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British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

Farewell - No. 7 Air Observer School, Portage Manitoba

The following two articles are from ``The Record,’’ a farewell booklet handed out at No. 7 Air Observation School in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba at the end of the war. The school, which had graduated many Observers and Navigators, became redundant with the cessation of the air  war and was closed in 1945. The first article is a detailed synopsis of training offered at No. 7 AOS and how it morphed to meet the changing needs of the Commonwealth Air Forces as the war progressed. The second article gives the reader the ``ins and outs’’ of the first week at an Air Observer School for a new student. Both are interesting reading with the first perhaps, a little lengthy and dry… you be the judge of that.


The priceless value of these scientifically trained young men, graduates of the A.O.S., is  something which cannot be overstressed. Even the best Pilot in the world, the most deadly-eyed Gunners, the great Bomber and its cargo of sudden-death-to-the-enemy lose all value, as may the lives of the crew, should the young man in the navigator's seat, the Air Observer, be improperly trained, slipshod or inaccurate in guiding the ship to its target and bringing it home again.

That is often overlooked by the uninitiated . ``The best Bomber Pilot in the RC.A.F. is just as good as his Navigator.'' (Leslie Roberts, "Canada's War in the Air.") At first there  were many of "the uninitiated," not least among recruits dreaming of earning their pilot's wings and tossing a single-seater fighter from cloud to cloud. But with the Battle of Britain won, the R.A.F. taking the offensive over Europe, and big and ever bigger aircraft coming off production lines for Bomber and Coastal commands, the spotlight moved away from the fighter pilot to focus on that new unit, "our crew"; on teamwork;  and on that: Bomber of the air war, the self-forgetting, each-for-all, air crew spirit.

As the importance of the Observer, and then of his specialized successors, the Navigator and Bombaimer, grew in operational experience and in public notice, so too, the training changed. Those first Observer students to enter A.O.S. back in the experimental days of the summer of 1940 faced the task of learning what later became two men's jobs; and of learning them in a 22-week course, where each; the combined training of their successive teams eventually totalled 40 weeks.

In the words of a 1941 account: "At the A.O.S.'' the map, chart, compass, bombsight and camera became the student's tools. He learned how to read maps and charts, how to read instruments and correct compasses, how to know what to look for, and how to report it to his crew or his station. He must also learn Morse well enough to receive or send eight words a minute on the buzzer and six on the lamp; learn photography to be able to i:ecord bomb destruction, troop placements, railway networks. "Still another important duty of the Air Observer is to drop the bombs-and that's not just a matter of dumping them out willy-nilly. He's got to be able to plant a stick astride a battleship from  more than a mile high and to do so through reckoning against his own speed, the wind speed and the speed of the ship. It is an exact and important science, and packs a thrill all of its own."

To master these duties, the Observer spent three months in A.O.S. studying basic navigation-that is fundamental dead reckoning (his central task for the duration), map  and chart projection and principles of map reading, compasses and instruments-with aircraft recognition, reconnaissance, visual signalling, photography, and armament; and did 60 hours flying.

Then he moved on to a Bombing and Gunnery School for six weeks, to learn in theory and practice how to handle the Vickers and the Browning machine guns, both on the ground and in the air. He practised range estimation and marksmanship with these weapons. He studied the theory of bombing and the workings of a bomb sight and dropped two score (40) bombs on the Station range. The range was a mile wide to allow for his initial errors; but there were times when the spotters in the range hut found it uncomfortably narrow.

For most Observer courses, it was graduation from Bombing and Gunnery School that brought the coveted wing with the big "0 ." A sergeant's stripes replaced the LAC's propeller. And a sergeant's pay was not unwelcome.

The last four weeks of his training in Canada, the observer took at Air Navigation School, at Rivers, Man. or Pennfield Ridge, N.B. There he learned astro as an aid to navigation-to find his way by the bearing of the stars and planets at night and of the sun by day, using the sextant and the blank plotting sheet. There, too, he practised advanced navigation and advanced bombing.

