Late aviator's ‘brilliant' career recalled

Colonel ‘Ned' Henderson nearly became Canada's first man in space

Published on June 17, 2013
Ned Henderson of Brookfield prior to a flight test during the late 1960s.

By Lyle Carter


His name was Neville ‘Ned' Henderson and once upon a time he was that close to becoming Canada's first astronaut.

Not bad for a kid from Brookfield, one of Don and Marge's seven children.

But Henderson's career could hardly be defined by a ‘what if.' There were too many accomplishments on his resume that made him a role model to many in both the armed forces and civilian life.

He was born on Jan. 4, 1939, excelled in both hockey and softball, was an honours student and in 1953 became one of the first in his hometown to join the 569 Royal Canadian Air Cadets Squadron.

"Ned was an outstanding cadet and achieved the rank of warrant officer," Commanding Officer Captain Ralph Murphy said during a recent cadet ceremony. "At age 16, Ned had his private pilot's license and earned his pilot wings as a cadet. This fostered his interest in aviation."

In 1958, Henderson began what would become a distinguished professional military career. Training during the summer months, he also attended Mount Allison University during the winter where he continued to play hockey.

He graduated from university as a flying officer, was flying the T-33 Silver Star jet aircraft by 1963 and received his RCAF Wings in 1964.

Henderson also received several promotions during his career - to flight lieutenant in 1965, major in 1969, lieutenant colonel in 1974 and full colonel in 1979.

It was in 1970 that Henderson moved to Edwards Air Force Base in California where he completed the United States Air Force test pilot's school at the top of the class.

He was selected into the astronaut program, representing Canada, and even flew the space simulator at Edwards. His strong showing put him in a very good position in the selection process for choosing astronauts.

Unfortunately, the Canadian government at the time opted to make some financial cutbacks and Henderson's dream of reaching space came to an end.

Further postings included Scotland, Germany, California and Cold Lake, Alta. Henderson then became deputy commander at Maritime Air Group in Halifax in 1981, a fitting stop for a man who test-flew 43 different aircraft during his career.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck on May 26, 1982 while Henderson was flying a T-33 during a training test. The plane crashed into a boggy, barren area midway between Indian Harbour and Peggy's Cove.

"An in-flight emergency occurred," said Murphy. "The cause of the crash was not immediately known but it was suspected that an oxygen bottle exploded, disabling Colonel Henderson and keeping him from ejecting."

Henderson was buried with full military honours and in 1984 he was posthumously awarded the McKee Trophy, Canada's highest aviation award.

In addition, his old cadet squadron was renamed the Colonel G.N. Henderson Air Cadet Squadron in 1983 and a large portrait of Henderson was dedicated to the squadron in 2008.

Murphy was on hand for the dedication the local squadron's liaison officer.

"I was honoured to take part," he said. "What better motivation could we have then seeing Ned's portrait displayed when you enter the squadron. Colonel Ned Henderson's career accomplishments were brilliant."

Henderson's widow, Helene, resides in Truro.

"There were a lot of unexpected things that happened during Ned's career," she said. "Each new posting was a challenge and Ned just kept being promoted. It was so exciting.

"We took advantage of traveling possibilities and we enjoyed full, wonderful years together. I have really good memories."

Lyle Carter's column appears every Tuesday in the Truro Daily News. If you have a column idea, contact him at 673-2857.