A remarkable training and rehabilitation program: The Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales

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The inmate instructor of the Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales of the Federal Training Centre, Laval, Québec. Solange Chalvin, « St-Vincent-de-Paul pourra former des programmeurs diplômés. » Le Devoir, 21 March 1969, 3.
The inmate instructor of the Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales of the Federal Training Centre, Laval, Québec. Solange Chalvin, « St-Vincent-de-Paul pourra former des programmeurs diplômés. » Le Devoir, 21 March 1969, 3.

Hello, my reading friend, and welcome back to the wonderful world of aviation and space. Yours truly has a beautiful and good story for you, at least I hope so. This subject is no laughing matter but I hope it will please you. I met it quite by chance, if my memory is correct. And no, said encounter did not take place in the 21 March 1969 issue of a Montréal, Québec, daily, Le Devoir. I chose said issue of this utterly respectable and respected publication because of the quality of the photograph that was there.

Our story began in late 1967 or early 1968. Realizing very well that it was not easy to find qualified programmers for its calculation centre, the management of aircraft manufacturer Canadair Limited of Cartierville, Québec, went looking for a solution. Yours truly must humbly admit that he does not know how this company, mentioned in many numbers of our blog / bulletin / thingee since November 2017, came to put forward the project that concerns us today. The fact was / is, however, that Canadair was not the only firm struggling to find programmers. There was a serious shortage in Québec, and even in Canada, and this even though a programmer could expect a very high salary.

In any event, Canadair entered into discussions with International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) and / or its Canadian subsidiary, International Business Machines Company Limited of Don Mills, a city located near Toronto, Ontario. And yes, my reading friend, these 2 companies are mentioned in a January 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

I will agree with you that discussions between these computer giants and a company looking for programmers were not exceptional. What separated Canadair’s project from the rest of the herd, if I may use that term, was that the other partner in the project was the Canadian Penitentiary Service (CPS), today’s Correctional Service Canada, or, more specifically, the Federal Training Centre located on the premises of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary in Laval, Québec.

In May 1968, a moment in the history of the Cold War that deserves mention, Canadair and the Federal Training Centre launched the Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales, a unique training and rehabilitation program, at least in Canada. For the first time, a private company subsidized a training program involving young inmates condemned to serve a sentence in a penitentiary. Better yet, Canadair saw no objection to hiring course participants who, having passed the exams, became graduate programmers.

Yours truly must emphasize here a little mystery surrounding the Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales. Using the acronym COBOL to identify it is as inexplicable today as it was when I started writing this article. I am reduced to the assumption that young inmates who participated in the course made programming in COBOL, or COmmon Business Oriented Language, a management programming language created in the United States in 1959. Interestingly, one of the computer manufacturers involved in its design was none other than IBM.

Canadair and the Federal Training Centre officially revealed the existence of the Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales at a press conference held in March 1969. Spokespersons from both organizations explained what it was all about. The lecturer, only known as Ronnie, was also present. The journalists were surprised to learn that this 25-year-old bilingual young man, a former student wearing a jacket and tie, very competent and determined to succeed, was serving a life sentence. He was one of the first inmates to take the course, initially offered by employees at the Canadair calculation centre, with the help of IBM.

In fact, if this young man became a lecturer because of his skills, his long sentence brought some stability to the project. This being said (typed?), the fact was that he would be able to apply for parole as early as 1971.

Press representatives learned that the psychologist at Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary was overseeing the selection of candidates with the best chance of success. Between the ages of 15 and 25, these candidates had to pass aptitude and personality tests. The sentence they served must also be their first.

Interestingly, a few (4?) American penitentiaries offered programming courses similar to that of the Federal Training Centre. These programs originated in a petition submitted in the spring of 1967 by a prisoner at a maximum security prison, the Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) Walpole. Said request was forwarded to a manager at the Electronic Data Processing Division of Honeywell Incorporated. Malcolm D. Smith agreed to create a programming class at MCI Walpole in June. Honeywell provided the necessary manuals and materials. It also allowed prisoners to have access to at least 1 computer. The instructors who participated in the program did so voluntarily. This American program was still running at full speed in 1977. I can not say how long it went, but let’s go back to our story.

In March 1969, and later in the spring, 16 inmates attended the Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales offered at the Federal Training Centre. They were not unaware that the 4 young people who had successfully completed the course and their sentence had found a job, including 3 at the Canadair calculation centre. The hope that these young people had to succeed also profoundly changed the behaviour of many of them.

The Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales was divided into 3 parts. The first two, lasting 31 and 75 days, were of a theoretical nature. The young inmates and their instructor worked hard, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. Canadair and IBM provided all the technical manuals. The latter even delivered a card punch. Employees of the aircraft manufacturer’s calculation centre acted as consultants and collaborators.

Do you have a question, my reading friend? You do not know what a card punch was / is? You don’t know how lucky you are. To make a long story short, before the introduction of the hard disk drive, in 1956, electronic computers accessed their data sequentially, using piles of punch cards or reels of tape. This being said (typed?), punch cards were still used in the early 1980s, if not later. Yours truly had the infinite pleasure of using BLINK punch cards for 2 history classes at the Université de Sherbrooke, in Sherbrooke, Québec, and the Université Laval, in Québec, Québec. And yes, this technology was mentioned in a January 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, but let’s get back to our topic.

The third part of the Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales, say I, was of a practical nature. Inmates visited the Canadair calculation centre in groups of 2 each week to learn about equipment and work. Young prisoners then had access to one of the computers in the centre.

A student whose sentence ended before or during the third part of the course knew enough to get a trainee position. In fact, one of the inmates requested that his parole be postponed by 3 months to allow him to finish the course.

It should be noted that some of the inmates who took the Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales also took courses to complete their primary or secondary school certificate.

The Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales was such a success that one of the largest credit sales financing companies in Canada, Industrial Acceptance Corporation Limited of Montréal instituted a similar program in January 1969. This course, offered to inmates over the age of 25, was given at Cowansville Penitentiary, Québec. The lecturer was an inmate who had completed the course offered at the Federal Training Centre. He was transferred to Cowansville on the recommendation of Canadair. IBM was happy to support the course project launched by Industrial Acceptance.

Both Canadair and Industrial Acceptance encouraged companies seeking programmers to contact the Federal Training Centre. It should be noted that the courses offered in Laval and Cowansville were under the direction of the director of the calculation centre of the aircraft manufacturer, Neville Shevloff.

Four other course projects were created in the spring or summer of 1969 in other Canadian penitentiaries. Yours truly does not know if they gave rise to concrete achievements. In fact, I can not say for how long the courses in Canadian penitentiaries continued.

It should be noted that the Cours de programmation expérimentale pour fins commerciales was not the only aeronautical training and rehabilitation program offered to Canadian inmates. A rather original homebuilt aircraft manufacturing project saw the light of day towards the beginning of the 1970s. And yes, my reading friend, homebuilding has been mentioned since September 2017, in various numbers of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

In the early 1970s, the Department of National Defense subsidized every year the flying lessons of about 250 air cadets, both girls and boys. However, it did not have the funds to help these young people continue their training. The new Air Cadet Officer at National Defense Headquarters in Ottawa, Ontario, Lieutenant-Colonel William Roy “Windy” Windover, proposed around 1973-74 that as many squadrons of the Air Cadet League of Canada League as possible buy and assemble Canadian-made kits of a reliable and economical aircraft.

Windover was a respected officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Indeed, he was the first solo aerobatic pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, known as the “Red Knight.” Windover held this role in 1958-59.

Windover assessed the available aircraft toward the end of 1973. As a 2-seat aircraft seemed too expensive, he chose the Pazmany PL-4, a very promising American designed single-seat single engine aircraft that flew for the first time in July 1972. The founder of Pazmany Aircraft Corporation, Ladislao Pazmany, born Ladislao Pázmány, willingly agreed to sell a production license if the project was successful.

A chance meeting with the Director of Professional Training of the aforementioned CPS was a turning point. The latter was fascinated by Windover’s project. Professional training programs offered in penitentiaries allowed many inmates to acquire technical knowledge. Windover was equally interested in this information. The manufacture of kit aircraft would be an interesting addition to the programs offered by CPS. The nominal salary offered to inmates would also significantly reduce the cost of purchasing each PL-4.

With the support of the Air Cadet League of Canada, Windover asked CPS and the Ministry of Transport to approve the fabrication of 2 PL-4s with different engines, one of which who was no longer in production, by inmates of a penitentiary. If these aircraft proved successful, kits of the best performing version would be produced by the inmates. If the initial order envisioned was for 50, the total number of PL-4s assembled by air cadets could be close to 200. Funding for this unique project in the history of Canadian, or even North American, aviation would come from private tax deductible donations. Intrigued by this project, the 2 federal agencies answered in the affirmative. The CPS selected the penitentiary or, more accurately, the institution, Warkworth Institution, located near Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Trenton, Ontario, to do the work.

Windover borrowed the PL-4 prototype in May 1974 with the blessing of Pazmany. He flew from San Diego, California to Ottawa to promote his project. Windover may have visited some 30 cities in 9 Canadian provinces. The sheer magnitude of the project frightened some Canadian aerospace industry representatives who did not want CPS to steal orders from them. The latter had to commit to never produce aircraft intended for private pilots. That said, Douglas Aircraft Company of Canada, the Toronto subsidiary of American aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas Corporation, was apparently committed to hiring upon release from prison all inmates who successfully participated in the manufacturing program. Windover left Ottawa in November to return the PL-4 to its designer. Starter problems forced him to end his flight in Colorado.

