Remembering Pinetree

by Paul Ozorak

For a conflict that was never fought, the Cold War proved expensive. In the 1950s, all three armed services in Canada underwent dramatic growth. The Canadian Army formed new units, adopted new equipment and had a number of new bases and depots constructed at Gagetown, London, Mississauga and Coburg. The Royal Canadian Navy had its budget increased for several new warships including two aircraft carriers, HMCS Magnificent and HMCS Bonaventure. With continental air defence being one of the main responsibilities of the RCAF, and that in itself was a huge undertaking, the Air Force got the biggest piece of the budgetary pie.

To say that air defence was new to Canada though would be a falsehood. Radar units of various kinds were erected on both Canadian coasts during World War II to detect either submarines, ships or aircraft. A chain of four radar stations was also established in Northern Ontario in 1942 just in case the Germans had ideas of attacking from the north. This chain was not however managed by the RCAF but rather by the US Army Signal Corps, either for reasons of cost or lack of equipment on the Canadian side. Also established as a defensive measure was an Aircraft Detection Corps, a military organization manned by volunteers designed to report any suspicious aircraft to a "filter" centre. All this was in addition to fighter and anti-submarine units deployed at a myriad number of airfields.

During the final stages of the war, radar and fighter units slowly disbanded. Global peace had made them redundant, but not for long as the Soviet's desire for world domination soon began to it make itself felt; the Berlin airlift drove the point home. The Permanent Joint Board of Defence, a Canadian-US committee staffed by defence and state bureaucrats recommended a strengthening of Canadian Air Defence, with the focus being on the re-establishment of fighter and radar units. Thus was born the DEW radar line in the Arctic, the Mid-Canada warning line at the 55th parallel, CF-100 squadrons, reserve radar units and the Pinetree radar line in southern Canada.

The Pinetree line wasn't so much a straight line of radar stations but rather a network so designed as to give most of populated Canada some protection. Most of the stations on the network were located near the 50th parallel, although there was a tangent along the Nova Scotia coast, another running across southern Ontario and southern Quebec, and a sub-network in Newfoundland and Labrador. At first, stations were designated as either Early Warning or Ground-Control Intercept installations, with the former having the responsibility for intruder detection, and the latter for guiding interceptors toward given targets. Most stations had a dual EW/GCI capability though. The stations were arranged so that they had overlapping jurisdiction. In other words, each station scanned an adjacent station's radius of coverage.

Had it not been for American support, though, the Pinetree system might never had been. Each station required 100 military personnel and civilian support staff. The RCAF could not supply enough of these to man the entire line, nor could it provide sufficient funds for construction and operations, so it was agreed that the USAF would pay for two-thirds of the line, and the RCAF the balance, thus, out of the 33 original stations, the USAF paid for 22. The RCAF not only manned the remaining 11, but also four of the American stations. Construction began in 1950 and by 1953 all of the radar units were declared operational.

When the Pinetree line was first established, the individual stations were given anonymous titles for security reasons. The station outside Barrie, Ontario, for instance, was dubbed No. 204 RCAF Radio Station, itself probably an intentional misnomer. If a list of station names had fallen into enemy hands, these could have provided easy targets for bomber crews. But realizing that most of these stations were very visible to surrounding communities, AFHQ saw no point in keeping them secret. The stations were consequently named after nearby communities. No. 204 RCAF Radio Station thus became RCAF Station Edgar. The operating units themselves were christened "Aircraft Control and Warning Squadrons".

The initial secrecy with Pinetree sites had the not unexpected side effect of giving rise to false rumours. When RCAF Station Lac St. Denis north-west of Montreal was under construction, some began to suspect that the RCAF was building an underground nuclear weapons depot on the nearby mountain. Eventually, however, the station's true role was revealed.

Air Defence operations along the line were reminiscent of the Second World War. Intruders were first tracked by early warning units and, if unidentifiable, challenged by interceptors scrambled to meet them. These interceptors were vectored by a GCI unit's Fighter Control Operators, as aircraft, in those days, were not equipped with their own radars. The movements of friend and foe alike were plotted on large boards with the aircraft moved around with pool cue-like sticks. If the enemy left a GCI's unit of coverage, the adjacent unit's radars were sure to pick them up. All these actions/reactions were monitored by what was known as Air Defence Control centres.

Stations making up the Pinetree system in the early 1950s were as follows: Three digit squadron numbers above 600 belonged to the USAF and the two digit numbers in brackets indicate the new squadron numbers after their transfer to the RCAF.

AC&W Sqn.: Station:
11 Lac St. Denis, Que.
12 Mont Apica, Que.
13 St. Sylvestre, Que.
14 Parent, Que.
21 St. Margarets, NB
22 Beaverbank, NS
31 Edgar, Ont.
32 Foymount, Ont.
33 Falconbridge, Ont.
34 Senneterre, Que.
51 Comox, BC
52 Tofino, BC
211 Moisie, Que.
221 Sydney, NS
226 Gander, Nfd.
53 Holberg, BC
- -
AC&W Sqn.: Station:
641 Goose Bay, Lab.
642 Redcliffe, Nfld.
912(35) Ramore, Ont.
913(37) Pagwa, Ont.
914(38) Armstrong, Ont.
915(39) Sioux Lookout, Ont.
916(48) Beausejour, Man.
917(55) Puntzi Mt. BC
918(54) Baldy Hughes, BC
919(57) Beaverlodge, Ata.
920 Stephenville, Nfd.
921 St. Anthony. Nfd.
922 Cartwright, Nfd.
923 Hopedale, Nfd.
924 Saglek, Nfd.
925 Resolution Island
926 Frobisher, NWT
But Pinetree was never a static network. New stations were added or closed throughout its lifetime. 52 Squadron at RCAF Station Tofino closed in 1957, presumably because the new radars at Comox were powerful enough to cover Tofino's area. Several new stations were opened in the late 1950s and early 1960s to either close gaps or augment coverage.

AC&W Sqn.: Station:
10 Chibougamau, Que.
15 Moosonee, Ont.
42 Cold Lake, Alta.
43 Penhold, Alta.
44 Alsask, Sask.
45 Dana, Sask.
46 Yorkton, Sask.
47 Gypsumville, Man.
639(36) Lowther, Ont.
627(23) Barrington, NS
825(56) Kamloops, BC

Most of the stations were assigned three radars; one for search, one for height-finding and a third for back-up search or back-up height-finding. In many cases, the first search radar was an AN/FPS-3, manufactured by Northern Electric. Among the first height-finders were AN/FPS-6s and TPS-502s, the former having a power output of 2.5 megawatts. Most radars had a 200-mile operating radius. AN/FPS-502s and TPS-501s served as back-up search and height-finders respectively.

The radars had to be installed with care as their high output power could have proved hazardous. When a "6" at Falconbridge was first turned on, photographers going near it had their flash bulbs explode. Nearby neon lights were illumined by themselves. It was suggested that anyone working near it be subjected to periodical medicals. Someone then concluded that the height-finder was giving off too much spurious energy. Eventually, the technical fault was isolated and remedied and people were less apprehensive towards it.

There was something else about these antennae and their megawatts that proved unexpected. Someone at RCAF Station Parent noticed that radar energy seemed to interfere with the migratory senses of geese. When the radars were turned on, geese settled on Rainbow Lake by the domestic area. Only when the radars were switched off did the geese take to the skies.

One of the biggest changes to Pinetree was the system's automation. The old manual method of aircraft warning and control was deemed rather slow for the jet age and, because it relied on voice, it was liable to inaccuracies of communication. Fighter Control Operators also had the disadvantage of controlling interceptors only within their constrained area. In the early 1960s, a new system was developed where several radar stations in a defined area, called an Air Defence Sector, would be linked to a Direction Centre (DC) and the air battle could be conducted by Air Defence Technicians at DC-level. Information regarding intruder numbers, speed, direction and height would be converted from the radar's analog form to digital, transmitted to the DC at sector Headquarters and displayed to the new AD Techs for appropriate action. The same computer displaying intruder data could calculate appropriate co-ordinates for successful interception. The radar unit's only function would now be long-range scanning, not fighter control. This automation was called Semi-Automatic Ground Environment and took place in the fall of 1963. As a consequence of the change, Aircraft Control and Warning Squadrons were re-designated Radar Squadrons (RadSqns).

