An American with 3 DFCs in the RCAF – now honoured again

At the May 16 induction ceremony for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, held in Bombardier’s Laurent Beaudoin Global Completion Centre at the Montreal-Trudeau International Airport, one of the inductees to the Hall was David Charles Fairbanks, a native of Ithaca, N.Y.

By war’s end, David Fairbanks was a squadron leader, C.O. of his squadron, a three-time recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and only 22 years old. Photo via the internet.
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An American who joined the RCAF in 1941 at age 18, before the United States entered the Second World War, David Fairbanks trained as a pilot in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Posted overseas, he was attached to the Royal Air Force. After shooting down one enemy aircraft while flying a Supermarine Spitfire, Fairbanks then shot down 14 more as a pilot of a Hawker Tempest.

He eventually attained the rank of squadron leader and served as commanding officer of 274 RAF Squadron. In February 1945, he bailed out when his aircraft was shot up, and was taken as a prisoner of war shortly before the war ended.

Post-war, David Fairbanks graduated in engineering from Cornell University at Ithaca, became a Canadian citizen, and worked for de Havilland Canada (DHC). He served as a test pilot and demonstration pilot for the company, and was closely associated with DHC’s short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft — notably the Beaver, Otter, Caribou, Buffalo and the Dash 7.

As manager of Flight Operations for DHC, Fairbanks died suddenly at the age of 52 in 1975. The following year he was posthumously awarded the Trans-Canada (McKee) Trophy, largely in recognition for his contribution to development of STOL aircraft.

Squadron Leader David Fairbanks, DFC, is seen standing at far left in 1945 as commanding officer of 274 RAF Squadron, with a Hawker Tempest of the Squadron. Photo via the internet.
Squadron Leader David Fairbanks, DFC, is seen standing at far left in 1945 as commanding officer of 274 RAF Squadron, with a Hawker Tempest of the Squadron. Photo via the internet.

Now a Member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, David Fairbanks will be honoured further in his home country on September 13 at an Evening Celebration of Aviation to be held at the Ithaca Tomkins Regional Airport. For more information and to order tickets, click here.

More information about David Fairbanks and the short video of him shown at the Hall of Fame inductions can be seen here.

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One thought on “An American with 3 DFCs in the RCAF – now honoured again

  1. From my forthcoming series “American RCAF Warriors”.

    TEMPEST ACE

    Forty-two years before “the bird” gesture was popularized by actor Tom Cruise in the 1986 blockbuster movie “Top Gun”, a frustrated World War II Hawker Tempest pilot, out of ammunition, gave that same rude “finger” greeting to a Messerschmitt Bf 109 pilot over Germany in 1944.

    “I was flying Blue One on a sweep to Rheine, Germany and had turned on to 270 degrees at 2,000 feet near Burgstein when I saw an aircraft about 1,000 feet below heading east. It passed under our formation and I immediately rolled on my back and gave chase. As I pulled out of the dive, I recognized the enemy as an Bf 109 and began to close in. The enemy aircraft pulled straight up and when I was about 500 yards behind, it was in a stalled position standing on its tail. The pilot baled out, the aircraft bunted and went straight into the deck and I saw the pilot land a short distance away in some trees.

    I claim one Bf 109 destroyed.

    I rejoined the formation and we continued on 270 degrees at 3,500 feet and were ten miles southeast of Emmerich, Germany when I sighted three Bf 109’s at one o’clock to us flying in the opposite direction at the same level as ourselves. I broke into them and they broke in our direction. I saw something fall away from the leading enemy aircraft – it might have been the canopy or the pilot – I am not sure. I fired at this aircraft head-on from 800 yards. It put its nose down and passed beneath me. Then I broke round and picked out another Hun and got on its tail. I had quite a job staying behind it, but managed to get in a few quick bursts with no results. The enemy aircraft was taking good evasive action and I overshot him once and ended up directly above him. I got behind him again and finally, firing from 150 yards, obtained strikes on his starboard radiator which immediately streamed glycol. His propeller started to windmill when we were down to 600 feet and a considerable amount of flak was coming up. The enemy aircraft circled in order to make a forced landing, but I pulled up and attacked once more from 100 yards range and saw strikes on the port side of the fuselage in front of the cockpit. Then the enemy aircraft was at deck level and glided into some trees near Dingen, Holland and exploded.