Anxious to promote his project, Windover launched a PL-4 model manufacturing contest by air cadets. Another competition aimed to choose an appropriate name for this aircraft. Windover’s replacement as Air Cadet Officer at National Defense Headquarters around 1975-76, however, did not share his enthusiasm for the aircraft manufacturing program. The Air Cadet League of Canada seemingly did not defend it forcefully. Assuming that inmates at Warkworth Institution completed a PL-4, the available information suggests that this aircraft did not fly.

This homebuilt aircraft manufacturing project was also not the only aeronautical training and rehabilitation program offered to Canadian inmates. That story began in 1971 when Boeing of Canada Limited considered making the West German glider Bolköw Phoebus, a modern fibreglass aircraft, under license, at its plant in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Given the high cost of building the moulds used to make the main components of the glider, Boeing of Canada needed a large order. It contacted the national coordinator of the gliding program of the Air Cadet League of Canada and asked him if he was ready to consider the possibility of ordering 100 Phoebuses. At that time, the Department of National Defense annually subsidized glider flying courses for approximately 180 air cadets, both girls and boys.

Lloyd Davies found the idea fascinating, but said that the West German glider was a bit too advanced for inexperienced teenagers. The league could also have serious difficulties in paying and keeping airworthy 100 gliders. Somewhat disappointed but aware of the correctness of these comments, Boeing of Canada gave up the idea of producing the Phoebus in Canada.

Davies, however, refused to give up the idea of ​​producing a glider for the Air Cadet League of Canada. Intrigued by the Harmon Linville Dingus, an American single-seat flying-wing type glider then under development inspired by the Backstrom EPB-1 Flying Plank, he prepared the plans for a derivative, the Cadet Model 100, in 1972. The league supported the production project of such an aircraft but its configuration worried several people. Davies changed his concept a little bit but did not have more success. In fact, very few homebuilders have chosen to make a Flying Plank since its conception, around 1954.

An officer recently arrived at the air cadet liaison office, the aforementioned Windover, suggested to Davies that he find a single-seat glider available in kits. The latter readily accepted. The Coward / Pacific D-8, a relatively unknown American glider introduced around 1963, seemed particularly appropriate to him. Its designer, Ken Coward, was willing to modify the aircraft to make it easier to build if the Air Cadet League of Canada bought 20 sets of plans. The latter said it would be interested if Coward modified the structure of the wing of the D-8. The scale of the changes and health problems led him to withdraw from the project.

In May 1973, Windover became Air Cadet Officer at National Defense Headquarters. In the spring of 1974, he examined and piloted a D-8 manufactured in the United States. Windover proposed that squadrons of the Air Cadet League of Canada purchase and assemble gliders from domestically produced kits. As was the case with the PL-4 kit-making project, the glider kits would be manufactured by CPS inmates. The number of D-8s used by air cadets could possibly be close to 200. Funding for this unique project in the history of Canadian, or even North American, aviation would come from private tax deductible donations. Anxious to promote it, Windover launched a D-8 model manufacturing contest by air cadets. Another competition aimed to choose an appropriate name for this aircraft.

With support from the Air Cadet League of Canada, Windover asked CPS and the Ministry of Transport to approve the production of 2 D-8s by inmates at a penitentiary. If these aircraft prove successful, the latter would begin the series production of kits. Intrigued by this project, the 2 organizations answered in the affirmative. The sheer magnitude of the project frightened some Canadian aerospace industry representatives who did not want CPS to steal orders from them. The latter had to commit to never produce aircraft intended for private pilots.

The manufacture of these gliders would be done at, drum roll please, the Cowansville Institution. Small world, isn’t it? Be that as it may, Windover oversaw the shipment of aluminum that the inmates would need by the middle of 1974. Even before the end of the summer, he faced criticism. A 2-seat glider might be more suited to the needs of the Air Cadet League of Canada than the D-8, an untested aircraft – comments that also applied very well to the PL-4. Windover also had to take into account the fact that, despite the reassuring offers of the CPS, the manufacture of the first 2 gliders did not seem to progress very quickly.

Out of patience, Windover went to Cowansville Institution with Davies in 1975. They discovered that the CPS had agreed with the Post Office Department to manufacture mailboxes. This project being considered a priority, the prisoners did not make any glider parts. Very disappointed, Windover oversaw the transfer of the aluminum for the manufacture of gliders to CFB Trenton. This same material subsequently ended up at CFB Winnipeg. One or more air cadet squadrons from the region apparently tried to restart the project, but without success. A sheet metal training project offered by several instructors at CFB Camp Borden, Ontario, went nowhere.

Windover’s replacement as Air Cadet Officer at National Defense Headquarters around 1975-76, however, did not share his enthusiasm for the glider manufacturing program. Disappointed by the lack of progress on this issue, the Air Cadet League of Canada sold the aluminum for D-8 manufacturing at an undetermined date.

Did this article meet your expectations, my reading friend? Yes? I am pleased. Come back to visit me when the opportunity arises. See ya.

The author of these lines wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

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Rénald Fortier