Research by Clarence Simonsen
Text version with images.
RAF Relief Field, Airdrie, Alberta, 25 September 1942 until 10 March 1944
The most important American trainer aircraft to arrive in the 1930s flew with the name Texan, J-Bird, AT-6, while in Canada and England it was called the Harvard. It was safe, reliable, yet very powerful and challenging for young pilots transitioning from elementary flying school to front-line fighters of that period, earning the name “Pilot Maker.”
The founding of North American Aviation Inc. emerged in 1931 from several different aeronautical firms, constructing its first aircraft in 1933, when General Motors Corporation purchased twenty-nine percent of company shares. On 1 April 1935, a N.A.A. prototype aircraft NA-16 [charge number] flew for the first time and the U.S. Air Corps ordered 42 aircraft for trainers, under designation BT-9. As the aircraft was modified and more powerful engines emerged, the U.S. Army and Navy continued to purchase training models. In 1937, the model BT-9D [fixed landing gear] was manufactured with a Pratt & Whitney 450 h.p. R-985-25 engine and the U.S. Air Corps ordered 251 of the new trainers, which were designated BT-14s.
Two months later  the U.S. Army Air Corps ordered a new competition [Army Circular Proposal 37-220] for a Basic Combat trainer aircraft and North American Aviation entered the race. They added retractable landing gear to the NA-26 prototype aircraft, [NX1990] redesigned the wings, and the test performance [11 February 1938] was outstanding. The U.S. Air Corps ordered 180 of these new aircraft at once [charge number NA-36] designated BC-1 [Basic Combat].
This North American Aviation ad appeared in Aviation Weekly magazine for February 1939, [one full year after the original prototype was test flown] showing the original production line of 180 [NA-36] Basic Combat BC-1 aircraft for the U.S. Air Corps. During this production run, thirty-six trainers were equipped as dual instrument trainers and designated BC-1-I, [Instrument]. These aircraft features became the future trainer with retractable landing gear, R-1340 Pratt & Whitney engine and the long greenhouse canopy. NOTE – The first built BT-9D [charge number NA26] prototype registration NX18990, was purchased by Canada, [second hand] as the first BC-1 [Basic Combat] for flight testing, given RCAF serial #3345 on 23 July 1940. Crashed 22 March 1942, Kingman, Maine, USA, on flight to Scoudouc, New Brunswick.
Numerous BT-14 trainers [with fixed landing gear] were sold for overseas export to China, Sweden, Australia, Japan, Brazil, France and Great Britain. The British were impressed with their trainers [called Yale] but they wanted a more powerful advanced trainer and North American Aviation were very happy to oblige their request. The first Harvard Mk. I serial N7000 [NA-49], a Basic Combat version with special British equipment, came off the Inglewood, California, assembly line on 28 September 1938. [Jeff Ethell collection]
By 1940, the Harvard [AT-6] was firmly established as a priority military pilot trainer by several different countries. North American Plant and airport on 7 April 1941, collection from Fort Worth Star-Telegram, free domain. This is where the first RCAF Harvard Mk. I aircraft began their northern flight to RCAF Sea Island [Vancouver, B.C.] Canada, on 15 July 1939.
Harvard Mk. I, civil serial N7000, first flight 28 September 1938, ad published May 1939.
The new Harvard Mk. I found favor with the British representatives who were present at Inglewood, California, where North American pilot Louis Wait flew Harvard N7000. In October 1938, the British ordered 200 Harvard Mk. I aircraft and another 200 were ordered in January 1939, all were crated and shipped to England. After reviewing British test results, the Canadian Government ordered thirty Harvard Mk. Is [Charge number NA-61] which were flown in ferry groups of two or three to RCAF Sea Island [Vancouver] and on to RCAF Uplands, [Ottawa] Canada, beginning 15 July 1939. On 10 September 1939, Canada declared war on Germany and that caused a Harvard flight delivery problem. The U.S. Neutrality Act prohibited the flying of American military aircraft to any country at war.
This photo was taken by LIFE magazine on 19 November 1939, showing the first delivery of RCAF Harvard Mk. I serial #1338 which was flown to Sweetgrass, Montana, then pushed across the border into Coutts, Alberta. [published in LIFE 11 December 1939] N.A. Harvard Mk. I serial #1336, 1337, 1338, 1339, and 1340 were the first N.A.A. Harvard trainers pushed across the border on 19 November, and taken on strength by RCAF on 21 November 1939. More would follow, serial #1341 to 1350 were pushed across to Coutts, Alberta, on 26 November 39.
The two RCAF Ferry pilots seen on the right of this photo would be F/L Berven, F/L Peterson, F/L Waterhouse, F/O Martin or F/O Hodgson. The five Harvard trainers were accepted by the RCAF at the Alberta border ‘as is’ and then flown to RCAF Depot in Calgary for a close inspection. Next they were ferried East to RCAF Uplands, [Ottawa] ‘in bond’ for customs clearance and removing the U.S. National under wing markings.
Note – for all model builders, these RCAF Harvard Mk. I aircraft carried under wing U.S. National Insignia, Type 1, [introduced 1 January 1921] centre red disc on white star over blue outer roundel, as required by U.S. law. For ‘unknown’ reasons, the LIFE magazine original 4” by 5” negative was edited by painting out the U.S. National markings. North American Harvard Mk. I serial #1324, was taken on strength 3 August 1939, then flown to RCAF Test and Development Flight at Rockcliffe, Ontario, and flight tested by F/Lt. Truscott on 13 September 1939, as recorded in their Daily Diary. These first thirty Harvard’s were assigned to RCAF Trenton and RCAF Camp Borden, Ontario, seven would be destroyed in 1940-41 accidents.
