The Beat Goes On - training Continues at Portage La Prairie

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By Barry-John Dickson

My goal is to become a pilot in the Canadian Air Force. After graduating from McMaster University, I spent a year going through the Canadian Forces pilot selection process. After being accepted, I spent another two years going through basic officer training, second language training and waiting in the On-the-Job Training program until a course date was assigned. I finally arrived at 3 Canadian Forces Flight Training School to complete the Primary Flight Training (PFT) course in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba.     

During wartime, Portage La Prairie, Manitoba was just one of many bases that trained pilots in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), yet is the only base remaining today that still operates Primary Flight Training (PTF) for the Canadian Air Force.  Typically, PFT is the first flying course taken by all Canadian Forces pilots.   


For almost 70 years, young pilots have begun their flying training at Portage La Prairie. A quick search on the web uncovered this remarkable image of 15 young pilot students from Portage La Prairie's No. 14 Elementary Flying School back in June of 1941 posed in front of their primary trainer - the Tiger Moth. What is remarkable is that the modern image of Dickson's 0804 course mates is also 15 young pilots (men and women), posed equally casually in front of their primary trainer - the Grob 120A. The BCATP photo courtesy of Brian Adams, whose father, Lawrence John Adams was in the group. In 1942, No. 14 EFTS was disbanded & the base there became solely an Air Observer School.      Modern photo via Barry John Dickson

From the first day, we were told that PFT is a selection course and nobody would hold our hand along the way.  To say that this was going to be a "gimme" was far from the truth.  The course has two components. The first three weeks were ground school and the third week consisted of tests every day.  In week four we moved to the flight line, starting with an exercise labeled Clearhood 1. 

The aircraft used is the Grob Aerospace 120A. It has retractable gear, a constant speed prop, 120kts circuit speed and aerobatic capability, which make it more than just a typical civilian training aircraft and quite fun to fly.
Each day we would "Chair Fly" our missions a few times in front of one another before actually flying the mission.  I feel I have to explain what chair flying is, since I had to explain it to my dad, a pilot for Transport Canada for 38 years.  It is where you sit in a chair and speak out loud everything that you would be doing as if you were flying, from takeoff to landing.  A poster of the cockpit may be used and you move your hands as if you were doing the actions in the aircraft - this builds muscle memory.  You can make it more challenging by juggling or tossing a ball of socks back and forth, while talking through your procedures.  This helps in providing an action that needs constant attention with your hands and feet while still carrying out procedures, eventually making them second nature.  The goal was not just to fly the aircraft but to fly it as exactly as instructed to do so. 

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Basic trainers look considerably different than they did back in the legendary and romantic days of Tiger Moths. The Grob 120A PFT trainer. Photo: Barry John Dickson

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Nowhere near as busy as it was in the 1940s but the beginning of something wonderful none the less. The Flightline - Grob 120A for Primary Flight Training, King Air C90B for Multi-engine training and Bell 206 Jet Ranger for Rotary training pictured under the enduring prairie sky.  Photo: Barry John Dickson

It is quite the experience flying the same circuit as those who were training as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Program, preparing to be sent off to war.  The same familiar triangle of runways, rivers to the north and nearby towns, have been used as reference points for Air Force pilots since the Second World War.   After a day of flying, everyone heads back to the same mess hall, engaging in the same conversations with the same worries and frustrations as those have since students came to train at No. 14 Elementary Flying Training School in 1940. 

Halfway through the course is the Initial Clear Hood Test (or ICHT).  This is usually the major stumbling block in the course.  I prepared for mine with the pre-test earlier in the day and mentally prepared for the test that afternoon.  For most tests, I get anxious just before doing them.  For this test however, I was excited.  For one, I was about to go flying, and two, if I passed I would be cleared to go solo.  

Herein lies one of the differences between military and civilian flying training.  In the military training system there are a maximum allotted number of hours after which you are expected to reach a standard and perform certain tasks.  In civilian training, by comparison, while teaching similar skills there is not a fixed amount of flying hours available to reach a certain standard.  Each military training flight is evaluated against a standard and you must consistently learn and improve your skills each time you go up.  There is constant pressure and expectation to perform each flight; the consequences of not performing involve Progress Review Boards (PRB) and often a ticket home.  In other words, you can have a bad day, just don’t have two, or you could find yourself coming home early to find a new job.

I passed my ICHT without incident and took off for my solo trip.  I had to hold short of the active runway for what seemed like the longest ten minutes of my life waiting for my instructor to get to the tower - standard procedure for all solos.  The solo trip of two quick circuits was amazing and quite the confidence builder.  Following every first solo is a dunk in the famous tub.  It is a rite of passage for every Canadian Forces pilot.  Following the ICHT, the second half of the course involved performing aerobatic maneuvers, so there was a lot to look forward to.

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Oh the joy of a cold water bath after your first solo!  - part of what makes this day so memorable for each of us. Here 2Lt. barry John Dickson relaxes in the tub of honour surrounded by the members of his training course. The school has put the tub on wheels with a push bar - testament to its continuous use.   Photo via Barry John Dickson

Now, one of the challenges that I encountered on this course is being self-aware.  Although the course is only a few months long, learning the material initially is one thing, but realizing when you need to review material is another.  You learn to be critical of yourself, and look for the signs of assuming what shouldn't be assumed.  One Saturday when I was volunteering at Vintage Wings, I observed Rob Erdos prepare for a flight in the Waco Taperwing.   He mentioned the "Red Page of the Day".  I know that he knew all the required red pages, yet, as a routine, he still went through the checklist and reviewed one specific emergency, each time he flew.   That little tidbit stuck in my mind, and something I practiced while on course and continue to do today.

While in Portage and going through the course, you get a strong feeling of the camaraderie among those that are going through with you.  Discussions at the mess can range from hypothetical mechanical problems to laughing about the last time you forgot to switch frequencies and asked Tower to taxi (you should be on ground frequency).  Somehow I don’t think Tower finds it as amusing as we do.  By discussing with others, you learn both the good and how to prevent the bad.  In fact, our entire course of fifteen people all passed the Primary Flight Training course, something which is quite a rare occasion.

Looking back on this course, I must give thanks to my father who is always there for sound advice.  His over 5000 hours of flying experience in aircraft ranging from DC-3s, Jet Rangers and Cessna Citation II's was called into play a few times during my course and was greatly appreciated.  Another helping hand was my father-in-law, a current helicopter pilot in the Canadian Air Force with over 4000 hours on Tutors, Falcon 20s, Twin Hueys and Griffins.  As a commanding officer, former student and instructor, he has provided valuable insight into the trials and tribulations of a pilot in the military training system. I must also thank my wonderful wife Melanie who has always been there with for support.


A perennial entertainment in air force training centres for the better part of a century. Students of PFT courses 0803, 0804 and 0805 participate in a Welcome "Beer Call" at Portage La Prairie.  Photo via Barry John Dickson

PFT is designed as a selection course and also to prepare trainees for the next course, Basic Flight Training in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan flying the CT-156 Harvard II.   The Harvard II is an 1100 hp turbo-prop, capable of over 300 knots (over 550 km/h) speed, +7 and -3.5 G’s, is equipped with an ejection seat and flown in advanced aerobatic maneuvers. A typical circuit in a Harvard is flown at 220 knots airspeed with 60 degree and 2G turns.  I am very much looking forward to strapping in.  

Now back at 412 Squadron in Ottawa, I eagerly wait for my next phase of training and thoroughly enjoy being a part of the Vintage Wings of Canada team.  I’m not only able to talk to other Vintage Wings members and help out whenever possible, I love being around aircraft and learning about them.  The maintenance and hangar staff take the time to answer any questions about the workings and idiosyncrasies of each aircraft.  The pilots are equally as helpful, telling tales of past experiences, triumphs and lessons learned.  They say that history repeats itself, and the aviation world is no different.  The collective knowledge of those I have had the great opportunity of working with while at Vintage Wings of Canada not only has helped educate me, but also continues to inspire.

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A promise of greateness to come -  2LTs David Bennett, John Landry, Bertram Cronshaw, Barry Dickson and Dan Ennis fresh from their training course.

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Now onto more advanced training on the high performance Harvard II at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

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