It was born a rambling plane, trying to make a living and doing the best it could: The fascinating story of the Reid / Curtiss-Reid Rambler, Canada’s first light / private plane, part 1
With your permission, or without it if necessary, yours truly would like to serve you a main course of an aeronautical nature today. A course which had its origins in a period in the history of aeronautics I am particularly fond of, the interwar period, between 1918 and 1939. A course linked to the 95th anniversary of the first flight of a Canadian-designed aircraft in September 1928.
Êtes-vous greyé(e)? Yes, yes, greyé(e). In other words, are you ready? Wunderbar! Let us begin, with a bit of context.
In January 1927, Sir Alan John Cobham, a well-known English aviator, was in Ottawa, Ontario, to lecture on his long-distance flights, including his return flight between England to South Africa, from November 1925 to March 1926, and his flight between England and Australia, from June to August 1926. He was giving that lecture under the aegis of the Ottawa chapter of the National Council of Women of Canada.
Speaking (typing?) of Cobham, did you know that this aviator played a role, modest it must be admitted, in the discovery of Varanus komodoensis, the famous Komodo dragon / monitor, by residents of Western countries? Yes, yes, I kid you not. During his journey between England and Australia, he saw 2 huge lizards kept in captivity during a stopover on an island which was part of the Nederlandsch-Indië, a Dutch colonial territory now known under the name of Indonesia. That brief episode of said journey was mentioned in moult newspapers of the time.
When Cobham first mentioned his sighting, apparently at a dinner party in Australia, some of those present thought that, despite his perfectly serious expression, the aviator was actually yanking their chain. Mind you, the fact that some articles in the Australian press claimed that some Komodo dragons could be over 6 metres (about 20 feet), even up to over 9 metres (about 30 feet), in length, as Cobham suggested at least once, could have suggested that this whole story was a ginormous joke.
By chance, however, an expedition from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, New York, led by American naturalist / hunter / filmmaker / author William Douglas Burden, was then on the island of Komodo, in the Nederlandsch-Indië. In fact, it was that expedition which brought the first living and dead specimens of Komodo dragons back to Western countries.
Mind you, the term rediscovery would perhaps have been appropriate in those circumstances. It was indeed in 1912 that Pieter Anthonis Ouwens, curator at the Zoölogisch Museum en Laboratorium, published the first description of the Komodo dragon, in Bulletin du Jardin Botanique, the publication of that museum / laboratory located in Buitenzorg, Nederlandsch-Indië, today’s Bogor, Indonesia.
Ouwens’ article seemed to have gone completely unnoticed, however, at least until 1928 it seemed.
A young officer of the Koninklijk Nederlandsch-Indisch Leger, the royal army of the Nederlandsch-Indië, had launched Ouwens on that adventure by sending him a skin and photograph of the beast in 1910 or 1911. Lieutenant Jacques Karel Henri van Steyn van Hensbroek probably mentioned that one of the pearl hunters who had accompanied him to the island of Komodo allegedly claimed to have killed a dragon about 7.3 metres (24 feet) long.
And yes, Ouwens was in all likelihood the individual who had sent the team which had captured the Komodo dragons seen by Cobham in 1926, presumably on the site of the Zoölogisch Museum en Laboratorium.
And if you believe that a carnivorous and aggressive reptile which could / can reach more than 3 metres (about 10 feet) in length and weigh about 80 kilogrammes (about 175 pounds) was / is nightmare material, allow me to introduce you to Varanus priscus, an Australian cousin of the Komodo dragon which went extinct 40 000 or so years ago. According to some researchers, that equally carnivorous and aggressive reptile could have reached around 6 metres (around 20 feet) in length, which could correspond to a weight of around 700 kilogrammes (around 1 550 pounds). Wah!
Encounters / combats between such beasts and the first Homo sapiens to arrive in Australia might had inspired the whowie and / or mungoon-gali of the mythology of those First Australians. End of digression and…
What can I to tell you, yours truly is quite simply fascinated by zoology and paleontology – and cryptozoology, “the scientific study of unknown animals about which only circumstantial, or at best insufficient, material evidence is available,” if I may quote The Canadian Encyclopedia.
But how about the claim of the aforementioned pearl hunter, you ask, my draconophobe / herpetophobe reading friend? Well, it looked as if someone somewhere exaggerated the dimensions of the beastie just a wee bit. Now back to our story, and Cobham.
The Canadian Prime Minister, the very lackluster William Lyon Mackenzie “Rex / Weird Willie” King, was so interested in / impressed with Cobham that he arranged to have lunch with him the morning after his presentation, I believe. The English aviator intended to take advantage of the opportunity presented to him. He suggested to King that the federal government should support Canadian private air carriers. It should also encourage the formation of subsidised flying clubs. In fact, such a program already existed in the United Kingdom, where it had been set up in 1924-25.
King, a character mentioned many times in our colossal blog / bulletin / thingee since April 2018, seemed very impressed by Cobham’s remarks.
