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In the Beginning: Reflections on the Origins of the CAHS

By William J. Wheeler

Although the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS), or the "Early Bird Club of Canada" as it was initially known, is usually regarded as having come into existence at the beginning 1963 when we produced our first Enthusiast publication, our origins actually date back a month or two earlier to the late summer or early fall of 1962. Our first meeting was held in the living room of my then home on Belsize Drive in north Toronto.

What had sparked it all was a book, Knights of the Air, by the late John Norman (Jack) Harris that I illustrated. Jack had flown Stirlings with the RAF and had been shot down to spend four years in a prison camp, the same stalag as Douglas Bader.

At that time, I had been freelancing as an illustrator, receiving assignments from several Toronto book publishers as well as the Star Weekly. I was one of the few illustrators in Toronto specializing in aviation and marine subjects, and I had done previous work for MacMillan's. They offered me the assignment.

I was very fortunate in meeting H.J. (Hank) Burden, a Royal Flying Corps ace, who loaned me his album. It was his S.E.5a, 'Maybe,' that I painted for the jacket illustration. He also loaned me a large book of First World War photographs that had been published in the early twenties; this provided me with invaluable reference material."

The idea of such a society such as ours was conceived by George Morley and Jeff Burch, who came across a copy of Knights of the Air and got in touch with me through the publishers. Their original concept was of an organization devoted to researching and publishing untold First World War flying stories, and those early issues of the CAHS Journal reflected this.

Harry Creagen and Stew Taylor, both recognized authorities of the First World War, came on board shortly, along with Charlie Catalano -- a well-known Toronto light aircraft pilot and owner who had many connections in local flying circles; he figured largely in the Toronto Chapter and was Chapter President from 1970 to 1983.

Al Martin also joined; he was with Air Canada (then TCA – Trans Canada Airlines) Public Relations and had connections in a different area. Al brought Jack McNulty and Sheldon Benner into the fold, as well as other aviation history enthusiasts. Other early members included Larry Milberry, Paul Regan, John Beilby, John Ellis, Doug MacRitchie, John Griffin, Boris Zissoff, Terry Waddington, and Roger Juniper. Don Long, of de Havilland Canada, got in touch and introduced me to Fred Hotson, who would for so many years be our National President.

John Griffin succeeded George Morley as President, followed by Pat Howard, one of TCA's original pilots and a member of the Lincoln Ellsworth Expedition to the South Pole; he flwe a beautiful Northrop Gamma. Over the years, we have been privileged to have a number of distinguished people lead our society.

Our first logo, conceived by myself and Russ Maebus (a designer in the Art Department of the Toronto Star Weekly), used large open-face block letters separated by periods. We used it for about five years until it was replaced by the very distinctive 'Swash" CAHS designed by Jim Bruce.

The society grew rapidly. During those first summers, we set up exhibitions at air shows from St Catherine's to Ottawa and even Orilla. The late Mac McIntyre came on board at about this time and became a moving force in the society, both locally and nationally. Mac not only wrote articles but, along with Doug MacRichie, arranged for the transport of our display to numerous air shows and fly-ins. At each appearance, we would sign up thirty or forty new members.

We soon widened our scope to include bush flying, airline operations, and biographical accounts of individuals who had contributed significantly to Canadian aviation. Fortunately, our circle of contributors grew along with our membership. In addition to capable writers, the CAHS had several gifted photographers, foremost among whom was Jack McNulty.

Initially, meetings were at other members' residences. When we outgrew those comfortable venues, we tried various sites, ranging from the Downsview Library to an auditorium at Bloor and Broadview. Charlie Catalano found a unique location, the Paladium, a dance hall just around the corner from his store on Girard Street, kitty-corner from the Don Jail. Here, we rattled around in a vast, dusty room with creaky floors and an echo.

We became the CAHS when I approached Frank Ellis, author of Canada's Flying Heritage, and asked for his support, which he generously gave. Frank pointed out that the "Early Bird" name had long belonged to a very distinguished group of men and women who had flown prior to the First World War." Al Martin suggested we emulate our sister American organization, the American Aviation Historical Society, which we did.

Then there were our illustrators. With my background in the field, I had a number of contacts, and many of them helped expand my network. We were able to obtain drawings from many of the top artists in Canada: Tom Bjananson, Jim Bruce, Will Davies, Peter Mossman, and several others. On a trip to the UK, I met Frank Wootton, widely acknowledged as the Dean of Aviation Artists, and he generously allowed us to use any of his paintings that had a Canadian connection.

With the help of Air Canada, we were able to bring Frank to Toronto to speak at a convention. Support from Senator Hartland Molson enabled us to purchase the painting Breaking the Circle and donate it to the National Air Museum in Ottawa. CAHS members Peter Allen, Captain Ray Lank of TCA/Air Canada, and stewardess Wendy Travis figured prominently in the process.

In closing, I would like to mention Paddy Gardiner, who founded the Ottawa Chapter. A group of original Toronto members, including Al Martin, Charlie Catalano, and George Morley accompanied me to Ottawa, where they met Paddy and Ken Molson, the first curator of the National Aviation Museum. Paddy, Hugh Halliday, and Geoff Rowe got the new Chapter on its feet. A Montreal group consisting of Doug Anderson, George Fuller, Ross Richardson, Roy Dishlevoy, and several others already existed, and they too came aboard.

In telling this story, undoubtedly, there are those whom I have missed, and to them I sincerely apologize!

The CAHS seemed to be an idea whose time had come, and we have not looked back since!