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RCAF has had storied history since taking flight 100 years ago

The Moose Jaw Express takes a look back at the early history of the Royal Canadian Air Force as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

The Royal Canadian Air Force has had a storied history since it officially took flight on April 1, 1924, and has made significant contributions to war over the past 100 years.

Early flight

Canada’s first manned flight occurred on Aug. 10, 1840, in Saint John, N.B., when Bostonian Louis Anselm Lauriat floated in a hot air balloon nicknamed Star of the East, according to Legion magazine. Lauriat drifted away across the countryside, much to the crowd’s astonishment and delight. 

Sixty-six years later, on July 13, 1906, C.K. Hamilton completed the first powered and directed flight in Canada in Montreal by flying a dirigible. 

It was the flight of the Silver Dart three years later that really excited Canadians about aviation.


On Feb. 23, 1909, the Silver Dart became the first controlled, powered, heavier-than-air machine flown in Canada, with pilot Douglas McCurdy flying it over Baddeck Bay, N.S. This was the culmination of efforts by the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), which telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell had established with his wife, Mabel. 

The Bells formed the AEA in 1907 with the goal of building a “practical aerodrome or flying machine driven through the air by its own power and carrying a man.” 

McCurdy also had the distinction of being the first Canadian to receive a pilot’s licence in 1907, while he was the first person to crash a plane on Aug. 13, 1909, after demonstrating a flight for military leadership.

Seeing the crumpled plane, one colonel said, “We must wait a great many years and experiment much before the true use of these machines can be demonstrated.” 

The first war

The First World War arrived five years later, and with it, the airplane proved its importance. By 1915, Canadians were distinguishing themselves by flying in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC). 

Of note:

  • On Feb. 4, 1915, Lt. W.F. Sharpe died at Shoreham, England, during his first solo flight, making him the first Canadian airman to die 
  • On March 9, 1915, R.H. Mulock became the first Canuck to qualify as a pilot in the British air services and served with distinction
  • On June 2, 1917, pilot Billy Bishop conducted a solo flight and attacked a German airfield in Cambrai, France. Despite being jumped by enemy planes, he returned to friendly lines and crash-landed. He later earned the Victoria Cross
  • On Oct. 27, 1918, fighter pilot William Barker became involved in combat with a numerically superior enemy force. While he was seriously wounded in the dogfight, he shot down three enemy planes before crashing near Allied lines. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, while he became Canada’s most decorated airman

More than 13,000 Canadians served with the RFC and Royal Naval Air Service between 1914 and 1918, with 171 pilots becoming aces — shooting down five or more enemy planes — during that time. Also, about 1,400 were killed in action.

Four of the top 12 war aces were Canadian; Billy Bishop had 72 kills, Raymond Collishaw had 60, Donald McLaren netted 54, and William Barker had 50. 

Meanwhile, 24 Canadians scored 20 or more kills, four were awarded the Victoria Cross, and 193 received the Distinguished Flying Cross plus bars. 

Tough times

The post-war period was difficult for Canada’s air force, as the federal government saw little need for it when the country faced no discernable external threats.

“Canadians had little appreciation of the potential of air power and little enthusiasm for expenditures on such esoteric military commitments,” wrote historian Alec Douglas in The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume 2. 

“A minuscule active militia and an even small navy had served the national interest in prewar years and would continue to do so, but there was no institution traditional for an air force to build upon.”

Yet, in 1920, the Canadian Air Force came into existence and was charged with providing 28-day refresher air and ground courses to veterans once every two years at Camp Borden in Ontario. It later merged with other military organizations to form the Department of Defence on Jan. 1, 1923. 

Sixteen months later, on April 1, 1924, King George V granted the air force the royal title. 

Between the First and Second World Wars, aircraft design continued to change, airmen set and broke flying records, early bush and float planes hit the production lines, airmail began to grow, and airplanes began opening up Canada’s expansive hinterlands to exploration, exploitation and settlement. 

The second war

The RCAF provided a large contribution during the Second World War, becoming the fourth-largest Allied air force by 1944, with more than 215,000 personnel. By war’s end, more than 18,000 airmen had died in combat. 

Of note:

  • On Sept. 3-4, 1939, Sgt. Albert Prince became the first Canadian airman killed in combat when his plan failed to return from an attack in Germany 
  • On Aug. 15, 1940, Squadron Leader Earnest Archibald McNab became the first Canadian to shoot down an enemy plane 

In his after-action report, Archibald wrote, “… I did a stern attack on them firing a short burst with no apparent effect before breaking off. On my next attack, after the first burst, the rear gunner ceased firing and the enemy aircraft started to lose height. I followed him down, firing. His engines began to smoke and he crashed into some marshy ground just west of Westgate-on-Sea. As my ammunition was used up, I returned to my base and refuelled.”

Battle in Korea

The RCAF played a smaller role in the Korean War (1950-53), with only 22 fighter pilots flying, but with the American air force. However, the organization’s biggest role was transportation, as it shipped men and material between North America and Japan on “The Long Haul.”

Flying Officer James Shipton performed two tours delivering cargo and mail, according to Legion magazine. He flew 2,400 kilometres from Tacoma, Wash., to Alaska before flying another 2,400 kilometres to the end of the Alaskan island chain. He then covered 3,400 kilometres to Tokyo.

“It (the trip) was a sonofagun. The leg down to Tokyo was a bit of a problem,” he said, since a remote island chain off Alaska extended toward Japan and “we never knew if the Russians had fighter aircraft there or not.”

Luckily for him, they didn’t.

The Royal Canadian Air Force held its name until 1968 when the federal government amalgamated the army, navy and air force as a unified Canadian Forces.

Forty-three years later, in August 2011, the air force reverted to its historic moniker, once again becoming the Royal Canadian Air Force.  
This is part 1 in a series.

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