I have opened this section by including a lot of wording I found in an old report on civil aviation in Canada written, I believe in the early nineteen forties. I cannot remember the author but it does set the scene for writing about AMEs between the wars and it puts their work in context of the times between1919 and 1939. The following discussion of the events of those early years between the wars set the stage for the challenges AMEs faced in their work. It also shows the vast expansion of aviation in Canada which provided more opportunities for AMEs to find employment and a career.
I quote, “The possibilities of an airway connecting with the Trans-Canada system at Edmonton to give access to all parts of North Western Canada and Alaska had long been realized. In 1935 a survey to determine the best route was made. The route over valleys of the Peace, Liard and Yukon Rivers offered the best solution and in 1937 a contract was let for a weekly airmail service, on skis in winter and floats in summer from Edmonton to Whitehorse, Y. T., via Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Lower Post so as to gain further knowledge of flying conditions at all seasons of the year.
The results were so favourable that an airway survey of the route was authorized in the spring of 1939 to locate aerodromes and radio range sites at intervals of one hundred miles according to standard airway practice. The joint Canada and United States Board on Defence in November 1940 recommended the construction of an airway based on these surveys. This recommendation was accepted and the Canadian Government authorized the Department of Transport to proceed with the construction on February 8th, 1941.
Construction was far enough advanced by September 1st, 1941, to permit of its being flown in daylight and good visibility, and by the end of 1941 the main bases and radio ranges were completed up to standard requirements. Since the entry of the United States Into the war, this route has become of vital importance to the war effort the United Nations, and its facilities have been greatly augmented. It gives direct access from the airway systems of Canada and of the United States by the shortest route through northern British Columbia and the Yukon to Fairbanks in the heart of Alaska. Its importance in the post war period as the shortest route between the North American Continent and the Orient and Asia can readily be seen.
This was important not only for the wartime air training plan but also for all future defence purposes. This has meant a great increase in work and responsibility. These activities are now dominion wide, and included Newfoundland and Labrador as well, who were not part of Canada then. The Air Services Branch of the Ministry of Transport was responsible not only for the planning and construction of these aerodromes but also for the selection of suitable sites, their purchase and survey, power and water supplies, radio range stations where necessary, telephone and teletype installations, highway connections.
“Airway” traffic control was developed to ensure the safety of the numerous aircraft en route over the system especially under conditions of poor visibility and at night. This links up with a similar control system in force in the United States. These control systems necessitated the formation of a school for the training of Traffic Control Officers and assistants for both classes of work
The importance of Radio in the operation of air transport services increases continually. The Air Administrations of Canada and the United States have followed. A common policy in this, as in other airway facilities, such as airport planning, zoning, lighting, control systems, etc., so that there may be as far as is physically possible one system universally used throughout North America.
Flying has revolutionized meteorological science. New methods of forecasting have been introduced and the collection and dissemination of weather information has been speeded up to a remarkable degree. Weather recognizes no political or physical frontiers.
The consolidation of the many independent commercial operators chiefly in servicing the mining industry in Northern Canada has been proceeding gradually for the past two years. The Canadian Pacific Air Lines now controls the operation of Canadian Airways Limited. Arrow Airways Limited. Ginger Coote Airways, Prairie Airways, Mackenzie Air Service, Yukon Southern Air Transport Limited, Dominion Skyways Limited, Quebec Airways, Wings Limited, Starratt Airways and Transportation.
Maritime Central Air Lines who operate a mail, passenger and express service between Moncton, St. John, Summer side and Charlottetown, P.E.I., the M & C Aviation Company who operate a licensed airmail, passenger and express service from Prince Albert to northern Saskatchewan points and. in addition, an engine and overhaul facility.
The Flying Clubs started in 1928 with the assistance of the Government, to meet the urgent need for pilot training facilities and municipal airports, continued their activities on a constantly increasing scale until 1940.
In June 1939, the Department of National Defence entered into contracts with eight of the strongest clubs for the elementary training of a number of pilots for the R. C. A. F.
Their first flight shows that progress in military and civil aeronautics goes hand in hand. Though the types of aircraft used in military aviation tend to diverge to an increasing extent from those used in air transport. The fundamental influences, governing their development are the same. The engineering and physical laws determine their design.
