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Chapter 3 

Bush Pilots in Uniform 

RCAF pilots wore air force blue, saluted, drilled, and otherwise observed the eternal military verities, even though their day to day working lives for most of the interwar years were spent on civil flying operations. The future air marshal and chief of the air staff, C.R. Slemon, recalled that ‘I never thought of a weapon; I never saw a weapon or fired a machine gun or whatever. We were just as busy as we could be doing purely civil government flying. We began to get some military training all along there were military elements, but they were tiny in comparison to the civil government air operations.” ‘We were,’ another officer recalled, ‘bush pilots in uniform.’ 

Training these ‘bush pilots’ to fly was the RCAF’s primary military function in the I920s and early 1930s. Air force training remained concentrated at Camp Borden until Trenton was opened in 1931. As far as practicable, training methods were modelled on those used by the RAF for individual flying and ground instruction, and, later, for service or unit training. British course syllabi and training manuals were employed, and officers and airmen sent to RAF courses for advanced and specialist training flying instruction, army co operation, photography, armament, air navigation, wireless, explosives, and aeronautical engineering. In time these specialists formed a nucleus of instructors with which the RCAF staffed its own schools. 

Recruiting and training airmen, mechanics, and tradesmen had initially proved difficult. When the RCAF became part of the permanent force many skilled men employed as civilians by the Air Board declined to join up, and others were overage or medically unfit. They were not easily replaced. Little in the way of formal instruction for airmen existed in the early years, and the RCAF depended on enlisting men who already possessed related trades qualifications. The recruit then entered into an apprenticeship to learn fitting, rigging, and other skills on the job. He gradually acquired more specific aviation experience and through specialist courses was able to improve his technical grade. Military subjects were injected along the way. In 1927 the RCAF completed arrangements with selected technical training schools to recruit students. Those successful in a trial summer course at Camp Borden were enlisted in the rank of ‘boy’ for further service until they reached eighteen years of age. As they gained experience, however, many were actively sought by civilian firms with offers of higher pay.

Page 92 

Part One: Between the Wars 

When Wing Commander G.M. Croil commanded Camp Borden in 1928-9, he complained that ‘If they do not actually approach them whilst here they do so by letter after their departure from this station and go so far as to pay the sum necessary for the airman to purchase his discharge.

There was less difficulty attracting officers for the air force. CAF regulations had stipulated that pilot and flying officers would be required to retire at age thirty, flight lieutenants continuing for an additional two years. Officers in these ranks comprised the bulk of the early force’s commissioned officers, most of them veterans in their mid twenties, so there was little problem at first. When new pilots were needed, a training scheme aimed at university students (which had to be deferred for a year during the reorganization) went into effect in 1923. Candidates were required to be members of the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps [COTC], enrolled as degree students in applied science or engineering, under twenty-one, and unmarried. The course of instruction consisted of three terms in consecutive years during the university summer break from May until August. While at Camp Borden the pilot trainees were granted temporary commissions as provisional pilot officers in the non permanent force and received $3.00 a day during the first term, $3.50 the second, and $4.00 the final term. Quarters, rations, uniforms, travelling allowances, and medical and dental treatment were provided. All those successfully completing the course were to be appointed RCAF pilot officers, but with no guarantee of a permanent commission. The terms of the training plan, indeed, emphasized that there would be only a limited number of such appointments. Those not wishing, or not offered, permanent commissions were eligible for appointments to the non permanent force. Alternatively, they might be transferred to the reserve of officers, which meant that they would have no further direct contact with the RCAF unless called up in time of emergency.

The pilot training programme was scheduled to start with thirty cadets but, because of a late start, undergraduates across the country were not informed of the scheme until too late in the 1922-23 academic year. As a result only nine trainees reported to Camp Borden for the first course on 15 May 1923. One was forced to drop out a month later for medical reasons. The others completed the first term of training at the end of August. Six returned for the second term; four qualified for their wings in December of that year and were awarded commissions in the permanent force. Two of the graduates were subsequently killed in aircraft accidents and one resigned his commission. The fourth was Pilot Officer C.R. Slemon.

The initial flying training scheme produced the first new air force pilots trained in Canada since 1918. Later, to meet shortages, a number of trained flyers were granted short service commissions, and some university graduates in engineering and applied science courses were enlisted directly. Serving non commissioned officers [Ncos] provided another source. The first NCO pilot course began in February 1927, and over the next five years thirty of forty-five students attained wings standard. When this scheme had been proposed, Group Captain J .S. Scott enquired about the RAF’s experience with NCO pilots. His liaison officer in London reported that “The scheme is working most satisfactorily.

Bush Pilots in Uniform

page 93

The standard of Airmen Pilots is just about the same in the Royal Air Force as that of the Short Service Commissioned Officer Pilot, but Airmen Pilots in relation to those officers appear to take things rather more conscientiously. Canadian experience was equally favourable.

In the early phases of pilot training, a great deal of time was spent on ground subjects: the theory of flight, basic areonautical engineering, air pilotage and map reading, aerial photography, meteorology, as well as military organization, administration, drill and physical training, and signalling. Flying began with the student seated in the back of an Avro 504K. The instructor, calling instructions through a speaking tube from the front seat, guided his pupil through a controlled programme over several days, introducing him to the aircraft’s flying controls, the basics of level flight, stalling, diving, gliding, take offs and landings, turning in the air, standard procedures for engine failure and forced landings. Finally the student flew alone. Instructions in side slips, cross wind landings, aerobatics, and low flying followed, all leading to wings standard. Once qualified, the new pilot went to Vancouver for a seaplane conversion course.

There he mastered the different controls on flying boats and floatplanes, practised landings on heavy seas and glassy calm surfaces, and was introduced to marine navigation, wireless, engine, float and hull maintenance, and the use of carrier pigeons. He was about to become, after all, a bush pilot; a difficult and lonely job where he was dependent upon only his training and self reliance.

From Camp Borden and Vancouver most new pilots went directly to one of the air force’s sub bases scattered throughout the northwest where they began forest patrolling, the staple of the man’s civil flying operations during the 1920s. As we have seen, the Air Board had been highly successful in demonstrating the productive contribution that aircraft could make to the forest industry. Conserving woodland resources with fire patrols was potentially of enormous economic importance. Forest production in 1920 totalled more than $300 million; forests covered almost one million square miles, about half in timber, the rest in pulpwood. Fires regularly destroyed huge sections of forest cover, the equivalent of one third the annual consumption of standing timber and an additional 1.3 million acres of young growth. Traditional means of forest protection had proved marginally effective at best. In some regions ground systems included lookout towers, telephone networks, fire lanes, guards, and prepositioned equipment and pumps. To an ever greater extent, however, the foresters of the early 1920s still relied on foot, horse, or canoe patrols. Some ranged two to three hundred miles, but unless fires were visible from the waterways or routes used, they were almost impossible to detect. The provincial forester of Manitoba estimated that up to 75 per cent of the forest fires in his area of responsibility remained unobserved or unreported. By contrast, regular air patrols could easily cover vast expanses. ‘Even the Ottawa Valley lumberman, than whom no more conservative animal exists, is convinced of the soundness of our ideas,’ J.A. Wilson wrote early in 1923. ‘Two years ago he did not admit that there was such a thing as an aircraft; one year ago he treated them as a joke; six months ago he was inclined to violently oppose the idea that they were any use and now he admits their presence in the scheme of things but, of course, still objects to their cost even though he sees every year millions of dollars of timber burned, a large proportion of which could be saved by adequate protection.

Costs varied from region to region. The Ontario Fire Service concluded that the $125 per flying hour it subsequently paid for detection, suppression, sketching, and survey was amply justified. The federal Department of Forestry projected the cost of protecting its 120 million acres of woodland in the northwest by aircraft at one cent per acre. It judged this reasonable. Foresters reluctantly accepted higher initial expenses because ‘an era of high costs is a necessary preliminary to organization on a permanent basis.’ The cost effectiveness of aircraft patrols had to be reckoned in the same light as ordinary fire insurance, the premium being measured against the potential economic return.

