Despite some prewar urging from aviation pioneers J.A.D. MCCURDY and F.W. BALDWIN, Canada had no air service when it went to war; nevertheless, about 22 000 Canadians flew with British squadrons overseas in WWI. At home Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd (Toronto) produced 1200 training aircraft for Britain and 30 Felixstowe flying boats for the US. No other combat aircraft were built in Canada until 1938. In 1919 Britain gave Canada about 100 aircraft - an assortment of trainers, fighters, bombers and flying boats. Another 12 flying boats were received from the US. These were the first planes flown by the Canadian Air Force, an interim force (1920-23) preceding the Royal Canadian Air Force (1924).
Early History of the RCAF
In creating the RCAF, the government adopted the view that military aviation could be justified only if it served peaceful purposes. Consequently, most early flying by the RCAF consisted of such activities as topographical surveys, forest and fishery patrols, and antismuggling operations. The bulk of the RCAF's non-military duties were transferred to civilian departments by 1936, but the government, having belatedly initiated rearmament, found that the only military aircraft available were obsolete planes about to be discarded by the British. Out of necessity some of these were purchased, and others were manufactured in Canada even though they were outdated. The RCAF possessed 275 aircraft on the eve of war, but apart from 19 Hawker Hurricanes obtained from the UK in 1939, Canada's operational aircraft consisted of outmoded types.
The Canadian AVIATION industry burgeoned during WWII, producing over 16 000 military aircraft - two-thirds of which were trainers, such as the Avro Anson and North American Harvard, for the BRITISH COMMONWEALTH AIR TRAINING PLAN (BCATP). The others were operational types, also of British or American design, including Bristol Bolingbrokes, Consolidated Cansos, de Havilland Mosquitos and Avro Lancasters. The requirements of the BCATP, the Home War Establishment and the RCAF Overseas prompted a massive expansion of the air force. In all, 250 000 men and women served in the RCAF, with 94 000 going overseas. Most of the RCAF aircrew overseas served in Royal Air Force squadrons, but 48 separate RCAF squadrons flew in the Northwest Europe, Mediterranean and Southeast Asia theatres of war and also played major roles in the DIEPPE RAID, the Battle of the ATLANTIC and the combined bomber offensive over Germany. The Home War Establishment peaked at 39 squadrons in 1943. During the war, the RCAF became the third-largest air force of the Western Allies.
Military Aviation from 1949 to the 1980s
Since 1949 Canadian military aviation has had several distinct roles: to deter aggression, to protect Canadian sovereignty, to support UN PEACEKEEPING and related operations, to assist in search and rescue missions, and to support the disaster relief, fisheries protection and law enforcement activities of other government departments. In 1948, compelled by East-West tension to upgrade its air defences at home, Canada equipped 6 squadrons with its first operational jet fighter, the British-made Vampire. For the defence of Europe the RCAF contributed 12 squadrons of F-86 Sabres, the only Allied aircraft equal to the Soviet MiG-15. Manufactured under licence by CANADAIR LTD of Montréal, the Sabre was ultimately powered by the Canadian-designed and manufactured Orenda engine.
The AVRO CF-100 CANUCK, a long-range, all-weather plane equipped with 2 Orenda engines, was the first military aircraft wholly designed and built in Canada. It made its appearance in 1953, replacing the Vampire in Canada and 4 of the Sabre squadrons in Europe. The RCAF also acquired Neptune and Argus maritime patrol aircraft, North Star, Comet and C-119 transport aircraft, Silver Star trainers and H-21 search and rescue helicopters. The small air components of the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Army acquired, respectively, the Tracker maritime patrol aircraft, S-55 helicopter and Banshee fighter, and the L-19 artillery spotter.
In the 1950s Canadian and American air defence organizations completed a continental radar network and were integrated under the NORAD Agreement. Previously, the Canadians and Americans had foreseen the requirement for an aircraft of advanced design that could effectively exploit the advantages of this network. The RCAF was depending on the AVRO ARROW, but political, financial and other considerations led to the abandonment of the Arrow in 1959. The cancellation was considered a disaster for the military aviation industry in Canada and practically ensured that future aircraft would have to be purchased abroad.