The design of airframe structures, power plants, instruments and accessories remain constant and are of worldwide application. The fuels used are generally the same. Both phases are affected by the economic and political conditions prevailing in. the national territory, while the limitations of geography. Climate and physical characteristics of the different countries all have a bearing on the type of development. Notable examples are the United States, Canada, Australia and Russia, all of which have a large area lending it to the easy development of air routes.
There are large undeveloped areas unserved as yet by other means of transport where the aeroplane can play an economic part in development unhampered by the competition of ground services. Some countries expanded their air services greatly in the period between the wars but kept their development throughout on fairly economical lines, developing only those routes where the traffic justified expansion.”
Canada was fortunately situated in the period between the wars. We had a huge area still largely undeveloped where the time saving factor of air transport was immense and where there were diversified outlets for our civil activities, which resulted in a sound and economical development of civil aviation throughout Canada.
It may be confidently claimed that no country had obtained a better return for her aviation dollars than Canada. Government subsidies played no part in our development. Government expenditures were confined to contracts for the carriage of mail, under which full value was given for services rendered; and the provision of air navigation facilities.
Following the precedent already set in marine navigation, the Government assisted in the provision of airports, radio aids, lighting and meteorological services.
Political and economic conditions in Canada between the wars made it impossible for the Army, Navy and Air Force to obtain adequate funds to maintain their establishments in an efficient condition. We were fortunate that a comparatively large development of civil air services throughout Canada was possible during the twenty-one years which elapsed from the Armistice of the Great War to the outbreak of WWII in September, 1939.
The General Staff, whose influence was then all-powerful and who did not regard with favor the establishment of an independent Air Ministry, were responsible for the complete disruption of the Air Board’s activities, all to which were turned over to the National Defence Department on January 1, 1923, and became a new directorate, reporting to the Chief of the General Staff. This included the Air Force and the Civil Operations, the Air Regulations and the Engineering Branches so that the whole service, military and civil, became part of the Air Force. All civil employees were given the option of joining the Air Force or resigning their positions.
The Civil Operations and Engineering Branches were absorbed by the Air Force but public opinion insisted on the continuance of their civil activities. The licensing functions of the Air Regulations Branch were carried out by Air Force personnel, detailed to this purpose from the Air Force. Under this scheme, the present Member to the Air Council for Organization was lent for civil duties and continued to exercise the functions of Superintendent of the Air Regulations Branch until September 1939.
By 1926, it was evident that the concentration of both civil and military activities under the Chief of the General Staff did not provide a suitable organization and steps were then taken to form a separate branch for the administration of civil aviation, reporting to the Deputy Minister of National Defence. The Air Force became a permanent unit with military functions only and the Civil Operations Branch, having by then served its purpose of demonstrating the possibilities of civil aviation in this country. Aerial photography was maintained by the R.C.A.F. because of its military value but the other civil activities were taken over by commercial operators and provincial air services. Finality in organization was not reached until 1936 with the transfer of the administration of civil aviation to the Department of Transport was completed. So began the journey to Transport Canada.
Having dealt with the organization of the Government aviation services, it is now necessary to retrace our steps back to 1919 and follow the development of commercial flying.
Disposal aircraft were cheap after the Armistice and many of the returned pilots wished to continue their aviation careers. In the first year or two after the war there was a great deal of miscellaneous flying activity throughout the country. Joy riding, exhibition flying and advertising were the only outlets and the early enthusiasm soon waned. The enthusiasts forgot that the public was still quite uneducated in the merits of civil aviation and facilities for flying had not yet been created in even the settled areas in Canada. The educational work done by the Civil Operations Branch, however, was bearing good fruit and people came to realize that the best outlet for the post war energies of returned men was in the North, in aerial surveys, freighting for prospectors and mining companies and forestry work.
In 1938 the Government was forced to take action by the passage of the Transport Act to bring some order into the existing chaos by providing an air route licensing system to stabilize the situation and control cut-throat competition. Once the situation was stabilized, the Canadian Pacific Railway stepped into the picture and, after twenty years of inactivity preceded to buyout practically all the independent operators. Now having dealt with the development of the so-called “bush” services, we must now turn to intercity airlines.