Library and Archives of Canada MIKAN 3205786. RCAF Harvard Mk. I, serial #1335, the 15th and last flown to RCAF Sea Island, [Vancouver] then to Uplands, [Ottawa] 2 September 1939, before Canada declared war eight days later. Image taken at RCAF Trenton, Ontario, February 1940.
RCAF PL1191 image taken 23 August 1940, F/O W.V. Mudray and Sgt. R. Hammill, Harvard Mk. I, serial #1344. Flown to Sweetgrass, Montana, and pushed across the border to Coutts, Alberta, 26 November 1939, taken on strength RCAF 1 December 1939. Crashed 15 February 1941.
Harvard Mk. I serial #1321 to #1335 were all flown from Inglewood, California, to RCAF Sea Island [Vancouver, B.C.] then to RCAF Uplands [Ottawa]. Harvard Mk. I serial #1336 to #1350 were all flown to Sweetgrass, Montana, and pushed into Canada at Coutts, Alberta.
These first thirty RCAF Harvard Mk. Is were powered with a R-1340-S3H1 WASP engine with a fabric covered fuselage, but that was about to change.
In October/November 1938, North American were going through a fast progression of BC-1 trainers and many were being developed simultaneously by the company. Australia had obtained the rights to build the NA-32 and the NA-33 under license and the first Australia NA-33 [named Wirraway] flew on 27 March 1939. During this time, North American pressed ahead with a more powerful NA-33 which they designated NA-44, powered by a Wright R-1820-F52 Cyclone 775 h.p. engine, a three bladed propeller with an all metal fuselage.
This is the first built NA-44 [NX18981] which was used as the demonstrator for several potential customers, [mostly for Thailand, Brazil and Chile] in November 1939. This original NA-44 was purchased by Canada on 6 August 1940, delivered in bare metal finish RCAF #3344, at No. 2 SFTS at Uplands, Ottawa, Ontario. [Image Pete Bowers via Jeffery Ethell]
Became the personal trainer of the RCAF Officer in Charge of No. 1 Flying Instructors School at Trenton, painted in toned down yellow with blue trim wing tips, code “AA” as seen above. Note – still has three blade propeller on 20 February 1947. [Internet image, location unknown]
The three bladed prop had very little improvement on the powerful R-1340 engine, so it was removed and the new aircraft became the BC-1A [NA-55]. Twenty-nine were manufactured for the U.S. Army National Guard and another fifty-four for the Air Corps Reserve. The last nine aircraft would be built under a new “Advanced Trainer” number, AT-6, and the first flew on 6 February 1940. From this point on the AT-6-NA would remain basically unchanged for the rest of its production life, and the manufacture number AT-6 remained forever.
On 17 November 1939, the RAF ordered the first production [NA-66] of 508 Harvard Mk. II, which were identical to the AT-6-NA trainer, with serial numbers 2501 to 3013. A second production order [NA-75] produced 100 serials 3134 to 3233. A good number of these aircraft were pushed across the Canadian border at Emerson, Manitoba, and Coutts, Alberta. In June 1941, the U.S. State Department suspended the ridiculous process of pushing American aircraft across the Canadian border, and they were now flown directly to the RAF training bases in mostly Western Canada. A third production order [NA-76] of 259 Harvard Mk. II aircraft were given RAF serial numbers AJ538 [14 July 1941] to AJ986 [3 February 1942] constructed at Inglewood, California. The RAF serial numbers AJ538 to AJ757 were assigned to RAF No. 31 SFTS, Kingston, Ontario, RAF No. 32 SFTS Moose Jaw, Sask., and RAF No. 34 SFTS, Medicine Hat, Alberta.
RAF serial numbers AJ753 to AJ986 contained eighty-one Harvard aircraft assigned to No. 39 SFTS at Swift Current, Saskatchewan, flight delivery [plant to base] beginning 16 October 1941.
Peter Bowers from Jeff Ethell collection taken at N.A.A. Inglewood, California.
The company posed photo was taken at North American Aviation, Inglewood, California, around the end of January 1942. These are the last two Harvard Mk. II trainers [NA-76] constructed in batch of 259 serial AJ538 to AJ987. They were both being tested for the flight north to RAF No. 39 S.F.T.S. at Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Note – the U.S. National Insignia [Type 1] painted under wing as required by U.S. law, with mixed RAF British markings on upper wing and fuselage. Flown from North American Plant at Inglewood, California, to Swift Current Saskatchewan with these under wing markings, then painted with British roundel by RAF in Canada.
Harvard Mk. I serial AJ987 never made the trip, it was destroyed in a test flight at Inglewood, and was never taken on strength by the RAF. The background Harvard Mk. I serial AJ986, was the last Harvard Mk. II taken on charge by the RAF No. 39 SFTS at Swift Current, Sask., on 3 February 1942, minor “C-5” accident on 18 March 1942, then flew with the RCAF until 6 July 1955. Harvard AJ986 trained RAF pilots at No. 37 SFTS Relief Field, Airdrie, Alberta, from 1 October 1942 until March 1944, then transferred to RAF at No. 34 SFTS Medicine Hat, Alberta.
The first echelon of Royal Air Force No. 39 S.F.T.S. arrived at Swift Current, Saskatchewan, on 28 November 1941. On 6 December 1941, 34 RAF Flight Instructors, and 64 untrained pilot cadets stepped off the train in Canada. Course RAF No. 1 [Pilot Training] began with 73 British cadets on 15 December 1941. The RAF unit had 65 N.A.A. Harvard Mk. II trainers on strength, with more arriving each day. The peak Harvard strength would be reached in April 1942, with 105 Harvard trainers on charge. The following RCAF records show eighty-one Harvard Mk. II aircraft serial, date they were taken on charge and trainer remarks, crash, accident, etc., for No. 39 SFTS, Swift Current, Saskatchewan, 16 October 1941 to 3 February 1942.
The Royal Air Force “Thunderbirds of the Great White Chiefs” were now being moved from No. 39 SFTS Swift Current, Saskatchewan [#1 on map] to No. 37 SFTS Calgary, Alberta, [#2] and their main pilot training base will become the RAF Relief Field at Airdrie, Alberta.
The move of 100 RAF Harvard Mk. II trainers began on 24 September and was completed on 30 of the month. The Harvard’s departed Swift Current, Sask., flew West into the province of Alberta and refueled at RAF Station No. 34 Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Free domain from the internet. Taken by unknown RAF student pilot possibly from #56 Course.
This rare RAF color photo was believed to have been taken from a Harvard Mk. II [RAF pilot Course #56] on the transfer to No. 37 SFTS Calgary, Alberta, 24-30 September 1942. The airport seen in the bottom right [next to the South Saskatchewan River] is RAF No. 34 SFTS Medicine Hat, Alberta, the base fuel stops on the transfer flight. RAF pilot Course #56 began training on 25 May 1942, with 69 students, graduated 50 pilots on 11 September 1942, who were now assigned the ferry trip of 100 Harvard trainers from Swift Current to No. 37 SFTS at Calgary, Alberta. N.A. Harvard Mk. II serial AJ930 [training #39] was taken on strength by RAF at Swift Current, Sask., on 26 March 1942, transferred on 24-30 September 1942, and began training RAF pilots at No. 37 SFTS at Calgary at their main training Relief Field located at Airdrie, Alberta, 1 October 1942, until March 1944. This aircraft will be struck off strength by the RCAF on 4 December 1946.
The RAF No. 37 SFTS at Calgary, Alberta, Daily Diary records in detail the flight of a two-hundred and eight RAF aircraft in southern Alberta, from 25-30 September 1942. I’m sure the Alberta farmers wondered if the air war had arrived over Canada.
In June 1942, profound changes came to the BCATP when a new agreement was signed and the termination date was extended until March 1945. The RAF schools were now incorporated into the BCATP, with a few more training units added and existing training fields enlarged. RAF Relief Field, Airdrie, was enlarged and became a regular training base, with five new buildings [red] constructed for the increase of RAF and RCAF staff. The new RAF British pilot students were now joined by RCAF, Free French, Australian, New Zealand, Belgians, Dutch and Czechoslovakian trainees.
This RCAF issued map shows the Harvard training areas [marked by unknown pilot] at Airdrie.
The 100 Harvard trainers were stored, fueled, and maintained at home base Calgary, however their training base became RAF Airdrie and their new Relief Field became the RCAF grass field at Inverlake, Alberta. [west of Strathmore] The City of Calgary and the area around their home base became a restricted flying zone, requiring the Harvard trainers to fly north to Airdrie. The area north of Airdrie, from Crossfield east to Beiseker, [yellow] became the Harvard “Low Flying Training Area” which also contained the RAF Wood Lake No. 1 Bombing Range. Two Forced Landing areas [red] were located on the west and east of Nose Creek and their RAF training field Airdrie. A large area of farmland from Beiseker south to Carseland became the High Flying Area where high speed manoeuvers [dives and spins] were practised again and again until they were performed with pilot confidence. The Canadian Rocky Mountains were 55 air miles due West from Airdrie Field and the location for many student pilot photos.
Harvard Mk. II trainer #91 [left] was serial AJ835, taken on strength Swift Current on 16 October 1941, flew at Airdrie 1 October 42 until March 1944, then transferred to RAF No. 34 SFTS at Medicine Hat, Alberta. Flew total of 2734:05 hours training, off strength by RCAF on 21 October 1945. Harvard trainer #34 serial number is unknown. Internet from Dave M. Lambert collection in 1944.
RAF No. 37 S.F.T.S. Relief Training Field, Airdrie, Alberta, began training RAF fighter pilots on 1 October 1942, Course #62.
On 5 October 1942, student pilot LAC John C. Darling #1560163 [Course #62] walked into the rotating propeller of a Harvard Mk. II, killed instantly.
Burnsland Cemetery, Calgary, Alberta, contains 43 RAF WWII plots. In most cases the passage of time, the development by mankind and nature have erased the training fields from the past. The only official marker from that period of history are the well-tended graves of the British student pilots who came to Calgary to learn to fly 1941-44.
On 12 October 1942, a number of RAF trainers were flying close air formation one and one-half miles west of the Airdrie Relief Field, when two Harvard aircraft collided mid-air. RAF Instructor F/O A.I. Phelps and his student pilot LAC H.C. Cromack [Course #64] were in Harvard AJ898, which collided with F/Lt. R.F. Warner [pupil course #64] flying Harvard AJ854. All three were killed, interned at Burnsland Cemetery in Calgary.
Close-air formation near Airdrie, Alberta, 1943. Harvard Mk. II, serial AJ835 [trainer #91] taken on strength RAF No. 39 SFTS 16 October 1941, flew at No. 37 SFTS Calgary, 1 October to March 1944. Internet Dave M. Lambert collection 1944.
23 October 1942, Harvard Mk. II forced landing at Airdrie, Relief Field, Category “C” accident, landing gear would not lower.
