A kindergarten for the air age: Ontario Model Aircraft Company / Model Craft Hobbies Limited and a few other words on scale aircraft modelling in Canada before and during the Second World War

Two of the young employees of Ontario Model Aircraft Company at work, Toronto, Ontario. Arthur Lowe, “Kindergarten of the Air.” Maclean’s, 1 May 1940, 24.

How is life, my reading friend? The Sun is shining outside and I find myself thinking about a distant time, the late 1960s or the early 1970s. I remembered, for the first time in ages, a class presentation on aircraft modelling. I know, I know, I was a nerd. Oh, joy.

Having at this time both hands on the steering wheel, I wish to launch our vehicle in a passionate quest for the distant origins of aircraft modelling in Canada / Québec.

Interest in the fabrication of scale models capable of flight went way back in the Great White North, which may not be that great given the past and present attitude and actions of many whites, but I digress.

In that distant time, read 1920s, American monthly magazines like Popular Aviation, today’s Flying, contained treasures of information for the passionate public which were American aircraft modellers. This being said (typed?), this magazine was quickly available in Canada. Another American monthly magazine, Model Airplane News, made its appearance in 1929. It was still published as of 2020, just like Flying actually. These 2 publications contained many plans of scale models of all types, capable of flight or not, during the interwar years. Other more or less known magazines, either The American Boy or Flying Aces, published some plans over the months and years. Indeed, an Airplane Model League of America was born as early as September 1927. The introduction of balsa, a very light wood from Ecuador, toward the end of the 1920s, was a turning point in the history of aircraft modelling.

And yes, it is a safe bet that the solo crossing of the Atlantic made in May 1927 by the American Charles Augustus Lindbergh, a character mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since May 2017, played a significant role in the growth of aircraft modelling in the United States – and elsewhere.

As you may imagine, the fabrication of scale models capable of flight aroused great interest in Canada. Canadian Model Aircraft Works of Montréal, Québec, began to produce scale models as early as 1926, for example. This subsidiary of Ideal Aeroplane & Supply Company Incorporated, an American firm, became Canadian Model Aircraft Company in 1930. It seemingly disappeared in 1935.

Ontario Model Aircraft Company of Toronto, Ontario, a firm mentioned in a January 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, was more successful. It made scale models used by Canadian members of the Jimmie Allen Flying Club, for example.

In the spring of 1942, Model Craft Hobbies Limited, a company name adopted at the latest at this time, produced, it was said, approximately 9 0 000 scale models per month. By comparison, the monthly production of the firm at the end of the 1920s or the beginning of the 1930s was approximately 125 scale models.

There were also many individuals and specialised firms in Canada which sold plans and / or scale models. As far as the first half of the 1930s was concerned, only one needed to think of

Jack Denay, Hamilton, Ontario

E.H. Harris, Victoria, British Columbia

Homer Kells, Sault-Sainte-Marie, Ontario

Frederick White, Brandon, Manitoba

C.F. George Company, Scarboro Bluffs, Ontario

Gregg Model Aircraft and Supply Company, Toronto, Ontario

Hyak Model Airplane Company, Victoria, British Columbia

Maple Leaf Model & Supply (Company?), Québec, Québec

Model Airplane Supply (Company?), Welland, Ontario

Noro Model Aircraft & Supply Company, Toronto, Ontario

Ontario Model Aircraft Company, Toronto, Ontario

Rainey Model Supply Company, Hamilton, Ontario

St. John Brothers & Twomey (Company?), Winnipeg, Manitoba

David Spencer Limited, Vancouver, British Columbia

Windsor Model Aircraft (Company?), Windsor, Ontario

Such a list was very impressive and… Will you please stop fidgeting in your chair? You have never heard of the Jimmie Allen Flying Club, have you? Sigh. What do children learn in school in this 21st century? If I may paraphrase the American actor / comedian / scriptwriter Rodney Dangerfield, born Jacob Rodney Cohen, the classics don’t get no respect.

The fascination for aviators, read Lindbergh, could be found on the radio where The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen, an American adventure soap opera, aroused the enthusiasm of young North American listeners. Produced between 1933 and 1937 from texts written by 2 First World War pilots, Robert M. “Bill” Burtt and Wilfred G. “Bill” Moore, the adventures of the young civilian pilot remained on the air until around 1943. A second series of Jimmie Allen adventures, sponsored by International Shoe Company and other firms, went on the air in 1946-47.

