Flight Firsts: A Showcase of Trailblazing Canadian Aviators

Many aviators, nurses, engineers, and others who faced gender and racial discrimination have made influential contributions to the RCAF and Canadian aviation.

Airmen RunningRCAF Foundation

The Crucible of War: 1939-1945

In late 1939, Canada was at war for the second time in a generation. Many individuals made significant contributions to the Canadian war effort despite discrimination. They began the process of bringing a more diverse group of people into the RCAF.

RCAF PosterRCAF Foundation

Gender Discrimination

With the outbreak of war in 1939, many Canadian women were eager to enlist in the armed forces. The government was initially reluctant to accept them in non-medical roles.

With recruitment of men slowing, women were finally allowed to join the RCAF in non-combat roles in 1941.

Elsie MacGillRCAF Foundation

Elsie MacGill: Queen of the Hurricanes

MacGill was the first female engineer in Canada and the first woman to be the chief of aeronautical engineering at an aircraft company. As the first person to mass produce Hawker Hurricanes, she gained the nickname, "Queen of Hurricanes."

Elsie MacGill ComicRCAF Foundation

Immortalized in Ink

MacGill's impressive career in aviation, including the challenges she faced, and her contributions to the Canadian war effort were covered in the American True Comics series dubbed “Queen of the Hurricanes.”

Queen of the Hurricanes Heritage Minute

Elsie MacGill was further immortalized as the subject of the one of the famous Heritage Minutes.

Wilhelmina WalkerRCAF Foundation

Wilhelmina “Willa” Walker: The Wing

Walker enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, later RCAF Women's Division, in 1941. She quickly rose in rank due to her skills and determination. She was one of the first women to hold the rank of Wing Officer in the RCAF.

Willa Walker with WD MembersRCAF Foundation

Fighting for Gender Equality

Walker was known as “The Wing” among those under her command. She set up the Women Division's training depots across Canada and led the charge to have women at the schools of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

Lincoln Alexander with GroupRCAF Foundation

Racial Discrimination

Beginning in 1938, the RCAF adopted a policy of exclusionary enlistment. Recruits to the RCAF had to “be of pure European descent.” Many Canadians were excluded. 

Despite this policy, many individuals overcame the discrimination to make important contributions to the RCAF.

Allan BundyRCAF Foundation

Allan Bundy: Determined to Fly

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Bundy attempted to enlist as a pilot but was rejected. He later joined the RCAF and trained as a pilot after the racist recruiting policy was removed.

He flew with the No 404 Squadron in an anti-submarine role.

Allan Bundy with GroupRCAF Foundation

With the No 404 Squadron

Initially, no one would fly with Bundy due to his race. Sergeant Elwood “Lefty” Wright agreed to be his Navigator aboard a Beaufighter. They completed 42 successful combat missions together.

Carty BrothersRCAF Foundation

A Family Affair: The Carty Brothers

Five brothers of the Carty brothers from Saint John, New Brunswick (Adolphus, William, Clyde, Donald, Gerald) served in the RCAF.

They followed in their father Albert's military footsteps. He served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion during the First World War.

Willard BolducRCAF Foundation

Willard Bolduc DFC: Rear Gunner

Coming from an Indigenous family, Bolduc enlisted in the RCAF in June 1941 in North Bay, Ontario. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery on two operational sorties in Europe.

F-86 Sabres Fly Over SignRCAF Foundation

Into a New Era: 1946-1991

The Cold War saw the RCAF undergo many changes. From the types of aircraft to the individuals wearing the uniform, these years were ones of progress and, in some cases, regression.

Members of the ParabellesRCAF Foundation

The Parabelles: Jumping Nurses

Beginning in 1951, the Parabelles were a group of women who volunteered as Canada’s first pararescue nurses. They were part of several Search and Rescue missions throughout Canada. 

ParaBelle Getting Off A HelicopterRCAF Foundation

Women in Pararescue

High costs led the RCAF to stop training medical personnel for pararescue. 

It would be decades before another woman served in the RCAF pararescue.

Stephen DeschampsRCAF Foundation

Steven Deschamps: Pride Among Prejudice

In 1979, Deschamps joined the RCAF as a pilot trainee but became a victim of the “LGBT Purge” where suspected LGBTQ military personnel were forcibly removed from service.

He was readmitted after the Douglas settlement of 1992. He worked in flight simulation and retired in 2013.

CF-18 Being RefueledRCAF Foundation

RCAF Toward the Future: 1992 to Present

The work done towards having a diverse group of people in the RCAF continues. Much good has happened but work remains to be done for more firsts to be achieved.

Maryse CarmichaelRCAF Foundation

Maryse Carmichael: Snowbird Pioneer

In November 2000, Captain Maryse Carmichael became the first woman pilot with the famous Snowbirds. In 2010, she returned as the Commanding Officer of the Snowbirds. To this day, women have proudly filled every role on the team.

Karen McCrimmonRCAF Foundation

Karen McCrimmon: Leadership and Belonging

McCrimmon began her RCAF career as a navigator. She overcame difficult treatment from some fellow aviators. She was the first woman to command a Canadian Forces flying squadron, No 429 Transport Squadron, in 1998.

Tammy Negraeff with GroupRCAF Foundation

Tammy Negraeff: SAR Tech Trailbazer

In 1998, Tammy Negraeff graduated from the 11-month SAR (Search and Rescue) Tech training course. At the time of her enlistment, SAR Tech was an all-male trade but that didn't stop Negraeff from eventually becoming the first Canadian woman to become a SAR Tech.

Nancy TremblayRCAF Foundation

Nancy Tremblay: Keeps Them Flying

Tremblay choose to pursue a career in maintenance in the RCAF. She was the first woman to command 3 Air Maintenance Squadron in Bagotville, Quebec.

Canadarm2RCAF Foundation

More Firsts to Come

There is so much opportunity for the members of the RCAF to accomplish more firsts. From space missions to whole new areas of warfare, new trailblazers will emerge in the RCAF's future.

Pathway to the Stars CoverRCAF Foundation

Pathway to the Stars: 100 Years of the RCAF

You can learn more about the stories covered in this story in Pathway to the Stars: 100 Years of the Royal Canadian Air Force 


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