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A High Flyer, Indeed: Air Force, Part 4



A signed photograph of Ernest Lloyd Janney, taken in Toronto in 1915.

The Canadian government’s pre-World War I military aviation policy was simple—there was none. Aircraft trials at Petawawa, Ont., in 1909 had ended in two crashes, and efforts by civilians and middle-ranking officers failed to generate military interest in aircraft. Sam Hughes, the minister of militia and defence, treated aviation with icy silence prior to 1914.

Upon the outbreak of war, Hughes adjourned to Camp Valcartier in Quebec to organize personally a Canadian Expeditionary Force, ignoring previous mobilization plans. Inexplicably, on Aug. 25, 1914, Hughes cabled the British minister of war—Lord Kitchener—to ask if the services of aviators were required. Kitchener replied on Aug. 31 that six expert aviators could be taken at once and perhaps more later. As there were only four Canadians who had gained Aero Club of America certificates, the likelihood of supplying Canadian pilots was remote.

Enter the improbable figure of Ernest Lloyd Janney.

Janney was born June 16, 1893 at Galt, Ont., (now Cambridge). In September 1914, he visited the United States to scout aircraft availability before approaching Hughes. How he gained access to the minister is unknown, but on Sept. 16, Hughes approved formation of a Canadian Aviation Corps (CAC), appointing Janney as a captain and its provisional commander. He also scribbled authorization for expenditure of up to $5,000 for an airplane. About the same time, two other members of the CAC were appointed. They were Lieutenant William Frederick Norman Sharpe and Staff Sergeant Harry A. Farr.

An Order-in-Council, passed under the War Measures Act, had just banned all flying in Canada except with militia permission. Militia headquarters sent a message to regional headquarters and major police forces: “Arrangements are being made for an aviator named E.L. Janney to fly into Canada from the United States; and I am to request, should he come your way, that you offer him no hindrance.” A.P. Sherwood, the commissioner of the Dominion Police, sent this terse reply: “If Mr. Janney does not run into any trouble up above, I do not think he will be interfered with below.”

Word of the CAC spread through the militia, and on Sept. 18, Lieutenant-Colonel A.J. Oliver wrote a letter—a copy of which is at the National Archives—

to the assistant adjutant general, 1st Division (London, Ont.). The letter was later sent to militia headquarters in Ottawa. As commanding officer, 29th Regiment, Galt, Oliver was in a position to know something about Janney. He declared: “It is the impression of a great many people here in Galt, to which city this party belongs, that absolutely no reliance should be placed in him in any way, shape or form and his statements in connection with flying have always been taken as a joke. He is a high flyer all right, but the meaning of the term is entirely different from that normally applied to an aviator.”.

Back in the U.S., Janney had bought an airplane quickly. His selection was a Burgess-Dunne biplane, a tailless, swept-wing two-seater floatplane manufactured at Marblehead, Mass. When he appeared at the company office in September, he insisted on near-instant delivery. The aircraft he wanted was a seaplane “demonstrator” with an engine needing overhaul after many hours’ running. Company employees did what they could, crated the machine, and shipped it by rail to Isle La Motte, Vt., where it was reassembled. On Sept. 21, it left with a Burgess-Dunne pilot, Clifford Webster, at the controls. In the subsequent delivery flight, Janney piloted the machine about one-quarter of the time, which was possible because this design was so stable that it could almost be flown “hands off.”

The two stopped at Sorel, Que., for fuel, and soon after a contemporary newspaper reported that, on alighting, Janney was arrested on suspicion of being a spy, and freed only after a telephone call to Hughes. Government documents do not mention this episode, nor did Webster in a letter he wrote at the time.

En route to Quebec City, the engine packed up and Webster force-landed at Deschaillons, east of Trois-Rivières. The company sent a mechanic and parts to Canada. On Sept. 29, the aircraft arrived in Quebec where it was loaded aboard the SS Athenia. Janney telegraphed some auto mechanics in Galt, ordering them to report to him for services with the CAC. They asked if Janney had such authority to summon them in such a fashion. He did not, and on Oct. 3, 1914 the First Canadian Contingent sailed for Britain, with its one airplane on the deck of the Athenia and the three CAC members aboard the SS Franconia.