30 October 1942, 6:50 Hrs., P/O N.R. Saxton in Harvard AJ983, ran off runway, stuck in two feet of mud. 17:30 Hrs., LAC R.F. Scarlett in Harvard AJ901, crash landed, as the right landing gear would not retract.
31 October 1942, aircraft on strength – 107 Harvard Mk. II, 6 Avro Anson and 57 RAF student pilots in training.
2 Nov. 42, accident 1452099 LAC W. Creasey, student pilot in Harvard AJ952, taxied into parked Harvard AJ975.
4 Nov. 42, three RAF Harvard’s did an air demonstration flight over the City of Calgary.
6 Nov. 42, RAF pilot Course #60 graduated 57 pilots, seven failed the course and five were transferred to Course #62 for further training.
8 Nov. 42, LAC J.J. Fitzgerald 658963 landed at Airdrie with the undercarriage retracted.
10 Nov. 42, accident LAC A. Jarvis 658798 in Harvard AJ790 minor damage to aircraft.
11 Nov. 42, one complete flight [twelve Harvard aircraft] flew over Remembrance Day at Calgary.
14 Nov. 42, accident at Airdrie, LAC F.S.T. Chesterfield 1316104 in Harvard AJ758 minor damage.
18 Nov. 42, flying instructor P/O M.J. Gubbins and his student LAC L.A. Doward 658062 were conducting spinning exercise in Harvard #2698 when four engine side panels were lost in a farmer’s field.
21 Nov. 42, LAC J.E. Brown 1234926 overshot landing Harvard AJ829, stopped in ditch, minor damage.
25 Nov. 42, LAC G.D. Kynman 945562 force landed Harvard AJ835 at Conrick, Alberta, when engine quit.
Total hours flown in November 7,039. Aircraft on strength – Harvard 105, Avro Anson 6, and Airspeed Oxford 16 trainers. RAF pilots in training 111 Airmen, and 11 officers.
This impressive air-to-air shot was taken around No. 37 SFTS Relief Field, Airdrie, Alberta, in 1942. Harvard Mk. II trainer number “41” was serial AJ904, taken on strength 2 April 1941 at No. 39 SFTS Swift Current, Sask., began training Calgary and Airdrie on 1 October 1942. No recorded accidents, flew 2873:20 Hrs, struck off charge by RCAF on 5 March 1946. Internet Dave M. Lambert collection 1944.
In 1989, the author corresponded and interviewed [by phone calls to Ottawa] one of the original RAF student pilots who came to Canada on troopship H.M.T. Letitia [“C” deck, Mess 21, Hammock #86]. RAF cadet Archie M. Pennie sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and four days later arrived at No. 32 E.F.T.S. Bowden, Alberta. He trained in Tiger-Moth and American PT-27 Stearman aircraft, Course #64 and graduated in late November 1942, half of his class were selected for bomber pilots, posted to No. 36 SFTS at Penhold, Alberta. Archie was selected as a fighter pilot and posted to No. 37 SFTS Calgary, Alberta, Course #70, which began on 7 December 1942, flying Harvard Mk. II trainers.
RAF Cadet LAC Pennie explained – “the Harvard was a real airplane, in size and power, a great jump from the British Tiger-Moth and American PT-27 Stearman trainers we gained around 70 hours flying experience at RAF Bowden. After just three or four trips [four to six hours] in the Harvard the RAF flying instructor would let you go solo and what a delight it was to master that powerful and loveable aircraft. If you trained or just served at any Harvard aircraft school during WWII, you will never forget the sharp, loud, rasping characteristic sound of the Wasp engine. This loud noise and the opposition from the local population of Calgary was so strong from the inhabitants, all flight training was conducted several miles north on the Edmonton Trail at RAF Relief Field, Airdrie, Alberta. Discipline on the ground and in the air was very strict at RAF Calgary SFTS and our numbers were gradually thinned out by poor performance or attitude, inability to cope with hours of ground school tests and, of course, our share of fatal accidents. My upper bunk mate, LAC Hall, was a keen bright-eyed British lad of nineteen years, a good promising future fighter pilot. On his first solo flight with his instructor [F/L Ford the Flight Commander] their Harvard engine quit, they stalled, and both were killed on the main runway at Relief Field, Airdrie, 10 December 1942.”
All Harvard training at Relief Field Airdrie was carried out without the benefit of radios. Harvard pilots and instructors used hand signals from the cockpit while the mobile and main hangar control tower used a Morse lamp, sending light flashes by Morse code. At night they took off and landed by simple coal oil gooseneck flares which smoked and flickered as they outlined the dark Airdrie runways. Graduation day finally came on 2 April 1943, Wings were presented to the 56 pilots who graduated RAF No. 70 Course by Group Captain D. Iron, O.B.E. F/Lt. Archie Pennie was one of the pilots who received his wings in the RAF Drill Hall, today the Hangar Flight Museum of Calgary, Alberta. It’s a pity, there is no mention of the RAF history in Calgary during WWII, or the thousands of British airmen who received their wings in the Drill Hall.
10 December 1942, crash site of Harvard Mk. II, serial AJ759, stalled during take-off. Bert Sharp collection.
F/Lt. Archie Pennie was selected for Flying Instructor School, graduated, and was then posted to No. 34 EFTS at Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, where he trained future RAF pilots. He published many stories on his days with the RAF in Canada and preserved so much aviation WWII history. He returned to his old base 14 years after he departed and it was all gone, only 16 graves of the British students remain, the only tangible evidence there once was an RAF Station Assiniboia in Canada. This story appeared in Flight Magazine 18 March 1959, titled “Assiniboia Revisited.” For the full history of F/Lt. Pennie go to the Vintage Wings of Canada website and read the story by Dave O’Malley, it’s well worth it. Archie never forgot his fellow pilots who trained and flew with him, including his bunk mate #1512542 LAC Harry N. Hall at No. 37 SFTS Calgary, Alberta, who died on the main runway at Airdrie, Alberta, just before Christmas 1942. He is just a name on a stone marker, forgotten, but the author has been to visit six times. His RAF Airdrie photos and family history must remain somewhere forgotten in England today.
