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  Recording Canada's Aviation Heritage

    Updated from CANAV's Spring 1997 Newsletter

    Until recent times, few in Canada were active in aviation writing, history, art and photography. These fellows usually had begun as boys, to read about flying. They collected aviation stamps and trading cards, took pictures, developed film, kept notes, sketched and painted, built models and dreamed. They haunted the local airports, scrounged a few dollars for flying lessons, joined air cadets or the air force, fought a war and came home. Then, most hit the books again. Eventually, they graduated and found work, but kept close to aviation.

    In time a few names cropped up on the history publishing scene. Key was Frank Ellis, author of our first great aviation book, Canada's Flying Heritage (U of T Press, 1954 and still in print). Frank had built and flown a plane before WWI; and began early to preserve Canada's early flying record. While he conducted streetcars around Vancouver for a livelihood, his real delight was in research. He knew all the great pioneers; he mailed some 6000 letters as he put together his life's work (no e-mail or faxes, but the Post Office knew how to deliver a letter in those days). At first unable to find a publisher for his book, Frank convinced Canadian Aviation magazine to serialize parts of it. Finally, with some financial support for Imperial Oil, U of T Press took on the book. (Sad to say, but no major Canadian corporation would dream these days of supporting such a project. Corporate PR people all use the say excuse -- how is any book going to help them improve the bottom line? It's all about money, money, money.)

    Who are some of these true leaders in Canadian aviation history? I'll start with K.M. "Ken" Molson. If ever a fellow had a passion for Canadian aviation history it was Ken, a fellow who delighted in research, writing and photography. Born in Montreal in 1916, he attended the Boeing School of Aeronautics after studying at McGill, and started flying lessons in 1933. Ken spent his working years in aviation, mainly at Malton with Avro, then at the National Aviation Museum, where he was the founding curator. Others worked steadfastly in aviation history. Carl Vincent established Canada's Wings, our first dedicated aviation publishing house. A seasoned man in the Public Archives of Canada, he set the standard in aircraft profiles with books about the Blackburn Shark, and the Liberator and B-17 in RCAF service. He also turned out the excellent journal High Flight. RCAF historian John Griffin was another pioneer (Canadian Military Aircraft Serials and Aircraft, etc.), as were John R. Ellis (Canadian Civil Aircraft Register), Fred Hatch (Aerodrome of Democracy, etc.), Fred Hitchins(Roundel magazine, etc.), Fred Hotson (De Havilland Canada Story, The Bremen, etc.) and Hugh Halliday (The Tumbling Sky, Typhoon and Tempest: The Canadian Story, etc.). Most of these also contributed learned papers for publication in the Canadian Aviation Historical Society Journal. Collectively, their material is the foundation of historical Canadian aviation data. Contemporary  researchers and writers worth their salt (rare birds that they are) know this material well. Rooted in it, they can confidently start any original project, then turn out a credible piece.

    While much was being done in the archives, a keen group established the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. Begun in 1962 (originally The Early Birds Association of Canada), it included enthusiasts like Shel Benner, Jeff Burch, Charlie Catalano, Harry Creagen, Frank Taylor, Russ Maebus, Al Martin, M.L. "Mac" McIntyre, George Morley, Terry Waddington and Bill Wheeler. No publication did more over the decades to record Canada's aviation past than the CAHS Journal. This said, it is a shame how the society has lost much of its punch in publishing original research. Over the years it seems to have become more of a platform for those relating their personal stories (which have their own important place). Rare these days is the Journal article based on hardcore research. But, if that's all that editor Bill Wheeler has, that's what he must publish. Too bad.

    Two others writers who led the way in Canadian aviation were Bob Halford and Neil A. MacDougall, who began in journalism in the 1940s. Bob ran Aircraft magazine, then the renowned Canadian Aircraft Operator. Neil's magazine articles kept us up-to-date in many fields. Like the other originals, they were pros. Bob, an aviation fan since boyhood, overhauled engines at Canadian Airways in Winnipeg early in WWII, then joined Canada's merchant navy. He, and those who followed, like Des Chorley, Les Edwards, David Godfrey and Hugh Whittington, set the standards in aviation journalism. Bob and Neil still were writing after 50 years. I remember talking to Des Chorley (a wartime bomber pilot) about an article he had written late in his career about the B-52. Des told how one morning before sunrise he had set off from Toronto for the long drive to Griffiss AFB in New York. Once there he sat in on some preliminaries at the 416th Bomb Wing, then flew as an observer on a gruelling B-52 mission. Back at Griffiss, Des drove back to Toronto, reaching home the same day and starting into his writing. This is how the old timers worked -- no fear of hard work, unlike today's instant, know-nothing "experts".

    The Photographers

    Jack McNulty of Hamilton was a role model for any youngster getting into aviation as a hobby in the 1950s. He learned photography as a boy, taking his first pictures in 1928 at Jack Elliott's old strip. He spent WWII in the RCAF and at Ottawa Car, worked at Dofasco till retirement in 1981, and was active in Air Cadets, the EAA and the CAHS. We aviation photography "wanabees" of the 1950s would see Jack's photo credits in magazines and imagine some day being half as good. Al Martin and Harvey Stone, both ex-RCAF, also were pioneers at photography. They worked for TCA and always had time for the local kids, getting them into the hangar at Malton, onto the ramp for some shooting, or passing on tips about photography. Al's big Speed Graphic camera always amazed the lads, who were learning with hand-me-down 120s and 127s. Meanwhile, they worked their ways through high school, finally emerging with some fundamentals. Then it was on to more studies, or into the working world. By now they had a reasonable foundation in history, note- or diary-keeping, basic photography and dark room, and how to get around the aviation scene. They felt that they were getting there, but still had much to learn. Meanwhile, the Toronto "wanabees" finished school and went into their chosen careers -- 1 into accounting, 2 into flying, 3 into teaching.

    Aviation Art

    There was little activity in aviation art and illustrating after WWII, but some fellows in Toronto were making a start--Tom Bjarnason, Bob Bradford, Colin Clark, Pete Mossman, Jack Phipps, Frank Taylor, Bill Wheeler, etc. In off hours they hung out at airports, attended fly-ins and contributed to the CAHS. After Taylor's death in 1974 Wheeler remembered his old crony: "Frank was one of a group of chums who, on even the strength of a rumour, would bicycle miles over country roads to see a visiting or barnstorming aircraft." Thus were foundations and future reputations begun. There was nothing slap-dash; the fellows were smart, had fun at their craft, and didn't worry about competing or being big wheels.

    Some of the earliest work by the post-war artists appeared in the CAHS Journal. By now the guys were getting good. They often met for a few beers to discuss progress. Besides being artists, some also were pilots. Colin had done a tour on bombers, during which he painted the nose art on his own Halifax. Always flamboyant, he flew a Tiger Moth, then a Harvard, and roared around in exotic sport cars. All the fellows did gruelling apprenticeships as artists,  illustrators or retouchers. Some became teachers in high school and college. Into the 1970s the occasional self-taught artist would crop up. The smart ones always were eager to learn from the older hands, who truly were role models by this time.

    While Canada has some excellent aviation artists, what of the fringe types -- the so-called aviation artist of the 1990s? Unfortunately, it's rare that he has much knowledge of colour, light, perspective, composition, art history, etc. Usually, his paintings are copied straight for some photograph. Sometimes a colour transparency is projected onto the canvas, then outlined and coloured in. Thus does copying become art! Hmm ... I guess that "paint by numbers" should now be elevated as a form of high art. It would only be fair! Sadly, such artists are proud and have nothing left to learn. A trademark is how they rush to tell you how everyone else's paintings need improvement. After all, their works have hung in the local library. Amazingly, some of these fellows make a mark. While the professionals would be too embarrassed to do so, the  pretenders push to the front, eagerly promoting their "numbered, limited edition" prints. Some people buy, and the next cycle ensues.

    The Age of the Phony?

    By 1970 Canada's aviation heritage was being recorded solidly, and preserved by a dedicated group of archivists, artists, historians, journalists, museum people, photographers and writers. Too bad, but things today aren't quite so ideal. Although we still have solid citizens in each field, we're in an age of self-proclaimed experts who have arrived in a tidal wave. Even though a fellow has the barest of education and little experience, by some miracle he's "the greatest". One can go to any airshow and meet those identifying themselves as writers, photographers, historians or artists. What's this all about? Sure, our "photographer" has had a picture or two published, but is just as likely a photographer by virtue of a bag crammed with expensive cameras, lenses and gizmos. Rarely has he put in any serious time -- he's on a tread mill to nowhere.

