Canadian Consulting Engineer

HISTORY: A Herculean Task

August 1, 2001
By Alistair MacKenzie, P.Eng.

During the dark days of World War II, Canadians undertook a mammoth job to build airfields and training centres for fighter pilots. The tremendous skills and ingenuity they applied to this task were t...

During the dark days of World War II, Canadians undertook a mammoth job to build airfields and training centres for fighter pilots. The tremendous skills and ingenuity they applied to this task were the very essence of “modern project management.”

One of the booming “disciplines” today is that of project management. To those of us in the industry of the built environment, however, project management is not new. Indeed, we can claim to have invented it, as virtually all our work has always been done by “projects.”

The pressures of war have acted as a development spur in many areas of human endeavour and the methodology of project management is no exception. Canadians felt the effects of World War II in different ways. Although we were not subjected to direct warfare at home, two major projects carried out in this country had a significant impact on the war effort. In both projects civil engineers played major roles; and in both cases it was in applying and improving project management techniques. One of the projects, involving work in both Canada and the United States, was the construction of the Alaska Highway, a joint U.S./Canadian venture. The other, which was carried out entirely within Canada, was the construction of the airfields and infrastructure to support the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, or BCATP.

The “Plan” was created to address the critical shortage of trained flyers that existed at the outbreak of World War II. Although training facilities existed in Europe, it was realized that attempting to expand these schools in areas that would be subject to enemy attack was unlikely to be satisfactory. Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand therefore agreed to provide training facilities in Canada, to be operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force, with the object of turning out up to 1,500 trained aircrew from these countries per month.

The initial studies indicated that 58 training airfields would be required. The first of these was to be complete by May 1940, and the last had to be operational by April 1942. The airfields were to be built in every province across Canada (Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada).

The extent of the challenge faced by the Government of Canada and the Royal Canadian Air Force when the agreement was signed on December 17, 1939 may be understood when one realizes that the total establishment of the Royal Canadian Air Force at that date was only around 4,000 officers and men, about 300 mostly antiquated aircraft (although they had started to receive a few Hurricane fighters) and five airfields, of which only two were training airfields. But unlikely as it might seem, not only were the original Plan targets achieved, they were surpassed in both scope and time. Thirty-three airfields were completed by the end of 1940, the total had reached 69 by the end of 1941, and 81 by the end of 1942. A further seven in 1943 brought the grand total to 88. Each of these required a satellite airfield with many of the same facilities as the main airfield.

Until shortly before the outbreak of war, the Royal Canadian Engineers had been responsible for all construction activities required by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Recognizing that this construction project was of a vastly different scale to any attempted up to that time, the government set up a Directorate of Works and Buildings and gave it the task of designing and constructing the airfields and infrastructure required. This was to be indeed a “fast-track” project.

To manage this enormous task, the directorate looked for an experienced construction executive with extensive experience of large-scale projects, and found such a man in R. R. Collard, vice president of the Carter-Hall-Aldinger Construction Company of Winnipeg. Collard was drafted into the RCAF with the rank of Wing Commander, and quickly set to work by assembling a large project management team headquartered in temporary buildings in Wellington Street in Ottawa.

One of the team’s first tasks was to identify suitable airfield sites. Survey teams were set up consisting of an inspector and an engineer from the Department of Transport, plus an RCAF officer. As very few adequate topographical maps were available at that time, the teams had to identify likely locations from the air and follow up by examining each potential site on the ground. It was preferable to locate the sites near to populated areas for construction access and for the availability of services, so the sites finally chosen were focused mainly in southern Ontario and the southern parts of the Prairie provinces.

While site selection was in progress, design had commenced on the airfields themselves and the ancillary buildings. As the plan was to train more than just pilots, there were several different types of training school. Each required different facilities, and “standard” layouts were designed for the Elementary Flight Training School, the Service Flying Training School (more advanced), the Air Observer School and the Bombing and Gunnery School. In general, all runway layouts were standardized in an equilateral triangular pattern, so that there was always a runway available within 30 degrees of the wind direction. By the end of the project some 35,000,000 square yards (29,000,000 m2) of runway, taxiway and hardstanding paving had been laid.

