Celebrating 100 years of aviation




Rah, Rah, RCAF!

Canadian flying fans and military buffs are celebrating a momentous birthday this year: the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) came into existence 100 years ago. The organization is marking a century of service to the people of Canada with celebrations throughout the country (including Comox, where an RCAF base was first established way back in 1942).

However, the first Canadians to fly in combat did so several years before the RCAF was formed, by serving in the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in World War I. Because Canada was still a dominion of Britain, we were automatically at war as soon as the mother country was—thousands of young Canadians immediately enlisted.

In January 1917, the British Royal Flying Corps launched its aviation training program, RFC Canada, in Ontario. Its graduates served in the RFC, and later Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF), which was formed in April 1918 by the amalgamation of the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service.

By the end of WWI, over 20,000 Canadians had served in an Allied flying force, and approximately 1,500 had died in the line of duty.

The Royal Canadian Air Force | Comox Valley Collective

Establishing a Canadian Air Force in 1924

During the demobilization of military forces between 1919 and 1924, Canada decided to establish a Canadian Air Force as part of the Air Board and Department of National Defence. King George V granted the Royal designation in 1923 and the Royal Canadian Air Force was officially established on April 1, 1924.

In December 1939, soon after the outbreak of World War II, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was launched, establishing Canada as the Commonwealth destination for military aviation training. This led to a great expansion of the RCAF, with flight schools and stations erected across the country, including Comox. The British first established the station here in 1942 and handed control to the Canadians a year later to train aircrew on transport aircraft.

Of the 131,000 Commonwealth air personnel trained in Canada during WWII, 73,000 were Canadians, showing the huge growth the RCAF underwent compared to its numbers in earlier days. The first three Canadian squadrons were sent to Britain in 1940, with No. 1 Squadron arriving in time to fight in the Battle of Britain.

During the war, Canadian aircrews served in numerous theatres. They hunted German U-boats in the Atlantic and helped push Japanese forces out of the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific. The RCAF reached its wartime peak of 215,000 personnel—including 17,000 members in the Women’s Division—near the end of 1944.

By the end of the Second World War, 18,000 Canadian aircrew members had been killed.

The Royal Canadian Air Force | Comox Valley Collective

Establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization

With rapid postwar demobilization, RCAF personnel numbers dropped to 12,000 by 1948, but with the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, they began to increase again. Canada was a founding member of NATO, and by the end of the next decade, as the Cold War intensified, the RCAF had 12 squadrons based in West Germany and France as part of its NATO commitment.

Meanwhile, the Comox station lay mothballed between 1946 and 1952, until mounting pressure from the Korean War led to its reactivation. Comox’s first Permanent Married Quarters, including an elementary school, were built in 1953. Progress continued in following years with the construction of numerous buildings, a new hangar, and the lengthening of the main runway to its current 10,000 feet.

This era is often referred to as the “Golden Age” due to big budgets and modern aircraft such as the Canadian-built Canadair Sabre Mk. 6 and Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck. Due to financial restraints, this era ended abruptly in the early 1960s with the cancellation of expensive projects, such as the Avro Arrow, and greater reliance on equipment from the United States.

The North American Aerospace Defence Command

In 1958, Canada and the United States had formed the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), with the joint mission of monitoring and patrolling the northern reaches of the continent against Soviet incursions. The RCAF (including the Comox base) were part of this mission from the beginning. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the United States closed its airspace to commercial traffic, hundreds of civilian aircraft, with thousands of passengers aboard, were redirected to Canadian airfields. Soon afterwards, the RCAF responded to 9/11 in concert with NORAD by increasing fighter patrols.

In 2002, the RCAF flew maritime and transport missions as part of counter-terrorism efforts in the Persian Gulf, and an RCAF wing formation was stationed in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, from 2008 to 2011. An all too common and sombre duty of the RCAF during this time was the repatriation of the bodies of fallen Canadian soldiers from Afghanistan to be laid to rest by their loved ones at home.

The 21st century has seen CFB Comox grow significantly beyond its humble beginnings as a small RAF station. Now home to five squadrons and the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue, the base is a community of its own. Due to the cyclical nature of military posting, service members flow in and out of the Comox Valley in a steady stream, and many choose to retire here. Each one brings diverse perspectives and life experiences, making our Island home all the more interesting.