Sky was the limit: How Saskatchewan spearheaded Canadian aviation industry

From the beginning of the 20th century and onward, Saskatchewan's official aviation firsts put the province on the map as idealists and pioneers.

Province's wide-open spaces became breeding ground for flight innovation after First World War

Saskatchewan is home to several aviation firsts, from licensed pilots to smoke jumpers to air ambulances. Regina's Flying Club (pictured) first became active in 1927, and has helped beginner pilots acquire their wings ever since. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

From the early years of the 20th century and onward, Saskatchewan boasted a number of firsts in Canadian aviation history. But two aviation historians say most of us don't know enough about the contributions the province's earliest high flyers made. 

Those contributions go back as far as 1919, and soldiers who returned home from the Royal Air Force to Regina and found they couldn't shake their affinity for aviation.

"The First World War was over, and there was a lot of young guys around who wanted to keep flying in civilian life," said Will Chabun. "Aviation was what daring young men, and a few young women, did."

Chabun is a longtime member of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, with a special interest in Saskatchewan's historic industry firsts.

Will Chabun says lessons can be learned from the past, particularly about innovation and perseverance. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

It was Roland J. Groome — a mechanic, pilot and trainer — who got the propellers turning in Regina's civilian industry, he said. 

"He comes back in 1919, gets an aircraft from Saskatoon and flies it here. The first cross-country trip in Saskatchewan aviation history," Chabun said.

On the plane, he had a letter for the mayor of Regina from Saskatoon's mayor. It was the first airmail delivery in the province. 

'Aviation was what daring young men, and a few young women, did.'- Will Chabun 

In 1920, a team of military officers went across Canada to test self-identified pilots.

"The federal government — then as now— had an urge to regulate things," Chabun said.

Groome passed the test and became the first licensed commercial pilot in Canada. Robert McCombie, who worked with Groome, became the first licensed air maintenance engineer in the country.

Aviation pioneer Roland J. Groome became the chief flying instructor for the Regina Flying Club in 1928. He died in a plane crash in 1935, but his legacy lives on. (CBC Archives)

Their plane was registered as G-CAAA, the first legally licensed commercial aircraft in Canada. 

"It was kind of a remarkable historical thing, kind of a historical fluke," Chabun said. "We have the distinction of being able to claim the first licensed commercial pilot, air maintenance engineer, first registered aircraft, and the first officially acknowledged air harbour." 
Roland J. Groome helped start the Aerial Service Company in 1919, alongside an airfield in Regina by Hill Avenue and Cameron Street. (CBC Archives)

Furthermore, Saskatchewan had the first team of smoke jumpers in 1947 — "young men who jumped out of a perfectly good airplane in order to fight forest fires," Chabun said. The unit was shut down in 1966. 

Prior to that, Regina's own George Speers created the idea of an air ambulance service in 1936.

"Groome's feat opened the door to the air-mindedness that we now have," Chabun said. 

Unlimited skies in Saskatchewan 

Regina aviation enthusiast Gary Williams's dad was a bomber pilot, so he's always had a natural interest in the craft. 

Chabun introduced him to the Canadian Aviation Historical Society about two decades ago, and Williams has been the national president since 2012. 

Canadian Aviation Historical Society president Gary Williams says he remains intrigued by the aviation industry because of the endless number of stories shared by people who have been part of it. (Craig Edwards/CBC)

Like Chabun, Williams doesn't actually work in the industry but has a steadfast passion for flying. 

'It's an unrecognized history.'- Gary Williams 

"I'm not a pilot. I sort of kind of wish I'd pushed that issue when I was younger," Williams said. 

"Simply the thrill of flying and the ability to get up there and, you know, touch the sky." 

He wants more people to know about the province's place in Canada's flight history. 

"It's almost a tragedy that we don't promote more of that in the school system, because there's some incredibly rich history," Williams said.

"I honestly think it's an unrecognized history that our job is to expand that knowledge and foster that education," he said. 
Gary Williams says Canadian pilots and air maintenance engineers are retiring fast, and encourages young people to look into the industry for the thrill and also the 'serious money.' (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

For him, the reason why the province had so many firsts is obvious: "Unlimited skies." 

Chabun agrees.

"The work that aviation can do is confined only by our imagination," Chabun said, noting the sky is literally the limit.