Wings Across Canada: An Illustrated History of Canadian Aviation

by Peter Pigott
188 pages,
ISBN: 1550024124

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Given the book's title, a qualification at the outset is in order. It would have been more appropriate to call it "An Illustrated History of Aviation in Canada" since few of the aircraft actually originated in Canada. Generally speaking, the planes were designed either in Europe or the US for commercial or military use and were either assembled in Canada or produced on the basis of an imported template. In the chapter on the F-86A Sabre, the first jet fighter (in Canada, the Canadair Sabre), we read:

Until it started production of the sabre in August 1949, Canadair had only assembled DC-4 airframes and refurbished DC-3s. To take on an aircraft that embodied the most advanced designs, systems, and materials of the time as a considerable technical feat, which was all the more remarkable when one considers that much of Sabre was still on the United States' "Top Secret" list.

The exceptions were the jet fighter Avro CF-100 Canuck. The first of these, Mark 2, was test flown on June 2, 1951. "Powered by Orenda engines [it was] the first entirely Canadian-designed and Canadian-built aircraft." The now legendary Avro Arrow, completed in 1957, was the other exception which regrettably proved the rule. The "death" of the Arrow meant that when the Canuck "was retired in September 1981, it closed forever a chapter in Canadian history." With this minor point out of the way, it must be said that the book is very attractive, well written and informative, offering a good deal of information about the objectives of the designers in building a particular aircraft, its constituent technology, and the reliability and subsequent use of the plane. Excellent photos accompany the text.

How an airplane is used is significant because of what it reveals about a particular period in the history of a nation. Fokker Universals were used in 1927 to explore and map the Hudson Straits for navigation by ocean-going ships. The Fairchild FC-2 and W-2 was originally designed for aerial surveying, but proved so reliable they were used by the famous "Flying Postmen" of Quebec in the 1930s to deliver mail to isolated northern communities. A Fokker Super Universal G-CASK flew the prospector, Gilbert Labine to Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, where Labine discovered "the richest deposit of pitchblende in history." Junkers W33/34 were synonymous with bush flying in Canada in the late 1930s. We're told that "German pilots broke long distance records with [these planes], and one ...made the first successful east-west Atlantic crossing on April 12, 1928, landing at Greely Island, Labrador." In the 1930s Canadian Airways used Junkers to transport "mining equipment, fuel drums, canoes [even] sled dogs" for those making a living from trapping or prospecting.

To see how far aviation technology has come in the last eighty years, just compare: In 1919, Dr. Hugo Junker, a German metallurgist, had built the "Mother of all Passenger Planes", the F13. It was the world's first all-metal airliner. Four passengers could sit in a "heated metal cabin made of his specially invented corrugated 'Elektron' alloy." The Fairchild FC-1 (built in the 1920s) was "powered by a 220 hp Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine, its body was made of welded steel tubing...Its undercarriage was interchangeable for wheels, skis, or floats, and it was the first aircraft to have Bendix hydraulic brakes." The US-made Boeing 247, unveiled in April, 1933, represented a radical break-through in commercial aircraft design and engineering. "Here was a smooth, monocoque shape with internally braced wings cradling two Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines, themselves wrapped in streamlined cowlings." It was capable of carrying 10 passengers over 485 miles, and instead of fixed landing gear, its wheels retracted into the wings. In 1969, Boeing had its first Jumbo Jet, the 747. The Jumbo was able to accommodate 368 passengers and their luggage. By the 1970s short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft were required to deal with one of the consequences of modernization¨the density and congestion of a city centre. The De Havilland Dash 7, built in 1975, "achieved STOL by optimizing utmost lift at minimal speed" and became the aircraft of choice for small, downtown airports. Backtracking again, The Avro 504, built before 1920 and used by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) for training fighter pilots, had little in the way of controls¨"the four basic instruments were the airspeed indicator, the altimeter, the inclinometer, and the engine speed indicator." By contrast, the CT-Hawk (an early 1970s trainer aircraft) had transonic dive velocity, and the CP-140 Aurora (1980s coastal patrol plane) was equipped with paraphernalia such as sonobuoys, FLIR (Forward-looking infra red cameras), MAD (magnetic anomaly detectors), ESM (electronic support measures), as well as torpedoes, flares, and options for installing air-to-surface missiles.

The bells and whistles of current-day defensive aeronotical technology may excite some readers, but for me the highlights of the book are the War-time planes which gave the Allies an overhead advantage and secured a victory. The Douglas Dakota, initially built as a commercial airliner, but converted to military use (the C-41 and C-47 versions) by the United States Army Air Corps, for its "adaptable and robust DC-3 airframe" and its 2500-mile-range fuel capacity, became a legend: "Photo footage of [the Dakotas] dropping paratroops at D-Day Arnhem or supplying the British Army in Burma became synonymous with Allied victory." The Hawker Hurricane, "the first British and Canadian monoplane fighter, and the first to exceed three hundred miles per hour," was the interceptor aircraft that brought down the greatest number of Luftwaffe bombers during the Battle of Britain. The Bristol Beaufighter, at the time, "the most heavily armed fighter in the world," carrying sensors and able to orient itself in the nighttime darkness, put an end to German night air raids over Britain. And finally, the "most beloved" aircraft of WWII, the high-powered, slim-winged, agile fighter Supermarine Spitfire, "is the immortal, ultimate symbol of defiance." Some of its feats: "Spitfires flew off the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle in March 1942 to save Malta. Griffon-powered Spitfires destroyed more than three hundred V-1 flying bombs. It shot down the first enemy aircraft of the war and, by the end, the first German jet, the Me 262."

This may not be strictly-speaking 'Canadian' aviation history. Still reading this book, you'll see why no plane is just a plane.


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