Article: Persuasive Youth and Canny Politician Start Canada’s First Air Force with $5,000

  • Image of the Brugess-Dunne airplane in flight over water

    Defence Minister Sam Hughes creates the Canadian Aviation Corps in 1914; Provisional Commander Ernest L. Janney’s vision makes up for lack of experience

    Altitude, Fall, 2014

    An aircraft decades ahead of its time and a man whose overall contribution to aviation can be described as a mixture of “visionary” and “comic” are the interlinked stories of the Canadian government’s first purchase of a military airplane.

    The aircraft the Canadian government purchased in 1914 was the Burgess-Dunne – a tailless floatplane with swept-back wings that in retrospect turned out to be the precursor to the Sabre jet decades later.

    The Burgess-Dunne was no “lemon,” as one magazine article described Canada’s choice. The problem was with the people who (mis)handled that first purchase.

    The Canadian military establishment and the minister of National Defence, Sir Sam Hughes, ignored aviation before the First World War; in fact, Hughes was on record as “not favourable to aircraft.” Hughes was an ardent supporter of a non-professional militia and held a militia officer’s commission. Further, he did not separate his political and military duties and when war broke out he went to Valcartier, Quebec, to personally organize the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

    Given his dismissive view of military aviation, his cable to his British counterpart on August 25, 1914 asking if aviators were required by Britain was a surprise. Hughes followed this with another surprise scarcely three weeks later: he created an air corps. On September 16, 1914, a document “submitted for the consideration of the Honourable Minister,” stated that “Mr. E.L. Janney is appointed provisional commander of the Canadian Aviation Corps with the rank of Captain, and is authorized to purchase one bi-plane, with necessary accessories, entailing an expenditure of not more than $5,000. A Burgess bi-plane has been ordered for quick delivery.” The document has on it the initials “S.H.” and a bold “OK,” both in Sam Hughes’ handwriting. The words “quick delivery” were also circled.

    Persuasive youth

    Who was E.L. Janney? Janney was only 21 years old in 1914. Sam Hughes was, at age 61, a seasoned and powerful federal politician. How this unusual pair connected to handle the aviation file is not clear. Janney was known as an up-and-coming “wheeler-dealer” and it is entirely possible the pair met at a political event. Janney was also blessed with an unusually persuasive and persistent personality; one report of the Hughes/Janney interaction said Janney prevailed “through sheer perseverance.”

    To his credit, Janney, who had no prior aviation background (in fact, he did not get a pilot’s licence until 1927), did some homework before Sam Hughes made his September 16 decision because there is evidence to show that he had already travelled to the U.S. to look for airplanes to buy.

    The militia commander in Janney’s hometown of Galt (now called Cambridge) promptly sent a letter of warning to senior military officials in Ottawa as soon as he heard about Hughes’ decision. Lt-Col A.J. Oliver made the following observation about Janney in his September 18 letter: “Absolutely no reliance should be placed in him in any way, shape or form and his statements in connection with flying have always been taken as a joke. He is a high flyer all right, but the meaning of the term is entirely different from that normally applied to an aviator.”

    But the warning letter was too late. By September 17, Janney, in uniform complete with sidearm, was already at the Burgess company factory in Marblehead, Massachusetts, ready to close a deal. Although Janney later claimed to have visited several suppliers, evidence suggests that his purchase decision was determined entirely on the immediate availability of an airplane within the $5,000 limit. The Burgess-Dunne was the only aircraft meeting the two criteria.

    Janney offered the entire $5,000 and insisted on immediate delivery. The Burgess people hesitated because the aircraft in question was their “demonstrator” and undergoing much-needed repairs, specifically an engine overhaul, and because it was already leased to another client.

    The ever-persuasive Janney prevailed and the Burgess company reluctantly agreed to the sale on September 18. The remaining repairs were finished virtually overnight and the Burgess-Dunne was bundled for rail shipment to Isle La Motte, Vermont, where it would be reassembled for its ferry flight to Valcartier. On September 21, the aircraft was ready.

    Why the haste? Janney needed to get his aviation corps into Quebec City by October 1 in time to board Canadian Expeditionary Force’s first convoy for England.

