British Commonwealth Air Training Plan: the Aerodrome of Democracy

Harvard airplane

Harvards were used as a trainer aircraft by thousands of Commonwealth aviators from 1940 onwards

In 1942 the RAF was fielding the most highly trained front-line fighters in the history of warfare.

By this time, most of the pre-war generation of regular aircrew had been killed off, were promoted to non-operational roles, or were languishing in German POW camps.

The need to advance technology and increase production was paramount for success, but so was replenishing the ever-depleting stock of qualified aircrew. An experienced pilot was a valuable commodity. So much so, that it became a grim reality of war that pilots would be shot at after they had baled out and were parachuting to the ground: one couldn’t afford the risk that the pilot would live, pick himself up and walk straight into the next available aircraft.

Training itself was a dangerous business. 5,327 men were killed and a further 3,113 were injured in RAF training accidents between 1939-45.

British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was a massive, joint military aircrew training program created by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  It remains the single largest aviation training program in history and was responsible for training nearly half the pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, air gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers who served with the RAF.

The United Kingdom was considered an unsuitable location for air training, due to the possibility of enemy attack, the strain caused by wartime traffic at airfields and the unpredictable climate, so the plan called for the facilities in the Dominions to train British and each others’ aircrews.

Negotiations regarding joint training, between the four governments concerned, took place in Ottawa during the first few months of the war. On 17 December 1939, they signed the Air Training Agreement – often referred to as the “Riverdale Agreement”, after the UK representative at the negotiations, Lord Riverdale.

The Agreement called for the training of nearly 50,000 aircrew each year, for as long as necessary: 22,000 aircrew from Great Britain, 13,000 from Canada, 11,000 from Australia and 3,300 from New Zealand. Under the agreement, air crews received elementary training in various Commonwealth countries before travelling to Canada for advanced courses.


Canada was chosen as the primary location for “The Plan” due to ample supplies of fuel, wide open spaces suitable for flight and navigation training, industrial facilities for the production of trainer aircraft, parts and supplies. It was also far from the frontline and was far beyone the reaches of the Luftwaffe.

Due to its prominence in the plan, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to Canada as “the Aerodrome of Democracy”, a play on his earlier description of the United States as “the Arsenal of Democracy.”

At its height, The Plan included 231 training sites and more than 10,000 aircraft and 100,000 military administrative personnel.

In late 1944, the Air Ministry announced the winding-up of the plan, since the Commonwealth air forces had long had a surplus of air crews. At the conclusion of the war, over 167,000 students, including over 50,000 pilots, trained in Canada under the programme from May 1940 to March 1945. While the majority of those who successfully completed the programme went on to serve in the RAF, over half (72,835) of the 131,553 graduates were Canadians.

List of British Commonwealth Air Training Plan facilities in Canada

Romantic young idealists

Our grandfather was obviously one of these graduates.

Why would a young man, living so far from the war, wish to sacrifice himself for this distant cause?

Hastings writes of the volunteers:

“Now, in the spirit of Kitchener’s New Armies of 1915, the first flower of volunteers of 1939 were reaching the squadrons. These were the romantic young idealists, almost to a man aspiring fighter pilots, many of them colonials who would make such an enormous contribution to Bomber Command- New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians. They had trained all over the world for two years or more- some in America, others in Canada, Rhodesia, South Africa. The pilots and navigators represented the highest skills” (173).


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