The Jimmie Allen Flying Club reportedly counted up to 600 000 Jimmie Allen Cadets during the 1930s and 1940s. The Canadian sponsor of the club was British American Oil Company Limited of Toronto, a firm with no direct link to the American sponsor of this soap opera, Skelly Oil Company. The monthly newsletter sent to club members, Jimmie Allen Flying Club News, was available in a Canadian version, but presumably in English only. British American Oil, today’s Gulf Canada Corporation, also published a brochure which could receive stamps bearing the portraits of 16 Canadian pilots, mainly First World War aces and bush pilots.

The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen was the first radio show which included in its promotion scale models powered by a rubber band. About 20 official scale models were manufactured in hundreds of thousands of copies. Many young people, almost exclusively boys, who assembled them participated in races held in the United States and Canada. Two of these scale models, the B.A. Cabin / Skokie and the B.A. Parasol / J.A. Racer, were specifically designed to compete in races sponsored by British American Oil.

As one might expect, the onset of the Second World War shook the life of many aircraft modellers who put on the blue uniform of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) or the blue overalls / coveralls of the aircraft industry.

Donald Prentice, the winner of the Jimmie Allen scale model race held in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1939, was among those who enlisted. The career of this aerospace engineer and passionate aircraft modeller within the RCAF and the Canadian Armed Forces lasted approximately 30 years. This member of the Niagara Region Flying Model Club later taught for the District School Board of Niagara, in Ontario. Prentice is one of the members of the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada Hall of Fame.

I should also mention Frederick Charles “Fred” Bowers, a young Torontonian who also enlisted in the RCAF. In 1939, he had gone to the United States to take part in the Wakefield International Cup, an international competition for scale models powered by a rubber band. Bowers obtained a second place – the best result obtained until then by a Canadian. Before enlisting, Bowers worked for Ontario Model Aircraft and de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited, a well-known aircraft manufacturer mentioned many times since February 2018 in our blog / bulletin / thingee, whose factory was in Downsview, very close to Toronto.

This digression having completed its course, let us move back to the topic which concerns us, Ontario Model Aircraft / Model Craft Hobbies.

Our story began with a teenager born around 1914, Frank E. Lucas, a gentleman mentioned in a January 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. This Torontonian without money left school in the late 1920s. Before long, Lucas found a job with a lumber broker.

Outside work hours, Lucas spent a good part of his free time at the Central Young Men’s Christian Association of Toronto. There he met a group of young boys younger than he was who were making scale models using whittled down strips of pine. The latter soon began to seek Lucas’ counsel, and this even though he had no experience in aircraft modelling. This being said (typed?), he helped them when he could. Indeed, their enthusiasm pleased Lucas.

One day, a salesman paid a visit to the lumber broker. He tried to sell him a carload of balsa. Lucas heard the salesman say that this wood was used to fabricate radio cabinets – and scale models. Intrigued, he bought a little bit of balsa and sold it at cost to his young aircraft modelling friends. The latter soon asked Lucas if he could sell them glue / cement, fabric and rubber bands, which he seemingly did.

Indeed, the assistance that Lucas was providing to his young friends earned him the position of principal advisor of the aircraft modeling club of the Central Young Men’s Christian Association of Toronto. He soon organised scale model races which attracted the attention of certain media, and what had to happen happened. Lucas soon received letters of young aircraft modellers who, very often, lived in Canadian city, towns and villages where it was virtually impossible de find materials and / or kits.

Lucas found himself thinking that aircraft modelling was not a passing fad; this hobby was there to stay. Better yet, it was an excellent hobby for young people, read young boys. Aircraft modelling stimulated their creativity and their desire to build something with their hands.

Lucas then decided to produce an aircraft kit of his own, with plans and all the necessary pieces. Nothing special but a good and relatively easy to assemble flying machine.

Lucas began to prepare copies of his kit in the rear kitchen of the family home outside working hours. His mother and sister helped to whittle down the propellers, cut the balsa strips from which the fuselage and wings were made, and box the plans and all the pieces of each kit. To hide to a point the handmade character of his project, Lucas had coloured labels printed which carried the following words: Manufactured by the Ontario Model Aircraft Company, Toronto.

