Canadian Aviation Pioneers


Because of its vast geography, Canada occupies a unique place in aviation history.  To this day, vast stretches of our territory can only be reached by planes. This was even more pronounced during the first half of the twentieth century.


Before the First World War saw their use as military vehicles, airplanes were considered somewhat as gadgets for rich people. The war years brought about a dramatic increase in the number of people who were able to fly them.  After the war, returning pilots sought civilian work in new fields like air mail delivery and locating forest fires.  At the same time, the airplane began to be used to explore previously-inaccessible regions of the Canadian north, and help create new human settlements and keep them linked with the rest of civilization.  Wilfrid “Wop” May is a remarkable local example, and you can read a fascinating account of his life in Wings of a hero: Canadian pioneer flying ace Wilfrid Wop May by Sheila Reid.  This Carberry native returned from the First World War an ace (involved with the shooting down of the Red Baron), and continued flying in Canada by starting his own company, first doing barnstorming shows, but later expanding in delivering critical medical supplies to isolated communities (the most famous example being the “race against death” in Little Red River, Alberta) and helping police in manhunts using his plane for locating fleeing fugitives like the Mad Trapper.  This new breed of airman became known as bush pilots.

The era of the bush planes and the pilots who flew them is filled with stories of exploration and adventures.  These men and women flew aircraft which were primitive by our standards (no radios, radars, or pressurized cockpits) but which were uniquely suited to the environment of the Canadian north (like the Curtiss HS-2L flying boat featured on the top book cover).  They used to ferry people and supplies to isolated outposts of humanity in the Canadian North, and using only lakes and strips made in the snow for landing.  A recent title that is easy to read and focuses as much attention on the machines and the historical “firsts” as the people who built and flew them is Flying on Instinct: Canada’s Bush Pilot Pioneers by L. Dyan Cross.  Bush pilots are still around to this day, and still carry on many of the same vital tasks as their predecessors, From Fox Moths to Jet Rangers: A Bush Pilot’s Life tells the life story of Harvey Evans, another Manitoban, who started his career flying biplanes in northern Canada in the 1950s to graduating to helicopters ferrying construction material and other supplies.

During the Second World War, the country became the “aerodrome of democracy” with the creation of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.  Dozens of training centers for air crews were set up throughout the country, but especially in the prairie provinces, where they helped train over 130,000 pilots and air crews.  Again, both our geography and the fact that we were protected from enemy aviation made Canada the ideal training center for pilots of all Allied nations, from all the dominions as well as the United States.  Of note, the first flight simulators (called Link trainers) were used.  This was one – if not the – most important contribution of Canada to Allied victory.  Wings for Victory : the Remarkable Story of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada by Spencer Dunmore tells how the plan was put into action and is filled with personal stories from the recruits who went through the program.

During the Cold War, Canada was faced with the threat of nuclear devastation on its own soil.  Because Soviet nuclear bombers and missiles would pass over Canadian territory as the most direct route to reach the United States, it became urgent for both countries to develop means to intercept those threats before they could strike.  This is where probably the  most controversial chapters in Canadian aviation history began, with the development of the Avro Arrow interceptor.  This new jet, entirely designed and built in Canada, was set to revolutionize military aviation, with performances ahead of everything that was available and a top speed that approached Mach 3 (3 times the speed of sound).  The project was cancelled in 1959 under circumstances that are still debated but it became known as a lost opportunity for the Canadian aviation industry.  In Janusz Zurakowski: Legend in the Skies, local author Bill Zuk wrote the story of this saga through the eyes of one of its test pilots: Janusz Zurakowski, a World War II veteran of Polish origin who was also a superb aerobatic pilot.  The library also has the CBC miniseries The Arrow which recounts the saga of plane, the team that designed and built it, and the political machinations that brought it down.


For those of you who prefer more visual reading or even coffee table books about beautiful flying machines, there is plenty to choose from at the library.  Two personal recommendations, both because they focus on Canadian aviation history and their visual content:  A Memory of Sky : a Pilot’s View of Canada’s Century of Flight by Jim Shilliday and Wings Across Canada : an Illustrated History of Canadian Aviation by Peter Pigott.  Even though it covers the history to the present day, Memory of Sky is excellent for covering the epoch of the Silver Dart, the first airplane that flew in Canada, as well as the early men and women who paved the way for the new era of flight.  Pigott’s book is focused on the machines and is divided by aircraft models. It include notably the Fokker planes used to keep Hudson Bay trading posts supplied, and several models of cargo planes used to fight forest fires.

There are far more to cover, so please add your suggestions.

– Louis-Philippe

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