Early Aviation Heritage at Armour Heights

Armour Heights Aerodrome (from Walter Hurst)
Armour Heights Aerodrome

April is a significant month in Canada's aviation history. This year, the 98th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), on 1 April 1924, was observed at the Canadian Forces College (CFC). An earlier event in April 1917 was also significant for Armour Heights, the location of the CFC campus.

Founded in 1943 as the RCAF War Staff College, the CFC site at Armour Heights has long been associated with military and civilian aviation activities. Adjacent to the present campus, an airfield was established in 1917 as a training base for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The landing strip was located near the present Highway 401 interchange at Avenue Road. In 1918, the School of Special Flying was established to train RFC instructors in newly-developed techniques of flying instruction. In 1919, the airfield was taken over by Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes Limited, a commercial venture of two distinguished combat pilots, William Avery Bishop and William George Barker, both recipients of the Victoria Cross.

Curtis JN-4 (from J.A. Des Roches)
Curtiss JN-4 Canuck

The CFC campus sits on the site of Colonel Frederick B. Robins' country estate, which he called Strathrobyn, with the Armour Heights Officers' Mess now occupying the magnificent home that he built in 1914. A military enthusiast, Col Robins, who was Honorary Colonel of the Toronto Scottish Regiment, was too old to take part in the Great War, but wanted to further the war effort at home. A realtor, he leased a parcel of 393 acres west of Strathrobyn, bounded on the west by Bathurst Street, on the south by Wilson Avenue, on the east by Sandringham Drive and Yonge Boulevard, and on the north by the Don River Valley. In April 1917, the RFC leased the property from Col Robins at a dollar a year, with the lease to expire at the end of the war or May 1919, whichever occurred first.

Work began on the airfield in May and was completed in September. Six hangars, in two rows of three, were arranged in an east-west orientation, about 900 meters west of Strathrobyn and 400 meters north of Wilson Avenue. Other buildings were located along what is now Sandringham Drive and backing onto the valley. Flying began in July 1917, before construction of the support facilities was fully completed.

Curtiss JN-4 (from J.A. Des Roches)
Curtiss JN-4 (Can)

RFC cadets selected for flying training at Armour Heights were chosen from thousands of Canadian applicants. After instruction in ground school, the fledgling pilots received a minimum of ten hours solo flying time on the Curtiss JN-4 Canuck, before moving on to advanced training at Camp Borden. In return for winter basing in Texas, the RFC also agreed to train 300 American pilots in Canada, many of them being trained at Armour Heights. The first fatality occurred in August 1917, when two aircraft being flown by American cadets on solos collided overhead and crashed to the ground.

Curtiss JN-4 (from J.A. Des Roches)
Curtiss JN-4 (Can)

Flying continued at Armour Heights through the winter, and by February 1918, nearly all the aircraft had been fitted with skis. Later in the spring, the School of Special Flying was formed to train RFC instructors in the latest instructional techniques. Foremost in the new techniques was "stunting" or "trick flying", which featured loops, rolls, spins and ground-skimming. During the first half of 1918, the flying training fatality rate was one per 1,800 flying hours, but by October, the rate had dropped to one per 6,000 flying hours, a direct outcome of the new techniques.

With the end of the Great War in November 1918, flying training operations wound down and the Royal Air Force, comprising the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service, left Armour Heights in January 1919, and a civilian era began, with Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes Limited operating from the airfield. After the collapse of the company in the summer of 1921, the airfield fell into disuse.

Photos courtesy J.A. Des Roches and Walter Hurst.

Reference: Shields, William R. Canadian Forces Command and Staff College: A History 1797-1946, (Draft) Toronto: Canadian Forces College, 1987. [355.0070971 S44]

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