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Reeling back 100 years of the Royal Canadian Air Force

By Larry Milberry

Published on: March 29, 2024
Estimated reading time 18 minutes, 36 seconds.

As the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) marks its 100th anniversary, we look back at the last century, from the Silver Dart to the CF-18, and the First World War to modern peacekeeping missions.

As the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) marks its 100th anniversary today — April 1, 2024 — we take a look back at the last century, from the Silver Dart to the CF-18, and from the First World War to modern peacekeeping missions.

Text and photos are courtesy of Canadian aviation author Larry Milberry, who is also a long-time member of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, a Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame inductee, and an honorary Snowbird.  

The Silver Dart takes flight at Baddeck, N.S., on Feb. 23, 1909. This first-ever powered airplane flight in Canada is the benchmark for everything subsequently to do with Canadian aviation, including the eventual founding of the RCAF. (Robert Halford Collection)

When J.A.D. McCurdy flew the “Silver Dart” in 1909, few in Canada envisioned anything useful for airplanes other than amusement at country fairs. The Canadian military certainly had no aeronautical vision. But this instantly changed in 1914, when world war erupted and the airplane became game-changing technology. Even dawdling Ottawa showed some interest in 1914 by sending its nominal, one-plane “air force” to the UK. This was headed by one of the great confidence men of the day, E.L. Janney. What an embarrassment that became, but at least it got Canada into military aviation.

In 1914, this Burgess-Dunne “tailless” became Canada’s first military airplane. The Burgess-Dunne was an excellent airplane, while the 1914 “Canadian Aviation Corps” was a farse. (CANAV Books Collection)
As part of the Royal Flying Corps Canada, Camp Borden became the heart of Canada’s training contribution to the British aviation cause in 1917-18. In this view, JN-4 Canuck training planes are seen on the field. (CANAV Books Collection)
Most JN-4 “Canuck” training planes used at Camp Borden and elsewhere in the RFC Canada were manufactured in Toronto by Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd. Here, JN-4 components are being finished. With so many men overseas at the fighting fronts, women excelled at such industry jobs. (City of Toronto Archives)
A Toronto-built JN-4 buzzes the RFC Canada’s Armour Heights training base (1917-18) located at what today is the intersection of Hwy. 401 and Avenue Road in Toronto. Veterans of several such RFC Canada flight schools in Southern Ontario helped form and lead the RCAF from its beginnings in 1924. (CANAV Books Col.)
All across Southern Ontario in 1917-18, RFC Canada JN-4s became common sights in more ways than one. (via Bruce Clark)

The pace of the First World War drove aeronautical technology relentlessly. With ever more planes and aircrew needed, the U.K. chose distant, wide-open Canada as its aviation training ground. Training required airplanes, so in 1916/17 the U.K. also established a major aircraft factory in Toronto. In less than two years, this would turn out nearly 3,000 aircraft — from JN-4s to giant F-5L flying boats. Overseas, Canadians flew combat in all the aerial theatres and in all aircraft types. Hundreds gave their lives and many others were rewarded for their service — W.G. Barker, W.A. Bishop, and A.A. McLeod being Canada’s air recipients of the Victoria Cross.

Overseas, Canadians gained experience on every Allied aircraft type from tiny scouts to great, lumbering flying boats. Shown is a Royal Naval Air Service Sopwith Pup of the renowned “Naval 3” fighter squadron, which counted several Canadian aces. Notice the exotic flying gear. Each man dressed according to his experience and wardrobe. Scouts like the Pup often fought above 15,000 feet AGL, where temperatures of -30C were common. (Finlayson Collection)
Canadian pilots also flew the massive Handley Page O/400 bomber. Most O/400 missions were at night without a navigator. The pilot’s only assistant in getting to and from his target was a simple compass. Nonetheless, most missions succeeded, some being as long as eight hours in horrendous weather. (Imperial War Museum)
Important in the early years of Canada’s air force were the Felixstowe F.3 flying boats. Although valuable in forestry, the expensive-to-operate F.3 was phased out in 1923, as soon as the higher-performance, more economic HS-2L became available. Shown is Canadian Air Board F.3 G-CYDH. Until the RCAF formed in 1924, such Canadian government aircraft rarely carried military markings. (K.M. Collection)
(K.M. Collection)
The Canadian Air Force ensign being dedicated at Camp Borden on Nov. 30, 1921, as Avro 504s perform above. (DND)

By war’s end, more than 20,000 Canadians had served in the air war. Home from the front, a few veterans began laying the groundwork for post-war aviation, especially when the U.K. donated more than a hundred war surplus planes to Canada. In 1919, Ottawa established the Canadian Air Board, under which was the nascent Canadian Air Force, but the flying essentially was civil – aerial photography, forest surveying, patrolling the coasts on fisheries and smuggling duties, and providing refresher flying training to veteran pilots. CAF air stations were established from Vancouver to Shearwater, the heart of it all being the great First World War base at Camp Borden near Toronto. On Nov. 30, 1921, the CAF ensign, having been approved by King George V, was unveiled there. Then, on March 5, 1923, the King approved the CAF becoming the Royal Canadian Air Force. The RCAF officially came into being on April 1, 1924, with an establishment of 62 officers and 194 other ranks.  

All sorts of innovation took place in the early RCAF days, including converting the car of an Imperial Gift dirigible into the station ambulance at Camp Borden. (DND)

Through the 1920s-30s, the RCAF accomplished much with few aircraft and crews. Budgets were tight year by year, and the Great Depression weighed heavily on operations. Regardless, headway was made in mapping Canada from the air and landmark expeditions that were mounted, including the daunting Reindeer Lake Expedition covering 2,810 miles across northern Manitoba; it saw 1,700 photographs produced over a gruelling four weeks. The Viking flying boat, its four crewmen, and all-up load performed beautifully, averaging 64 mph along the way. Another expedition involved open-cockpit Fokker Universals — as well as 41 men (17 RCAF) — from July 1927 through November 1928, doing challenging environmental studies along 400 miles of barren Hudson Strait coastline. Such operations brought the RCAF widespread admiration and respect through these pioneer years.

With Ottawa remaining adamant about not having a “military” air force, the RCAF pushed on uncomplainingly, its aviators known as “Canada’s bush pilots in uniform.” This was rooted in how the Canadian public had had all the war it could take. “No more guns, no more bombs” was the outlook in the interwar years. Eventually, however, the RCAF lobbied for its first strictly military aircraft: a few Atlas Army co-operation two-seaters and Siskin fighters. In service in 1927, these already-obsolete types would endure into the early days of the Second World War.

RCAF Wapiti bombers on duty at Halifax early in WWII. It mainly was with such old crates that the RCAF went to war in 1939. (Library and Archives Canada)
Happily, the RCAF finally started receiving some modern aircraft by the eve of war. Included in 1939 were 10 new Hawker Hurricanes — some of which are shown with No.1 (Fighter) Squadron at RCAF Station Sea Island, Vancouver, early in 1939. On going overseas with No.1 in 1940, No.311 (foreground) suffered the indignity of being shot down by another Hurricane. (CANAV Books Collection)
Another new type for the RCAF as the world geared up for war in the mid-1930s was the Supermarine Stranraer flying boat. As part of a U.K. push to prepare Canada to build modern aircraft, Ottawa gave Canadian Vickers in Montreal contracts for the Stranraer, 40 of which were delivered from 1938 to 1941. These gave solid service on both coasts until replaced mid-war by Catalinas and Cansos.
Another sign of the RCAF modernizing was the Northrop Delta utility plane. The RCAF’s first all-metal airplane, the Delta served mainly in aerial photography, but was also a good utility plane. It even flew some East Coast armed patrols early in the war. Built in 1937-41, 20 Deltas served the RCAF, 17 of which were manufactured in Montreal by Canadian Vickers. When it disappeared over New Brunswick on Sept. 14, 1939, Delta 673 became the first RCAF plane lost fatally in WWII. (Al Martin)

As war drums again could be heard around the world by the mid-1930s, RCAF budgets finally began increasing. New types were ordered — from Fairchild, Delta, and Norseman utility planes to Wapiti bombers, Sharks, and Stranraers for coastal patrol, as well as 10 speedy new Hurricane fighters. When war broke out in September 1939, the RCAF was a solid organization ready for action and growth, despite still being very small. Total strength was 410 officers and 3,651 other ranks (reserves included), as well as 270 aircraft of 28 mainly-obsolete types.

