WWI German Fighter

Most people have either read stories, watched the old news reels or Hollywood films about the First World War flying operations.  The machine elements for the use of air power in conflicts were already created.  There were aeroplanes, balloons and dirigibles of some capability available for use in 1914.  The rapid development of aircraft after 1914 was due to the fact that a skilled industrial base was there for the production of the necessary machines and tools.  We read many books and articles about the actual conduct of the air battles and the bravery of the pilots. We cannot find much documentation about the lives and work of the aviation technicians or mechanics.  The aeronautical engineers fared better, as many of them lent their names to successful aviation manufacturing companies, for example Fokker.

At this time, I must point out that a lot of the information in this chapter comes from the book, “Voyageurs of the Air”, Transport Canada’s contribution to the 1967 Centennial celebrations.

Due to the fact that Canada did not have any substantial aircraft manufacturing capability in 1914 there were not a lot of aircraft in Canada. So it follows that there were few aircraft technicians or mechanics.  Some of the keener people in Canada went to England to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Naval Air Service or later transferred to these air arms from the other branches of the service.  We had some manufacturing industry in Canada and a large agricultural sector, which was beginning to mechanize, so all of this helped to kick start the aviation industry. The entire aviation effort in Canada was then under British control.

There were over 3000 pilots trained in Canada during World War 1.  In 1915, the Curtis Flying School was established in Toronto, Ontario.  It was probably the most successful in Canada.  In 1916 the Imperial Munitions board organized a company called Canadian Aeroplanes Limited to build the Curtis JN-4 in Canada.  The plant was located in Toronto, Ontario.  The aircraft engines were imported from the United States.  During the war some 2,900 aircraft were produced.  The Brothers, a successful boat builder, built a seaplane and two flying boats between 1915 and 1918.  Neither concern managed to market its products successfully.

McCurdy, a Canadian aviation pioneer, continued to campaign diligently during 1916 to obtain additional contracts and convince authorities to establish a Canadian Air Corps with training facilities in Canada. He investigated the possibility of association with Vickers, a British manufacturer with an extensive shipbuilding operation in Montreal and Canadian Vickers, manufacturer of aero engines was proposed. By mid 1916, it appeared that large orders would be placed with Curtiss and at the request of the Imperial Munitions Board all American stock in the company was acquired making the Curtiss. The Toronto based operation was completely Canadian. In spite of these efforts, the Canadian Government with financial resources strained by the war effort and with a sceptical view of the post war value of aeroplanes, remained disinterested.

The basic concept of doing pilot training in Canada supported by Canadian manufactured aircraft had been under consideration in England for many months.  In late December 1916 a firm decision was taken to establish just such a program for the Royal Flying Corps, controlled and financed by British authorities. To support the program it was decided to manufacture training aircraft in Canada under the auspices of the British Empire Imperial Munitions Board. The Board elected to establish a new company, Canadian Aeroplanes Limited, headed by F.W. Baillie, later Sir Frank Baillie. Curtiss Aircraft, based in Toronto, then lost the only substantial market for Canadian manufactured aircraft.

The Curtiss Aircraft manufacturing facilities were acquired for Canadian Aeroplanes Limited by expropriation. The majority of Curtiss Aircraft engineering and manufacturing personnel re-established Curtiss Aircraft at a new location in Toronto and manufactured aircraft components throughout the war on sub-contract to Curtiss Aircraft in Buffalo, New York.  The company later diversified into the manufacture of non-aircraft products such as phonographs but did not build any more complete aircraft.

Canadian Aeroplanes Limited immediately began developing an improved version of the IN-3 for the R.F.C. training program. The prototype, known as the Canadian IN-4 (an unfortunate designation, forever to be confused with the American JN-4 “Jenny”) was tested on Long Branch in January 1917. One De Havilland DH-6 training aircraft was built as an insurance against failure of the IN-4 but the type was not required. The Canadian IN-4 proved satisfactory and was immediately placed in large-scale production. This, the first aircraft “mass produced” in Canada was supplied in large numbers for the Royal Flying Corp program and also to the U.S. Army. A total of 1,288 aircraft were completed during 1917-1918 plus the spares equivalent to an additional 1,631 aircraft, a remarkable record by any standard.

As Canadian Aeroplanes quickly outgrew the facilities taken over from Curtiss, a new 235,000 square foot factory was built in Toronto and transfer to the new plant was completed during May 1917. The U.S. Government was favourably impressed with the record of this Canadian company and made several attempts to hire away or borrow Mr. Baillie to help with the faltering U.S. aircraft production program.  The overtures were resisted both by Baillie and the Imperial Munitions Board but as a result of these discussions a contract was signed for a large British developed twin-engine aircraft. Once again the efficiency of the company was remarkable.  Construction commenced 22 April 1918 and the first F5L was completed less than four months later on 15 July 1918.  The type selected for Canada was the British Avro 504K with several modifications, in particular a new landing gear design. The first Canadian 504 was delivered 1 October 1918.  Only one more was completed before large orders for Canadian and U.S. service were cancelled after the Armistice in 1918.

By 1918, less than two years after its establishment, Canadian Aeroplanes Limited had developed into a large complex organization generally regarded as the most efficient aircraft manufacturer in North America.  Many obstacles to production were overcome, sources of raw materials were developed, sub-contractors were located, new production facilities were located and trained, then almost overnight all these hard won skills and facilities were disbanded.  Canadian Aeroplanes and its British parent, the Imperial Munitions Board, were strictly wartime organizations. No one in the Canadian Government or private sector recognized the development potential inherent in the aircraft industry.  This was the first but by no means the last such occurrence to plague our aircraft industry.

The intense air activity in the latter half of 1916, during the battle of the Somme, was the principal factor which led to the establishment of Royal Flying Corps recruiting and training units in Canada. The exploits of Canadian pilots soon drew attention to their natural ability in air warfare. Recruitment in Great Britain had almost reached its limit, while in Canada thousands of youngsters were clamouring for an opportunity to do their bit in the air. After negotiations between the representatives of the Canadian and British Governments, authority was given in December 1916, for the establishment in Canada of Royal Flying Corps training units. The Imperial Munitions Board already organized on a most efficient and widespread basis added an Aviation Branch under Mr. G. A. Morrow to their many activities.  With the consent, approval and assistance of the Canadian Government, the training units and the necessary recruiting agencies, technical services for the preparation of aerodromes, the construction of quarters and other accommodation and the purchase of supplies were rapidly organized.

In January 1917 the nucleus of a Royal Flying Corps training and administrative section arrived in Canada.  The Government placed Camp Borden, hitherto used as an infantry training camp for C. E. F., at their disposal and a contract was immediately let for the construction of fifteen hangars, barrack buildings, water supply, and all the requirements for a flying training unit.  At the same time, the military property at Long Branch, west of Toronto, was taken over and there was formed the first flying unit of the Royal Flying Corps in Canada.  Sites for additional training camps were later selected at Leaside, Armour Heights, Mohawk and Beamsville, Ontario, and a ground school opened at Toronto University. Whole-hearted co-operation was forth coming from the Canadian Government, which assisted the organization in every way and provided the funds through advances by the Finance Department to the Imperial Munitions Board.

Space will not permit any detailed account of the training activities of the Royal Flying Corps in Canada nor a discussion of the many engineering problems involved in the construction, equipment and maintenance of the bases and shops.  The organization ceased its work at the Armistice in November 1918, and was disbanded.  Its record is as follows: pilots trained and sent overseas 2,539; pilots trained and ready waiting to go overseas at the Armistice 240; pilots retained in Canada as Instructors 321; pilots trained for United States Air Services 370; pilots partially trained at Armistice 587; cadets in ground training courses at Armistice 3,500.

Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd. was organized in December 1916 by the Imperial Munitions Board under the presidency of Sir Frank Baillie to build the aircraft for the Canadian training units.  A large number of aeroplanes and spare parts were also supplied for the training services in the United States.  In the twenty-odd months of its existence it built 2900 aeroplanes valued at $14,000,000.  It took over from the Curtiss Flying Service, a small factory that had been building and repairing aircraft for their flying school. The need for expansion in April, 1917, forced them to acquire some six acres of floor space, fully equipped with machines and tools for aircraft manufacture. This factory was built in the record time of two and a half months. The Aircraft adopted for training in the Royal Flying Corps in Canada was the Canadian J. N. 4 or Curtiss II Jenny”.  Supplies of materials for this new industry had also to be organized, including the cotton cloth for the covering of the wings, (the Irish linen hitherto used being was then unobtainable), silver spruce, not only for Canadian requirements, but for those of all the allied powers, (this item alone involved an extensive organization in British Columbia) ash for the longerons and white oak for the ribs.  In addition to the 2900 IN.J4 aircraft manufactured, Canadian Aeroplanes built 30 twin engine flying boats for the United States Naval Service during 1918. This was the largest type of flying boat then in existence. Mass production of the “Avro” trainer was just beginning when the armistice closed this chapter of aeronautical activity in Canada. The combined expenditure by the Imperial Munitions Board on the training organization and Canadian Aeroplanes Limited to December 31st, 1918, was approximately $40,000,000.

Submarine warfare on the North Atlantic forced consideration of plans for the protection of the constant stream of supplies passing overseas from North America to the United Kingdom and French ports. Late in 1917, the convoy system was instituted and immediately the marine casualty rates fell. The visits to Atlantic coast waters of long range U boats early in 1918 (an oil tanker was torpedoed and sunk within 10 miles of Halifax Harbour on one occasion) made action necessary to institute air patrols at Halifax and Sydney for the protection of the convoys of supply ships, which gathered there previous to proceeding overseas. Two years earlier the Admiralty had advised the Canadian Government of the conditions that might result from the extension of submarine warfare and suggested that Canada should organize a Naval Air Service.

Two flying boats were shipped to Halifax in 1916 but no action was taken in the matter till March 1918, when the Admiralty again raised the question and the Canadian Government agreed to organize the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service under the jurisdiction of the Department of Naval Service. Suitable bases were located at Dartmouth and Sydney and the construction of the buildings required was placed in the hands of the Public Works Department. As the United States were sending large numbers of their troops overseas through Canadian ports they were desirous of having aerial patrol protection for the troop ships. The Canadian and United States Governments combined efforts to put the Canadian air bases into commission until such time as Canadians could be trained to carry out the air patrols.

On September 5th, 1918, the Canadian Government approved the general outlines of regulations governing the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service. It was a temporary service to meet the needs of the war and its discipline was that of the Royal Canadian Navy. The recruitment and training of personnel and equipment of the stations with Canadian aircraft was provided for.  Up to the time of the Armistice, 82 cadets had been recruited; 60 were under training in the United States, 19 were in England training for service in the “Lighter-than-Air” section. Immediately after the signing of the Armistice, the Department of public works was instructed to stop construction at both bases. Storehouse, hangars, sleeping and recreation buildings had, by that time, been completed at both Dartmouth and Sydney. The Dartmouth base is still in use by the Royal Canadian Air Force and is today being modernized and enlarged.

The Royal Canadian Naval Air Service was demobilized after the Armistice.  All flying material, including 24 flying boats and 25 Liberty motors were presented by the United States to Canada. These, together with the stores at the two stations, were placed under the care of a small maintenance party. These flying boats later proved invaluable and were the foundation upon which were built the forest patrol systems organized in the succeeding years.

The main benefit to Canadian aviation from the war was in learning how to manufacture such aircraft and to train the skilled personnel necessary to do it.  These military activities stimulated the interest in aviation and left a supply of skilled mechanics and engineers ready for the post war years.  Due to the fact all the mechanics and air engineers were under military control and discipline there were no moves by the government to license them.  This was to change immediately after the war.

The air regulations were not put into place until 1919, at which time the term Air Engineer came into the civil aviation world. The First World War mechanics became the new Air Engineers. Upon the end of the war some of these people found new employment supporting the early civil air operations in Canada or stayed in the new air wing of the military.  Some also found work in the new aircraft manufacturing and repair industry.  This was an outgrowth of the manufacturing and repair capability built up in Canada to support the Royal Flying Corps.

During the war they had to work under awful weather conditions with primitive unheated hangers and rough tools. The maintenance of aircraft was conducted close to the front lines under wooden or canvas hangers and shops.  Some brick and mortar hangers were built and some still remain today.  Military practice required quick repairs and fast turnarounds were the standard practice.  A lot of aviation maintenance technical knowledge and practice was invented on those fields; quick fabric repairs, how to keep engines warm, how to fix leaking fuel systems and radiators. There were no real engineering controls so technicians and mechanics could experiment at will.  We must not forget that a lot of the early technicians and mechanics were highly qualified tradesmen who had probably apprenticed in other trades and migrated to the new field of aeronautics.

The following writings I found, describe some of the advances Canadians made in flight training during the First World War. The effort of Canadians in the war was a remarkable one. It was, however, due to the exemplary war time record of the individual Canadian officers and men serving in the British air services. There was little or no organized Canadian effort in the air.  Even the existing organization in Canada, which grew to large proportions in 1917 and 1918, was under British direction. However , it is understandable that pre-occupied with the immense task of organizing the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, the new element in warfare would be neglected as far as being wholly Canadian.

This attitude was not peculiar to Canada. None of the powers had realized in advance the important part aircraft would play in the First World War. At first all were reluctant to divert men and material to the air arm. The British services were only able to muster a score of aeroplanes to accompany the British Expeditionary Forces to France in 1914 and the other armies were no better prepared.  Experience soon showed the value of aircraft and, though handicapped by the conservatism of the higher naval and military commands, each month saw the air arm playing a greater part on all fronts. Observation was at first the only use. Soon the rival observers took to fighting in the air with revolvers and shotguns, and then aircraft were armed with machine guns. As their power and speed increased, bombing was added. Special recruitment, both of pilots and mechanics, soon was necessary as the Air Services expanded rapidly and the casualties in the air were heavy. An increasing stream of transfers from the Canadian Expeditionary Force to both the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps commenced.

In addition, both services eagerly accepted young Canadians who had learned to fly in private schools.  One was established in the spring of 1915, with J.A.D. McCurdy in charge, to meet this demand. The following description by one or the first dozen pupils gives a picture of conditions at that time.  About the 1st of May, 1915, a news item appeared in the Victoria papers to the effect that the Royal Navy needed air pilots and any Canadians of good family preferably with engineering training and who were physically fit, would learn to fly at their own expense and would pay their way over to England.  They would be taken on strength as Chief Petty Officers and if they served so long as their services were required, their way would be paid back to Canada and they would be granted a gratuity of $150 per annum.

The aircraft maintenance technician’s work was carried out close to the front due to the relative lack of range of the early aircraft.  Since the trench positions were static for most of the war, they could operate from bases close to the battle fields.  In other theatres far from Europe, in the Middle East, the first mobile air operations demanded a different set of work practices, including mobile operations from primitive trucks and wagons.

The cold, rain, snow and frost were found there, as they were and still are for many Air Engineers. The oil, fuel, grease and discomfort, lack of proper tools, tight schedules and danger are things that all the early Air Engineers faced and Aircraft Maintenance Engineers still face day to day. It was all pioneered back in the war to end all wars. In 2013 it sounds trite but people did believe it was the last Great War.  Go tell that to the RCAF technicians who serve in Afghanistan.