Canada’s Centennial of Flight in the printed word

These CAHS "old timers" were honoured at the May 9 meeting with Toronto Chapter Centennial of Flight awards: George Topple, Sheldon Benner, Bill Wheeler, Larry Milberry and Fred Hotson. (Ken Swartz)

These CAHS "old timers" were honoured at the May 9 meeting with Toronto Chapter Centennial of Flight awards: George Topple, Sheldon Benner, Bill Wheeler, Larry Milberry and Fred Hotson. (Ken Swartz)

On May 9, 2009 Larry Milberry delivered this brief “Centennial of Aviation” talk to the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. The venue was the Canadian Air and Space Museum.

Considering how this is Canada’s Centennial of Flight, today I’ll be taking a wide look at our aviation heritage and what’s been done in the printed word, etc., to preserve and further it. So far this year there have been some decent efforts to generate serious Centennial interest. There’s the ace of a model display by the Aero Buffs right here in the lobby, a showing of aviation nose art at the WCAM, the CAHS Calgary chapter’s next speaker will be reviving a local story — the sad tale of Mosquito “F for Freddie” and lots more is upcoming across the country. Locally, Sheldon Benner and CAHS friends have visited the Buffalo Aero Club, having in mind to spruce up Toronto CAHS chapter operations. I’m assuming that the CAHS national conventionthis year will be focusing on Centennial topics.

There recently have been some significant Canadian aircraft restoration projects, especially that of the AEA2005 – construction to flight status of a fine Silver Dart replica. I went down to Baddeck to check out that action, at the end of which it was announced that the replica would be housed permanently in a wing to be added to the magnificent Bell Museum in Baddeck. Put the Bell museum on your list of great museums to visit and while you’re at it; also add the incomparable Curtiss museum found just across Lake Ontario from us. In Montreal next week the Canadian Aviation Heritage Centre at Ste. Anne de Bellevue will roll out a near-perfect replica of a Bleriot, very similar to the pair that flew during the Montreal and Toronto aviation meets of 1910. The museum is also restoring a Fairchild bushplane and a Bolingbroke, so that folks there sure have plenty of enthusiasm and it’s well directed.

In June the CWH will fly its Lysander for the first time, a project that has been underway for many years. Meanwhile, Michael Potter’s Vintage Wings of Gatineau continues its whirlwind schedule of activities, especially regarding its Canadair Sabre. Painted in Golden Hawks colours, the Sabre began its round of appearances at Baddeck. Two weeks ago at Comox I saw the Sabre in the air with the Snowbirds. Elsewhere, members of the Alberta Aviation Museum have conducted some commemorative re-enactments of famous flights.

Upcoming are several glitzy airshows, as at Trenton and Bagotville, so everyone should have a chance to get in on the fun. What I’d like to do for the next few minutes is give a brief overview of some of the lasting efforts made in former years to lay a foundation for Canada’s aviation heritage. The original material from which our knowledge today emanates include such resources as the records of the AEA itself. Alexander Graham Bell insisted on recording and preserving in print everything that the AEA accomplished — its goals, successes, failures. Meanwhile, the contemporary press back then usually was doing a decent job covering anything to do with flight, beginning with Canada’s first manned balloon ascent at Saint John, New Brunswick 169 years ago. Although copies of most 19th Century local newspapers have not survived, there are enough in our archives coast to coast, so that we know about pretty well all the pioneer balloon events and other flight developments that followed to 1909. Contrary to what some of our “PhD” aviation researchers would say, it’s my contention that such contemporary newspapers by now should be viewed as a primary source for any serious history researcher. More and more archival newspapers are coming available on line every day. Through the Toronto Public Library, for example, the Toronto Globe and Toronto Daily Star are freely available from Day 1. All one needs to access them is a library card, and using the search options available, it’s a fair breeze to find all the aviation coverage from any year and on whatever topic you might be researching.

