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Civil flying in Canada largely owes its development to the widespread and varied activities of the Royal Canadian Air Force


BELLANCA SEAPLANES AND A VANCOUVER FLYING BOAT which were stationed on the St Lawrence River at St Pierre, Quebec. The Vancouver flying boats were made by Canadian Vickers and are still used for coastal reconnaissance  by the RCAF. Several versions of the Vancouver have been built and the Vancouver IIA was a special model for military purposes strengthened for an all-up weight of 10,000 lb.

FFW military machines have flown as many payloads in peace time as have those in Canada. Few military pilots have had such a variety of civilian experience. The Royal Canadian Air Force is not numerically large in comparison with the Royal Air Force, but it is potentially one of the most vigorous and efficient fighting forces in the British Commonwealth.

Canadians seem temperamentally to be born fliers. Canadian recruits in the R.A.F. during the war of 1914-18 were world-famous. A hundred or more young fliers from the Dominion train yearly in Great Britain.

From the first the Canadian took readily to flying. Flying demanded the initiative, stamina and courage that were developed by the independent life he lived at home. During the war he proved to be a resourceful fighter; afterwards he was equally ingenious and courageous in adapting his newly found craftsmanship to new requirements. He helped to conquer the wilderness from the air, to turn winter into an ally and to release new riches from the distant storehouses of his country (see the chapter “Air Transport in Canada”).

The Royal Canadian Air Force was born in the reorganization of Canada’s defence services after the war had ended. In recent years its activity has been along conventional military lines, with equipment and training methods similar to those of the R.A.F.; but formerly it worked in close cooperation with Canadian civil Governments in every department. Before civil aviation was taken over by Canada’s new Department of Transport in 1936 the R.C.A.F. had much to do with the development of all branches of flying in the country. It assisted in the foundation and organization of provincial government services, has been the instigator and inspector of flying among other departments and private operators, has carried on research and experiment and has formed the nuclei round which flying has flourished.

As an example of its versatility, in a single year the R.C.A.F. undertook operations for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Departments of Mines and Resources, Public Works, Trade and Commerce, Transport and National Defence, and for several provincial Governments. These activities embraced forest fire patrols, air photography, reconnaissance, rescue work and general transportation.

One romantic undertaking is the transportation of “Mounties” and officers of the Indian Affairs Branch to distant tribes camped on waterways throughout a remote district. The Indians are visited annually on their reserves and hunting grounds. Their educational and medical services are inspected, fresh supplies are brought to them and treaty money is paid out. Treaty money, a form of annuity, was established many years ago when the Indians were accepted as wards of the Canadian Government. Treaty payment parties formerly spent whole summers laboriously touring districts by canoe.

Another useful contact between civil and military aviation in Canada has been the R.C.A.F. Aeronautical Engineering Division, which collaborates with the Aeronautics Laboratory of the Canadian National Research Council at Ottawa in such matters as investigating the problem of friction of aircraft skis. This Division assisted in the organization of a similar division in the new Department of Transport. The inspection branch of this Division cooperates with the civil aviation inspectors and, until the creation of the Department of Transport, it was responsible for inspecting all aircraft and supplies used in civil as well as military aviation in Canada.

The organization of the Royal Canadian Air Force is similar to that of the other Canadian defence services. There are a permanent active air force, a nonpermanent active air force (comparable in an army sense to Great Britain’s Territorials) and a reserve. The R.C.A.F. is divided by stations and units from coast to coast, with headquarters at Ottawa. Its army cooperation, fighter bomber and flying boat squadrons are located at Vancouver, British Columbia; Trenton, Ontario; Ottawa, Ontario; Camp Borden, Ontario; Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Toronto, Ontario; Montreal, Quebec ; Hamilton, Ontario; Regina, Saskatchewan; and Calgary, Alberta.

The history of military flying in Canada dates from 1909, when two Canadian pioneers of British flying, J. A. D. McCurdy and F. W. Baldwin (see the chapter “American and Canadian Pioneers”) tried to interest the Department of Militia. The then Director of Engineer Services, Lieut. G. S. Maunsell, had been attracted by their experiments and some 200 successful flights; he secured approval for trial flights to be made at Petawawa Camp, Ontario. The ground, however, was rough and the two frail aeroplanes could not stand the strain. Both crashed, but without injury to their pilots, after several successful flights; and the military authorities were not convinced.

This lack of vision had an influence that was detrimental to the whole course of Canadian aviation, in the opinion of J. A. Wilson, Canada’s Controller of Civil Aviation, who has been one of the country’s most effective sponsors of flying. Had the military authorities’ foresight been greater, a small aviation corps would have existed in the years before the war of 1914-18 and it would have been expanded to meet war needs. There would have been continuity of experience and policy for peace-time reorganization. Canadian fliers did brilliantly in the war, but because there was no Canadian Air Service they did so as individuals and in the Royal Naval Air Service or in the Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force). Young Canadians were eagerly accepted by the British after they had learned to fly in private schools, or had been transferred from units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

A Curtiss flying school was established in Toronto in the spring of 1915 by J. A. D. McCurdy, with Bert Acosta as one of the instructors. Curtiss JN-3 and JN-2 machines were used. Nearly 700 Canadians who had been trained there were accepted by the Imperial forces. The intense air activity in the latter half of 1916, during the first battle of the Somme, was the principal factor leading to the establishment of recruiting and training units in Canada by the Royal Flying Corps. In 1917 the nucleus of a training and administrative section was sent out and camps were established at several points. By the time the Armistice was signed, over 10,000 cadets and 7,000 other ranks had been recruited from Canada direct into the Imperial flying services. Out of this number, over 4,000 had been trained in Canada and sent across the Atlantic.

