photo: NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA–PA139754
Canada owes an enormous debt to John Armistead Wilson. Indeed, there should be an airport named after him, for in many ways he invented the Royal Canadian Air Force and laid the foundation for the nation’s civil aviation administration.
Prior to World War I, the Canadian government had studiously ignored aviation. Even during the war, Canada had left such matters to the British, permitting establishment of a training program here, but not forming any distinctive Canadian air forces until it was too late to see action. The Royal Canadian Naval Air Service, (RCNAS), to be based in Canada, existed only four months and was snuffed out within weeks of the Armistice being signed. The two-squadron Canadian Air Force, formed in England, was composed of some of Canada’s most decorated combat pilots, yet it was rendered redundant by the same Armistice. Somehow the CAF flickered on until early 1920 when it was disbanded.
Nevertheless, thousands of Canadians had gained flying experience during the war, and airplanes had demonstrated their value as weapons. Canada would clearly benefit from using pilots and planes, but how were these talents and technology to be adapted? Several people had ideas, but J.A. Wilson had a plan.
Born in Scotland in 1879, trained as an engineer, and initially employed in India, Wilson moved to Canada in 1905 and worked for the Canada Cement Company. Five years later he became director of stores and contracts for the Department of Naval Service. He was later appointed deputy minister of the department. Wilson had virtually no contact with aviation until the formation of the RCNAS. His engineering background and administrative talents were employed in the construction of seaplane bases at Sydney and Dartmouth in Nova Scotia, manned during the war by United States Navy personnel pending arrival of trained RCNAS staff. Late in 1918, co-operating with Major Clare C. MacLaurin, Wilson began formulating a postwar aviation policy for Canada.
MacLaurin was an experienced seaplane pilot whose early death in a flying accident in September 1922 robbed him of recognition comparable to that gained by Wilson. In November 1918, Wilson wrote a paper titled Notes on the Future Development of the Air Service in Canada Along Lines Other Than Those of Defence. MacLaurin followed with a report titled Memorandum Regarding the Formation of a National Canadian Air Service. Both men urged the government to embark on a national air policy, involving both regulatory functions and active flying operations.
The two men also stressed that Canada’s postwar flying would have to be focused on civil aviation. Other than as a pool of talent and a conduit to British aviation, the shiny CAF in England would be irrelevant. At home, a domestic air organization would have to be built from scratch. Once that was established, an air force could follow, linked to commercial flying much as the Royal Navy was associated with the Merchant Marine.
Wilson’s outlook was forged from his experience with the Royal Cdn. Navy, and W.A.B. Douglas, writing in The Creation of a National Air Force, summed up his views admirably: “Without a solid civil foundation, Wilson concluded, the navy was never able to muster the material, technological and moral support it needed to prosper; consequently, it remained an artificial construct imposed on a disinterested public, fighting a continual rearguard action for survival.”
Wilson did not want the air force to languish in the same manner. However, an air force would lack even the limited political patronage enjoyed by the peacetime Non-Permanent Militia which was populated by weekday politicians masquerading as weekend colonels. Ministers of the Crown were almost as indifferent to aviation in 1919 as they had been in 1913. Nevertheless, several groups, including forestry associations, were urging adaptation of aircraft to civil ends, while surveyors and mining officials inside the federal bureaucracy joined Wilson and MacLaurin in raising the same concerns. Consequently, Wilson was assigned the task of writing the Air Board Act; he completed the first draft in two days. This legislation was introduced into the House of Commons on April 29, 1919, and received royal assent on June 6, 1919.
The Air Board Act clearly staked out aviation as the exclusive preserve of the national government and not the provinces, a view that remained unchallenged until 1927, but which was finally accepted by the highest courts in 1932. The Air Board was granted wide regulatory powers over aircraft, pilots, mechanics and air bases. It was also empowered to conduct flying operations using government-owned aircraft, and to form a nascent CAF. The first chairman of the board, Colonel O.M. Biggar, brought to his duties much knowledge of overseas air policies gained while attending the Paris Peace Conference as a Canadian delegate; he had even commuted by air between Paris and London. Wilson was appointed as a member of the Air Board.