Beyond the local press, even before WWI there were specialized international publications covering flight. The first such in Canada likely appeared during WWI – newsletters and magazines published by the RFC training stations in Ontario. Then, just at war’s end, Lt Alan Sullivan was commissioned to write an resumé of the RFC training plan. This resulted in Sullivan’s 1918 title, Aviation in Canada. This is Canada’s first aviation book and Sullivan certainly did an excellent job telling the story using mountains of source material and illustrating the book with a wide selection of top-drawer photos. Copies of Sullivan’s book usually are for sale any day of the week on such internet sites as abebooks.com. One day this week I noticed that there were 36 on offer on “abe” ranging from $20 to $90. Any serious aviation reader should have a copy.

Meanwhile, in post-WWI days Canadians were reading from a host of UK and US aviation monthlies, getting all the immediate gen — in-depth articles covering technology, flying clubs, air regulations, military developments, biographical information and so on. All this is exceedingly valuable material for us to tap today. Canadian Air Review, the voice of the Aerial League of Canada, and Canadian Aviation Magazine, the voice of the Canadian Flying Clubs Association, both were circulating by 1928. Also by this time our first serious aviation history delvings were under way, led by Frank H. Ellis, one of the few Canadian members of the “Early Birds” – someone who had piloted a plane before December 17, 1913 (the 13th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight). Frank Ellis seems to have been born with a love for history in his veins.

By the mid 1930s Canadian Aviation was publishing his articles. In due course, he turned these into an in-depth book manuscript. But book publishing was a costly undertaking, so how was an ordinary little working man like Ellis going to get his dream into print? The problem was solved when Imperial Oil agreed to fund the project. This was likely due to the special interest of pioneer bush and Arctic pilot T.M. “Pat” Reid, then in sales at Imperial Oil. At the same time an arrangement was made with the University of Toronto Press and Ellis’ book was published in 1954. Entitled Canada’s Flying Heritage, this amazingly fine work remains in print 55 years later. “CFH”, as we call it, is where anyone who really cares about the subject must begin to read. I see that there are many copies for sale any day of the week on the internet. CFH certainly is our aviation history bible, yet its great author Frank Ellis remains unrecognized by Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame. There always seem to be such ironies.

Others have since done great work getting our aviation heritage into print. Next to Ellis, I would name Kenneth M. Molson. His seminal works Canadian Aircraft since 1909 and Pioneering in Canadian Air Transport also should be in every self-respecting fan’s library. Like Ellis, Molson followed the aviation scene since he was a boy. He learned to fly pre-war, studied aeronautic science and worked at Victory Aircraft and Avro Canada before he became head the National Aeronautical Collection in Ottawa. There, Ken set the tone in establishing the world class museum that thousands visit annually. His special love was the bushplanes of the interwar years, so he set out to collect as many relevant examples as he could. Today you can enjoy the results of Ken’s efforts in such beautifully-restored types as the Bellanca, Fairchild, HS-2L and Junkers.

He also collaborated with such great history-minded men in Ottawa as W/C Ralph Manning in establishing a collection of WWI and WWII aircraft, especially those of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Ken later gave us another seminal book — Canada’s National Aeronautical Museum: Its History and Collections, then collaborated with another leading aviation history professional, Fred Shortt, to write the Curtiss HS Flying Boats. These are two further gems that eminently deserve to be on your library shelf. The “HS” book is exceptional and was supposed to be the first of a series. However, once Ken, then his successor, Bob Bradford, had retired from the museum, serious publishing there ceased and the tone changed, sad to say, from high enthusiasm for our aviation heritage, to the humdrum of a well-tuned Ottawa civil service operation. Nonetheless, the museum remains a monument of the finest order to its first great curators, Molson and Bradford.

Toronto Chapter member Neil McGavock showed up at the meeting to have his treasured Fred Hotson books The Bremen and De Havilland in Canada autographed by the renowned author himself. (Larry Milberry)

Toronto Chapter member Neil McGavock showed up at the meeting to have his treasured Fred Hotson books The Bremen and De Havilland in Canada autographed by the renowned author himself. (Larry Milberry)

Along the way other researchers and authors have produced some very solid and enduring books. The bibliography by now is vast, but I’ll mention some of the true highlights: the CAHS’s own 1983 125 Years of Canadian Aeronautics, the great John Griffin’s 1969 Canadian Military Aircraft Serials and Photographs, the incredibly useful 1977 Griffin-Kostenuk title RCAF Squadrons and Aircraft, Fred Hatch’s indispensable 1983 Aerodrome of Democracy, Fred Hotson’s 1983 De Havilland Canada Story, Donald Bain’s 1987 Canadian Pacific Air Lines: Its History and Aircraft, John Blatherwick’s 1989 A History of Airlines in Canada and Tom McGrath’s 1991 History of Canadian Airports. With these books on your shelf, you have the absolute core of a fine Canadian aviation library.

There also are by now hundreds of Canadian aviation biographies and autobiographies. Most are decent if not excellent contributions to the body of knowledge that interests us. I think here of such titles as Jack Lamb’s My Life in the North, Rex Terpening’s Bent Props and Blowpots, Wess McIntosh’s Permission Granted or Hap Kennedy’s Black Crosses of My Wingtips. The advent of “just in time” print technology has enabled many to economically produce small runs of their own aviation histories. While in Campbell River two weeks ago I met retired airline pilot Danny Bereza. He told me about his own book The Big Dipper Route. Luckily he had a copy to sell. Danny’s book turns out to be a top-notch story about a young pilot’s rights of passage in Arctic aviation. Well written and professionally edited, done in a readable type and so on, it’s a solid piece of work that begins to tell Danny’s story and that of Great Northern Airlines of Whitehorse.

At this point I have to recognize what probably is the grandest published source of all Canadian aviation history – our own CAHS Journal. Begun in 1963 and published faithfully at the rate of four per year, there are nearly 200 Journals in print. Each one is rock solid as to excellence in format and in content. Responsible for each and every one of them has been our own amazing Bill Wheeler. Having put some 6000 – 7000 pages of Canadian aviation history onto the printed page, it’s fair to say that no individual has done more to advance our important cause. Knowledgeable historians all over the world have lauded the Journal, so we sure can all be proud of it and of our amiable, unflappable editor. Sad to say, but Bill recently announced that he was retiring as Journal editor.

Finally, I have few words about the aviation book publishing process, something that people are always asking about. Presently, I’m trying to get a series going as to the Centennial of Flight. Volume 1 came out last November – Aviation in Canada: The Pioneer Decades. Volume 2 Aviation in Canada: The Formative Years should be in print by late June. What people usually ask most about is the history process as I pursue it. In gathering material, I follow a tried and true system that began while developing my first book, Aviation in Canada, published exactly 30 years ago. It was by interviewing face to face and corresponding voluminously with the likes of Russ Bannock, Jack Charleson, Bud Found, Bob Fowler, Tommy Fox, Lewie Leigh, Wess McIntosh, Al Soutar and Harry Whereatt that I became a proponent of the personal interview. The way that a productive interview goes is straight forward. I sit down with an aviator who has on the table before us his log book, scrap books, photos, official documents, correspondence and such like. By going through all this material, while asking a series of very direct questions, the researcher starts to get a good history going. Recently I interviewed Typhoon pilot John Porter in Parksville, BC, then drove up to Campbell River to put Bomber Command air gunner Ted Turner under the microscope. What resulted is two pieces of solid history that will get nicely refined over the next few months, starting by having John and Ted tear apart my initial drafts. Naturally, I also use all the official sources that I can get my hands on, from the ORBs to personnel files, accident reports, official photo files and the like. Eventually, several qualified people also will read the manuscript – maybe a former crewmate, employer or CO. Qualified proof readers also will have a go at the manuscript, then at the galley proofs. The final result is a historically reliable piece of work.

Another topic often queried is marketing – who really wants books badly enough to lay out the cash? That’s the great conundrum. Sales wise, CANAV long ago decided to specialize in mail order. This came about following my initial experiences with Canada’s book sellers, whom I refer to as “the people who pretend to buy books, then pretend to pay for them.” Sad to say, but nearly the entire retail book business is that way. So … CANAV survives by selling directly to those readers seriously interested in aviation books and, roughly speaking, that approach works. Other than that, I still have a handful of trade outlets — solid, well run operators such as Aviation World, and a few of our aviation museum giftshops (such as this very one) that appreciate the important role that book sales have in the museum fund-raising game.

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One response to “Canada’s Centennial of Flight in the printed word

  1. Pingback: Some interesting links to aviation history on Wordpress Blogs « CAHS NB Turnbull Chapter

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