Many types of building had to be designed: hangars, workshops, machine shops, boiler rooms, administration offices, classrooms, barrack blocks, mess blocks, hospitals, motor pools, recreation halls and club rooms. The application of excellent project management methods to this task led to the establishment of standard designs with components being prefabricated wherever possible.

Over the life of the project some 8,300 buildings were built, the largest being the aircraft hangars, of which some 700 were constructed. These hangars posed the most difficult building design problems, as they had to provide a large clear space for aircraft maintenance, had to be well lit, heated and fireproof. They were required to be usable at temperatures as low as -40F, and some sites had high velocity air “curtains” at the hangar doors to prevent loss of warm air when the doors were open. An early design decision was to use wood for as much of the construction as possible, largely because there was a shortage of steel due to other commitments for it in the war. Hangar sizes varied depending on the type of school and there were three main variants, the single hanger at 112 ft. x 126 ft., the double hangar at 112 ft. x 160 ft., and the double-double hangar at 224 ft. x 320 ft.

The hangars’ structure consisted of Warren trusses supported on braced wooden columns. The main hangar doors were generally of the horizontally folding type, with wicket doors for personnel access. Siding was generally cedar shingles over diagonal sheeting. “Lean-to” buildings housing offices, stores, washrooms, etc. were provided on one or both “closed” ends of the hangar. Up to 10 large windows on each of these “closed” sides provided good natural lighting. As most construction was of wood, fire prevention and protection systems were very important. Water supplies were a problem on several sites, so almost 100 water pumping stations were built. The need for ample water storage gave some sites an unexpected amenity in that storage tanks were designed for double duty and could be used as swimming pools. The main features of a typical hanger and of one of the “swimming pools” can be seen in the historic photograph.

Records say that the design teams produced “more than 750,000 blueprints and 33,000 drawings.” Construction work was carried out in a method similar to today’s construction management process with “packages” of work being let out to contractors when the design was sufficiently advanced. Contractors had to be found who were competent to undertake work of this magnitude and urgency and they, too, learned a great deal about management methods. An indication of the volume of work required can be seen by the fact that in 1942 alone, some 1,000 contracts were awarded to a valu
e of around $80,000,000 — a vast sum in those days.

The rapid build-up of the Plan meant that trainees were frequently on site before all work was complete and a great deal of resourcefulness was necessary. At an early stage it had been decided that high standards of both design and construction were necessary to provide living and working conditions for the new aircrew that would help to counter the stresses they were feeling in this difficult period. Engineering and construction work did not end with the completion of the base construction. The bases had to be maintained summer and winter. As well, the introduction of newer and heavier aircraft meant that runways, taxiways and hardstanding areas had to be upgraded.

A total of 131,553 aircrew were trained over the life of the Plan, of which 72,835 were Canadians. Regrettably 856 trainees and instructors were to die during training and it is estimated that more than half of the BCATP graduates would be killed, wounded or taken prisoner whilst on active operations. Nevertheless the Plan succeeded to such an extent that by mid-1944 a decision was taken to start progressively closing the schools. By the end of that year only 52 were still operating, and all BCATP operations ceased on March 31, 1945.

The incredibly short time in which these projects were constructed was a tribute to the outstanding work of Collard and the engineers and contractors involved. Not only was their work carried out under very difficult conditions, but with their initiative and innovation, they developed advances in standardization, prefabrication and logistical planning. The techniques used to manage the process were the very essence of what we would call “modern project management.”

Today 62 of these airfields remain in use, many as municipal airports. In 1998, the board of directors of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering approved the commemoration of the design, construction and operation of the BCATP sites as a National Historic Civil Engineering Project. The Society intends to commemorate as many of these remaining sites as possible by installing on them an appropriate bronze plaque bearing details of the Plan and that particular sites’ function. The first of these commemorations took place at the Oshawa Airfield, site of the No. 20 Elementary Flying Training School, and now Oshawa Municipal Airport, on November 14,1999.CCE

Alistair MacKenzie P. Eng. FCSCE is an associate professor at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, is chair of the National History Committee of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, and is past president of the Southern Ontario chapter of the Project Management Institute.


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