Category Archives: WWI

Homebuilding Roots in Canada

The original powered airplanes were “one off” homebuilts, the “Silver Dart” (built and first flown at Glenn Curtiss’ farm in Hammondsport, NY in 1908) being first to succeed in Canada. J.A.D. McCurdy flew it in Cape Breton in February 1909. Since then, homebuilding has been part of Canada’s aeronautical fabric.

WWI brought advances in aeronautics that boosted postwar homebuilding. For a few hundred dollars in the 1920s-30s, anyone could build a tiny Corben, Heath, Pietenpol, etc., and many did. However, with recreational flying on hold through WWII, all such planes were grounded.

Homebuilding was slow to re-emerge, but it did – one project at a time, modified Taylor Cub CF-ANT-X possibly being the first. Then, in the 1950s several homebuilders started a movement. Led by pioneers Keith Hopkinson and Gus Chisholm of Goderich, the first Canadian branch of the US-founded Experimental Aircraft Association arose. Soon there were EAA chapters across Canada.

Some really enjoyable events in my early days as an aviation fan were flying club and EAA breakfast fly-ins. A few of us kids usually attended, armed with our twin-lens cameras. On a typical sunny weekend, among the 250 planes showing up at the Oshawa Flying Club on June 18, 1961 were eight little homebuilts each with an “R” registration — “R” for restricted: Corben Baby Aces CF-RAO and CF-RCB, Jodel Bébés CF-RAM and CF-RBE, White Parasol CF-RCT and modified Taylorcraft, Piper J-2 and J-3 CF-RAG, CF-RAS and CF-RCX.

Above is a shot I took on July 9, 1961 at the Waterloo-Wellington fly-in showing Keith Hopkinson taxiing his famous Stitts Playboy “Little Hokey” CF-RAD. This was Canada’s first officially registered (1954) post-WWII homebuilt. Years later I learned from Gus Chisholm that CF-RAD had cost about $1000 and took 1200 hours over 11 months to build. It weighed 685 lb empty, 960 all-up, and was 17’4” long with a 22’ wingspan. With its 100-hp Lycoming, it cruised at 125 mph, burning about five gallons of fuel per hour. To illustrate the meaning of “homebuilt”, CF-RAD had a Piper engine cowling, Cessna 170 spinner, Tiger Moth struts, Cessna 140 undercarriage and Stinson wheel pants. Today you can see this wonderful little aviation treasure at Canada’s national aeronautical collection in Ottawa.

Corben Baby Ace CF-RAC

At the same time that “Hoppy” Hopkinson was building his Playboy, his pal Gus Chisholm was building a Corben Baby Ace. Through their enthusiasm, many others in Canada were getting involved in the homebuilding movement.

The Baby Ace was designed about 1932 by West Virginian, O.G. “Ace” Corben. Having learned about it in a 1955 issue of “Mechanix Illustrated”, Gus ordered plans for $125. Just scrounging for the bits ‘n pieces was a chore – wood, steel, wheels, struts, fabric, instruments, an engine, etc. Luckily, one day Gus found an old 65-hp Continental, for which he paid $100. He slowly built his Baby Ace wings at home in his basement, while the fuselage took shape in Keith’s “Sky Harbour” hangar on the edge of Goderich. Finally, after 2 years, 8 months and 15 days of meticulous effort, the Baby Ace was done. Registered CF-RAC (Gus’ initials) and christened “Bits and Pieces”, it had cost $620. Keith did the taxi tests on August 1, 1958, made the first flight on the 3rd, then Gus took up CF-RAC the same day.

“Little Hokey” and “Bits and Pieces” became the talk of the homebuilding movement throughout Canada and south of the border. Many an enjoyable day’s flying followed. Each summer meant a few breakfast fly-ins and Gus once even ventured as far as Oshkosh. Finally, having logged about 200 hours in it, in July 1965 he sold CF-RAC to Tony Brown in nearby Stratford. Tony flew it to the 381:45-hour mark by the time he sold CF-RAC in 1977. Other owners followed until 2017 when, more than 50 years since first flight, “Bits ‘n Pieces” is still on the go, owned in Guelph in 2017 by Canada’s famous aircraft restorers – “The Tiger Boys”.

