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by Jonathan F. Vance

Toronto: Penguin Books. 337 pages, $35.00

Reviewed by Aaron Plamondon

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While there have been many histories written about the evolution of flying in Canada, Jonathan Vance has taken a very different approach and the result is an original piece of scholarship on a very old topic. This book is about the idea of flying in Canada – how people perceived the new technology and how one of humanity’s greatest aspirations aroused the national imagination. Too often in the past Canadian perceptions about flying were guided, often through hyperbole, by those directly involved in the industry of flying. People were led to think that flight would improve their lives and, possibly, the world. Those who preached the ‘gospel of flight’, a group Vance calls the ‘air lobby’, often delivered “misleading, contradictory, and unrealistic” information to the public. Vance spends much of the book examining these proselytizing efforts. These attempts at ‘aeronautic enlightenment’ culminated in the endorsement of a social revolution, which advocated that flying could create greater international understanding and world peace by its ability to shrink space and time.

The book begins with the origins of flight in British North America – the first balloon journey in Canada in 1840 by the Bostonian, Louis Anselm Lauriat. This captured the public interest and, as Vance describes, this curiosity continued for the next seventy years, leading people to dream of highways in the air. As with any new technology, the art of ballooning had its detractors, but as the technology improved even the most pessimistic could see that history was being made. Engined flying machines were of particular interest to the Canadian Department of Militia and Defence; in 1909 one of the earliest successful flying machines, The Silver Dart, crashed in Petawawa during a military test. Unfortunately for the air pioneers, this crash reinforced the government’s cynical attitude, the military’s conservatism, and the general public’s suspicions.

Despite the pre-First World War popularity of air shows and the first inter-city airplane flight between Montreal and Ottawa in 1913, Canadians were not convinced that flying was practical – flying was for entertainment. As a result, the air lobby remained a technological Cassandra until the interwar era. Flight was still unpredictable and unsafe; its progress, in the public mind, disappointingly incremental.

Vance argues, in well-crafted prose, that the Great War was a monumental catalyst for aviation in Canada. He offers vivid scenarios – more characteristic of literature than academic writing – that help the reader visualize knights in modern agile air steeds jousting for control of the sky. Through his artful writing he reveals how breakthroughs in flight technology created strategic attack and reconnaissance weapons that directly affected how war was waged. The time of the dashing pilot had arrived with Canada claiming one of its greatest military heroes – airman Billy Bishop, whom Vance often quotes. The opinions of the Canadian government, business, and public, were not unaffected.

By the 1920s, flight symbolized progress and modernity. During the Great War, Canada had designed and built (except for the engines) a trainer plane, the JN-4, which was possibly the best piece of equipment that Canada produced for the Allies. Although these were all sold after the war, interest in airplane technology remained. This interest turned to long distance flights that linked Canada more easily with Britain and the Empire. After Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Canadians began to see flying as practical – a tool of unity and peace – and pilots were lionized as divine messengers. Bishop even journeyed to Germany to lay a wreath on the tomb of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen.

Although interrupted by the Depression, aviation proved that it could deliver mail efficiently across the country and showed its potential to fulfill the promise of Confederation better than any railway car. Much later it would even help chart and develop Northern Canada. According to Vance, flying was perceived as transcending physical and spiritual limitations.

The vision of the airplane as a tool of goodwill evaporated during the Spanish Civil War when Guernica was destroyed in 1937 by German bombers aiding Spanish Fascists. The Second World War took this new method of attrition even further. Because aerial bombers could reach and destroy enemy cities, they were seen as an Allied tool of revenge. Bombing was not merely accepted by Canadian citizens, it was glorified. Airplanes were viewed as an alternative to costly ground war with its abominations of battlefields deep in mud and littered with corpses. This concept was largely an illusion, however, and people soon realized that an air war did not eliminate casualties, but rather caused many on both sides. Pilots were no longer revered: they were simply part of a crew directing a machine; flying lost its spiritual nature for the public. While war made flying common and accessible, Vance argues that indiscriminate bombing and competition for the air ruined the innocent perceptions of flight.

Vance has provided a valuable addition to the historiography of flight in Canada, in large measure because of his talent as a storyteller. He does not write about events in chronological order, but switches between topics easily. He makes exceptional use of newspaper articles to illustrate popular opinion – from early skepticism to blind faith in all things airworthy. Although some historians may scoff at his extensive use of anecdotal evidence, journals, diaries and poems, these sources are often the only way to show how people thought about a subject; in this instance they are competently used on the art of flight. This is a cogent and well written work that clearly shows what flight has meant to Canadians throughout its tumultuous history. Reading High Flight, one can reflect on how far aviation has come since the first balloon journey, what the development of aviation has meant to this country, and how it may affect the waging of war in the future.

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Aaron Plamandon is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, University of Calgary.