The aircrews’ work included detection, reconnaissance to assist ground firefighters, and the movement of ground parties and equipment. The emphasis given to each task varied by region. In British Columbia an extensive rural telephone network provided the basis for a ground detection system so that in normal circumstances aircraft only supplemented ground crews during peak fire seasons. Their greatest contribution was in transporting fire crews and equipment to remote locations. In Alberta, where few landing sites were available on the forested east slopes of the Rockies, air patrols concentrated on detection. Their introduction in 1920 had been well timed. The dominion forestry service had been about to make a major capital investment to construct an extensive network of ground lookout towers. The foresters were very quickly convinced that aerial surveillance would be more cost effective. Over the foothills, wireless equipped landplanes were able to communicate with their High River base, which in turn had a telephone link with the forest service. Once the location of a fire was plotted, the district forester could move his ground crews to the scene. Initially, patrols covered only the Waterton Lakes and Rocky Mountain Park areas, but they were gradually expanded to include the Bow River, Crow’s Nest, and Clearwater reserves. By the mid 1920s, there was also a sub base at Grand Prairie in the Peace River district.”

The British Columbia and Alberta patrols were important, but they were soon dwarfed in scope by those in the vast forests of the northern Canadian Shield. The Department of the Interior, the responsible department, concluded in 1923 that this area provided the best conditions for the use of aircraft, and ‘it is in these regions that their greatest value in fire protection can be secured. In April 1924 the Departments of National Defence and the Interior formed a joint committee to prepare a detailed plan for extending aerial fire protection to the 120 million acres of forests between the Ontario border and the valley of the Athabaska River in Alberta. They proposed a five year expansion programme, adding sub bases annually at locations ever further west. The project began in the 1924 flying season. Once the aircraft were in place each spring, the district forest rangers, after considering weather conditions and the fire hazard, would recommend patrols in specified areas. When a pilot spotted a fire he contacted local rangers, either by wireless or message drop. Supression aircraft might also be sent with crews and equipment. If the fire were spotted before it had time to get out of control, chances were that it would be contained.

Vickers Viking Amphibian and the Smith Brothers on YouTube


The Smith brothers recently won the coveted 10,000 prize for flying from England to Australia. But the Smith brothers were not content to rest on their laurels. They planned another and a bigger venture-a round-the-world flight. For this they were going to use a Vickers amphibian called the Viking. Their old colleague Bennett was to be the mechanic. On 13 April 1922 all three were to go up on a test flight. Ross and the mechanic arrived on time. But a fog rolled down. It held up Keith, then on his way to the aerodrome. Fearing if they delayed any longer the conditions would be too bad for the flight, Ross and Bennett took off. What happened aloft no one else will ever know. But as Keith arrived on the aerodrome, it was to see the Viking hurtling down to death and destruction. So, in harness, died one of Australia’s greatest sons and his trusted mechanic.

The Vickers Viking was a single-engined amphibious aircraft designed for military use shortly after World War I.

General characteristics
Crew: One: pilot
Capacity: 2 passengers
Length: 34 ft 0 in (10.36 m)
Wingspan: 50 ft 0 in (15.24 m)
Height: 15 ft 1 in (4.60 m)
Wing area: 594 ft² (55.2 m²)
Empty weight: 3,750 lb (1,701 kg)
Loaded weight: 5,600 lb (2,451 kg)
Powerplant: 1× Rolls-Royce Eagle piston engine, 360 hp (269 kW)
Maximum speed: 102 mph (164 km/h)
Cruise speed: 90 mph (144 km/h)
Range: 450 miles (724 km)
Service ceiling: 9,000 ft (2,743 m)
Rate of climb: 400 ft/min (121 m/min)
Wing loading: 9 lb/ft² (44 kg/m²)
Power/mass: 0.13 hp/lb (0.22 kW/kg)