The survey of possible outlets for the development of a sound aviation in Canada was made way back in 1919. This survey led to the conclusion that the best immediate outlet for flying services was in the undeveloped north. Railway communications between the main cities had been overdeveloped; the highway system was being rapidly expanded; and war type aircraft were not suitable for intercity transport. The absence of aerodromes and other necessary facilities meant that large capital expenditures would be necessary before intercity services could be operated to advantage. It was decided that it would be preferable to wait for some years till public opinion ripened before tackling the intercity air transport problem, and put all the available energy and funds into the northern areas where better means of transport was a crying need and no extensive preparations were necessary for aircraft on skis or floats. The authorities would have been content to continue this policy for several more years but airline development in the United States forced our hands. The long and difficult stretch between East and West, through northern Ontario, took some years to bridge, owing to the difficulty and expense of building aerodromes and the same applied to the mountain section. The missing gap between Detroit and Winnipeg was bridged with the assistance of the United States Postal authorities, which arranged for the carriage of the mail between these points over their own airway. The airmail service continued in daily operation over these portions of the trans-continental system till 1932 when the depression forced its discontinuance. The cancellation of the air mail contracts was a great disappointment to all concerned, but fortunately sufficient funds were made available each year to continue the airway survey work through the mountains and through northern Ontario.
Advantage was taken of the depression by creating camps for the relief of unemployment on the airport sites from coast to coast. This was continued until 1936 with excellent results, though progress was slow because of the lack of proper grading equipment. A survey made of the airway in the summer of 1936 showed a comparatively small expenditure would make the airway fit for operation. Under the energetic direction of the Honourable C. D. Howe adequate funds were forthcoming for the first time for the completion of the airway, its lighting, and the erection of radio ranges, terminal buildings, weather forecasting facilities and communications to make its operation practical.
In 1937 Parliament passed, with unanimous approval, the “Trans-Canada Air Lines Act”. This created a nationally owned airline operating company to undertake the organization and operation of the system. This company has been defined in a declaration made by the Prime Minister to the House of Commons on April 2nd, 1943, as being “the instrument of the Government in maintaining all trans-continental air transport services and in operating services across the international boundary lines and outside of Canada”.
The original draft of the Trans-Canada Bill provided for both great railway systems to share equally in the organization of the new company. Unfortunately, the Canadian Pacific Railway refused to participate and the Canadian National Railways was therefore given complete responsibility.
At the Imperial Conference in 1926, Canada agreed to participate in a plan for the development of Empire communications by airship, by building an airship base. Though expert air opinion in this country was unanimously against any such venture at that time, in the absence of any reliable Air Advisor at the Conference the Government had accepted the commitment and every effort was made to implement the agreement.
The site for the base was chosen by Major Scott of the Airship Section of the Air Ministry at St. Hubert in 1927 after an exhaustive survey of other possible location s in Eastern Canada and work was immediately started to build and equip the base. All construction was finished by the summer of 1930 and on July 28th of that year, H. M. Airship R-100 left Cardington for St. Hubert.
The airship was moored successfully at dawn on August 1st and after a stay of ten days successfully completed the homeward voyage to Cardington on August 16th. The destruction of her sister airship, R-l0l, in northern France when outbound on a flight to India, led to the abandonment of the airship venture and no further use was made of the airship base at St. Hubert. It was, therefore, turned into an airport to serve the Montreal district and as such played an important part in the early air transport service till the new airport at Dorval was constructed. St. Hubert was then turned over to the R. C. A. F. as a Service Flying Training School. In justice to the staff of the air services of Canada, civil, military and technical, it should be stated that their unanimous opinion was that the airship would not be a continuing factor in long distance air transportation because of the growing efficiency of heavier-than-air craft. It was also felt that the North Atlantic Ocean was not a suitable proving ground for airship service and that it was preferable to devote any money available to the construction.
Canadian expert air opinion who had realized the possibilities of Canada’s geographical position on the northern half of the Western Hemisphere, and the fact that the shortest routes to both Asia and Europe layover her territories. By the early 30’s air mail service and charter flights were regularly being made as far north as the Arctic Coast of Canada. The one route not yet developed, largely because of the inaccessibility of the territory through which it passed, was the airway leading from Edmonton or Vancouver to the Yukon, with possible extension on the Great Circle course over Alaska to eastern Asia. In 1935 an exhaustive survey was made of all possible routes through British Columbia and northern Alberta and a decision reached that the route by the valleys of the Peace, Liard and Yukon Rivers was not only the most direct but the easiest. In 1937, an air mail contract for an operation on floats and skis was left to Yukon Southern Airways to determine the practicability of the route at all seasons of the year. The results were so satisfactory that in 1939 funds were obtained to make an airway survey to locate aerodrome sites and radio range stations at 100 mile intervals between Edmonton and Whitehorse. Parties were in the field when the war broke out in September 1939 and the survey was completed before the close of that year.
In September 1939 when the war broke out, civil aviation in Canada, after many vicissitudes, was finding its feet and had every reason to look forward to a period of prosperity. The energy and enthusiasm of the pioneers was at last bearing fruit. The transcontinental service was organized and traffic on it was growing each month. There was every prospect that within a year or two its revenues would equal its operating expenses. Order was being established in the northern freighting operations by means of the licensing system under the Board of Transport Commissioners. Their traffic was increasing rapidly with the expansion of the mining industry.
Trans-Atlantic flying was passing out of the experimental stage and flying instruction in all parts of the Dominion was active through the work of the commercial aviation schools and flying clubs. The training facilities they had established were ample to meet the growing demand from the commercial operators and the R. C. A. F. auxiliary squadrons. They had also given elementary training to over 300 young Canadians who had entered the R. A. F. through the short service system. Meteorological and radio facilities had been re-organized on a modern basis and were making air navigation an exact science very different from the old ‘hit or miss’ methods. The number of aircraft holding certificates of airworthiness from the Department of Transport was 501. There were 1,328 licensed pilots, 695 air engineers and 127 licensed aerodromes.
The general lack of information for the years of the First World War is made up for by a feast of stories and data for the inter-war years. This is, in my opinion, because two main things happened. The first, regulatory licensing requirements were introduced.
Here we need to stop and discuss the role of the Air Board, the ancestor of the current Transport Canada. Canada was in an excellent position after the Armistice to deal with aviation intelligently. The statutes however, contained no reference whatever to aeronautics and the war organizations at home and overseas had been disbanded. Freedom of action was total. Canada was fortunate in having a great fund of energy and enthusiasm for aviation in the thousands of young Canadians who made such a brilliant record in the air service, but a virgin field for the useful and economic employment of air services in the exploration and development of the northern areas. There were no roads or railway, where travel was a slow and arduous business and where better means of access and observation were the key to development.
Surveyors, foresters and geologists eagerly lent their knowledge to planning these new developments with the airmen. Similar discussions were proceeding overseas in air service messes, where Canadian pilots were awaiting demobilization. Enthusiastic young men were returning from overseas and demanding that their opportunities for flying be continued and extended. Surplus aircraft and war disposal stock were coming on the market and available at low prices, necessitating action to control their use in Canada.
Canadian representatives at the Peace Conference were assigned to draft the International Convention for Air Navigation to determine the principles underlying the regulation of civil aviation in all parts of the world. In March, 1919, the Canadian Pacific Railway asked Parliament for an extension of their powers to include the operation of aircraft. This brought the matter directly to the Government’s attention. To meet the situation, the Air Board Act was introduced, passed rapidly through all its stages and received Royal Assent on the 8th of June, 1919.
By the Air Board Act a Board of Aeronautics was established which had broad powers of control over all forms of aeronautics. Doubts were experienced as to the jurisdiction of Canada. The law officers of the Crown considered that the right of the Canada to control aeronautics in all its phases could be established. This question was finally settled in 1931 when the Privy Council decided that aeronautics lay wholly within Federal jurisdiction.
The Air Board Act provided in detail for the regulation of civil aeronautics and it was framed primarily for this purpose. Powers to deal with military aeronautics were less well defined and were then retarded as a temporary measure pending the post-war re-organization of the national defence forces, which appeared inevitable. The creation of an Air Force would be necessary then and it could be dealt with to the best advantage when the future organizations of all three arms were under consideration.
The first Air Board was appointed by an Order-in-Council dated the 23rd of June,1919. The Honourable A. L. Sitton was chairman, Colonel O. M. Biggar, who had acted for Canada on the sub-committee of the Peace Conference in Paris dealing with Air Conventions, Vice-Chairman, the Honourable S. C. Mewburn, Minister of Militia and Defence, the Honourable C.C. Ballantyne, Minister of the Naval Service. Together with the Deputy Postmaster General, the Chief Inspector of the Department of Customs and Inland Revenue, and the writer were the other members.
No time was lost in organizing the necessary staff for the duties imposed by the new Act. Four civil branches were created:
(a) Secretary’s Branch, dealing with organization, finance, staff and departmental duties generally.
(b) Certificates Branch, dealing with the licensing of aircraft and personnel.
(R.) Flying Operations Branch, to conduct any flying Operations required for other Government Services.
