From the Archives: 1920s flying lessons

Jenny Seeman
1920 Royal Roads flying lesson

The archives at Royal Roads has a rich collection of photographs from the Dunsmuir family, the military college era and the university. You can browse some of the digitised items through the archives’ online database. Familiar as I am becoming with the many hundreds of images that we have, there are always pictures that catch my eye and pique my curiosity. It would be wonderful if all the photographs came with even a little bit of metadata: who is in the picture, what date was it taken, who took the photo, and so on, but that is so rarely the case and often we have nothing but the photo itself upon which to build a description.

This photo is a fairly rare picture of Dola Dunsmuir.  Rare because Dola hated to have her picture taken and consequently, she is under represented in the Dunsmuir photo collections that we have.  Here, she is standing with two men dressed in flying clothes and all three are stood in front of a two-person aircraft. Zooming in on the tail shows that the plane is a Driggs Dart and the lettering behind the people indicates a registration number : G-CAIR. A fairly simple internet search shows that this Driggs Dart was registered to British Columbia Airways on December 13, 1927 with the name “Miss Nan”. British Columbia Airways was first registered as a company in November 1927.

The company was co-owned by several shareholders, including the Eves brothers, owners of an automotive business in Victoria. They purchased at least two Driggs Dart models from a factory in Lansing, Michigan, with the intention that they would be used to give flying lessons here in Victoria. The instructor was A.H. Wilson, a former Royal Naval Air Service pilot. The Driggs Dart was powered by a ninety-five horsepower Anzani “Aircat” motor and had a ceiling of 18,000 feet. Its cruising radius was about 275 miles and it could fly at about 90 miles per hour.

British Columbia Airways operated out of Lansdowne Airfield (where Lansdowne School is now located) and ran Canada’s first international passenger plane service, which went between Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle in a 12 passenger monoplane. The first few weeks of service in the summer of 1928 saw over 1000 passengers, who were not only travelling on the plane as a luxury tourist experience but also as a quick means of business travel between the major cities. The interior of the plane had green leather trim and the seats were wicker chairs (with no seat belts). It was the first passenger plane to have an on-board toilet. The BC Airways service was short-lived: after only a month of flights, on August 25, 1928, the plane was lost in the waters near Port Townsend, losing all 7 passengers and the two pilots that were on board. Dense fog was thought to be the cause of the accident.

It’s not clear whether the company went out of business because of this incident – airlines of the 20s and 30s seem to have come and gone very quickly. Nevertheless BC Airways faced several lawsuits after this crash and the flying school part of the business was soon taken over by Sprott-Shaw College. The plane in this picture is recorded as ‘destroyed beyond repair’ on 31 October, 1928. On October 6, a pilot by the name of Edward Luke crashed the plane into an irrigation ditch on a farm on Lulu Island (location of the City of Richmond today). The plane had taken off from the flying school at Lansdowne airport and the pilot lost control as he banked to the west. Luke was flying alone and escaped the crash with bruises and scratches.

This information, coupled with some observations from the picture itself, helps us to give it a date. This exact plane was only in service from December 13, 1927 to October 6, 1928. We know that Dola was married on August 11, 1928 and moved immediately to London where she settled with her husband, Henry Cavendish. Since the trees are without leaves, this picture was probably taken in the winter/early spring of 1928, before the BC Airways summer passenger service began. It is quite likely that one of the men is the instructor pilot A. H. Wilson and perhaps the other man is a friend of Dola embarking on a flying lesson. It is interesting to note the other two female figures in the background of the picture apparently wandering freely on the airfield.

There are so many pictures with stories to tell, if only we know what to look for! Can you fill in any more details about this picture or the company, BC Airways? Do you have any photos with mysteries to solve? Share your archival stories with Jenny Seeman in the archives on ext. 4122.