The BCATP Training Programme
They are between 18 and 24 years of age. A majority is not 20 yet. They chose the Air Force over the Navy and the Army. Most of them share a dream: they picture themselves soaring through the skies on mighty planes, engaging the Fuehrer’s minions in mortal combat. The BCATP’s task is to direct those rookies towards a training that match their skills, to provide discipline without hampering their resolution, to impart the know-how needed to conduct dangerous flight missions, to teach the reflexes that may save their lives and the lives of their crewmates.
Training starts at one of the five Manning Depots, located in Toronto, Brandon, Edmonton, Quebec City and Lachine. Recruits familiarize themselves with military discipline and with the basics of aviation: regulations, history, and navigation. Between courses they go through endless drills and weapon-handling exercises, with the Lee-Enfield rifle for instance. Manning depots also provide some language training for those who do not speak English well enough, in those days the only language used in the Canadian Armed Forces. English is also a necessity because airmen may be called to serve in Britain, where they may also have to decipher the cockney accent of air controllers! Upon leaving the manning depot, trainees become “aircraftsmen 2”. They are then directed towards a BCATP training school for airmen or towards a training camp for ground personnel.
Trainees start Initial Training School (ITS), well aware that at the end of the ten-week process some of them will be selected to become pilots – those may still dream of glorious deeds – or to be trained as navigators, bombers, wireless operators or gunners, essential jobs but lacking in prestige. Their performance on a thankless machine, the Link Trainer, will decide. This flight simulator, while solidly anchored to the ground, reproduces the flying experience in order to assess the pilot skills of a recruit; it is also used to teach air navigation. Throughout the ten-week training period, recruits also study navigation, flight techniques, mechanical engineering, mathematics, telegraphy, and friend-or-foe airplane recognition. Candidates who get top grades, especially in mathematics, are usually selected to become navigators or air observers.
With changes brought to the programme in 1942 and 1943, the Link Trainer is used earlier in the process, as soon as the manning depot. In addition, the preliminary training of wireless operators and gunners is reduced to place focus on specialized training and, starting in 1942, they are no longer required to go through Initial Training Schools.
Candidates selected for pilot training are sent to one of the 30 Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS) throughout Canada. This is their big day: they will fly soon! EFTS are civilian schools placed under military administration. Most of them have been established under the sponsorship of local flying clubs and flying courses are given by civilian instructors.
The future pilot trains at first on a Fleet Finch, a biplane with two cockpits one behind the other, painted bright yellow and bearing the RCAF blue, white and red roundel. During his eight-week training period, he must complete at least 50 hours of flight, half of them flying solo. After eight hours of flight with his instructor, he must be ready for his first solo flight. In addition to common manoeuvres, such as taking off, horizontal flight, approach with engine on or off, etc., trainees also familiarize themselves with aerial acrobatics. An extremely stable aircraft, the Fleet Finch is wonderfully adapted to training and to stunt flying. Starting in 1943, it is gradually replaced by the Fairchild Cornell, a plane closer to a modern military aircraft.
On the ground, after 180 hours of flight, future pilots have gained in-depth knowledge of aircraft engines and airframes, of flight theory, of navigation, of signalling and weapons. With the RAF putting increased emphasis on night bombing missions, additional courses are added in 1942 dealing with navigation, instrument flying and friend-or-foe aircraft recognition. Machine-gun training is also part of the curriculum.
Pilots who successfully go through EFTS training are then assigned to a Service Flying Training School (SFTS). The schools located in Eastern Canada train fighter pilots and rely mostly on the North American Harvard. Flying an aircraft as powerful as a Harvard, that can reach 290 km/h, is an exhilarating experience for young pilots and many cannot resist skimming or trying out dangerous acrobatics, only to show off to their buddies. Even if military regulations prohibit such demonstrations, authorities are often lenient, as this may be the best way for a pilot to learn how to fight and escape desperate situations.
