by Peter C. Conrad
When the air training schools were established across the Prairies, the residents of the host communities became very close to the personnel. To a great extent, it was not the trainees who were known to the residents and involved in the daily cultural events of a community, it was the permanent staff. The trainees arrived for a month or two, and then moved on. While they were there, the students had a huge task: training and learning. There was not enough time for them to interact with the surrounding communities. The permanent staff, however, was often involved in community life. The importance of the permanent staff to the communities was made clear in an Estevan Mercury article on the closing of a school on February 10, 1944:
“It is a parting that brings many regrets not only in a community sense but in a personal sense as well, for not only have the men of the force established themselves in a high regard in the community but have made close friendships individually and not a few of the fine young ladies of Estevan have found their life-mates and will leave their homes here to go with their husbands to the homeland of these English boys. … these boys truly became a part of Estevan’s community activity and their various talents and interests found expression in many ways which all helped to enrich our social life.”1
The permanent staff included service workers like kitchen workers, administrators, and aircraft repair tradesmen. Ground crews and station administrators were not the heroes, but they were vital to the smooth operation of the schools. The number of permanent staff was not small; the elementary flying schools had over five hundred while the larger service schools and bombing and gunnery schools varied from 1,100 to over 1,600 permanent staff. There could have been no heroes without them doing their jobs throughout the Plan in Canada and overseas.
Fulfilling a Vital Role
The role played by the ground crew was important but, to this point, very little recognition has been given to their contribution to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Robert Collins, a well-known author and ground crew man during the war, pointed out that, “RCAF ground crew have been almost ignored in histories of the war because, although their work was vital and some of them died in action, for the most part that work was undramatic. The best available book on the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan is devoted almost exclusively to aircrew. It fails to even mention the Technical Training Station at St. Thomas, Ontario, where 45,000 ground crew received final training.”2
Maintenance workers in the cafeteria of a Manitoba air observer school. These were the men on the ground that kept the aircraft in the sky. (PAM, Gingras, Charles J. 94)
Members of the Women’s Division refuel an aircraft. As the war went on, women took on more and more “men’s work.” (PAM, Gingras, Charles J. 38)
The work that the ground crew did was not glamorous and in some cases it was difficult and dangerous. Flying instructor Jim Kirk remembered that he “always felt sorry for a lot of our men on the line, even those that were more qualified and came out to start our aircraft for us. He would be there in thirty, forty-below weather and would have to swing that crank standing behind the engine, winding that crank until the motor fired up. Then the blast from the propeller came. He would have to walk with his back to it and crawl under the aircraft to the other engine and crank that one, then get out by the tail.” Kirk recalled how dangerous it was: “We did have one bad accident; one fellow slipped and got his head cut off by the propeller. He was behind the propeller between the aircraft and the engine, right by the leading edge of the wing.”3
Another airman, Phil Ellison, said: “Our ground crew were there when you took off and they were there when we came back. They felt bad when an aircraft was lost. I talked to a lot of fitters and riggers. They wondered if they had done something wrong and the aircraft had failed. I think in the whole scheme of things we forgot who kept the aircraft going.”4
On the air training stations, no service could be ignored. The RCAF had to establish dental clinics, general supply sections and kitchens, a supply system as well as a security section.
Against the Threat of Fire
One of the ground crew sections that was very important was the fire department. The Yorkton Enterprise reported that fire protection was of considerable importance. “Particularly during wartime when economy must be the watchword, it is sound logic to invest money in good firefighting equipment rather than suffer the huge losses which are often the result of fire.”5 The importance of fire protection was reinforced in the early years when fire caused significant losses such as the destruction of buildings at Mossbank. Another dramatic fire occurred on May 21, 1941, at the air observer school at Portage la Prairie. Only one week after hangar number two was finished and a dozen new aircraft had just been placed in it, a student pilot, flying at two hundred feet, stalled and crashed into it. The Anson aircraft inside the building had just been filled with fuel. In moments, gas tanks were exploding, making the hangar unapproachable. A wind had spread the flames to hangar number one, but it was saved.6
Action was taken in 1942 at the Mossbank and Dafoe bombing and gunnery schools to build swimming pools to supply the water storage needed to fight fires. These were the only schools on the Prairies to receive swimming pools for firefighting water supply.7
Another large and important part of the ground services was the motor transport section. Motor transport was responsible for all trucks, cars, and tractors. The work included both the operation of these vehicles and their maintenance. The men of the section found themselves driving officers to town, driving large trucks with small cranes to crash sites to load up aircraft, and clearing snow in the winter. As well, tractors had to be used to haul planes out of hangars and muddy fields, and for road construction.
