The Forest Watchers: Air Force, Part 35

October 20, 2009 by Hugh A. Halliday
A Vickers Vedette on an unknown lake in the 1920s. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

A Vickers Vedette on an unknown lake in the 1920s.
PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES

The Royal Canadian Air Force’s interwar role in “aid to the civil power” is most often associated with aerial photography and mapping. There was, however, another task that preoccupied the air force between the first and second world wars: forestry protection.

The potential use of aircraft in fire patrols was in fact discussed even before the conclusion of the First World War, but it was a civilian firm—Laurentide Paper—that first used HS2L flying boats, based at Grand-Mère, Que., for forestry survey and fire spotting in 1919. That was the same year Parliament passed the Air Board Act, creating a body that controlled both civil and military aviation.

After acquiring the necessary aircraft, the Air Board set out to determine the extent to which aerial fire ranging could be carried out and how much of it would have a direct bearing on government services. Along the way, the board found itself as arbiter in disputes between other government departments. The air force worked most frequently with the Department of the Interior and within that department, the Forestry and Topographical Surveys Sections competed vigorously for aerial resources. General allocation was usually settled in Ottawa, but sometimes surfaced at the provincial or district level.

In August 1923, for example, Squadron Leader B.D. Hobbs wrote from Winnipeg that “everything possible has been done by this unit to meet with the requirements of the Forestry Branch, and at the same time not disappoint other departments. In this connection it became difficult to make a decision satisfactory to all departments.” Hobbs and King Solomon obviously had something in common when it came to dividing up scarce assets.

The competition between departments and within departments was most acute when the same aircraft were used for both forestry and survey work, the latter encompassing both mapping and resource inventories. A policy soon dictated that forestry work was to have priority over aerial survey tasks. Competition eased from 1928 on when dedicated photographic survey detachments were formed, unconnected to specific bases and thus unavailable for even ad hoc forestry assignments.

The Air Board commenced experimental forestry patrols late in 1920, using bases at High River, Alta., and Roberval, Que. The Quebec government contributed $20,000 towards the latter operation and also assisted in the erection of permanent buildings. A forest survey detachment was also established at Haileybury, Ont., to study problems of insect infestation.

In 1921, forestry operations were extended with government aircraft based at Vancouver (fire patrols, photography, general survey), Kamloops, B.C., (fire patrols), High River (fire patrols and some reconnaissance work in Jasper Park), Victoria Beach (fire patrols between Lake Winnipeg and the Ontario border and along the northern ends of the greater Manitoba lakes), Sioux Lookout, Ont., (mainly surveys) and Roberval.

Vickers aircraft on patrol over Ladder Lake, Sask. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA139010]

Vickers aircraft on patrol over Ladder Lake, Sask.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA139010

Following Quebec’s lead of the previous year, the governments of British Columbia and Ontario respectively contributed $20,000 and $15,000 towards the flying operations.

Officials on the ground were generally delighted with the economies and efficiencies achieved through aircraft. One declared that in Manitoba the new methods by aircraft were far superior to an older system of fire ranging by canoe. The latter, he declared, did not even justify the expense of paddles which the rangers broke.

In addition to using fixed bases in 1921, the Air Board established the Northern Ontario Mobile Unit. This was virtually a rolling air station. The aircraft (two HS2Ls, one F.3 flying boat) could be flown to any large lake near the transcontinental railway while supplies, crew quarters and a photographic darkroom followed in railway cars. The unit’s first fire patrols were flown in June 1921 and continued until October, using lakes at Sioux Lookout, Banning, Minaki and Allan Water.

The experiment of the Northern Ontario Mobile Unit was not repeated, but in 1922 two bases were established at Parry Sound and Whitney to cover Algonquin Park. The operations were directed by Flight Lieutenant (later Air Vice-Marshal) C.M. McEwen. The bases operated an Avro 504K on floats plus several HS2L flying boats. The latter showed their age through frequent engine failures, hull leaks and rotting fabric.

Despite these difficulties, the bases logged 242 patrols between May 23 and Oct. 4, flying 575 hours in all. The Chief Forester for the Algonquin District was enthusiastic in assessing the operations, describing them as “probably the most dependable of any means of detection.”