It should be noted that many spokespersons for the Department of National Defence and / or the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) had been proposing the creation of a network of subsidised flying clubs for months, without any results. The Prime Minister apparently gave more importance to the words of an English pilot who was making headlines.
Ahh, politicians… If yours truly may be permitted to quote a now forgotten wit, politicians are a lot like diapers, they should be changed frequently, and for the same reasons.
And yes, you are quite right, my reading friend, the French language expression Aviation royale du Canada and the French language acronym ARC were not used at that time. The Canadian air force was then known in French as the Corps d’aviation royal canadien, but you are the one digressing this time. Yes, yes, you.
In May 1927, another character mentioned many times in our colossal blog / bulletin / thingee, since September 2017 however, crossed the Atlantic Ocean alone. On 1 July, the American aviator Charles Augustus Lindbergh took part in the celebrations surrounding Canada’s 60th anniversary. Mackenzie King was fascinated by that character; “a young god who appeared from the skies in human form,” he wrote in his personal diary.
Mind you, the Prime Minister had also noted the growing interest of the general public in aviation.
As a result, the many people within the Department of National Defence who had been proposing the creation of flying clubs for some time now, without result, saw their efforts rewarded. In September 1927, said department put forward a program to create flying clubs across the country. An important phase in the history of the Canadian aeronautical industry and civil aviation was beginning.
The Canadian flying club project was very similar to its British equivalent. In either case, what it was all about was the creation, not of conventional clubs, but of flying schools intended for the training of civilian pilots. Ideally, government assistance would encourage a number of municipalities to build their own aerodrome. Over time, a whole network of aerodromes would appear, thereby guaranteeing the interest of Canadians in aerial matters.
By launching that program, the Department of National Defence hoped to remedy a serious shortage of aerodromes, ground equipment and pilots, both civilian and military.
The department undertook to provide 2 training aircraft free of charge to each flying club. It also undertook to donate an aircraft to all flying clubs which would purchase one, for a period of 5 years. Each flying club could therefore receive up to 7 free aircraft. Better yet, the department undertook to pay flying clubs a premium of $10, or approximately $175 in 2023 currency, for each student who received their pilot’s license. In return, each flying club had to have an instructor, a mechanic and an adequate aerodrome. It also had to have a minimum number of members.
And no, $10 was not a huge sum at all.
The new program aroused great interest, however. The first Canadian flying club opened its doors in the spring of 1928. Fourteen others appeared that year. In December 1929, there were 23.
The management of those various clubs soon came together to put some order in their community and give themselves an official national status. The Canadian Flying Clubs Association was born in November 1929.
The success of the flying club program was such that even the Great Depression of the 1930s could not break its momentum. During that period, interest in aeronautics did indeed spread from sea to sea.
The establishment of the flying club network might have yielded greater results in terms of moolah spent than any other aviation program in Canadian history.
Initially, the Canadian aircraft industry did not reap the benefits of that enthusiasm. Indeed, when the flying club creation program started, not a single training aircraft was manufactured or even assembled in Canada. The Department of National Defence therefore had to call on foreign manufacturers. The standard British flying club aircraft, the de Havilland Moth two-seat biplane, won hands down.
In February 1928, the English firm de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited founded a subsidiary, de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (DHC), to assemble and ensure the maintenance of Canadian-registered Moths manufactured in England. Initially located near Weston, Ontario, said subsidiary soon moved to Downsview, Ontario. Both of those municipalities were obviously located near Toronto, Ontario.
You will of course remember, assiduous reading friend that you are, that DHC and de Havilland Aircraft have been mentioned many times since February 2018 in our wonderful blog / bulletin / thingee.
The hopes of the two firms to launch the license production of the excellent Moth did not, however, resist the collapse of the economy caused by the Great Depression. With nearly 200 examples assembled during the years 1928-31 alone, the Moth was, however, the most popular light / private and / or training aircraft in Canada during the interwar period. In fact, it was one of the most successful aircraft of that type of the 20th century.
As you might have expected, the incomparable collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum of Ottawa, Ontario, includes a Moth, but I digress.
Was DHC the only firm trying to profit from the creation of the flying club network, you ask, my reading friend? Certainly not.
Ottawa Car Manufacturing Company of Ottawa, a subsidiary of Ottawa Electric Railway Company, a firm based in… Ottawa, itself a subsidiary of Ahearn & Soper Limited of… Ottawa, signed agreements with an English aircraft manufacturer, A.V. Roe & Company Limited (Avro), for the sale and assembly of aircraft in Canada. Ottawa Car Manufacturing thus purchased the license for the Avro Avian, a two-seat biplane comparable to the Moth, in early 1929.
Contrary to what several / many sources have claimed / claim, that manufacturer of trams and buses did not make Avians. Nay. However, Ottawa Car Manufacturing made the empennages and wings of 20 or so of the 40 or so aircraft that it delivered to the RCAF and a few private pilots.
Yours truly will obviously tell you nothing you did not already know by specifying that Ottawa Car Manufacturing was mentioned in August 2018, May 2019 and August 2021 issues of our excellent you know what. Avro, for its part, was mentioned many times therein, and that since October 2018.
Canadian Vickers Limited of Montréal, Québec, a shipyard which could count on an aeronautical section, also hoped to obtain its share of the contracts. Its plan for a basic two-seat training aircraft, which at first sight looked very promising, was abandoned in January 1928 however, when its chief aeronautical engineer, the Englishman Wilfrid Thomas Reid, accepted the offer of a group of Canadian / Québec businessmen and founded his own firm. The latter, Reid Aircraft Company Limited of Montréal (office) and Cartierville, Québec (workshop), was incorporated in February 1928. Reid himself was its president.
This departure of Reid was largely explained by the situation with which Canadian Vickers had to deal. Even though the Montréal firm did not always seem to be able to control the weight of its aircraft, a good part of its problems stemmed from the last minutes requirements of the RCAF, which led to additional increases in weight. That service also required that firm with limited aeronautical experience and resources to work simultaneously on several projects without giving it much time to breathe.
A little too enthusiastic and optimistic, Canadian Vickers hoped for its part to fulfill its contracts by hiring qualified personnel in the United Kingdom. Those hopes were often disappointed. Worse still, workers hired in winter to fill orders often had to be laid off during the slack period of the summer, when the RCAF did not sign contracts. As the latter does not have a development program spread over several years, Canadian Vickers was not in a position to plan any long-term production program either. Both sides evidently suffered from this, but back to our story.
The group of businessmen involved in the creation of Reid Aircraft might have included Montrealer Ernest Frederick Woodham “Ted” Peacock, a fighter pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) of the British Army, then the Royal Air Force (RAF), during the First World War, who became vice-president of Reid Aircraft. It may also have included the other members of the firm’s board of directors, also Montrealers, I think, including William Wilkes Schuyler “Billy” Lighthall, another fighter pilot who had served in the RFC and RAF during the conflict, and Charles Barclay “Boochus” DeTollie Drummond, yet another fighter pilot, I think, who had served in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) of the Royal Navy and the RAF during the conflict.
Let us not forget either Thomas Hall, founding president of Laurentide Air Service Limited of Montréal, one of the pioneers of bush flying in Québec and, therefore, Canada, founded in 1922. He was in fact the main investor in that firm mainly based at the Lake à la Tortue, Québec – Laurentide Air Service being a firm mentioned in several issues of our excellent blog / bulletin / thingee since September 2019.
As you know, the remains of an American Curtiss HS-2L flying boat used by the St. Maurice Fire Protective Association of Trois-Rivières, Québec, and then by Laurentide Air Service, between June 1919 and September 1922, can be found on the floor of the dazzling Canada Aviation and Space Museum. A replica / reproduction of that historic aircraft, Canada’s first bushplane if you must know, a replica / reproduction which has no equal in the rest of the world, is right next to said remains.
Incidentally, Lighthall and Peacock were respectively president and honorary secretary of the Montreal Light Aeroplane Club Incorporated, a flying club founded in 1928 whose base was at Saint-Hubert Airport, in… Saint-Hubert, Québec.
Before I forget, let me remind you that Reid was born in March 1887, in England. He initially worked as an apprentice for a heavy civil engineering firm before becoming a naval engineer.
Around the start of the First World War, however, Reid joined the staff of the Royal Aircraft Factory, a British crown corporation mentioned in a September 2019 issue of our you know what. In 1916, he moved his stuff to British & Colonial Aeroplane Company Limited, a well-known English aircraft manufacturing firm.
The chief aeronautical engineer of that firm having moved to Australia in late fall of 1921, to work there as an aeronautical adviser, Reid replaced him without difficulty. Frank Sowter Barnwell having returned to his job in the fall of 1923, because the future of aviation in Australia was too uncertain for his taste, Reid resigned. Before long, he joined the staff of the Aviation Department of a British industrial giant, Vickers Limited. In 1924, his superiors offered Reid the position of chief aeronautical engineer of the new aeronautical department of Vickers’ Canadian subsidiary, the aforementioned Canadian Vickers.
Reid arrived in Québec with plans for a small forest patrol flying boat in his back pocket. He oversaw the production of that aircraft, the (Canadian?) Vickers Vedette. Reid subsequently oversaw the design of a short series of aircraft to meet the RCAF’s requirements for forest surveillance, aerial photography or forest firefighting, the Canadian Vickers Varuna, Vista, Vigil and Velos. He also supervised the design of a small civilian aircraft, the Canadian Vickers Vanessa.
And no, there was no such thing as a Canadian Vickers Velociraptor, but yours truly will admit that the name is quite catchy. Incidentally, the first Velociraptor mongoliensis fossil was discovered in Mongolia in August 1923.
While it was true that the 60 Vedettes produced represent the largest Canadian aircraft production program of the interwar period, the fact was that Reid’s other aircraft were not so successful. The Varuna was produced in less than 10 examples and his other machines did not proceed beyond the prototype stage, but let us come back to our subject and, more precisely, to the year 1928.
That come back will only take place next week, however. Sorry.
See ya later.