During the 1920s, many Canadian airmen who served in the Great War found work back home in Canada with the Civil Operations branch of the Air Force, which conducted forestry patrols and aerial survey. One such pilot was Flight Lieutenant Jim Uhlman, a Nova Scotian who, in 1929, was put in command of an experimental detachment based out of Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba. Uhlman’s No. 1 General Purpose Detachment operated two Fairchild FC-2 Razorbacks and was responsible for patrol and transport over a vast northern swath of the country ranging from Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec to Aklavik, Northwest Territories. They adopted the motto ‘Specialists in Everything’ because, as Jim Uhlman put it, “That is exactly what we were doing.”
Civil Air Operations continued as a branch of the Air Force until 1932 when the strain of economic depression caused the government to disband all non-permanent Air Force personnel. Seventy-two Officers, including Uhlman and dozens of enlisted men, were suddenly out of work. After 15 years as a pilot, Uhlman could not imagine living his life grounded. He recognized the importance the Civil Air Operations had provided to the local people and he decided to drum up interest for a permanent air service by lobbying private industry and the RCMP. “The RCMP told me that they would be happy to have me as a constable, but that they had no thought of starting an air service at that time,” Uhlman recalled many years later.
Air Vice-Marshal Leigh Stevenson heard about Uhlman’s inquiries and he arranged for five Vickers Vedette flying boats to be sold to the Province of Manitoba for $1, provided the province employ Uhlman and a team of Air Force personnel. Uhlman was named Director of the five-man team and they set up shop at Lac du Bonnet under the title of Manitoba Government Air Service (MGAS). The Federal Government had recently turned over natural resource management to the provinces and the original mandate was for forestry protection. However, as Uhlman explains, “… it was soon found that there were many other uses for the aircraft and I was anxious to get working year round.”
The Vedettes’ were seasonal aircraft that could only be landed on lakes and rivers during the summer months. Uhlman arranged with the Province of Manitoba to buy a Fairchild Razorback with skis and floats early in 1933. Soon MGAS was providing transport for practically every government agency, conducting search and rescue missions, and establishing radio stations across the northern parts of the province. These necessary services proved to be indispensable for northern communities and industry and by the time of Jim Uhlman’s retirement thirty years later, MGAS employed 40 people and operated nearly 20 airplanes – mostly de Havilland Beavers’ and Otters’.
Today, the iconic MGAS yellow water bombers are a common sight at the Winnipeg airport. They conduct firefighting missions in Manitoba and across North America. A replica Vickers Vedette – painted in the original MGAS colours – can be seen at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada. It remains the only complete example of a Vickers Vedette anywhere in the world.