'A pretty amazing feat': Centenary of first trans-Canada flight celebrated

·3 min read

This week marks 100 years since a group of aviators, many recently returned from serving in the First World War, made a daring first: crossing continental Canada — nearly 5,400 kilometres — by air.

The trip from Halifax to Vancouver, undertaken in segments using a series of planes at designated stops across the country, was originally supposed to take 48 hours, but the weather and aircraft troubles got in the way, explained John Orr, a retired colonel with the Canadian Armed Forces and a historian with the Shearwater Aviation Museum in Nova Scotia.

"The state of the art in those days was not quite as reliable as it turns out to be [today]," Orr said.

Aviators were using aircraft left over from the First World War, he said, which weren't exactly built for long range cross-country flying.

"As one of the pilots who flew these [put it]: 'Those planes were just wood and piano wire and that was it,'" Orr said.

The first leg of the journey, from Halifax to Saint John — via seaplane — almost ended in disaster.

"It had been very rough over the Bay of Fundy. And the engine cowling ripped off, sheared off an engine-driven fuel pump, covered the pilot in fuel. He did a forced landing in the Saint John River," he said.

CAVM Photograph Collection
CAVM Photograph Collection

Crews secured another aircraft, refueling in Fredericton, and eventually landing on the St. Lawrence River "in the midst of a howling gale."

"Even the next day when they took off, the waves were so high that they broke over the top of the wing of this aircraft that they were flying," Orr said.

The crews switched to land-planes, and the trip from Calgary into Vancouver was another major challenge, said Orr, not just because of the raging snowstorm, but the geography.

"We have to remember that in those days, you didn't fly over the mountains. You flew through the mountains," he said. "So they had to navigate that. And that was really, really challenging."

Eventually, on Oct. 21, 2020, with a last-minute extension to Esquimalt, B.C., crews completed their trans-continental journey.

CAVM Photograph Collection
CAVM Photograph Collection

The trip was the brainchild of the Canadian Air Board, a new organization formed after the First World War.

During the First World War, over 20,000 Canadians participated in the air war, but they did so as part of the British flying services, Orr said.

When the war ended and pilots started coming back, the government set up the Air Board to develop both civil and military aviation in the country.

This exploratory endeavour brought aviation to the forefront of public conversation, Orr said.

"[They] knew that they had to convince the Canadian public, and perhaps more importantly, the Canadian politicians, that aviation was the way to go and it would open up Canada, as in fact it did," he said.

"It was a pretty amazing feat."

Listen to the interview with John Orr on CBC's All Points West here: