Creation from Conflict

Scene description: Nana has returned and is sitting on the floor with Claire and Mark, model plane between them – Poppa is sitting down in easy chair.

Poppa: Brrr’s getting chilly in here! I’m going to go get some more firewood from the shed.

Nana: Good idea, we can’t have cold hands when we’re working on our model airplane!

(Poppa leaves room)

Claire: (looks over at the fire, and notices the photo) Nana, who’s that in the picture?

Office of Canadian Aeroplanes.
(CAvM 1667)

Nana: That’s my Aunt Lois, all dressed up in her uniform. She learned to fly in the late 1930s before the Second World War. But, she didn’t fly during the war—the Royal Canadian Air Force didn’t employ women pilots back then. Instead, she joined the RCAF’s Women’s Division, and spent most of the war working around aircraft. She had some great stories—in fact, she’s the reason I became a pilot in the first place!

Claire: Really? I’ll bet there weren’t many women pilots way back then.

Nana: There weren’t many at all. Even though today it’s not unusual to see female commercial and military pilots, during the First World War—and even in the Second World War—very few countries allowed women to fly in their air forces.


Probably the closest a Canadian woman got to an airplane in the First World War was working for Canadian Aeroplanes, the company that manufactured the Curtiss JN-4 trainer and other aircraft.

Female factory worker at Canadian Aeroplanes factory.
(CAvM 1581)

Claire: Well that doesn’t seem very fair!

Women working in the covering department of Canadian Aeroplanes factory, 1918.
(CAvM 77)

Nana: No, it wasn’t fair. But, you’ll find this interesting. Did you know that during the Second World War, one Canadian woman, Elsie MacGill, was an aeronautical engineer who designed airplanes like the Maple Leaf II trainer!

Elsie MacGill and E.J. Soulsby with Maple Leaf II trainer, Fort William, Ontario.
(CAvM 16182)

Mark: Wow! Women designed planes?

Nana: That’s right, Mark! Women are as much a part of aviation history as men!

Elsie MacGill, chief engineer, Canadian Car and Foundry.
(CAvM 16035)

Elsie MacGill even oversaw the production of the famous Second World War fighter, the Hawker Hurricane, in what is now Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Claire: And she was a Canadian (sounding proud).

Nana: Oh yes, airplanes were made in Canada in incredible numbers during both world wars—never before or since have so many been produced in such a short time! Over the course of both world wars, thousands of men and women were employed in manufacturing airplanes on Canada’s home front.


The first Canadian-made Hawker Hurricane at Fort William, Ontario.
(CAvM 4198)

Mark: Did they build lots of new types of airplanes?

Hawker Hurricane wing assembly.
(CAvM 4202)

Nana: Yes, they did: technology advanced a great deal during both world wars. Engineers and manufacturers were constantly on the lookout for ways to improve the aircraft and get ahead; thousands of lives depended on their success. It took many dedicated men—and women—to make airplanes what they are today.

Crowd surrounding the first Canadian-made Hawker Hurricane.
(CAvM 17359)

Claire: When was the First World War? I forget...

Nana: It started in 1914, only five years after the first airplane flight in Canada! It was the first war in which airplanes were used in large numbers.

RAF personnel posing with a Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e.
(CAvM 24193)

Mark: But if airplanes had only been around for a few years, how could they do any good in battles? The airplanes in the pictures that Poppa showed us didn’t look as though they would fly very far.

Inspecting a Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e.
(CAvM 1391)

Open cockpit of Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e.
(CAvM 16196)

Nana: Well, at first airplanes were used for spying on enemy territory. Balloons had served the same purpose before airplanes were invented. But it was labour-intensive to use a balloon: tethered to the ground, it had to be moved for each spy excursion. An airplane, of course, could be moved to wherever it was needed once it was in the air. Airplanes soon became the "eyes of the army," helping troops understand what their enemies were up to so that commanders could plan their next moves.

