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First World War (1914-1918)

Canada did not have an air force at the outbreak of the First World War. The officials seemed to ignore the idea of developing an air element. In 1909, when the Aerial Experimental Association attempted to interest the Department of Militia and Defence, the Deputy Minister Eugène Fiset (1874 – 1951) expressed his reservations, saying “who knows what these aeroplanes can do?”

This attitude, however, eventually did change. On 16 September 1914, the Minister of Militia and Defence Colonel Sir Samuel Hughes (1853 – 1921) authorized the creation of the Canadian Aviation Corps (CAC) as a small unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. It was short-lived and consisted of just three members and one aircraft, the Burgess-Dunne floatplane.

The Burgess-Dunne


The Burgess-Dunne was designed by British aircraft experimenter and Boer War veteran Lieutenant J.W. Dunne and was manufactured under license by the Burgess Company, an American boat-building firm based in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The aircraft was built of mahogany, brass, fabric and nitrate (dope). Dope was used to tighten and strengthen the fabric and make it airtight and waterproof.

The Burgess-Dunne was unusual not only because of its structural design, but also because it was a seaplane (known then as an “aerohydroplane”) that used pontoons instead of wheels. The original design actually had wheels, but the aircraft had a strong desire to fly into the wind and it was very sensitive to cross winds, which made landings tricky—in fact, almost every landing was a crash landing! That was a design issue that needed to be solved, and pontoons were the answer. Pontoons allowed for safe landings on water, where cross winds were less problematic. The largest pontoon stretched under the belly the entire 26-foot length of the aircraft. A smaller pontoon was located on the tip of each of the bottom wings, providing it with stability.

BDunne01The Burgess-Dunne was shipped to England on board the S.S. Athenia to remain on standby during The First World War, but bad luck caught up with the aircraft once again. It was simply lashed to the ship’s deck for transport and was heavily damaged when the ship encountered rough seas during the crossing. Despite this, the battered aircraft was sent to the Central Flying School at Uphavon for trials, but it was never repaired. The government, totally fed up with Janney, disbanded the CAC in May 1915. Its only aircraft, now in pieces, was abandoned on Salisbury Plain. Left untended and unwanted in England’s damp, humid weather, the Burgess-Dunne eventually just rotted away, leaving nothing worth salvaging.

In spite of the lack of a Canadian Air Force, Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) viewed the Dominion as a fertile source of recruits and enrolled many Canadians into their services. In the early period of the war the two services accepted only applicants who were qualified pilots. There were very few of these and the hundreds of young Canadians who sought to volunteer for the RFC and RNAS were first required to enter a civilian flying school and obtain the necessary certificate at their own expense. In 1917 the RFC set up its own training establishment in Canada with headquarters in Toronto and training wings at Camp Borden, and Deseronto, both in Ontario. The total number of Canadian personnel trained in Canada during 1917-18 was 3,135 pilots and 137 observers.

In 1918, there had been many Canadians enlisted with the British air services, prompting military leaders to create a Canadian Air Force. While this had been an official organization, it had accumulated just two all-Canadian squadrons and by February 1920, it had ceased to exist.


Memorial Cross

The NAFMC has acquired a rare Memorial Cross issued to F/L William F. Sharpe who was one of the three members of the Canadian Aviation Corps, formed in 1914. The unveiling of this artefact took place at the museum on April 1st. Following the unveiling attendees celebrated the 86th anniversary of the RCAF.

“Obtaining this Memorial Cross greatly enriches the museum’s collection, specifically because it was issued in memory of the first Canadian military pilot F/L Sharpe,” said Curator Georgiana Stanciu. “When one considers the rarity of material culture, dating back to 1914 at the beginning of military aviation in Canada, this is a significant acquisition”.

The memorial cross was issued for the first pilot officially enlisted in the Canadian military at the outbreak of the First World War, William F. Sharpe. He was one of the three service members who formed the first aviation unit – the Canadian Aviation Corps. This unit disbanded in February 1915, leaving behind just one airframe, the first ever purchased by the Canadian government; it was the Burgess-Dunne floatplane, which survives today only as a full scale reproduction shown in the museum. Sharpe on the other hand, joined the British RFC and, while flying solo, was killed in a crash on February the 4th 1915.

This Memorial Cross has the name “Flt. Lt. W. F. Sharpe” inscribed on the reverse and was most likely issued to William Sharpe’s young widow, Alma K. Sharpe of Prescott, ON, who was living in Ottawa at the time of her husband’s death. The names of subsequent owners was not disclosed when the museum purchased the item in January 2010 at Jeffrey Hoare Auction House, London, ON. There is uncertainty regarding authenticity of the box, although it is specific of the George V type and has the hallmark of a well-known Ottawa jeweler in the 1920s, A. McMillan.