BCATP aircraft: the Northrop Nomad

News Article / March 31, 2016

By Major Bill March

When the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) took off in the spring and summer of 1940, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was short of everything.

One of its most immediate requirements was for aircraft. It had been anticipated that a suitable inventory of aircraft would gradually be built up from machines provided by the Royal Air Force (RAF), acquired from the United States, or built in Canada. With the German defeat of France in June 1940, however, and the very real possibility of an invasion of England, any consideration of a measured buildup of training aircraft went out the window as pressure grew to provide an ever-increasing number of aircrew. To meet the demand, aircraft, whether ideally suited for training or not, were acquired from whatever source possible.

One such aircraft was the Northrop Nomad.

In the early 1930s, the Northrop Aviation Corporation developed a single-engine, all-metal monoplane intended for use as a light transport. The ruggedness and speed of the Gamma drew interest from the United State Army Air Corps and, with its encouragement, Northrop modified the aircraft to serve as a two-seat, light-attack bomber. Eventually, it would enter U.S. service in August 1935 as the A-17, powered by a 750 horsepower R-1535-11 Wasp Junior engine. The original order of 110 aircraft was followed by an additional purchase of 129 aircraft in December, albeit with two significant differences: an improved engine and a retractable undercarriage. These new, improved aircraft were designated the A-17A.

By the late 1930s, the Army Air Corps had decided that its light attack aircraft would have two engines; this decision rendered the A-17 obsolete as a combat machine. The change in doctrine was fortuitous for the RAF, which purchased 93 surplus A-17As in June 1940. Re-christened the Nomad, 32 of them were transferred to the RCAF, with the first one arriving the Malton, Ontario, airport, just northwest of Toronto, in August 1940.

To meet U.S. neutrality laws, the aircraft were flown by civilian pilots and reduced to a bare aluminum finish with all traces of military marking removed. To qualify as non-combat aircraft, U.S. civilian markings were applied to each aircraft. However, this was done with wash-off black paint making it very easy for an RCAF roundel and markings to be applied.

The Nomad was one of those “orphan” aircraft that the RCAF, in its initial quest for anything that flew, never really found a purpose for. In their first year of Canadian service, most of the Nomads were used at RCAF Station Camp Borden, about 80 kilometres north of Toronto, to check out civilian and military instructors before employing them at Borden’s No. 1 Flying Training School or other BCATP schools. At times, the Nomads were also used for other purposes such as searching for aircraft that had gone missing.

One such mission was launched on December 13, 1940, to locate student pilot Leading Aircraftman Clayton Peder Hopton, 27, from Cabri, Saskatchewan, who had failed to return from a training flight the previous day. During the search, two Nomads collided over Lake Muskoka, about 95 kilometres north northeast of Camp Borden, as the crow flies.

The crew of one of the search planes, Nomad 3512, RAF pilot Sergeant Lionel Francis, 22, from Pontyclun, Wales, and Leading Aircraftman William James Philip Gosling, 22, from Edmonton, Alberta, were killed. Their bodies were recovered shortly after the accident. However, the bodies of the crew of Nomad 3521, RAF Flight Lieutenant Peter Campbell, 24, and Leading Aircraftman Theodore Scribner Bates, 27, from Guelph, Ontario, were not recovered until October 2012. Flight Lieutenant Campbell and Leading Aircraftman Bates were subsequently buried at Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Guelph with full military honours.

By 1941, the remaining Nomads, several of which had also been involved in serious accidents, were withdrawn from service as trainers. They were reconfigured and re-painted for use as target-tug aircraft, towing aerial targets at various BCATP bombing and gunnery schools. By March 7, 1945, the surviving Nomads were struck-of-strength by the RCAF and disposed of as scrap.

Historian John A. Griffin provided a fitting epitaph for the Nomad when he wrote: “They were not a particularly outstanding aircraft but they did provide reliable service, in many cases logging as much as 3,000 hours of flying time in their four and a half years of service.”*

*John A. Griffin, “Northrop Nomad”, The Canadian Aviation Historical Society Journal, Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 1967, 17.

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