Over the Lines

Claire: Was Canada the only country that had airplanes back then?

Nana: Unfortunately not! During the First World War, Canada was allied with Britain, France, Russia, and the United States.

The countries we fought against—Germany, Austria and Turkey—had airplanes too. As we spied on their troops, they spied on ours!

Albatros C.III in flight.
(CAvM 8116)

On both sides, this led to pilots and their observers starting to use guns in the air. One man, the pilot, would fly the airplane, while another, the observer, would fire at the enemy or drop small bombs.

A row of Albatros D.IIIs.
(CAvM 33014)

Soon, machine guns were mounted right on the front of some of the airplanes so that the pilot could do both jobs. Have you heard of Snoopy and the Red Baron? Well the airplanes they flew in their comic strips were really some of these first fighter planes. Having air forces from both sides up in the air led to a type of fighting never seen before.

Mel Alexander's Sopwith Triplane "Black Prince"

Mark: That sounds pretty dangerous!

Nana: It was! As fighter airplanes evolved, so did battle tactics. Both sides adopted special techniques for air combat, and developed air strategies. Pilots learned how close shooting, teamwork, and positioning techniques could give them the advantage over their enemies.

Curtiss JN-4 (Can.)

A group of Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck”s in flight.
(CAvM 2922)

Mark: I get "teamwork," my hockey coach is always telling us, "There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’" (sarcastic tone) but what do you mean by "positioning"?

Class at RFC/RAF School of Aeronautics, University of Toronto.
(CAvM 18430)

Nana: Doesn’t your coach talk about positioning, Mark? (laughs) When you play defence, you’re in a position. It’s the same idea: on the ice or in the air, you have to know your place. As a fighter pilot, your life and the lives of your teammates, or wingmen, would depend on it.

There’s safety in numbers—think of how animals form herds. In the same way, pilots flew in formation, first in small groups and then in larger groups, to protect themselves. What a sight they made!

Military personnel posing with a row of Sopwith Triplanes.
(CAvM 6752)

The most successful pilots, those who shot down the most enemy aircraft, were called "aces." They were the "heroes of the air" to the folks back home—and some of the most famous flying aces were Canadian! Pilots like Billy Bishop, William Barker, and Raymond Collishaw were well known across the country, and won many medals. Bishop and Barker were both awarded the Victoria Cross for their bravery, skill, and courage in the air.

Billy Bishop and W.G. Barker.
(CAvM 8069)

Raymond Collishaw seated in cockpit of a Sopwith Triplane.
(CAvM 19781)

Billy Bishop seated in his Nieuport 17.
(CAvM 11555)

Really, by the end of the First World War, in 1918, airplanes and training techniques had become pretty sophisticated—for their time! (laughs) First World War aircraft left a big impression on everyone. Boys like you, Mark, collected magazines and books about flying, and dreamed that one day they too would fly!


Claire: Mark’s not the only airplane fan in the family: we both have a lot of books on flying. Were all the airplanes used in the First World War fighter planes?

Avro 504Ks at Camp Borden

Nana: Well, airplanes are needed for all sorts of tasks during wartime, and their various uses can be seen in their different designs! For example, pilots generally used flying boats to patrol the ocean in search of enemy submarines, aircraft and airships.

Attack on Zeppelin L.22

FBA Flying Boats, Lee-On-Solent, England.
(CAvM 2882)

The advantage of flying boats was that they could land on water. These airplanes were also important for protecting cargo ships transporting soldiers and food supplies overseas, and for carrying out search-and-rescue work over the water.

Claire: So, designing airplanes for specific jobs was pretty important then?

Class at RFC/RAF School of Aeronautics, University of Toronto.
(CAvM 18428)

Nana: Well, yes, engineers were kept busy designing and improving the different types of airplanes, and so during wartime aircraft really evolved quickly. Then, between the wars, universities began teaching aerodynamics in engineering classes, and a whole new field—aeronautical engineering—developed. Elsie MacGill was Canada’s first female aeronautical engineer!

Elsie MacGill, chief engineer for Canadian Car and Foundry.
(CAvM 32529)

Claire: That’s so cool!

Nana: You know, by the end of the First World War, the power of airplane engines had increased about five-fold from the start of the war. Not only that, but the engines were more reliable. As a result, airplanes could go faster and further! When they took off, pilots could feel confident that the plane would work! Also, with these improved engines, airplanes could carry larger loads, which was very useful for transporting supplies and other goods after the war was over.

RAF personnel with a Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c.
(CAvM 11249)


Mark: Wow, what a lot of changes! People worked pretty hard.

Nana: They certainly did. Scientists and engineers were also developing other types of technologies. Did you know that, in the First World War, there was no two-way radio communication between airplanes and the troops on the ground?


Mark: Yeah, but now I can talk to you and Poppa from the plane on the way home using the Flitefone!

Nana: Now that’s a luxury, but more important is the fact that the pilot can communicate with the folks in the control tower so you can land safely!

Claire: How did the pilots find their way home in the war years?

Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck” in flight.
(CAvM 32311)

Nana: Well, in the First World War, most pilots had to use landmarks, like rivers and railway tracks, so they wouldn’t get lost. It wasn’t until well into the 1930s and, even more so in the Second World War, that more electronic navigational aids, including radio beams, were widely used. Oddly enough, radar, which is standard equipment on most commercial and military airplanes today, was originally developed to detect enemy aircraft and ships. The military found that it could also be used in aircraft like the Lancaster bomber to navigate at night or in bad weather.

Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck”s in flight, 84th Squadron (Deseronto).
(CAvM 11060)

Avro Lancaster X participating in a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight event.
(CAvM 27965)

Claire: That would have been pretty important: I wouldn’t want to be up in the air by myself not knowing where I was, or whether somebody was about to shoot at me—yikes! Radar was a very useful invention!

Nana: Yes, the first working radars were introduced in the mid- to late 1930s, just before the start of the Second World War in 1939. Radars are still important for all sorts of things, including air-traffic control. Today’s radars show pilots what kind of weather patterns they’re flying into, so passengers don’t get a bumpy ride! (laughing). And of course all drivers know that the police use radars to monitor how fast they’re going.

Military personnel at work in a Consolidated Canso.
(CAvM 8992)

Mark: Yeah, Dad doesn’t like those radars very much!

Nana: Neither does your Grandfather!

(all laugh – Poppa returns with the wood)

Poppa: What’s this I’m hearing about me? Seems to be a regular comedy show in here!

Claire: (still giggling) Hi Poppa! Nana was just telling us all about how much airplanes have changed since the First World War.

Spitfires, 152 Squadron

Poppa: Ah, my favourite topic! So many advances were seen in airplane technology...even the engines changed. By the end of the Second World War, we had the first jet engines! Unfortunately, the Germans also developed that technology!

Nana: Yes, that’s right. That German jet plane, the Messerschmitt 262, could go very fast and do a great deal of damage! It was really hard, impossible really, for the British Spitfire to keep up with it.

Last of the First

Poppa: But you know, among the most important developments for Canadians were the aerial mapping techniques that evolved during the First World War. Pilots used aerial photography to take pictures of vast areas of land at once.

Claire: I didn’t think those old First World War airplanes could go high enough to take pictures of such large areas.

Capt. J.O. Leach piloting a Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck”.
(CAvM 21332)

Poppa: Well, during the First World War, photographs could only be taken at about

1 800 metres. Even though some of the airplanes could go up to about 5 500 metres, airplane crews couldn’t, unless they had oxygen bottles. They suffered from the cold and from oxygen deprivation at those heights, because the higher you go up in the sky, the colder it gets and the less oxygen there is to breathe.

Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c in flight.
(CAvM 26570)

Those early airplanes didn’t have covers over the cockpits, and this made for miserable flying conditions above certain heights and in bad weather. Luckily, by the Second World War, aircrews had oxygen tanks, heated flight suits, and enclosed cockpits to protect them. They could take photographs of the ground from greater heights to better understand the terrain and to see where enemy troops were positioned.

Between the wars, aerial photography was used very successfully for mapping in Canada, especially the northern part of the country. After the Second World War, civilian companies converted surplus military airplanes like the Mosquito for use in aerial mapping.

Thunder in the Arctic

Claire: So, what about Aunt Lois, Nana? Tell me more about her.

Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Marion Orr.
(CAvM 30956)

Nana: Oh yes. When the RCAF wouldn’t take on women pilots, Lois applied to join the British Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organization that ferried airplanes between military bases and from factories, and did employ women pilots. Unfortunately, the ATA had enough pilots. Times were different for women then. They were part of the military, but they worked mostly behind the scenes.

Helen Harrison, air instructor.
(CAvM 6034)

Since she couldn’t use her piloting skills, she decided to do the next best thing: she helped maintain the aircraft. After the war, she became one of a handful of female flight instructors in Canada. That’s when I knew her best. I was just a small girl at the time, and seeing her in her airplane, and listening to her talk about flying made me want to become a pilot!


Mark: Didn’t Aunt Lois teach Uncle Alex how to fly an airplane?

Rear Gunner, 1944-1945

Nana: You’re right. During the Second World War, Uncle Alex had been a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber. He learned that job on a base in western Canada, as part of a program called the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, or BCATP. He only learned to fly once the war was over, and Aunt Lois was one of his instructors!

Mark: But if that program was in Canada, why was it called the British training plan?

Nana: Well, Canada is part of the British Commonwealth and so are a lot of other countries. The BCATP was set up in Canada because it was a safe place to train personnel, with lots of space and an active aircraft manufacturing industry. People came to join the program in Canada from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, and Britain. Dozens of schools were built across the entire country to train pilots, navigators, air observers, bomb aimers, gunners, radio operators, and flight engineers. Canada trained a lot of airmen through the BCATP during the Second World War.

Pilot R.H. Calvin posing with an Avro Lancaster.
(CAvM 22710)



Interior of an Avro Lancaster X tail turret.
(CAvM 3730)

Mark: So ...people could learn all sorts of different jobs...I didn’t know that. It makes you realize how many people are involved in flying one airplane.

Aircraft Repair Hangar

Nana: Yes, and of course all these people had to work together as a team. Wartime was hard on everybody, and each person’s role was important. Success depended on co-operation.

Poppa: You’re right. The war effort resulted in some very real technological benefits to society, but it came at a very steep cost. The lives of so many were lost, and the lives of all those who survived were changed forever...

But you know, airplane technology kept right on evolving after the Second World War.

Even though the war had ended, there was still a need for military airplanes!

Mark: The Canadian Forces have some pretty cool airplanes; we saw some of them at the air show!

Poppa: Oh yes! Today’s military airplanes perform the same tasks as they did during both world wars, but they’re much more sophisticated now! For one thing, they use computers and, for another, they’re made with high-tech materials rather than the wood, wires, and cloth that were used in the First World War!

Tension, 1991

Many military airplanes are built to go very fast: faster than the speed of sound! Others are designed to carry extremely heavy loads. Of course, all this new technology comes with a high price tag, and learning to fly such machines is no easy matter.

The Canada Aviation Museum’s CF-18 in flight over the Museum , 2001.
(CAvM 3597-4)

Claire: Well, the airplanes in the video games Mark and I play all look very complicated!

Poppa: I can imagine. I think I’ll keep my Beaver, thank you, it’s as high-tech as it needs to be!

Mark: I like flying in video games, but one day I’d like you and Nana to teach Claire and me how to fly a real airplane.

Nana: The two of you are almost old enough. Poppa and I will let you both know when you’re ready for lessons.