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The Imperial Gift: Air Force, Part 5



The engine is changed in a Felixstowe F.3 flying boat at Victoria Beach, Man., in August 1922.

In 1919-20, the British government presented hundreds of airplanes and associated equipment to several of its dominions. In Canada and Australia, these assets enabled nascent domestic air forces to be established and pioneering flights conducted. This Imperial Gift arose from motives both altruistic and self-serving on both sides.

During most of World War I, Canadian cabinet ministers studiously ignored aviation. At least 25,000 Canadians had joined the British flying services, but no distinctly Canadian air organizations existed until formation of the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service in September 1918 (for home defence) and a two-squadron Canadian Air Force overseas in August 1918. The former was created too late to employ even a single pilot; the latter, manned by Canadian veterans already in Britain, did not attain operational status.

Nevertheless, Canadians had been thinking about postwar aviation. At home, some were considering using

aircraft for survey and forestry work. Abroad, officers were contemplating a permanent Canadian air force. Both parties recognized that tight-fisted parliamentarians would oppose large aviation expenditures unless they were useful and economical.

As of December 1918, Canadians were inquiring about availability of airships “to carry mails, government officials and survey unexplored parts of the country, etc.” The British Admiralty was prepared to supply six, but observed that such craft had a life expectancy of only six months. By March 1919, Canadian Air Force officers were asking about heavier-than-air machines. Meanwhile, with large stocks of surplus aircraft on hand, Britain’s air ministry was cancelling production orders while looking about for ways to dispose of surplus material. The Imperial Gift helped assuage the embarrassment of destroying serviceable aircraft, estimated in the thousands.

Air ministry’s willingness to provide aircraft was communicated to the Dominion governments on June 4, 1919. At first, a figure of 100 aircraft was set for each recipient nation, but this was soon exceeded. The British expected them to be used in “jump starting” air forces throughout the Empire, and the initial types offered were limited—de Havilland 9 and 9A, Bristol Fighter, SE.5, Salamander, Dolphin, and Avro 504s. All but the Avros—a training type—were decidedly warlike in design and purpose.

The lists of available machines changed frequently, while the recipients dickered over the selection. At times there seemed to be no plan to Dominion requests, as when Canadians suggested a single Handley-Page O/400 and a “Super Handley-Page” (presumably a giant V/1500). In October 1919, with the choice of types close to being finalized, the Canadian Air Board requested more single-engined float planes, or types easily converted to that configuration, for “forest and survey experiments.” Royal Air Force surpluses did not include such machines, so none were forthcoming.

The aircraft offer had surprised the Air Board. It was just beginning to organize itself, and had no technical staff to advise on the selection of machines. Canadian aerial veterans joining the Air Board brought their knowledge of different aircraft types, and a lack of expertise was superseded by a cacophony of conflicting opinions. One voice quickly became dominant and it belonged to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Leckie who had taken up the appointment of director of flying operations.

Amid exchanges of telegrams between Canada and Britain, packing of the aircraft proceeded apace at Shoreham. Major Donald MacLaren initially supervised the work. On his return to Canada in November 1919 he was succeeded by Maj. James A. Glen. Shipping began in December 1919 and continued until May 1921. Initial uncertainty about the compatibility of imperial and Canadian objectives held up the first consignment by at least one month; further delays arose from the inadvisability of dispatching aircraft as deck cargo during winter. Thus, the bulk of the Imperial Gift did not leave Britain until the summer of 1920.

Apart from the aircraft, the gift included engines, cameras, at least 31 prefabricated hangars, seaplane beaching gear and motor transport. Most of this eventually reached Camp Borden in Ontario, where it was stored, assembled or forwarded elsewhere under the supervision of Captain George O. Johnson who had formerly been engaged in the assembly and exhibition of German aircraft shipped to Canada as war trophies.

The first airplanes arrived Jan. 15, 1920. There was a shortage of trained aircraft mechanics to assemble them. Once deliveries increased, a work routine evolved. Uncrated aircraft were checked scrupulously while being assembled. Rubber connections were replaced, registration markings painted on wings and fuselages, and the paperwork of formal registration completed. Each machine was test flown for at least one hour. Once deemed fit, it was either assigned to the CAF at Camp Borden or dismantled and packed for rail shipment to an Air Board flying station.

After many suggestions and changes, the final mix of aircraft consisted of the following types:

Avro 504


de Havilland DH.4 and DH.9


Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a


Felixstowe F.3 flying 2boat


Curtiss H.16 flying boat


Bristol F.2b fighter


Sopwith Snipe


Fairey C.3 Seaplane


Not all Imperial Gift aircraft were immediately assembled. At least nine never left their crates. One F.3 flying boat was assembled, registered, but not given a certificate of airworthiness and hence never flown. Apart from work at Camp Borden, Canadian Vickers in Montreal was contracted to assemble the Fairey C.3 and at least one F.3 flying boat while two F.3s were shipped directly to Vancouver for assembly. Other F.3 crates were sent to Victoria Beach, Man., and Dartmouth, N.S.

Canadian officials had been excited at the prospect of acquiring lighter-than-air material, of which there was a considerable surplus, for topographical surveys. Air board members, prepared to take almost anything the British had to offer, underestimated the adaptability of airplanes and overestimated that of airships. It is not clear just how much arrived—the figure of 30 kite balloons (tethered observation platforms) is firm, but the best guess for powered airships is nine. These were accompanied by a bewildering array of spares and accessories ranging from “airship cars” (17) to “silicol plants” (six, used to manufacture hydrogen). Lighter-than-air craft demanded ground-handling equipment and this, too, arrived in abundance, including compressors, winches and four special trucks.

The Air Board also borrowed an airship specialist from Britain. Flight-Lieutenant John A. Barron was one of the few Canadians who had acquired airship experience. As it turned out, there was almost nothing for him to do. Although one airship was unpacked, assembled and inflated as a test, almost all the lighter-than-air material remained crated. Barron was transferred from the Air Board’s Flying Operations Branch to the Technical Services Branch, where he assumed the title of assistant director of technical services. He was thus available to any party that might need airship advice. One firm, the Keewatin Lumber Company, proposed using airships in its operations, but advanced no concrete plans.

Barron was let go after March 1922. Balloon and airship envelope material served as roofing repair material at Camp Borden and Ottawa. Reluctant to admit having acquired an enormous stock of junk, the Air Board finally issued disposal instructions on Feb. 6, 1923. Two years later, National Defence Headquarters ordered the destruction of whatever lighter-than-air material remained.

In October 1920, several Imperial Gift aircraft occupied the public spotlight as participants in the Trans-Canada Flight. The event was not a continuous expedition but a series of hops by different crews using different aircraft. It began badly on the 7th when the sole Fairey 3C crashed en route from Halifax to Saint John, fortunately without injury to the pilot, Lt.-Col. Leckie. He returned to Halifax and switched to a Curtiss HS2L flying boat. With this machine he resumed the flight as far as Rivière-du-Loup, Que., where an F.3 was substituted on the 8th. Three days and 14 stops later, it arrived at Winnipeg, where a DH.9 took up the flight, arriving at Vancouver on the 17th after mechanical and weather delays, an adventurous flight through the Rockies and 11 landings.

The Imperial Gift machines figured in other significant Air Board operations. In the autumn of 1920 an Avro 504K and a Bristol F.2b, flying from the Rockcliffe Rifle Ranges near Ottawa, experimented in adapting wartime photographic reconnaissance methods to mapping in Canada. The Avro proved unsuitable (low ceiling, vibration) and the Bristol was too sensitive at the controls to be good photographic aircraft but the concept was considered sound, provided better machines could be employed; the DH.4 and DH.9 were considered best candidates.

Many of the types were employed in “double duty” functions. The Avro 504Ks at Camp Borden shuttled between training work and participation in militia exercises throughout Ontario. Similarly, the de Havilland aircraft based at High River, Alta., were switched between forestry, photography and militia training tasks. Some of the militia work consisted merely of taking up officers to familiarize them with the appearance of a mock battlefield.

Canadian authorities occasionally tinkered with the aircraft. The DH.4s, as received, were judged difficult machines, and several were converted to DH.4B standards (an American version). The principal change was moving the fuel tank from a point between the two cockpits to immediately in front of the pilot’s cockpit. This placed the tank nearer the aircraft’s centre of gravity, and thus ensured greater stability as fuel was consumed (the standard DH.4 tended to become nose-heavy during a flight). No amount of modifications could make the open-cockpit DH.4s comfortable in winter; official issue clothing (designed for wartime France) was often inadequate. Flying boots were sometimes discarded in favour of locally produced moccasins.