RAF pupil 1004562 LAC Landells was in Course No. 70 with fellow student Archie Pennie.
The North American Harvard Mk. II aircraft trained 862 student pilots, mostly British, at No. 37 SFTS Calgary, Alberta, beginning with Course #64 [30 December 1942] and ending with Course #94 on 10 March 1944. These sixteen RAF pilot Courses conducted their flying training at Relief Field, Airdrie, Alberta, and graduated 771 fighter pilots for the Royal Air Force. Twenty-one RAF members were killed in Alberta, one in a drowning at Banff, one in a motor vehicle accident at Airdrie during a blizzard and nineteen were killed flying the Harvard Mk. II aircraft during training. One New Zealand student pilot [NZ421082 LAC W.D. Shaw] was killed in training at Airdrie, Alberta, Harvard Mk. II serial AJ966, 31 December 1943.
“They flew together as Brothers-in-Arms. They died together and now they sleep together in Burnsland Cemetery at Calgary, Alberta. Canadians have a solemn obligation to never forget them.”
Located five miles north-east from RAF Station Airdrie you will find a half-mile body of water called Wood Lake. This became the WWII Royal Air Force No. 1 Bombing Range for Airdrie, Alberta. Today the lake is home to thousands of waterfowl and also contains tens of thousands of WWII RAF training smoke bombs, with a few that never exploded. The author’s photo was taken from the west side looking east, showing the size of the lake, which is government [Crown] private land.
During WWII the center of this photo contained twelve telephone poles [in a circle] which had been pounded into the water and then painted red and yellow. The center aiming point contained tepee shaped telephone poles. The RAF Harvard pilots flew from north [justify] or south [right] depending on the wind direction and dropped two smoke bombs on the centre aiming point. Each Harvard aircraft contained eight 8.5-pound smoke bombs, four under each wing.
The original 1940 RCAF blueprint of the bomb assembly buildings located at RAF Station Airdrie, Alberta. Collection of Gwen Conroy 1995.
The north-east corner of the RAF field at Airdrie contained three buildings [all painted white with a bright red roof] for the storage and assembly of the 8.5-pound practice smoke bombs. Each bomb contained a nose loaded with lead-antimony balls and the bomb casing body was filled with a pale yellow liquid of Titanium-Tetrachloride. When the bomb comes in contact with water, a chemical reaction rapidly takes place and Hydrochloric Acid smoke is released and can be seen from a distance. Eight smoke bombs are loaded on each Harvard Mk. II trainer and the student pilot takes off for the Wood Lake Bomb Range. All flight directions are controlled by a Morse Lamp in the Mobile Traffic Control Car RCAF serial #31-129.
An RAF student pilot class with bombs loaded on Harvard aircraft at Airdrie, Alberta, 1944. Dave M. Lambert collection.
The RAF Traffic Control Car [shadow] signals [Morse Lamp] the Harvard student pilot to take-off and the bombing exercise begins. The three bomb storage/assembly buildings can be seen on the right, white with bright red roof. RAF Airdrie single aircraft hangar in background. Internet Dave M. Lambert collection 1944.
The location of three bomb storage/assembly buildings and position of Mobile Traffic Control Car RCAF serial #31-129. RCAF 1940 map from Gwen Conroy 1995.
The Harvard aircraft arrived over RAF Wood Lake No. 1 Bomb Range and took turns dropping two smoke bombs on each pass.
On the east and west sides of Wood lake the RAF constructed two twenty-seven-foot-high observation towers.
An RAF L.A.C. sits in each tower, where he records the trainer number on each Harvard aircraft, and when the smoke bomb hits the water, he points his sighting instrument at the smoke and records the degrees from the disk. That evening the two bomb tower records are combined, which forms an X and the location of each smoke bomb dropped. The students bomb score [eight bombs dropped] is totalled and presented the following day. That was the simple but effective way the RAF at Airdrie, Alberta, trained Harvard pilots to drop bombs in 1942-44.
This original RAF No. 1 Wood Lake Bomb Tower survives on a local farm today, possibly the only one in all of Canada. [Below] RAF Harvard Mk. IIB serial FE824 over the Wood Lake RAF Bomb Range at Airdrie in October 1944, after the release of eight smoke bombs.
Harvard Mk. IIB, serial FE824 [trainer #97] was taken on charge RAF No. 37 SFTS Calgary, Alberta, on 9 February 1943. The pilot has dropped his eight bombs and stunts high over the CNR railway snaking their way northwards around Irricana, Alberta. FE824 was transferred to RCAF 2 October 1946 and flew 2053:00 Hrs. RCAF LAC Bert Sharp collection.
The original Harvard Mk. II aircraft were fully painted with RAF aircraft markings at the North American plant in California and delivered to No. 39 SFTS at Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Each aircraft arrived with Gear Doors, which were the first items removed from the trainers, saving mechanical repairs and accumulation of snow and ice during winter months in Canada. The RAF aircraft training numbers were assigned and painted on each Harvard at Swift Current, Sask., and remained the same after the transfer of 100 aircraft to Calgary 24-30 September 1942.
