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Cameras Take Flight: Air Force, Part 26

A photographer operates a camera in this frontal view of a Vickers Vedette, June 1931. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA062895]

A photographer operates a camera in this frontal view of a Vickers Vedette, June 1931.

Almost from the moment the camera was invented, men sought to take it aloft. The first aerial photograph—taken from a balloon over Paris—was made in 1858. Armies investigated the new technology, and in 1883 Captain Henry Esdale, Royal Engineers, photographed the Halifax Citadel from an unmanned balloon tethered 1,450 feet above the site—the first aerial photograph taken in Canada.

The limitations of balloons as camera platforms were evident. If tethered they overlooked a limited area. If set free they traversed an unpredictable track. The development of the airplane solved the problem by allowing the camera to roam or follow a selected path. The marriage of these two technologies brought about photographic reconnaissance that was so important in World War I. Among the techniques developed was that of taking overlapping prints which could be assembled as mosaics, in turn adaptable to creating orthodox maps or topographic models.

Even before the end of the war, surveyors were anticipating the application of airborne cameras to global cartography. Canadian officials were especially keen to use the new techniques, given that few areas were adequately charted and vast tracts were entirely unmapped. The process was introduced to Canada via the Air Board, a body created by legislation in 1919 to promote and regulate all aviation in Canada, civil and military. The board was abolished in 1922 and replaced by a part-time Canadian Air Force which was succeeded in turn by a permanent Royal Canadian Air Force in 1924. The latter assumed regulatory powers (licensing, safety standards) over civilian flying until 1936, when the Department of Transport was established.

Camera lens peer out from the fuselage of a Northrop Delta.[PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA063180]

Camera lens peer out from the fuselage of a Northrop Delta.

Royal Air Force training in Canada—between 1917-18—had included aerial photography around the various bases that were repeatedly charted in successive exercises. Postwar civilian pilots undertook limited surveys of forests in Quebec and Labrador. Nevertheless, it was the Air Board that embarked upon the most sustained, systematic operations and experiments aimed at demonstrating and advancing the practical applications of aviation, including photography.

At Rockcliffe in Ottawa—in November 1920—it operated an Avro 504K and a Bristol F.2b, both of which were fitted with cameras. The light, unstable Avro proved a disappointment and the Bristol showed that aerial photography demanded a secure airborne platform. These experiments continued in 1921.

Typical of these early photographic undertakings was one requested in July 1921 by the International Boundary Commission. An island in the St. Croix River near St. Stephen, N.B., was disputed territory, and the point to be resolved centred on which branch of the river constituted the main channel. To prepare a model of the river the commission asked that the St. Croix be photographed from St. Stephen to Milltown. The operation was undertaken in October when Squadron Leader A.B. Shearer, commanding officer of the Dartmouth Air Station, took an HS2L to the area. Shearer had intended to photograph the river from 5,000 feet but the aircraft’s Liberty engine overheated and he could not get above 3,000 feet. His difficulties were compounded by the fact that he carried no second pilot and could only communicate with his camera operator by writing notes. Nevertheless, the operation was successful and contributed to awarding the disputed island to Canada.

And so aerial photography had become a significant part of the groundwork being laid for a 40-year program that would eventually see Canada fully mapped from coast to coast and from the southern border to the Far North.

Such work was not unique to Canada. From 1922 onwards, the United States Army Air Corps was engaged in aerial surveys from the Grand Canyon to Alaska. Abroad, Belgium, Britain, and France, undertook limited air mapping of their colonial empires, using both military and commercial resources. In Canada, too, the Air Board—and its RCAF successor—was supplemented by commercial companies and a few provincial air services. Yet in terms of sheer areas surveyed, it was the Dominion government that executed the lion’s share of the work.

An American, Sherman M. Fairchild was a major figure in Canadian aerial history. He was born into a wealthy business family but preferred photography, including inventing new types of cameras. When it became obvious that he did not intend to work in his father’s company, the senior Fairchild gave him $150,000 to establish his own business. The American military was disinterested in his cameras and civilian firms preferred to use war surplus supplies rather than new equipment. In 1921, Fairchild formed his own company, Fairchild Aerial Surveys, using existing aircraft and his more advanced cameras. He was invited to conduct photography surveys in Canada, and to do so he formed a Canadian subsidiary.