Some of the aircraft types proved disappointing under Canadian conditions. The Felixstowe F.3 flying boats were cumbersome in all but the most spacious lakes. Their size also complicated the standard method of moving aircraft long distances—disassembly, transport by rail, re-assembly at the intended operating base. They were costly to operate, and because the various F.3s had been built by different contractors, they differed in detail one from another, complicating maintenance. Aircraft in Manitoba were constantly being damaged in shallow lakes with consequent operational delays. On Sept. 29, 1922, the superintendent at Victoria Beach Air Station was advised to scrap his machines, sending spare parts on hand to Vancouver while salvaged instruments and engines were to be shipped to Ottawa.

An F.3 accident near Vancouver on July 24, 1921 underlined a surprising problem. None of the five occupants were injured, but the court of inquiry blamed the pilot for alighting too quickly. The most striking observations came from Col. Robert Leckie. He concluded that Canada in general—and the Pacific coast in particular—had a shortage of “experienced seaplane pilots.” Leckie noted that “it is now necessary to select good aeroplane pilots and train them in seaplane work.” Although Canada had emerged from WW I with a large body of flying talent, it was not immediately balanced to meet national needs—too many landplane veterans as opposed to the floatplane and flying boat experts most urgently needed (and who knows, maybe too many ex-fighter jocks?)

The defects of the F.3s became more obvious when compared with another type of aircraft. Independently of the Imperial Gift, the Air Board had acquired 12 HS2L single-engined flying boats that had been flown by the United States Navy. Although lacking the load capacity of an F.3, they were reliable and adaptable to operating from confined spaces. An F.3 needed 56 inches of water for safe launching, compared to 34 inches for an HS2L.

The aircraft were flown in relatively primitive conditions. Land bases were improvised from whatever flat terrain was available, accessible to the operations site and reasonably free of obstructions such as trees or windmills. That still left hazards such as hillocks, gopher holes and sandy soft spots. Even Camp Borden, a training base since 1917, was not immune. Typical of the accidents resulting was that of a DH.9a that ran into a sand hole at Camp Borden on Jan. 12, 1921. The pilot was unhurt, but the aircraft had to be rebuilt. By the summer of 1927 the continued reconditioning of DH.9a machines was deemed uneconomical and the five surviving aircraft were reduced to spares. By then, little beyond wire rigging could be recycled into current equipment.

Although relatively new when acquired, the Imperial Gift machines deteriorated quickly in Canadian climates marked by extremes in temperature and humidity plus frequent sharp fluctuations of both. At the conclusion of the 1921 flying season, the DH.4s at High River were stripped down and examined. The commanding officer reported wooden components being warped and distorted; they needed rebuilding or replacement. The non-durability of Imperial Gift aircraft contrasted with RAF experiences. That force kept many of its WW I designs operational for years. Their DH.9s, for example, remained in British-based service until September 1930. In the Middle East, they continued as combat aircraft until May 1930.

Newer types of aircraft (Vickers Vikings) were appearing as early as 1923. The most enduring Imperial Gift type was the Avro 504K, which received a new lease on life when several were re-engined with Lynx radials and redesignated Avro 504N, commencing in 1926. Nevertheless, the introduction into service of the DH.60 Moth (1928) spelled the end of the venerable Avros, both in training and forestry patrols.

Aircraft seriously damaged in crashes were usually written off; aging machines were frequently converted to “instructional airframes,” used by trainee mechanics much as medical students practised on cadavers. Even these outlived their usefulness. In 1932, when an Avro 504K was scrapped, officers noted that after four years of being torn down and rebuilt it was “in such a state that it has become necessary to employ methods that are distinctly misleading and thoroughly inadvisable.” The last of the original 114 aircraft, another Avro 504K, was written off in November 1934, having spent six years as an instructional airframe.

If the aircraft had lived finite lives, some equipment had been more durable. A gantry crane was still in service at Camp Borden in 1938; initially used to assemble Imperial Gift aircraft, it was latterly engaged in erecting a new generation of aircraft for a re-arming Canada.


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