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“La Vigilance” – the Curtiss HS-2L flying boat registered as G-CAAC. Photo: Canada Aviation and Space Museum.


Remembering a Canadian aviation pioneer


Stuart Graham. Photo: Courtesy Robert Graham via Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre.

Stuart Graham. Photo: Courtesy Robert Graham via Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre.

July 17, 2016 – The date marks 40 years since Canadians said goodbye to our first bush pilot, Stuart Graham (1893-1976).

Like many other Canadian lads, Graham joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915, served in France for 6 months, and was wounded by a sniper. Once recovered, he joined the Royal Naval Flying Service in Britain and flew on anti-submarine sorties over the English Channel. For his actions against two enemy submarines, he was awarded the Air Force Cross.

Back in Canada, Graham became Canada’s first bush pilot in 1919 when he delivered the famous flying boat, La Vigilance, from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Lac-à-la-Tortue, north of Trois-Rivières near Grand-Mère, Québec, in the month of June. The Curtiss HS-2L flying boat was on loan from the Canadian government to the St. Maurice Forest Protective Association for use in forestry patrols. He returned to Nova Scotia two weeks later with the same team – his wife Madge as navigator and Bill Kahre as mechanic – to fly a second HS-2L to Lac-à-la-Tortue.


Stuart and Madge Graham (left) with Bill Kahre (right) at Grand-Mère, Québec. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

Stuart and Madge Graham with Bill Kahre. Photo: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

In July, Graham and Kahre reported the first forest fire spotted from an airplane in Canada.  Together, they made 57 flights with these two flying boats during 1919, and proved the value of aerial photography for forest mapping. Delays in obtaining an Eastman K1 aerial camera meant that winter was at hand as the trials were being carried out. Graham records that ice was forming on the lakes and they had to fly through several blizzards to obtain 380 negatives. The results they obtained far surpassed expectations. The trials showed that hardwood could easily be distinguished from conifers, and pine could be told apart from other conifers. Watersheds, swamps and burnt areas all showed clearly.


Restored Curtiss Seagull in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Photo: CASM # 10904.

Restored Curtiss Seagull in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Photo: CASM #10904.

Despite these results, the St. Maurice Forest Protective Association withdrew its support for the project. The Laurentide Company, an association member, decided to carry on by itself. The two HS-2Ls were licensed as G-CAAC (La Vigilance) and G-CAAD in 1920 when Canadian civil aviation regulations went into effect. Graham himself received his Canadian civil aviation pilot’s license, number 32, on July 20, 1920. A Curtiss Seagull (G-CADL) was added to the fleet that year. With these three aircraft, Graham and Kahre made 70 flights in 1920. On one of these trips, they took two prospectors into the Rouyn-Noranda area where they staked mining claims. This was the first time in Canadian aviation history that aircraft were used to support the mining industry. At the end of the summer flying season, Graham and Kahre both resigned. In 1921, Laurentide Air Service was formed to continue the work of aerial forest mapping and fire spotting.

Graham went on to become Canadian representative for the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, while Kahre pursued his work as an air engineer. Graham then spent two years at Canadian Vickers Ltd. in Montréal. In 1926, he joined the RCAF, and two years later was appointed to the Air Services Division of the Department of National Defence as District Inspector responsible for the administration of civil aviation in Quebec and the Maritimes.

In 1941, he was promoted to Chief Inspector of Airways at the Department of Transport. In that position, he made a major contribution to Canada’s war effort by planning airfields across Canada for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. In recognition of this work he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. He was again promoted within the Department of Transport in 1943, becoming Superintendent of Air Regulations.

After the war, Graham served on various technical committees of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), helping develop standards, regulations and operating procedures for both national and international civil aviation. Graham also served as Alternate Council Member for Canada on the ICAO Council and was a Member of the Air Navigation Commission. Over the years from 1951 to 1963, he led ICAO technical assistance missions to countries in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, advising national governments on the development of civil aviation. He was decorated with the Star of Menelik by Emperor Haile Selassie in recognition of his guidance in organizing the Civil Aviation Department of Ethiopia.

Among his other honours, he was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1976; awarded the Trans-Canada (McKee) Trophy for lifetime achievement in 1991; and inducted into the Québec Air and Space Hall of Fame in 2001.

In his retirement, Graham sought out as many aviation old-timers as he could find to preserve their memories and their stories from the early days of commercial aviation in Canada. These can be found in the Stuart Graham Collection at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.