The 1960s also brought other changes to Pinetree. Early in that decade, Canadianization of the line was negotiated with the USAF. The RCAF was given 66 Voodoo CF-101B interceptors in exchange for it assuming the costs of running 11 Pinetree sites: these were in Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and British Columbia. The USAF remained in Newfoundland into the 1970's. In 1963 the Liberal Minister of National Defence, Paul Hellyer, had announced the disbandment of several stations and units for reasons of economy. The Air Force lost a number of fighter squadrons, several airfields, the Mid-Canada line and four Pinetree sites deemed redundant. RCAF Stations Beaverbank, Parent, St. Sylvestre and Edgar were no longer to be.

1964 was also a landmark year for the armed forces because of the White Paper issued by the Minister. Much to the chagrin of many, the White paper proposed a radical change to the military. It was decided that Canada could ill-afford three separate services, so unification was proposed. Hence, everyone would be wearing the same uniforms, speak more or less the same lingo and wear the same ranks. All radar stations would be re-named Canadian Forces Stations (CFSs). Personnel would no longer be assigned to either a radar squadron, the operating unit, or the station but now solely to the CFS. The change in designation took place in October 1967 but it wasn't for at least two years that the new green tri-service uniforms would appear.

While RCAF airmen could be assigned to any one of the over 30 stations across Canada, the radar technicians and Fighter Control Operators of the 1950s-60s all had one thing in common; they had all gone through the RCAF Station Clinton. The RCAF's Radar and Communications School at Clinton had existed under various names since 1941 and had kept up with the changes in technology since the war. Many of the old huts remained in use by staff and students but the growth in air defence requirements prompted the construction of a large new edifice for the school proper in 1953, which became known as the infamous building 84. The RC&S now had modern classrooms, labs and offices in Clinton's biggest building. This made Clinton home to the southernmost radome, or radar dome, in Canada.

The three trades most common to Pinetree personnel were the radar Techs, Radar Operators and Fighter Control Operators. The radar technician syllabus at Clinton covered test equipment, hand tools, maintenance procedures, radar theory and operations and circuit and block diagrams. In the early 1950s the course lasted 36 weeks with a new intake beginning every four weeks. The Radar Operator course was 10 weeks long and also began every month. The students learned radar theory and operations which included the esoteric arts of electronic counter-measures (ECM) and electronic counter-counter-measures (ECCM) or jamming and antijamming. The six types of electronic jamming techniques (spot, barrage, sequence, carcinotron, repeater and sweep frequency) were studies and ways to defeat them were practiced. Mechanical jamming, the most familiar of which is chaff or tin foil strips, was also looked at. The Fighter Control Operator student learned plotting, radar theory and operations, radar procedures, navigation and meteorology, also in a 10 week course. After the Pinetree line was automated in the early 1960s, Fighter Control Operators were replaced by Air Defence Technicians, most of whom received their practical training at the Radar and Communications School detachment at Lac St. Denis. After the RC&S at Clinton was closed, a new school for AD Techs was formed at CFB North Bay, the Air Weapons Control and Countermeasures School.

To increase and maintain proficiency in air defence operations, live and simulated exercises were frequently conducted at Pinetree sites. Live exercises involved friendly aircraft from either RCAF or USAF Air Defence Command fighter units and "enemy" aircraft from USAF Strategic Air Command bomber squadrons. Practice was obtained in target detection, identification, plotting and interception. Most of these trials included ECM and/or ECCM. Radar squadrons were rated on a numerical percentage scale and units were recognized on the basis of how well they did. These exercises carried unusual names such as Apache Chief, Cree Feathers, Naskapi Jewel, Boneyard or Big Blast India. ECM wasn't limited to aircraft though as ground-based jamming, code named Rhombic, was also used. In those instance, search units were sent out to seek and destroy the offending parties.