Initially, forestry flying consisted of spotting and reporting fires, but in July 1921 the aircraft of the Northern Ontario Mobile Unit went a step further by transporting rangers and equipment to fight the conflagrations. The aircraft thus moved from a passive to an active role, known as “fire suppression.” This created a need for a new type of aircraft, one capable of airlifting firefighters, pumps, etc. The old HS2L could carry only minimal loads. In 1923, the RCAF introduced a larger, sturdier machine—the Vickers Viking, followed in 1926 by a type designed specifically for fire suppression: the Vickers Varuna.

A twin-engine, wooden-hull flying boat, the Varuna underwent several small changes, each of which added weight, increased drag or reduced lift on what had begun as an underpowered machine. Consequently, the aircraft needed a large lake from which to taxi. Once airborne, the plane climbed slowly to a limited ceiling of 7,800 feet before staggering off at a top speed of 81 miles per hour. Performance fell off as the hulls became waterlogged.

In 1928, the RCAF issued a specification for a larger, more efficient fire suppression machine. In April 1929, the prototype Vickers Vancouver appeared and deliveries began that fall. Both on the water and in the air, it offered everything that had been missing in the Varuna. However, by the end of 1930 the RCAF had largely vacated the forestry role, and the Vancouver became something of an orphan, a type for which there was at the time no clearly defined role.

An HS2L aircraft at Victoria Beach, Man., during the 1920s. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA140637]

An HS2L aircraft at Victoria Beach, Man., during the 1920s.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA140637

Once the Air Board and RCAF had demonstrated the practicality of aircraft in forestry work, the air force withdrew from the field as much as possible. Two commercial companies were formed and they exploited the lessons learned. These were Laurentide Air Service and the Dominion Aerial Experimental Company. The latter was created by H.S. Quigley who had commanded the Roberval Air Station in 1920 and the Northern Ontario Mobile Unit in 1921. The Quebec and British Columbia provincial governments largely contracted forestry work to these and other private firms.

In Ontario, the government initially contracted with Laurentide. It then organized what amounted to a provincial air force—the Ontario Provincial Air Service. Curiously, the OPAS and a permanent, professional RCAF shared a common birth date—April 1, 1924. The RCAF, OPAS and private firms drew on the same pool of manpower—hundreds of veteran wartime pilots, of which there were many. In any case, the commercial firms soon began training their own pilots and mechanics.

Although much forestry work had been assumed by provincial authorities, either directly or through contracts, constitutional factors necessitated a continued RCAF presence in this field. The Prairie provinces had been created out of the former Hudson’s Bay Company territories and so the federal government controlled their natural resources. This situation rankled the respective provinces until 1930 when they were placed on the same footing as their counterparts elsewhere. Until that happened, however, the federal government was obliged to protect those resources. Consequently, the RCAF continued its fire spotting and firefighting operations on the Prairies.

In Manitoba, 1923 was marked by expansion of the forestry work. Coverage was extended northwards with the establishment of bases at Cormorant Lake and Norway House. Accidents and delayed delivery of the new Vickers Viking flying boats held up the work, but the chief difficulty was in maintenance. Several experienced mechanics elected to join commercial firms. In 1926, patrols were extended to Saskatchewan, initially from Cormorant Lake and in 1927 by the establishment of a new base at Ladder Lake.

In Alberta, High River remained the central base for patrols over the eastern mountain slopes, supplemented from year to year by detachments at Eckville and Pincher Creek. The earliest patrols were flown by DH.4 aircraft, followed by smaller Avro Vipers, and, from 1928 onwards, De Havilland Moths. Hazards included badger holes on the airfields and air turbulence. In 1921, one pilot reported hitting an updraft that threw his DH.4 into a vertical sideslip; he lost 800 feet of altitude before recovering control.

The system of forestry patrols that evolved was simple, but comprehensive. In Alberta, the Avros and Moths merely reported fires to local officials using one-way radio or messages dropped in bags. Rangers on the ground communicated with pilots by laying out signal strips—a method dating from the First World War and army co-operation work.

In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, small aircraft spotted and reported fires while Vikings and Varunas stood by for suppression work. Each base had at least two patrol planes and one suppression machine. Local forestry officials, after taking into account the weather and fire hazard factors, would recommend patrols in given areas. However, it was the base commander who made the decision as to whether a flight could proceed or not.