Nineteen RAF Harvard Mk. II aircraft received British serial numbers BW184 to BW207, with BW204 assigned to RAF Swift Current, Saskatchewan, on 14 May 1942, transferred to Calgary 24-30 September 42 and flew training at RAF Airdrie until 10 March 1944. Off Strength RCAF 2 February 1946.
Harvard Mk. II serial AJ851, was taken on strength at Swift Current, Sask., 5 November 1941, suffered a minor landing accident [Cat. C-3] on 13 January 1942, delivered to Calgary 24-30 September 1942. Flew with a different style RAF Fin Flash which was introduced in July 1942, [18” wide by 24” high] Red 8” wide, White 2” wide and Blue 8” wide. Off strength by RCAF on 26 November 1947. RCAF LAC Bert Sharp image 1943. [author watercolor painting]
American artist Clayton Knight [left] Leslie Roberts and F/O Beurling, Ottawa, January 1943.
Cover art by Eward John Sampson for Maclean’s 15 January 1943.
George Frederick “Buzz” Beurling from Verdun, Quebec, attempted to join the RCAF in 1940, but was rejected as he lacked academic qualifications. Accepted by the RAF in September 1941, they needed good pilots, not paper qualifications, and in Malta F/O Beurling shot down 27 Axis aircraft in 14 days, and damaged another three. He was a lone wolf, hard to control, always breaking RAF rules and orders, but he was a killer fighter pilot at the right time. Good in the air or bad on the ground, George became Canada’s most famous RAF fighter pilot in WWII, with 31 and one-half enemy kills, and earned the name “Falcon of Malta.” In peace time he would possibly have been a failure, but during WWII he was a Canadian hero and the RCAF used him for wartime public relations.
F/O Beurling came to RAF No. 37 SFTS Calgary, 1 March 1943, and lectured over 900 members of the Royal Air Force, including 237 student fighter pilots training in the Harvard Mk. II aircraft.
The RAF Calgary permanent staff Flying Instructor Officers were also present for the lecture.
A good number of these 68 RAF Flying Instructors [January 1944] had never flown in WWII combat.
Peter Charles Middleton was born 3 September 1920, joined the RAF Reserve in 1940, promoted to Pilot Officer 9 May 1941. Became a Flying Instructor in the N.A.A. Harvard Mk. I aircraft which had been purchased by Britain in 1938-39. Promoted to F/Lt. Middleton, 9 March 1942, arrived in Canada [RAF Harvard Flying Instructor] May 1942 at No. 39 SFTS at Swift Current, Saskatchewan. [99 Harvard Mk. II aircraft on strength] Transferred with 62 Junior RAF Officers to No. 37 SFTS at Calgary, Alberta, 25 September 1942, under command of W/Commander J.W. Slater A.F.C. and flew most of the 100 Harvard Mk. II trainers on strength at Calgary and their training field at Airdrie, Alberta.
Picked by his Commanding Officer to lead the pupils of No. 80 and 82 Courses in the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede parade 5 July 1943. RAF No. 37 SFTS was disbanded 10 March 1944, special officers train departed Calgary at 20:00 hrs for Halifax, Nova Scotia. F/Lt. Middleton served with No. 605 [Reserve] Squadron flying Mosquito fighters, released in 1946. Flew Trident aircraft with British European Airways, became First Officer to Prince Philip on a two-month flying tour of South America in 1962. Prince Philip flew as co-pilot on 49 of the Royal tour’s 62 flights. The Duke of Edinburgh earned his wings in 1953 flying an RAF Harvard Mk. II trainer [KF729] and logged 5,986 hours in 59 different aircraft, including his helicopter pilot licence. I’m sure the two pilots had lots to talk about as they flew around South America.
In June 2011, the Calgary and Canadian Press were alive with stories such as “City Soars with Royal Link” Calgary Sun newspaper.
Thank goodness Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and her new husband Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, never attended the old Aero Space Museum at Calgary International Airport. The museum contains no history of the RAF in Calgary 1941-1944 and in fact the staff did not even know which aircraft Kate’s grandfather F/Lt. Peter Middleton had flown in Calgary during his nineteen months as flying instructor of North American Harvard Mk. II trainers. Today  this original 1940 RAF Drill Hall is renamed The Hangar Flight Museum of Calgary and still no mention of the Royal Air Force who called this home from 1 June 1941 until 10 March 1944. A new generation has destroyed WWII City of Calgary aviation history.
F/Lt Peter Middleton possibly with RAF No. 605 [Reserve] Squadron 1945-46. [Internet]
Witness statements report LAC Major was stunting over the City of Calgary which was a restricted fly zone during the war. Aircraft could only fly over the city from point A to point B.
Amber Airway No. 2 over Airdrie, Alberta, Canada.
In 1925, the United States Civil Aeronautics began forming American Air Corridor Routes for airliner traffic control to fly safely at night or in bad weather. Experiments were conducted with radio range beacon stations and by December 1935 the first Airway Traffic Control Center was located at Newark, New Jersey. By 1938, airport control towers became a familiar sight across the United States and color coded air corridor maps designated the airspace an aircraft must remain during its transit through a given region in the United States. These established routes were called Airways, and each was given a color code. Green and Red routes ran East and West with all aircraft flying at 2 or 4 thousand feet. Amber and Blue routes ran North and South with all aircraft flying at 3 or 5 thousand feet. Each route had an equal spaced radio beacon station which sent out a signal to keep the aircraft on course and prevent mid-air collisions.
In 1939, Amber Civil Airway No. 2 ran North from Daggett, California, to Great Falls, Montana.