RCAF Station Bagotville was one of more than 100 new airfields carved into the Canadian landscape from coast to coast to accommodate the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Note the standard BCATP triangular runway design, hangars, H-huts, and the handy gravel pit. (DND)
The de Havilland DH.82C Tiger Moth is synonymous with elementary pilot training in Canada in the BCATP. These are at No.20 Elementary Flying Training School, Oshawa, early in the war. De Havilland near Toronto delivered 1,384 DH.82Cs to the RCAF during the war. (DND)
The classic BCATP twin-engine type was the Avro Anson, which equipped bombing and gunnery, pilot training, navigation, and general reconnaissance schools across the country. More than 4,400 were in RCAF service. In this National Steel Car scene near Toronto, where Ansons were assembled on arrival from the U.K., No.7507 is in the foreground. Having joined the RCAF in December 1941, it survived much flying and abuse (at least five accidents) only to be scrapped soon after war’s end. (CANAV Books Collection)
The most productive and revered RCAF advance trainer of WWII was the North American Harvard; some 1,876 were of strength. No.2597 served from October 1940 to war’s end, surviving nearly 3,500 flying hours and six accidents to be scrapped. Harvard 3091 also survived the war but had a long RCAF post-war career until finally being issued to NATO partner Italy in 1957. (CANAV Books Collection)
The BCATP was famous for daily scenes such as this. Sadly, there also were many serious accidents that killed hundreds of students and instructors. Shown is RCAF Bolingbroke 9961 bombing and gunnery trainer after a “fender bender” at RCAF Station Jarvis in Southern Ontario. No.9961 survived the war with 929:30 flying hours, only to be sold for scrap. (Robert Finlayson Collection)
One of hundreds of funerals for BCATP staff and students, this for a young airman who had been training at 1 Bombing and Gunnery at Jarvis, Ont. (Rob Schweyer Collection)
A typical BCATP wings parade during WWII with the students in flights waiting to be inspected and presented their wings, and their family and friends proudly looking on. (CANAV Books Collection)

The first great challenge was Canada’s role in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), tasked to turn out thousands of air and ground crew trades. By mid-1941, the RCAF established more than 100 BCATP schools from coast to coast; by war’s end, it had graduated more than 130,000 air and 80,000 ground trades. Meanwhile, Canada’s aircraft industry almost overnight transitioned from making a few little “wood, wire, and fabric” planes to mass producing more than 16,000 trainers, fighters, and bombers by war’s end.

Canada’s aircraft industry quickly modernized and exploded as war drums started beating in Europe in the late 1930s. Britain enlisted its Dominions to supply aircraft and all sorts of other war materiel. Factories sprang up from coast to coast as these few photos show. Here is the Hawker Hurricane production line at Canadian Car and Foundry in Fort William (today’s Thunder Bay). (CANAV Books Collection)
Women on the job at CCF and the massive production line there turning out Curtiss Helldivers for the U.S. Navy. (CANAV Books Collection)
De Havilland Aircraft Company Limited near Toronto produced everything from Tiger Moths to Ansons and Mosquitos through the war. Here is a view of the Mosquito line, which eventually turned out 1,133 examples. Total production for Canada’s industry in WWII was more than 16,000 aircraft. (CANAV Books Collection)

While the RCAF excelled on the home front with the BCATP — fighting the U-boat war on the East Coast, and protecting the West Coast from the 49th parallel to the distant Aleutian Islands from Japanese threats — it also fought far and wide from Great Britain to the Mediterranean, and North Africa to the Far East. In the U.K., RCAF No.6 Bomber Group proved indispensable to Bomber Command in bringing Nazi Germany to its knees. In every category, RCAF members showed unequalled determination, skill, and bravery. Most notable were Victoria Cross recipients David Hornell for sinking a U-boat, then striving to save his crew when their Canso was shot down; and, Andrew Mynarski, who died assisting a trapped crewmate on their doomed Lancaster. With some 215,000 men and women in uniform late in the war, the RCAF had become the fourth largest Allied air force. Shockingly, some 17,000 RCAF members would give their lives, more than half in Bomber Command.

Thousands of miles away to the east, an RCAF Liberator 590 taxis out at Gander for an anti-U-boat patrol. (Andrew Thomas Collection)
Arrived in England in June 1940, No.1 was the first RCAF squadron overseas. It arrived soon enough to fight in the Battle of Britain. Here is No.1’s Hurricane YO-Y ready for action at Digby near London. (Kenneth H. Smith)
Early No.1 pilots in 1940: F/Os George Hyde and Bev Christmas; F/L Vaughan Corbett; F/O E. W. Beardmore; F/O Robert L. Edwards; and F/L E.M. “Ed” Reyno. Hyde and Corbett died in needless accidents. Shot down in the Battle of Britain by a Do.17 bomber, Edwards was the first RCAF pilot to die in combat. (CANAV Books Collection)
RCAF bomber crews faced many horrors on operations. Always in extra danger was the rear gunner on any bomber. In this case, 405 “Vancouver” Squadron Lancaster ME315 was attacked over Germany on April 10, 1945, by an Me.163 Komet rocket fighter. Rear gunner F/L M.L. Mellstrom was blown from his turret and ME315 gravely damaged. By superb airmanship, the skipper and crew got back to base. (Andrew Thomas Collection)
In RAF Bomber Command, Canadians crewed on such types as the Wellington, Halifax, and Lancaster. Shown is Lancaster KB700 of 405 “Vancouver” Squadron. The first of 430 Canadian-built Lancasters, KB700 completed an astounding 49 combat operations and only met its end in a freak accident. Of the 7,377 Lancasters delivered during the war, 3,249 were lost in combat. (DND)
Wherever the versatile de Havilland Mosquito fought, Canadians were there — whether on bombing, fighter, or photo reconnaissance duties. Shown are 105 Squadron “Mossies.” One RCAF pilot with 105 was S/L Lloyd F. Austin of Toronto. Born in 1911, he enlisted in October 1940. He flew his first tour on Wellingtons beginning in October 1941. Converting to the Mosquito, he flew his second tour with 105, finishing in October 1944. Austin was described by a superior as having “unfailing reliability and skill … tenacity and courage.” By war’s end, he twice had received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ironically, he died in a traffic accident soon after the war. (RAF)
Canadians also fought in the U-boat war and on many other maritime duties. Hundreds flew on the amphibious Canso from the Canadian homefront, through the North Atlantic, across the Mediterranean, and in the Far East. Shown is Canso 9754 “Mary K,” in which F/L David Hornell and crew sank U-1225 off Iceland in June 1944. (DND)
Young Canadians in the wartime RCAF tended to exceed expectations, as did farm boy James Francis “Stocky” Edwards of Battleford, Sask. “Joining up” at age 19 in October 1940, he trained through the BCATP, fought in North Africa on P-40 Kittyhawks, then finished flying Spitfires throughout Europe. By war’s end, he was a 24-year-old wing commander. As did so many others, Edwards would serve post-war, rising to command three squadrons of RCAF Sabres in NATO. He supported RCAF heritage through his retirement and wrote his best-selling autobiography, Kittyhawk Pilot. Stocky Edwards died in 2022, a few days short of age 101. (DND)
At war’s end, the RCAF had thousands of surplus airplanes on its hands, but needed only a few for immediate post-war use. Across Canada, thousands of these were quickly scrapped, burned, or buried. Others were sold cheaply for private or commercial use. Farmers were interested in buying one or two such planes for $25 or $50 for the wiring, tubing, tires, and other bits and pieces. These Ansons and the Bolingbroke were on Harry Whereatt’s farm in Assiniboia, Sask., in 1974. Happily, many of these “barnyard bombers” were saved for historic restoration. Harry’s Bolingbroke (RCAF 9987) has been restored by the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alta. (Larry Milberry)