Over the decades, many pilots added “Bits ‘n Pieces” to their logbooks. Keith Hopkinson’s son, John, made his first flight in it on May 16, 1962. From Guelph, pilots have included pioneer post-WWII homebuilder, Andy McKimmon (May 1, 1993) to Fern Villeneuve, none other than leader the RCAF Golden Hawks in 1959-60 (September 18, 2005). To July 2017 the famous little Canadian beauty had logged 783.5 flying hours. Meanwhile, the Tiger Boys, always eagle-eyed about preserving aviation heritage, have acquired another of Canada’s 1950s homebuilts – Jodel D.9 Bébé CF-RAM. Above is a photo I took of Steve Gray landing CF-RAC at Guelph on November 25, 2007. Below, Gus Chisholm beside his pride and joy on the same day (Gus has since passed on).

Roy Brown Out of the Shadows

Roy Brown
Roy Brown as a sharp young airman of the First World War. In 2015 Roy was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

One of several prominent First World War aviators from Carleton Place, Ontario was Roy Brown. Trained to fly in 1915 at the Wright Brothers school in Dayton, Ohio, Brown went on to a stellar career as a Royal Naval Air Service fighter pilot and flying instructor. On April 21, 1918 he was on patrol over the front in his Sopwith Camel, when he and W.R. “Wop” May of Edmonton became entangled in a dogfight with Germany’s leading fighter ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen – the “Red Baron”. Brown was credited that day with fatally shooting down von Richthofen. This later was challenged, some eventually concluding that Brown may have downed the great ace, but that it was just as likely that an Australian gunner in the trenches had fired the fatal round.

Roy Brown Mural 1 by John Chalmers

A John Chalmers photo of the mural on Bridge Street in Carleton Place depicting the iconic dogfight involving Roy Brown, Wop May and Manfred von Richthofen. The scene is based on a painting by Stephen Quick of the Canadian War Museum. (To see a photo full size, just click on it.)

Many who fought in the air war were worn down physically and mentally by their brutal duties, Roy Brown included. Nonetheless, once home, he remained in aviation. He formed General Airways, which became one of Canada’s prominent early air services. Brown died at his farm in Stouffville, Ontario in 1944 at age 50. Sadly, for decades he remained almost forgotten, other than by those engaged in the “did he or didn’t he” controversy over who shot down the Red Baron. In his seminal 1954 book, Canada’s Flying Heritage, the great chronicler, Frank Ellis, didn’t even mention Brown.

Photo 3 Necropolis Brown's Grave Number P1130015

The simple marker over the great Roy Brown’s “unknown” grave in the Necropolis.

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People gathering there on June 29 for the unveiling of Roy’s new stone, provided through the Last Post Fund.

For decades no one even knew where Roy Brown was buried, but this recently and happily has turned around. Roy today is a prominent “local hero” in Carleton Place, where the Roy Brown Society is dedicated to furthering his story. Also noteworthy is how in 2014 Nadine Carter of Stouffville took her own interest in Roy Brown. Then age 10, she did some diligent research that revealed how Brown’s resting place is in the Necropolis, a heritage cemetery in old Toronto. Through her good work, on June 30, 2016 members of the Brown family, Nadine and others from Stouffville, the Roy Brown Society, the Royal Canadian Legion, the Royal Canadian Military Institute and local history buffs gathered at the Necropolis for the unveiling of a headstone honouring Roy Brown, whose grave previously was marked only by a humble little stone reading “60A”.

Photo 5 Roy Brown Necropolis P1130013

The newly dedicated Roy Brown grave marker in the Necropolis.

Photo 6 P1130066

Scenes from the Roy Brown RCMI reception: RCMI president, LCDR Michael Hoare, chats with Rob Probert of the Roy Brown Society.

