British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
The BCATP played a very brief but memorable part in the history of Alberta. It very abruptly appeared on the scene, played a prominent role for five years, and then just as quickly it was gone, leaving behind dozens of abandoned airbases and derelict yellow airplanes in hundreds of farmer's yards.
A command headquarters in Calgary was responsible for a network of different schools in Alberta. The legendary clear skies of this part of Canada undoubtedly played a role in the decision to locate so many bases in the province, particularly in southern Alberta. Although Nanton did not have a training station, it was surrounded by other towns that did and the appearance of aircraft in the skies was commonplace.
Some 28 km north of Nanton at High River, Elementary Flying Training School No. 5 operated for virtually the entire duration of the war. At the Vulcan station, some 25 km east of Nanton, the BCATP operated Service Training School No. 19, and during the early years of the war, Flying Instructor School No. 2. Another Service Flying Training School, No. 15, was located at Claresholm, 40 km south of Nanton.
In his highly regarded book, "A Thousand Shall Fall," Murray Peden recalls how he and fellow student Francis Plate would, ". . .frequently manage to get solo sessions at the same time. We would enliven these by arranging to meet over some town in the aerobatics area -usually Nanton -where we would proceed to take turns topping the other's performance." All across southern Alberta the daily appearance in the skies of training aircraft with their distinctive "BCATP yellow" colour was a clear indication that the province was playing a significant role in the war effort.
Today, grass and tumbleweeds are slowly repossessing the runways that once bustled with planes as thousands of young men learned the basics of wartime flying. At some of the schools, such as Pearce, northeast of Fort Macleod, all of the buildings have been removed and there are few indications of the presence of the base. In other locations, such as Lethbridge portions of the runways and tarmacs are still in use and the hangars continue to house aircraft at the city's airport.
The Vulcan BCATP base is the most imposing and thought provoking. Located several kilometres from the town of Vulcan, the isolated hangars remain very much as they were left by the BCATP in 1945, the huge structures looking like a movie set on the prairie. It is well worth a visit and it is generally possible to walk through one of the hangars and get a feeling for the effort involved in their construction, the massive timbers and cable reinforced truss system being most impressive. Standing in the middle of one of these giant hangars, one cannot avoid reflecting on what it must have been like when they were a hive of activity, filled with aircraft being serviced by men and women from various corners of Canada and the world who were playing their part in what was a massive international effort.
In July 1940, the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom agreed that the Royal Air Force would move four Service Flying Training Schools (SFTS's) to Canada to be operated under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Before these schools started packing for the move to Canada, the British government requested that an additional eight SFTS's be moved. Ultimately, 26 RAF aircrew schools were moved to Canada. This was all due to the danger of enemy attacks in all areas in England and the benefits of undertaking flying training in Canada -wide open spaces, no air traffic congestion around the schools and areas where training would occur and no danger from the enemy. The Airspeed Oxford was the RAF favourite for training at the twin-engine Service Flying Schools.
The Royal Air Force schools were all assigned numbers in the thirties. There were six RAF Schools in Alberta including 36 SFTS at Penhold that flew the Airspeed Oxford.