Wilson and MacLaurin realized that seaplanes would initially be more useful in the Canadian context than land planes. They were keenly interested in an experimental project sponsored by the Saint Maurice Protective Association. The association controlled vast timber concessions in Quebec. MacLaurin suggested the company use flying boats to conduct fire patrols; Wilson arranged for two HS-2L flying boats to be transferred from the Dartmouth air station to the forestry association; these became the first “bush planes” ever operated in Canada, proving enormously successful in forest surveys and forest fire detection.
This latter accomplishment was particularly striking because of recent tragedies. In July 1911, an enormous fire had swept through the Cochrane-South Porcupine district in Ontario, destroying villages and killing at least 73 people. Another fire, this one in the Matheson district in July 1916, killed approximately 225 persons with some estimates exceeding 340. The fire also left 8,000 homeless. Air patrols promised to end such catastrophes.
When the Air Board was abolished in 1923, its duties were assumed by the Department of National Defence which, in 1936, transferred most of its civil functions to a newly created Department of Transport. Organization charts changed, but Wilson stayed on, wearing numerous successive titles, including secretary of the Air Board in 1920, assistant director and secretary of the RCAF in 1923, controller of civil aviation in 1927 and director of air services in 1941. Ultimately, he would be dubbed The Father of Canadian Civil Aviation, but in a very real sense he also ensured that between the world wars the RCAF would form, survive, and prosper, albeit as an organization as much dedicated to civil flying as to military preparations.
Wilson was also influential in the evolution of the Canadian aircraft industry. As of 1920, Canadian Vickers was offering to open an aircraft plant in Montreal, drawing on talent and designs of their British parent, but in return they asked for a monopoly to supply new Air Board aircraft. All officials rejected this out of hand, but Wilson diplomatically advised the company that they might still compete successfully for both civilian and government aircraft. Indeed, even without exclusive access to federal contracts, Canadian Vickers managed to become a significant designer and supplier of aircraft to the RCAF, although it had less success in cracking the commercial market.
Wilson believed the air force should demonstrate the value of aircraft to civil operations, but should not monopolize the field. Once the point of practicality had been made, he argued that the RCAF should vacate the field, allowing private companies to carry on the work. This could not happen in all cases because aerial photography in remote wilderness areas was unattractive to such firms, but the growth of a viable air industry would provide the political support necessary for the survival of the RCAF.
Wilson’s view tallied with that of Group Captain James A. Scott, director of the RCAF from May 1924 to February 1928. Indeed, Scott was doctrinaire in his belief that the force should be an all-military organization. A martinet; one of Scott’s objections to continuing RCAF civil operations lay in his belief that they undermined air force training and discipline by encouraging intimate contact between officers, men and civilian employees. What kind of an air force could you expect to have if officers and other ranks shared hotels or even log cabins while photographing northern lakes? Meanwhile, he naively believed that the RCAF, stripped of any civil duties, could nevertheless retain its budget and personnel establishment.
Wilson’s vision of a strong civil air industry supporting the RCAF found expression in several ways. As early as 1922, forestry patrols in central Canada had been taken over by other agencies, including private companies in Quebec and the Ontario Provincial Air Service in Ontario. In the late 1920s, the force offered limited flying instruction to civilian pilots during the winter months. The air force was an enthusiastic sponsor of Canadian flying clubs, which were organized from 1928 onwards; each club was issued two training aircraft from RCAF stocks and subsequently received technical advice. The clubs in turn became the nuclei of Auxiliary Air Force squadrons after 1934. Aerial fisheries patrols, pioneered by the Air Board and CAF, were taken over by private companies.