Fairchild’s cameras became the standard equipment of every North American organization—civil or military—engaged in aerial photography. His equally immense impact upon aircraft development soon followed. The cabin monoplane was one of the most important advances in Canadian bush flying, eliminating open cockpits and easing the discomfort of winter flying. It was not the exclusive invention of any designer; the Fairchild, Bellanca, Curtiss and Ryan aircraft corporations all hit upon the idea around 1926. However, Sherman Fairchild received a great deal of credit because he combined the all-season enclosed cabins with his newest aerial cameras in the Fairchild FC-2, the first of a series of bush planes that led to the Fairchild 51, 71, and Super 71. These played an important role in bush flying in general, and RCAF aerial surveys in particular.

Canadian application of aerial photography to frontier surveys attracted considerable attention elsewhere. As early as February 1924, at a meeting of Britain’s Royal Aeronautical Society, this nation’s work was singled out for praise and emulation; cautious British policies were contrasted with Canadian methods characterized by enthusiastic practicality and unhindered by weighty theoretical considerations.

It may be unfair to draw comparisons between Canada and other countries, for more than geography differed from nation to nation. Great Britain gave considerable leeway to private companies operating in Burma, Malaya and central Africa. The Canadian approach was to give the preponderant amount of aerial photography to the RCAF. Private firms could and did contract to do similar work, but they did so chiefly on behalf of provincial governments, municipal authorities or private corporations, including forestry and power companies.

For much of the interwar period, RCAF aircrews were often virtual “bush pilots in uniform”—and sometimes not even in uniform (Fathering Civil Aviation, March/ April 2005). The RCAF’s senior air officer from 1924 to 1928, Group Captain J.S. Scott, hated Civil Government Air Operations, which included forestry and photography work, as well as other duties on behalf of the civil power. He believed such work undermined the military spirit of the force, which in his view should have only one objective—to train for war. In 1927, Scott stated the reasons for his opposition in point form. He stated that RCAF civil work was undesirable because “it retarded the development of commercial civil aeronautics; civil government air operations were restricted by the size of the service vote; men were being commissioned and enlisted in the RCAF to carry out civil functions; it was impossible to maintain a high standard of air force training and discipline when civil operations required intimate contact between officers, men and civilian employees.”

Scott recommended the RCAF discontinue all civil operational flying for other government departments and concentrate on establishing a purely military organization. With regards to aerial photography itself he recommended this be undertaken by commercial firms or provincial air services, except where such services found that the operations were beyond their means to execute.

These arguments found little sympathy with Scott’s superior, Chief of Staff Major-General J.H. MacBrien. Another proponent of RCAF civil operations was J.A. Wilson who was by then secretary of the air force. The force continued to fly frontier missions. As such, it was just as much a bush flying organization as any commercial firm. Indeed there were many civilians who would have agreed with Scott, regarding the RCAF as a competitor rather than a partner.

From 1924 onwards, RCAF photo operations followed a pattern that featured planning and co-operation. An interdepartmental committee was formed with representatives from the RCAF, Department of the Interior, and other agencies which might have a call on government aircraft. The winter months were spent drawing up plans and assigning priorities to various projects. When spring arrived, photo detachments, normally consisting of two aircraft with crews, fanned out across the country, armed with instructions to photograph various locations. They were deliberately given more work than could be accomplished. Thus, if weather or logistical problems prevented flying on one task, there were always other jobs to do.

The photo detachments began each season working in more southerly areas. As lakes thawed and snow cover melted, they moved northward, although it was not until 1930 that operations were extended to the Northwest Territories. Sometimes two detachments came to the same general area, working in tandem until one or another departed to survey an adjacent region.

The photo routine was simple, but demanding. Prior to starting, a rough sketch of the area to be covered was prepared, with parallel flight lines established and numbered. A photo aircraft would fly down one or more lines on a reasonably clear day, taking vertical and oblique pictures. Back at base, the film was sent back to Ottawa with a report as to what lines had been covered. When the pictures were developed, a message went back to the detachment, stating whether the photos were satisfactory or if a line had to be flown again. At the conclusion of the season, the detachments returned home and the cycle of planning began again.

Many of the detachment reports have been lost through bureaucratic file culling, but enough have survived to give some indication of how closely the work of a photographic detachment was related to the frontier normally associated with civilian bush pilots. An excerpt from one such report literally suggests the flavour of the work: “The seven-man camp cooking kit was not adequate, but the supply of culinary equipment was augmented by utensils drawn from Stores at Fitzgerald. This did not prevent the civilian cook, employed while in the territories, from coming forward daily with grievances which found their origin in the necessity for making one pot do the work of three. Constant contact with service equipment, however, finally won him over to a more philosophical outlook. Nevertheless, tableware contained in the seven-man kits is made of a very inferior grade of material. Knives, forks and spoons had a habit of breaking when personnel applied the amount of pressure necessary to sever the type of sinew normally found in such foods as boiled dinner. Serious consequences arising from the assimilation of broken fork tines were avoided only by painstaking scrutiny of each mouthful of food and careful mastication of same. Blistered lips were the inevitable result of any attempt to take a hot drink from the aluminum cups provided. Personnel were compelled either to provide themselves with earthenware cups, or drink tepid tea,” wrote Flight Lieutenant S.S. Blanchard, Officer Commanding, No. 3 Detachment during the 1938 flying season in the northern Prairies and Northwest Territories.

Until the outbreak of WW II, the RCAF photo detachments represented the force’s closest and most sustained contact with bush flying and frontier development. Even in 1933-34, when the RCAF was near to budgetary starvation, it flew 585 hours on photographic operations in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, in the Northwest Territories and western Ontario. Thereafter, photographic operations slowly revived, with 1,275 hours flown in 1934-35, 1,737 hours in 1935-36, 1,358 hours in 1936-37, and 1,807 hours in 1937-38.

More significant, however, was the increasing efficiency of these operations. When the RCAF’s budget was slashed in 1932, it learned how to do more with less. More modern aircraft helped, but the most effective steps lay in cramming more cameras into every airplane—as many as three, synchronized to operate simultaneously—to obtain maximum vertical and oblique coverage while avoiding lens obstruction by floats or struts. Bellanca Pacemakers, introduced into service in 1930, were particularly amenable to these modifications, but the pride and joy of the pre-war photographic fleet was the Northrop Delta, an all-metal monoplane used from 1936 to the outbreak of war. Some of its last peacetime missions involved searches for potential air bases in Labrador.

The results were as dramatic as statistics can describe. In 1930-31, for example, the RCAF flew 4,217 hours on aerial photography and covered 54,100 square miles—12.8 square miles for each hour flown. In 1937-38, some 1,807 hours on similar missions produced 75,000 square miles of coverage or about 41.5 square miles per hour flown.

For years the photo-graphs taken by air force crews were processed and assessed in offices in downtown Ottawa. In 1936, a new three-storey Photographic Establishment—known as The White House—was opened at Rockcliffe. For the next 60 years it was the hub and heart of air force photography. Scarcely anyone realized that it was one of Canada’s most historic buildings, and its eventual demolition passed almost unnoticed.

The photographic work done by the interwar RCAF was vital to the survival of the force when political pressures and budget cuts threatened its existence. “Aid to the civil power” justified budgets in the manner that “peacekeeping” duties were cited in the 1990s as a rationale for defence expenditures. Nevertheless, the leisurely, methodical procedures used and low altitudes flown—5,000 to 12,000 feet—meant that the work had little application in the war to come. After 1945, the programs were revived, though using the methods and equipment that had been developed under wartime conditions.

An article such as this cannot do justice to the RCAF’s aerial surveys between the wars. Fortunately, there are some excellent books on the subject, dealing with civilian as well as military work. Don W. Thompson’s Skyview Canada—published by the Government of Canada in 1975—is still a good read and available in many libraries. More recent is S. Bernard Shaw’s Photographing Canada From Flying Canoes, published in 2001 by General Store Publishing. It includes biographies of several notable personalities and descriptions of aircraft engaged in such tasks. It would be a valuable addition to any library—public or private.

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