Forestry operations were initially confined to summer and autumn. Early in 1928, however, an attempt was made in Manitoba to locate fires using ski-equipped aircraft. The results were promising and in 1929 orders were issued for detachments at Lac du Bonnet, Cormorant Lake, Norway House and Ladder Lake to commence patrols as early as March, using Moths for spotting and Fairchild FC-2s for suppression tasks. Once again, the RCAF earned high praise.

One report singled out Flt. Lt. F.J. Mawdesley. “The RCAF have done wonderful work and have greatly enhanced their reputation in the North Country. They were flying as late as May 11th, landing on ice well out in the lake, the ice adjoining the shore not being safe for planes.”

Due largely to the addition of spring patrols and the use of far-flung detachments, the two final years of RCAF forestry work were also the most active. In 1929, the force flew 5,819 hours on these operations, and the figure for 1930 was 5,316 hours. In terms of aircraft, 1929 also represented a peak, with 23 aircraft dedicated to the work from Alberta to Manitoba. That year the airmen detected 368 fires.

Some problems persisted. Radio communications had always been disappointing. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, radios were carried on only one-quarter of all flights. Even then, 75 per cent of all radio messages sent were not received. Pigeons were more useful in reporting mishaps such as forced landings.

Although the patrols were routine, they were not without incident. Many aircraft were damaged or lost at northern bases as they struck submerged logs or rocks. Smoke from forest fires often blotted out the horizon, making it difficult for pilots to orient themselves. An incident in 1929 illustrates the dangers.

Sergeant J.M. Ready, a pilot with the Lac du Bonnet base, took off in a Moth on the morning of Aug. 26, 1929, on a fire patrol. He was to land at Gordon Lake but in the haze he could not find it so he headed back to Lac du Bonnet, commencing a descent through heavy smoke. Without a horizon for reference he let the nose drop and the speed began to build up. He heaved back on the stick. By then, however, the floats and his airspeed had stabilized the dive and the Moth refused to respond. At 500 feet, Ready bailed out. His aircraft went into the lake. The pilot also came down in the lake. Ready’s life preserver failed to inflate and he had to swim for shore. After walking five miles he arrived at Davis Lodge, procured a boat, and returned to base.

By the fall of 1929, it was clear that operations near High River could be reduced as a tower lookout system in the Crowsnest and Bow River areas was now complete. By then, too, the transfer of natural resources from federal to provincial jurisdiction was imminent. In the spring of 1930, the RCAF suggested that, irrespective of the transfer date, the force would continue the patrols for that season. The Civil Government Operations Branch was also prepared to continue the service beyond 1930 on a contract basis, charging $577,000 annually to Manitoba and $207,000 annually to Saskatchewan.

The two governments considered this too high a price, however, and did not accept the proposal. In 1931, they chose to contract with commercial firms for fire patrols. Manitoba subsequently formed its own air service, similar to that in Ontario.

The RCAF was not completely relieved of fire patrol duties, however, for there remained several national parks in Western Canada that were left with inadequate protection. Cuts in defence budgets limited the ability of the RCAF to help. No suitable base existed near the Rocky Mountain parks (the High River base closed in 1930), but assistance was available for Riding Mountain and Prince Albert national parks, provided the Parks Branch paid the costs. From 1931 to 1936 the RCAF supplied one airplane and crew for each of these parks during the summer season. In the latter year the air force informed the Department of the Interior that heavy service training commitments made it impossible to carry on these duties.

The RCAF’s role as fire ranger inspired the poet in Flt. Lt. F.V. Heakes. His composition, The Forest Watcher, was published in Canadian Aviation magazine in July 1928.

Over lake and pine-clad forest,

Over river flashing by,

Sails the white-winged forest watcher

Softly in a cloud-swept sky.

Softly drones the distant engine,

Over virgin timberland,

Speaking peace unto the forest

Where the mighty giants stand.

Onward then o’er tracts scarce charted,

Over cataracts asweep,

Over mountain, plain and valley

Over glades that lie in sleep.

Far into the western twilight,

Flashing wings against the sun,

Hums the softening song of engine,

Throbbing until day is done.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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