and climbed to the south, doing a rhubarb roll at the top of the climb. He completed a 270 degree turn to the west and positioned his aircraft to come back down runway 08-26. After his third pass down the runway, Reid began to pull up. When the aircraft reached the vertical downward position, it became obvious that a pull through would take place. As the nose of the aircraft reached approximately 30 degrees below the horizon and perhaps 300 feet AGL, the aircraft’s attitude changed very abruptly to approximately a 15 degree nose high position. The flight path continued downward. The T-33 was “mushing”. It struck the east end of runway 08-26 and broke up. Debris was strewn onto the grass infield and into a farmer’s field beyond the fence. Reid was thrown free of the wreckage and was found alive but he was unconscious and gravely injured. The young pilot was taken to the Base Hospital then rushed to the Intensive Care Unit at Winnipeg General Hospital. Reid succumbed to his injuries at 1925 hours that same evening.
Although the Board of Inquiry investigating Reid’s accident made no recommendations with regards to the continuation of the Red Knight program, it was clear that there were serious reservations about carrying on. And, if the program was to continue, who would be the Alternate Red Knight? Since 1961, there had been a “deputy” pilot to fly the spare aircraft, act as commentator and fill in case of illness or when the Red Knight was required to be in two places at once. This deputy pilot’s season as Alternate Red Knight was meant to provide the experience needed to take over as the Red Knight in the following year. To reach maximum performance level, pilots required about 40 hours of display time. Whoever was selected as the new Alternate would have very little time to work up the proficiency level required. Another serious problem was what to do about a spare aircraft? By the time another T-33 could be modified for aerobatic flight and painted in the Red Knight colour scheme the season would be over.
When the red T-birds were so late arriving at Portage for the 1968 season, there had been some discussion about using Tutors instead. Dave Curran, who knew both aircraft very well, felt there were several other reasons to warrant a switch to the Tutor, as he explained; “The T-Bird had a lot of problems, because it was older and it was heavy. When the tips were full of fuel it mushed, i.e. the nose would be up but the airplane would still be going down. The Tutor was much more manoeuvrable. Another problem with the T-Bird was the elevators were mechanical, so it was just a bar going to the elevators. The ailerons were hydraulically controlled, or boosted. You could control them manually but they were very, very heavy because of the high-speed air loads. Now, if you flew upside down the fluid in the hydraulic tank would be the other way around so, in fact, as you moved the ailerons, you were pumping air into the hydraulic system. So the ailerons would lock and you couldn’t move them. One of the ways you could overcome this was to put your speed brakes out. By cycling the speed brakes the air would be bled through the lines and the ailerons were okay. Or, you could cycle the landing gear [and get the same effect]. So every time you did an inverted pass you had to either do something with the landing gear or the speed brakes. So there was that sort of problem with the T-Bird. Where the Tutor was all manual and would do a much tighter show.
A loop in a Tutor would be done at 250 knots, where in a T-Bird it was done about 350, putting you outside the parameters of the field. So that’s why we switched to the Tutor. It was [available] and it had Centennaire smoke tanks on it and so on, they weren’t bent, etc., and [they] put on a better show. Because I had been instructing on both T-Birds and Tutors, I was dually qualified, so, while they were getting the airplanes and so on, I put together a show with the Tutor.” As Curran alluded to in his comments above, the Golden Centennaire Tutors had been sitting in storage at CFB Mountainview, (south of Belleville, Ontario), since the team’s disbandment after the 1967 season. All they had to do was to get a couple of them out of mothballs and paint them in Red Knight colours. That would prove to be easier said than done.
The decision to switch to the Tutor aircraft also meant the next Alternate Red Knight would have to be qualified to fly this type of aircraft. As a new routine for the Tutor still needed to be worked out by Curran, there would not be time for a new Alternate to reach maximum performance level. Given these constraints, and in an effort to salvage as much of the season as possible, it was decided to go without an Alternate Red Knight for the remainder of the 1968 season. However, a “Tutor qualified” pilot was required to fly the spare aircraft from site to site and act as a commentator. The search began for a person with those capabilities who could also support the team logistically. The title for this new role would be, Red Knight Commentator. It was in fact a combination of duties that were in the past handled by the Alternate Red Knight and/or the Red Knight Officer Commanding (OC). The main differences being, the Commentator was not required to perform aerobatic displays and they were not responsible for the team while on the road.
Before the switch in aircraft could be made, and before a suitable Red Knight Commentator could be selected, there was an occasion that required the Red Knight to perform. On Sunday, June 9, CFB Portage la Prairie held its annual Armed Forces Day. Over 14,200 spectators attended the event, making it the largest Armed Forces Day festivities anywhere in Western Canada that year. This was an amazing turn out considering the population of Portage La Prairie in 1968 was only about 13,000. The day’s festivities concluded with an air show featuring the Red Knight. Unfortunately, due to low cloud cover, the full air demonstration could not be performed. Curran was limited to a fly-past, a couple of loops and a roll. It would be the last official performance by a Red Knight in the T-bird. Although the display had to be shortened and the Red Knight program was still a long way from being ready to head out on the road again, the performance at the Portage AFD sent a message to the people of the area, the ones who had become so familiar with the sight of the red jet flying over head, that the program had not died with John Reid.
Dave Curran took the initiative to write the Red Knight Operation Order, because, as he put it; “no one in Winnipeg would take responsibility for it.” On June 24, the 1968 Red Knight Air Displays Operation Order 2/68 was finally issued by Training Command Headquarters. The aim of this document was to outline display locations, roles and responsibilities, aerobatic limitations, administrative requirements and logistical needs for the Red Knight operation. It stated that the Red Knight would perform at selected Service and Civilian functions across Canada during the period from August 1st to September 15th. The original itinerary called for a seventeen show schedule. The Red Knight mission was stated as follows; “To demonstrate for Canadian Armed Forces personnel and Canadian Civilians the expertise of Canadian Armed Forces Pilots.” As Red Knight, Curran was responsible for the administration and discipline of the team while they were on the road.
On July 10th, Captain Joseph T. Houlden assumed the role of Red Knight Commentator and pilot of the spare aircraft. By July 16th, two Golden Centennaire Tutors, (26153 and 26154), had been received at CFB Portage for use with the Red Knight team. All the key elements were now in place and Dave Curran was the driving force that kept the program moving in the right direction. As Joe Houlden explained; “Dave Curran did a lot of work on the switch over. I mean he went downtown and bought the paint and helped them paint them, because he wanted that season to go. I mean that guy was full of energy. It wouldn’t have gone without him putting in his personal effort above and beyond, let me tell you.”
The next task was to come up with a colour scheme. As Dave recalled; “When we did get the Tutor aircraft and they were to be painted, there was a question of what pattern. So we went through our imaginations and said well, “Who sets the pattern?” and all that sort of stuff. Regulations and books and no one could make up their mind, so I drew it on the back of a napkin. The people in the paint shop in Portage were really helpful and they worked overtime and weekends to clean all the old paint off airplanes. When it came to painting the new aircraft, it was to be painted in an epoxy paint – which involves several chemical mixtures and you have to do it with a mask and a suit because it’s quite dangerous. But, within the Armed Forces there wasn’t any of this bright red epoxy paint, so I tried to get some through the supply system and here we are a week or so before we start to put shows on and no one was helping. So I got in the car and drove to Winnipeg, went to a paint manufacturer. He showed me the pigments, showed me the type of colours he could produce in the epoxy and I stayed there, that day while they made the paint. Paid for it out of my own pocket — $828, brought it home in my car and the guys painted the aircraft. After the summer, with the air shows [completed], when we got back, the supply people weren’t going to pay for the paint. “Hey! You bought the paint, that’s your problem!” And that was the type of thing that was typical.”
Because of an all-out effort by Maintenance, particularly the refinishers, both aircraft were accepted, stripped, painted and made ready for use by July 29th. The Red Knight Tutors were painted vermilion red. There was a wide, white cheat line applied to the sides of the aircraft. This line started underneath the nose light and extended continuously to the tail pipe. The Red Knight insignia was carried over from the T-33 scheme but on a slightly smaller scale, in proportion with the size of the Tutor aircraft. The insignia was located on and below the cheat line, beside the windscreen. On the port side of the aircraft the words “CANADIAN ARMED FORCES” appeared on the cheat line in red letters. The starboard side lettering was “FORCES ARMEES CANADIENNES”. The tail of the Red Knight Tutors featured an angled Canadian Flag outlined in white and the aircraft serial numbers, also angled and in white. The Red Knight Tutors did not have any CAF roundels.
John Wildgust interviewed Dave Curran prior to the start of the tour. His story appeared in the Monday, July 22nd edition of the Toronto Star. In the article, Curran is quoted as saying that; “As far as a flying career this is my zenith. It’s like a piano player going to Carnegie Hall.” The reporter portrays Curran as a modest and careful man, who was well liked by all and who never seemed to be without a cigar. Readers were informed of Curran’s salary, his hobbies and his family. John Reid’s accident was also mentioned, to which Curran responded; “There was a lot of feeling after Capt. Reid’s accident about whether this type of show was worth while. But it is showing the public the military in some of its roles.” The reporter mentioned the change in aircraft and talked about how the Tutor had a wider safety margin and were more manoeuvrable than the T-33. From a public relations point of view, the article was well timed. It was national exposure just as Curran was set to begin his cross-Canada tours.
