An aerial fire fighter from the land of unlimited possibilities, Part 2

The Maple Leaf, a Curtiss Model F flying boat of the Curtiss Flying School, Hanlan’s Point, Toronto, Ontario, circa 1915. Robert William Bradford, Curtiss "F" Flying Boat: the Maple Leaf.

Welcome, my reading friend. I am pleased to see that you are interested in the story of some Curtiss Model F flying boats operated in Canada during the First World War. I shall be brief. I promise. During the weeks and months that followed the outbreak of this conflict, a great many young Canadians, often British born, enlisted in the military to fight overseas. While the huge majority of these joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and became infantrymen, a few wanted to fly. The lack of a Canadian aviation corps meant that these eager young men had to contact the War Office and the Admiralty, in London, in order to enlist in the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Navy’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

Very much aware of this, John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, better known as J.A.D. McCurdy, contacted Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir Robert Laird Borden, in December 1914. At the time, the Canadian pilot, famous for having made the first controlled and sustained flight of a powered airplane in Canada, but not the British Empire, was associated with a well known American airplane maker, Curtiss Aeroplane Company. McCurdy put forward the idea of creating a Canadian aviation corps equipped with Curtiss airplanes made in Canada by a yet to be born Curtiss Airplane subsidiary. The pilots of these airplanes would be trained by another yet to be born subsidiary.

Busy as it was with other things, the federal government sent this proposal to the War Office and Admiralty in early 1915. Curtiss Aeroplane’s confidence in its success was such that Curtiss Aeroplanes & Motors Limited of Toronto, Ontario, was set up in February. Its managing director was none other than McCurdy. An RNAS order for a number of Curtiss JN-3 training airplanes followed in March. Better yet, the RNAS agreed to have Canadians interested in becoming pilots trained in a flying school, the Curtiss Flying School, also based in Toronto and managed by, you guessed it, McCurdy. That school began to operate in April. The aspiring pilots would have to get to Toronto on their own, however, as well as pay for their own training and living expenses. The total cost of this endeavour represented many months of work for an average worker in the Canadian manufacturing industry. The Admiralty only reimbursed the certified pilots it accepted, and only partially. Even so, many young men sent in an application.

The Curtiss Flying School began to train an initial batch of 20 trainees in May 1915. At the time, it was based at Hanlan’s Point, in the Toronto Islands, on the shore of Lake Ontario. The equipment consisted of two, then three Curtiss Model F two seat flying boats recently completed in the United States. This type of machine was arguably among the best in the world. The school opened a landplane section in June, at Long Branch, also near the shore of Lake Ontario. The initial batch of trainees began the final phase of their training there before the end of the month. The two seat airplanes they flew were Canadian-made Curtiss JN-3s. The onset of winter having led to the closure of the school, training resumed in the spring of 1916. Even so, the flying boat section was shut down at some point during that year. The Curtiss Flying School itself closed in 1916, after graduating 130 or so pilots, including 20 or so for the Royal Flying Corps, out of about 375 candidates.

The increasing importance of aviation for the war effort and the heavy casualties suffered in 1916 led to the creation of a British controlled network of flying schools in southern Ontario and of Canada’s first major airplane manufacturing company, British-controlled Canadian Aeroplanes Limited. But that, my reading friend, is another story.

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Rénald Fortier