    The ferry flight to Canada

    Because Janney couldn’t fly, Burgess supplied the pilot, Clifford Webster. Their journey from Isle La Motte, a small community straight south of Montreal, did not go well. Janney and Webster, took off September 21 and reached Sorel, Quebec, northeast of Montreal to refuel. Some accounts say that Janney and Webster were arrested as spies when they landed because a recent federal order-in-council had banned all non-military flying and their cross-border flight looked suspicious. Their predicament ended with a phone call (or telegram) to the minister’s office. How long this took is not recorded.

    Upon their release from custody at Sorel and within a half-hour of resuming their flight, the engine started vibrating and they landed on the St. Lawrence River. Webster diagnosed a failing bearing but Janney insisted on continuing. Webster later wrote the following account: “After 18 minutes of this inferno the motor gave up the ghost and I landed with regret but not without relief also. After we had drifted for some 20 minutes a motorboat saw our distress signal and towed us in.”

    The engine was beyond repair; there was a faulty oil pump, two seized cylinders and burned out bearings. Telegraph exchanges with Burgess in Marblehead saw the firm send two mechanics north, followed by the delivery of a new engine at an additional cost of $2,500. This engine replacement and repair took an astonishing three days, according to available reports.

    On September 28, Janney and Webster were ready to fly again but were unable to take off because of a leak in the airplane’s float. These repairs took the remainder of the day. On September 29 they resumed flying. After another overnight stop, Janney decided to bypass Valcartier and proceed directly to Quebec City and load the aircraft for its sea voyage to England. This was the aircraft’s last flight. Some accounts contradict the airborne ferry flight and claim that the Burgess-Dunne covered the distance from Sorel to Quebec City by land transport.

    Some reports say the Burgess-Dunne was tied to the ship’s deck fully assembled, other reports say that only the fuselage was on deck and the wings and engine stowed below. In any case, the aircraft arrived in England on October 17, damaged. It was further deemed to be unsuitable for military use.

    Somewhere in the days between Sam Hughes’ September 16 authorization and the departure from Quebec, Janney recruited an assistant, Lieut W.F.N. Sharpe, who in turn recruited Staff Sergeant Harry A. Farr from an infantry unit as a mechanic. This trio constituted the Canadian Aviation Corps.

    Having formed the Canadian Aviation Corps, Sam Hughes gave it no ministerial support. In fact, he not only neglected to inform Canadian army headquarters, he also did not initiate any paperwork to officially create the corps and the appointment of the three men.

    Janney’s vision for Canada

    In England Janney made no attempt to repair the Burgess-Dunne and instead embarked on an unauthorized tour of British flying fields and manufacturers ending up with a proposal in November to form a squadron with four airplanes and 46 men, including seven officers, at an estimated annual cost of $116,679. The Canadian commander in England queried Ottawa regarding the status of Janney and what action to take with regard to this proposal. Ottawa replied saying that Janney and Sharpe were included with Canadian Expeditionary Force on the understanding they would join the Royal Flying Corps and, further, that formation of a Canadian squadron was “not intended.”

    Janney, ever unfazed, continued his travels and a month later, December, 1914, proposed the purchase of a “beautiful biplane of military type” for shipment to Canada for a national barnstorming fundraising campaign in support of a Canadian air squadron.

    About this time, Canadian Expeditionary Force authorities declared Janney to have been absent without leave since December 1. But it is difficult to discipline an officer when there is no documentation authenticating his assignment. The upshot was that Janney was allowed to resign his commission, the absence of official documentation notwithstanding.

    Sharpe, who had some pre-war flying experience then joined the RFC and was killed in a training accident in February, 1915, becoming the first Canadian aviation casualty of the war. Farr also joined the RFC but never flew in combat.

