The NCO Pilots: Air Force, Part 11

September 1, 2005 by Hugh A. Halliday

PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA62619

PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA62619

NCO pilot R.S. Grandy prepares for takeoff at Rockcliffe, Ont., in 1929.

World War I British pilots were usually commissioned officers. Non-commissioned officer pilots were a rarity until 1918, and were still greatly outnumbered by officers. And so by late 1919, the pilot’s trade had reverted to being an officer’s preserve.

Britain’s air ministry decided in 1921 to reinstitute the training of NCO pilots. Candidates were drawn from the ranks of mechanics and skilled tradesmen. They were to possess “pluck, reliability, alertness, keenness and energy”. Initially, it was expected that, having served five years as pilots, they would revert to their original ground trades, but this wasteful attitude to experience and acquired skills was soon abandoned.

In this country, the Royal Canadian Air Force authorized NCO pilot training in November 1926; candidates had to have attained at least leading aircraftman (LAC) rank and be not more than 25 years old. A course began at Camp Borden in Ontario on Feb. 1, 1927, with six pupils. It lasted three months and four of the men graduated: A. Anderson, A.J. Horner, R. Marshall, and E.C. Tennant. Upon earning their wings, these four were promoted to the rank of sergeant.

A second NCO course commenced at Camp Borden that same year, and each year until 1931 the RCAF trained NCO pilots. This select group comprised the following individuals: March 1928: R.F. Gibb, G.T. Elliott, H.J. Winney, R.I. Barton; March 1929: G.V.Miscampbell, F.J. Ewart, R.W. Pike, R.I. Thomas, W.S. Tourgis, S. Volk, J.M. Ready, H. Cobb, G.E. Cherrington (three more failed to pass, while Corporal J.G. Ault was killed in an Avro 504 crash in February 1929); April 1930: J.R. Bowker, H.A. MacDonald, Arthur Fleming, J.W. McNee, L.A. Harling, E.F. O’Connor, J.A.C. Collins, J.E. Doan, V.S. Roberts; May 1931: G.H. Desbiens, J.D. Hunter, N.E. Small, H. Bryant.

Canada’s NCO pilot training program was suspended as an economy measure in the Great Cut of 1931. When resumed, it was modest, producing the following graduates: April 1936: P.E. Sorenson, S.D. Turner, J.C. Mirabelli, R.A.W. Gilmour, M.E. Ferguson; May 1937: W.G. Pate, R.L. Davis, W.J. Michalski; May 1938: E.R. Austin, K. Birchall, E.C. Briese, J.J. Cotter, R. Dobson, G.O. Godson, R.R.B. Hoodspith, V.A. Margetts, R.F. Milne, A.W. Mitchell, R.H. Morris, F.H. Pearce; June 1939: Stanley Broadbent, B.G. Miller, A.M. Sharp; September 1939: F. Pafford, Ross Smither, D.V. Thomas.

It is not clear precisely why the RCAF decided to train NCO pilots. Economy and limited officer establishments may have been factors, but another reason is obvious. In 1923, it began training university students engaged as Provisional Pilot Officers. Known as PPOs, they were given three summers of flight training, and then granted flying badges and a commission. However, during winter the PPOs were at university, leaving aircraft and instructors idle. The NCO pilot training scheme enabled such resources to be used until the PPOs returned.

A second reason can be deduced from the manner in which they were used. All pilots–officers and NCOs alike–spent much time flying on Civil Government Air Operations, namely forestry patrols, anti-smuggling operations and aerial photography. However, the air force also attempted to keep its hand in at combat skills through militia and naval exercises. A handful of pilots flew Armstrong-Whitworth Siskin fighters, and a score of officers were sent abroad to learn military skills from Royal Air Force experts. Yet these “military” tasks were almost exclusively for officers; the NCO pilots seldom departed from Civil Government Air Operations flying. The foreign courses they took dealt chiefly with photography or parachutes, studied in the United States. Only three NCO pilots were sent to Britain. Overwhelmingly, the NCO pilots were used in mundane work while officer pilots occasionally took time off to play war games.