The businessmen that Lucas visited were very reticent to add a new line of products they knew nothing of as the Great Depression kept hitting harder and harder. Unsold scale models thus occupied more and more space in the family home. Having invested all his savings in this project, Lucas refused to give up. At work, he spent part of his meal time contacting potential customers. One day, he called one of the buyers of a large Toronto department store. Intrigued, the latter ordered a thousand scale models – a first glimmer of hope for Lucas.

Too poor to place advertisement in a daily or magazine, Lucas managed to obtain a small space at the Canadian National Exhibition of Toronto, an important national event mentioned in a February 2019 issue of our you know what. He also took part in a few other fairs elsewhere in Ontario. These rather expensive efforts were complete failures which came within a hair’s breadth of sinking Lucas’ dream.

Lucas came to think that he had to prove to young people that aircraft modelling could be a fascinating hobby. He launched a mimeographed bulletin distributed when he could afford to do so, for example. Over the weeks, the number of young people who wished to buy his scale models grew. It was through them that storeowners began to realise that aircraft modelling could allow them to increase their profits. Opportunity plus instinct equals profit, if I may be permitted to quote the 9th Ferengi rule of acquisition. The number of orders began to increase bit by bit. A second visit to the Canadian National Exhibition proved very successful. Many young people crowded around the Ontario Model Aircraft kiosk.

Lucas moved his handmade assembly line and stock of scale models to a cellar under a Toronto barber shop. The local was rather dismal but was not expensive. Lucas hired 2 young people who were passionate about model aircraft and left his job with the lumber broker. New types of scale models may have been introduced from this time onward. Lucas was not yet 20 years old.

Anxious to boost sales, Lucas organised dozens of aircraft modelling clubs in Toronto and elsewhere. He also organised scale model races that attracted the attention of certain media. Some articles even contained a photograph. This free publicity led to a gradual increase in sales, which enabled Lucas to buy tooling to increase his production. He may well have hired additional staff.

In less than a year, the cellar became too small. Ontario Model Aircraft needed more space. Lucas found a large 3-storey house, with a storefront, in Toronto. With sales continuing to increase, Lucas purchased more tooling and hired more staff.

His right hand person was then one of the 2 young people who had been hired ages before. He still worked for / with Lucas in 1940. By then, R.T. Smith was an aircraft modeller who had won more than one competition. The scale models he had designed were known in Canada and abroad.

If I may be permitted a digression, after all I impose so few on you, one should not confuse Smith with “Scorchy” Smith, the hero of the important eponymous American daily comic strip, launched in 1930. Some artists and scriptwriters worked on it, including the famous Noel Douglas Sickles. The style of this consummate artist had a considerable influence in the world of American comics. By the way, the script for the Sunday Scorchy Smith comic trip seemed to differ from that of the comic strips published on weekdays.

During the World War, “Scorchy” Smith found himself in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). There he met a young female fighter pilot of the Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily – Raboche Krestyanskaya Krasnaya Armiya (VVS-RKKA), in other words the military air forces of the red army of workers and peasants. Very few comic strips from this period, or even ours, in 2020, tackled / tackle this little-known aspect of the Second World War. Without the USSR, this conflict would have ended in a very different manner. Wir würden 2020 in Europa viel Deutsch sprechen.

Certain adventures of “Scorchy” Smith were found in issues of Famous Funnies, the first modern comic book album, published for the first time in 1934. Scorchy Smith ceased to appear in 1961.

Interestingly, at least for yours truly, a French language version of Scorchy Smith, Bob l’aviateur, appeared in 1941 and 1943 in a Belgian illustrated weekly, Le journal de Spirou. This choice may come as a surprise given the fact that Belgium was then under the jackboot of German occupation troops at war with the United States.

Franklin “Frank” Robbins was / is one of the artists who worked on Scorchy Smith. This very talented American artist, illustrator and painter launched a daily comic strip, Johnny Hazard, in June 1944, just before the Allied landings in Normandy. This fictitious pilot of the United States Army Air Forces became an adventurer pilot once the conflict was over. Some Hazard adventures were republished in comic books. Johnny Hazard stopped appearing around August 1977.

