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Blatchford Field: The War Years, 1939 - 1945

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Mark Hopkins

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryThe manning depot was a recruit's introduction to military life. The shock of drill, parades, medical examinations and interviews soon wore off. Those selected as gunners would move on to gunnery and bombing schools, the mechanically inclined were sent to St. Thomas, Ontario where they learned engine repair, aircraft-body design or instrument repair. Navigator students were sent to No.2 AOS at Blatchford Field, while pilot trainees were sent to No.4 Initial Training School [ITS] at the University of Alberta.

No.4 ITS opened in the early part of June 1941 with the three student residences known as Athabasca, Assiniboia and Pembina Halls housing the station personnel, and the infirmary located in the basement of Athabasca Hall.10 On 16 June 1941 the school's four Link Trainers arrived with the first fifteen students appearing on 20 June. By November of the same year four more Link Trainers arrived and courses averaging in excess of fifty students were starting almost every week. No.4 Initial Training School closed operations in November 1944.

ITS training followed a strict regime of classes, physical training and drill. The school was strictly a ground school, with no flying but plenty of courses in aeronautics and mathematics. Included in the ITS schedule were the most rigorous medical exam to date, as well as time in the MSB, a low pressure chamber, and the first exposure to the famous Link Trainer. Candidates would eventually be interviewed and their future as pilots evaluated. Those that did not meet requirements were sent to a gunnery, air observer or technical school for further training. Those determined to demonstrate pilot potential were introduced to No. 16 Elementary Flying School and would at last find themselves at Blatchford Field. On 31 August 1944 No.4 Initial Training School officially closed its doors.11

Blatchford Field hosted the two remaining schools located in Edmonton, No.16 Elementary Flying School and No.2 Air Observers School. No. 16 EFS was managed and run by the Edmonton Training Flying School Ltd., incorporated in Alberta on 31 October 1940.12 Moss Burbidge, winner of the McKee Trophy in 1932 for his outstanding contribution to aviation in Canada, would once again take charge of flight instruction at the flying club. Having served as instructor of the club from 1929 to 1938, he was once again asked to serve as chief instructor of No. 16 EFS in December 1939. Over the next two years an average of twenty single-engine aircraft would circle the city almost daily on training flights.

The standard EFS course consisted of eight weeks of navigation, gunnery and basic flight training. Included in this course were approximately fifty hours of flight time in single-engine Tiger Moths, Fleet Finches, Cornells or Harvards, and 126 hours of ground lectures.13 Pilot trainees were expected to solo after eight hours of dual instruction, executing virtually perfect take-offs, landings, navigation and receivers before being allowed to move on to a Service Flying School. No. 16 Elementary Flying School closed in July 1942.

Anyone who had lived in Edmonton was not surprised to hear that No.2 Air Observers School would be managed by Wilfred [Wop] R. May. Wop May was a First World War veteran of the Royal Flying Corps, and had been flying various aircraft out of Edmonton since 1919. Wop was known throughout Canada for his exploits, such as the hunt for the Mad Trapper or Rat River and the Little Red River Mercy Flight, both of which brought worldwide attention to Blatchford Field.

While No.2 AOS did not officially open until 5 October 1940, a considerable amount of work had already taken place. The first day of August witnessed the arrival of seven Mk. 1 Avro Ansons, and by 29 October the Honourable J.C. Bowen, Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Alberta, was on hand to present the James Richardson Trophy to Leading Aircraftsman J.B. Ruston, the most proficient student of the graduating class. By the end of the year four classes had graduated.

No.2 AOS served as a specialty training facility with three distinctive courses offered, each lasting twelve weeks. Navigation was the primary duty of an air observer, with bomb aiming and air gunnery as secondary duties. Also included was the wireless operator [gunner], a category in which recruits could enroll directly. All air observers who graduated would continue their training at a Bombing and Gunnery School or a Wireless Operators School.

The syllabus at No.2 AOS consisted of air exercises in navigation, reconnaissance and photography. Ground instruction included maps and charts, dead reckoning navigation, compasses, meteorology, instruments, wireless, photography, reconnaissance, signals, drill and physical training, totalling some 385 hours of instruction. On the average students would receive about thirteen hours of flying time, although this would increase to 25 hours by 1944.14

Perhaps one incident best describes Wop May and his management of No.2 AOS. Margaret Littlewood had obtained her pilot's and instructor's licences just before the start of the war. When she was unable to find work, a friend suggested that she contact the ten air observers schools operating under the Plan. She received letters of rejection from nine schools; however, Wop May not only offered her a position but sent train-fare to get her to Edmonton. She was immediately assigned to the Link Trainers, and although there was some initial resistance to a female instructor, she was soon part of the team. Between 1942 and 1944 Margaret Littlewood would instruct over 100 students, and would remain the only female instructor in the BCATP.

At first No.2 AOS started training with seven Ansons. By 31 March 1941 the school had two Boeing 247Ds, two Lockheed 10As, and thirteen Ansons with 1770:30 hours logged in the air. That December found the school operating 28 aircraft, eight of which had bomb-gear installed. November 1943 represented the peak of No.2 AOS operations, with 60 serviceable Anson Mk. 1s and one Mk. V, and eighteen additional Mk. 1s out of service.15 NO.2 AOS officially closed its doors on 14 July 1944.

Captain Jimmy Bell must have found his position as airport manager challenging as 1941 rolled to a close. New buildings for NO.2 AOS were going up, Aircraft Repair was getting busy, TCA and other smaller airlines were expanding, and at any given time up to fifty BCATP airplanes were training over the field. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the pressure went up another notch; the Americans were coming!

Notes

10. DND, DHist, RG24, D5355, 181.003, “Historical Report to DMS [AIR], No.4 ITS”, p. 1.

11. Ibid p.5

12. J.A. Villa-Arce, op. cit., p. 24.

13. Peter Conrad, Training for Victory. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in the West. [Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1989], p. 30.

14. DND, DHist, RG24, D6771, 181.009, Vol. I, “Air Observers School Syllabus”, 3rd ed., 15 May 1940.

15. DND, DHist, RG24, FA104, Microfilm Reel C12,329, “# 2 AOS July 1940-1944”.

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