CAHS 2009 National Convention-2 RFC Training in Canada 1917-18

       It starts with booze.

The story behind Bill Hunt’s new book on the Royal Flying Corps’ astonishing training establishment in southern Ontario during the First World War originated from this long-time history buff’s interest in rum-running between Canada and the prohibition-era U.S.

That research put him in touch with a number of Canadians with parallel historical interests, including wartime RCAF airman Al Smith of Trenton, who’d been interviewing local folk about the First World War training station at nearby Deseronto, and prevailed on Hunt to write this story.

Hunt took a look at the material and soon became fascinated by the subject of RFC/RAF training in Canada, expanding his research to the other stations used in this work: Beamsville, Leaside, Camp Borden, Rathbun, North Toronto and Mohawk. In the course of about 30 years’ part-time research, he and his brother read around 3,000 old newspapers and reviewed many other documents and articles. The long-time high school history teacher even found some of the old airfields. The result was his book Dancing In The Sky: The Royal Flying Corps in Canada (Dundurn Press, 2009).

Hunt said an interesting point at which to start is with a historical question: why did Canada, unlike other self-governing dominions, like New Zealand and Australia, did not have its own independent air force during the First World War — despite having had a tiny, ramshackle “Canadian Air Corps” led by the quixotic Capt. Ernest Janney in 1914-15?

Hunt said the answer lies in the emphasis the Canadian government of the day put in creating a Canadian Expeditionary Corps of a half-million men for the land war in Western Europe.

Meanwhile, heavy casualties among aviators in 1916 caused the British government to approach Canada for the training of additional Canadian airmen. The British officer sent to Canada in early 1917 to handle this project was an inspired choice: Lt. Col. R.G. Hoare was personable, yet determined, intelligent and persuasive. He also had certain contempt for bureaucracies; his attitude seemed to be that “the best thing to do with bureaucracies was to ignore them; they don’t care what gets done if nobody takes responsibility.”

Within weeks of the arrival of Hoare and his small party, contracts were being let for the construction of aircraft, airfields and camps. Senior Canadian military officers, noting how enlistments into the CEF’s units had slowed as the war dragged on, were pessimistic about the ability of Hoare to attract recruits and the tradesmen needed to operate the aircraft and the camps. But the “romance” then attached to aviation drew in substantial numbers of men — and women, too, for substantial numbers of women worked as nurses, clerks, drivers and mechanical workers. At Mohawk, for example, no fewer than 600 women were employed, earning the same wages as men doing the same work.

Hunt noted that a substantial number of Americans came north to enlist, especially in the period before their own country entered the war and its aviation war effort became organized. Hoare was able to follow this up by going Washington in 1917 and striking a deal under which RFC cadets would be transported to camps in Texas to train in winter, when flying in Canada would have been disrupted by cold weather and storms. (Imagine the cadets’ surprise when their arrival in Texas was greeted by a snowstorm!) So persuasive was Hoare that he not only got the Americans to accept this novel approach, but to pay much of the cost. “They were happy to do it because they were able to take all the plans and develop their own air fore,” Hunt said.

That was not the only legacy of Hoare’s work. The University of Toronto was highly supportive of Hoare’s work and set up a school of aviation to train cadets in the theory of flight. The need for training aircraft led to the manufacture in Toronto of 2,800 examples of the JN-4(Can) Canuck, a slightly modified adaptation of the American-designed Curtiss JN-4 Jenny. There was a less-successful attempt to manufacture a large military flying boat for the U.S. Navy near the end of the war, but an important technical hurdle had been cleared: this led to the construction of other aircraft types in Canada during the 1920s, and also created a large pool of surplus Canucks that were sold to Canadian entrepreneurs for fledgling aviation companies in 1919 and 1920.

It is a measure of the danger of First World War flying that of the 15 members of one class from mid-1917 that Hunt traced, the end of that year found that five members had been killed, three seriously wounded, three were missing in action and only two were still flying.

Leaving aside the dangers of air war against a tough and clever enemy, Hunt said that an obvious problem was inadequacies in the flying training syllabus used in Canada. The RFC was of the attitude that a pilot could solo after only six hours of instruction; the American armed services came to believe that 10 hours flying was more reasonable. That led to heavy casualties typified by a report in an Orillia newspaper that found one day’s flying at nearby Camp Borden brought no fewer than seven crashes, with one man killed and five in hospital. A well-known photograph of an instructor stretched out over the upper fuselage of his Canuck in mid-air emphasized how casual the rules were. And the OX-5 engine used in the Canuck was generally reliable (if it went through drive shafts and bearings quickly), it had an unfortunate habit of “coughing “ a few times when pilots applied power during landings.

Hunt’s research even turned up some intriguing anecdotes, like the officer who was stunting over his family’s farm, lost control and crash-landed and escaped by claiming that his engine had failed. There were also the two airmen, rivals for the affections of a young woman, who crashed their aircraft head-on within view of her rural home. And there was Vernon Castle, who, with his wife, were ballroom dancing stars – though he apparently had plans to divorce her and marry a Belleville woman whom he’d met while training at Deseronto. Alas, he was killed in a plane crash in Texas in early 1918.

Though training casualties came down with experience, there still is an annual memorial service at Deseronto to salute eight cadets killed in training and buried there — a tangible tribute all of those cadets and their instructors.

“We have a really vibrant aviation history,” said Hunt. “I wasn’t really an aviation history buff until about a few years ago. I’d say we’ve got more aviation history than just about any other nation of comparable size.’’