British Commonwealth Air Training Plan: A Canadian Timeline (RCAF Journal - SPRING 2016 - Volume 5, Issue 2)

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By Major William March, CD, MA


Both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service sought recruits in Canada. There was no formal scheme, and those who obtained basic flight training did so through civil schools before proceeding to England.


The Royal Flying Corps (the Royal Air Force [RAF] after 1 April 1918) established a training organization in Canada. With primary fields at Borden, Deseronto and Armour Heights (all in Ontario), the Royal Flying Corps (Canada) was responsible for thousands of Canadians who served in British squadrons during the war.


Primary flight training was provided at Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Station Camp Borden until the late 1920s, when it was then assisted by 22 civilian schools that were subsidized in part by the government. Advanced training remained centred at Borden.


Flight training in Canada continued to be provided by a mixture of service and civilian agencies and was adequate to meet the needs of a small RCAF. A number of Canadians were recruited by the RAF during this period but were, for the most part, trained in England.


Canada agreed to a “Trained in Canada” scheme, whereby a small number of RAF candidates were selected and trained by the RCAF.

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  • January
    • The first batch of 15 commenced their training in January; 13 graduated in October 1938 and then proceeded overseas.
  • May
    • Led by industrialist J. G. Weir, a British air mission visited Canada to survey the country’s aircraft-manufacturing potential. Weir was instructed to broach the subject of RAF use of Canadian airspace and facilities for training purposes with the Canadian government. Prime Minister Mackenzie King supported the request but indicated that RAF control of any training scheme was unacceptable.
  • 5 July
    • The Canadian government submitted an offer to the British government, whereby British pilots were trained in Canada, albeit under Canadian control.
  • July–August
    • The British submitted a proposal drawn up by Group Captain J. M. Robb, Commandant of the RAF Central Flying School, and Wing Commander G. R. Howsam, RCAF Director of Training. The “Robb Plan” called for training up to 300 Canadian recruits for the RAF per year.
  • 6 September
    • King—unwilling to bend on what he saw as a Canadian sovereignty issue—rejected the proposal and reiterated that the offer was to train “British” pilots, as Canadian recruits were needed for a slowly expanding RCAF.
  • 31 December
    • In response to a slightly different training proposal received from the British on 9 December, King reiterated his position.

1939 (Pre-war)

  • January–February
    • While discussions continued with the British government, the RCAF modified its training regime. From a continuous 10-month course, pilot training consisted of three 16-week stages that encompassed primary, advanced and operational training. It was decided that primary flying training would be contracted out to eight civilian flying clubs located at Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.
  • April–May
    • RCAF Station Camp Borden operated a special course, focused on military training requirements, for civilian instructors from the various flying clubs. Twenty-seven of the 33 civil pilots who started the course graduated in October.

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  • 1 September
    • Germany attacked Poland.
    • The RCAF was placed on active service. RCAF strength was 298 officers and 2,750 airmen in the Permanent Force with an additional 112 officers and 901 airmen in the Auxiliary for a total of 4,061 all ranks.
  • 3 September
    • Great Britain and France declared war on Germany.
  • 4 September
    • Clayton Knight Committee. William A. “Billy” Bishop, appointed to the rank of air marshal in the RCAF, telephoned his American friend Clayton Knight in New York. Knight, a First World War fighter pilot and well-known aviation artist, was convinced by Bishop to assist in recruiting Americans who wished to join the RCAF. Creating a loosely organized committee, Knight arranged for thousands of young Americans to cross the border and enlist in the RCAF. Activities came to a gradual halt after the United States entered the war in December 1941.
  • 10 September
    • Canada declared war on Germany.
  • 14 September
    • An Order-in-Council created the RCAF Special Reserve and placed it on active service.
  • 18 September
    • An RCAF Manning Pool was formed at Toronto. Later renamed No. 1 Manning Depot, it was the first of four manning depots created to serve the RCAF.
  • 26 September
    • A formal proposal was received from the British government, seeking to create a Commonwealth air training plan, with Canada being the principal training location.
  • 28 September
    • After consulting Cabinet, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King accepted the British proposal in principle, pending further discussion.
  • 7 October
    • The United Kingdom Air Training Mission, led by Lord Riverdale, departed England for Canada.
  • 31 October
    • Riverdale met with the Canadian Cabinet and presented the British air-training proposal. Formal discussions commenced.
  • 1 November
    • No. 1 Service Flying Training School was stood-up at RCAF Station Camp Borden. Although the unit predates the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), as it was already in existence, it became the first BCATP school.
  • 17 December
    • The BCATP Agreement was signed by representatives of the governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The plans called for the creation of 74 units and schools, with training to begin 28 April 1940 (Z-Day). It was scheduled to last until 31 March 1943.
  • 31 December
    • RCAF strength: 8,287 all ranks.