(d) Technical Branch.
Before the close of 1919 the preliminary organization was completed, Air Regulations based on the International Convention for Air Navigation governing civil flying in Canada had been approved by Order-in-Council.
An Aerial Survey Committee was appointed, representative of the survey services of the Government. Its Chairman was the late Dr. E. Deville, Surveyor General. Dr. Deville, as a young man, had taken the lead in the development of photo topography. In his old age he had the satisfaction of introducing new methods of surveying from aerial photographs, widely used, not only in Canada but in many other countries.
A survey had been made to ascertain “what public services could be more efficiently, and, in the broader sense, more economically performed by air than by existing methods”. Provision had been made for scientific research in aeronautics by the formation of a research council for Scientific and Industrial Research, of an Associate Air Research Committee. Arrangements had been completed with the Canadian Meteorological Service, looking towards the necessary extension of the existing meteorological services to serve the requirements of aviation. The co-operation of the Government Radio Telegraph Service of the Department of Naval Service for co-operation in the development of any radio services required for air navigation was secured.
The Air Board moved quickly to license Canada’s first pilot and the first Air Engineer at Regina, Saskatchewan in 1921. Groome, who had served with the Royal Flying Corp as an instructor during the war set up the “Aerial Service Co” in 1919, with his partner Ed Clark. Although the company was a failure, Groome had registered Canada’s first aircraft, C-GAAA, a Curtis JN 4 Biplane.
Because the forerunners of Transport Canada made their first trip from Ottawa, Ontario in 1920 to Regina, Groome was able to claim several aviation firsts in Canada. He was to receive the first pilots licence, the first commercial pilot’s licence and the airfield he had helped set up was licensed as Canada’s first “air harbour”. At the same time his mechanic Robert McCombie was given Canada’s first air engineer’s license.
In 1927 Groome set up his second company “Universal Air Industries” at a new airfield called “Lakeview Aerodrome”. Later that same year Groome helped form the “Regina Flying Club” where he was to hold the position of flying instructor until his death. In September 1935, Groome and student Arnold Sym were killed when the control rod on the aileron of their Avro Avian failed and the aircraft crashed just outside of Regina. This first Air Engineer story was nearly lost in the passing years until some family members and others began to consider his legacy. Dick Berg, then a manager in the Ontario Region of the Ministry of Transport created an award to be named after McCombie which is presented at the annual Ontario Regional AME symposium. People then began to pay more attention to the history of Canada’s AMEs.
A new chapter in the development of air transport opened towards the close of 1936 when the Department of Transport Act (November 2, 1936) came into force. This Act brought together for the first time, under one Minister of the Crown, all services in Canada having jurisdiction over transportation and communications. As air transportation developed, its dependence on radio aids to air navigation and meteorology increased each year. Under the new Department of Transport an “Air Services Branch” was formed to unite under one Director. These three were closely allied activities. The Air Services Branch had fortunately remained under the able and energetic direction of the Honourable C.D. Howe, to whose vision and foresight Canada owed much of its progress in aviation.
Mr. Howe introduced, and passed through Parliament, the Department of Transport Act in the session of 1936, the Trans-Canada Air Lines Act in 1937, and the Transport Act in 1938. These three Acts have placed air transport on a firm foundation for all time. The first provides a suitable organization in the Department of Transport for the administration of all phases of civil aeronautics. The second creates a national instrument for the operation of main line air transport services in Canada and international main line connections to other countries. The third provides, through the Board of Transport Commissioners, an independent judicial body to deal with air route licensing, including, adjudication on necessity and convenience, tariffs and other related matters, leaving regulation of the technical and safety factors to the Air Services Branch.
Civilian Canadians took a great interest in the early aviation activities. The early showmen and women, exploration, saving of lives, and assistance to the police search and rescue made the local print media. It was soon apparent that any meaningful use of aircraft would depend on availability of skilled technicians to keep all the aircraft systems functioning. Successful completion of hazardous missions depended on reliable machines. You will note that many of the early improvements in aircraft systems were invented in the field and later transferred into production machines. Pilots were forthright in the praise of their reliable and trustworthy air engineers. From the early days there were many examples of pilots becoming AMEs and AMEs becoming pilots. Some of that trend continues today. It was soon evident that to be truly professional you needed to concentrate your activities in one area or another. This became even more apparent when aircraft became more complex.
Again, I refer to the book, Voyageurs of the Air. I quote, “pioneer aviators worked in pairs; and although the pilot shouldered much of the responsibility and took all of the credit, it was the air engineer who did most of the work and endured the worst hardships.” They were a breed apart and it has never been made clear why they faced such formidable working conditions for little pay and less recognition.
A punctured float on an aircraft would find an AME up to his neck in freezing water looking for the holes and devising a way to patch it. Top-overhauling an engine outdoors minus mitts or gloves in winter, or smothered in black flies in summer, was a frequent chore; while cleaning spark plugs or making repairs on plane or engine under these conditions was an everyday occurrence.
Winter flying was particularly arduous for the AME. Every stop of an hour or more meant draining the engine oil. Starting the engine again needed a fire to heat the oil while the AME, with a plumber’s blow pot, sat behind a windscreen warming the engine. He was up hours before dawn performing these tasks and was the last into camp at night. Starting the engine, even in warm weather, was an ever present nightmare to the mechanic for it fell to them, to “bear the buffet and cushion the shock.” He was the one elected to provide the muscle and take the risk. A ritual worked out early on was with the pilot, sitting in the cockpit and the mechanic, facing the engine, each solemnly intoning the patter: “switches off; throttle open; suck in” after which the mechanic swung the propeller through one or two cycles, and paused with it on compression to call, “throttle closed, contact!”. A generous heave, accompanied by a light step backward to avoid the propeller, usually set the engine in motion. But a backfire of the engine or a misstep might easily cripple the mechanic for life.
On a seaplane, the operation was performed standing on a float at the back of the propeller; and any awkward footwork could result in a mauling or a ducking or both.
Engines of increasing size and higher compression posed new problems. After “sucking in”, pilot and mechanic sometimes linked hands to pull the propeller through a compression stroke that was beyond the strength of one man. The mechanical aids to start the engines soon arrived. First was the inertial starter, operated by a crank which the mechanic laboriously turned until a heavy flywheel had attained a high r.p.m. A handle, operated by the pilot geared the flywheel to the engine, usually with satisfactory results. If not, the process was repeated as long as the mechanics breathe or patience held out.
Many devices were used. Compressed air proved rather unreliable. A charge from a 12 – gauge shotgun shell firing into a compression chamber was found to be too drastic. It was not until the advent of battery starting that the mechanic could breathe easy. But the load had been shifted not removed; the battery and the electrical system of which it was a part needed more attention than ever. And in extremely cold weather the mechanic, in addition to draining the oil might have to take the battery indoors if he wanted a sure start in the morning. When most of the aircraft was single engine all of this was bad enough. Imagine the extra burden when Grant McConachie’s three engines Ford Trimotor showed up in the north. You had to heat oil for three engines, while warming the engines with blow pots. Then you had to pour the oil into one engine at a time and start it. Sometimes you were lucky and all three started. Sometimes you only got two going, if you failed to get the balky third one started, the whole ordeal started over again. This could all be carried out in temperatures of minus forty or below.
Their capacity for improvisation became legendary, and when a group of mechanics worked together nothing stood in their way. One aeroplane on skis went through the ice and sank on the shores of Bathurst Inlet during the McAlpine search. The “black gang”, for so they dubbed themselves, chopped it free, erected a crane, hauled the craft to the surface and placed on a firm footing. Finally, after they cleared the machine of ice, they made it serviceable after repairing the undercarriage by the use of a skillet handle, all in a matter of days. This was done in the dead of winter at a spot well north of the Arctic Circle.
Several cases are on record of wings and propeller tips being sawn off to achieve a balance so that an aircraft might be flown out of the bush for repairs. These cases are probably more numerous than the records show since any such procedures are contrary to regulations.
Many of the air engineers became pilots and were working toward that goal. Most of the pilots held limited engineer’s certificates enabling them to sign out their own aircraft. These pilots usually lent a hand, but it was the mechanics that bore the brunt of the day’s labour. Upon his shoulders rested the responsibility of keeping the airplane flying and the success of any operation, in a long view, depended as much on the competence of the mechanic as on the skill of the pilot.
Gold and other mineral wealth was the driving force of aviation in Canada in the early twenties. Luckily for the young industry there were sufficient skilled tradesmen from the war years. Their training in the Royal Flying Corp and later the Canadian Air Force and onto the Royal Canadian Air Force was augmented by the maintenance lore built up by the experiences of the early bush engineers. Isolated communities were conveniently linked for the first time. None of this would have happened if the early air engineers were not able to keep the aircraft flying.
One of the many tasks falling to the early air engineers was the spotting of fuel along numerous routes. The fuel then had to be pumped from 45 gallon drums into the aircraft by hand pump. The fuel had to be filtered through chamois cloth or felt hat to prevent water from entering the aircraft fuel system. Water in the fuel system has a nasty habit of freezing in lines and filters and stopping the engine.
Until the late 1930s military flying surpassed civilian flying. To encourage civilian flying, the Federal government started in 1927 to subsidize flying clubs across Canada. One reason was that the government was concerned that we were becoming too dependent on the American system. This may seem quaint to us in the year 2013, with free trade, but then we were a solid part of the British Empire and did not want to be too dependent on the Americans. One of the major impediments to more civilian flying was the cost of a hanger and airfield improvements. Any club formed was required to have an air engineer and to build a hanger. This provided another source of employment for air engineers and eventually led to improved facilities across Canada. This decision also laid some of the groundwork for the very successful WWII British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
Northern Saskatchewan was a particularly active area of early aviation between the wars. My hometown of Big River played a significant role in much of the early work. During the fifties I can clearly recall the excitement of watching Waite Fisheries Norseman, flown by renowned pilot George Greening, take off on the lake by my home. I did not really understand the role Big River played until doing my research on AMEs in Canada.
Northern Saskatchewan is similar to many parts of the northern areas of Canada. The Canadian Shield comes down lower into the province than it does in Alberta. This makes the north of Saskatchewan more like northern Ontario. It was a land of lakes and rivers and lots of rocky out cropping. This contributed to a strong fur trade and very early mineral exploration. In addition, the early missionaries required faster form of transportation. If you add into the equation the need to bring injured and sick people to medical attention, move mail faster and to deliver freight you have a good base for an expanding use of aircraft. Aircraft without AMEs are not really very useful.
Private businessmen and governments soon saw a useful role for aircraft. Since pilots, engineers and aircraft were available after World War I, the scene was set for an expansion of flying across the province. Aircraft engines were first heard over the north during 1924 when the RCAF flew mapping expeditions over the Churchill River and Reindeer Lake. The pilot was Squadron Leader B.D. Robbs, who was accompanied by an air engineer to keep the 12 cylinder Vickers Vedette serviceable.
In 1927 an airbase was established by the RCAF at Ladder Lake near Big River as an operational and maintenance base. The Vickers Vedette was equipped with wireless communication equipment in those days, but no mufflers on the engines. You can imagine what effect the noise had on the engineers and pilots’ hearing abilities. Homing pigeons were used to back up the radios; so much for early avionics.
Private companies such as James Richardson’s Western Canada Airways were among the companies that employed air engineers in northern Saskatchewan. The excellent book, Wings Beyond Roads End, produced by the Saskatchewan Department of Education lists two early air engineers who worked for Consolidated Mining and Smelting at their Waskesiu base. Jim Fox and Dave Bishop maintained a Fairchild aircraft at the base. An interesting note in the book mentions that the aircraft were inspected and certified airworthy by the Dominion Inspector of Civil Aviation.
The Air Engineer title had morphed into the term Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (AME) the term we will now use. The aircraft had changed over the years from fabric biplanes to aluminum monoplanes, from single engine to multi engine, non-retractable landing gear to retractable landing gear but the basic work remained the same. The drive to photograph and map Canada led to a large number of northern flights. To this was added the mineral exploration and medical mercy flights. All these required AMEs to learn to work in and keep aircraft serviceable in heat and cold, from plus 35 C to minus 50c and colder on occasion. Canada is a tough land to live in especially outdoors in the winter. In this sort of environment the AMEs learned how to keep oil and batteries warm, mainly in their tents or cabins. They designed heating systems like the Herman Nelson, which burned aviation gasoline used to warm engines and aircraft, tents and temporary hangers. They also found ways to cushion the shock of cold air on oil coolers and engines. Pilots also had to learn special operating procedures to guard against engine and system failure, any of which could mean more cold work and even injury and death. In summer, flying, biting insects and other pests plagued the AMEs most parts of Canada. Engines and aircraft temporary shelters were built and the work went on.
Then it all changed on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and set the stage for the Second World War and an amazing expansion of aviation around the world. AMEs were there to see it all and to help make it happen. The technical advances during WWII led directly to where AMEs are today. We will cover that in the next chapter.