The DIEFENBAKER government selected the CF-101 Voodoo to replace the NORAD-assigned CF-100s, and the CF-104 Starfighter - licence-built by Canadair - to re-equip RCAF fighter squadrons in Europe. Both the CF-101 and CF-104 served until the 1980s, but the CF-104 was bedevilled by public and media perceptions of an unduly high crash rate. Other types acquired during the early 1960s, such as the Hercules transport, the Labrador search and rescue helicopter, the Tutor basic trainer, and the navy's Sea King helicopter, quickly became the workhorses of Canadian military aviation.
The PEARSON government followed up with the CF-5 - an American-designed, Canadair-built ground attack fighter - and unveiled plans for a major expansion of the transport and helicopter fleets. Pearson's government also made the controversial decision to unify the RCAF, the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Navy. The result was considerable organizational upheaval as the squadrons and flying training schools of the RCAF, and the air components of the army and navy, were redistributed amongst the functional commands of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Military aviation waxed and waned during the TRUDEAU era. Encouraged by détente between East and West, the government adopted a less NATO-oriented defence posture, disbanded or downsized many squadrons, mothballed most of the newly built CF-5s and scrapped the country's only aircraft carrier. Acquisitions included the Boeing 707 tanker-transport and the Chinook transport helicopter, but many programmes were abandoned or scaled back, as in the case of the Twin Huey transport helicopter and the Kiowa light observation helicopter. By 1975, entreaties from Canada's allies and heightened East-West tension had led to a reappraisal of defence policy and a multi-year effort to re-equip the armed forces. For the newly created Air Command - effectively the air force within a partially de-unified military establishment - modernization centred on 138 CF-18 Hornet tactical fighter aircraft and 18 CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft.
The MULRONEY government argued that its predecessor had failed to bridge a serious gap between Canada's declared defence commitments and actual military capabilities. Its 1987 white paper focused on the army and navy, but the air force was to receive additional fighter, transport and long-range patrol aircraft, upgraded medium-range patrol aircraft, and new search and rescue, transport, maritime and light observation helicopters. Most of the scheme fell victim to spending cuts in the April 1989 budget and, months later, to the end of the Cold War. The latter precipitated major reductions in air force strength, and the elimination - after four decades - of the Canadian fighter presence in Europe. The government ordered 100 Griffon transport helicopters and a small number of transport and maritime surveillance aircraft, but a controversial order for 50 Anglo-Italian EH-101 helicopters - 15 for search and rescue and 35 to support the navy - was reduced by the short-lived Campbell government, and cancelled by Prime Minister CHRÉTIEN in 1993.
The Chrétien government announced further reductions in the operational CF-18 fleet and the disposal of the recently modernized CF-5 fighter-trainers in the 1994 white paper, but declared its support for a multi-purpose, combat-capable defence establishment and rejected a constabulary force confined to non-military and quasi-military roles. It also pledged to replace the aging Labrador and Sea King helicopters as soon as possible. An order for 15 Cormorant search and rescue helicopters - a more austere version of the EH-101 - was placed in 1998. The lack of funding, and delays in replacing the Sea King and modernizing the CF-18 and the Aurora, continued to raise questions about the air force's operational effectiveness. The current emphasis continues to be on refurbishing and maintaining, rather than replacing, aging aircraft and equipment that is often older than the people operating it.
Author FRED HATCH and MARTIN SHADWICK
W.A.B. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force (Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, II, 1986); Brereton Greenhous, Stephen Harris, William Johnston and William Rawling, The Crucible of War, 1939-1945 (Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, III, 1994); Larry Milberry, Canada's Air Force Today (1987); Larry Milberry, AIRCOM: Canada's Air Force (1991); S.F. Wise, Canadian Airmen and the First World War (Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, I, 1980).
