This Week in History


The Black Flight

For the week of Monday, July 6, 2015

On July 8, 1917, three Canadian pilots in Britain’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) were awarded military decorations. The pilots – Raymond Collishaw, John Sharman, and Ellis Reid – were members of the Black Flight, whose successes in the First World War were legendary.

Raymond Collishaw of the Black Flight had a lengthy military career after the First World War
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-203553

The RNAS operated separately from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which patrolled the British coasts, escorted ships, and ran bombing missions. In February 1917, the RFC needed reinforcements on the Western Front, so several RNAS fighter squadrons were transferred to France.

One of the squadrons sent was the No. 10 Naval Squadron, which had three flights (a flight being a military unit of several planes). Raymond Collishaw commanded its “B” Flight. Early on, he frequently found himself abandoned mid-battle by unit pilots who were inept or unwilling to fight. By the time the No. 10 Naval Squadron moved to Ypres in May, the “B” Flight pilots had been replaced by four skilled and courageous Canadians: John Sharman, Ellis Reid, Gerald Nash, and William Alexander. Their Sopwith Triplanes had black colour accents, and they named them Black Maria, Black Death, Black Roger, Black Sheep, and Black Prince. The Black Flight was taking off.

The members of the Black Flight carried out several missions a day, flying for up to eight hours as a unit or with other flights. They often faced Germany’s notorious Flying Circus, an elite unit led by Manfred von Richthofen, nicknamed the Red Baron. The No. 10 Naval Squadron had a remarkable 79 confirmed victories in the summer of 1917, and Collishaw alone accounted for 27 of them. He became the most successful RNAS fighter pilot of the war. However, the squadron’s success came at a human cost: of the 15 pilots who had arrived in mid-May, only three were still active at the end of July. With the help of the Black Flight, the Allies gained the upper hand in the air war over the Western Front.

“Black Flight” by Terry Jones shows the Sopwith Triplanes
© Terry Jones

Several Canadian war pilots, such as Air Marshal William Avery Bishop, are Persons of National Historic Significance, and the Canadian Participation in the Royal Flying Corps is an Event of National Historic Significance.

This year is the centennial anniversary of the First World War! Learn about the RFC in Canada in Wings of War, explore Camp Borden’s pilot training program in The Canadian Military Reaches New Heights, and read about Canadian pilots such as Billy Bishop: An Ace up Canada’s Sleeve in the This Week in History archives. Also, see Roger Gunn’s book, Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada! Also, click here to read about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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