After arriving in England, the troops were sent to Salisbury Plain for advanced training. The CAC tagged along, but the Burgess-Dunne—damaged during the passage—was never repaired. Janney spent the next several weeks travelling about Britain, learning what he could about aviation, and on Nov. 6, 1914 he presented Major-General E.A.H. Alderson, the general officer commanding the Canadian Contingent, with a proposal for a real air corps. Although he had no suggestions as to how it would be used, Janney recommended a unit with four airplanes, seven officers, seven sergeants and 32 mechanics. He had calculated how much motor and horse-drawn transport it would need, how much oil and gasoline it would consume, and the cost for one year, which amounted to $116,679.25.

None of the CAC personnel had ever been properly gazetted or attested as members of the CEF, and Alderson’s reaction to Janney’s expensive project was to cable the Department of Militia and Defence on Nov. 18, 1914: “Two individuals—Janney and Sharpe—have accompanied Canadian Headquarters from Canada claiming to be aviators authorized by (the) minister, in Militia Order 463 (the order posting officers to the CEF). Please cable instructions as to their status pay and whether large expense necessary to organize an efficient unit of one flight is authorized.”

Militia headquarters replied that Janney and Sharpe had been sent over with the CEF on the understanding they would join the Royal Flying Corps. It emphatically stated, “Not intended to organize a flight unit.”

One may ask, what had happened to the CAC as authorized by Hughes? Had the minister forgotten it? Given up on it? Had he intended that Janney, Sharpe and Farr should be among the pilots that Kitchener had said he could use?

Although his proposed four-plane flight had been rejected, Janney was unfazed. He resumed his travels, and on Dec. 17, cabled another proposal to Alderson. He claimed to have bought “a beautiful Biplane of Military type” which he was shipping to Canada. He intended to barnstorm across the nation, even in winter, raising money by public subscription for a Canadian air squadron. However, there is no evidence he had bought the plane.

CEF authorities declared that Janney had been absent without leave since Dec. 1, 1914, but how could they discipline the man when there was no paperwork confirming his membership in the force? He was permitted to resign his commission, although there were no documents bestowing one upon him. In January 1915, he sailed for Canada and new ventures.

The remainder of the CAC’s history is quickly told. Sharpe, who had taken flying lessons before the war, was sent first to a private British flying school, then to France where he attended schools near Paris and Lyon. On Feb. 3, 1915, he was gazetted a lieutenant in the RFC. The next day he died in a flying accident at Shoreham—the first Canadian aerial casualty of the war. Farr was discharged from the CAC in May 1915, but finally joined the RFC in February 1917, but never flew in combat.

The Canadian Contingent left Salisbury Plain in February 1915. In May, Canadian authorities were told that a “flying machine”, valued at about £1,000, had been left behind. Searches began to locate it, but nobody told those looking exactly what type of airplane they were seeking. In June, it was concluded that some rusty parts and two inner tubes were all that could be found.

Meanwhile, Janney was back in Canada, sporting the rank of captain which he would claim repeatedly in the next 20 years. On Feb. 3, 1915, the Halifax Morning Chronicle, under the headline Canadian Air Man Returns From The Front, featured a story with some outrageous statements. Janney claimed he had flown with the French army against Moroccan rebels. His description of the Burgess-Dunne delivery from Massachusetts suggests a direct five-hour flight at altitudes up to 23,000 feet. He described artillery observation flights in France, with shells whistling by his machine. His comments about the CAC omitted all references to Sharpe and Farr, but included a new friend who had accompanied him to Canada, “Lieutenant” Bernard Hale. Summaries of this interview appeared in other Canadian newspapers. When they appeared in the British press, several people, who had known Janney, wrote letters deriding his account.

Janney bought a second-hand Caudron in the U.S. and sought permission to operate a flying school near Toronto, in partnership with Hale. The latter had a British pilot’s certificate, issued in May 1914, although he held no military rank at the time. He joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1917.

