RCAF marks 100th anniversary of first military pilot training in Canada

News Article / March 29, 2017

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By Joanna Calder

In 2017, the Royal Canadian Air Force is marking the 100th anniversary of the first military pilot training in Canada.

The Royal Flying Corps Canada (RFCC) was established in late January 1917 to recruit and train Canadians for service in the RFC during the First World War. The first purpose-built and largest military aerodrome was constructed at Camp Borden, near Barrie, Ontario, in little more than two months. The first cadets arrived there for training on March 28, 1917, and the first flight took place on March 30, 1917.

Commemoration of the RFCC will centre on 16 Wing Borden, Ontario. Events will include a memorial service on April 7 at Dorchester, Ontario, for the first cadet killed during training at Camp Borden and the rededication of a memorial cairn and an open house at Borden on June 2-3. More information about these events will be forthcoming.

The RFCC provided the first military pilot training to take place in Canada. Previously, Canadians who wanted to join the RFC generally transferred from the Army or obtained a basic flying certificate from a private company and then travelled to Great Britain in hopes of being selected. In the same manner, Canadians who wanted to join the Royal Naval Air Service had to qualify as a pilot before enlisting.

Although the program was run by military staff from Great Britain, by the time the Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, it was Canadian in all but name. An estimated 70 per cent of the instructors and a large percentage of the non-flying staff were Canadians. As well, the training program employed the Canadian-built JN-4 aircraft, built by Canadian Aeroplanes Limited with an engine manufactured in the United States.

Furthermore, the training program influenced the establishment of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), arguably Canada’s most important contribution to the Second World War. However, this organization, unlike its First World War counterpart, would be developed administered and commanded entirely by Canadians.

 “The Royal Flying Corps Canada, established only eight years after Canada’s first controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight took place in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, had a powerful effect on ‘airmindedness’ in Canada. Air and ground crew came from across Canada as our nation undertook, for the first time in its history, a complex aviation project that included both manufacturing and training,” said Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“As we mark the 100th anniversary of the program, we honour the service and sacrifice of the Canadian pilots who took their skills to Europe and eventual victory, as well as the service of the men and women who worked as instructors, groundcrew and support staff during this ground-breaking program.”

The RFCC, which became the Royal Air Force Canada (RAFC) on April 1, 1918, when the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force, was established in southern Ontario due to the relatively mild climate. Three flying wings conducted intermediate and advanced training: Camp Borden (the largest training facility and the only location that still exists as a military establishment); Deseronto (with two airfields at Camp Mohawk and Camp Rathbun); and North Toronto (with two airfields at Leaside and Armour Heights). Other locations included Toronto (Recruit Depot and School of Aeronautics), Long Branch (Cadet Wing), Hamilton (Armament School), and Beamsville (School of Aerial Fighting).

By the end of the war, 9,200 cadets had been enlisted and 3,135 had graduated. Of these, about 2,500 had gone overseas and another 300 were ready to depart when fighting ended. As well, 187 observers were trained, of whom 85 had been sent to Europe. More than 7,400 were trained as “mechanics” (groundcrew) to support the student pilots. More than 1,000 women had been employed. In addition, thousands were employed in the manufacture of the JN-4 training aircraft in Toronto.

The RFCC was a trail blazer in the employment of women, hiring more than 1,000 civilian women who worked chiefly as mechanics and drivers.

In addition to training Canadians, the RFCC trained approximately 400 pilots and an estimated 1,600 groundcrew for the American forces. In exchange, the RFCC conducted winter training at Fort Worth in Texas. Of more than 22,000 Canadians who served in the RFC, RAF or RNAS during the First World War, more than two-thirds were graduates of the Canadian training program.

While two of the RFCC’s wings were training in Texas during the winter of 1917-1918, the third wing, left behind in Canada, experimented with winter flying and the use of skis on the aircraft. These pioneers proved, for the first time, that it was possible to conduct training in Canadian cold weather conditions.

“[The pilots’ and ground tradesmen’s] exposure to aviation and their knowledge of it permeated the public consciousness in the interwar years and helped foster a climate sympathetic to the role of the aeroplane in Canadian development and communications,” said S.F. Wise, historian and author of Canadian Airmen and the First World War: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume I.

“It is hardly too much to say that [the RFC Canada] was the single most powerful influence in bringing the air age to Canada.”

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