What I learned in church about aviation

News Article / February 28, 2019

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By John Chalmers

I never thought that I would learn anything about aviation at church, and be prompted to learn more with follow-up research, but that happened on Sunday, July 2, 2017. To help celebrate the Canada Day weekend, the service was based entirely on 17 hymns selected from 150 years of history. Some were all-time favourites and we sang selected verses of each hymn.

One of those hymns was “Crusaders of the Air,” written in 1925 by Kathryn Munro Tupper. At that time, aviation was advancing rapidly after the First World War. Her hymn was written for those who dared to fly. When I returned home from church I just had to learn more about Kathryn Tupper. By searching on the internet, I found the complete hymn.

Kathryn Munro Tupper (1885-1964) was born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and published under her maiden name, Munro. She was married to Rev. Joseph Freeman Tupper (1883-1937), an Anglican priest from Nova Scotia. He held the rank of Honorary Captain and served as Chaplain with the Royal Canadian Regiment overseas in the First World War. After the war, he was Chaplain for the Canadian Air Force, which could have been in the 1920-24 period with the air force before it became the Royal Canadian Air Force on April 1, 1924. I wondered if Joseph’s association with the military and aviation influenced Kathryn’s writing.

Less than a year after the Great War ended, in June 1919, British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown were the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. Departing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, they landed in Ireland. After the War, several attempts were made to fly across the Atlantic from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Some were successful, many failed. Some aviators were rescued after coming down in the sea and, in some cases, aircraft took off and disappeared.

In 1930, Kathryn Tupper published a 23-page chapbook of poetry through Ryerson Press with the title, “Under the Maple”. She likely knew that in both 1928 and 1929, aircraft and crew leaving Harbour Grace to attempt a trans-Atlantic flight had been lost at sea. As a hymn, her poem uses the same tune as the well-known “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” written by William Whiting in 1860. It has been published in Anglican hymn books, and in the hymnaries of the United Church of Canada since 1930. Whiting’s hymn prays “for those in peril on the sea,” and is the basis of Kathryn’s composition, which prays for aviators who fly across the sea.

In 1930, Erroll Boyd (1891-1960), who flew for Canada as a fighter pilot with the Royal Naval Air Service in the First World War, was the first Canadian to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, with Harry Connor, a navigator with U.S. Navy experience. Boyd was inducted as a Member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2017.

My main source of information about Erroll Boyd was his biography, “The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story”, by Ross Smyth (General Store Publishing House, 1997). “The Challenge of the Atlantic”, by Bill Parsons, tells of the many attempts to fly across the Atlantic from Harbour Grace (Robinson-Blackmore Book Publishers, 1983). That book states that, by 1927, “some twenty trans-oceanic flyers had been lost while seven other fatalities were recorded during overseas flight preparations.”

But Erroll Boyd and Harry Connor made the flight. Flying from Harbour Grace, they landed on the Isle of Tresco in the Scilly Isles. Fuel problems had forced them to land before reaching their destination at Land’s End, England. At the Harbour Grace airstrip where signs commemorate other aviators, there is no mention of Boyd’s flight, which departed on October 9, 1930. However, there is mention of Amelia Earhart. She flew solo across the Atlantic, leaving from Harbour Grace 19 months later, on May 20, 1932. There is a statue of Amelia at the town, but our Canadian pilot, Erroll Boyd, is not recognized there.

Another book discovered was “The Great Atlantic Air Race” by Percy Rowe (McClelland and Stewart, 1977). Rowe flew as a navigator with the Royal Air Force in the Second World War. He tells of the efforts to win the £10,000 prize offered in 1913 by publisher Lord Northcliffe for the first to complete the risky, non-stop flight across the Atlantic. The prize was won by John Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919, flying a large Vimy bomber biplane of the First World War. Early aviators flew with few instruments, lack of navigation equipment and sometimes no radio contact with land or ships. Rowe describes not only the failures and successes of aircraft in attempting to fly the Atlantic, but follows up with stories of aviation pioneers, men who supported aviation, those who flew, and how, in later years, some enjoyed long careers. Some rose to senior military ranks, some were forgotten and some were driven to madness and suicide.

A year after first looking for Kathryn’s book, “Under the Maple”, I wondered if she wrote any other poems about aviation. Thanks to the Internet, I located her book at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton.

I photographed the entire book, and found another poem related to aviation; “Requiem” is dedicated to the memory of William George Barker (1894-1930), who signed up with the Canadian Army in 1914 to serve in the First World War. After serving as a machine gun operator with the Canadian Mounted Rifles, in 1916, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and flew as a fighter pilot.

Barker is the most decorated serviceman in Canadian history. He received the highest award for valour, the Victoria Cross, was honoured twice with the Distinguished Service Order and three times received the Military Cross. Post-war, Barker continued his service with the air force and died in 1930 at the age of 35 in a crash while doing a demonstration flight. “Requiem” is the last poem in the book, written after Barker’s death, shortly before publication of Kathryn Munro’s chapbook. Barker became an original member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974.

What I learned in church about aviation was, for me, another example of how something can trigger a fascinating pursuit – an experience that I know is shared by many who wander down the intriguing paths of history.

John Chalmers is historian for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame and membership secretary for the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.


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