Even as it was demobilizing, the RCAF was heading into its future. In August 1945, it already had its first two fighters, Gloster Meteors EE311 and EE361, then added its first de Havilland Vampire jet TG372. Shown is EE311, flown by RCAF pilot F/L Bill McKenzie. On June 29, 1946, he had to ditch EE311 in a Northern Ontario lake (Canada’s first jet crash). McKenzie was rescued after a 27-day ordeal in the bush. Of Canada’s first three jets, TG372 survived as a restoration project in the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa. (DND)
By war’s end the RCAF had its first few jet pilots. Shown in Ottawa are Meteor pilots W/C E.L. “Shan” Baudoux; F/L Bill McKenzie; and F/L Jack Ritch. McKenzie and Ritch had flown Meteors in combat, and each had a V-1 “Doodlebug” cruise missile to his credit. (DND)
With squadrons of de Havilland Vampire, Canadair Sabre, and Avro CF-100 jet fighters, by 1955 the RCAF was one of the West’s most modern and potent air forces. Shown are Vampires of Toronto-based 411 Squadron. (DND)
Post-war RCAF Air Transport Command gained fame at home and around the world, including during the Korean War airlift, when they completed 599 trips to and from South Korean with personnel, mail, and supplies. On many return flights, they carried casualties home for medical care. Even though the RCAF had only about 15 North Stars on the go on any given day, the USAF was convinced there must have been a hundred, so frequently were they seen on the global routes. North Star 17506 is seen at Gibraltar while on United Nations duty. (DND)
Air Transport Command in the 1950s included everything else from the Norseman and Expeditor to the Dakota and C-119 Flying Boxcar. The C-119 was the RCAF’s main Arctic workhorse used especially to resupply such remote Artic Cold War outposts as Alert. It also supported the Canadian Army and United Nations far and wide. No.436 Squadron C-119 22104 is seen landing at RCAF Station Downsview on Feb. 6, 1960. The C-119 served the RCAF from 1952 to 1967, when the last were replaced by C-130s. (Larry Milberry)
For its time, the CF-100 was the best all-weather interceptor in any air force, even though little time passed before something better was in the limelight. Even while the CF-100 was NORAD’s best interceptor in the late 1950s, the superb USAF Mach 2 F-106 was coming into service. Shown are CF-100 Mk.4Bs of 428 “Ghost” Squadron based in Ottawa. (DND)
416 Squadron pilots and navigators turned out at St. Hubert in 1957 for the mandatory “class photo.” Most aircrew were young fellows in their 20s on five-year contracts, while the CO and flight commanders in this era usually still were wartime veterans. In this case, front and centre (7th from the left) is the CO, W/C W.L. “Smokey” Drake (1919-1989) who had flown night fighter Mosquitos during the war. (DND)
Beginning in the early 1950s, Avro Canada began designing a replacement for the CF-100. What resulted was the spectacular CF-105 Arrow, shown taking off on its first flight at Toronto’s Malton airport on March 25, 1958. Development delays and huge budget overruns led to the Arrow’s demise less than a year later. (Avro Canada)
Putting the RCAF on the front pages everywhere in 1959 was the RCAF Golden Hawks. Flying the beloved F-86 Sabre, “The Hawks” were formed to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Flight in Canada – 50 years since the flimsy little “Silver Dart” first flew at Baddeck, N.S. (DND)

