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The Royal Canadian Air Force Photo Survey unit to 1950

Arctic & Northern Aviation

The Ottawa Journal, December 6, 1950

Aerial mapping, 1950 - RCAF's Jig Saw Job Nearing End

Aerial mapping in Canada, 1950
By THOMAS VAN DUSEN of The Journal Staff.

    Up around Ellesmere Island where the Polar Ice Cap pushes into the Arctic Sea, where Canada reaches its northern limit, there the RCAF's Rockcliffe-based Dakotas and Lancasters next Spring will undertake their last big photo survey job.

    Rockcliffe's photo survey squadrons, under the pressure of the RCAF's fighting needs, have been slashed by two-thirds.

    Where this year camera-equipped planes of three squadrons skimmed over the barren-lands of the Northwest Staging Route and the tundra of the Yukon, next Summer only one squadron will be in action. The other two have been broken up and re-located to more pressing transport and training duties.

    The move came when Photo Survey had pretty well washed up the job of covering Canada by aerial photography.

    What is left a clean-up job on this year's work. The whole survey could have been done in 13 days of good weather, Air Commodore A. D. Ross, AOC of the RCAF's Transport Command, told The Journal, but the weather just wasn't on the job.

    Ellesmere Island is a barren, broken knoll in the Arctic; an unlovely, grim and grey rock with sharp skeletal fingers jutting ly into the grey northern sky.

    Around Ellesmere the Dakotas ply their endless trade, back and forth in parallel flight lines, photographing by pore and pock the unlovely face of the Frozen North.

Last Lap Hardest.

    When the job is done next Summer Canada will have had complete photographic coverage.

    The last lap is the hardest.

    In from the Beaufort Sea, as the camera planes plow on, come ragged, low-lying clouds, day after day, holding up the job and sending the crews, frustrated, back to their Northern bases. The latest wrinkle is to get a weather check before taking off and to despatch all the aircraft in the area - and it's a wide area, comprising several Summer bases - to the "sunshine spot", there to work until the dull clouds roll in again from the ocean.

    For the press yesterday, Air Cmdre. Ross - whose command also is pushing the airlift to Tokyo - recalled early days of aerial mapping when pilots in FE flying boats, holding their craft on course by the seat of their pants, saw the Canadian bushland unrolling down below.

    In those days the mapping was done by "oblique" photography. That is, the camera was held slantingly down over the fuselage, pointed in the general direction of the landscape, and the cameraman busily turned a crank. Generally, a crate of pigeons was brought along so that, if the worst came to the inevitable, there would be some way of getting a message back to base. Also, as long as there was a crate of pigeons, no one was going to starve.

    Air Commodore Ross saw his share of bush landings, coming through seven in one hectic Summer. On four of them pigeons were turned loose, and made their way back to base - except one, which refused to leave his stranded pilot and cameraman. Presumably he ended up as pie and was struck off strength.

    Up through the various types of Vickers aircraft, then on to sea planes and Northrup Deltas until 1939, the serial map-makers flew their lonely trips. By now vertical photography had come in, with a fixed camera that pointed straight down, and operated automatically, recording contours and outlines as faithfully as - and more so than - any artist.

Camera Never Lies.

    Where the human cartographers had erred, the aerial camera never made mistakes.

    The camera showed that one lonesome James Bay Island for years had been shown on the map upside down, a Saskatchewan town was shown on the maps four miles out of place, and finally, the RCAF pushed the North Magnetic Pole 200 miles to its proper location.

    Last year, the survey crews capped a valorous record by discovering two Arctic Islands no one had ever heard of.

    The phase of aerial photography that now is ending with the disbanding of two Rockcliffe squadrons is trimetrical photography.

    The process was a speedup system rushing through aerial coverage as fast as possible. It simply meant using three cameras on each run, in place of one. While one was correctly vertical, the two on each side had to be fixed on an angle. Later adjustment was made to correct the angle and various processes were followed to get a complete map layout.

    Some vertical photography will always be going on in Canada so the RCAF photo survey never has to worry about being completely out of a job.

    Last for example, the big aircraft skimmed over the Winnipeg floods, making complete photographic records no fewer than five times, at different water levels.

    Geologists and oil companies too are eager to get prints of the aerial mapping. Last year the oil companies alone - excluding all other types of mining firms - got 100,000 prints from the Rockcliffe aerial photo laboratories.

    For the crews, the job has been no simple one. Flights are made over target at 20,000 feet. Sometimes crews are in the air 13 hours at a stretch, 10 of those hours on oxygen.

    That kind of flying last year mapped 869,000 miles of Canada's northland. Record year was 1948, with the squadrons rolling 911,500 miles under the tireless fuselages.

    From a beginning of 280 square miles in 1921, Photo Survey modestly figures that's some progress!

Mapping In Full Flight
An article about the Royal Canadian Air Force's aerial photography and mapping by Hugh A. Halliday, in Legion Magazine of August 18, 2008.

Photographic Operations of the Royal Canadian Air Force
A 16-page article by Wing Commander R. I. Thomas, RCAF, from Arctic journal, 1950 (pdf, 4 MB).

National Air Photo Library
The National Air Photo Library (NAPL) of Natural Resources Canada archives over 6 million aerial photographs covering all of Canada, some of which date back to the 1920s.

Aerial mapping in Canada, 1950
RCAF 405 Squadron Lancaster 10MP Maritime Patrol aircraft in February 1953