British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada

Article by Rich Thistle ©

Prairie Tailchase by Rich Thistle ©PRAIRIE TAILCHASE by Rich Thistle© The unmistakable whining roar of prop tips breaking the sound barrier intruded on the silent grandeur of Alberta foothill country. Up from the valley below and over the brow of a hill, two big yellow and black airplanes, locked together like two cars of some unseen roller coaster, sped over the undulating prairie in an overstatement of color and sound. Adrenaline flowed freely as the two instructors threw their aircraft around in a perilously thin but infinitely challenging envelope a scant few feet above the blur of Alberta real-estate passing beneath the wings of their Harvards.

The adrenaline of tail-chasing, low flying and low-level aerobatics was particularly sweet in this profession where adrenaline trickled almost constantly in the regular performance of duty. In fact SFTS (Service Flying Training School) instructors would pump an almost constant supply while initiating their current little flock of six fledgling pilots into the joys, intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the 'Yellow Peril', the North American Harvard II.

Held back from what most considered their real calling as combat fighter pilots (the adventure of flying against Hitler's Luftwaffe) instructors were sometimes frustrated, occasionally sullen and even angry, as they faced the constant responsibility of this round-the-clock work. It was work which they considered far-removed from a war they wanted to fight in a very different way. Even though they were constantly reminded of the importance of their contribution to the war effort, most instructors still longed for combat flying. For many, the only relief from their tense but monotonous job was the simulated combat flying of tail-chase, low flying and aerobatics.

SFTS instructors, although they may have had difficulty realizing it from the perspective of their small world of the flying school, were part of an unprecedented Canadian project of staggering proportions. The nation had taken on a gargantuan task. And it would be one of Canada's greatest contributions to the eventual defeat of the forces of the Axis.

The BCATP (British Commonwealth Air Training Plan) would eventually train a full 45% of all Commonwealth air crew to serve in WWII. At its peak the Plan would graduate over 3,000 aircrew/month from 107 training schools across Canada. Eventually over 131,000 graduates would become pilots, navigators, air gunners, wireless operators, observers, air bombers and flight engineers.

The cost to Canada would eventually balloon to over four times the original estimates of $350 million. Instructors and students would fly a million miles a day. Enough concrete would be poured into new runways to build a two-lane highway from Ottawa to Vancouver.

Understandably though, some doubts were expressed. How was all this to be possible in a country which had developed and maintained only the whisper of a functional air airforce between the wars? Yes, the RCAF had two reasonably well-equipped training stations at Trenton and Camp Borden (both in Ontario)but these two together were barely capable of filling the requirements of the diminutive RCAF. Yes, we had the space and weather requirements but Canada was a vast land, much of it sparsely populated. Yes, we had a fledgling aviation industry and ready access to the United States for supplies, but America was destined to remain nominally neutral for more than the first two years of the war. Yes, we were far away from the threat of enemy air activity but this same distance across the cold and dangerous north Atlantic separated us from our allies as well. Surely this task was too large for such a young country of a mere eleven million.

The BCATP, Canada's part in a wider program called the Empire Air Training Scheme, (EATS) actually traced its distant origins to World War I. During World War I Canada -specifically Ontario- became a major center of air training for the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS)/Royal Flying Corps (RFC) which, by April of 1918 would become the Royal Air Force (RAF). The recruitment value alone of establishing this training program in Canada was obvious. No less than 25,000 Canadian servicemen entered the air force of the "Mother Country". (Texas provided training sites as well with the subsequent siphoning of thousands of American air and ground crew into the conflict before America's official entry into the war.) But, in Canada the politics of British authority over this training program had only exacerbated the larger controversy which British control over the whole Canadian war effort had engendered.

It follows then, that as World War II loomed on the horizon, most Canadians -including the politicians- were adamant that any future Canadian war effort remain under direct Canadian control. They wanted no more Passchendaeles where, in one Great War battle, Canada took 16,000 casualties! They wanted no more conscription which, although deemed necessary to feed the War's voracious appetite for Canadian soldiers, had nearly split the country in 1917. Post-WWI Canadian consensus held, right or wrong, that hundreds of thousands of Canadians had been sacrificed unnecessarily through incompetent British leadership. Canada, it seemed, was no longer willing to participate militarily as a "colony". She preferred instead the status of equal partner with control over her own forces.