    I claim one Bf 109 destroyed.

    I climbed again and with my section set course for Nijmegan. We passed near Emmerich and were just crossing the Rheine River when two Bf 109’s passed my starboard side slightly below at 4,000 feet and flying in the opposite direction. One was being chased by another Tempest and I broke into the second one. The enemy aircraft continued straight and level just at the base of the cloud. I quickly closed the range from below to approximately 150 yards. I fired but only my port cannons worked. After a few bursts I saw strikes on the enemy’s starboard wing. He did only a very slight turn to starboard and continued on. I rolled onto him again and fired until my ammunition ran out. I overhauled the enemy aircraft and came right up under his wing – the pilot was looking out the opposite side and didn’t have a clue. After several seconds, he finally became aware of my presence! I rolled over top of him, held my aircraft steady, gave him the finger and came home.

    I claim one Bf 109 damaged.”

    From the December 17, 1944 combat report of Flight Lieutenant (FL) David Charles “Foob” Fairbanks, Royal Canadian Air Force, (RCAF).

    David was born to Frank and Helen Fairbanks at Ithaca, New York on August 12, 1922. His father, a Cornell University Professor, died unexpectedly when David was still in his teens. Graduating from Ithaca High School in June, 1940, Fairbanks listed his sports interests as football, swimming and skiing. During the summer harvest seasons, he often worked on local farms operating farm machinery.

    Growing up, young Mr. Fairbanks had an insatiable appetite for anything aeronautical. His heroes were all the aces of World War I and he read everything that he could lay his hands on which described in great detail their aerial adventures. He built and flew model aircraft and, at the local airport, he was not above scrounging airplane rides whenever he could.

    From the first day of the war in Europe, September 3, 1939, he followed the news reports with unbridled enthusiasm and interest. Too young to serve in the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC), David and two of his friends, hoping to join the RCAF, left home in January, 1941 and made their way to the Peace Bridge which spans the Niagara River between Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Ontario. David’s entry into Canada was barred by a Canadian Customs Officer, as he only had .20 cents in his pocket. He reluctantly thumbed his way home sleeping in barns along the way.

    A month later, on February 18th, the eighteen year old with sufficient money in his pocket and his mother’s signed parental consent in hand, successfully crossed the border and voluntarily enlisted in the RCAF at No. 10 Recruiting Centre in Hamilton, Ontario. His pay was $1.30 per day, his rank was Aircraftsman Second Class (AC2) and his assigned Service Number was R.66474. He listed his home address as 424 East State Street in Ithaca.

    Fairbanks spent his first six weeks in uniform at No. 1 Manning Depot (MD), in Toronto, Ontario. On April 9, he reported for guard duty to RCAF Station Dartmouth, Nova Scotia where he remained until May 27. From there he was sent to No. 3 Initial Training School (ITS) in Victoriaville, Quebec. He graduated from this unit on July 2, and was promoted from AC2 to Leading Aircraftsman (LAC). Along with this promotion, he received an increase in pay of .40 cents per day. David returned to Canada’s east coast to No. 21 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) in Chatham, New Brunswick. There he began his flight training on Fleet Finch
    biplanes graduating on September 1 with a 73.78% average. The next day Fairbanks was posted to No. 9 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) in Summerside, Prince Edward Island where he completed his pilot training on Harvard Mk IIb aircraft. He proved to be an exemplary student – quiet, but very alert. One of his instructors recorded that he was “amazing in his quickness to learn”.

    Graduating near the top of his class on November 21, with a 78.13% average, LAC Fairbanks was promoted to Sergeant Pilot (SP). Later that day the RCAF assigned him a new Service Number, J.9069, after commissioning him a Pilot Officer (PO).

