The RCAF

by Don R Rae
Photographs from Warner Brothers

Starting from scratch in 1939, Canada has created an impressive and highly efficient aerial war machine to train the empire's flying men.

From a forlorn total of only eight improved airports to a total of 72 completely modern and equipped air centers in the course of two inspired years;

From a collection of not more than 70 obsolete planes to an air armada of more than 6,000 training ships;

From small and inadequate Atlantic and Pacific coastal patrols to 26 squadrons of pursuit and bombing pilots, now being organized, to serve as an integrated RCAF force overseas;

From 170 pilots to a total of 2,500 highly trained soldier-pilots fighting both in Europe and in the Near East, and an estimated output of 900 pilots per month;

From a personnel of less than 2,000 on the ground and in the air to a vast training force of 250,000:

This, in brief, sums up the amazing speed with which the Royal Canadian Air Force has developed and expanded under the Joint Air Training Plan launched soon after Great Britain declared war on Germany in September, 1939. Into a vast aerial melting pot have gone Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and Americans. It is estimated that 10 per cent of the entire RCAF is American, thanks principally to the famed Clayton Knight Committee (now the Canadian Aviation Bureau) which has disseminated information throughout the United States.

The foregoing data comes from Squadron Leader Owen Cathcart-Jones, famed British naval and commercial pilot, a Staff Officer in the Directorate of training for the RCAF, and recently assigned to act as technical advisor on the Warner Brothers motion picture, Captains of the Clouds, which tells the story of the growth of the RCAF with the foreground of action revolving around "bush flyers" who enter the service.

Much of the film was taken at the Number Two Service. Flying Training School at Uplands, Ontario; at the Central Flying School at Trenton, and at the Atlantic base near Halifax.

Squadron Leader Cathcart-Jones has had a varied and exciting career, with about 3,500 hours of logged time behind him. Born at Insch, Scotland, June 5, 1900, he attended preparatory school until he was 13 and then became a naval cadet. For the next 17 years he was in the navy, with six years in the Fleet Air Arm, holding the rank of Lieutenant. He flew from the Glorious, the Eagle, the Courageous, the Hermes and the Argus. He resigned in 1930 and, as a civilian pilot, flew with Glen Kidston. Among his sensational flights were from London to Capetown; from London to Malta; from London to Melbourne, and several South American demonstration flights. In addition to making record flights, he acted as technical advisor to producers of motion pictures in Great Britain. From 1936 until 1939 he spent most of his time in Mexico, but hurried to Canada to offer his services to the RCAF when the war started.

"In the beginning," he declared today, "the RCAF, now the pride of all Canadians, had only the nucleus of an air force. There were but a few Noorduyn Norsemen, Fleet biplanes, Fairchild 71s, Bellancas on floats, and flying boats.

"Personnel was about 2,000, including both airmen and groundmen, or aircraftsmen.

"There were but eight fields, three of which were well developed. These were Camp Borden (now the senior member of a group of 26 service flying training schools); Rockcliffe, which is devoted to test and development work; and Trenton, the central flying school."

Today, a complete training schedule is in full operation, consisting of initial, elementary and service stages, roughly corresponding to the American system of ground, primary, basic and advanced stages. Graduates have approximately 265 hours, which is 55 more than fledgling US Army Air Forces' lieutenants have when they receive their commissions.

The breakdown of the four stages of training is as follows:

Oddly enough, only 10% of the graduates are commissioned as officers. The other 90% are ranked as sergeant pilots.

"The RCAF believes that this system, rather than granting of commissions to everyone, inspires a greater spirit of competition," Cathcart-Jones declares. "The sergeants gradually get commissions. The original commissions are granted as a result of excellence in all phases of flying. Pilot officers receive about $120 a month, as compared to a flight lieutenant's pay of about $245 in the United States. However, a great many allowances are made, which brings the pay well up. Pilot sergeants receive slightly less than the officers."

Cathcart-Jones declares emphatically that there is no shortage of candidates — that, in fact, the Joint Air Training Plan, being the pet of the Canadians, is receiving more than enough man power.

"We require what corresponds to a high school education," he says. "We've so many superior candidates that it has not been necessary to call up even what one might call 'first class men.' It is heartbreaking to turn down some of the excellent material we do.

"Educationally and physically, we believe that we have the finest fighting product in the world today.

"The estimated cost of training a pilot is about $25,000, which is about the figure arrived at in the United States during World War I."

The Australians and New Zealanders arrive with a background of elementary training. Many of the United States candidates have had some flying experience, most of it in CAA primary and secondary schools.

"The need of instructors is our bottleneck," Cathcart-Jones declared. "We do not have enough for the elementary (primary) training. The elementary schools are operated by private enterprise, much as in the United States. We return some of our best pilots to these schools to act as instructors.

"The Canadian Aviation Bureau has been of invaluable aid in getting instructors from the United States. As an experiment, we accepted 25 apprentice instructors, mostly from California, with a minimum of 150 hours of instructional experience. This was successful, and we could use many, many more."

