Comment: First trans-Canada flight: From Nova Scotia to Esquimalt

At 11:25 a.m. on Oct. 17, 1920, a Airco DH.9A of the Canadian Air Board touched down at Minoru Park racetrack in Richmond, thereby officially ending the first trans-Canada flight, which began in Nova Scotia on Oct. 7.

Aviation history buffs might not know that the flight carried on to Esquimalt, arriving there on Oct. 21, 100 years ago today.

article continues below

And therein lies a tale.

The trans-Canada flight was planned, organized and executed by the Canadian Air Board, a short-lived (1919-1922) department of the Dominion government responsible for the development of Canadian aviation, both civil and military, in the aftermath of the First World War.

The air board’s purpose in conducting the trans-continental flight was to demonstrate the utility of aviation to the Canadian public and, more importantly, to Canadian politicians.

Not incidentally, it was also an account of guts and determination as a small group of aviators battled the elements in open-cockpit aircraft and blazed a trail across the country.

Following the arrival of the DH.9A in Richmond on Oct. 17, a well-deserved celebratory dinner was held in Vancouver on Oct. 19 for all the members of the flying team, who had by this time joined their colleagues on the west coast.

As the festivities progressed, the fliers were urged by Norman Yarrow to continue their flight to Esquimalt and personally present letters that had been hand-carried across the country addressed to Edward Gawler Prior, the lieutenant-governor of British Columbia.

Yarrow was the general manager of Yarrows Shipyard in Esquimalt and, perhaps more importantly, the vice-president of the British Columbia Advisory Air Council for the air board.

Willing to comply with Yarrow’s wishes, the fliers pressed the air station superintendent at Jericho Beach to lend them a Curtiss HS-2L flying boat so that they could fly on to Esquimalt.

Accordingly, on Oct. 20, Air Commodore Arthur Tylee, the air officer commanding, Canadian Air Force and Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Leckie, the superintendent of flying operations for the air board, set off to cross the Juan de Fuca Strait to Esquimalt.

They were accompanied by Squadron Leader Basil Hobbs, who had flown the Halifax to Winnipeg leg of the trans-Canada flight with Leckie, and Flight Lieutenant Tommy Thompson, who had piloted the leg from Calgary to Vancouver. (Of note, Tylee had flown as a passenger from Winnipeg to Vancouver.)

The extension of the flight to Esquimalt was discussed in the pages of The Daily Colonist in columns on three successive days.

The first column, “Airmen To Try Victoria Flight” (Oct. 20) states that weather permitting, a flight to Victoria would be attempted that day to deliver letters that had been hand-carried across Canada for the lieutenant-governor.

The second column, “Flying Boat Is Forced To Land” (Oct. 21) describes the attempt of the aviators to find their way to Esquimalt in poor visibility and reports that they were finally forced to land and stay overnight at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

The third column, “Aviators at Last Complete Flight,” (Oct. 22) relates the successful completion of the flight and the presentation of letters to Prior.

Following their visit to Government House, the trans-Canada flight team split up. Leckie returned immediately to Ottawa while Tylee remained on the west coast to survey future training bases for the Canadian Air Force on ­Vancouver Island.

As for the air board’s objective of stimulating interest in aviation in Canada, the flight proved to be successful. While the path was neither straight nor smooth, the trans-Canada flight firmly established aviation, both civil and military, in the Canadian psyche.

Please remember these dauntless aviators.

They were the pioneers who demonstrated the truth of the statement of former Governor-General Vincent Massey who observed that “The aircraft came to Canada as a godsend. It probably has meant more to us than it has to any other country.”

And it was the trans-Canada flight of 1920 that showed the way ahead.

Colonel (Ret’d) John L. Orr is a volunteer researcher at the Shearwater Aviation Museum in Shearwater, N.S., where the first trans-Canada flight began.

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist