Article: Engineering the Flying Future

  • In 1937, when Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA) was established, Winnipeg’s location at the geographic centre of Canada made it the perfect location to coordinate trans-continental air routes. As a result, TCA built its head office complete with hangar facilities at Winnipeg’s Stevenson Field in 1938. The staff of maintenance, customer service, clerical, and management employees quickly grew to number more than 1,200 people. In addition to day-to-day operations, each model of airplane used by TCA was involved in a process of constant testing and improvement in state-of-the-art research facilities, which put TCA on the cutting edge of aviation safety and reliability.

    As Canadians prepared for war in 1939, the government tasked TCA with keeping the national service operating. At the same time however, most engine manufacturers were devoted almost exclusively to the war effort. Without support from their partner manufacturers, TCA’s Jack Dyment, Chief Engineer since the company’s inception, began a program of in-house engine upgrades to compensate. At the end of the war, Dyment approached the Department of Transport and requested permission to continue this upgrade process. The unmatched expertise of Dyment and his team earned Trans-Canada Air Lines special status as Canada’s first aircraft modification ‘Approval Firm’.

    In those days, Trans-Canada Air Lines put in orders for new airplanes long before the first test flights had been performed. This allowed TCA engineers to have influence over the design process. The most significant example of this was the introduction of the DC-8 in 1951. Trans-Canada Air Lines engineers’ collaboration with the Douglas Aircraft Company designers resulted in the installation of new Rolls-Royce “Conway” by-pass engines. The improved efficiency of these engines saved 1,100 kilos in fuel weight on each airplane. This was the first commercial use of what is today known as the turbofan engine. Dyment reported after 20 years as Chief Engineer, “… the DC-8 was the most reliable airplane we had ever put into service.”

    To ensure a steady influx of new talent, Dyment introduced a comprehensive ground crew training program in the 1950s. Many of these new employees were hired at the ‘learner’ level directly out of high school. Each new hire on the engineering staff was trained in every aspect of ground operations over a six-tiered, three-year program. Starting at a monthly salary of $191, these ‘learners’ received a pay increase after each tier. At the end of tier six, they made $279 per month and graduated as ‘junior mechanics’.

    When Jack Dyment retired in 1958, the newly renamed Winnipeg International Airport was home to TCA, the Canadian division of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, and also had a large military presence, making the airport Winnipeg’s largest industry. Today, the TCA historic head office is home to the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada. The building remains abuzz with more than 100 volunteers, many of whom worked for TCA.

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