6. Going Through the Mill

by Peter C. Conrad

Training high numbers of quality aircrew was the central goal of the BCATP. The result was a training program that was unforgiving to those candidates who did not quickly grasp the lessons they were taught. The high stresses of training and the added difficulties for many from other countries around the world of adjusting to a harsh climate and learning a new language was overcome only by determination, discipline, and enthusiasm. It was these attributes among those in the Training Plan that led to its success.

Many of the recruits of both the armed services and air training it was a new experience. For the small numbers of Free French, Indian, Czechoslovakian, Polish, Belgian, and Dutch, there was the problem of not knowing English. There were even pilot candidates who, because of the Depression, never had an opportunity to learn to drive a car. Many recruits had not even traveled much beyond their hometowns before they entered training. The experience of training began when the volunteers arrived in the recruitment offices where all the essential forms were filled out and signed.

Wet Pea

In the first two years the Plan was in operation, volunteers had to have junior matriculation, which was grade twelve in British Columbia and Ontario and grade eleven in the other provinces. Those who did not have this level of education were told to go back to school. This changed in October 1941, when the number of qualified recruits declined significantly. The RCAF implemented an aptitude test designed to measure the abilities of the trainees who did not meet the academic requirements. Those who scored well on the test were sent to the Wartime Emergency Training Program (known to many airmen as the Wet Pea) to upgrade their personal skills. Twenty-seven hundred aircrew received this kind of upgrading.1

Bill Minor remembered what that Wartime Emergency Training Plan in Calgary was like: “This [training] consisted mainly of mathematics, aircraft recognition, a little bit of wireless. They speeded us up on our math and they didn’t accept 50 or 60 per cent, they wanted it to be 100 per cent on simple mathematics and speed.” Minor recalled that he “lived out” in Calgary: “They paid us thirty-seven dollars a month for living out, while we took this training at Central High School downtown. I was lucky to get a place for thirty dollars a month. We didn’t have to be in barracks, we were doing what we pleased, but we had to be in class at nine o’clock in the morning.”2

[Photograph Missing]

Kitchen staff joined the men for this photograph of a typical airman’s mess. (JRA 015204801)

[Photograph Missing]

LAC Rajinder Singti Sandhu, from India, prepares for a training flight, with his parachute secured. For many of the local residents of Weyburn, the war was the first time they had ever seen Sikhs in their traditional turbans. (PL 23202)

Manning Depot

Volunteers who had either met the academic standards or had completed War Time Emergency Training were sent to the manning pools, holding facilities where the trainees received an initial introduction to service life. The experience was often surprising. One airman, C. A. (Smokey) Robson, remembered that his first sight of the depot was from the back of the truck that was bringing the new recruits to the training station: “The grounds were full of people, who were already there, put doing drills. As our truck was driving up the street to the buildings, they all stopped and in a uniform voice yelled suckers!”3

Another recruit, who became a flying instructor, Stan Morris, recalled: “After the first day of marching, I think if I had been a little closer to home, I would have gone there. My feet were sore. It was a real experience.”4 Phil Ellison, an air gunner, wondered, “what the emphasis on marching, squad drilling and banging your feet to the ground had to do with winning a war.”5 The shocks and difficulties were all taken in stride as the civilian recruits became air personnel.

After an interview with an officer, a decision was made as to where a recruit would be sent for training. Bill Minor recalled his experience of being tested and interviewed at the manning depot: “I had an interview with an officer who said I would make a very good wireless air gunner, but my brother was a gunner, and he told me, never go to wireless air gunner; if you want to be a gunner, be a gunner. So, I was a little stubborn. The thing was, they needed wireless air gunners and it had nothing to do with my aptitude test, so I stuck to my guns. Finally he said, alright, we’ll send you to [an initial training school], but I don’t think you’ll ever make a pilot.”6

[Photograph Missing]

RCAF recruits file applications at a recruiting station. Statistics show that the men and women in the Prairies had the highest rate of enlistment in the air force on a per capita basis when compared to the other regions of Canada. (FPA 128138361)

As historian Fred Hatch pointed out in his book, The Aerodrome of Democracy, the selection for the pilots was based on fitness and learning ability. The pilot trainees had to undergo three major medical examinations. The first was completed at the recruitment offices, another occurred at the manning depot, and the final and most probing examination was carried out at the initial school. The final medical exam checked for the smallest variation in blood pressure, vision, or heart action. The pilot candidate could have a maximum height of six feet three inches and a maximum weight of two hundred pounds. He had to have passed his eighteenth birthday, but not be over twenty-eight. As manpower shortages developed, the age requirements dropped to seventeen and increased to thirty-five.7

Pilot candidates were sent to initial flying training schools, while recruits who demonstrated a high level of mechanical ability were sent to St. Thomas, Ontario, where they learned aircraft body design, engine maintenance, or instrument repairs. Trainees selected for gunnery attended bombing and gunnery schools and navigator candidates were sent to air observer schools located at Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Prince Albert, and Portage la Prairie. Other recruits trained at wireless schools, located at Winnipeg and Calgary, where they learned radio, electronics, and communications.

Initial Training School

At initial training school, candidates were expected to follow a strict routine of classes, marching, cleaning, and physical training. There was no flying training at initial schools. It was a ground school where trainees learned the basics of aeronautics and mathematics. One airman who became an air gunner, Phil Ellison, remembered that the courses taught at the initial school often presented a challenge to the candidate: “I was out of school for three years—to go back to the trigonometry and mathematics that was involved in ground training you had to do some studying. Everybody did work hard. The guys were not fooling around; they were trying hard. They were going to be ‘Battle of Britain Aces’ if they could get pilot training.”8

Because many candidates who were sent to the initial training schools were more suited to other trades, the instructors had to determine the aptitudes of the trainees and recommend what type of school they should be sent to next. After completing training at the initial school, the candidates were interviewed by a board. The interviews were the last step in determining who would be selected for pilot training at the elementary flying school. If there was any reason to doubt a candidate’s ability to be a pilot, he was selected for one of the other trades such as navigation, wireless, or gunnery and sent to one of the schools that taught that trade.

[Photograph Missing]

Students receive instruction at the bombing and gunnery school at Paulson Manitoba. (FPA 128138354)

At Last, Flight!

At the elementary flying training schools, the pilots in training were finally allowed to fly single engine aircraft. They had to learn all the basics of flight and navigation. The course was about eight weeks long, including approximately 50 hours of flying and 126 hours of ground lectures. Later in the war, when the need for pilots was reduced, the flying time was increased to sixty hours with a maximum of seventy-five hours for those who needed it. A pilot trainee was expected to take his first solo flight after eight hours of dual flight. The solo flight was a problem for many. If a candidate was not able to fly solo when expected, the chief flying instructor tested him. Most were reassigned to a different air trade.

[Photograph Missing]

Recruits gather at a typical RCAF center. (PL 20912)

[Photograph Missing]

This cockpit drill trainer is being used at Medicine Hat’s service flying training school in December 1943. The drill cockpit was a safe place for student pilots to learn the basics of flight. (PMR 81-138)

[Photograph Missing]

At the wireless school at Calgary trainees learn flag signaling. Other skills the airmen needed were radio operations and Morse code. (PL 1520)

[Photograph Missing]

Three students, E. M. Romilly, RCAF; W. H. Betts, RAAF; and J. A. Mahoud, RAF, train to be observers in an Avro Anson at the air navigation school near Rivers, Manitoba, on June 4, 1941. (PL 3740)

[Photograph Missing]

Before pilot trainees were allowed to fly aircraft, they developed their skills in a Link trainer like these in Virden, Manitoba. In 1940 the number of hours spent in a Link was 5 hours, but that increased to 20 hours in 1941 and to 25 hours in 1943. (PMR 81-213)

[Photograph Missing]

Aircrew trainees at Virden, Manitoba, learn Morse code. (PA 140653)

The syllabus for elementary school was very demanding. Students were expected to progress quickly. Only those who were determined to make their first solo and execute spin recoveries, nearly perfect take-offs, landing and navigation were allowed to “pass out” of elementary flying training. Twenty-two and a half percent failed to pass for reasons other than sickness, injury, or death.9