Pinetree stations were also subject to ground attacks. Each station was equipped with a Base Defence Force or BDF whose skills were sometimes tested against army units. Falconbridge, for example, was once assaulted by the Irish Regiment of Canada from Sudbury. Sioux Lookout was also attacked once by the now-defunct Canadian airborne regiment in 1983 in an exercise called "Polar Gloom". The exercises were designed to give the Airborne experience in winter maneuvers and station personnel, experience in base defence. Regimental personnel were para-dropped from Hercules aircraft several miles away and, over a period of a few days, proceeded quietly to their designated target. After reconnoitering the radar station, the Airborne opened fire with artillery simulators, thunderflashes, blank ammunition and tear gas. Their first success was the taking out of a sentry post. Another trooper managed to steal a snowmobile and crash his way to the operations site with an explosive charge. The trooper never made it through as the Ops site was too heavily defended. Others tried to sneak up on the remote radio site, but the careful placement of microphones around the site revealed their presence and they too were neutralized. Neither side really won or lost in this battle and both attackers and challengers learned valuable lessons.

As many Pinetree stations were located away from major urban centres, it was only natural that they became close-knit communities. With populations of approximately 200, it didn't take long for everyone to get to know everyone else. Many friendships had formed at Clinton and it was not uncommon for these to be re-kindled on postings. This was particularly true for French-Canadians as there were only five stations in operation in Quebec in the mid 1960s.

Station personnel kept busy on their off time by joining sports teams, motorcycling clubs, stamp clubs or amateur radio associations. Skiing was a favorite sport at Lac St. Denis. Most stations had a musical group of sorts; the one at Barrington was aptly called the "Height Finders". It was common for Military Policemen to engage in social activities such as "run for the blind", but at some isolated facilities such as Pagwa, entertainment was more of a rarity. It was said that the airmen often had to satisfy themselves by watching the CN trains go by. Civilians were often welcome at the base, either as club participants or as guests to recreational facilities. The swimming pool at Beaverbank, for example, was enjoyed by local Boy Scouts. Many stations also featured annual Armed Forces Days. And when tragedy struck in Sudbury once, in the form of a residential fire, the homeless were provided with food and temporary lodgings at Falconbridge. These events and many others like them helped cement bonds between military and civilians which lasted for years.

With Pinetree sites often being the nearest military installation, its personnel had to be prepared to receive the most unusual reports. In May 1958 for instance, a Timmins resident found a strange metallic cylinder on his property. The cylinder measured 21 inches long, had a parachute and antennae and contained batteries, which seemed in good order. This object attracted several reporters with one describing it as a miniature Sputnik. A call to the nearest base, Ramore Air Station (a USAF base) produced a security officer who promptly seized the object and asked photographers not to release their pictures until it was identified. This event reached the ears of the local Member of Parliament who decided to seek answers from the Minister of National Defence. The situation was aggravated somewhat when it was reported that another object was discovered in Val Gagne a few days beforehand.

One week after the MP raised the matter in the House of Commons, Defence Minister Pearkes provided an answer to the mystery. The cylinders were identified as US weather service radiosondes, instruments designed to take weather measurements at high altitudes and transmit these to an aeronautical facility. These had probably been dragged off-course by upper winds. All concerned breathed a sigh of relief and the matter was laid to rest. The Minister's closing remarks on the subject was that anyone coming across any more such objects should contact the RCMP instead of the RCAF.

Sometimes, other objects originating from the skies were not as clearly identifiable. In the wee hours of 24 August, 1954 at RCAF Station Parent, two airmen on a weather check observed a "capsule shaped copper colored object" hanging motionless over the domestic site. After three or four minutes the capsule flew off. A report to Command intelligence only resulted in a "discrete silence".

Reports of UFOs by local residents usually ended up in the Duty Operations Officer's log book. On 7 January, 1960, an Ontario Provincial Police constable reported to Foymount's Duty Officer that he had been followed by a large luminous crescent-shaped object for 20 minutes between Renfrew and Haley station. The object was estimated to be flying at a height of 150 feet. Eventually it veered off at rocket speed. Apparently another UFO had been spotted by a local resident and reported to the constable one month earlier. These have not been the only sightings in the Ottawa valley.

More dramatic perhaps was the case at Falconbridge in 1975. At 4:05 on the morning of 11 November, a "bogey" was picked up on the radar scopes. At one point, the UFO came close enough to the station for it to have its diameter estimated and shape recognized with the help of binoculars. (For this to be possible the craft had to give off some illumination). The UFO was said to be spherical with identifications, which suggested portholes. Two F-106 interceptors were scrambled from Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan, but by the time they arrived in the area the craft had gone. The year 1975 was a banner one for UFO sightings and more strange objects were being reported over military sites.

As stated before, the Pinetree system was always a dynamic entity. New equipment was sometimes acquired to replace the old. In the 1960s for example, most stations had adopted new AN/FPS-27 search radars. The "27" had the advantage of frequency diversity, making it less susceptible to single-frequency jamming. It also possessed a Selective Identification Feature, which replaced the old Mk X Identification-Friend-or-Foe system. Around the same time, new AN/FPS-26 height finders were also acquired. As radar operations rose in efficiency stations deemed redundant were closed. Canadian Forces Station Armstrong, Foymount and Ramore were disbanded in 1974, and CFS Moosonee the following year. Each station had cost over $1,000,000 to build, but these were sold for mere fractions. Several back-up height finder radars were also shut down in 1975, presumably as a cost-saving measure. By the 1980s some of the vacuum-tube equipment had become so obsolete that replacement tubes could only be obtained from factories in the Soviet bloc!

The Pinetree Line's final chapter was written in the mid-1980s after a thorough review of air defence requirements by the Canadian and American governments. The North American Air Defence Modernization program called for the re-vamping of the DEW Line and the closure of the Pinetree network. The "new and improved" DEW Line alone would now be considered adequate for detection. Stations were disbanded between 1986 and 1990 and were sold off for varying amounts shortly thereafter; some such as CFS Senneterre for the paltry sum of $1.00. (The station was sold to the town of Senneterre. The Federal Government actually got a better deal from the town on the heavy equipment: $35,000).

What is left of these stations? In most cases, they all exist. Many of the Married Quarters are inhabited by civilians and office buildings are used for various purposes. CFS Ramore is now Lava Mountain Lodge, a quiet resort. The operational building a mile away from Lava Flow Mountain now exists as a mere shell. Station Armstrong is now a small village complete with restaurant, residences and a laundromat. Apparently it is being used as a jumping off point for northern fishermen. Except for the missing operations site, Foymount is intact. A few businesses occupy the Combined Quarters (quarters where both officers and enlisted men lived) and the Construction Engineering shops. Most of the residences are occupied . RCAF Station Edgar is also relatively intact and well maintained as it is now a centre for handicapped adults managed by the Provincial government. Pagwa, on the other hand, has vanished. Only the foundations remain. The Married Quarters at Parent by Rainbow Lake are the only buildings still standing. Gone are the Station Headquarters and the Ops site. Most of Falconbridge also remains but the present owner, for some reason, will not allow visitors to the Ops site.

For 30 years the Pinetree Line made an important contribution to North American air defence. It may not have prevented a war but its men and women proved valuable on many occasions. Station personnel often gave a helping hand to local communities, aided in search and rescue operations and, more than once, tracked airliners which had veered off course and helped guide them back to righteousness. The line will be remembered for a long time, not only because the bases are largely still around, but also because, every here and there, supporting communities have adopted antennas as tokens of friendship from the Canadian Forces.

Monuments to an age gone by.

This article, written by Paul Ozorak, appeared in the December 1996 issue of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS) Journal. Paul has written books in a series called "Abandoned Military Installations" and continues to document the current status of former radar stations as a part of his ongoing travels.

@1996 Paul Ozorak. Used by permission of the author.

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Updated: March 20, 1998