    With 180 hours of flying time on Finch and Harvards in his log book, this newly minted officer now earning $6.00 daily was posted on November 23rd to the Central Flying School (CFS) at RCAF Station Trenton, Ontario. There he undertook a Flying Instructor’s Course (FIS) which he completed on February 28, 1942.

    While at Trenton, PO Fairbanks earned a “C” Level Instructor’s Certificate and logged an additional 150 flight hours piloting Cessna Cranes, de Havilland Tiger Moths, Fleet Fawns, Harvard Mk I’s and Lockheed 12’s.

    Taking two weeks personal leave, he reported, on March 14, to No. 13 SFTS in St. Hubert, Quebec to begin his instructor pilot duties. Over the next year, Fairbanks, became a thorn in the flesh of the St. Hubert Station Commander. Frustrated at being retained in Canada in a training role, he submitted numerous transfer requests all which were turned down. To ward off boredom, he indulged in various flying games with his fellow pilots. Night formation flying was not part of their training syllabus so, naturally, he and the other instructor’s practiced it. Another of his night games, was to creep up on an unsuspecting Harvard, and, when within feet of his quarry, flick on his landing and navigation lights, signifying a successful interception and kill.

    Near the end of 1942, PO Fairbanks was a day late returning from a weekend pass. The vengeful Station Commander had him placed under open arrest, charged him with being Absent Without Leave (AWL) and wanted him Court Martialled! The matter was referred to the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of No. 3 Training Command Headquarters (TCHQ) in Montreal, Quebec. After due deliberation, the AOC decided that being AWL was really a trivial offense and was to be dealt with in the usual manner at the station level. The Court Martial charge however, was not to stand, and was to be dismissed. This message was conveyed to St. Hubert by Squadron Leader (SL) C. E. Bennett who was replying on behalf of the AOC. David was given a sharp dressing down and paid a small fine.

    January 21, 1943 saw his instructor Rating upgraded from level “C” to “B”.

    Fairbanks was promoted from PO to Flying Officer (FO) on February 12th.

    On March 27, his latest transfer request for a combat assignment was approved. He travelled to “Y” Depot, Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia where he gratefully awaited his departure from the training airfields of Canada.

    Arriving in England by ship on April 8, he was sent to No. 3 Personnel Reception Centre (PRC) in Bournemouth. Shortly thereafter, David reported to No. 17 Pilot (P) Advanced Flying Unit (AFU), at RAF Calveley where he transitioned onto Miles Masters and Hawker Hurricanes. Leaving No. 17 on August 3, he was sent to RAF No. 58 Operational Training Unit (OTU), Grangemouth and Balado Bridge, Scotland where he flew Master I’s, III’s and Supermarine Spitfires. On October 5, he was transferred from No. 58 to RAF No. 57 OTU, Eshott and Boulmer in Northumberland, where he flew the same aircraft types until December 30.

    Much to his chagrin, the RCAF utilized him as a flight instructor at No. 57 from October to December.

    Foob now a FL (he had been promoted from FO on November 21)managed to finally secure a coveted combat slot on January 12, 1944 when he joined RAF No. 501 (County of Gloucester) Squadron who were flying Spitfire Mk IX’s from Firston.

    His first aerial victory came at 0610 hours double daylight saving time (DDST) on June 8, when he downed an Bf 109 and claimed another as damaged southwest of Le Havre, France.

    Foob was transferred on August 11 to RAF No. 274 Squadron who were flying the latest Hawker Tempest aircraft, the Mk V, from West Malling. The Tempest design was an outgrowth of the Hawker Typhoon Fighter-Bomber. With a thinner wing, plus many other improvements, the Napier Sabre IIC powered Mk V became, at low and medium altitude, the fastest Allied fighter of the war. Heavily armed with four 20-mm Hispano-Suiza cannons and able to haul upwards of 2,000 pounds of Bombs and Rockets externally, Tempests pulverized all types of enemy targets as German troops retreated from France and Belgium soil in 1944. The squadron moved to Manston on the 17th where they set up shop to intercept incoming Fi 103 V-1 Flying Bombs. On the 29th, David shot down a German buzz bomb and the resulting blast nearly took him and his Tempest with it. One moment he was blazing away at the fast, nimble target and the next instant he was flying through its exploding debris.

