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Interview with George Wakeman: Royal Flying Corps
Transcript Excerpt, 17 minutes, 38 seconds
Q. That's very interesting. Now, here you are, instead of riding a horse and becoming a cavalry man, you're becoming a chauffeur and driving a Buick. You found this advertisement in Red Book magazine. How come, wasn't it a problem to shift around from one thing to another in those days?
A. No, it wasn't. In the Mounted Police you enlist for a period of time, you see, and at that time if you were to transfer to a regiment for overseas service there was no question of your being released from the Mounted Police and, in fact, I'm not so sure that my enlistment was either one or three years, I've just forgotten, but there was not trouble to it at all. I simply made application to the Winnipeg Recruiting Office of the RFC and was sent to Calgary for a medical inspection and, when I reported that, of course, to the Commanding Officer at Lethbridge, there was no trouble in transferring.
Q. So here you have suddenly become a flying man. What was the first thing that happened there, did you have training in Canada?
A. Yes. I came down to Toronto In November of 1917 after I was discharged from the Northwest Mounted Police and went through the usual School of Aeronautics course at Toronto University.
Q. What sort of a course?
A. Well, it was a short course of about two months, School of Aeronautics, military aeronautics.
Q. I see. At U.of T.
A. At U.of T, yes. That had been going in full swing for probably six months before I came down.
Q. This would be an academic course?
A. Yes. It was an academic course on the basic subjects of aeronautics, that is, dealing with aeroplanes and the engines and also wireless telegraphy. They taught you Morse and they gave you a certain amount of theory of flight and subjects of that nature.
Q. Now, there you are beginning to be involved technically. What about planes, about aeroplanes?
A. Well, they had an aeroplane strip for the instruction on rigging in Hart House at that time.
Q. In Hart House, eh? Where is it, in the big gym?
A. I would think so. I remember it was quite a large auditorium type of room anyway.
Q. And so you used that as an example.
A. That was an example used purposely to probably give you an explanation of the points of theory of flight on wing sections and, at the same time, to get you acquainted with the rigging and the components of the aeroplane generally.
Q. At this time I suppose - do you remember what kind of plane it was?
A. Yes, it was a Curtis JN-4.
Q. This was a common plane at the period?
A. Well, it was about the most popular training plane in Canada. There might have been some others but, at that stage, there were not very many aeroplanes built here in America. Now, this was designed by Curtis, Plane Curtis, as a matter of fact. They had engineers in the States, in New York, but it was manufactured by the Canadian Aeriation Limited here in Canada.
Q. Was it a plane that had fuselage or was it an open box type?
A. No, a fuselage, two-seater, tractor engine.
Q. A tractor engine eh? Not a pusher?
A. Not a pusher, no.
Q. What sort of a control panel did it have? Do you remember the instrumentation?
A. The basic instruments, altimeter, verispeed, magnetic compass, oil gauge, fuel pressure gauge and, in some, I remember them putting in a small spirit level bubble that would try to indicate whether you were fore and aft level, you see, but it might have been a very elementary approach to instruments for instrument flying but, otherwise, there were just these - about half a dozen - you weren't cluttered up with instruments. It was very simple.
Q. So now you have been interested in the theory of flying and learned, I would think, quite a bit to stand you in good stead. What was the next stage in the training?
A. Well, about the end of December a draft of about, probably a hundred or more cadets who had completed the ground course at the University went down by train to Fort Worth, Texas, posted to Texas, and, on arrival in Fort Worth, they very quickly disbursed to the two training camps, one at Benbrook and one at Evamund, for practical flying training.
Q. Why do you think they went to the States, for any special reason?
A. For the purpose of obtaining a good climate and the fact that they would get in more flying hours. Therefore, they would train more pilots in a given space of time.
Q. This was a British unit though, was it sir?
A. The British Royal Flying Corps was really an Imperial unit so to speak.
Q. They must, I suppose, have rented buildings or something?
A. Prior to our arrival in Texas, I think early in the winter of '16, the spring of '17, the British Government, or rather, let's say the Royal Flying Corps represented the British Government, they had come to an agreement for the Royal Flying Corps to take over what the Americans called the Tally O'Farrel Fields at Fort Worth. There were three airdromes involved, Benbrook, Evinmund and Hick Fields. The Americans had built these very quickly in about six months and they were very large airdromes at the time. I would think there were possibly fifteen hangars on each field and probably the property area would be something like three hundred acres. Here was a complete camp set up with water system, electric power and sewage, in other words sanitation facilities. The RFC took those camps over and, in return for that, I believe they had an understanding that they would train a certain number of American or rather United States Army and Naval cadets which they did because some of the first cadets that I took up when I started instructing at the School of Aerial Gunnery were U.S. Naval Cadets, probably the first dozen. They hadn't quite got themselves started on the practical training side, you see. Probably short of aeroplanes for one thing although they were building them very fast. Before we left Texas, before we left Hicks Field in April of the latter part of March in 1918, the Americans were training their own people in aerial gunnery.
Q. Tell me, we last caught you when you were arriving in Texas with a draft of a hundred men. Can you tell us a little bit of what happened? Here you are, a hundred fresh Canadians sent down to learn how to fly. How did it begin, what did they do when you first arrived?
A. The camp itself was well-organized, let's put it that way.
Q. Had there been many more?
A. Oh, yes.
Q. It had been operating what, six months or a year?
A.I think probably two or three months anyway of actual practical training.
Q. Two or three months?
A. Yes, because I think they went down in October of 1917, September or October, sometime then.
Q. Now this was only December so this hadn't been going very long.
A. Not long, no. Well, the first thing they did, of course, was to get you quarters and we were quartered in tents, regular tents.
Q. Bell tents?
A. Well, they were khaki.
Q. Would they be round?
A. Round, yes, round bell tents.
Q. About how many to a tent, do you think?
Q. Four. Well, that's really gentlemen's treatment. I remember there were twenty to a tent. Four to a tent, that's really something.
A. We were there for possibly several days, probably a week and then we were given our first flight, you see, and my first flight I remember quite well. It lasted for about probably ten minutes and my impressions were the clarity of all the objects on the earth. Normally you might say that you'd stand on the side a mountain and look down and you'd say, "Well, things look quite clear" but it was a different perspective of things and besides you were moving at the same time and the buoyancy of flight was very noticeable the first time you've ever been off the ground so to speak.
Q. Were these planes that you were training in a dual control?
A. Yes, they were dual control.
Q. So that you'd sit one ahead of the other.
A. That's right.
Q. Did he stand behind you?
A. The instructor was in the back seat. There was a purpose for that. They thought the instructor was a more valuable person than the cadet. Now, this is not to put values on two different humans, you see, but the point was, from the war point of view, if the cadet was killed the experience of an instructor was not lost, you see. Now, this is the story as we understood it as to why they put the instructor in the back seat. The front seat, of course, was more vulnerable in case of an accident. You were sitting closer to the engine for one thing and, if you crashed, you might say, more often than not, the man in the front seat would be hurt or possibly killed but the man in the back seat might not be so badly hurt and quite often wasn't killed when the man in the front seat would be.
Q. In this short, very short indeed, ten minute flight, were you allowed to take the controls?
A. No, that was just to give you the feel of the air so to speak.
Q. This wonderful buoyancy.
A. Yes, that's right.
Q. And I suppose this was very exhilarating?
A. It was exhilarating and, at the same time, as far as I was concerned, I seemed to have lots of confidence. There wasn't anything too unnatural about it although it was something you hadn't experienced before.
Q. Did you ever find yourself tense in the air or were you generally pretty relaxed?
A. Are you speaking now of the training period?
A. Well, to be quite honest, I think, yes, the first time they put me in a spin, in that particular condition, you were not a level flight, your nose is down vertically, so to speak, and the machine is truing and the first reactions I got on the spin, you were looking down inside of that bowl and the bottom of the bowl was coming up towards you. Now, obviously you're tense, I don't know how a person could explain it any other way. You know that everything is quite all right, you're in the hands of a good instructor, I mean that's, what would you say, drilled in your mind but, just the same, you sort of feel the relief a bit when he comes out of it. Later on though, as you spin yourself, and you become competent in any manoeuvre or any position in the air, you don't get that same sensation so I wouldn't say that you're always tense; in fact you're relaxed so much that you can bring your machine out in any particular direction you want.
Q. You have control.
A. You have control, yes.
Q. You may be excited or tense or aware but you have control.
A. That's right. I don't remember any other times actually being tense. A whip stall will give you a very uncomfortable feeling. That's why they pull it up straight and just let it just almost stop dead and then pivot down and, if you're in the front seat, of course you're sitting right on the middle of that axis and you just come down with a whip. It sort of lifts your tummy a little bit. I'm thinking now of cadet days when you're first just starting to fly.
Q. None of this happened, of course, on the first -
A. No, not on the first flight. It was just a simple nice little ride around to give you a chance to look at things, not to frighten you, you see.
Q. I suppose that after you get that over you'd be very keen to get up again. How long did you have to wait?
A. I wasn't very long, only a few days till I got my first dual flight.
Q. During this waiting period, were you taking classes?
A. Yes, you would be - for instance, if it was a wet day or a day with extreme turbulency, the flying would be washed out. You'd go to wireless class and try to pick up your speed in the reception of wireless. You see, wireless was used for those pilots who were posted to squadrons that did artillery observation. I went to fighter squadron later on. It wasn't necessary. You were passed out of the school in Toronto at eight words a minute and I think, by the time you got through Texas, you could send at about fifteen and you could take eight quite well so it was a case of filling in time and being occupied and doing something.
Q. There was lots to do?
A. Yes, now there's one thing about the training in Texas. It was an intensive flying program. You had, on each of these airdromes I spoke of, four to five squadrons with eighteen machines each. You would have at least sixty machines in the air taking off or landing or in a circuit all the time, all day, so you had to keep your eye open all the time when you were actually up flying. Of course there were flying rules in relation to movement on the taxiing, landing. You had your circuit flags for right circuits when you take off or left circuits according to the wind. Wind socks would indicate your wind direction.
Q. These were hanging above the airport somewhere?
A. They were on the hangars.
Q. Yes, now after this first experience which was exhilarating and in which you really had no control of the plane at all, the second time must have been rather interesting. Were you allowed to fly at all the second time up?
A. Well, let me put it this way. In those days they had no inter-communication between the pilot, or rather I would say the instructor, and the pupil, such as in telephone. That was developed later on by a speaking tube but at this time they didn't have that and consequently you might say the instructor briefed you in what he was going to do. On your first flight he'd take you up and he'd fly level in order that you'd learn how to keep the plane laterally level and the Curtis with a 90-horsepower engine and two in the plane. It was, if anything, almost underpowered. It had no surplus power so you were required to keep the radiator cap about four inches above the horizon. That was what you might say you knew you were at a safe fore and aft position and you'd keep your plane laterally level. That would be your first lesson the first day. On subsequent flights he would discuss with you the effect of aerolons in banking and start you off on light banks, probably fifteen or twenty degrees, right and left turns, you see. From that he would develop instruction into the steeper turns till you got to what we called the ninety degree full time, right over.