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The famous seat from the Red Baron’s Fokker Triplane, which Roy Brown donated in 1920 to the RCMI.

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A replica set of Roy Brown’s medals and the two volumes of Alan Bennett’s biography. On the left in the medal group is Roy’s Distinguished Service Cross and Bar.

Things snowball — another important event took place during Stouffville’s Strawberry Festival on this Canada Day weekend. The Roy Brown story was told through large banners and other displays, a historic plaque was unveiled and the Great War Flying Museum appeared overhead with several WWI replica fighters, including a “Red Baron” Fokker Triplane.

Photo 9 Roy Brown Stouffville Canada Day 2016 Crowd P1130093

The crowd gathers for the Roy Brown festivities in Stouffville on Canada Day.

Photo 10 Roy Brown Stouffville Canada Day 2016 Crowd P1130089

On the right, Nadine Carter chats with John Chalmers of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

Today much can be found online about Roy Brown. Be sure to check out John Chalmers’ coverage of the Necropolis event in Remembering Captain Arthur Roy Brown, published in the Stouffille Sun-Tribune. Also see this great article about Nadine, the Stouffville school girl, working to preserve Roy Brown’s memory.

For further important info visit the Roy Brown Society website. Wikipedia also has good material. The leading book in print is Alan Bennett’s 2-volume Captain Roy Brown (available through the Roy Brown Society). Other key books include The Red Baron’s Last Flight: A Mystery Investigated by Norman Franks and Alan Bennett. Additionally, material has appeared over the decades in such publications as Cross and Cockade and The Journal of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.

Finally, check out these photos by CAHF historian, John Chalmers, taken at last week’s Roy Brown events in Toronto and Stouffville.

Photo 11 Roy Brown Stouffville Canada Day 2016 Nadine, Sheldo, Larry, John Chalmers P1130086

Nadine Carter, Sheldon Benner (CAHS), Larry Milberry (CAHF) and John Chalmers (CAHF) on Canada Day.

Photo 12 Roy Brown Stouffville Canada Day 2016 Fred + Nadine P1130104

Stouffville historian, Fred Robbins, congratulating Nadine during the Roy Brown plaque unveiling. (John Chalmers)

The Wartime Era Fades

When I was a boy in Toronto soon after WWII, my pals and I were always amazed at something a bit macabre (to we dopey little street kids). Wherever we were in the city there were old men on crutches or with empty shirtsleeves or eye patches. There were also a lot of younger men the same. It didn’t mean that much to 5, 6 or 7 year olds, but we did tend to stare. We eventually learned the story behind this: the older fellows had lost limbs and eyes in WWI (maybe even in the Boer War), the younger guys in WWII.

As time went by we found ourselves eagerly soaking up all this history. We’d scour the shelves at our Gerrard & Eastwood library branch, especially for all those great stories of aerial warfare where Canadians were so involved. Next door at the Eastwood theatre we never missed a movie covering all this stuff — The Malta Story, Reach for the Sky, The Enemy Below, The Desert Rats, etc.

After getting into the aviation history game, I met hundreds of wonderful Canadian airmen. At first there were lots of WWI types around. Many were our speakers at the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society or at CAHS conventions — Punch Dickins, Walter Gilbert, Doc Oaks, Stan McMillan, Alex Milne, etc. When I started writing I met so many others and counted lots of them as real pals. In time, however, the last WWI airman passed on. Now, the last of the WWII fellows are slipping away, most around 90 years of age. A friend in Alberta called lately to report George Aitken, DFC, of 403 Sqn having passed. George was a fine gentleman and true supporter. It was an honour to feature him in Royal Canadian Air Force at War 1939-1945 more than 20 years ago. Check out his story.

It sure is getting a bit lonely in the 2000s, most of the WWII airmen’s associations by now having packed it in. We used to have 30-35 Typhoon pilots  faithfully to our Typhoon Pilots Association lunches in Toronto. Now five or six fellows make it out. The day is near when few will know much about these wonderful generations of Canadians. When people talk about aerial combat years from now, more and more the topic will be Cold War, where not an RCAF shot was fired in anger, or aerial combat in the wide open, pretty well friendly skies of Iraq and Libya.

Heroism and daring-do are definitely relative, especially when you study the details of something like the raid on Nuremburg on the night of March 30/31, 1944 — 795 Bomber Command planes dispatched, more than 100 (many full of Canadians) were lost. That was just one night of the air war. The survivors of such missions used to cringe a bit when the fighter pilots were whooping it up, as if they had won the war single-handedly. The Bomber Command fellows occasionally needed to remind the fighter types, “Yoohoo, that was really great of you fellows. But don’t forget that we lost more men killed in one night than you did in the entire Battle of Britain.” Well, things are getting pretty quiet these days about all that sort of thing.

In this week’s local paper there was the obit of one of our great RCAF air warfare heroes — William Ward Osborn, DFC, February 15, 1921 – January 13, 2012. His obit mentions how he flew Lancasters with 419 Sqn from Middleton St. George. Postwar he graduated in civil engineering from the University of Toronto, added a Masters degree, then re-joined the Canadian military, where he fought in Korea and served on UN postings. Back on Civvie Street he served the country again — in government. His family notes, “He is our unvanquished hero and our perpetual guiding light.” What a life lived, what a legacy, what a fine Canadian.

Every reader needs to be familiar with the magnificent website that is largely the work of one of Canada’s pre-eminent RCAF historians — Hugh Halliday. Go there (google AFAC Halliday Website RCAF Gongs 1939-45) and get the real story of Canadians in the air war. Today I looked up William Ward Osborn. Here is Hugh’s outline of this great citizen in the RCAF:

OSBORN, F/L William Ward (J26673) – Distinguished Flying Cross – No.419 Squadron – Award effective 8 September 1945 as per London Gazette dated 21 September 1945 and AFRO 1704/45 dated 9 November 1945. Born 1921 in Preston, Ontario; home in Hespeler (labourer); enlisted in Hamilton, 14 July 1942. Trained at No.6 ITS (graduated 21 November 1942), No.20 EFTS (graduated 6 February 1943) and No.6 SFTS (graduated 11 June 1943). Commissioned May 1943. Medal presented 22 June 1949. No citation other than “completed…numerous operations against the enemy in the course of which [he has] invariably displayed the utmost fortitude, courage and devotion to duty.” DHist file 181.009 D.1941 (RG.24 Vol.20612) has recommendation dated 5 April 1945 when he had flown 36 sorties (237 hours 15 minutes), 10 September 1944 to 15 March 1945. Flight Lieutenant Osborn commenced his tour on September 10th, 1944 by doing a trip to Calais. On this first effort he brought his aircraft back to base on two and one-half engines. As gaggle leader on a daylight trip to Cologne on March 2nd, 1945, he again lost an engine in the target area and returned to base on three engines.

At all times during his tour of 36 trips this pilot has shown a high degree of courage, initiative and keenness. He has led his crew in bombing such difficult targets as Dresden, Munich and Nuremburg. This pilot’s standard of crew captaincy has been exceptional. For fine record on operation, his coolness, skill and leadership this officer merits the award on a non-immediate Distinguished Flying Cross. Thanks, and keep on reading books! Larry Milberry, January 2012

Addendum, January 4, 2013

Through 2013 there were fewer and fewer obits in the press for the wartime “demographic”. By then probably 95% of the whole generation had passed on. However, in the Toronto Star of January 4, 2014 I spotted two obits, one for A. Robert “Bob” McQuade, DFC,  an alumnus of 419 Sqn, the RCAF 6 Group squadron with the highest combat casualty rate. Bob passed on January 2, 2014 in a seniors’ residence in Newcastle, Ontario.

Also listed was Donald Halberston McSporran, whose family posted one of those really fantastic obits upon Don’s death on December 27, 2013. Here was another ace of a Canadian — a King’s Scout, WWII bomber pilot, POW for 3+ years, postwar a husband, father, school teacher, construction and design man, nature conservationist, etc.

Having trained as an RCAF  pilot in the BCATP at 1 EFTS (Malton) and 5 SFTS (Brantford), McSporran was posted overseas, where he eventually ended on 61 Squadron flying the unremarkable Manchester bomber. On his first operation as crew skipper (LeHavre, April 10, 1942), his Manchester 5785 lost an engine due to flak, forcing McSporran to ditch in the Channel 20 miles off Cherbourg.

The crew got into their dingy, where they held on for 5 – 6 days. That must have been a living hell, since they had no fresh water. At one point they were in sight of England, then were blown away and cast upon the French coast. In getting ashore, one crewman, Sgt D.J. Meikle, drowned. The  six survivors then were destined to wretched lives as German POWs.

In summarizing their great hero, Don McSporran’s family observe:

Don McSporran was one of those great Canadians who, having lived through the adversity of the Depression and the War, came home and made his country the peaceful and just society that it has become. He was a model citizen providing an example for all of an honest, ethical, hard-working member of society. He was frugal, yet generous, optimistic and steadfast, the kind of Canadian we all hope to become.

Don McSorran also is honoured on the “Billy Bishop Home & Museum” website (info@billybishop.org), and you may hear him recounting some  POW recollections on “The Memory Project” website (http://www.thememoryproject.com/stories/1120:donald-mcsporran/‎). If you have a copy of Sixty Years: The RCAF and CF Air Command 1924-1984, you can read a summary of McSporran’s ordeal on pp.161-162.

Fantasyland: The Arrowmaniacs Strike Again

Canada sure has its mythology under many a banner. Aviation myths involve Billy Bishop shooting down 72 enemy planes in WWI (not), the Beaver being the world’s greatest bushplane (not) and the Avro Arrow being the greatest everything ever made by anyone in the universe (not).

No one with any sense can besmirch the reputation of a Billy Bishop – read The Brave Young Wings, for example, to get a taste of the war in the air 1915-18. Anyone who died, got wounded, cracked up, or somehow survived in that cauldron of death is a special hero in my books. The only argument is with the statistics and some odd details. These things were manipulated by the generals and their PR lackeys far behind the lines where they were suffering no lack of anything – there was no mud but there were clean underwear, silk sheets and booze. These people could make Donald Rumsfeld look like a beginner at fact-twisting, and they didn’t need a Blackberry (no shortage of very effective, hi-tech communicating devices in WWI). Billy Bishop certainly scored high, but not likely anywhere near 72. But it suited “Colonel Rumsfeld i/c propaganda” back there to say that Bishop did so do all that and should have a Victoria Cross. Explanations for this are in the best of books, such as mentioned above, Canadian Airmen and the First World War, etc.

Of course, the 1948 Beaver is a tremendous little workhorse. Who would say no? But not even 2000 Beavers were ever built. Meanwhile, the DC-3 or Beech 18 had been working the bush since the late 1930s, and far exceeded the Beaver in numbers alone on every continent! Then came the Cessna 180/185. Well, Beaver, please stand aside.

The ultimate bushplane in my view has to be the Antonov An-2 biplane: more than 10,000 built, service since 1947 on all continents, incalculable loads carried, current presence still in the many hundreds if not a few thousand, production life from pre-Beaver to post-Beaver, on and on. However, mention this in Canada and you make a new brigade of furious enemies wishing you every malevolence imaginable: “Puleeze, keep the facts to yourself, we Canadians prefer our myths!”

Then comes our beloved Arrow, Canada’s grandest aviation tall tale, and one that never goes away. Wonderful technology project that it was, it wasn’t to be and for all the good reasons. Even so, Arrow silliness again crops up in this April 3, 2009 Toronto Star article. Not surprisingly, the perpetrator is an academic – ironically, when it comes to history, these folks can be pretty sloppy with the facts.