1942 list of Amber Civil Airway No. 2 radio range stations required for the 1,138-mile flight. Each radio range station sent out a signal which kept the aircraft in their designated air corridor.
Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor [7 December 1941] it became imperative to rush men and American war material to Alaska, with the most direct route over the province of Alberta, to the Yukon, and Alaska. Permission to fly was obtained from the Canadian Government in January 1942, and a contract was signed with Northwest Airlines on 26 February 1942, to fly priority cargo over this Canadian route. By May 1942, Northwest Airlines were making regular flights to Edmonton and on to Fairbanks, Alaska. In mid-May Western Airlines began flying the same route and by June 42, United Airlines were operating the same interior route to Alaska. These three civilian airline pilots extended “Amber Civil Airway No. 2” from Great Falls, Montana, to Edmonton, Alberta, and official or not, the name Amber Airway No 2 began appearing on RCAF, RAF in Canada, and American military maps. [It appears the Canadian Name “Amber Airway No. 2” became official by the USAAF on 15 October 1943] This new air corridor in the sky was ten nautical miles wide [19 k/m] and during first operation lacked radio directional aids from Edmonton west to Alaska. These early airline and military pilots followed the Alcan Highway which was under construction. On 20 July 1942, the USAAF 7th Ferrying Group began sending detachments to airports at Lethbridge, Calgary, Edmonton, Fort St. John, Watson Lake, and Whitehorse in Canada, for ferrying of American lend-lease aircraft to the Soviet Union. To fully understand this part of Alaska/Canada history please read the three volume history titled “The Forgotten War” published 1988 by Stan Cohen, it is the best. [Just amazing research]
From September 1942 until September 1945, 7,971 American lend-lease aircraft were delivered to the Russian pilots at Fairbanks, Alaska. Of this total 5,066 were fighter aircraft, mostly the Bell Aircraft Corp. Airacobra P-39M and Q [2,618] and the Bell Kingcobra P-36A [2,397]. Bell produced 9,584 fighter aircraft until July 1944, but the P-63 Kingcobra was never flown on operations by the USAAF, it was out-dated and all were delivered lend-lease to Russia by Amber Airway No. 2, Great Falls, Montana, directly over Airdrie, to Edmonton, Alberta.
RAF No. 37 S.F.T.S. at Calgary, Alberta, was not an aircraft stop on the ferry route to Edmonton, but many American aircraft landed for repairs, fuel, or bad weather conditions.
Daily Diary [Calgary RAF] records –
15 October 1942 – One American C-47 landed, fuel.
20 October 1942 – One American C-47 landed, fuel.
24 October 1942 – One American C-47 landed, fuel.
31 October 1942 – One USAAF C-46A Commando, serial 42-3640 landed, fuel.
6 November 1942 – 16:30 hrs., three USAAF P-39 Airacobra fighters landed, low cloud and snow conditions. Departed the following morning for Edmonton.
This Airacobra serial 42-4725 [P-39M-1-BE] sits in the December 1942 winter snow at No. 37 SFTS at Calgary, Alberta, wearing full Russian markings. The auxiliary ferry fuel tank held 250 U.S. gallons of fuel for the trip from Great Falls, Montana, to Edmonton, Alberta. The American radio range receiver is located on the belly of the aircraft, which received the ground tower signal and kept the aircraft on an air corridor course in Amber Airway No. 2 over southern Alberta. [Bert Sharp photo collection] No. 7 Ferrying Group Pilot Lt. H.E. Williams departed Calgary, 30 December 1942, then his engine caught fire near Wetaskiwin, Alberta, and he bailed out. Aircraft sections were recovered by Stan Reynolds, remaining in his museum collection and today parts from this [Russian] aircraft are being restored into another Bell P-39 airframe [recovered from New Guinea] under restoration at the Alberta Aviation Museum in Edmonton.
The Northwest Sector of the Domestic Division [Ferrying Command] was activated in January 1942, [after Pearl Harbor] at Seattle, Washington. They became the 7th Ferrying Group under Ferrying Command of the USAAF, ferrying new B-17 bombers from the Seattle factory to modification centers and American air bases nationwide. The designation 7th Ferrying Group was first used 4 June 1942 when they were transferred from Seattle to Great Falls, Montana, officially 19 June 1942. They came under control of Air Transport Command of the U.S. Army Air Forces, primarily for ferrying Lend-Lease Russian aircraft and supplies from Great Falls, Montana to Fairbanks, Alaska. One-hundred and seventy-seven pilots were lost ferrying aircraft to Alaska, and Amber Airway No. 2 in Alberta has fourteen known crash sites. Keho Lake, Alberta, [N-E of Fort Macleod] still hides the remains of a crashed Russian Airicobra, while others [B.C. and Yukon] are still just missing.
RCAF Calgary Radio Beacon [VXC278] was a major course correction for the American ferry pilots flying at 18,000 ft. to Edmonton, Alberta. At the same time RAF Airdrie Harvard trainers were flying night and day, in the same air-space, at 3,000 to 5,000 ft., with no radio communication, only plane to plane hand signals.
The United States military policy in Alaska showed total neglect until 25 April 1939, when Congress approved $4 million for building a military cold weather station, new aircraft, and an airport at Fairbanks, Ladd Field. The commander of the newly-created Alaska Defense Force was Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., who had to start fresh and build an almost non-existent military force. The first American troops arrived at Anchorage, Alaska, 27 June 1940, 780 men and officers of the 4th Infantry Regiment, the vanguard of the new Alaska Defence Force. On 9 August 1940, Major Evert S. Davis, chief of aviation for the Alaska Defence Force, and the first commander of the 11th Army Air Force, arrived at Merrill Field in an old Martin B-10 bomber. In March 1941, Major Davis ordered twelve United States Army Air Corps Douglas B-18A bombers and assigned six to the 73rd Medium Bomb Squadron [Elmendorf Field, Alaska] and the other six to the 36th Heavy Bombardment Squadron, 31 March 1941, Elmendorf Field.