The Royal Canadian Air Force, which succeeded the Canadian Air Board and the Canadian Air Force, had been born on April 1, 1924. During the time between the wars Canada, the senior Dominion, had allowed a few Canadians to be trained or selected at home for service in the RAF, and eventually agreed to the training of a few British pilots in Canada. However, to express her new, more independent relationship with Great Britain, Canada had refused to permit any of the training conducted on Canadian soil to be under British control.

So it was in this atmosphere that Canada's eccentric, sixty-four year-old bachelor Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, determined to maintain his conviction that Canada must retain sovereignty over the inevitable participation of Canada's armed forces in the impending conflict. As it turned out, it was only after much continued wrangling that Canada finally did gain actual political and military autonomy from Britain, including the ability to project sovereign authority over her own armed forces in the field. Incredibly, regardless of the good intentions of Prime Minister King, this "Canadianization" of RCAF forces was not fully implemented until 1943!

By December 1939, the war was three months old. After intense negotiation which included much hard bargaining and mutual recrimination, the superstitious King (who believed deeply in the significance of certain numbers and anniversaries) signed the BCATP agreement with Britain, Australia and New Zealand just after midnight on his birthday, December 17. He considered it auspicious timing. He also considered it Canada's best hope to make a major war commitment without raising a large army which he feared might be squandered in a replay of the last war.

But not even King could predict at this moment the eventual influence this Plan would have on the outcome of the War. Canada would indeed earn the appellation "Aerodrome of Democracy" given by President Roosevelt. She would finally attain the kind of recognition and control denied in the previous war. In instructing many of those who would be on the front lines of the air war, Canada would become the greatest air-training center in the world. For by now it was clear that having the equipment and the official air strategy to use it was not enough to win a war in the air. Paramount was the speedy creation of a professional, well-trained body of aircair crewable of extending this power to meet and conquer the enemy in the air.

Now that the agreement had been signed, it was time to produce practice out of theory. The country was to mobilize in a national project of unprecedented proportions. Training was to start on April 29, 1940¸ with schools opening progressively, month by month. All were to be in operation by April 1942. Thousands of trained instructors and other personnel would be required to turn out 1,500 aircair crewry four weeks, or about 19,500 a year. Even though the RCAF could currently muster only about 4,000 men in total, the training operation would require 33,000 air force personnel, as well as 6,000 civilians.

Equipment had to be procured. Aircraft were at the top of the list. Some 3500 aircraft were required at once, as well as 6500 engines and sufficient spare parts. In 1939 the RCAF had only 270(124 operational) service aircraft, many of which were obsolescent and few considered front-line equipment. To help out, Avro Ansons and Fairey Battles were promised from besieged Britain but, as it turned out, only delivered sporadically.

At home the domestic aircraft industry expanded miraculously to meet the challenge. Soon Noorduyn Aviation of Montreal was producing 100 Harvards a month. And a Canadian crown corporation called Federal Aircraft was formed to oversee production of Ansons in Canada. By June 1, 1943, 1850 Canadian-built Ansons were flying, well above original targets, but at the beginning, to fill the multi-engine gap, other twin trainers were procured including Cessna Cranes and Airspeed Oxfords.

Elementary training was to be mainly in de Havilland Moths, Fleet Finches and later in Fairchild (Fleet) Cornells, most of which would be built in Canada. To train fighter pilots, the state-of-the-art North American Harvard was ordered. Until deliveries would be sufficient to meet needs some North American Yales, originally intended for now-occupied France, were delivered to Canada instead.

In the first seven months of the Plan, by March 1940, adding mostly ground tradesmen, the RCAF more than doubled its strength to 10,375 and thousands of air crew recruits were placed on waiting lists until schools and instructors were readied. Meanwhile, the record-breaking planning and construction of bases across Canada proceeded in high gear, and schools of all types were soon opening at an astounding rate, ready (or almost ready) to receive their first classes.

The organized training of a successful air crew candidate would take between 50 and 90 weeks, often depending on the demand for various types of air crew which altered at different times. After recruitment, participants were sent to one of an eventual total of seven Manning Depots for an introduction to military life. It was here their path for aerial training was determined.

Those chosen for pilot training then proceeded to one of seven Initial Training Schools (ITS) to take part in a ten-week course in pre-flight training. From here, pilot trainees were posted to one of 30 Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS)(operated by government-supported civilian Flying Clubs across Canada) for eight weeks of flight instruction.

After soloing on Moths or Finches and an assessment of whether pilot aptitudes would be best suited for single-engine fighter, multi-engine bomber or transport, the successful neophyte headed off to one of 29 Service Flying Training Schools (SFTS) -twenty of these were twin-engine schools- for advanced training on more powerful aircraft. It was at the successful completion of this course that pilots finally won their coveted wings.

