Presentation of November 2012
Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP)    

Presenter:  Robert (Rob) Fleck

President and CEO of Vintage Wings of Canada

Article and Pictures by Lucy Martin

Fleck credits Vintage Wings volunteer Rob Kostecka with organizing the material he presented on BCATP. Fleck explained the program by following what the BCATP process was like for an individual trainee, Bill McRae, from Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Starting as a civilian McRae went to a manning depot (recruitment office) in Brandon, MB. Then he got two weeks of basic training and Initial Training School in Regina, SK. Elementary Flying Training School took place in Portage La Prairie, MB.

Fleck said whereas today's military bends over backwards to prevent loss of life during training, at that time the BCATP program anticipated and accepted up to a 16% casualty rate. Why? Because flying is a life and death activity and that's even more true in wartime. A certain level of “do or die” reality was perhaps a logical prequel to the even more harrowing casualty rate encountered when flying actual combat missions.  

McRae's last stretch in Canada was Service Flying Training School at Camp Borden, ON, where trainees learn skills needed to fly fighters, bombers or transports. This stage included time spent in a Link Trainer, an early flight simulator. (Five thousand of those were built in Gananoque during WW II.)  McRae graduated  as part of Borden's 18th war-time class, after loosing two classmates during training.

Once trained, McRae still had to get to the action in Europe. He departed Halifax in a convoy of 31 ships - nine of which were sunk while crossing the submarine-infested Atlantic. Only after all that could the new pilots start the “real” flying and dying. McRae was one of the lucky ones who did come home at war's end.

   Eric Field, Rob Fleck, and Audrey Renton

Eric Field and Audrey Renton chatted with Robert Fleck after the meeting.

Returning to the present, Vintage Wings has an ambitious program called “Yellow Wings” intended to share the BCATP story with Canadians. In 2011 that program trained pilots to participate in the 2011-2012 western & central tour. A “down home down east” tour began in 2012 and will continue in 2013 with a “Cross Canada Air Cadet Tribute”. This will further the theme: “On the wings of history go the leaders of tomorrow”.

There's an all-in-the-family side to this adventure, Fleck's daughter, Heather Fleck, is Assistant Chief Pilot at Vintage Wings and served as team leader on the 2012 Yellow Wings project.

In the extensive question period that followed Fleck's presentation, he began by rebutting a recent Ottawa Citizen article that suggested Vintage Wings benefitted from potentially inappropriate in-kind  services from the Department of Defense. The Nov 18th headline for the article by David Pugliese read: “Military gives private vintage air firm more than $600,000 in free services”  

Fleck disagreed with the article's characterization of certain facts, including ones that are not in dispute. Yes, the military did provide Vintage Wings with a period ejection seat - borrowed, Fleck says, from a plane not currently in use. But Fleck rejects assigning a like-new purchase price tag for the loan of old, dormant parts.

While Pugliese's article questions whether tax dollars (or equivalent services) should be extended to non-governmental organizations, Fleck expressed frustration about the harm such accusations can cause for groups which run on volunteer efforts and are dedicated to public service.

Besides further questions from the young scouts in attendance, several knowledgeable members of the audience recounted personal memories of early aviation and war experiences during the discussion period that followed.

We certainly appreciated Fleck taking the time to come share his expertise and passion for Canadian aviation with us in a thoroughly enjoyable manner.  

   Rob Fleck and RCAF guest

We were pleased that a number of veterans as well as the boy scout troop were able to attend the presentation in Pierces Corners. We apologize but we did not get the name of the gentleman shown here talking to Robert Fleck after the talk.  

November's focus on remembrance is an appropriate month to feature military-themed topics. Speaker Rob Fleck certainly fulfilled that goal by speaking about WW II's British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) and efforts by Vintage Wings of Canada to promote greater appreciation of aviation history in this country. By my count, the hall at Pierce's Corners already boasted a fine turnout of 64 adults when the doors opened again, ushering in 14 scouts and troop leaders from 1st North Gower/Kars.

The scouts found space alongside the main audience and politely endured a run-through of minutes and reports. They listened attentively to the main presentation and asked good questions after Fleck's talk. Hopefully they enjoyed the experience. It was also gratifying to see a number of Air Force veterans and various pilots in the audience.

Speaking of usual business, Membership Director Pat Earl was able to announce RTHS reached its 100th paid membership that night, a good sign of vigor for the organization.

Rob Fleck is a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran and a pilot with considerable experience in commercial aviation. He is nearing the end of a 3-year stint as CEO of Vintage Wings of Canada  before returning to Air Canada in 2013.

Some RTHS members will recall visiting Vintage Wing's main Gatineau facility on our 2009 June field trip. It was impressive: hangers were pristine, planes were polished to a high gleam, the volunteers and staff exuded can-do spirit and wry humor. (There must be something in the coffee there!) That same élan is on display at Vintage Wings' extensive website:

Fleck explained how high tech magnate Mike Potter's personal fancy for vintage planes evolved into a not-for-profit organization dedicated to remembering and telling Canadian stories that share the experience of aviation. Fleck claims the planes at Vintage Wings are only a tool to unlock doors, that it's really about the people. Sorry, but I don't fully buy that. It's clearly about both: planes and people.

   Pilot trainees with Curtiss P-36 aircraft

Pilot trainees with Curtiss P-36 aircraft at the Little Norway training centre, Toronto Island.   Photo National Film Board of Canada / Canada. Dept. of National Defence /Library and Archives Canada / PA-136047

Telling Canadian stories that celebrate early aviation and honour war heroes is something Fleck and others at Vintage Wings clearly relish. As he flashed through an extensive slide show, Fleck detailed name after name, with hardly enough time to explain what made each one remarkable. Some of those figures are well-known, others less so. I'll include two.

John Gillespie Magee Jr. was one of roughly nine thousand Americans who came to Canada to train as pilots and participate in WW II before the U.S. entered the conflict. Magee learned to fly as part of the BCATP program in Ottawa and served in the RCAF's 412 Fighter Squadron. He wrote what became aviation's most famous poem a few months before he was killed in a training accident in England in 1941, at age 19. The first and last lines of “High Flight” are inscribed on his grave marker: “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth...Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

442nd squadron pilot Arnold Roseland died in July of 1944, after taking on a superior number of German planes in a dogfight witnessed by French villagers below. One observer, Pierre Behier, grew up to become Mayor of St. Martin de Mailoc and was part of a 50-year effort to locate and thank the pilot's survivors in Canada. (This is more fully recounted in “The Hero Behind the Resurrection of the Roseland Spitfire” in the “stories” section of the Vintage Wings website.)

Moving beyond individuals, the talk turned to Canada's crucial contribution to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Why build airfields and training programs across Canada? Well, when World War II began in 1939 it was clear that more pilots and flight crews were desperately needed. Canada was the answer. Unlike embattled England, this country had the space, the resources and  still-peaceful skies, where a massive training program could be conducted.  

As mentioned in the announcement for November's meeting, in manpower and cost, the BCATP exceeded building the Canadian Pacific Railway. 105 airports were built in only 18 months - many of which are still in use today.

According to Veterans Affairs Canada:

"The BCATP was an outstanding success. By the end of the war, it had graduated 131,533 pilots, observers, flight engineers, and other aircrew for the air forces of Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. While over half the BCATP graduates came from the North American continent, the plan trained personnel from all over the world including about 2,000 French, 900 Czechoslovakians, 680 Norwegians, 450 Poles, and about the same number of Belgians and Dutch."