Added to these duties, the transport section was responsible for the maintenance and operation of the station’s ambulance, although, as The Yorkton Enterprise noted, “The ambulances are under the authority of the medical officer and used for taking patients to hospital or for emergency work. During night flying an ambulance must be stationed at the hangars to be ready for an emergency, a driver standing by all through night-flying.”8
Roy K. Cousins dispatches aircraft in the control tower at the air observer school at Portage la Prairie in 1942. PAM Gingras J., 24)
Avro Anson Mark I aircraft await duty at a typical operations hangar at Edmonton. The one in the back is undergoing a thorough mechanical inspection. (JRA 015304806)
The ground crew at Winnipeg hurries to assemble the newly arrived English Avro Ansons on November 19, 1940. (NMST 5886)
Vital to the continuous flying of the schools were accurate weather forecasts by the meteorology section. It was clear that it was “important for them to have an accurate picture of the present weather conditions in the surrounding country, as it would be extremely dangerous to send a young student flier on a cross-country flight without knowing whether or not he is likely to encounter storms, fogs, icing or other hazardous conditions.”9
The meteorologists used Teletype machines to keep close communication with other schools about the student flights. This section was also responsible for air traffic control. “Met” had to keep a record of all flights and departures, collect flight plans, and report the flights to the airports that the aircraft were traveling to.10
Keeping the Aircraft in the Air
Among service sections, maintenance was central to the training effort because it was responsible for keeping aircraft in the air. The three major areas of maintenance were air-engine, airframe, and air instrument. Maintenance was a large section of tradesmen working in specialized areas.
The regular work of the ground crew was the repair of any aircraft that needed it, as well as a periodic complete check of the aircraft every forty flying hours. The procedure, known as the P-40, included inspection of the airframe, engine, airscrew (or propeller), instrument, armament, electrical and radio equipment. The procedure required about six hours to complete.11
Mechanics at work on an aircraft engine at the Winnipeg air observer school. Some civilians look on as the ground crew demonstrated their trade. (FPA 128138347)
The safety of the pilots of the aircraft was central to the work of this section: “Upon the knowledge of the personnel carrying out these inspections depends the very lives of the pilots who fly the aircraft.” The Yorkton Enterprise editorialized, “So you see the maintenance squadron of each RCAF station throughout Canada is really, as stated before, one of the most important cogs in the great wheel of air force operations.” The newspaper concluded that, “It is the men on the ground who keep the aircraft in the air.”12 A good ground crew was indeed the core of a good training school.
The Women’s Division
The recruitment of the ground crew was not a great problem for the RCAF. This was especially true once the air force began to call on the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, which was renamed the RCAF (Women’s Division) in the spring of 1941.13
Members of the Women’s Division at Macleod stand at the side of an Avro Anson with the engines running. (PL 6885)
As more men had to go into aircrew training, members of the Women’s Division expanded their areas of expertise. Here the WDs are doing maintenance on a vehicle. (PL 6965)
Don O’Hearn, a RCAF airframe tradesman, recalled that members of the Women’s Division “were working in the fabric shops as we called it then, packing parachutes, doing fabric work. They were in the clerical offices typing and that kind of thing.” O’Hearn went on to say, “You see at that time, for women, it’s not like today, there was no equal opportunity; women were relegated to what was known as a ‘woman’s job’. They drove trucks and vehicles and formed a service of flying airplanes into various fields. It was nothing to see a woman get out of a Spitfire or a Lancaster. They did a tremendous job in that regard.”14
Members of the Women’s Division pack parachutes at Portage la Prairie in 1944. (PAM, Gingras, Charles J. 30)
One of the traditional roles of the Women’s Division was work on the telephone switchboard. This is a member of the WDs at the service school at Macleod, Alberta. (PL 6971)
Members of the Women’s Division work with an ambulance. (PL 12329)
One member of the Women’s Division, Dorothy Currie, recalled that: “On the whole, I would say the WDs were respected. There would be the odd airman who didn’t like them, but on average, they were accepted.”15
Indeed, it was both the men and women of the air force who kept the airplanes in the air. It was not surprising that the Women’s Division motto was “They serve that men may fly.” This motto was the central point of the 1943 recruitment campaign. The motto and the opportunity to contribute to the war effort doubled the number in the division and brought the total number of women to 14,562. They took training as instrument technicians, airframe and aero-engine mechanics and in other areas. With their participation, men whose aspirations to fly were thwarted by the need for ground crew were freed to train as aircrew.16
Notes for Chapter 8
Operating the Plan
1. The Estevan Mercury, Feb 10, 1944.
2. Robert Collins, The Long and the Short and the Tall (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1986).
3. Interview: J. P. Kirk with author, September 29, 1987.
4. Interview: Phil Ellison with the author, June 6, 1989.
5. The Yorkton Enterprise, June 5, 1942.
6. The Record of No. 7 A.O.S. R.C.A.F. Portage la Prairie, Man. 1941-1945, p. 81.
7. Hatch, The Aerodrome of Democracy, p. 36. 8 Yorkton Enterprise, June 5, 1942.
8. The Yorkton Enterprise, June 5, 1942.
13. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force, p. 220.
14. Interview: Don O’Heam with the author, June 27, 1988.
15. Interview: Dorothy Currie with the author, June 8, 1989.
16. Hatch, Aerodrome of Democracy, p. 183.