In “Privatization of AECL Radioactive Issue for Ottawa”, Prof. Duane Bratt of Mount Royal College in Calgary, begins irrelevantly and erroneously by harkening back to the Arrow: “In 1959 the Diefenbaker government shut down the Arrow, the world’s most technologically advanced interceptor aircraft. Not only did it mean the demise of a uniquely Canadian high tech invention, but it also forced thousands of highly skilled scientists and engineers to leave the country.”

Well, talk about a crock of doggy doodoo (as I have commented before)! The Arrow was one of many similar advanced fighter projects underway throughout the world during the 1950s. Most of these aircraft concepts never reached production, and all the participant nations moved ahead. Only Canada created a myth out of its unsuccessful effort. Like the Arrow, all the other shelved projects had proved too costly or had been superseded by advancing science or geo-politics. (Two Cold War designs that did succeed in entering service were the superb US-built McDonnell F-4 Phantom II; and the SR-71 which, in speed alone, would leave an Arrow in its wake – so much for the generally unproven Arrow being the “mostest” of everything.)

Professor Bratt states that the Arrow cancellation “forced” ex-Avro workers to leave Canada — the alleged post-Arrow “brain drain”. However, nearly every worker worth his/her salt let go by Avro soon had a new and, often, better job in Canada. In researching history in the subsequent decades, I have interviewed many of these workers (and workers they were). Most moved quickly and naturally to other aviation or science-type employers, where they shone with their successes developing truly useful products for humanity — as opposed to fighters. (In the late 1950s, do you really think that the world needed yet another jet fighter?)

Development of the PT6 engine by Pratt & Whitney Canada, and of the
Dash 8 by de Havilland Canada are proof positive that fabulously important spin-off products resulted from the timely demise of the Arrow program. So the loss of the Arrow “forced thousands” of Canadians to flee the country in search of meaningful work, eh? In truth, but a handful of ex-Avro workers emigrated to the US or UK. Meanwhile, hundreds of the best minds behind the Arrow in its heyday circa 1952 to 1959 had been post-WWII immigrants to Canada from other nations. Now we’re talking brain drain, but into Canada.

Without these reverse brain-drain people there would have been no Avro Arrow. Canadians did not have the ability to single-handedly produce such an advanced airplane. Had it not been for WWII, they would still have been building wood and fabric airplanes by 1950. Typical of the reverse brain-drain genii were design team leader James C. Floyd from the UK; and Arrow test pilots Jan Zurakowski and “Spud” Potacki, and designer Waclaw Czerwinski, from Poland. Why is this important reality never mentioned in the Arrow nostalgia debates? Well, for one thing, it wouldn’t help book sales in Canada’s “Avro Arrow” publishing industry (there’s always a new Arrow book looming somewhere).

Bottom line on the brain drain? Canada gained immensely by draining brains from many countries in the post-WWII industrial boom, but contributed very few in terms of any outflow of brains to the US, etc. On top of that truth, some of the ex-Avro emigrants from 1959 returned later to Canada, as did James C. Floyd himself.

Some basic research into aviation history would reveal these and other facts – not as charming or exciting as our cherished myths, but true all the same.
Larry Milberry, publisher

PS … The never-ending lament for the Arrow includes one in the Montreal Gazette of January 23, 2012 reiterating the moronic old claim about John Diefenbaker, etc., and has the predictable anti-American crapola about some Washington conspiracy being behind the Arrow’s downfall, since Americans can’t stand anyone out-doing them, bla, bla, bla. Talk about pitiful! Here is what this simple-minded “reporter” says in the Gazette: “It was killed by John Diefenbaker’s government, presumably at the behest of Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower on behalf of his country’s aerospace industry (which hates competition).” Can you believe this garbage? Where does the Gazette find its muse? Maybe from the “Coast to Coast” loonie bins … or the National Enquirer?