Links to Other Sites
Canadian War Museum
The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa is dedicated to the men and women who served with valour and distinction in Canada’s armed services. Their website features a virtual tour of the museum and multimedia online exhibits that depict how Canada met and overcame wartime challenges throughout its history.
Canadian Air Aces and Heroes
Features extensive biographies of Billy Bishop and other Canadian military heroes. Great illustrations and details of vintage aircraft.
Snowbirds Demonstration Team
The website for the Snowbirds Demonstration Team (431 Squadron), a Canadian icon comprised of serving members of the Canadian Forces. From the Department of National Defence.
Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum
This museum displays aircraft used by Canadians or Canada's military from the beginning of the Second World War to the present. Their site provides illustrations and specs for various aircraft in their collection.
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
Read a fascinating account about this Second World War training program for air force recruits from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. From the Juno Beach Centre website.
THE MEMORY PROJECT
The website for The Memory Project, a major initiative dedicated to recording and preserving Canadian veterans' first-hand accounts of their military service during the Second World War and Korean War. Click on "The Memory Project Link" to access this remarkable online collection to hear interviews with individual veterans from all branches of the Canadian Armed Forces. See also related digitized artefacts and memorabilia. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
View a Heritage Minute about Marion Orr, who became Canada's first woman helicopter pilot. From the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Canada Aviation Museum
Aviation enthusiasts will enjoy this extensive online image collection of military and civilian aircraft.
High Flyers - Canadian Women in Aviation
A website dedicated to Canadian women aviators. This database features personal photos, memorabilia, biographies, and other archival documents. From Library and Archives Canada.
Explore an extensive photo collection of Canadian civilian and military aircraft. Part of the CN Images of Canada Gallery at the Canada Science and Technology Museum website.
Shearwater Aviation Museum
The Shearwater Aviation Museum website features an illustrated database of Canadian military aircraft and naval vessels.
Vintage Wings of Canada
A great website dedicated to the history of aviation in Canada. Features profiles of prominent pilots, aircraft photos, and more. Check out the exciting video of the first flight of the Hawk One sabre jet, the Vintage Wings of Canada flying tribute to the Centennial of Flight.
The Archives of Ontario Remembers the Home Front
In honour of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the Archives of Ontario presents this stirring retrospective of Ontario’s extraordinary Home Front contribution to the war effort. Check out the personal stories, photographs, posters, video clips and other multimedia.
This website is devoted to the history of Canadian military aviation. Features extensive online photo galleries and details about aircraft flown by the Canadian Forces.
Testaments of Honour Historical Archives
Stunning photographs complement this digital video archive of personal recollections from Canadian veterans who fought in the Second World War. This Blake Heathcote project has been supported by the Canadian Studies Program, Canadian Heritage, and many other organizations. Note: some videos on this site may be inactive.
Avro CF-100 Canuck
A colourful story about the first test flight of the CF-100 Canuck jet fighter, piloted by Bill Waterton. A Department of National Defence website.
Canada’s military is getting a new name — again
A news story about the federal government's decision to change the name of the Canadian military to it's former moniker "Canadian Armed Forces." From the National Post.
Botwood: History of an Airport
This site explores Botwood's important role in Canadian aviation history. Features an extensive online archive of photos, stories, and more. A Virtual Museum website.
Allies in Complicity
An article about the Clayton Knight Committee and the quietly recruitment of Americans for the Royal Canadian Air Force during the early years of the Second World War. From the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association.
Canadian Aviation Historical Society
A website dedicated to Canadian aviation history. See the links to the CAHS Journal, newsletter, and more.
Manitoba Military Aviation Museum
Check out the virtual tour of the Manitoba Military Aviation Museum.
Vintage Wings of Canada
Explore this extensively illustrated site that highlights the heroes, heritage, and history of Canadian aviation.
Canadian Air and Space Museum handed eviction notice
A CTV News story about the closing of the Canadian Air and Space Museum in Toronto.
Canadian Aviation Expo
Soar into the one of Canada's biggest aviation events. Check out featured planes, demonstrations, and opportunities to fly on vintage military aircraft.
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