From SFTS the pilots moved to one of seven Operational Training Units in Canada or directly to an OTU in Britain. At OTU they were introduced to the aircraft which they would eventually fly into combat.

Those not chosen to follow the pilot route, including many who "washed out" of the pilot training program, were destined to fill out operational air crews as gunners, navigators, radio operators and air engineers. This was often far from their personal aspirations. Many of these men had counted on becoming pilots. But one thing, which you learned early, was to be a team player. Especially in Bomber Command this team aspect was to be of great significance.

Besides air crew, there were 72 other trades in the air force, from "fitters" (aero-engine mechanics) and "riggers" (airframe mechanics) to cooks. All had to be trained to do their jobs efficiently and effectively. And of course it goes without saying, the contribution of many thousands of ground crew at home and in all combat theaters was invaluable. Without them, no one flies! To the tribute and everlasting credit of Canadians, the recruitment of ground crew into the RCAF was never a problem during the war, particularly after women were accepted, forming the Canadian Women's Auxiliary Air Force, later the RCAF Women's Division "WD".

By the end of 1942, the Plan was in high gear, turning out all air crew and ground trades in sufficient numbers. Of a total of 131,553 air crew graduates of the BCATP at the time it was officially terminated in March of 1945, 72,825 were RCAF, 42,110 RAF, 9,606 RAAF and 7,002 RNZAF. This total does not include 5,296 RAF and Fleet Air Arm personnel trained in Canada prior to July 1, 1942 when the plan was renegotiated with Britain. Nor does it include over 50,000 Canadian ground crew who received their training in the Plan or the civilians and civilian organizations which participated conspicuously, running 10 Observation Schools and 30 Elementary Flying Training Schools.

In any such massive training scheme such as the BCATP, the safety record is of paramount importance. But of course accidents were unavoidable. By March 1945 when the Plan had come to an end, 856 air crew trainees had been killed or seriously injured. Unfortunately, many of the fatal accidents were the inevitable result of typical male bravado and a youthful sense of immortality on the part of eager green pilots who couldn't resist daring feats of low flying, tail chasing and unauthorized aerobatics.

In September of 1943 a twenty-year-old pilot-trainee Len Wilson was completing his course at No.2 SFTS in Ottawa. He had worked seriously and hard to get this far but as it turned out was not immune to the sense of excitement and adventure which forbidden flying engendered.

"We were to do some night flying, out to Carp (satellite of Uplands) and back. Word was circulating that some of the guys were going to do some unauthorized flying. They said they were going to do a loop on the way back from Carp. As I took off that night my mind was preoccupied with 'Will I or won't I?'. On the way back to Uplands I just decided 'Heck, I'm going to do it!' I remember diving to get up some speed and pulling up the nose. But by the time I was nearing the apex I was experiencing a distinct lack of power. In fact I just barely got over the top. It was definitely an egg-shaped loop! I was relieved to be through it, the rest of the trip was uneventful. But as I entered my down-wind at Uplands and reached to lower the gear I was surprised to find it already down. In my preoccupation at take off I had forgotten to retract! No wonder the Harvard had protested. I was lucky to have made it over the top at all."

In the first year of the BCATP one fatality occurred for every 11,156 hours of flying time but by the last year this rate was halved. The standards of flying training established early in the Training Plan resulted in an enviable flying safety record, and formed the basis of the highly successful post-war RCAF training program with its world-wide reputation.

Of course thousands of Canadian air crew who received their training in the BCATP never returned to the new post-war Canada. They now lay in peacefully, neat rows in military cemeteries in Europe, in the very ground which they helped to free by establishing air superiority at the dark time when Fortress Europe seemed most impregnable. The achievement of the BCATP cannot be underestimated in the eventual Allied victory. In fact it was Canada's largest single contribution to winning World War II.

I asked Len whether he felt the Plan had prepared him for the combat flying which he did in Spitfires and Mustangs with No.442(F)Squadron, RCAF, from Normandy into Germany. Without hesitating he said, "Yes".

PRAIRIE TAILCHASE is now in the permanent collection of Penn West Energy in Calgary Alberta Canada.
Suggested reading:
Aerodrome of Democracy, F. J. Hatch (1983)
Behind the Glory, Ted Barris, (1992)
Wings for Victory, Spencer Dunmore (1994)