    And who's this fellow with the fancy card: "So-and-so, Freelance Aviation Writer". Little matter that such folks have done no studies, served no serious apprenticeship in the trade, and never attended the likes of a CAHS chapter meeting or convention (where they'd meet a few people who know a little something). If they ever have cracked open a book by Ellis, Griffin or Molson, it's been to find fault. What a joke when one weenie commented that he wouldn't use John Griffin's RCAF serial numbers book because "It's all full of errors". Pitiful! The same goes for those whose cards read "Aviation Historian". Who may claim such a distinction? Only by a lifetime of study, research, teaching and publishing can one hope to qualify as a historian. As to the pretenders, few have spent an hour researching anyplace like the National Archives. Some barely can spell "archive" and couldn't find the place on a map. As for the genuine historians, most shrink from any title, feeling that they barely are getting started in their field.

    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

    Canada has many good aviation books. After all, we have been a nation of designers, builders, fliers and fixers of airplanes, and all this must be recorded. The topic is ever-enticing and there are plenty of un-mined sources of historic data. Some of our writers meet the challenge of originality and accuracy, and put in the time to produce something worthwhile. They tap all the sources--archives, log books, diaries, technical documents, knowledgeable individuals, secondary sources such as specialized books done by experts like Griffin or Molson. Diligence at each stage brings good results. Sometimes we have to eat some crow; but a new opportunity arises--to publish errata, maybe expand on an old topic. An example of this came with a call in about 1980 from Jack Austin, who took umbrage at the briefness of the mention of his company in my first book, Aviation in Canada. We got together and soon were knee-deep in a new project. What resulted was Austin Airways: Canada's Oldest Airline, acclaimed as one of the best bush flying histories ever published.

    Of all our devices as compilers and publishers of history, the diciest and the toughest is the personal interview. The interview must be done, or history on the page becomes lifeless. Input from people who flew or fixed those Spitfires is indispensable. Yet, what I call "the ivory tower gang" look disdainfully at such history, poo-pooing it as "popular". To them, only the official document is to be consulted. The actual participant is to be avoided, the so-called historian preaches, lest his research be polluted, perhaps with shaky memories, perhaps, God forbid, with personal points of view ... who knows! Author Hugh Halliday had this to say in the April 1996 Observair, monthly newsletter of the CAHS Ottawa Chapter. The quote shows how the interview technique might go wrong for a naive interviewer. But Hugh, who always is leery of the interview, should not discount it, just because he has an example of things going awry (notice that he was astute enough not to get hornswoggled):

    When writing No.242 Squadron: The Canadian Years, I was told horrendous stories by the late Stan Turner about the first CO of the squadron, the late Fowler M. Gobeil. The trouble was, Stan (who had lost his first logbook in 1942) "remembered" a lot of things I knew were not so. He recalled No.242 as having Gladiators at the outset. The unit diary made no mention of them, although there was a Gladiator-equipped meteorological flight on the same station. Stan "remembered" that Will McKnight had been involved in the first delivery of Hurricanes to the unit. This is disproved by both the unit diary and McKnight's logbook.

    When I pointed out these discrepancies to Stan, he swore that he was right and that the unit diary had been  "doctored". That made me even more cautious about quoting him, at least on matters of substance. If I couldn't trust his memory on details, I did not dare trust his recollections of Gobeil, whom Stan disliked with a passion that grew more intense with interviews from 1968 to 1975. Not only would it have been unfair to Gobeil; it would have laid me open to a libel case. With only Stan to call as a witness, and an unreliable one at that, I would have been offering up portions of my anatomy as bookends.

    Sometimes I wonder if historians really aren't so much worried about getting poor gen from an interview, as they are about a hard day's work.  After all, there are few tasks in research that are tougher than interviewing. Those who are used to sitting there with all that juicy microfilm at their fingertips ... I can see why they might shrink at driving a hundred miles to interview someone, then doing the hours of follow-up work writing up the notes. Well, that likely is too much to ask of someone who is comfy-cosy in his ivory tower. 

    As to interviews, rarely will I conduct one unless a person has a selection of primary material on which to lean for the facts. These include the log book, maps, scrap books, photos, personal letters, business records, or personal documents referring to postings, promotions, citations, etc. Without these there is slim chance of getting a story, for all that remains, otherwise, is memory, and once the years have passed, there is, as Hugh relates, a huge chance for error. Nonetheless, with the right subject, and all the proper tools at hand, the interview is guaranteed to bring results that are pure history, more than the ivory tower dweller could envision.