The Montréal weekly Photo-Journal, which we know very well don’t we, launched a French version of this comic strip, Jean Vaillant, in March 1945. It ceased to appear in May 1952. L’Action catholique introduced another French version in November 1945. Johnny Hazard continued its journey in the Saturday edition of this Québec, Québec, daily that we also know very well, until June 1957.

The aforementioned Smith should also not be confused with “Billy” Smith, the hero of a series of 5 novels detailing the adventures of Billy Smith Flying Ace. American author Noel Everingham Sainsbury, Junior, an aviator in the United States Navy during the First World War, published the first work in this series in 1928. The last of them was released in 1934. A second series, Bill Bolton Naval Aviation Series, was published in 1933. This time using a pen name, Dorothy Wayne, Sainsbury’s published 4 novels devoted to a young aviatrix, Dorothy Dixon, in 1933. Would you believe that, over the course of her adventures, Dixon was saved more than once by Bolton? Long live the patriarchy, but back to our story.

Above all, one should not confuse Smith with 2 very interesting comic book characters with a strong link to skydiving. These out of the ordinary female characters, Sue and Sally Smith, Flying Nurses, made their appearance in the United States, in their own comic book, around November 1962. Joltin “Joe” Sinnott drew these brave and independent twin sisters and paratrooper nurses from the Emergency Corps, a fictitious medical group based in the United States which provides aid worldwide. He also wrote the script for their adventures, which ended around November 1963. Sinnott, who was mentioned in a March 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, has been a member of the prestigious Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame since 2013.

Who was this Eisner guy, you ask, my reading friend? You’re kidding, right? You don’t know who William Erwin “Will” Eisner was / is? Really? I am shocked and appalled. Eisner, mentioned in the same March 2019 issue of our you know what, was / is one of the cartooning giants of the 20th century, but back to our story.

In the spring of 1940, Lucas, just 26 years old, could count on about 40 young male employees who knew the tastes of young aircraft modellers well and who had aptitudes for the design, manufacture and launch of scale models. Ironically, he had himself never assembled a scale model for the fun of it, but I digress.

Workmen were then carrying out work to join the Lucas factory to a neighbouring building, bought earlier to meet the growing space requirements of Ontario Model Aircraft.

While the company may have had difficulty obtaining balsa during the Second World War, the fact was that it obtained government contracts related to the Canadian war effort or, more specifically, to wind tunnel trials and radar equipments. By the end of 1945, Model Craft Hobbies was the largest manufacturer of scale models in the Commonwealth.

If I may permitted, such an assertion did not necessarily mean much. Indeed, the catastrophic economic situation in the United Kingdom negatively affected the efforts of British model makers to restart their production after the end of the Second World War.

If yours truly may be permitted a somewhat controversial comment, the nationalist statement regarding the importance of Model Craft Hobbies in 1945 somewhat resembled / resembles those concerning the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the aforementioned RCAF, respectively 3rd navy and 4th air force in the world in 1945.

The Japanese, French, Italian and German navies having been more or less annihilated during the conflict, what remained if not the United States Navy, the Royal Navy and the RCN, a naval force made up primarily of small ships (made in Canada?) intended for the escort of convoys of merchant ships?

Likewise, the Japanese, French, Italian and German air forces having been more or less annihilated during the Second World War, what remained if not the United States Army Air Forces, the Royal Air Force (RAF), the aforementioned VVS-RKKA and the RCAF, an air force largely made up of training planes manufactured / used in Canada, and British and American combat aircraft supplied free of charge to Canadian units based overseas?

Just sayin’.

Yours truly must admit that I was unable to search Toronto newspapers in order to find information on the history of Ontario Model Aircraft / Model Craft Hobbies after 1940. This being said (typed?), I would be remiss I did not bust your chops with the following.

Smelling a good deal, Canadian manufacturers of scale models powered by a rubber band approved by the Air Cadet League of Canada such as, yes, you are perfectly right, my brilliant reading friend, Ontario Model Aircraft, placed advertisements in Canadian Air Cadet, the official magazine of this organisation. Ontario Model Aircraft and at least one other firm also sold a miniature glider which had also received official approval.