The high point of Wilson’s policy was the institution of airmail in 1927 with the post office subsidizing numerous companies through mail contracts. Simultaneously, the RCAF assumed a major role in surveying, building and equipping airfields that would enable development of such airmails. When Depression budgets eliminated this construction program, Wilson managed to revive it under the auspices of relief projects.
Unhappily, the process did not go as far as Wilson and Scott had hoped. Federal control of western natural resources until 1930 provided a rationale for the RCAF to continue extensive forestry work there. The force was still under army control, and chiefs of the general staff found “aid to the civil power” to be a relatively easy means of “selling” members of Parliament on service budgets, much as modern “peacekeeping” supposedly serves the forces—justifying survival of even a minimal military force to a public otherwise indifferent if not hostile to such forces until time provides the rationale for more robust duties. The government dealt a crippling blow to civil aviation and hence to potential RCAF support by cancelling airmail contracts in 1931-32. It then forced the air force to take up the slack by operating a limited airmail service in the lower St. Lawrence Valley.
Up to 1934, the RCAF was so deeply involved in civil government air operations that its members often thought of themselves as “bush pilots in uniform.” Wilson was not surprised when air force flying time in 1925 was almost equally divided between service flying (2,593 hours) and “aid to the civil power” (2,519 hours). He was disappointed when almost the same proportions were exhibited in 1930 (14,935 hours on civil operations, 13,996 hours on service operations). Nevertheless, his original vision had ensured that the Canadian government chose to establish an air force at a time of intense pacifism and fund it—albeit modestly—into the Depression. It was a nucleus on which to build the mighty force of WW II.
Wilson’s modus operandi throughout his career was to be industrious and informed. He was never a pilot, yet he flew often as a passenger to remote corners of the nation. In 1924, he travelled 16,000 kilometres by flying boat, and in 1934 he covered 24,000 kilometres, almost two-thirds by air, to review the state of airfields across Canada and in the Arctic. Wilson also took the public pulse at scores of air meets across the nation. He corresponded with soldiers, statesmen, celebrities and editors.
If there was an international conference on aviation, Wilson was sure to attend, usually to present a paper on Canadian aerial progress and to learn about developments elsewhere. He was equally at home with British planning of Imperial airship routes and American airline concepts that married large airmail subsidies to nascent airline development, allowing the latter to expand into a complex matrix of routes.
Wilson was transferred to the new Department of Transport in November 1936, still serving as controller of civil aviation. In that capacity he was named a director of Trans-Canada Airlines (later Air Canada) upon its formation. However, he remained in touch with the Department of National Defence, and in 1939 was largely responsible for mobilizing civil aviation as a component of Canada’s war effort. Upon signing of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan agreement on Dec. 17, 1939, his Department of Transport division was tasked with choosing and developing sites for training bases. Some of these bases were established at existing airfields; others sprouted from virgin farmlands; all were chosen according to strict standards that ignored political considerations and focused on service requirements. Many of the schools were organized by the flying clubs that Wilson and his colleagues had championed in 1928.
There was more. From the Department of Transport, Wilson co-ordinated meteorological, radio and airfield services. He was a key figure in organizing Ferry Command, itself responsible for thousands of aircraft being flown directly from North America to overseas theatres. Late in 1942, he attended a conference in London and helped plan a Canadian government Trans-Atlantic Air Service, a service that would lay the foundation for later transoceanic air services by Trans-Canada Airlines. Late in 1944, he attended the conferences that established the International Civil Aviation Association, (ICAO), which ultimately established its headquarters in Montreal.
Accolades abounded. In 1945, Wilson was awarded the Trans-Canada Trophy as the person who has contributed most to Canadian aviation in the previous year. In July 1946, he was appointed a Commander, Order of the British Empire (CBE). Two years later, the Norwegian government bestowed upon him their Cross of Liberation. He died in 1954, but death did not curtail his honours; in 1973 he was named to the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame.