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RCEME in the Air 1956–1972

By Robert Fischer, LGen (ret’d)

In the aftermath of WWII, the Canadian Army recognized that light aircraft and helicopters were valuable in supplementing the roles and tasks of land forces. The next twenty-five years brought the rapid evolution and expansion of Canadian Army Aviation. During that time, Army Aviation acquired a fleet of aircraft and trained several hundred pilots, flight engineers, loadmasters, observers, and technicians. It also meant that RCEME pilots would be required in order to test and certify aircraft repaired by RCEME aviation technicians.

The Birth of Canadian Army Aviation

Operational research on the WWII battlefield found that many tasks could be done more effectively by aviation units co-located with and under control of the Army’s ground units. While not interested in duplicating the Air Force’s strategic roles, in 1956, the Army identified the need for air observation , dedicated liaison aircraft, light reconnaissance helicopters and cargo helicopters for the tactical transport of troops and delivery of combat supplies.

To avoid having to train pilots in army tactics, aircraft would have to be flown by experienced army officers. As well, aircraft would need to be an integral part of the existing combat arms units in order to ensure their availability, tactical effectiveness, and compatibility with the army’s maintenance, supply, and logistics systems. 

RCEME's Role

The rapid expansion of army aviation made it challenging for the RCEME Corps to provide enough technicians to service the increasing number of army aircraft and to maintain them in the field. This challenge was met by the formation of the Army Aviation Maintenance Unit at Rivers, Manitoba. It also involved training with the US Army in Fort Rucker, Alabama, and Fort Eustis in Virginia as well as with RCAF and RCN aviation units.

The RCEME Technicians

I joined RCEME at the Winnipeg Manning Depot on 7 July 1964. I was sent by CN rail to Kingston for basic training with the Signal Corps, in Vimy Barracks, for 16 weeks! Information was scarce…but eventually we were told we were going to the School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering in Borden to be trained as aircraft technicians. As luck would have it, we were to be trained as Instrument Electrical Technicians or “551s”.

– CWO (Ret’d) BJ Bradley

The technicians who kept the Army's fleet of airplanes and helicopters flying were trained at the Canadian Joint Air Training Centre  at RCAF Station Rivers. In 1956, RCEME began training officers, maintenance supervisors and technicians on the Cessna L-19 Bird Dog  and the Hiller CH-112 Nomad  purchased in 1961, which resulted in the introduction of the helicopter technician trade.

The following year, nine CH-112 helicopters were sent to Germany along with a full complement of qualified maintenance personnel including Aircraft, Instrument-Electrical, Metals and Radio technicians. In total, one officer and 48 technicians made up 4 Field Workshop’s Aircraft Maintenance Platoon.

In only a few years, RCEME trained maintenance personnel to support Army aircraft in Canada and in Germany.  By July 1962, RCEME’s aviation training programme had achieved these impressive milestones:

  • 6 Qualified RCEME Pilots (and 2 more undergoing training in 1962)
  • 14 Qualified Aircraft Maintenance Officers
  • 246 Trained Artificers and Technicians
  • 11 Technicians undergoing training in the U.S.
  • 55 Technicians selected for training in 1962/63
  • 312 Sr Technicians and Technicians would be trained by end 1963

In late 1964, the Canadian Army acquired twelve Boeing Vertol CH-113A Voyageur  assault and cargo helicopters. After attending factory introductory courses in the US, select RCEME helicopter technicians returned to Rivers to become proficient on the new helicopter systems and to start training the large number of additional technicians needed to support this new fleet.

Only six months after the first CH-113A Voyageur arrived in Rivers, they were operationally deployed to Camp Gagetown during the 1965 summer exercises supported by fully trained first and second-line maintenance organizations.

None of this could have been accomplished without the Army Aircraft Maintenance Unit (Commanded by Maj Jack Sheehan, RCEME) conducting 46 courses and graduating 293 technicians, supervisors, and pilots by the end of 1965.

The RCEME Pilots

I arrived in Petawawa from the RCEME Field Workshop in Germany in December 1957 with the intention of leaving the military. To my surprise I was greeted with an offer to learn how to fly. This appealed to me as I had taken a few lessons on a Piper Cub as a teenager and had the flying ‘bug’. In June 1958 I commenced basic flying training at the Brandon Flying Club followed by the Light Aircraft Pilot Course at CJATC Rivers. In November 1958 I graduated with the coveted Canadian Army Flying Badge.

– BGen Ken Kennah

Between July 1956 and December 1964, thirteen RCEME officers were awarded the Canadian Army Flying Badge . They included veterans from WWII and Korea as well as a few officers commissioned from the ranks.  They all had one thing in common, a desire to learn how to fly.

Most of the RCEME pilots were assigned to flying positions where they flight tested and certified aircraft that had been serviced and repaired by RCEME technicians.   However, beginning in 1969, flight testing was carried out by unit pilots accompanied by a senior RCEME technician; the aircraft were then certified by RCEME Aircraft Maintenance Officers who were not necessarily qualified pilots. 

The Canadian Army Flying Badge

Between 1956 and 1964, only thirteen RCEME officers were awarded the coveted Canadian Army Flying Badge. While few in number, their contribution to Canadian Army Aviation was significant. 

The End of An Era

Canadian Army Aviation was never designated as an Army Branch, although it existed as a distinct function for twenty-five years. During that time, it acquired 80 aircraft, formed nine separate aviation units, and trained over 200 pilots and more than 600 RCEME technicians .

By 1972 the last remaining Army Aviation units had been amalgamated with the RCAF as a result of the earlier Integration and Unification of the Canadian Forces.  By then, many in the RCEME aviation community had chosen to continue their military careers as members of the Air Force having spent most of their careers in aircraft maintenance. Others pursued careers in the private sector but none of them ever forgot their RCEME roots.

“Charlie joined the Army, but after Unification he transferred to the Air Force, but he always wore his RCEME hat badge on a belt buckle he made. Charlie was a proud member of RCEME and the Canadian Armed Forces”. 

– Mrs. Yvonne (Bonnie) Gillis, widow of Warrant Officer Charlie Gillis

“RCEME In the Air” was the unofficial emblem used to introduce Army Aviation articles in the RCEME Technical Bulletin publications.



  • Canadian Army Aviation website, with the permission of LCol (Ret’d) John Dicker, Chairman
  • Archived RCEME Technical Bulletins
  • Emails and photos from various former RCEME Aviation Technicians


Aviation Advisors

  • LCol (Ret’d) Larry Springford, former RCEME pilot
  • LCol (Ret’d) John Dicker, former RCCS pilot

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