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  • 1 January
    • Air Training Command (Toronto) was renamed No. 1 Training Command. To implement the BCATP, three additional training commands (TC) were established: No. 2 TC on 15 April (Winnipeg), No. 3 TC on 18 March (Montreal) and No. 4 TC on 29 April (Regina).
  • February
    • Air Commodore Robert Leckie, a Canadian who had served in the RAF since the First World War, was appointed Director of Training at RCAF Headquarters to oversee the BCATP. Leckie was appointed due to a lack of experienced RCAF staff officers. Leckie transferred to the RCAF and became Chief of the Air Staff in 1944.
  • April
    • The age limits for pilot trainees were set at 18 and 28. For other aircrew categories, they were 18 and 32.
  • 15 April
    • No. 1 Initial Training School, Eglington Hunt Club, Toronto, officially opened. The first of seven initial training schools, it received its first intake of 164 trainees on 29 April.
  • 28 April
    • Z-Day. The BCATP commenced officially.
  • 27 May
    • No. 1 Air Observer School, Malton, Ontario, opened officially; it was the first of 10 air observer schools that were established. They were operated by civilian organizations with RCAF supervision.
  • 7 June
    • A Canadian order-in-council stated that foreign nationals enlisting in the Canadian armed forces were not required to swear allegiance to His Majesty the King. This ruling was made so that American recruits—who by law would lose their citizenship if they swore allegiance to a foreign head of state—could continue to enlist in the RCAF.
  • 24 June
    • The first four Elementary Flying Training Schools were opened: No. 1 at Malton, Ontario; No. 2 at Fort William, Ontario; No. 3 at London, Ontario; and No. 4 at Windsor Mills, Quebec. In the end, 24 Canadian and 6 Royal Air Force Elementary Flying Training Schools were established. The Canadian schools were operated by civilian companies with RCAF oversight.
  • 22 July
    • The first intake of BCATP trainees arrived at No. 1 Service Flying Training School, RCAF Station Camp Borden.
  • 5 August
    • No. 2 Service Flying Training School, Uplands, Ontario, was officially opened. No. 2 Service Flying Training School was the first of 18 RCAF and 10 RAF schools that were purpose built.
  • September
    • Seeking additional pilot trainees, the upper age limit was raised to 31.
  • 30 September
    • The first BCATP-trained pilots graduated from No. 1 Service Flying Training School, RCAF Station Camp Borden, Ontario. Most of the graduates were posted to other schools as instructors. By the end of 1940, of the 203 new Canadian pilots, 165 of them were employed within the BCATP.
  • 24 November
    • The first draft of BCATP graduates arrived in England. The 12 officers and 25 sergeant observers had graduated from No. 1 Air Navigation School, Trenton, Ontario, on 24 October.

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  • January
    • Upper age limit for all aircrew categories except pilots was raised to 33.
  • 7 January
    • The Sinclair–Ralston Agreement between the British Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, and Canada’s Minister of National Defence, James Ralston, was signed. Supplementary to the 17 December 1939 BCATP Agreement, this document quantified the establishment of “Article XV” squadrons, allowing Canada to form 25 RCAF squadrons overseas in the next 18 months. These were in addition to the three currently deployed RCAF squadrons (Nos. 1, 110, 112).
  • 1 March
    • RCAF Squadrons overseas were renumbered. To avoid confusion with RAF Squadrons, RCAF units were re-numbered in the 400 series. No. 110 became 400 Squadron, No. 1 became 401 Squadron and No. 112 became 402 Squadron.
  • 1 March
    • No. 403 (Fighter) Squadron was formed at Baginton, England. The first “Article XV” squadron, 403 was joined by 17 more over the next 10 months.
  • 2 July
    • Created in part to meet additional personnel requirements at BCATP airfields, the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF) was formed.
  • October
    • The entry age limit for aircrew was reduced to 17½ for all categories. Pilot trainees were then accepted up to 33 years of age and up to 35 for all other trades, except air gunner which was raised to 39.
  • 10 November
    • Nineteen-year-old Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) Karl Mander Gravell, from Vancouver, British Columbia, was posthumously awarded a George Cross. During a training flight from No. 2 Wireless School, Calgary, Alberta, the DH-60 Moth containing pilot Flying Officer Johnston and LAC Gravell crashed. Despite being seriously injured, Gravell attempted to rescue the pilot from the burning wreckage. Badly burned, he was unsuccessful in his attempt and later succumbed to his injuries. Miss Frances Walsh, a teacher at a local school where the Moth crashed, was awarded a George Medal for her efforts in assisting and caring for LAC Gravell.
  • 7 December
    • Canada declared war on Japan.
  • 8 December
    • The United States declared war on Japan. As of this date, there were approximately 6,100 Americans serving in the RCAF, almost half of them were trainees.
  • 11 December
    • The United States declared war on Germany.