On Friday, August 2nd, the people of Powell River, British Columbia were treated to the first official, public performance of the Red Knight in a Tutor. For the seven weeks that followed, the Red Knight team members demonstrated the aircraft’s capabilities and roles within Training Command. While they were on the road, however, they had very little support. Curran compared it to Barnstorming, and recalled some of the issues the team had to face while on tour; “There was a lot of buying things out of your own pockets. At that particular time, for example, if you flew over what the military had declared was a meal hour, i.e. 12 to 1 or 5 to 6, you could not claim for a meal. They’d just say you should have gotten a box lunch. I’M FLYING WITH A MASK ON — YOU KNOW, OXYGEN AND ALL! You had to be away from home for more than seven days before you could get a dry cleaning pill paid. When you’re doing this show, -3 to 7 Gs and you’re sweating and its summertime and a dark blue flying suit, you know, you get stinky. We’d go into a place like Powell River, [BC,] for the Sea Fair and Joe [Houlden] would call up the local radio station to tell them that we were in town and ask if they would like us to come down and do an interview. The Radio Stations just eat that sort of stuff up — something to have on the air. Meanwhile, I’d be calling the Mounties to make sure the aircraft were protected, because it would be a private field with no fences around. The crewmen would be trying to find out were they could get fuel and oil for the smoke tank. We found the best smoke was from the oil that they put on saw mill floors to keep the dust down, so we’d call up the local saw mill and see if they would sell us a forty gallon drum. When we got some, we’d have to wobble pump it into the tank. And that’s what it was; it was nothing but the four of us. Then I’d go do the show(s) and Joe would do the commentary and the crewmen would be back, waiting at the airport. We’d come back and land and refuel the aircraft and then the crewmen would hop in and we were off somewhere else to try and find a motel, etc.”
To mark the end of the 1968 Red Knight Air Show season, the Base Commander’s Parade and trophy presentation took place on October 25th, at CFB Portage La Prairie. Major General W.K. Carr, the newly appointed Commander of Training Command, sent a letter to the Base Commander, which stated in part; “Your base is to be commended for the excellent support provided to the highly successful 1968 Red Knight Air Display Operation. The 1968 operation proved extremely difficult because of the change to a different concept shortly before tour commencement. I am well aware that this change required many of your personnel to use a high degree of initiative and to work long hours to refit new aircraft, train personnel and arrange tour support. I am particularly pleased with the combined efforts of your Base Aircraft Engineering Officer and his Refinishing Section in turning out the Tutor Red Knight aircraft in record time to enable the Red Knight tour to commence on time. It was a noteworthy feat to inspect, modify, design a paint scheme, and paint two aircraft in the space of three weeks, while fulfilling continuing day to day training commitments. Please convey my appreciation to all concerned in the preparations for the 1968 Red Knight Operation and assure them that I and the other one million and a half Canadians who viewed the air show display consider their fine efforts most worthwhile.” Although he was not singled out by Carr for his efforts to keep the Red Knight programme alive, Dave Curran was the driving force that kept the display going.
By the time preparations for the 1969 Red Knight season began, Dave Curran had already received word that he was being loaned to the US Air Force. (It was the height of US involvement in Vietnam and there was a shortage of Flight Instructors at air bases in the United States.) Before he left, Curran participated in the selection and training of the new Red Knight, 23 year old Brian Alston. (Unfortunately, Alston was killed on July 13th at CFB Moose Jaw while attempting a forced landing during a performance. His crash effectively ended the Red Knight program. The Red Knight program was suspended for the duration of 1969 and was phased out in 1970.) Curran spent “a couple of very good years” instructing on T-38s at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. He returned to Canada for his first ground tour, at the Staff College in Toronto, Ontario. Curran was at the College for a couple of years before being posted to Chatham, New Brunswick. It was a return to flying for Curran, as he ran the T-33 detachment at the base. Chatham was a CF-101 base at the time, and Curran eventually transferred over to 416 Squadron to fly the “Voodoo” interceptor. In 1976, he led a four-ship CF-101 formation that did a combination of 11 air shows and fly-pasts throughout eastern Canada. The highlight of the season was an air show performance for Queen Elizabeth during her July 16th visit to CFB Chatham. But, eventually, Curran’s flying career had to come to an end. As he recalled; “I was lucky. I flew for about twenty years straight. When I knew I was coming up to the time for a transfer I’d phone up other Squadron Commanders and say, would you like me to come and fly at your base? But I was then about 43 [years old] or so, so that was basically the end of my flying career.”
By the end of the 1970’s, Curran found himself in Ottawa, at Armed Forces Headquarters, where he was involved in exercise planning. That posting was followed by what Curran described as “a really interesting tour” in the Middle East. He lived in Damascus for almost a year. Curran was there, as an observer, during one of the wars between the Arabs and Israelis. He witnessed dogfights and saw Mig fighters being shot down overhead. After that posting Curran returned to Canada, where he found himself in the Directorate of the Ceremonial. As Dave put it; “Typically, in the military, they give you a job that you don’t know anything about and you have to learn.” Curran retired from the Air Force and joined Emergency Planning Canada (EPC), where he worked as an Exercise Planner for the next five years. When Curran learned that the military was looking for people to “come back in” as observers, he re-enlisted as a Class “C” Reservist. During that period, Curran worked as an Air Standardization Officer at Defense Headquarters. After leaving the military for a second time, he went to work as a Trainer with an organization that was involved with the reclassification of Public Servants within the Civil Service. Curran spent his retirement years in Ottawa, with his wife Hilary. He passed away on August 11th, 2006, after a lengthy illness. Dave was a wonderful man with a great sense of humour.