Canada was chosen as the primary location for “The Plan” due to ideal weather and open spaces for large-scale flying training, ample supplies of fuel, wide open spaces suitable for flight and navigation training, industrial facilities for the production of trainer aircraft, parts and supplies, the lack of any threat from either the Luftwaffe or Japanese fighter aircraft and its relative proximity to both the European and Pacific theatres.
For initial training biplanes, as one example of the wide range of American and British aircraft designs used for Canadian-based training facilities, pilots might have started their initial flight training on the Tiger Moth, the Boeing Stearman from the nearby United States, or even the indigenously designed and produced Fleet Finch biplane.
The government agreed in December 1939 to join the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, operate its bases in Canada, and pick up a large proportion of the costs. Events turned the scheme into a huge operation, one that cost Canada $1.6 billion of a total cost of $2.2 billion, and employed 104,000 Canadians in airbases across the land.
The W.L.M. King government saw involvement in the BCATP as a means of keeping Canadians at home, but more importantly, it eased demands for a large expeditionary force and buried the politically divisive issue of overseas conscription.
Negotiating the agreement and agreeing upon aspects of involvement was notably difficult. Canada agreed to accept most of the costs of the plan but in return insisted British pronouncement that air training would be Canada’s primary war effort. Yet another negotiation point was the British expectation that the RAF would absorb Canadian air training graduates without restrictions, as in World War One, and distribute them across the RAF. W.L.M. King demanded that Canadian airmen be identified as member of the RCAF with distinct uniforms and shoulder badges.
The RCAF would run the plan in Canada, but to satisfy RAF concerns, Robert Leckie, a senior RAF commander (at the time in charge of RAF squadrons in Malta) and a Canadian, was posted to Ottawa as Director of Training. From 1940 he directed BCATP training.
At its height of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 131,533 Allied pilots and aircrew were trained in Canada, 72,835 of which were Canadian. At the plan’s high point in late 1943, an organisation of over 100,000 administrative personnel operated 107 schools and 184 other supporting units at 231 locations all across Canada.
Infrastructure development including erecting “some 8,300 buildings of which 700 were hangars or of hangar-type construction. Fuel storage totalling more than 26 million US gallons (98,000 m3) was installed along with 300 miles of water mains and a similar length of sewer mains laid, involving 2,000,000 cubic yards of excavation. A total of 100 sewage treatment and disposal plants and 120 water pumping stations were completed; and more than 2,000 miles of main power lines and 535 miles of underground electrical cable placed, servicing a total connected electrical power load of over 80,700 horsepower.
In late 1944, the Air Ministry announced the winding-up of the plan, since the Commonwealth air forces had long had a surplus of air crews. At the conclusion of the war, over 167,000 students, including over 50,000 pilots, had trained in Canada under the program from May 1940 to March 1945. While the majority of those who successfully completed the program went on to serve in the RAF, over half (72,835) of the 131,553 graduates were Canadians.