This photo from Evan Hill collection [ASL-P343-558] shows one of the first Douglas Bomber-1 [DB-1] bombers at Elmendorf Field, Alaska. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, these original twelve B-18A bombers flew first line coastal defence patrols from Nome to south-east Alaska. In 1944, this rare old bomber serial #37-627 was ordered to return to Great Falls, Montana, for storage and later scrapping. Air Transport Command, 7th Ferrying Group were given the task of returning the old bird by Amber Airway No. 2 to Great Falls, Montana.
In March 1944, the vintage American bomber was proceeding south from Edmonton, Alberta, on Amber Airway No. 2, and over Olds, Alberta, an engine was lost due to a broken oil line. The American pilot contacted Airdrie Relief Field and declared an emergency landing, but never made the airstrip.
A forced landing was made just short of the Airdrie runway, No. 1 hangar seen in background. Due to the spring melting, the bomber became stuck in the soft ground. Bert Sharp photo.
Bert Sharp and his fellow RCAF ground crew members extracted the B-18A from the mud and pulled it by Cat tractor to the hangar for oil line repairs.
The veteran B-18A was flown by pilots of USAAF Air Transport Command, 7th Ferrying Group with a detachment [385th Squadron] based at RAF No. 37 SFTS Calgary. American ground crews arrived, by jeep, replaced the oil line and the following day the Alaska bomber departed for Great Falls.
It’s not a heritage site, but with permission [private factory property] you can still relive the RAF and American past associated with No. 1 Hangar, RAF Airdrie, Alberta, Canada.
On 10 March 1944, No. 37 S.F.T.S. RAF Relief Field, Airdrie, Alberta, was disbanded and 96 Harvard aircraft were flown to RCAF Edmonton, RAF North Battleford, Saskatchewan and RAF Medicine Hat, Alberta.
On 11 March 1944, Airdrie Aerodrome became RCAF Relief Field, flying RCAF Cessna Crane twin-engine trainers from No. 3 SFTS, Calgary, today the location of Mount Royal University.
RCAF [engine-mechanic] LAC Bert Sharp was posted to RAF Airdrie in the fall of 1942, and now he would work on Cessna Crane aircraft of the RCAF. LAC Sharp far right in both photos.
RCAF Relief Field, Airdrie, Alberta, 11 March 1944 until 28 September 1945. Bert Sharp photo collection.
The same location today, 2023. A new cement wall factory attachment has been constructed on the east side of the original RAF/RCAF hangar doors. In the foreground is a section of the original WWII Royal Air Force H-Hut, moved from the north side of No. 1 hangar.
Left photo by Bert Sharp showing RCAF ground crew members mopping the cement floor in Airdrie No. 1 Hangar in 1944. Right – a cartoon created by RAF F/Sgt. D.C. Hickling No. 32 EFTS at Bowden, Alberta, December 1943. Cartoons can sometimes become real.
RCAF Cessna Crane which crashed at Airdrie being removed to No. 10 Repair Depot, Calgary, winter 1944. Bert Sharp collection.
RCAF No. 3 S.F.T.S. and their Relief Field at Airdrie closed on 28 September 1945, and the Crown property went to War Assets for sale. The airport buildings were purchased by Gordon Bowers in 1948, and used for oil patch pipe construction. In 1969, Thomas Conroy purchased the remaining airport property and created a flying club he named “The Airdrie Country Club of the Air.”
Family photo from Gwen Conroy [top left] and husband Thomas Conroy, with son and daughter. The “Flying Conroy’s” owned three WWII Harvard trainers and all four family members were qualified Harvard pilots. In 1979, Tom was flying with another pilot friend and something went wrong near the village of Irricana, where they crashed to their death in a farmer’s field. Gwen Conroy remained living on her Airdrie Airport property and running the business until 1998, when she sold to Airdrie Airpark Inc. In 1995, the author made three visits to interview Gwen and preserve the airport past, over a pot of coffee. Gwen passed away in 2003, but her memory lives on in the following photos [slides] which she gave to the author, and I do not believe have been published before this date. The images are not dated but clearly show the happy times at the Airdrie Country Club of the Air. I believe Harvard pilot Gwen Conroy took these images but the info. is not recorded in my past notes.
1970-78 era – Gwen Conroy.
Airdrie Country Club of the Air – Gwen Conroy
A high speed Harvard pass, just like WWII – Gwen Conroy
Oh, the throbbing sound of those WASP engines – Gwen Conroy
A “THUNDERBIRD OF GREAT WHITE CHIEFS” – Gwen Conroy
The “Thunderbirds of the Great White Chiefs” still thunder over Calgary and Airdrie, Alberta, for special events, thanks to son Thomas P. Conroy.
And most of the original RAF Airdrie buildings survive.
RAF Medical Officer Doc. Walton and Air Force Police Crawford in 1943. Author.
A special thanks to RCAF engine-mechanic LAC Bert Sharp who preserved so much of WWII Airdrie Relief Field, his home and work place for over three years.
24 July [Thursday] 1941, Chief of the Battle River Cree Nation, Sam Swimmer, “Ya Ya Num” extended a greeting to the R.A.F. pilot’s [King’s Braves] North Battleford, Saskatchewan, – “The Thunderbirds of the Great White Chiefs.”