On December 17, 1939, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia signed an agreement creating the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). The Plan's mandate was to train, in Canada, all the members of an aircrew: pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators, air gunners, and flight engineers. Prime Minister Mackenzie King was particularly proud of his accomplishment, believing he had secured a critical role for Canada in fighting World War II that did not require supplying a large land army. The first recruits were accepted on April 29, 1940, and the Plan remained in effect, with few alterations, until March 31, 1945.

The Plan divided the country into four training commands. Part of Saskatchewan fell with Manitoba into Command No. 2, centered in Winnipeg. The rest of Saskatchewan along with all of Alberta and British Columbia was run by No. 4 whose Regina headquarters were transferred to Calgary in September 1941. Alberta and Saskatchewan played a critical role in the Plan. Particularly in the southern parts of those provinces, wide open skies, generally clear weather, and large tracts of unoccupied or sparsely occupied land provided the perfect conditions for air bases that needed numerous runways and lots of flying room for novice pilots.

BCATP
Pilot trainees with Curtiss P-36 aircraft at the Little Norway training centre, Toronto Island, Apr 1941 / Toronto, Ont. (National Film Board of Canada / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-136047).

With the announcement of the Plan, cities and towns began lobbying the federal government to be one of the locations. A base would mean a lot to the Depression-depleted western landscape. The promise of construction jobs, followed by continuous waves of trainees, a permanent staff with wages to spend in town, and jobs for civilians, was irresistible. Those hopes proved true. The headline in the Lethbridge Herald on October 24, 1941 was typical of many, as it declared of its small-town neighbour, "Vulcan Booming as Air Station Development Brings Big Payroll." Things were busier than during the biggest wheat boom the article declared, and the BCATP school was responsible.

Official opening days for the bases usually took place after the station had been running for some time. The celebrations were community events. Curious local residents toured the new buildings and got close-up views of the Tiger Moths, Avro Ansons, Fairey Battles and Bristol Bolingbrokes they had seen flying overhead. Opening day in High River, Alberta, was probably fairly typical. It featured speeches, tours, formation flying, and fancy flying with aerial loops, spins, and wing-overs. A dance and a midnight supper finished the celebration.

The BCATP brought air trainees from all over the world to 27 communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Regina greeted its first trainloads of recruits with a marching band, an afternoon of sports, and a roast beef dinner. Throughout the life of the Plan, communities organized recreational activities, invited the trainees into their homes, and helped furnish base games' rooms and libraries. For their part, the bases hosted sports days and carnivals, took part in wartime fundraising drives and concerts, and played local sports. This was war, though, and death touched down here too. Several aircrew trainees lost their lives during training.

The acceleration of the Plan in 1942 had led to a surplus of graduates. By late 1943, there was a substantial reserve of trained men waiting for operational postings. As schools began closing in 1944, just what they had meant to many communities became clear. "Farewell and Good Luck," offered the Claresholm Local Press, noting the irony that the sadness of the school closing came at the same time as incredible optimism for the end of the war. Friendships had been forged between townspeople and those posted to the school. Some young women would be leaving to start their new lives with airmen they had met during their training. Other couples were staying, having settled into the community. The communities' economic pictures would certainly change. When the training school closed, the payroll that had come with it would end too.

Many of the communities hoped that the infrastructure left by the schools would be their ticket into the modern world of aviation. They were wrong. Most of the bases, especially in the smaller centres, were dismantled, the contents sold at auction, the airplanes scrapped or carted off, and some of the buildings hauled away. Some benefits, though, would remain. Red Deer's City Council held a dinner to say goodbye to the British airmen from the Penhold station. As reported in the Red Deer Advocate, the councillors noted "the interchange of views had been of real value in the building up of a better knowledge of each other." Farewell and good luck indeed.