After unloading our baggage, we inspected one of the planes at close range. It was a huge, all-metal creation with a tremendous 600 horsepower Pratt and Whitney nine-cylinder radial glistening darkly under an enormous cowl. After the simple cloth-covered Fleet, the Harvard looked massive, rugged, heavy, complex. The instrument panel contained a hopeless confusion of black-faced dials and toggle switches. More handles protruded from beneath the instruments and between the big rudder pedals.
“Hey, look at the numbers on the airspeed indicator”
“Man, it reads 300 on the top side!”
“Are we supposed to watch all of this junk and fly at the same time?”
– Len Morgan, The AT-6 Harvard
Bomber pilots, for their part, are sent to western flying schools. Training is mostly on the twin-engine Avro Anson, nicknamed “Faithful Annie” on account of its reliability and steadiness. Bomber pilot training emphasizes professionalism and precision flying.
During the BCATP’s first year, military flying training is a ten-week course. But some weaknesses were identified in the training of the earlier graduates posted to Great Britain and the course was expanded to 16 weeks. To successfully complete this programme, trainees must achieve 100 hours of flight, 40 of them solo. When trainees graduate, they receive the two-wing pilot badge and are promoted to sergeant. About one third will eventually reach an officer rank.
Air Observers and Navigators
The 1940 programme included training “air observers”, a position that combined the functions of navigator and bomber. Air observers also received training in weapons, so they may help in defending the plane. As crews on heavy bombers became more specialized, air observers as such were replaced by separate navigators and bombers. The need for less-specialized personnel such as navigators-bombers (called “navigators B”) or navigators-wireless operators (or “navigators W”) was met by different combinations of courses.
Air Observer Schools (AOS) train air observers – and starting in 1942 navigators as well – in the skills required by their functions. The course, which had a duration of 12 weeks in 1940, was expanded to 18 weeks in June 1942; it is followed by a 6-week stay at a Bombing and Gunnery School. The navigator or bomber in training must complete at least 23 hours of flight during which he practices bombing techniques, by dropping 80 bombs at an average distance of 120 yards (110 m) from the target. When they graduate, trainees receive the one-wing badge of air observers, navigators or bombers and are promoted to sergeant.
Navigators wrap up their training with an intensive 4-week programme at an Air Navigation School; they learn navigation by the stars and get updated on the most recent techniques and instruments.
Wireless Operators and Air Gunners
Starting in 1942, Wireless Schools provide a 28-week training programme; this is basically a theoretical technical training, later completed by a few hours of flying. Wireless operators / gunners then move on a to a six-week course at a Bombing and Gunnery School where they learn to operate machine-guns and hydraulic turrets. Training planes are usually Anson or Fairey Battle, both equipped with Vickers or Lewis .303-calibre machine-guns.
Unknown in 1939, the flight engineer position was created to serve on heavy bombers, as a replacement for second pilots. Their job was to ensure that the engines and other on-board systems worked properly. The BCATP had only one school for flight engineers, located in Aylmer, Ontario. It opened on July 1st, 1944; a 7-week specialized programme in Great Britain completed the 23-week training.
From Training to Operations
As each training session draws to its conclusion, trainees take part in the traditional group photograph and pilots receive their badges at the wing parade. They are not yet ready to fly and fight: they have theoretical knowledge but little experience. Certified airmen are directed towards Operational Training Units (OTU) where they will familiarize themselves with the planes they will actually fly on their missions. Six OTUs are located in Canada but most are attached to RAF air bases in Great Britain.
In the end, very few BCATP graduates will see their dream of daring deeds come true. Instead they will carry on a demanding task, one that requires competence, know-how and courage. In their flying machines, they will face danger, fear, boredom even, and sometimes death.
Nineteen is an impressionable age. Put a boy who has never wanted to do anything but fly in a big, hefty, fully-aerobatic 600 horsepower fighter-type airplane and he soaks up this new world like a sponge. The heady aroma of gasoline and dope, the spine-tingling sound of aircraft engines coming to life at sunrise, the utterly indescribable sensation at the top of a loop, the talk of those who speak your language, the snug feel of parachute straps, the entire overwhelming atmosphere. I remember it all. That was living.
— Len Morgan, The AT-6 Harvard