Ultimately, there were 5 separate officially approved scale models powered by a rubber band. The young man who designed the most advanced of them, the No. 5 Senior Commercial, later known as the Miss Canada Senior, was none other than Robert William “Bob” Bradford. This gentleman of gentlemen subsequently left his job to enlist in the RCAF. Bradford headed the National Aviation Museum, today’s Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, a super fabulous institution if ever there was one, for several years. He was / is one of the best Canadian aviation artists of all times.

Two words about the Air Cadet League of Canada if I may be permitted. Three words if I am not.

Repeated attacks by the German air force, or Luftwaffe, against the United Kingdom in the weeks following the fall of France in June 1940 had a profound impact in Canada. Anxious to strengthen the RCAF, several influential figures proposed the creation of a national organisation offering basic training to thousands of young boys who would enlist once they reached adulthood. Minister of National Defence for Air Charles Gavan “Chubby” Power said the idea was excellent. An order in council signed in November 1940 authorised the creation of an organisation.

Based in Ottawa, the Air Cadet League of Canada officially came into being in April 1941. Honorary Air Marshal William Avery “Billy” Bishop, the famous Canadian fighter pilot from the First World War mentioned in September 2018 and May 2019 issues of our you know what, was its honorary president. Its patron was none other than the Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Athlone, Alexander Augustus Frederick William Alfred George Cambridge, born Prince of Teck. A first squadron formed under the leadership of the league was created in Montréal in September 1941. The first issue of the aforementioned Canadian Air Cadet, a monthly publication which contained virtually no articles in French, dated from October. This monthly disappeared in 1947.

The Air Cadet League of Canada was inspired by the British Air Defense Cadet Corps, a private organization founded in 1938 and absorbed by the aforementioned RAF in early 1941 under the name from Air Training Corps.

The Air Cadet League of Canada grew rapidly. Present from coast to coast, the league had approximately 10 000 cadets in 135 squadrons in May 1942. In September 1944, it reached a summit unequaled since then: 29 000 cadets and 374 squadrons. The absence of wartime statistics does not allow me to assess the importance of the Air Cadet League of Canada in recruitment. This being said (typed?), between October 1943 and June 1944, no less than 3 000 air cadets joined the ranks of the RCAF.

The Air Cadet League of Canada was / is still very active in 2020.

Frustrated with their inability to join the league, several Canadian female teenagers joined independent cadet units during the Second World War. The first of these units may have appeared in British Columbia.

Just think of the Canadian Girl Air Cadets, the feminine branch of the Canadian Boy Air Cadets (CBAC), founded in 1941. This association, founded in Toronto in 1938 by C.H. MacKinnon, a former RAF officer, was the largest of its kind in Canada during the interwar period. Honorary Vice-Marshal Bishop was one of the sponsors of the CBAC. C.E. Reynolds, the president of the Canadian Corps Association, a large group of veterans of the First World War, became honorary chief in the spring of 1940. Before the start of summer, the CBACs had 18 units, or flights, in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario. Other units may have emerged in Montréal, as well as in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Calgary, Alberta; etc.

The organisation published the first issue of its official magazine, Military Aviation, in April 1940. This independent monthly seemingly did not survive long. Indeed, it disappeared after only a few issues, or even only one.

Some CBAC units still existed in the summer of 1942, if only in Ontario. One of them provided a bicycle patrol service to the Air Raid Precautions headquarters in Ottawa. The CBAC eventually disappeared, however, victim of the birth of the Air Cadet League of Canada, which could count on the support of the federal government.

Let us also mention the Airettes, a unit formed in 1942 which brought together female students from the Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate, today’s Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School. Supported by officers from the Air Cadet League of Canada from this region of Ontario, the Airettes had between 80 and 100 members when the Second World War officially ended in September 1945. Another group of Airettes made its appearance in Toronto in early 1944. The links between this group of 15-18 year old high school students with their namesake of Kitchener and Waterloo are unfortunately unknown. In fact, other Airettes groups may have operated in Ontario, or even other provinces.

In 1943 at the latest, Air Cadet League of Canada officers based in Saskatchewan also provided training to at least 4 groups of teenage girls living in Assiniboia, Prince Albert, Regina and Unity.

You know what, that’s enough for today. Ta ta for now.

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Rénald Fortier