December 17th marks the 77th Anniversary of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), often referred to as simply “The Plan“, was a massive, joint military aircrew training program created by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, during the Second World War.
The BCATP remains as one of the single largest aviation training programs in history and was responsible for training nearly half the pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, air gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers who served with the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) during the war.
Under a parallel agreement, the Joint Air Training Scheme, South Africa trained 33,347 aircrew for the South African Air Force and other Allied air forces. This number was exceeded only by Canada, which trained 131,500 personnel.
Students from many other countries attended schools under these Plans: Argentina, Belgium, Ceylon, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, Fiji, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the United States, where the similar Civilian Pilot Training Program was already underway by the end of 1938.
Background ~ At the outset of hostilities it was recognized that the United Kingdom was clearly an unsuitable location for air training. This included the possibility of enemy attack, the strain caused by wartime traffic at busy airfields, the small size of the UK, availability of ranges and other training infrastructure, and the unpredictable climate. Furthermore, the scope and scale of the effort was completely beyond the UK`s capacity. Therefore, the Plan called for the facilities in the Dominions to train British and each other’s aircrews.
Training aircrew in Canada was not unfamiliar terrain. During WW1 dozens of private flight training establishments were created in Canada, the largest being the Curtis Flying School in Toronto, where 400 flight minutes of instruction cost $400. Despite the cost ($6000 in today`s dollars) there was a long waiting list. In 1917 the RFC set up six training fields in Ontario and actively recruited Canadians. Their JN-4 “Jenny” trainers were built in Toronto.
Negotiations regarding joint training, between the four governments concerned, took place in Ottawa during the first few months of the war. On 17 December 1939, they signed the Air Training Agreement – often referred to as the “Riverdale Agreement”, after the UK representative at the negotiations, Lord Riverdale.
The BCATP was an incredibly ambitious programme. The 1939 agreement stated that the training was to be similar to that of the RAF: three initial training schools, thirteen elementary flying training schools, sixteen service flying training schools, ten air observer schools, ten bombing and gunnery schools, two air navigation schools and four wireless schools were to be created.
On 29 April 1940, the first Canadian training course officially commenced, with 221 recruits, at No. 1 Initial Training School RCAF, located initially at the Eglinton Hunt Club, Toronto. From this intake, 39 received their wings as aircrew on 30 September 1940. All of these graduates, however, were retained by the BCATP in Canada, as instructors, staff pilots or in similar flying assignments. The first BCATP personnel sent to the UK were 37 Canadian observers, who received their wings at RCAF Trenton, near Trenton, Ontario, on 27 October 1940. The first BCATP-trained pilots posted to Europe as a group were 37 RAAF personnel who graduated in November 1941, from No. 2 Service Flying Training School, RCAF Uplands, Ottawa.
Canada was chosen as the primary location for “The Plan” because of its ideal weather, wide open spaces suitable for flight and navigation training as well as gunnery and bombing ranges, ample supplies of fuel, industrial facilities for the production of trainer aircraft, parts and supplies, the lack of any threat from either the Luftwaffe or Japanese fighter aircraft and its relative proximity to both the European and Pacific theatres.
The Canadian government agreed in December 1939 to join the BCATP, operate its bases in Canada, and pick up a large proportion of the costs.
At its height of the BCATP, 131,533 Allied pilots and aircrew were trained in Canada, 72,835 of which were Canadian. At the Plan’s high point in late 1943, an organisation of over 100,000 administrative personnel operated 107 schools and 184 other supporting units at 231 locations all across Canada.
In late 1944, the Air Ministry announced the winding-up of the Plan, since the Commonwealth air forces now had a surplus of air crews. At the conclusion of the war, over 167,000 students, including over 50,000 pilots, had trained in Canada under the program from May 1940 to March 1945. While the majority of those who successfully completed the program went on to serve in the RAF, over half (72,835) of the 131,553 graduates were Canadians.
The BCATP illustrated that the Commonwealth still had some military meaning during WW2 and it was one of Canada’s major contributions to the war effort. The BCATP was an impressive and uniting national achievement. Canada became one of the great air training centres contributing more than 130,000 trained aircrew to the cause.
Post War Legacy ~ Wrought iron gates were chosen by the UK, New Zealand and Australia to commemorate Canada’s contribution to the Plan, and were placed to overlook the parade square at CFB Trenton. Presented in 1949 and dedicated by Princess Elizabeth in 1951, the Memorial Gates represent the “gates of freedom”, which the BCATP graduates defended. The crests of the four BCATP countries are displayed on the gates.
As Canada was the main participant, the legacy of the Plan here included a strong postwar aviation sector and many new or improved airports across the country, the majority of which are still in use. The classic BCATP airport consisted of three runways, each typically 2,500 ft (760 m) in length, arranged in a triangle so that aircraft could always land (more-or-less) into the wind – that was critically important at a time when most light training aircraft (such as the North American Harvard) were taildraggers, which are difficult to land in strong cross-winds.
That triangular runway outline is perfectly preserved at many small airports and is still easily visible under later runway extensions at most Canadian BCATP airports, including Pat Bay and Comox. Later modifications have often resulted in one runway being lengthened to handle larger aircraft such as jets, and in less-used runways being closed or converted to taxiways. Again, as in Comox.
The BCATP provided an enormous and continuing economic boost, particularly in the Western provinces that were still recovering from the decade long depression.
It was a unifying element: young men from all over Canada were thrust together. far from home, and united in a common cause. They wore Canada on their sleeves: that was all that needed saying.
Canada’s reputation was enhanced as the foreign students left with a view of Canadians as hospitable caring people, that took them in and made them welcome.
In 1959, Queen Elizabeth II unveiled The Ottawa Memorial, a monument erected to “(commemorate) by name, some 800 men and women who lost their lives while serving or training with the Air Forces of the Commonwealth in Canada, the West Indies and the United States and who have no known grave.”
The BCATP may also be regarded as the precursor of post-war international air training schemes in Canada, many of them involving personnel from other NATO powers. These include the NATO Air Training Plan (1950–1957) that graduated 4,600 pilots and navigators from 10 countries. Later bilateral arrangements with individual NATO powers (1959–1983), the Military Training Assistance Plan, which has trained aircrews from developing countries since 1964 and NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC), since 1998, a partnership of the Canadian Forces, Bombardier Aerospace Corporation and participating air forces.
“It All Happened in Ottawa” ~ In The Plan, Memories of the BCATP, a former PR Officer, RCAF, recalls, “Air Force Headquarters had small teams of experts. Many of them were civilians, because they knew how to deal with industry. Every morning, I’d pass a couple of these fellows sitting in a little office about the size of a chair, and they didn’t seem to be doing much but looking out the window, but they had charts and things out on the table. When I got to know them I asked about this, and they said they were thinking, ‘What is the next thing we’re going to need and how many? And where are we going to get them?'”
Special thanks to Jon Ambler, our Program Manager and Volunteer Coordinator, for providing the text for this post!
To learn more about the Organization and Facilities ~ How It All Worked, be sure to read our next post. In addition, you could have a look at these books: