by Peter C. Conrad
With such large numbers of aircrew of all the different categories, and the frequent stunts pulled by exuberant students and instructors, one would expect that there would have been a high number of accidents, but this was not the case at all. The number of casualties of the Air Training Plan remained low throughout the war. The reasons for this were the experience that Canada had in air training and the increasingly improved technology during the Second World War.
Yet, when reading newspapers of the war years one is struck by the number of accidents reported. This may have been because of the public interest in such stories as well as the genuine concern that the host communities had for those who had an accident.
One flying instructor, Stan Morris, recalled what a friend’s crash meant to him: “A young lad had gone out for his solo. We were cautioned at all times to never let air speed get below stalling point. At suppertime, he hadn’t returned. The instructors all took off and found his plane. He had attempted to circle a straw stack and had let his air speed down or had held off on a turn and had spiralled in. We had to get a hold of our corporal and pack his belongings and send them home. I think that was the first time that many of us realized that we were in a war.”1
In most host communities, the local air training school remained news. Almost every event that occurred at the schools was reported in detail in the local newspapers. Newspapers also reported on the stunts that the airmen did. One such report of an instructor who performed a number of stunts without an accident read: “Last Tuesday morning about noon one instructor of No. 32 school got into a dare devilish mood, either because he was glad to leave or was disgruntled. Anyhow, at the controls, he did considerable hedge-hopping over buildings in town, sweeping down the vacant lot between The Sun and Imperial Hotel, flew under the overhead pedestrian bridge across CPR tracks, circled around the flour mill a few times on a steep bank and generally cavorted at low altitude. At a subsequent court martial at the camp, several citizens were called to testify as to what happened.”2
Not all the reports were amusing. Another community newspaper carried a story about a student’s forced landing: “With one engine not working an RCAF twin-engine training plane from Rivers, Man., made a forced landing on the field at No. 11 Service Flying Training School here about 11 o’clock last night damaging the undercarriage and a propeller.” The report added: “According to information available the plane was being flown by Flying Officer McNaughton. One engine is reported to have gone dead and the landing here necessitated. In coming down on the unprepared field a deep bank of snow was struck and the damage done…. Complete information was not available but it is believed that the pilot was Gen. McNaughton’s son who is known to be at Rivers.”3 There was no further report about the student or confirmation that he was the general’s son.
The Neepawa Press reported when Andrew Graham and Ross Bruce Francis, brothers who lived at Eden, Manitoba, saved a trainee’s life that the two “received letters of congratulations from Hon. C. G. Power, Minister of National Defence for Air. … The letter stated that when an aircraft crashed in the field nearby, the two men removed the unconscious pilot from the burning plane at the risk of their own lives. Although smoke was streaming from the cockpit, the brothers disregarded personal safety and saved the pilot a few moments before the gas tank exploded, enveloping the aircraft in flames.”4
Not all stories had such a good ending. A more typical article that appeared in the local papers was about the crash and the funeral of Robert Condie at the service flying school at Macleod in April 1941. The ceremony included a three-volley salute by the firing party and included the playing of the hymn “Abide With Me” and ended with the sounding of the “Last Post.” The body was then taken to the CPR depot to be taken to Condie’s home at Crystal City, Manitoba. The Macleod Gazette reported that, “Among the hundreds that lined the streets and the CPR grounds were veterans of the Great War, North West Mounted Police … Railway officials and Town officials. … Before leaving to accompany his son’s remains, Robert Condie Sr. . . . witnessed the ceremonial service, with head bowed in grief and accompanied by friends.” The report added: “To him and the sorrowing wife sympathy of the entire personnel of No. 7 Station and Macleod and district citizens are extended.”5
The Safety Record
Despite the frequency of such stories, when the statistics of the number of hours flown by the student pilots for every fatality are examined, it is clear that the Air Training Plan had an excellent record for safety:
Hours Flown Per Fatal Accident,
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan6
The Second World War’s impressive safety record was marred by increased fatalities in the 1942-1943 period that resulted from the pressure for more trained pilots brought on by the successes of German forces in northern Africa, the Allied losses at Dieppe, and the threat of the Axis invasion of Russia. Even by the time the United States entered the War after Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Allies had not made progress against the Axis. In 1942, the Allies called for more aircrew and stepped up war production. The pressure for more aircrew continued until the success of 1943 in northern Africa and the invasion of Sicily by the Allies.7
This Avro Anson aircraft crashed at Cardston, Alberta. The aircraft is being guarded by the RCMP officer sitting on the nose of the machine. (NA-5005-1)
As one would expect, the local newspapers were full of accident reports in 1942 when the pace of air training was sped up. One example was the front page of The Macleod Gazette on July 30, 1942, which reported the crash of an Avro Anson during the night at the local school, the funeral of another airman at the RAF school at Pearce, and a spectacular midair collision of two aircraft that killed two pilot trainees and an instructor at Pearce. The paper reported that “two Stearman training machines collided, one report stated at about 200 feet above ground, one machine … falling into the river, the other crashing on the bank.” In one aircraft, the “student pilot who was alone … tried to bail out, as the body was found some distance from his machine.”8
These two Cessna Cranes crashed before getting airborne at Calgary on June 17, 1943. One of the two students swerved off his runway into the path of the other. Even though both of these aircraft were totally destroyed, neither of the students received any injuries. (PMR 81-139)
During the period of increased accidents, an article in The Weyburn Review explained the situation best when it pointed out:
“While the newspapers almost daily contain reports of fatal accidents happening to young Canadians or British airmen in training in this country for air battle to come abroad, the ratio of fatal accidents at training stations is relatively very small when the vastness of the air training program underway in Canada is studied.
“When the fact is borne in mind that there are many scores of thousands of young aircrew men in training in the dominion, and that thousands of instructors accompany them on their training flights, the great marvel is that there is not a much greater percentage of fatal mishaps among the airmen in training. The official wastage anticipation in air training is placed at 15 percent, but the actual fatality percentage is much less than that figure, it may be pointed out.
“When fatal accidents occur—and their occurrence is always a matter of regret to all and pain and sorrow in bereavement to relatives—the vast extent of the air training scheme should be borne in mind and the total brought into the reckoning of the number of students and instructors who take off daily at the training schools. From that standpoint, the logical one from which to view the score, the loss of human life at the airports is really remarkably small bearing in mind the highly hazardous nature of the work in hand in support of the Allies’ war effort.”
This was an accurate statement on the extent of air training accidents. The article correctly concluded, “Happy landings to the men in training at the airports, but if fatalities occur they must be looked upon as being incidents among the hazards of war.”9
The victim of a flying accident at Yorkton receives full military honors. (RA 7118)
Although this article was accurate, it must be remembered that the writer was trying to calm the doubts in the communities during the period of the highest frequency of accidents. One aircraft instrument repair tradesman, A. S. Edger, remembered the grim feeling when accidents occurred: “In the five years that I was connected with the Air Training Plan, we had two fatal crashes; one in Regina and one in Winnipeg… both of them were at night…. At Winnipeg, we were out in the morning, while there was a gloomy bunch of people around there because we knew the pilot and we knew what happened to him.”10
Pat Coggins recalled that when he was training at Regina, a fellow student was flying over the airport when he stalled and went into a spin. He did not pull up and crashed on the tarmac with his fellow trainees watching. “Right away, all trainees had to get into aircraft and fly. They always did that when they had a real bad crash. Don’t give them time to sit back and think about it, especially when they’re training and not too secure yet. If you have time you start thinking about what you are doing there, especially when you see it happen on the aerodrome.”11 Like Pat Coggins, trainees learned that although crashes had to be acknowledged, their training had to continue because there was a war on.
Notes for Chapter 7
Hazards of War
1. Interview: Stan Morris with the author, June 5, 1989.
2. Swift Current Sun, Dec. 2, 1941.
3. The Yorkton Enterprise, March 13, 1941.
4. The Neepawa Press, Dec. 16, 1943.
5. The Macleod Gazette, April 10, 1941
6. Wise, p. 107.
7. Hatch, Aerodrome of Democracy, p. 101.
8. The Macleod Gazette, July 30, 1942.
9. Weyburn Review, Aug. 6, 1942.
10. Interview: A. S. Edger with the author, Aug. 4, 1988.
11. Interview: Pat Coggins with the author, June 6, 1989.