    Another area of interest is originality. The most interesting history book is one that opens a new topic and deals with it in depth, as does Carl Mills' Banshees in the Royal Canadian Navy, or Dave Fletcher's Harvard: The North American Trainers in Canada. Next is one that sheds new light on an old topic, or views it differently, so as to expand usefully upon it. A book such as Crucible of War is one in a hundred, for it reveals vast amounts of new data. Ocean Bridge or Reap the Whirlwind qualify beautifully.

    Other books come from people whose idea of research and writing is to take the works of others, extract what looks useful, stir it around a little, and cough it up revised under their own names. Would you believe this! Such aviation titles are a dime a dozen. For their "authors" there is little or no effort to get involved with original sources; even worse, blatant plagiarizing doesn't concern the perpetrators. One of these fellows, boasted to me that he is precisely such a phony. He likes to see his name in print, to get a royalty cheque, and you serious guys can screw off and do your "original research", if that what turns you on! 

    The Ivory Tower Gang
    Typical of the ivory tower types is Allan D. English, a teacher at RMC and CF Staff and Command College. His works include Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew 1939-1945, a valuable book [and one which CANAV likely has sold more copies of than any other bookseller). Sadly, English has little use for the efforts of we little people, and says so bluntly. In Cream of the Crop, for example, he laments that "The dearth of scholarly works on the RCAF stands in contrast to the many popular accounts of Canadian air force history." What dearth? Hasn't English visited a good aviation library? By now there are hundreds of solid books, 50 years worth of CASI journals, 35 years of CAHS journals, years worth of "Canadian Military Journal", all those excellent issues of "High Flight", first class theses galore, and tons more. Dearth? My elbow! Start turning over a few good stones, professor!

    English abhors anything that he deems to be "popular". Well, talk about arrogant! While conceding that such books serve some fringe purpose, he concludes, "their contribution to historical knowledge is extremely limited." Limited? How so? How pompous of English as he glares from on high. As an example of these "limited" books he singles out Aviation in Canada. Yet, along with Canada's Flying Heritage, since 1979 this title is the all-in-one bible for anyone wishing to get a start in the knowledge of Canadian aviation. Chancing upon these books has led young Canadians into lifelong aviation careers, as letters in my files attest. What higher purpose could an aviation book serve?

    What does "limited" mean, anyway? In putting together Aviation in Canada, I spent more than a decade visiting the National Archives, DHist, CF Photo Unit, driving back and forth on Hwys 15 and 7 in blizzards, worked in nearly every provincial archive, many local archives, interviewed dozens of aviators, uncovered priceless, previously unknown papers such as those of Patricia Airways, Matt Berry's 1928 diary, Christian Bergener's diary, letters and photos, and many other heritage gems never before seen. Limited? Duhhh! Aviation in Canada was the outcome of true scholarly effort, the hardcore research that, should the ivory tower gang ever roll up their sleeves and give it a whirl,  would land them in the nearest ICU after a day or two on the job.

    Perhaps scholarly really has to do with results -- people read Aviation in Canada and CFH and learn something solid. Why? You can't beat a good, "popular" book -- plain and simple. On the other hand, few read Cream of the Crop. One suspects that the "scholars" consider such books laughable merely because they lack "scholarly" footnotes. Oh, how the academics love their footnotes. A book can be useless, but get the "scholarly" label, so long as it has footnotes. Little does it matter that these often serve only to encumber a book and bore the reader. "It lacks footnotes", is a common complaint from the academics, but also from those at the bottom of the chain -- the dunderheads and nincompoops, who grind out today's garbage books, yet ape the academics by the superfluous use of footnotes. Ah, footnotes, young man, footnotes. Well, who knows what else erks the ivory tower types, but they surely seem a wretched, self-banished .

    The Book Review

    Each year brings more crappy aviation books to Canada. Sadly, they're often supported by the Canada Council, where mediocrity seems to be  criterion No.1. Even more sadly, these "quickie" books often sell like hot cakes. Amazingly, those who crank them out can get good reviews. Their books are well-promoted (sometimes using taxpayer-funded promotional grants), and often receive glowing reviews. Sad to say, but a review often boils down to what the reviewer can filch from the publisher's own promotional hype! Otherwise, reviewers seem to be easily conned or mesmerized, maybe even bribed with a publisher's lunch or some other freebee. They do no service by encouraging Canada's growing army of "aviation historians".