Long-range aerial operations and mass bombing attacks were still in the future, and astro-nav. was not rated as highly then as later. In those early days, a wonderful new instrument had just come out, which helped the Observer to establish his position by the stars more quickly. But specimens were rare. '’The instrument, was highly secret at first" in the words of one of the first observer to graduate from the Air Training Plan "and we were taken one by one into a tiny cubicle and shown -- the astrograph."

A 20-mile error at a turning point was acceptable at first in training, where later one or two miles became the tolerance. An 8-minute error by dead reckoning against Estimated Time of Arrival would get by. Four years later the tolerance in training was three minutes; while on operations, bomber captains briefed for German targets made bets on the skill of their navigators that would be settled by a difference of seconds from the correct time of arrival at the bombing point.

"By contrast with today, we just fumbled along in those days," in the words of the early graduate quoted. But the "fumbling" was good enough that as many of those first Observer graduates finished their embarkation leave, each was assigned as sole Navigator on the trans-Atlantic crossing of a North-American-built bomber being ferried  to Britain. From that not inadequate level of performance, the standard of observer training was improved steadily throughout the duration of the Air Training Plan.

With the coming of longer-range aircraft and the approach to "1,000 bomber" raids, the navigational responsibilities of the Observer grew steadily heavier. Ever greater accuracy was required, to find small targets in spite of growing difficulties. The navigator had to cope with long distance from base, night, the enemy blackout, fighter  opposition, flak, and the puzzle of keeping track of course while the aircraft was weaving madly to avoid being coned by searchlights or boxed by enemy aircraft or detectors. To help the navigator somewhat, constant research was carried on to develop mechanical aids. But these aids themselves called for more specialized training.

In the summer of 1942, therefore, the duties of the Observer were divided between two new air crew trades. those of Air Navigator and Air Bomber, or Bombaimer. The navigator was to be responsible only for navigation, becoming "the brains" of the  navigation team-a human calculating machine rarely able to leave his desk in the aircraft from take-off until return to base. In training for this, he was to take a 16-week course at an A.O.S., combining the former 12-week A.O.S. and 4-week A.N.S. courses and omitting Bombing and Gunnery school. The new course included 60 hours of day flying and 36 hours of night flight. On graduation, it was the wings parade on his A.O.S. that he received the now "N" wing and his sergeant's hooks.

The Bombaimer undertook a double duty. He became the specialist responsible for placing his aircraft's load squarely on target from whatever height might be necessary, by exact target finding and bomb aiming. And he was to be assistant to the Navigator acting as "the eyes" of the navigation team, by supplying positional data obtained through map reading and through use of the sextant, drift instruments, astro-compass, etc. For this he was to train eight weeks at a Bombing and Gunnery school, then pass for six weeks to an A.O.S. for· applied bombing, map reading and navigational training, with emphasis on night bombing, completing some 60 hours in the air by day and night.

The new stress on extremely accurate navigation and on specialized training for it was accompanied by a standardizing and tightening of navigational methods. Both the Navigator's and the Bombaimer's courses eventually were lengthened to 20 weeks, to permit still more thorough training. Dead reckoning remained the basic skill, but astro, radio and radar aids became more prominent and ever greater exactness was required.

The early student Observers had heard of the astro-compass; their Navigator successors became familiar with it in training. Sextants were improved, synthetic dead reckoning trainers and celestial navigation trainers were introduced. And to begin early the fostering of administrative responsibility, air crew leadership training was added to the course. To free time for the new activities, the old photography and reconnaissance  subjects were washed out of the Navigator's syllabus.

With the new subjects and the old, went always the routine of physical training, drill, parades and inspections and of maintaining acceptable dress and deportment. Even with changed studies and the longer course, the student's day remained crowded.

Through four years at No.7, and to the end despite cheering news out of Europe, the classroom windows of the Ground School building blazed into the night. Behind those lighted windows, students were at work after hours, so keen to do their best that for them the use of the quiet rooms in the evening was truly described by the card upon each classroom door-"Late Study Privilege."


The foregoing is the training story as the graduate or instructor looks back upon it, over the five years' operations of the Commonwealth Air  Training Plan. But to the student at the time, training looked somewhat different:

Arriving at No. 7 Air Observer School, usually on a Saturday about midday, he climbed out of the bus or truck that had brought him over five miles of dusty gravel road from the railway station, reported in, was taken in charge by two Training Wing Warrant Officer, paraded to the Stores to draw his bedding, then was marched to quarters to be shown his share of a double bunk, and made up his bed. The rest of the Saturday and most of the Sunday, he had to himself.

On Monday morning, he was introduced to the instructor assigned to his course. And filled out his personal index card for the Station records. Then he paraded with the others to the Navigation stores in the G.I.S. building, to draw his training equipment. After that, the course paraded to the Recreation hall, where they were welcomed and  given wise advice by the Manager, the Chief Supervisory Officer, the Padre, Medical Officer, and the Special Services Officer.

A tour of the Station, under the guidance of the instructors, began the afternoon. The student had been in the Air Force for several months before he arrived at A.O.S. and had not yet flown. So, to see dozens of Anson aircraft lining the tarmac was quite a thrill. He also took an eyeful of the coveralled girls handling the gas trucks so smartly,  as they refuelled the aircraft parked on the line.

The care and use of a parachute and how to bail out of an aircraft were the next topics of his first Monday. Crowded into the parachute room with his course mates, the student  listened to a talk and demonstration on this life preserver that probably he never would need, but which he would only need and lack once. The talk and demonstration were given by a woman at No. 7, a fact that invariably amused the new students at first. But amusement changed to respect as they took in the pithy explanation and found themselves quickly outfitted, each with a parachute harness that would accompany him on every flight until he left the Station months later.

The taking of a class photo with the new course grouped in front of an aircraft, ended a day that left the new Student well content to roll into his bunk that evening.

On the Tuesday, his fourth day on the Station, the student began Ground School classes. Not until a week later were he and his course taken for their first flight, in daytime, to become familiar with the aircraft that would be their flying practice rooms, to get the feel of flight-and to be able to rejoice that, after long weeks in Manning Pool and Initial Training School, at last they were approaching " the real thing."

After the four introductory days, the new student found himself settling quickly into a routine of Ground School classes, flights, Physical Training, drill, parades, inspections, games, recreation, and last, but very far from least, meals and snacks. So crowded were his days that he was absorbed in routine almost too quickly to be aware of the fact.

For most of the students were so keen, always straining forward to "the real thing," that the mass of training detail was taken in stride in a way that won the 

``... the flight's going out now.​''
Ready for take-off. ``Safety belts fastened?''
Top -- Drawing Nav. Equipment
Two -- ``Now it works this way...''
Three -- Spark
Shooting the sun (with a sextant)
Astro-compass and deviascope
``Hold that line.'' (projected from the astograph)
​``That's ours, over there''
warm respect of the instructors. In his training hours, the student progressed from the elements of navigation  and the theory of dead reckoning, celestial navigation and the rest to rehearsal in the synthetic dead reckoning trainers, the map reading room, the sextant trainer, and "the silo" or the celestial navigation trainer.
From these, he passed to airborne practice on day flights, first, then on night flights, with always greater responsibility. All the time he was becoming ever more conscious of his instruments, particularly of his navigation wrist watch. When he arrived on the Station, a five minute margin seemed punctual enough, and he thought in local time. When he graduated, he thought automatically to the nearest second and in the Greenwich time of  navigators the world over, from which he did mental translation to keep local "dates."
Working hard for most of his training hours, seven days a week, the student was ready for his "48"-hour leave when it came around every tenth day. A visit to Winnipeg usually made the time pass too quickly. Then it was back to the Station, to press on towards graduation day and the dreamed-of, waiting "O" "N" or "B" wing that would be the proud symbol of his aircrew trade.