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The Northwest Staging Route

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Carl A. Christie

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

For King and CountryA more positive development growing out of the proliferation of American planes in Canadian skies was the standardization of rules and regulations on matters essential to the orderly movement of aircraft. When large numbers of aircraft were involved, most of them flown by newly trained pilots, the differences between American and Canadian procedures could be confusing and hazardous. The effort to co-ordinate this military traffic appears to have been tackled first in the West. The PJBD encouraged US and Canadian regional commanders on the Pacific coast,

to effect by mutual agreement any arrangements they deemed necessary ... for the common defense including but not limited to, the installations of accessory equipment in the territory of either, the transit of armed forces, equipment or defence materials into or through the territory of either, and the utilization by either nation of the base and military facilities of the other. 32

Local and regional co-operation gradually increased33 until, on 1 February 1943, Western Air Command of the RCAF, Northwest Sea Frontier of the USN, the US Army's Western Defense Command, and Air Transport Command of the USAAF signed the comprehensive JAN-CAN [Joint Army, Navy-Canadian] Agreement, "with one purpose - to give the Canadian Western Air Command advance notice for identification of U.S. and Canadian flights across their Defense Zone".34

Strangely, the agreement applied to the route through the BC interior to Prince George but not to the Northwest Staging Route, which came under the jurisdiction of No.4 Training Command of the RCAF.35 Both these routes were used extensively by American aircraft. The anomaly reflects the problems that were developing in the control of Canadian airways and airports. There is little doubt that the Northwest Staging Route was the main trouble spot. Flight plans were not always properly filed, aircraft en route frequently went unreported, and when reported could not be identified.36 All the interested parties understood the urgent need for improvement. The Canadians, however, wanted to avoid the embarrassment of asking the Americans to take over control of the airways, even as an interim measure.

The JAN-CAN Agreement was improved in June 1943 and its overseeing committee called for better communications and for "clarification of the organization of the Northwest Staging Route to make one formation responsible for proper control of enroute flights, and for the timely passage of information concerning the flights".37 Air Vice-Marshal L.P. Stevenson, Air Officer Commanding Western Air Command, wrote from Vancouver expressing concern about,

a lack of control along the North West Staging Route and between points on it and Western Air Command. This lack of control of aircraft in flight, coupled with the density of the traffic, and the need and practice of some of the operating agencies doing instrument flights has created a potentially dangerous operation This danger will increase with the arrival of fall and winter instrument weather. 38

Air Force Headquarters quickly developed a plan that was essentially an enlargement of the JAN-CAN Agreement, with the RCAF assuming control over airways in Western Air Command as well as the Northwest Staging Route.39 The scheme was adopted and soon expanded. In August 1943 a committee, composed of Canadian and American air force personnel and Department of Transport officials, decided, in part,

That Canada be responsible for the control, maintenance and defence of the following airports: Feeder: Prince George, Kamloops, B.C.; Lethbridge and Calgary, Alta.; Regina, Sask. Main: Edmonton, Alta.; Grande Prairie, Alta; Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, B.C.; Watson Lake and Whitehorse, Y.T. Intermediate: Beatton River and Smith River, B.C.; Teslin, Aishihik and Snag, Y.T.; [Whitecourt, Alta. when constructed]. 40

The United States would be responsible for "the maintenance, local airport control and defence of ... Edmonton Satellite ... [which] will be subject only to airways traffic control by Canada under mutually acceptable regulations." Eight flight strips along the Alaska Highway, fifteen others related to the Canol oil pipeline project from Norman Wells to Whitehorse, plus those on the Crimson Route in the northeast, all used exclusively by the Americans, were to be controlled in all respects by the USAAF. All this was adopted by the PJBD as its 32nd Recommendation.41


32. Dziuban, op. cit., p. 356.

33. “Western Air Command”, unpublished narrative, nd, section 8, 1-4, DHist 74/3; WAC Headquarters [HQ], daily diary, DHist.

34. “Sidelights on the JANCAN Agreement”, especially paragraph 5, and “Joint Agreement between CNWSF, WAC, WDC and ATC, 17 Feb. 1943”, WAC file 204-2-1 Vol. 1, “Ops, Operational Procedure & Control”, DHist 181.002[D164].

35. F/L K.A. Herchmer to S/L P.E. Willis, Secretary, JAN-CAN Committee, 25 May 1943, Herchmer to SASO [Senior Air Staff Officer], 29 May 1943, and G/C W.A. Jones, for AOC WAC, Vancouver to AOC, No. 4 Training Command, Calgary, 7 June 1943, DHist 181.002[D164].

36. For exchanges between USAAF Ferrying Command officers and RCAF personnel on the Northwest Staging Route, see DHist 181.009[D1315].

37. A/V/M L.F. Stevenson, AOC WAC to Secretary, DND for Air, Ottawa, 15 July 1943, DHist 181.002[D164]. See also Stevenson to air member for air services, 26 July 1943, and “Conference Held at North West Staging Route Headquarters, Edmonton, Alta., to Discuss 'JANCAN' Agreement as Formulated at San Francisco June 23, 1943”, ibid. In fact, DOT officials were not impressed with the first RCAF graduates of DOT's Montreal-based air traffic control school who were posted to Northwest Staging Route stations. See DOT file 11-4-39 pts. 1, “Defence Measures and Regulations, Aviation, Traffic Control Officers - Northwest Staging Route”, July 1942 to July 1943, NA, RG 12, Vol. 615. See also DHist 181.009[D5286].

38. Stevenson to Sec. DND for Air, 26 July 1943, DHist 181.002[D164]. See also AFHQ to AOC WAC, X832 A2014, 4 August 1943, DHist 181.002[D106]. See also AFHQ to WAC, Signal A2780, 6 September 1943, ibid.

39. Costello to AOC WAC, 4 August 1943, DHist 181.002[D164]. See also AFHQ to AOC WAC, X832 A2014, 4 August 1943, DHist 181.002[D106]. See also AFHQ to WAC, Signal A2780, 6 September 1943, ibid.

40. “Minutes of Meeting Held at RCAF Headquarters, Lisgar Bldg, Ottawa, Ont. August 19,1943”, 3-4, DHist 181.002-D164]. See also a/V/M W.A. Curtis, for CAS, to AOC WAC, 11 April 1944, in which he wrote: “As the controlling authority on the Northwest Staging Route, it is still the responsibility of the R.C.A.F. to maintain close liaison with the Unites States Forces. Routine maintenance will continue to be carried out by the R.C.A.F., and every effort should be made by our Command to ensure that facilities, for which Canada is responsible, are properly maintained and operated. Any suggestions you may put forward with respect to the improvement of maintenance and control on the Northwest Staging Route will be welcomed by these Headquarters.” On 6 May a WAC staff officer minuted this letter to the AOC: “Para 3. states that RCAF have no responsibility for construction on N.W.S.R. Para 4. states that RCAF is the controlling authority. Shall we accept then that we confine ourselves [in war [unclear] to maintenance matters only[?]” The File contains no answer to this question. RCAF file 1-42-1, “WAC - Policy - Co-operation with US Forces - Defences of Pacific Coast - NW Staging Route”, see DHist 181.009[D3391].

41. “Minutes of Meeting ... August 19, 1943”, 4, DHist 181.002[D164]. See also Stacey, Arms, Men and Governments, pp. 346-7. The air traffic control question is covered in surprising detail in Dziuban, Military Relations, pp. 304-6.

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