The Last Leg to the Wings

At the service flying training schools, there was an emphasis on precision flight. Students were expected to improve their navigational abilities with cross-country flights while drawing maps of towns, roads, bridges, railways, and other important landmarks. Trainees were also required to do instrument, night flying, and formation flying exercises. As well, the pilot candidates took part in simulated bombing raids.10

One of the most difficult adjustments for the trainees at the service flying schools was the change from the single-engine aircraft used at the elementary flying schools to the larger two-engine airplanes. Pat Coggins, a pilot, recalled that the first reaction to the twin-engine machines was that he “would never be able to fly that ‘bugger’. It was too big.”11 A former BCATP flying instructor, Stan Morris, said: “Of course, there were many more instruments. In Elementary Schools, you learned needle, ball and air speed. That was all you needed. The needle showed you the speed you were going. The ball showed you that you had to keep above stalling. Once you were in a twin, you had two motors and you had to synchronize them so they were not bucking each other. It was certainly a step up.”12

[Photograph Missing]

Here the graduates of the service flying training school at Vulcan, Alberta, parade on their graduation. (PMR 79-412)

[Photograph Missing]

Practicing gunnery skills on an aircraft simulator at the bombing and gunnery school at Paulson, Manitoba. (FPA 128138355)

[Photograph Missing]

Members of the Royal Australian Air Force training to be observers by taking sun shots at the Rivers, Manitoba, school. (PL 3722)

The difficulty with the twin-engine machines began on the ground, as Paul Heasman, a pilot who trained at the service flying school at MacLeod, recalled: “You were used to a single-engine aircraft where you could use the brakes to steer, keeping it on the runway, but when you got to the Ansons with their air brakes, they didn’t want you to use them anymore than you had to. You had to try to keep the aircraft on the runway with the, engines. If you used the brakes too much and the pressure in the tanks was below eighty pounds, you couldn’t take off, you had to go back and pump up the air.”13 Despite this, Stan Morris said the “two engines gave you a much better sense of security because one of the first things your instructor did was shut off one engine and show you that you could fly on one engine. Mind you, you had to make adjustments to twins. But if you were in a Tiger Moth and your motor went, you had to find a field right away.”14

If a pilot candidate succeeded in his training at the service flying training school and received his wings, the next step was to one of the various operational training units outside the Prairies. Once a pilot had attained a high enough level of proficiency, he would be transferred to full military operations.

There was one other place a successful pilot candidate could be sent. That was the instructor training schools. Successful pilots, who looked forward to beginning their tours of duty overseas, were often disappointed when the call came for them to report to the instructor flying training school at Vulcan, Alberta, or, later in the war, to Pearce, Alberta. Top graduates in the navigation course were also sent to an instructor course at the Central navigation school at Rivers.15

Notes for Chapter 6

Going Through the Mill

1. Hatch, Aerodrome of Democracy, pp. 120-121; Interview: J. P. Kirk with author, Sept. 29, 1987.

2. Interview: Bill Minor with author, Oct. 3, 1987.

3. Interview: C. A. (Smoky) Robson with the author, June 7, 1989.

4. Interview: Stan Morris with the author, June 5, 1989.

5. Interview: Phil Ellison with the author, June 7, 1989.

6. Interview: Bill Minor with the author, Oct. 3, 1987.

7. Hatch, Aerodrome of Democracy, pp. 120-121.

8. Interview: Phil Ellison with the author, June 7, 1989.

9. Hatch, Aerodrome of Democracy, pp. 127-132.

10. Murray Peden, A Thousand Shall Fall (Stittsville, Ont.: Canada’s Wings Inc., 1979), p. 16.

11. Interview: Pat Coggins with the author, June 6, 1989.

12. Interview: Stan Morris with the author, June 5, 1989.

13. Interview: Paul Heasman with the author, June 5, 1989.

14. Interview: Stan Morris with the author, June 5, 1989.

15. Interview: J. P. Kirk with author, Sept. 29, 1987.

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About peterconrad2014

I am a writer with experience in writing short stories, articles, non-fiction books, the novel, on line course content, journalism, and encyclopaedia articles. Never accepting limitations, I have had successes in diverse writing approaches. I am a storyteller, teacher, and artist.
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