There are various estimates as to the number of Canadians who were serving in the Royal Air Force at the close of the war. One estimate has it that nearly twenty-five per cent of the officers were Canadian.

Submarine warfare in the North Atlantic brought about the development of protective air patrols off the harbours of Halifax and Sydney in Nova Scotia, and in 1918 the Royal Canadian Air Service was formed with the cooperation of the United States Government, which supplied twelve HS2L flying boats. After the Armistice the R.C.A.S. was disbanded, but the machines, presented by the United States to Canada, proved invaluable in the foundation of the forest patrol systems organized in the years that followed. The Canadian Air Force incorporated two squadrons of Canadian fliers that had been grouped together in Great Britain in August 1918. The famous flier Lieut.-Col. W. A. Bishop, V.C., had been associated with them, and Air Commodore Robert Leckie had been their Wing Commander. No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron in the C.A.F. was known as No. 81 in the R.A.F., and No. 2 (Bomber) Squadron was No. 123 in the R.A.F.

MILITARY AND COMMERCIAL aeroplanes, fitted with skis, on Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba

MILITARY AND COMMERCIAL aeroplanes, fitted with skis, on Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba. On the approach of winter seaplanes are flown to their bases, where they are overhauled and fitted with skis in place of their floats. Many of the aircraft types used in Canada are designed to be fitted with float, ski, or wheel undercarriages.

A surplus war stock of eighty aeroplanes, fourteen flying boats, twelve  airships and other equipment was also presented by the Imperial Government to the Canadian Air Board as a basis on which to build. This Board controlled aeronautics in Canada from 1919 to 1922 and formed a Canadian Air Force in 1920 on a temporary basis, pending the formation of a permanent Air Force.

To replace the war pilots and draw upon a younger generation for the new force, it was decided that the best personnel could be recruited from the engineering and science schools of the Canadian universities. A selection was made annually from a number of students in their first year who would undergo training in aeronautics during their summer vacations over a period of four years. The Department of Defence was created in 1923 and the Air Force was reorganized permanently as the Royal Canadian Air Force. Selected officers were first sent to the Imperial Defence College and the R.A.F. Later, specialists were sent to the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London.

With the coordination of civil and military aviation in Canada, utilitarian spadework for other Government departments then began in earnest. Bases were built, forest photographic surveys were made and many other tasks, were performed. The groundwork was laid for the present provincial, departmental and private flying. There were internal adjustments in the years

1927, 1932 and 1937 as civil duties were transferred to new authorities. Today the Royal Canadian Air Force is a popular Service, and when increases in estimates for military aviation were announced for the fiscal year 1937-38, no fewer than 12,000 applications were received for enlistment. Great expansions in personnel and equipment have been made and appropriations since 1932 have been multiplied by ten. The peace establishment of the permanent force in 1937 was 1,868 all ranks and that of the non-permanent force was 1,645 all ranks.

The training methods and equipment of the R.C.A.F. are similar to those of the R.A.F., though Canadian geographical and climatic conditions have demanded certain qualifications. All machines, where possible, must be adaptable to flying with skis, floats or wheels; air-cooled engines are likewise necessary; and twin-engined craft are favoured for home defence duty as air bases are often far apart and landing places scarce.

Types of aircraft used for training by the R.C.A.F. include: D.H. Tiger Moth, Fleet Trainer, Avro Tutor, Avro 626. For army cooperation the Westland Lysander is used; as torpedo bomber, the Blackburn Shark (Canada); for coastal reconnaissance, Supermarine Stanraer and Canadian Vickers Vancouver; and for general reconnaissance the Bristol Bolingbroke. A variety of commercial types is used for civil operations.

Military aircraft during the first years of R.C.A.F. expansion were bought in Great Britain; but when rearmament requirements preoccupied the industry in the mother country Canadian manufacturers began large-scale production.

From a Canadian defence viewpoint the R.C.A.F. provides an arm serviceable in all weathers and at all seasons in all parts of the country. It is an arm experienced in war -traditions and schooled by years of active flying of every kind in peace. It is indeed one of the most remarkable military air units in the world. Few nations have distinguished themselves more as air-fighters or furthered more the cause of flying in everyday life.

From an Imperial viewpoint the R.C.A.F. may be considered a great reserve of man-power; and though the defence policy of the Dominion does not specifically state that the R.C.A.F. is for service abroad, its existence and the availability of the country’s manufacturing resources may well be regarded as a great asset by Great Britain. In the autumn of 1938 it was announced that bombers would be built in Canada for the Royal Air Force. When completed, these machines were to be flown across the Atlantic.


THE MILITARY TYPE VANCOUVER FLYING BOAT has a gunner’s cockpit in the nose. In its commercial form the Vancouver was designed for use as a fire-fighting aircraft, but collapsible seats for six passengers were provided in the cabin. Even with a full complement of passengers there was still room for equipment. Aft of the main cabin provision is made for stowing a collapsible canoe.

Click here to see the photogravure supplement to this article.

You can read more on “Air Transport in Canada”, “American and Canadian Pioneers” and “Winter Flying in Canada” on this website.

The Royal Canadian Air Force