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Wings of War

For the week of Monday December 8, 2014

On December 14, 1915, Arthur Ince became the first Canadian pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft during the First World War (1914-18). The former salesman turned soldier was among the thousands of Canadians whose sense of adventure drove them to join the air force.

These women repairing an engine were among 700 women hired by RFC Canada. Before it could train cadets, RFC Canada had to hire thousands of Canadians to make up a ground crew.
© Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada
When the First World War began, aviation was in its infancy. the Vancouver Sun voiced a common amazement that “the wildest dreams of fiction are the facts of the present war in the air.” When Great Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was established in 1912, few could imagine its importance. Initially used for observation, airplanes soon mounted aerial attacks using guns and bombs. Great Britain’s urgent need for more pilots and training facilities led to the establishment of the RFC Canada in 1916. Canadians who previously had limited opportunity to join the RFC would now have a training program and a domestic airplane factory.

The newly formed Canadian Aeroplanes Limited set up its factory in Toronto. During 19 months of operation it produced 1,200 Curtiss JN-4 training planes and thousands of individual parts. These planes were largely made of wood, cloth, and wire, and had to be carefully constructed to withstand the stresses of executing combat manoeuvres and carrying heavy loads. Canadian Aeroplanes Limited gained a reputation for efficiency and quality.

Cadets attend a lecture about airplane rigging at the University of Toronto, circa 1917.
© Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / C-020396

The factory supplied planes to the pilot training program, which built a network of training centres in Ontario. In a matter of weeks, cadets mastered military procedures, telegraphy, aerial photography, map reading, armaments, rigging and engine construction, and the theory of flight. Many students flew solo after just five hours of instruction! Cadets began graduating in May 1917.

Great Britain’s wartime air force contained more than 20,000 Canadians, two thirds of whom had trained in Canada. They saw action across Europe, and three airmen won the Commonwealth’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, awarded for valour in the face of the enemy. After the war, the pioneering aviation industry benefitted from an availability of mechanics, pilots, and airplanes. RFC Canada laid foundations for the Canadian air force and the Second World War’s British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

Canadian Participation in the Royal Flying Corps is a national historic event, and the Royal Flying Corps Hangars at Camp Borden training centre are a national historic site. Canadian RFC pilots such as Lieutenant-Colonel William George “Billy” Barker are national historic persons.

It is the centennial anniversary of the First World War! To learn more about Camp Borden, please see The Canadian Military Reaches New Heights. To discover Canada’s heroic pilots, read Protector of the Air and Billy Bishop: An Ace up Canada’s Sleeve.

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