    On the topic of understanding the point of a good book review, Vic Johnson, editor of Airforce: The Magazine of Canada's Air Force Heritage, once asked me to write a guest editorial covering the subject. This was published in the Fall 1995 issue of Airforce, and is reproduced here. The item was well-received, although some of the critics of Crucible of War still were riled ... good! Reaction to the editorial continues. In March 2002, for example, I received a call from a community college journalism teacher. He felt that the editorial best summarized the topic, and wanted permission to use it in class. Help yourself, I told him. [Click here for the original article.]

    In the meantime, in Airforce, Spring 2002, Vic Johnson "reviewed" Avro Aircraft by Randy Whitcomb. The book gets a glowing report, the details coming straight from the publisher's flap copy. Included in Vic's review is the publisher's claim (from the flap copy) that Whitcomb is "an ex-CF pilot". Whitcomb, as his publisher, Vanwell, must know, never received his Canadian Forces wings. Instead, he was "CT'd"(ceased training) part way through the basic flying course. Well, when we spoke on April 8, 2002, Vic had to admit it -- he hadn't read the book. Perhaps he should revisit his own Fall 1995 edition. Vic, go to the woodshed.

    Look, Mom ... I'm an Astronaut!

    Publishers are making more outlandish claims than ever in their battle to sell books. The philosophy here seems to be "Say it and it must be true!" Isn't it just the age we live in, doesn't it just all suck!. Besides the Vanwell example, I just loved it when, in its Fall 2001 catalogue, Harbour Publishing (Howard White, publisher) referred to its author Peter Pigott as "Canada's leading aviation author". Howard, have you lost your senses or just been had? Have you never heard of Frank Ellis, John Griffin, Hugh Halliday, Ken Molson, Bill Wheeler and a dozen others who are the originals and true greats in Canadian aviation authorship? Gads, your own author Jim Spillsbury is a far more important, widely known and respected as an aviation author! You can go to the woodshed, too!

    Well, maybe Harbour and Vanwell are on to something big. If they can call an author an air force pilot, when he never won his wings, or call an unknown the "leader", perhaps I can call myself an astronaut. No kidding and why the heck not? Think of how book sales would soar! I've just convinced myself -- I'm an astronaut! After all, I have "flown" various spaceflight simulators at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston. Yes, I've sat there while real astronauts gave me briefings and instructions. I've had my picture sitting in a Russian capsule, and have "passed" the check-out for the zero-G Shuttle toilet. Chris Hadfield, himself, gave me that course. Watch for the next picture of Milberry -- suited up for space flight,  Canada's greatest astronaut author.  I can just see the sales graph shooting off the page!  

    What else about mediocrity? Here's a good one ... CANAV once was contacted by an "author" about his forthcoming book. Included in the material submitted was a lengthy story about Bernard Sznycer and the SG-VI helicopter. Every detail was extracted directly from my own published research. There was no effort to conceal this, yet the "author" was putting his name to work on which I had spent some 20 years doing research in primary sources. A footnote mentioning one source was considered adequate to justify this piracy. This fellow's previous book was similarly "created" from the hard work of numerous authors. This is an old problem. Half-baked pretenders always are riding on the coat tails of the worker bees. In another example several "authors" and "journalists" lifted the story of Hammy Gray straight from Stuart Soward's A Formidable Hero, sold it to magazine publishers, but failed to give any credit to Soward. One publisher, a powerful Canadian name, responded to Soward's complaint by inviting him to sue, while warning that it had a dozen lawyers standing by to crush him. Nice folks, eh! The bottom line here seems to be that there are a lot of intellectual pirates in the circuit. If you publish anything that's good, you can be sure that some dishonest weakling will be standing by to help himself. These fellows insist that they have done all the original work. Some even will track down a few of the originator's old contacts, maybe do a few quick interviews, then claim to be the world expert!

    Besides CANAV's published word being pirated left, right and centre, the world famous CANAV look even is "borrowed". Various publishers have admitted that they like this look so much, they try to emulate it. Well, this is one thing that can't be legislated against, and who would even care. If it helps create a nice looking book, good stuff! That look, by the way, was created in 1979 by Robin Brass, who designed my first book -- Aviation in Canada. Since then Robin designed all CANAV titles to 1999, after which James Jones of Aerographics took over, using the same treatment in Canada's Air Force at War and Peace.