    Of the 1,771 V-1 Flying Bombers the RAF and RCAF shot down between June and September, 1944, Hawker Tempests accounted for 638 of this number. Tempests were also fast enough to chase and engage Me 262 jet fighters, twenty of which they destroyed before VE-Day (May 8, 1945).

    The squadron moved on September 20 to Coltishall. Nine days later, as part of the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF), they moved yet again – this time to the continent where they set up operations in Belgium.

    On November 19, while strafing a locomotive, Foob’s Tempest, coded JJ-F, was hit by flak in the leading edge of the port wing. The enemy shells flipped his aircraft upside down and for a moment the ground was rushing up to meet him. Desperately he kicked the controls and righted the Tempest mere feet above terra firma. One of his fuel tanks had been riddled and a fire was burning out of control in one wing. Resisting the temptation to bale out, Fairbanks set course back to his airfield at Volkel. The fire ate away a gaping portion of the wing, scorched most of the paint off the fuselage and burned all the fabric off his rudder. When he reached his base, the fire had died out and he landed safely. That superb piece of flying won him his first of three British Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) awards.

    Fairbanks’ two favourite service aircraft were the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Tempest. He so liked the Tempest, he once wrote that it was, “The hottest kite this side of Ithaca”.

    Late in December, 1944, David transferred to RAF No. 3 Squadron whose pilots were also flying Tempests. At 1405 hours on January 4, 1945, he downed an Focke-Wulf Fw 190 eight miles northeast of Hengelo. Ten days later in the Paderborn Guttersloh areas he bested a Bf 109 and an Fw 190 in just five minutes. On the 23rd he was given .5 of an aerial credit, sharing in the destruction of a Junkers Ju 52.

    In a report dated January 8, 1945, SL A. H. Baird recorded the following: “274 squadron pilot FL D. C. Fairbanks total flight time is 1,462 hours. He is possessed of a very strong personality and as a result has considerable influence over his fellow men. He has always used this characteristic to the best advantage for the good of the squadron. An extremely keen and enthusiastic pilot and officer, he has shown himself to be aware of his responsibilities in both capacities and has always carried out his duties with dash and vigour”. In that same report, Group Captain (GC) P. G. Jameson wrote, “A fine type of officer who has proved himself to be a daring and skillful pilot. He possesses a quiet but strong personality and is liked and respected by all those with whom he serves”.

    On February 9, David was promoted to SL and was sent back to No. 274 to take over as Commanding Officer. The squadron diarist happily enthused the “Terror of The Rheine” is to return to us”!

    Over a Rheine airfield on February 11, Foob stalked an enemy jet. The two played a game of hide-and-seek for several minutes flying in and out of clouds. Finally the German pilot settled into his landing approach, apparently satisfied he had lost the troublesome Tempest. Just as the jet’s undercarriage slid down, Fairbanks swooped out of the clouds, jettisoned his drop tanks and bore straight in to within 300 yards of his victim. The four 20-mm Hispanos’ barked for less than two seconds but that was all that was needed. The German’s starboard engine flamed and the aircraft plummeted down to explode in the centre of the airfield. David claimed this kill as a Messerschmitt Me 262 but it was not until after the war that the Luftwaffe verified it as an Arado Ar 234B Jet Reconnaissance Bomber, the first aircraft of its type to be shot down by Allied Forces.

    Early on the morning of February 28, 1945, Fairbanks took off leading five other Tempests on an armed reconnaissance patrol over Osnabruck, Germany. They destroyed one locomotive and reformed at 5,000′ between two cloud layers. Coming head-on toward them was a mixed force of Fw 190’s and Bf 109’s, numbering forty aircraft. Fairbanks called out a head-on attack and ordered his pilots to drop long range tanks. He said, “Time was so short it was difficult to select a suitable target and lay off deflection”. He did not remember any return fire from the enemy aircraft. He thinks they were just as surprised as he was and that they also did not have enough time to line up a burst. Fairbanks continues, “As soon as we passed the last man, I called a left 180 degree break back toward the formation. As we turned there were few aircraft to be seen. They had scattered in all directions. I started to chase one, but he went into a cloud and I lost him. Shortly after this, I pushed my aircraft down into cloud and came out underneath and saw a 190. By this time my No. 2 had lost me. I closed the range on this aircraft and before I was ready to fire, I noticed some tracers coming my way. I was near the ground and thought it was flak. A few more tracer rounds went by me as I was getting ready to fire at the enemy aircraft. I fired and hit the 190 which burst into flames. The next instant I was hit hard! It was not ground tracer I had seen, but shells from the aircraft behind that hit me. I can remember seeing wing ribs and torn skin on the left and right upper wing surfaces and I was having difficulty keeping the aircraft level. The engine was missing and puffs of glycol were shooting by. No doubt my rad had been punctured. I held the stick hard over right to keep level and applied right rudder. With the controls in this position, I knew I was not going home. I decided that it was time to bale out. Holding the controls with my right hand, I tried to jettison the canopy with my left, but it wouldn’t budge. I tried several times, but didn’t have enough strength in my left hand alone. I let go of the controls and pulled the jettison handle with both hands and away she went. I can only remember that the canopy was gone and that I leaned my head to the left into the slipstream. The next thing I remember I was on the ground”.

    The twenty year old Luftwaffe pilot who shot David down at 0800 hours that morning was Unteroffizier Karl-Georg Genth from 12./JG 26. Flying from Plantleunne airfield, Genth was piloting an Fw 190D-9 long-nosed Dora Fighter coded “Yellow 15”. Interviewed recently in Germany through his son, Thomas Genth, he recalls the details of that aerial battle. “I remember Fairbanks’ Tempest shooting at and chasing an Fw 190, but I do not remember an explosion on that plane. I believe all our fighters returned safely to our airfield. We three aircraft were turning hard and each time I fired, Fairbanks’ aircraft would slip from my view. Tightening my turn even more, the Tempest reappeared just long enough for me to shoot and I observed my 20 and 30-mm cannon shells striking his aircraft.” After he landed, JG 26’s Commander, Hauptmann Walter Krupinski, asked Genth for additional details as another German Pilot, Oberleutnant Theobald Kraus, had claimed the same aircraft. A few days later Krupinski awarded the victory to Genth as his description of the attack matched the shell holes found in the crashed Tempest wreckage. Unteroffizier Genth flew combat for less than a year. He managed to survive several scrapes with American P-51’s and P-47’s and Fairbanks was his second and last kill. On March 7, Genth was shot down in “Yellow 15” northeast of Enschede, Holland after a 10 minute chase. Wounded in the process, he successfully bailed out, but his injuries prevented him from returning to combat. Ironically, Genth’s victor that day was flying a Hawker Tempest. The pilot, FO Basilios Michael “Vass” Vassiliades from RAF No. 3 Squadron was a double ace of Greek descent. “Vass” was killed in action eighteen days later on the 25th when his aircraft, EJ755, struck by deadly ground fire, blew up. He had repeatedly strafed a well defended German flak position in a forested area despite warnings from two fellow pilots that, the target was too dangerous. The enemy gun crew had, only minutes earlier, blasted from the sky another Tempest from their four plane section.

    Escaping from his doomed aircraft, Foob, still wearing his headset and oxygen mask, somehow broke his nose when he baled out. Upon landing, he was immediately surrounded by elderly German home guard troops who herded him at rifle point into a nearby barn. His hands were tied and he was led back outside where a crowd of angry civilians began to jostle him. One man swung a pistol in his direction. Fairbanks thought, “My God, I’m to be shot like an animal”. At the top of his lungs he began shouting the only German word he knew, “Kommandant, Kommandant”. “Are you hurt?”, a friendly accented voice asked. Turning his head, Fairbanks discovered a Flak Battery Officer beside him. He was taken away, his hands were untied and he was given a cigarette. The German had been educated in England and spoke of the war in a sad objective way. He escorted Fairbanks to a local jail where David spent two nights discovering cuts, bruises and aching muscles he never knew he had. Foob guessed his parachute did not fully deploy before he landed and it was a miracle that he was still alive. Twice more he came near to being shot by hostile civilians, but each time his captors failed to carry out their threats. After a week of this nerve-racking treatment, he was sent to the safety of a regular Prisoner of War (PoW) Camp. Fairbanks had flown one operational tour, totalling 160 sorties which covered 250 combat flight hours.

