Working Wings

Scene Description: Nana, Poppa, Mark and Claire are preparing to go on a plane ride.

Poppa: Mark, come with me and we’ll pack up some supplies to take on the plane. We’ll need lunch on our expedition!

Mark: Ok! I’m coming!

Nana: Claire and I will clean up the mess we’ve made putting our model together.

Mark and Poppa go to prepare lunch for the trip. Claire puts the model plane down on table and notices a pile of letters with airmail markings on the edges.

Claire: Nana, who are these from? The envelopes have really neat stamps on them!

Nana: Oh, I was just looking through those. They date back to when my sister spent a year teaching in the North: she wrote to me every week! It was almost forty years ago now, and since we didn’t have e-mail back then and phone calls were expensive, a handwritten letter sent by mail was the only way she could "talk" to us.

Claire: I never get letters—my friends just send e-mails or text messages!

Nana: Oh, I get some of those, too, well, not the text messages...e-mails are a great way to keep in touch, but there’s something more personal about getting a letter. Although I do love your e-mails filled with little smiley faces (laughs).

With a letter, you have to take a bit of extra time to choose the stationary, and put more thought into what you’re writing. You can’t hit the delete button quite so easily!

The envelopes can be interesting as well. You can tell from the postmark when a letter was mailed and where it was mailed from. Even the stamps are important: lots of people collect stamps as a hobby, you know!

Airmail letter envelope (front).
(CAvM 1998-0512-1a)

Letter writing hasn’t died out for my generation. We still send letters or postcards to our friends, especially when we’re travelling.

Claire: (pensive tone) might be fun if we started writing letters to each other! I do love getting birthday cards in the mail from you—it makes me feel really special.

Nana: That’s a great idea Claire, but you’d have to keep it up! (laughing) Our letters would definitely travel by airmail. You know, airmail in Canada has an interesting history.

Canadian JN-4 / First Air Mail Flight

Almost as long as there have been airplanes, people in Canada have been using them to deliver mail. It makes sense in a country as big as ours: transporting letters across the country any other way could take a long time!

Claire: When did Canadians start sending letters by air?

First Canadian airmail flight, 1918.
(CAvM 26948)

Nana: Laisse moi réfléchir… le premier envoi aérien a eu lieu en 1918, lorsqu’un Curtiss JN-4 militaire a transporté un petit sac de courrier de Montréal à Toronto. C’était la première livraison postale aérienne officielle au Canada, même s’il ne s’agissait que d’un essai. À la fin de la Première Guerre mondiale, les gens tentaient de trouver aux avions une fonction pratique et non militaire. La paix revenue, une poignée de compagnies ont utilisé de vieux avions militaires pour créer un service postal vers les régions nordiques. Mais en 1927, on a imposé une réglementation plus serrée : le ministère des Postes a attribué à quelques compagnies des contrats de livraison postale pour des destinations précises et a commencé à imprimer des timbres spéciaux.

Brian Peck (centre) and C.W. Mathers on the day of the first Canadian airmail flight, 1918.
(CAvM 26951)

Laurentide Air Service, Special Air Delivery stamp.
(CAvM 1998-0485-1)

By 1928, Canadian Airways had started a daily airmail service between Montreal and Toronto, and it ran everyday except Sunday!

By 1930, numerous airmail services operated six days a week, in both central and western Canada. Air schedules were set to tie in with railway timetables. Depending on its final destination, delivering mail might take more than one mode of transportation, and the train would pick up where the airplane left off.

Loading mail bags into a Trans-Canada Air Lines Lockheed 14-H2 Super Electra, 1938.
(CAvM 17989)

It was an expensive program to run, though, and so there were times when airmail contracts had to be cancelled or cut back.

Claire: Why did they cancel them?

Nana: Well, between the wars, in the 1930s, there was a major worldwide economic crisis called the Great Depression. It affected everybody and everything: there was massive unemployment and many businesses went bankrupt. The government had to cut spending as well, so they cancelled many airmail contracts to save money. I don’t really remember the Depression (I was much too little), but it was a time of great hardship for my parents and it affected them for the rest of their lives.

Airmail letter envelope with commemorative stamp.
(CAvM 1998-0893-1)

Airmail letter envelope with commemorative stamp.
(CAvM 1998-0894-1)

Claire: We did interviews with people in a retirement home last year for my social studies class, and the lady I talked to told me all about the Depression. It sounded dreadful, but she told me she really looked forward to getting letters from her cousins in France. When did Canada start sending mail overseas by airplane?

Charles Lindbergh (centre) with his Spirit of St. Louis airplane, Ottawa Hunt Club, 1927.
(CAvM 8341)

Nana: Overseas airmail started a little later. The lady you spoke to probably received her letters by ship, since flying across the ocean was pretty dangerous! Have you heard of Charles Lindbergh? He was the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, although that wasn’t until 1927 and, although he carried a few letters with him, he certainly wasn’t making a "mail run"! Overseas airmail didn’t really start until the late 1930s.

Claire: Didn’t we have telephones back then?

Nana: Yes, but making overseas telephone calls or even sending telegrams was expensive and not always possible. It was good to have alternatives.

Airmail letter envelope.
(CAvM 1998-0516)

Claire: So, Canadians have been using airplanes to send mail for a long time!

Nana: We sure have! And just look at how much businesses depend on airmail, even today! You can’t send packages by e-mail, now, can you!

(Poppa and Mark come into the living room with a cooler of food for the trip)

Mark: Poppa, when we go flying today can we do some cool stunts, like the ones we saw at the air show last month? The pilots did some of the tricks I do in my favourite video game, like loop-the-loops and nose-dives!

Armstrong Whitworth Siskin III

Poppa:(laughing) I don’t think so, Mark! Let’s keep the airplane level. No aerobatics for us!

Mark: Aw! But it would be so much fun!

Claire: Geez, Mark, Poppa flies a Beaver...with big floats: don’t you know anything? We wouldn’t be able to do stunts in your plane, would we, Poppa?

Poppa: No, Claire! My ol’ plane wasn’t made for stunts. But you should see some of the crazy things people used to try with airplanes. Ever since airplanes were invented, people have wanted to watch stunt flying!

Trio of Armstrong Whitworth Siskins in flight.
(CAvM 12404)

Claire: Really? Some of the older airplanes were used for stunts?

Armstrong Whitworth Siskin IIIA in flight.
(CAvM 4395)

Poppa: Well, for different kinds of stunts—back in the early days, it was enough for the airplane to get off the ground! (laughs) The first air meets, or air shows, in Canada began as far back as 1910, only one year after the first flight in Canada.

Crowds with Blériot XIs at the Montreal Air Meet, 1910.
(CAvM 1936)

Those first airplanes and the pilots who flew them became famous through performing at these air shows, and at town and country fairs. Huge crowds came to watch them fly!

Count Jacques de Lesseps and others at the Montreal Air Meet, 1910.
(CAvM 1935)

But it was after the First World War that air meets and barnstorming made aviation really popular, and stunts became more sophisticated. Many of the pilots who had flown in the First World War had lots of flying experience, and wanted to continue flying. Although it was often dangerous, it was a great way to make some money and get air time!


Mark: What kind of stunts did they do at those events?

Poppa: Well, barnstorming included all kinds of daring stunts: barrel rolls, loop-the-loops and wing-walking to name a few! The pilots would also give airplane rides to paying customers.

Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck” at exhibition grounds, ca. 1919.
(CAvM 1532)

Mark: Cool!

Poppa: They would have been something to see, that’s for sure! Sometimes groups of pilots got together to create a "flying circus." One U.S. pilot, Ruth Law, had her own flying circus in the late 1910s. She performed all kinds of stunts and aerial acrobatics, even races between airplanes and cars and—back then—the car had a chance at winning! After the First World War, most barnstormers used surplus war Curtiss JN-4s because they were available and (for an airplane!) inexpensive. Ruth Law flew a Curtiss Pusher, which was a bit of a clunker compared to the JN-4!

Ruth Law at the 1918 CNE

Ruth Law posing in her Curtiss Pusher.
(CAvM 15494)

Claire: Wow, I wish I’d seen that...

Nana: You know, once people had seen airplanes, many wanted to try flying themselves. They wanted to experience what it was like to soar through the air!

Ruth Law racing at the 1918 Canadian National Exhibition.
(CAvM 8202)

Mark: I can relate to that! I want to learn how to fly, too!

Nana: Let’s not rush things, Mark. In those days, flying was an expensive hobby, just as it is today! Few individuals could afford their own airplane and, in the late 1920s, there weren’t many flying schools or even experienced pilots. It made sense for enthusiasts to group together to buy airplanes, as it was cheaper! Flying clubs were formed across the country, so that people could share aircraft. Even better, to promote flying, the Canadian government gave these organized flying clubs up to seven aircraft over several years! Canada’s first flying club was started in Toronto, in 1928.

John Webster in the King's Cup Race

John Webster posing with a Curtiss-Reid Rambler III, 1931.
(CAvM 1371)

Canada’s first all-female flying club, the Flying Seven, was established in 1936 and it was based on the west coast.

Original members of the "Flying Seven," pose in front of biplane, ca. 1936.
(CAvM 22373)

In the flying clubs, experienced pilots taught novices how to fly. They also dropped pamphlets and advertisements promoting air shows and other events. They were even responsible for creating private and municipal airports.

Montreal Light Aeroplane Club, D.H.60 Moth.
(CAvM 4308)

Poppa: Back then, the flying clubs used the D.H. 60 Moth. It was one of the first light aircraft specifically designed for private pilots. In the late 1920s and 1930s, it was the most popular airplane in Canada: there were more Moths than any other type of airplane. In fact, they were in such demand that the British company de Havilland opened a factory in Canada in 1928 to assemble Moths. The same company later designed and built the Beaver—the world’s most famous bush plane!

Dr. and Mrs. J.J. Green with their D.H.60 Moth.
(CAvM 23472)

de Havilland DH 60x Moth

Claire: That’s really neat. Do you belong to a flying club?

Poppa: Yes we do. It’s somewhere we can find a mechanic if we need one, fill up on fuel, and, of course, meet up with other folks who share our love of flying.

Nana: You know, guys, airplanes have an important role in our society...

Critical Approach

They are used in search-and-rescue missions, for delivering supplies to remote areas, spotting fires and firefighting, and rescuing people. Some even fly donor organs across the country to waiting patients.

Canadair CL-215 dousing a forest fire.
(CAvM 15125)

And environmentalists are also using airplanes more frequently to monitor pollutants entering our lakes and rivers, and to look at other issues that affect the environment.

Northern Search

Claire: Maybe I’ll be a pilot, too. It would be cool to help people who are in trouble.

The Spirit of Community Help

Mark: I love flying! I even love the big airplanes we fly in when we come to visit you!

Poppa: Yes, those big commercial airliners have sure come a long way since the very early years!

Passengers disembarking from a Lockheed 10A, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1938.
(CAvM 18000)

Mark: What do you mean?

Poppa: Well, in Europe, some passenger services were available after the First World War, but those early airliners were just converted bombers: far from luxurious! It was much faster, cheaper, and more comfortable to take the train. Trains didn’t rely on clear skies for travelling, the way airplanes did.

Loading a Lockheed 14-H Super Electra.
(CAvM 10549)

Mark: And they were faster? How come? Airplanes go way faster than trains!

Poppa: Not back then! The railway had been around for much longer, and it was very efficient. Airplanes also had to go through a lot of technological changes in the 1920s and 1930s to be able to carry significant numbers of passengers. Flying really wasn’t a worthwhile way to travel until the Boeing 247 was built in 1933. After that, airplanes improved pretty rapidly in the United States and Europe.

Passengers aboard a Trans-Canada Air Lines Lockheed 14-H Super Electra flight.
(CAvM 24948)

A Lockheed 14-H Super Electra soaring over Montreal, Quebec.
(CAvM 24934)

Claire: What about in Canada?

Poppa: Glad you asked! The first transcontinental passenger air service in Canada was actually operated by the Canadian National Railway! It was called Trans-Canada Air Lines, or the TCA, and it started up in 1937. Now, we call it Air Canada. Its first route was between Vancouver and Seattle.

Lockheed 14-H Super Electra at a Trans-Canada Air Lines hangar.
(CAvM 17996)

Then, during the Second World War, Canadian Pacific Railway got into the flying game, that was around 1942. They purchased ten small bush-flying companies, and created Canadian Pacific Airlines.

C.P. Air's Bristol Britannia

Most people still travelled by train or boat, though; airplane passenger travel really only became popular in Canada after the Second World War. Before that, it was still too expensive for the average Canadian.

A Canadian Pacific Airlines Bristol Britannia in flight.
(CAvM 12161)

There were many airplanes left over after the Second World War, just as there had been after the First World War. Some of the airplanes, like DC-3s, that had been used to transport troops, supplies, and personnel overseas were purchased by TCA and Canadian Pacific Airlines, and were modified for passenger travel.

Golden Landing

A Douglas DC-3 outside Trans-Canada Air Lines hangar.
(CAvM 5631)

Mark: Flying back then was probably different from flying today, wasn’t it?

Passengers boarding a Douglas DC-3.
(CAvM 5584)

Douglas DC-3 flying over the Quebec bridge.
(CAvM 5629)

Poppa: It sure was. Airliners fly a lot higher now than they did in the late 1930s and 1940s. Back then, most aircraft cabins weren’t pressurized the way they are now.

Mark: What do you mean, "pressurized"?

Poppa: As you go higher, the atmospheric pressure decreases, and that means that it gets harder to breathe.

Mountain-climbers know about this phenomenon. Those aiming to reach the peak of Mount Everest take weeks to get their bodies used to functioning on less oxygen. It’s hard work!

Mark: Oh yeah—the flight attendants always show us how to use oxygen masks before we take off. Is that what they are for?

Trans-Canada Air Lines flight attendant demonstrates use of oxygen mask.

Poppa: Yup! They are on hand just in case the pressure system for the cabin fails. Nowadays, of course, airplanes are altogether more comfortable, and they can cover distances far more quickly than in the early days. Today, more people in Canada fly than take the train.

Passengers board Canadian Pacific Airlines Douglas DC-3, Dorval airport, Montreal, Quebec, 1947.
(CAvM 5577)

Flight attendant serves food to passengers aboard Lockheed 14-H2 Super Electra, St. Hubert, Quebec, 1940.
(CAvM 23808)

Businesses take it for granted that people will fly thousands of kilometres for meetings. That just wasn’t possible fifty years ago! Although I’m not sure if that’s such a great thing: the effect of all this flying on the environment can’t be good! In fact, I just read that airplanes are responsible for two percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions!

Claire: That doesn’t seem like very much...

Poppa: The number may seem small, but when you look at all the different things that contribute to global warming, then it’s alarming to realize that one industry is responsible for two percent of the entire problem!

Claire: Yeah, I guess so.

Poppa: We need to start shopping locally for our food, clothes, and other goods.

Pilots K. Edmison and J. Storey in cockpit of Lockheed 14-H2 Super Electra.
(CAvM 24936)

Mark: That’ll help?

Nana: Almost everything we buy today, be it food grown elsewhere or toys made in other countries, has to be transported to us somehow. How do you think we got the New Zealand kiwi fruit we’re having for lunch?

Loading lobster boxes into Trans-Canada Air Lines Douglas DC-3, New Brunswick, 1948.
(CAvM 5561)

Poppa: Speaking of lunch, we should get going—it’s getting late!

Mark: Great! Can I fly?

Poppa: Maybe someday, Mark!