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  • 3 February
    • CWAAF was renamed the RCAF (Women’s Division). Popularly known as the “WDs,” they were considered a formal part of the RCAF, and although paid less than their male counterparts, all rules, regulations and terms of service were applicable.
  • 1 March
    • The Accident Investigation Board was formed. Concerned about the number of serious accidents at BCATP schools, the RCAF established an Accident Investigation Board to analyse accidents and recommend changes to promote flight safety.
  • 22 May – 5 June
    • The Ottawa Air Training Conference was held in Ottawa, Ontario. The end date for the BCATP was extended to 31 March 1945. As well, an additional 9 schools and 10 specialist schools (operational training units, school for instructors, etc.) were established. All 27 RAF schools already in Canada were placed under the administrative control of the RCAF’s Combined Training Organization. The extension of the BCATP Agreement was signed on 5 June.
  • 30 June
    • The original BCATP agreement came to an end. At this stage, a total of 23,802 aircrew had graduated, of which 80 per cent were Canadian.


  • 1 January
    • In a letter to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, drafted by Canadian diplomat Lester B. Pearson, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt noted the third anniversary of the BCATP, calling Canada “the Aerodrome of Democracy.”
  • 14 May
    • Twenty-one-year-old LAC Kenneth Gerald Spooner, from Smiths Falls, Ontario, was posthumously awarded a George Cross. Spooner and three other students attached to No. 4 Air Observer School, London, Ontario, were onboard an Anson aircraft when the pilot lost consciousness. Although untrained, Spooner took control of the aircraft and kept it aloft long enough for the other students to bail out. Soon thereafter, the aircraft crashed into Lake Erie.

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  • January
    • The BCATP reached its peak strength. There were 97 flying schools in operation—including 24 operated by the RAF—and 184 ancillary units. There were an estimated 11,000 aircraft operating from BCATP airfields throughout the country.
  • mid-January
    • By mid-January, the RCAF reached its peak wartime strength of 215,200 personnel, including 15,183 members of the Women’s Division. Of that number, 104,000 were committed to the BCATP.
  • 16 February
    • Balfour–Power Agreement. Harold Balfour, the British Undersecretary of State for Air, and Canada’s Minister of National Defence for Air, Charles Gaven “Chubby” Powers, signed an agreement implementing a 40 per cent reduction in the BCATP. The reduction was deemed necessary due to a large pool of personnel who were awaiting training and was to be achieved gradually over the next 12 months.
  • May–June
    • Recruiting of both air and ground crew for the RCAF was suspended.
  • October
    • By agreement with the United Kingdom, the closing down of BCATP schools was accelerated.
  • 30 November
    • Nos. 2 and 4 Training Commands were disbanded and replaced by No. 2 Air Command, Winnipeg, Manitoba (formally stood up on 1 December).
  • 31 December
    • The BCATP was reduced to 50 schools plus two additional facilities that had been transferred from the RAF.

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  • 15 January
    • Nos. 1 and 3 Training Commands were disbanded and replaced by No. 1 Air Command, Trenton, Ontario.
  • 31 March
    • The BCATP was officially terminated. Of the 159,340 trainees who had entered the BCATP, 131,533 graduated as trained aircrew. It had operated 360 schools and support units, on 231 sites and was manned by over 104,000 personnel.
  • September
    • Under the direction of H. G. Norman, the financial advisor for the BCATP, and F. C. Fayers, representing the United Kingdom, the total cost of the plan was determined to be $2,231,129,039.26. Canada’s share amounted to $1,617,995,108.79—approximately 72 per cent of the total. When all of the “bills were paid,” the United Kingdom still owed Canada $425,000,000.


  • 7 May
    • Canada’s parliament passed a bill that cancelled the United Kingdom’s outstanding BCATP debt. Canada’s share of the cost to operate the BCATP rose to approximately 92 per cent.


  • 30 September
    • The BCATP Memorial Gates were presented at RCAF Station Trenton, Ontario. The ceremony—attended by representatives from the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand—commemorated the successful organization and operation of the BCATP.

Major Bill March, a maritime air combat systems officer, has spent over 38 years in uniform. He is currently a member of the Air Reserve, serving as the RCAF Historian within the Directorate of RCAF History and Heritage.

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AW―air woman
AW2―air woman, second class
BCATP―British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
B&G―Bombing and Gunnery
C.P.R.―Canadian Pacific Railway
CWAAF―Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force
LAC―leading aircraftsman
p.t.―physical training
RAF―Royal Air Force
RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force
SFTS―Service Flying and Training School
TC―training commands

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