Instructors are accepted up to the age of 45 years. Those wishing to enlist in the RCAF for flight training, however, must be between the ages of 17½ and 28 years. At the present time, there is a need for air crews, and the Canadian Aviation Bureau is working on the United States phase.

The new plan for the development of the 26 fighting and bombing squadrons to be organized and sent overseas is the result of popular demand in Canada, both among the civilians and among the pilots themselves. Until recently all activity was directed toward training, with the overseas pilots being infiltrated into RAF squadrons, with the result that pilots were losing their Canadian identity.

"The new squadrons will give Canada a chance to show that its pilots can fight and bomb, and the achievements of these squadrons will be Dominion achievements," Cathcart-Jones explains. The growth of the air centers is one of the most amazing in military annals. From the nucleus of eight fields, the 72 completely equipped air centers have sprung into full being in just 24 months. The fields are lighted for night flying, have everything from barracks and reception rooms to control towers and hangars. They lack nothing essential to safe and thorough training.

"Night flying is particularly important, coupled with instrument work," he points out. "When Europe is blacked out under you, if you don't know your instruments, you might as well give up then and there. This isn't daytime warfare. No pilot is turned out today without a thorough knowledge of how to use his instruments."

It was thought that the Canadian winter, lasting from September to April, would bog down the Joint Air Training Plan. But Canadian spirit was such that construction was not for an instant halted at any of the new air centers. And, when it was thought that snows would prevent training flights, it was found that snow, if rolled, made an excellent runway with a surface that exerted an almost uncanny grip on tires. Winter training is more successful because of clearer skies.

In addition to the RCAF, the RAF is also operating schools in Canada. These are manned entirely by RAF personnel. The speed with which Canada has built its air power startles even the Canadians. Only a year before, when the Captains of the Clouds company started filming at Uplands, there was little more than an open field. Today, there is a completely equipped school on the site — Service Flying Training School Number Two — and it is in full operation.

Aircraft have not only multiplied but have undergone some amazing changes. When the original equipment soon proved to be both obsolete and inadequate, it was necessary to start from scratch. The British agreed to send over some Avro Anson bomber trainers. This plan fizzled out due to transportation problems and the fact the Ansons were direly needed in Great Britain. On the other hand, the bomb and gunnery schools have been able to get Fairey Battles, two-place fighters which were unsuitable to modern combat fighting, due to many reasons including a bad blind spot.

Elementary training is now given on Fleet biplanes, built at Fort Erie, Ontario; de Havilland Tiger Moths, produced near Montreal and the new low-winged Fairchild 71s, which have been flowing steadily to the RCAF air centers for the past several months and are proving very satisfactory.

For pursuit pilots taking service training, the North American BT-17s, known as Harvards, are the backbone. Also used are BT-14s known as Yales. Many of these ships were obtained in a hurry when France went under. There was a huge French order and it was taken over by the RCAF. Harvards are equipped with retractable landing gear and also have been delivered in large numbers.

Cadets taking flight instruction on bombers at the service flying training schools now get most of their training on twin-motored Cessna Cranes and Avro Ansons.

Also used in the RCAF are a few Lockheed Electras, for communications, and Lockheed Hudsons, which are being used on both the Atlantic and Pacific coastal patrols.

The equipment used in the Joint Air Training Plan is such that, coupled with the excellence of the pilot material, the washout percentage is very low. Cathcart-Jones estimates that only 14% are washed out in each of the three training stages. As of September 1, 1941, all 72 air centers were in full operation, and the present pilot output is estimated at 900 monthly, with the number steadily increasing. There are approximately 80 planes at each air center. The centers are devoted to elementary and service flying. There are bomb and gunnery schools and schools for air observers as well.

One of the highlights of Cathcart-Jones' experience as technical adviser for Captains of the Clouds occurred near Halifax. The windup of the picture calls for a Messerschmitt Me-109 to attack a group of unarmed bombers being flown across the Atlantic. No Me-109 was available, so arrangements were made by Cathcart-Jones to dress up a Hawker Hurricane which was available, to look like the German pursuit job. It was repainted, tricked up and huge iron crosses were painted on it.

Flight Lieutenant Russell, with 11 German victories to his credit, was assigned to fly the disguised plane for the scenes in the picture. Wanting to find out how it flew, Russell crawled into the cockpit and headed for Halifax, which is heavily armed with antiaircraft guns. He proceeded to put on a terrific show just over the housetops. RCAF personnel waited with trepidation for the batteries to cut loose at him.

When he landed, he was asked why he'd taken such a chance.

"They couldn't hit me over in Europe, so I just figured they couldn't hit me over here," Russell replied.

Cathcart-Jones thinks that this story really highlights the Canadian spirit.

This article was originally published in the April, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 4, pp 43-44, 102.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of Squadron Leader Cathcart-Jones and 3 photos.
Photos credited to Warner Brothers.