    Optimistic and in trouble

    Janney’s aviation career continued for another 27 years, but with decidedly comic features. Here are the salient points:

    • 1915: In February, several newspapers publish reports that quoted Janney’s claims to have reached altitudes of up to 23,000 feet during the ferry flight to Quebec, to have had flying lessons from the famous French aviator, Louis Blériot himself, to have engaged in observation missions in France while dodging gunfire, and to have flown combat missions in Morocco. People who knew Janney wrote letters denying all of Janney’s claims.
    • 1915: In April, Janney opened a flying school near Toronto describing himself as “officer commanding, Canadian Flying Corps,” and signing with the title “major.” The chief of the general staff was not amused and issued a memo that said, “please clip the wings of Captain Janney.” Officers acting on the memo found it difficult to find him. There is no record of the school ever graduating even one licensed pilot.
    • 1916 and 1917: Janney moved to the U.S. In 1916, he was with a militia flying unit in New Jersey. The next year he was in Munroe, Michigan, where he launched the Janney Aircraft Company and raised enough capital to build one airplane – its inaugural flight fails when it burns during takeoff. Janney next turned up in California and was charged with impersonating a Canadian officer.
    • 1918: Now back in Canada, Janney tried unsuccessfully to rejoin the Canadian Expeditionary Force in May. Upon learning of plans to create the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service, Janney ingratiates himself with its organizer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.T. Cull, and was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant. Militia officers on hearing of Janney’s appointment described his colourful past in letters to Cull, who ignored their warnings. There is a report, however, that Janney was on an RCNAS Curtiss flying boat that crashed into Toronto Harbour. When the RCNAS disbanded at the end of the year, Cull wrote an effusive letter of reference.
    • 1919: Janney was general manager of Canadian Northern Traders, a company that planned to use five aircraft and an unspecified number of airships to exploit resources in northern Quebec. In October, the Ottawa Citizen newspaper reported that Janney had been arrested in Cornwall, Ontario, and charged with writing a bad cheque to buy aircraft.
    • 1921: In Edmonton, Janney announced plans for a northern air service using dirigibles. His efforts to sell investment stocks were quashed by provincial authorities. In late summer, he was again arrested and jailed for writing bad cheques, this time in Lethbridge. He made national and international news when he embarked on a hunger strike; it is not clear from available reports whether his hunger strike was in protest against his arrest on a charge of obtaining money under false pretenses or in protest against prison conditions. (After about a month into his hunger strike, according to one newspaper, he was losing a pound of weight each day and prison officials were considering “forcible feeding”). The publicity flushed out other victims of his shady business dealings who cited a litany of unpaid bills and bad cheques.
    • 1924: Janney again made aviation news with plans to launch an air service in British Guyana.
    • 1927: Janney finally acquired his Canadian pilot’s license. A month after Charles Lindbergh completed his solo trans-Atlantic Atlantic flight in May, the New York Times announced that Janney would attempt an Ottawa to London, England flight on July 11. This trans-Atlantic flight likely coincided with Janney’s founding of a company called Janney Transatlantic Flights Limited, which was to be financed with 1,600 shares of stock at $25 each; the company’s mission was to purchase aircraft and finance flights “across the Atlantic or elsewhere.”
    • 1929: Janney incorporated yet another company called Janney Aircraft and Boats Ltd. in Ontario. Stock certificates were issued but apparently only to those involved in establishing the company. There is no record of the company after 1930.
    • 1932: Janney was still promoting himself as a pioneer in aviation and managed to have a Montreal newspaper describe him as “the first Canadian to volunteer his services and be accepted as a war flier.”
    • 1939: With the prospect of another war, Janney sent a message to Ottawa declaring himself ready for service: “Am still full of the old pep. Let me know what I can do.”

    Janney died in Winnipeg on April 22, 1941. His headstone in Brookside Cemetery reads: “Sub-Lieutenant Ernest L. Janney, RCNVR, 1893-1942.”

    Major sources:
    • “We Bought a Lemon,” an article by A.E. Hill in High Flight, July/August, 1982, edition.
    • A High Flyer, Indeed, an article by Hugh A. Halliday, in Legion Magazine, published by the Royal Canadian Legion, July 1, 2004, edition.
    • Wise, S.F., Canadian Airmen and the First World War; University of Toronto Press and Department of National Defence, 1981.
    This story originally appeared in the Fall, 2014 edition of Altitude.

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