– Story by Neil Taylor
At the conclusion of the First World War over 2,500 trained Canadian airmen, who had served in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, returned home. Many of these men were anxious to continue flying, and more than a few took to barnstorming and exhibition flying to earn a living.
The general public had learned much about aviation following the exploits of Billy Bishop and Baron von Richthofen during the war, and initially there was keen public interest in attending flying exhibitions or paying to be taken aloft for a few daring minutes. Unfortunately this interest began to wane as a series of flying accidents proved just how dangerous these early flying machines were.
In response to these problems, the Canadian government created the Air Board in 1919 with a mandate to establish regulations and standards for civil aviation, including the licensing of pilots and certification of aircraft. This government action helped to normalize the aviation industry and by the end of 1920, 56 private pilot certificates and 161 commercial certificates had been issued. Nevertheless, public interest in flying continued to decline making it difficult for aerial entrepreneurs to remain financially viable. As a result, the number of firms engaged in commercial air operations in Canada declined from 30 in 1920 to only 9 by 1925. Similarly, the number of flights flown by these companies declined by an astonishing 90% from 18,671 flights in 1920 to only 1,829 flights in 1925.
Canadian authorities were alarmed by these statistics and concerned that Canada was falling behind the United States which was already offering trans-continental air services. While bush flying operations were starting to take hold for prospecting and mine servicing purposes, the more populated areas of Canada lacked proper airport facilities and more importantly licensed pilots.
The Canadian government, in hopes of building the nation’s stagnant aviation sector, turned its attention to the British government’s Flying Club Movement which had led to a significant increase in the number of private and commercial pilots in Britain. Since private Canadian flight training schools were largely unprofitable, the Canadian government decided to encourage the establishment of local flying clubs that could, in turn, boost the development of community airfields.
An Order-in-Council was passed in September 1927 and the Controller of Civil Aviation was charged with supporting and approving the creation of these flying clubs. Edmonton, which had been lobbying for the establishment of a flying club became the first Canadian city to receive a federal charter. Called the Edmonton and Northern Alberta Aero Club, this organization already had Wop May as its president and a hangar at Blatchford Field.
Flying club organizers had to demonstrate compliance with several conditions in order for their clubs to be certified. In addition to providing an instructor and an aircraft mechanic, clubs had to have at least 30 members seeking flying instruction along with a minimum of ten licensed pilots who were interested in continuing their flying. In Edmonton’s case, the club’s formal application listed 35 members prepared to qualify as pilots and 12 already qualified pilots, including such notables as Wop May, Cy Becker and James Bell. By the end of 1927 five clubs had been approved in Canada and eleven others were at various stages of development.
Upon club certification, the Canadian government, through the RCAF, committed to providing on loan two light aircraft, usually de Havilland DH.60X Moths, and $100 for each ab initio pupil qualifying for a pilot’s license up to a maximum of $3,000 a year per club. In addition, the RCAF would provide one additional aircraft for each one purchased by the flying club during its first five years of operation.
The impact of this policy on general aviation was immediate and significant. By the end of 1928, Canadian flying clubs had 2,400 members, and 8,124 hours of flying time were logged. In 1929, membership more than doubled to 5,233 and flying hours grew to 16,612.
To increase the number of qualified instructors for the flying clubs, the RCAF sponsored instructor training sessions commencing in 1928. In 1930 the Canadian Flying Clubs Association was founded, and one of its initial goals was to establish standards for flying club operations.
The depression of the early 1930s adversely affected membership in the flying clubs but a framework had been put in place that would influence and encourage the growth of general aviation in Canada for decades to come. By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, Canadian flying clubs had graduated more than 2,000 pilots – a critical source of skilled manpower for the RCAF. In addition, the demand for pilot training of Allied airmen was so great that the flying clubs were approached to play a critical role in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Eventually, twenty-five flying clubs were contracted to operate 22 elementary flying training schools for the RCAF.
Today Canada is facing a critical shortage of pilots – industry experts estimate a shortfall of 6,000 professional pilots by 2040. Flying clubs will continue to play a critical role in helping to address this shortfall, building upon the experience and knowledge gained since the clubs graduated their initial classes of novice pilots back in 1928.