At war’s end in 1945, the RCAF shrank overnight — as much as had happened in 1918. Squadrons disbanded and thousands of aircraft went for scrap. The RCAF was down “to the bare bones” by 1947, just as new world crises began emerging and the “Cold War” was declared. NATO formed in 1949 to counter the USSR. The RCAF shone with its North Star transports through the Korean War (1950-53). At Avro Canada, CF-100 fighters began rolling off the lines, while Canadair delivered Sabres and T-33s. From 1954, RCAF Sabre and CF-100 squadrons moved to the U.K., France, and Germany to bolster NATO. In 1957, Canada and the U.S. formed NORAD to meet the continental threat of Soviet bombers. The RCAF contributed 14 NORAD CF-100 squadrons over the decades. Meanwhile, Canada began building a reputation in United Nations peacekeeping beginning with the 1956 Suez crisis, then in such hotspots as Belgian Congo and Cyprus. These all depended heavily on RCAF Air Transport Command with its North Stars, C-119s, Yukons and, eventually, 707s.

The backbone of the RCAF’s NATO air training plane of the 1950s-60s comprised the Chipmunk, Harvard, and T-33. Here is the T-33 production line at Canadair in Montreal in the 1950s. The RCAF eventually had 687 T-33s. (Canadair)
One of the astounding 1950s-60s RCAF T-33 mass formations flown for a special occasion. (DND)
T-33s on the flightline at CFB Comox in 1987. The T-33 did not leave Canada’s air force until 2005 following a 54-year career. (Larry Milberry)

Through the Cold War, the RCAF was in its peacetime “glory years” with such other trademarks as its NATO aircrew training system, dozens of fighter squadrons, world-wide transport operations, and the most advanced anti-submarine aircraft, the Argus. By 1960, it totalled some 50,000 members. Other highlights included celebrating Canada’s 50th year since the Silver Dart first flew — with the Golden Hawks flight demonstration team on one hand, and the downfall of the Avro Arrow on the other.

The 1960s saw Canada’s aircraft industry booming, largely due to Canadian military contracts. In one case, the Canadair CL-41 Tutor entered the scene (190 purchased) to replace the Harvard and supplement the T-33. (DND)
In 1971, the CT-114 Tutor was adopted by Canada’s Snowbirds flight demonstration team (431 Air Demonstration Squadron). The Snowbirds would continue flying their Tutors 50+ years later in the RCAF’s centennial year (2024). (DND)
Still needing a CF-100 replacement, in 1961 the RCAF acquired 66 CF-101 Voodoos from the USAF along with two squadrons of long-range Bomarc missiles. For many years, these successfully fulfilled Canada’s NORAD responsibilities. Shown at CFB Bagotville in 1980 are 425 and 410 squadron Voodoos. The Voodoo endured in Canada into the mid-1980s. (Larry Milberry)
Acquired the same time as the Voodoo, Canada’s CF-104 Starfighter’s chief role was NATO reconnaissance and nuclear strike. CF-104 12797 is seen in formation with a CF-100 and F-86, the long-serving RCAF NATO types that it replaced. (DND)
A new CF-104 is shown taxiing after a test flight at Canadair at Cartierville near Montreal. (Canadair)
A CF-104 and CF-5 from Cold Lake fly formation from Cold Lake in the early 1970s with warbird aficionado Ormond Haydon Baillie in his beautifully restored Hawker Sea Fury. On May 27, 1974, this CF-104 ingested a bird while over the Cold Lake weapons range, obliging the pilot to eject. (DND)
As new types were delivered, the old “went out to pasture.” Seen ready for scrapping at CFS Mountain View, Ont., in 1965 is a former 432 Squadron CF-100 Mk.5. (William J. Wheeler)
In the early 1950s, Canadair began developing a long range, anti-submarine (ASW) aircraft to replace the RCAF’s Neptunes and Lancasters. Rolled out in 1956, the Argus soon was recognized as the world’s leading ASW aircraft. Shown is No.1 (20710) on dedication day at Cartierville in the spring of 1957. (Canadair)
No.20718 during its “full-out” Argus airshow at Trenton on July 1, 1961. The Argus fleet served reliably into 1981 when it was replaced by the Lockheed CP-140 Aurora. (Larry Milberry)
“Queens of the Sky” to junkyard scrap. Several Argus aircraft (engines removed) at CFB Summerside in the days before being scrapped in March 1982. Happily, several Argus live on in museums across Canada. (CANAV Books Collection)

To stay current, the RCAF added new aircraft types — each of which gave decades of service. In fighters alone came the CF-101, CF-104, and CF-5, replacing the Sabre and CF-100. Other new fleets included the Tutor, Buffalo, Hercules, and Yukon. Meanwhile, in 1965 Ottawa began the process of integrating its three forces. Never popular, integration became reality in 1968, with every soldier, sailor, and aviator wearing the same much-disliked dark green uniform. Integration begrudgingly was accepted even though each element soon began slyly reclaiming its traditions and heritage, the first sign being the quiet re-appearance of distinct badges and emblems.