Militia authorities approved the school in April 1915, stressing this consent entailed no militia recognition or responsibility. Nevertheless, signing himself as “Major” and “Officer Commanding, Canadian Flying Corps”, Janney offered students a course costing $500—half up front, the balance on graduation. Both Janney and Hale were wearing uniforms and when word of this got out, the chief of the general staff issued a succinct memo: “Please clip the wings of Captain Janney and Lieutenant Hale.” However, officers found it difficult to locate either man.

The school vanished in 1915 and Janney headed for the U.S. For the next two years he popped in and out of newspaper and aviation magazine stories, none giving a full account of his actions. He attached himself to a New Jersey State Naval Militia flying unit in 1916. The next year, he organized the Janney Aircraft Company in Munroe, Mich., selling stock and building one plane. A newspaper story datelined Munro, Mich., March 23, 1918, stated some of the plane’s “machinery caught in the grass and the expected (trial) flight did not take place.” The same newspaper story states that Janney was subsequently reported in California where news dispatches from San Francisco noted he was charged with impersonating a Canadian officer.

Janney returned to Canada in May 1918 and tried, unsuccessfully, to secure a commission in the CEF. That summer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.T. Cull of the Royal Air Force was organizing the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service in response to German submarine operations in the Atlantic. Janney ingratiated himself with Cull who arranged that he be commissioned as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and assigned to RCNAS duties.

Militia officers wrote to Cull, warning that Janney’s previous record had been unsatisfactory. Despite these reports, he retained Janney, whose precise duties are unclear.

Whatever his work, Janney was retained after the organizing of the RCNAS was suspended in December 1918. When he was finally demobilized in January 1919, Cull tried to have him released in the rank of lieutenant. He also wrote Janney a very complimentary letter. “I have nothing but praise for the capable and energetic way you have handled everything that was given you to do.” Cull acknowledged that he had received and investigated some adverse reports, yet he had found no foundation in them. On at least two occasions, when the Department of National Defence was asked to describe Janney’s military service, Cull’s assessment was given out rather than the more critical opinions of army officers.

Following demobilization, Janney became general manager of Canadian Northern Traders, a company that declared in its prospectus that it planned to use five JN-4 aircraft and an unspecified number of airships to exploit resources in northern Quebec. A party in his employ ascended the Moise River that spring and lost two men. The survivors, paid only in company stock, took jobs elsewhere. On Oct. 16, 1919, the Ottawa Citizen newspaper reported that Janney was arrested in Cornwall, Ont., and charged with using a bad cheque to buy a JN-4. In January 1921, he appeared in Edmonton and announced plans to run an air service from Peace River, Alta., to Fort Norman, Northwest Territories, using dirigibles.

The air service never started. Alberta authorities halted trading in company stock, but he continued to sell shares until July 1921 when he was arrested again, brought to Lethbridge, and charged with fraud arising from more bouncing cheques. He then went on a hunger strike to protest jail conditions. This became big news and brought forward more people—from Edmonton to Michigan—who remembered “Captain Janney”, earlier business dealings, unpaid bills and bad cheques. On Sept. 30, 1921, he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to two years in the Prince Albert Penitentiary.

By 1924, Janney was again being mentioned in the aviation press, reportedly flying in the U.S. and planning an air service in British Guyana. In 1927, he acquired a Canadian commercial pilot’s license—the first flying certificate issued him. That same year, he chartered Janney Transatlantic Flights Limited, “to purchase an aeroplane or aeroplanes and finance a flight or flights across the Atlantic or elsewhere.” This was to be financed with 1,600 shares of stock at $25 each. The venture was cancelled when two Canadian pilots vanished over the Atlantic the same month his company was created.

As of January 1932, he was still selling himself as a businessman and aviation pioneer; a Montreal newspaper described him as the “first Canadian to volunteer his services and be accepted as a war flier.” He then dropped from sight. Reportedly, in September 1939, he sent a message to Ottawa: “Am still full of the old pep—let me know what I can do.”

Janney died in Winnipeg on April 22, 1941, and on April 24 was buried in Brookside Cemetery. When a stone was installed, it read, “Sub-Lieutenant Ernest L. Janney, RCNVR, 1893-1941—Lest We Forget.”


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