Regina Flying Club -- the early days

The article is based on a 1997 talk given to the Regina chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society by the late Ray Crone, a note Saskatchewan aviation historian.


If a picture speaks a thousand words, then this photo is a small book -- and a sad one at that.

A wrecked aeroplane, the grim faces of burly men, some in uniform, shuffling around it.

  Its date is Sept. 20, 1935 -- or one day or two thereafter.

  The subject: the crash on Regina's western outskirts that killed pioneering local aviator Roland Groome and a student, ending an early phase of aviation in this province.

  Groome had helped launch aviation in Saskatchewan, and helped to launch the Regina Flying Club, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary -- a ripe old age in a world where air organizations seem to come and go.

  Just before the February meeting of the CAHS's Roland Groome Chapter, member Ray Crone (who found this dramatic photograph and many others) shared with club manager Tom Ray the fruits of his research -- and found the latter impressed by the scope of the young flying club's early activities and its gritty will to survive. "It's quite stunning that this club has managed to hang together," said Ray. "And Tom tells me that, in the last few years, they've even managed to make a couple of bucks!"

___

  Before and during the First World War, daredevil aviators occasionally went aloft from the grassy infield in the racetrack at Regina Exhibition Park. Postwar, pioneering local airman Roland Groome, a former Royal Flying Corps Canada instructor, set up a firm called the Aerial Service Co. in 1919 on the corner of Cameron Street and Hill Avenue, a few hundred feet west of what's now Albert Street. This company (formed by Groome, and RFC buddies Jack Wight and Robert McCombie, a mechanic) later failed, but it was notable for owning the first registered aircraft in Canada, Curtiss JN-4 (Can) Canuck G-CAAA.

  In addition, Groome became Canada's first licensed commercial pilot, mechanic Robert McCombie was the first licensed air engineer and their crude airport was the first licensed "air harbor" in the Dominion.

   To put this into perspective, Groome undeniably was one of the very first aviators in Canada, but by no means the only one. For historical purposes, he had the good luck to be in Regina when trainborne federal air regulators made their first foray out of Ottawa in the spring of 1920.

  Alas, flying waned as the economy slid downward during the mid-1920s. In Saskatchewan, 1926 saw not a single flight made -- save for a tragic one that saw a pilot fall to his death from his Curtiss JN-4 (Can) near Shaunavon on June 30.

  This flying drought mirrored the situation across Canada. So few pilots were being trained that aviators were "imported" from Britain for the RCAF, the Ontario Provincial Air Service and commercial operators.

  Mindful of the aeroplane's military potential, the federal government realized this could become "a serious problem".

  Locally, another commercial air enterprise overseen by Groome, the grandly named Universal Air Industries, set up roughly on the site of what is now the Golden Mile shopping centre in May or June 1927; this was called the "Lakeview Aerodrome". It was on June 7 of that year -- mere months after Charles Lindbergh's epochal flight across the Atlantic, that a Morning Leader article noted there were efforts under way to create a local flying club. As Ray put it, "Groome and Wight got yakkin' about it. They wanted something to happen, so they formed their own company and bought the JN-4 (G-CAAL) from Moose Jaw that had belonged to the Western Aeroplane Company there. It had been sitting in a defunct flax mill in Moose Jaw. They brought it to Regina and re-built it, re-covered it; then brought a Swallow up from Wichita in 1927 and began trying to make a buck or two out of barnstorming or anything they could, carrying passengers and hoping something would happen. They even wrote letters to Ottawa and eventually formed a flying club."

The federal government soon announced a policy under which it would give two training aircraft to each club of this type, subject to certain conditions. A series of crated deHavilland Moths were sent to the RCAF station at High River, Alberta, for assembly and test flying. Flying club members from Saskatoon and then Moose Jaw were dispatched to pick up their aircraft; those aircraft destined for Regina were shipped, disassembled, in a boxcar, then trucked to Universal Air Industries' Lakeview field for assembly.

  As a very small boy in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, Ray cycled out to see these aircraft, scarcely recognizing their historical importance.

 Regina's aircraft, for the record, were DH-60X Moths G-CAKP and G-CAKT, operating briefly from the Universal Air Industries hangar. It also operated a Stinson SM-2AA in which Canada's first airborne wedding was held over the Queen City on May 24, 1929.

That third local aerodrome lasted only about a year before being replaced by the current airport at the west end of Regina Avenue.

   One of Saskatoon's most prominent members was pilot Richmond Mayson, who with Angus Campbell created M&C Aviation in Saskatoon and later Prince Albert. After a decade of northern bush flying, this firm operated a training base and overhaul facility at Prince Albert during the Second World War. (Postwar, the firm was sold to the provincial government to become Saskatchewan Government Airways during the 1947; SGA became Norcanair in 1965, then part of Time Air in 1987.)

  ---

Considering how hard the 1930s were, an amazing array of flying machines came past the flying club's quarters at the Regina Municipal Airport.

  It began with the official opening of the new airport on September 15, 1930, timed to coincide with the arrival of the aircraft of the Ford Reliability Air Tour, an endurance test of aircraft flying a huge circuit around North America and gaining contest points, from a starting point at Detroit. This odd cavalcade (which included a Sikorsky S-38 flying boat, a early Cessna monoplane and several sleek Lockheed Vega high-wing monoplanes) arrived from Brandon in one of the "black blizzards" typical of the 1930s. Parked on the ground, the aircraft stretched for a half-mile.

  Barely a year later, the airport played host to the first Trans-Canada Air Pageant, perhaps best  described as a traveling airshow, complete with five RCAF Siskin fighters supported by an air force Ford Trimotor loaded with spares and maintenance gear -- the "Herc" of its day -- plus a civilian Saro Cloud mini flying boat and a DH Puss Moth. As the air pageant's participants  rested at Regina, there appeared an autogiro CF-ARO, which had flown nonstop from Minneapolis via Winnipeg that day. An odd sidelight is that a special trophy for flying club proficiency was awarded that year. The competition was never held again, so the modest trophy still sits in a club display case. "It was never given to another club," said Ray.

  Historical information survives to give a surprisingly detailed picture of the young club's personality. Of one airplane, Roland Groome, the chief flying instructor and manager, said, "I would rather fly than fix it; Jack Wight would rather fix it than fly!" Art Brazier, the club's air engineer, bought a kit plane called a Heath Parasol, not only assembling it, but also getting it to fly with a converted motorboat engine. And finally, Groome began sending out Christmas cards with increasingly elaborate photographic montages of the club's activities.

  On the operational side, new aircraft were added, including an Avro Avian with newfangled control rods instead of the more usual control cables.

  Moose Jaw's own airport, located on the site of what's now the federal Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) compound on the city's west side, was the site of a gala flying meet on July 5, 1930. This saw everything from balloon-bursting to aerobatics, with around 16 aircraft appearing -- a remarkably large number for such a young industry.

  1930 also saw Nellie Carson of Saskatoon set a record to altitude gained by a woman: in the neighborhood of 16,000 feet -- at which height she "damned near froze to death it was so cold," Ray says.

  On July 25, 1933 (and coincident with the much-ballyhooed World Grain Show in Regina), there arrived in Regina the sleek low-wing Northrop Gamma flown by Frank Hawks, who had flown nonstop from New York -- then returned several days later in one hop to see his friends, British aviators Jim and Amy Mollison, who had been injured in their attempt to cross the Atlantic.

  One year later, in mid-July 1934, there flew into the Regina airport (by that point the only one between Vancouver and Toronto with paved runways) no fewer than ten Martin B-10 bombers on their way from the eastern U.S. to Alaska to "show the flag".

  One more year later, tragedy struck. In the Avro Avian CF-CDX with unusual control "tubes" rather than cables, Roland Groome and student Arnold Sym were killed in a crash. A subsequent investigation showed that one of the aileron control rods had become detached -- the tragic accident described at the beginning of this article.

  An era had ended.

---

The 1934 display by those Martin B-10s was a harbinger of troubled times to come. Around the world, rearmament was slowly taking place. In Regina, that took the form of the establishment of an RCAF auxiliary, or reserve unit, called No. 120 (Bomber) Squadron, with Tiger Moth and Gypsy Moth aircraft.

  When war broke out in 1939, it was mobilized, half its personnel going to the west coast, where the unit eventually flew Hudsons, Stranraers and Cansos. The other half went east for other duties with many different units. (A more complete description of this unit's pre-war activities appeared in the February 1990 edition of The Windsock.)

  In Regina, the local flying club received a contract to operate two flying training schools that officially opened in February 1940: 15 EFTS, which used Tiger Moths and later Cornells, plus 3 Air Observer School, which flew Ansons. Postwar, a grateful Department of National Defence gave the club six Tiger Moths, a Stinson 105 plus a Cessna Crane.

   Another military training aircraft used by the club was the DHC Chipmunk, one example of which (CF-CXS) was briefly loaned by the RCAF to the club in the late 1940s.

  Over the next 50 years, the club has used aircraft ranging from Cessna 120s, Taylorcraft and various Piper products. And this summer will see the club training a batch of air cadets to do what it's been doing for 70 years: to fly. "It's great to see them learning to fly," said Ray, adding: "Who knows where it will lead?"

   -- written by Will Chabun

 

Comments