    Late in April, 1945, advancing Allied troops freed Fairbanks and his fellow prisoners. July 8 saw him repatriated to Canada.

    On October 12, 1945, after serving fifty-five months in uniform (28 of these overseas), SL Fairbanks retired and was released from the RCAF.

    In a Canadian Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) letter, it was recommended that D. C. Fairbanks be given all possible financial assistance in the pursuit of the continuing of his education. Part of this document read, “A fine type of American youth with an exceptionally brilliant air force record”.

    With some financial backing provided by the Canadian Federal Government, David entered Cornell University in 1946 and graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1950.

    In Ithaca, New York on September 14, 1948, he married Phyllis May Guterman.

    Having more contacts in Canada than in the US, Fairbanks, after graduation, accepted an employment position with Dominion Bridge in Montreal, Quebec.

    D. C. Fairbanks re-entered the world of military flying on September 1, 1951, when he joined 401 RCAF Auxiliary Fighter Squadron (FS) at St. Hubert, Quebec flying Harvards and de Havilland Vampires.

    He left Dominion Bridge later that year and went to work for Sperry Gyroscope where he remained for the next four years. Two of these he spent on an exchange posting with the RAF in England flying Gloster Meteors with No. 504 Auxiliary Squadron.

    David moved to Toronto in 1955 after landing a job with de Havilland Aircraft as a Test Pilot. Initially his job was to demonstrate Beaver and Otter Aircraft to prospective clients on four continents. Because of conflicting work schedules, he reluctantly retired from the RCAF on November 16, 1956 after flying Vampires and Lockheed T-33 Shooting Stars with 411 Reserve FS at RCAF Station Downsview, Ontario.

    Later in his de Havilland career, he became Manager of Flight Operations and shared in the delivery and demonstration of the company’s products all over the world.

    He was actively engaged in the preparation and planning of the Dash 7 into the Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) market.

    At age 52, he suffered a massive heart attack and died in Toronto on February 20, 1975.

    On May 12, 1976, David Charles Fairbanks was posthumously honoured with Canada’s leading aviation award, the McKee Trophy which was accompanied by the following citation:

    “Mr. Fairbanks, a native of Ithaca, New York and an engineering graduate of Cornell University, was Manager of Flight Operations at the de Havilland Aircraft of Canada with complete responsibility for all test flying and all matters pertaining to the company’s flight operations around the world. Squadron Leader Fairbanks joined de Havilland as a Test Pilot in 1955, following a brilliant career as a fighter pilot in the RCAF during World War II. His decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Bars. During his twenty years in de Havilland flight operations, he demonstrated the Beaver, Twin Otter, Caribou and Buffalo Aircraft in some eighty countries around the world with great skill and credit to the company and to the Canadian aircraft industry. Mr. Fairbanks’ expertise in the development of STOL aircraft was widely recognized by his flying colleagues and his advice and guidance was constantly sought by regulatory authorities in both Canada and the United States regarding the establishment of STOL operating procedures”.

    SL David Charles “Foob” Fairbanks was the sole American, and one of only four RCAF personnel in World War II, who was awarded a British DFC and two Bars. He was the highest scoring Tempest ace and that type’s most decorated pilot. Officially, he is credited with 13.5 aerial victories and 3 aircraft damaged. “An exceptionally brilliant air force record” indeed!

    ***

    The author gratefully thanks the following who provided information for this article: Library and Archives Canada, “Tempest Tiger” by Hugh A. Halliday, Karl-Georg Genth, Thomas Genth and” Stars and Bars” by Frank Olynyk.

    By Tom Walsh,
    27 Ashberry Place,
    St. Thomas, Ontario,
    Canada. N5R OH7.

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