Four Lockheed C-130B Hercules were acquired in 1960. In 1965 they were traded back to Lockheed for a fleet of E-models. Since then, the “Herc” has been Canada’s air transport workhorse. Today’s fleet comprises 17 2010 C-130Js backed up by a few legacy H-models. Shown is 435 Squadron C-130B 10304 in a Saskatchewan field on April 15, 1966, following a near-disastrous incident, when its side cargo door blew out in flight. The crew combined the best of their aviating skills to save the day. No.10304 was salvaged and flew again.
C-130B 10301 doing one of its many specialized tasks: off-loading CF-104 12836 after the trans-Atlantic flight from Canadair at Cartierville/Montreal to 422 Squadron at RCAF Station Baden-Soellingen, West Germany. Over the decades, many CF-104s were flown back and forth in C-130s for RCAF 1 Air Division and 1 Canadian Air Group until the CF-104 retired in 1986. (DND)
C-130E 130315 makes a jet assist takeoff (JATO) at CFB Edmonton on July 25, 1969. Four JATO bottle on each side could get the aircraft into the air in about 1,000 feet less than normal. (DND)
No.130330 at the 1974 Abbotsford Air Show doing another C-130 special “trick,” LAPES — low altitude parachute extraction system. A hefty Caterpillar tractor has just been yanked by three chutes from the cargo hold. After a deadly LAPES crash, the CAF shelved LAPES. (Larry Milberry)
The C-130 has been Canada’s global workhorse for 64 years. Here is 130326 in a typical Operation Preserve scene loading UN food relief for Ethiopia at Djibouti in November 1991. (Larry Milberry)
A Canadian Herc on a March 1993 stop at Belet Uen, Somalia, during UN “United Task Force” operations. Canada contributed 1,400 personnel to UNITAS including those at its “ALCE” (airlift control element) with three C-130s at Nairobi. Canada also had CH-135 Twin Huey tactical helicopters at Belet Uen and CH-124 Sea Kings aboard ship during UNITAS. (Larry Milberry)
Conditions are not always the most comfy when Canadian air elements deploy overseas. Flying the air force flag and 427 Squadron pennant, this was Canada’s barebones tactical helicopter HQ at Belet Uen during UNITAS in 1993. (Larry Milberry)
In the early 1990s, the CAF converted C-130Hs 130339 to 130442 for aerial tanking, the mod program being done in Edmonton by Northwest Industries. To 2024 these remained in service with 435 Squadron at Winnipeg, except for 130442, which was struck off strength following a 2012 fire. Shown is 130339 during refuelling trials with the CF-18 and CF-5. (DND)
A contemporary scene with a C-130J from 8 Wing Trenton landing on the weekly sustainment flight at CFS Alert, Canada’s intelligence-gathering and general research base at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. This is the world’s most northerly permanent human settlement. The C-130 is at home on any such basic gravel airstrip. (Larry Milberry)

In 1975, a new Canadian air force called Air Command arose, but by then the service had withered to 23,000 personnel. In fighter aircraft alone, RCAF inventory shrank from about 1,000 in 1960 to perhaps 200 in 1980, then those were replaced in the early 1980s by 138 CF-18s. In the same period, Canada’s 30+ Argus fleet was replaced in the early ’80s by 18 CP-140 Auroras. At each such step, fewer personnel were required. Meanwhile, training was becoming more sophisticated with the introduction of ever-more realistic flight simulators.

The coming of the Lockheed CP-140 Aurora (unique Canadian P-3 derivative) put Canada’s ASW/maritime patrol capabilities back at the top among Western Allies. Aurora 140106 served the CAF from 1980. It’s seen at Greenwood on Jan. 15, 1987, in its original CAF colour scheme with the CFB Greenwood emblem on the tail. (Larry Milberry)
A Greenwood-based Aurora does a low recce over the ferry Princess of Acadia heading across the Bay of Fundy from Saint John, N.B., to Digby, N.S., on Oct. 2, 1987. This exercise simulated thousands of ship recce operations conducted by the Aurora fleet since 1980. (Larry Milberry)
Aurora 140107 on the ramp at Greenwood during Ex. Fincastle 87. Its competition here were an RNZAF 5 Squadron P-3C, RAAF 11 Squadron P-3C, and RAF 201 Squadron Nimrod. (Larry Milberry)

Ottawa continued to squeeze annual budgets to the detriment of national defence. More fleets were phased out; missions (such as Arctic patrols) were slashed; Canada’s NATO air element folded; and recruiting withered. Year after year, austerity was the watchword in the corridors of political power. In one case, Canada’s revered NATO force of 12 nuclear- and reconnaissance-capable CF-104s shrank to a token three conventionally-armed squadrons. In another, when Canada retired its fleet of versatile Tracker maritime patrol planes, their duties largely were contracted out to civil operators flying King Airs. The DND now became increasingly interested in contracting out duties formerly done by men and women in uniform — be that aircrew training or maintaining fleets. In further downsizing, Canada’s air reserve steadily faded. From prominence in the 1950s-60 with squadrons from Vancouver to Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, London, Hamilton, Toronto, and Montreal, by 1990 the air reserve was reduced to Kiowa squadrons at Toronto and Montreal.

Canada’s CF-18 Hornets have flown in combat many times since Gulf War I. Here, one of Canada’s “Desert Cats” Hornets (188769) armed with AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, prepares to depart on a CAP (combat air patrol) mission from Doha during Gulf War I on Jan. 14, 1991. (Larry Milberry)

Regardless of being beset by negative political influences, Canada’s Air Force continued performing miracles through the 1980s into the 2000s. It went to war in 1991 as part of a coalition to bring down the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. This involved Canada’s CF-18s, 707 tankers, Hercules, and Sea Kings. Subsequent CF-18 assignments involved supporting coalition forces fighting from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Kosovo, Syria, and Afghanistan — the latter being a 20-year involvement. On the humanitarian front, Canada’s Hercules, 707s, C-17s, Griffins, and Chinooks were (and remain) “on call” whenever asked to bring aid to earthquake or hurricane-smitten areas. The same has gone for United Nations operations since Suez and Cyprus days in the 1950s — prominent cases in more recent times including aid in the early 1990s in Ethiopia and Somalia; Rwanda; the former USSR; and into the 2000s in Haiti and Mali. One of the most enduring operations has been the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) peacekeeping role in the Israel-Egypt Sinai desert — ongoing since 1981.

Often over the decades, Canada’s Navy supported UN and other types of peacekeeping and blockade operations, where its Sea Kings and (present) Cyclones played/play eminent roles. Although Canada pulled its fighters out of NATO in 1993, in recent years it has taken part in significant NATO air exercises and operations; contributed aircrew to NATO’s E-3A early warning force; and provided CF-18s to patrol the borders of NATO members near Russia — especially since Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine began in 2014. At home, Canada’s CF-18s do good service in NORAD from Bagotville and Cold Lake, often being on exercise from Florida or California to Alaska, and even Baffin Island.

Today’s RCAF fleet in photos

Photo credits clockwise: Mike Reyno; Simon Blakesley; Sgt Ghislain Cotton; Heath Moffatt; and Galen Burrows

Photo credits clockwise: Derek Heyes; CAF; Stephen Fochuk; Aviation PhotoCrew; and Eric Dumigan

Photo credits clockwise: Mike Reyno; Patrick Cardinal; Galen Burrows; Mike Reyno; and Galen Burrows

Photo credits clockwise: Aviation PhotoCrew; KF Aero; DND; Patrick Cardinal; and Simon Blakesley

Photo credits L-R: DND; Cpl Darryl Hepner

Watch for the full feature in the 2024 edition of RCAF Today, celebrating the Air Force’s centennial.

Join the Conversation


  1. As a retired RCAF logistics officer I was more than pleased to read this article.

  2. An absolutely excellent history of the RCAF! Sincere congratulations to Mr. Milberry.

  3. What good memories this brought back. To see two of my Commanding Officers who are household names now. Stocky EDWARDS, from 430 Squadron in France and Richard ROHMER, from 400 Squadron in Toronto.

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