Military Aviation

Military aviation began with the use of balloons for observation as early as 1794, during the French Revolution.

CP-140 Aurora
On long-range patrol over the Pacific, April 2000 (courtesy Department of National Defence, photographer: MCpl Danielle Bernier).
CH-146 Griffon in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Courtesy of the Department of National Defence, photographer: Sgt Vince Streimer.
CC-138 Twin Otter
Courtesy of the Department of National Defence, photographer: Sgt Dennis Mah.
CH-124 Sea King
Sea King from HMCS Vancouver hovers over disabled vessel while boarding party prepares to search for evidence of smuggling (courtesy Department of National Defence).
Hercules in Kandahar
C-130 Hercules on its arrival at Kandahar International Airport, May 2002 (courtesy Department of National Defence, photographer Cpl Lou Penny).
Sopwith Camel
Major W.G. Barker with his Sopwith Camel (courtesy Imperial War Museum AH 517).
first lancaster bomber
In August 1943 aircraft workers at Malton, Ontario, swarm around the first Canadian-built Lancaster bomber. Named the Ruhr Express, the bomber served with 419 Squadron before being shot down in January 1945 (City of Toronto Archives/SC266/86576).
CF-18 Fighter over Germany
A CF-18 fighter from 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron, CFB Baden-Soellingen, FRG, flies over clouds in southern Germany (courtesy National Defence Headquarters).

Military aviation began with the use of balloons for observation as early as 1794, during the French Revolution. In 1883 Captain H. Elsdale of the Royal Engineers took aerial photos of the Halifax Citadel using a clock-operated camera hung beneath a balloon. Italy used aircraft for reconnaissance and to attack ground targets in Libya (1910-11) and the Balkans (1912-13). Aircraft engaged in air-to-air combat for the first time in WWI. When the war started each major belligerent possessed a few primitive aircraft; before it ended large fleets of fighters, general-purpose machines, torpedo carriers, large flying boats, heavy bombers and cigar-shaped dirigibles were in use.

Despite some prewar urging from aviation pioneers J.A.D. McCurdy and F.W. Baldwin, Canada had no air service when it went to war; nevertheless, about 22 000 Canadians flew with British squadrons overseas in WWI. At home Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd (Toronto) produced 1200 training aircraft for Britain and 30 Felixstowe flying boats for the US. No other combat aircraft were built in Canada until 1938. In 1919 Britain gave Canada about 100 aircraft - an assortment of trainers, fighters, bombers and flying boats. Another 12 flying boats were received from the US. These were the first planes flown by the Canadian Air Force, an interim force (1920-23) preceding the Royal Canadian Air Force (1924).

Early History of the RCAF

In creating the RCAF, the government adopted the view that military aviation could be justified only if it served peaceful purposes. Consequently, most early flying by the RCAF consisted of such activities as topographical surveys, forest and fishery patrols, and antismuggling operations. The bulk of the RCAF's non-military duties were transferred to civilian departments by 1936, but the government, having belatedly initiated rearmament, found that the only military aircraft available were obsolete planes about to be discarded by the British. Out of necessity some of these were purchased, and others were manufactured in Canada even though they were outdated. The RCAF possessed 275 aircraft on the eve of war, but apart from 19 Hawker Hurricanes obtained from the UK in 1939, Canada's operational aircraft consisted of outmoded types.

The Canadian aviation industry burgeoned during WWII, producing over 16 000 military aircraft - two-thirds of which were trainers, such as the Avro Anson and North American Harvard, for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). The others were operational types, also of British or American design, including Bristol Bolingbrokes, Consolidated Cansos, de Havilland Mosquitos and Avro Lancasters. The requirements of the BCATP, the Home War Establishment and the RCAF Overseas prompted a massive expansion of the air force. In all, 250 000 men and women served in the RCAF, with 94 000 going overseas. Most of the RCAF aircrew overseas served in Royal Air Force squadrons, but 48 separate RCAF squadrons flew in the Northwest Europe, Mediterranean and Southeast Asia theatres of war and also played major roles in the Dieppe Raid, the Battle of the Atlantic and the combined bomber offensive over Germany. The Home War Establishment peaked at 39 squadrons in 1943. During the war, the RCAF became the third-largest air force of the Western Allies.

Military Aviation from 1949 to the 1980s

Since 1949 Canadian military aviation has had several distinct roles: to deter aggression, to protect Canadian sovereignty, to support UN Peackeeping and related operations, to assist in search and rescue missions, and to support the disaster relief, fisheries protection and law enforcement activities of other government departments. In 1948, compelled by East-West tension to upgrade its air defences at home, Canada equipped 6 squadrons with its first operational jet fighter, the British-made Vampire. For the defence of Europe the RCAF contributed 12 squadrons of F-86 Sabres, the only Allied aircraft equal to the Soviet MiG-15. Manufactured under licence by Canadair Ltd of Montréal, the Sabre was ultimately powered by the Canadian-designed and manufactured Orenda engine.

The Avro CF-100 Canuck, a long-range, all-weather plane equipped with 2 Orenda engines, was the first military aircraft wholly designed and built in Canada. It made its appearance in 1953, replacing the Vampire in Canada and 4 of the Sabre squadrons in Europe. The RCAF also acquired Neptune and Argus maritime patrol aircraft, North Star, Comet and C-119 transport aircraft, Silver Star trainers and H-21 search and rescue helicopters. The small air components of the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Army acquired, respectively, the Tracker maritime patrol aircraft, S-55 helicopter and Banshee fighter, and the L-19 artillery spotter.

In the 1950s Canadian and American air defence organizations completed a continental radar network and were integrated under the NORAD Agreement. Previously, the Canadians and Americans had foreseen the requirement for an aircraft of advanced design that could effectively exploit the advantages of this network. The RCAF was depending on the Avro Arrow, but political, financial and other considerations led to the abandonment of the Arrow in 1959. The cancellation was considered a disaster for the military aviation industry in Canada and practically ensured that future aircraft would have to be purchased abroad.

The Diefenbaker government selected the CF-101 Voodoo to replace the NORAD-assigned CF-100s, and the CF-104 Starfighter - licence-built by Canadair - to re-equip RCAF fighter squadrons in Europe. Both the CF-101 and CF-104 served until the 1980s, but the CF-104 was bedevilled by public and media perceptions of an unduly high crash rate. Other types acquired during the early 1960s, such as the Hercules transport, the Labrador search and rescue helicopter, the Tutor basic trainer, and the navy's Sea King helicopter, quickly became the workhorses of Canadian military aviation.

The Pearson government followed up with the CF-5 - an American-designed, Canadair-built ground attack fighter - and unveiled plans for a major expansion of the transport and helicopter fleets. Pearson's government also made the controversial decision to unify the RCAF, the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Navy. The result was considerable organizational upheaval as the squadrons and flying training schools of the RCAF, and the air components of the army and navy, were redistributed amongst the functional commands of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Military aviation waxed and waned during the Trudeau era. Encouraged by détente between East and West, the government adopted a less NATO-oriented defence posture, disbanded or downsized many squadrons, mothballed most of the newly built CF-5s and scrapped the country's only aircraft carrier. Acquisitions included the Boeing 707 tanker-transport and the Chinook transport helicopter, but many programmes were abandoned or scaled back, as in the case of the Twin Huey transport helicopter and the Kiowa light observation helicopter. By 1975, entreaties from Canada's allies and heightened East-West tension had led to a reappraisal of defence policy and a multi-year effort to re-equip the armed forces. For the newly created Air Command - effectively the air force within a partially de-unified military establishment - modernization centred on 138 CF-18 Hornet tactical fighter aircraft and 18 CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft.

Recent Developments

The Mulroney government argued that its predecessor had failed to bridge a serious gap between Canada's declared defence commitments and actual military capabilities. Its 1987 white paper focused on the army and navy, but the air force was to receive additional fighter, transport and long-range patrol aircraft, upgraded medium-range patrol aircraft, and new search and rescue, transport, maritime and light observation helicopters. Most of the scheme fell victim to spending cuts in the April 1989 budget and, months later, to the end of the Cold War. The latter precipitated major reductions in air force strength, and the elimination - after four decades - of the Canadian fighter presence in Europe. The government ordered 100 Griffon transport helicopters and a small number of transport and maritime surveillance aircraft, but a controversial order for 50 Anglo-Italian EH-101 helicopters - 15 for search and rescue and 35 to support the navy - was reduced by the short-lived Campbell government, and cancelled by Prime Minister Chrétien in 1993.

The Chrétien government announced further reductions in the operational CF-18 fleet and the disposal of the recently modernized CF-5 fighter-trainers in the 1994 white paper, but declared its support for a multi-purpose, combat-capable defence establishment and rejected a constabulary force confined to non-military and quasi-military roles. It also pledged to replace the aging Labrador and Sea King helicopters as soon as possible. An order for 15 Cormorant search and rescue helicopters - a more austere version of the EH-101 - was placed in 1998. The lack of funding, and delays in replacing the Sea King and modernizing the CF-18 and the Aurora, continued to raise questions about the air force's operational effectiveness. The current emphasis continues to be on refurbishing and maintaining, rather than replacing, aging aircraft and equipment that is often older than the people operating it.


Further Reading

  • W.A.B. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force (Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, II, 1986); Brereton Greenhous, Stephen Harris, William Johnston and William Rawling, The Crucible of War, 1939-1945 (Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, III, 1994); Larry Milberry, Canada's Air Force Today (1987); Larry Milberry, AIRCOM: Canada's Air Force (1991); S.F. Wise, Canadian Airmen and the First World War (Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, I, 1980).

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