The pattern followed was that commanding officers at bases across Canada annually nominated one or two promising tradesmen for pilot training. Those chosen were usually the men with considerable earlier experience. George V. Miscampbell, a former taxi driver, had been in the RCAF more than five years as a vehicle and aero engine mechanic when he was chosen from Station Winnipeg’s Other Ranks in the autumn of 1928. Asa J. Horner had almost four years service as a mechanic, mostly at Ottawa Air Station, before being singled out for pilot training. James E. Doan had been 30 months a labourer and aero engine mechanic when selected at Camp Borden. His classmate, Arthur Fleming, also had 30 months of RCAF service as an aero engine mechanic at Winnipeg. Joseph Mirabelli was eight years an aero engine mechanic before being chosen for pilot training. An exception to the “long experience” practice was Robert I. Thomas, a rigger at Vancouver with only 18 months’ RCAF service when he was recommended in the fall of 1928.

The candidates often came to the flying training school with considerable operational histories. Riggers and mechanics often accompanied pilots to detached forestry or photography bases and participated in CGAO flying. Fleming had logged 335 hours of air time over two years as a crewman on Fairchild floatplanes and Varuna flying boats. Mirabelli had broad experience as a crewman on photography and anti-smuggling flights.

The career of one NCO pilot demonstrates how careers were shaped. G.V. Miscampbell, having been selected as a pilot candidate, went to Camp Borden which was then the RCAF’s sole initial air training centre. His course lasted from October 1928 to February 1929. During this time he flew 18 hours, 15 minutes with his instructor and 56 hours solo, all on Avro 504N aircraft. The course included a climb to 10,000 feet, then landing within 50 yards of a designated point. He also had to execute three landings with the engine stopped, completing the landing roll within 150 yards. Miscampbell also made cross-country flights between Camp Borden and Toronto. His ground courses included navigation, map reading, parachute packing and signalling with lamp, semaphore and radio. Significantly, he received no instruction in armament or army co-operation tactics–subjects featured in a PPO’s curriculum.

Having earned his wings and sergeant’s stripes, Miscampbell was posted to Vancouver for a seaplane course on Avro 554 and De Havilland Moth floatplanes plus Vickers Vedette flying boats. The subjects included flying skills, but some represented contemporary technology–semaphores, knots and splices, canoeing, rowing, and pigeon handling. After flying 28 hours 40 minutes on this course, he was ready for a posting to Winnipeg and a season of forest fire patrols. In 1930, he was engaged in photographic survey work and logged 235 hours–a very high figure for pilots at that time, most of whom flew about 155 operational hours annually. In 1931 and 1932 he was back on photo work. From late 1932 to the end of 1934 he commanded a small forestry protection flight in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan.

Winter months were spent on courses, including refresher flying, photography and engine maintenance. His health deteriorated, and in December 1936 he was taken off flying and was transferred as a Fitter to No. 8 (General Purpose) Squadron. However, he was at last promoted to flight sergeant.

He did not fly in 1937, but in 1938 Miscampbell managed to log more than 52 flying hours while still formally a workshop manager. He lobbied to be returned to the Flying List and in November 1939 was commissioned and returned to flying duty. He was briefly employed as an instructor, but his long experience in frontier flying, both in forestry work and photography, were subsequently used in salvaging an aircraft in the Belcher Islands and escorting American officers through the Northwest Territories. He attained the rank of squadron leader, but was killed in May 1943 while testing the single-engine flying characteristics of a Mosquito aircraft intended for photographic duties.

Flying involved hazards and occasional accidents. Sgt. R.W. Pike was killed in May 1930 while delivering a Reid Rambler to Ottawa. Aircraft components had not been properly secured by a contractor and Pike lost elevator control before crashing. Flt. Sgt. A. Anderson, a member of the first NCO pilot course, was killed in the crash of a De Havilland Puss Moth at Ottawa in March 1932. He had been on a test flight when his left mainplane disintegrated and the machine spun into the ground. Structural failure also claimed Sergeant V.S. Roberts, whose Siskin fighter broke up over Camp Borden in October 1934. Flight Sergeant E.F. O’Connor died in a mid-air collision at Trenton, Ont., in October 1937. There were also close calls. In August 1929, Sgt. J.M. Ready, flying a Manitoba forest fire patrol, found himself in an uncontrollable dive and bailed out of his De Havilland Moth at 500 feet. Sgt. N.E. Small was injured in November 1935; while piloting an open-cockpit Vickers Vedette near Vancouver; he was struck in the face by a wild duck and crashed.

Careers were sometimes detoured. Six NCO pilots gave up flying to return permanently to technical work. Four more (Bowker, Hunter, Small, Winney) left the RCAF for civilian jobs. Hunter became an executive with Trans-Canada Airlines. Small and Winney rejoined the RCAF in 1939.

In 1918 and 1919, the House of Commons passed the Nickel Resolutions intended to discourage bestowal of knighthoods and hereditary titles on Canadians. Their effect, however, had been a suspension of almost all formal honours. Thus, while dozens of British NCO pilots (and at least three Australians NCO pilots) were decorated for both combat and non-combat interwar services, RCAF personnel went unrewarded. This drought of formal honours was interrupted briefly by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, who in 1934 and 1935 submitted Honours Lists to the Crown. During this short period one RCAF NCO pilot was singled out for distinction.

Early in 1934, Bennett approached the army Chief of Staff, Major-General A.G.L. McNaughton, seeking advice for honours to be granted outstanding Canadian pilots. McNaughton conferred with his senior air officer, Group Captain G.M. Croil, and came up with three nominees: W.R. Wop May, a civilian; Sqdn. Ldr. R.S. Grandy, an officer and Flt. Sgt. Harry J. Winney, an NCO.

Winney was awarded a British Empire Medal. He was singled out for piloting one of two aircraft which, in the summer of 1930, had conducted an extensive Arctic exploration flight down the Mackenzie River to Aklavik, along the Arctic coastline and well into the interior until they reached Hudson Bay, turning north to Repulse Bay before proceeding south again via Chesterfield Inlet and Churchill. The self-contained detachment conducting this operation flew 193 hours, took 3,100 photographs, and checked fuel caches throughout the North. It flew over unsettled and unmapped territory. The recommendation also noted that in 1931 Winney had been mapping a large block of the Northwest Territories from Bathurst Inlet to Wholdaia Lake.

Another NCO pilot had a less happy distinction. On Sept. 14, 1939, a Northrop Delta of No. 8 General Purpose Sqdn. disappeared while en route from Ottawa to its wartime station in Halifax. The occupants, Warrant Officer James E. Doan and LAC David A. Rennie, were the first RCAF casualties of the war. The corroded Delta wreckage was found 60 kilometres north of Fredericton in July 1958; there was no sign of either man, whose names headed the list of 800 men and women on the Air Force Memorial on Green Island, Ottawa, dedicated to air force personnel who died in activities around Canada, yet have no known grave.

The RAF granted commissions to several of its NCO pilots between the war, and the RCAF did too. Three were commissioned in February 1939 and two–F.J. Ewart and R.F. Gibb–eventually rose to group captain, the highest rank attained by former RCAF NCO pilots.

Following the loss of Doan, 34 surviving RCAF NCO pilots were commissioned in November 1939 and four more were commissioned within a year. Those who had reverted to technical duties had to wait longer to be granted officer status. Most ex-NCO pilots were retained in Canada on training and home defense duties. An exception was Ross Smither, who had scarcely received his wings and sergeant stripes than he was commissioned and posted overseas with a squadron that took part in the Battle of Britain. Smither was shot down and killed in September 1940. Hoodspith was allowed to go overseas in 1943, but for signals rather than flying duties. Pearce served in 436 Sqdn. in 1945 and was awarded an Air Force Cross.

Of those retained in Canada, 22 were decorated or formally commended, including Fleming who became an expert in cold-weather test flying and was awarded an AFC. The value of his work extended far beyond the war years. Small, a brilliant tactician and innovator in Eastern Air Command’s anti-submarine warfare, was awarded the AFC and Distinguished Flying Cross before his death in a crash in January 1943. Milne, awarded a DFC for anti-submarine work, was nominated for (though not awarded) the McKee Trophy in recognition of continuing postwar aerial surveys. Of the 52 interwar NCO pilots, four had been killed before the war and seven died in wartime service; Broadbent was killed in a flying accident in June 1948.

Although thousands of wartime pilots, trained under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, received their wings as sergeants, the RCAF strove to commission them as soon as possible. Pilot training from scratch was suspended in 1945 but resumed in 1947, at which time the force pursued an “all-officer” policy for major aircrew categories, including pilots and navigators. Thus, the 52 NCO pilots were a unique “club” in the history of the force.

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