With the advent of war in 1914, there were few registered pilots in Canada, and even fewer aircraft. Flying was a novelty of the well-to-do, and certainly, the daring.
But over the next five years, young Canadian men would come to comprise almost one-third of the British air services. For many, it was an opportunity to escape the horrors of the trenches – the mud, cold, rats, lice and the ever-ominous threat of a horrible death. It was a chance to take to the pristine blue skies, with the wind in your face and a silk scarf round your neck trailing in the breeze.
But there is little glamour in warfare of any kind. And many paid an exacting price. While the airplanes kept them out of the trenches, it posed its own threats. There were no parachutes. A pilot was strapped into a flimsy, wood-framed, fabric-covered aircraft that was held together with bolts and wire and sealed with layers of flammable dope and paint.
In many cases, the fuel tank was directly beneath the seat. Should their worst fear be realized – fire – a pilot had few choices. He could attempt to ride the burning craft to the ground and hope he survived the ultimate crash. He could escape a fiery death by jumping from the aircraft, but without a parachute, the end was not in doubt. Or, he could take out his service revolver and shoot himself. None of the options afforded much hope. It is little wonder that the average lifespan of a WW1 fighter pilot was 17 flying hours.
But many did survive and with the signing of the Armistice in 1918, they headed home to Canada. It has been said that pilots did not work for a living; they just wanted to fly. The end of the war afforded many a continuing opportunity. Surplus training aircraft were plentiful and cheap.
The government felt that “the war to end all wars” had been too costly to contemplate the expense of employing idle pilots and their ground crews. Politicians were convinced that war was a thing of the past. There would be no need for an air force.
For $1200 anybody could pick up a surplus Curtiss JN-4 Canuck and take to the skies. But civilian airfields were few and far between, and most pilots knew little about maintaining the aircraft. Accidents were commonplace, and soon, every small airfield had its boneyard of wrecked and rusted aircraft. It was but a few years to the end of the postwar aviation boom in North America.
It was not until January of 1920 that Canada’s first private pilot’s license was issued, the first air engineer’s certificate signed, and the first commercial aircraft was registered. At the same time, the government granted provisional approval to establish a Canadian air force.
Regimented flying was, of course, not for everybody. The war-torn, embattled skies of Europe had unwittingly give birth to a new era in Canadian history – the era of bushflying. Veterans of aerial combat, and others, were to become the pioneers – the bushpilots.
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