Local young author takes a flight into Ottawa’s aviation history

By Desmond Devoy
Published in the NOW EMC Ottawa-East June 13, 2008.
A Beacon Hill North resident, who until recently knew very little about aviation, is in the midst of a book, due out next year, chronicling a company that was an integral part of Ottawa’s aviation history.
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, 26, began writing For the Love of Flying: the Story of Laurentian Air Services, for publisher Robin Brass Studio in Montreal last November, and she has found it to be an eye-opening experience.
“I didn’t even know about it [the company] a few months ago. Now I think that everyone should know about it,” she said excitedly during an interview in the lobby of the Chimo Hotel, 1199 Joseph Cyr St. in Cyrville, in the early afternoon of Thursday, June 5th. She was there to take part in the Canadian Aviation Historical Society’s annual conference. She spoke the next afternoon to the conference about the work she is doing on the book.
“This is my first book. Before this project, I had no background in aviation. I came to it through my father-in-law,” who used to work for the company for a time. The book is due to be released next year to coincide with “the centennial of powered flight in Canada,” with the flight of Alexander Graham Bell’s Silver Dart in Nova Scotia on February 23rd, 1909.
“We’re looking to launch my book in the springtime and then we’ll travel around to different air shows and museums,” she said. “It’s staggering the number of people who go to those air shows!”
There is still a lot ofwork left to be done between then and now however.
“The publisher has made his demands so the rough draft has to be in by September and the final draft by November 1st,” she said of her future path.
Founded in 1936 by Walter Deisher and Barnet Maclaren, Laurentian Air Services “came out of a moment in aviation history where the federal government started the national airport system.”
While the company closed down 10 years ago, one of the owners is still alive and “he’s the one I’ve been interviewing a lot.”
The company bought Uplands Airport (now Ottawa International Airport) in 1937, and then sold it to the federal government in 1938. One of the company’s greatest claims to fame was its help in making the 1941 James Cagney movie Captains of the Clouds.
“It was dubbed Canada’s first air epic,” she said. The film was shot in North Bay and at the Uplands Airport, and one of the planes used in the film was provided by the company.
“I hadn’t heard of this film but was released recently on DVD,” she said. “It was raelly sort of a vehicle for the British Commonwealth Air Training Program,” where pilots from former British Empire countries like New Zealand, Australia, and others trained in Canada, since “the British were losing planes at an alamring rate,” because they were in the midst of the Second World War.
“This was a way to boost the image of the training program,” she said of the film. “It’s kind of an odd movie,” with some critics saying that it is really two films in one, with the parts filmed in the bush of northern Ontario focusing on bush pilot life, as opposed to the “stand-up, patriotic training at Uplands Airport.”
There was one priceless scene where “they even had Billy Bishop hand out wings,” during a ceremony. Some reviewers even said that the Canadian flying ace’s performance was perhaps one of the best ones in the film.
 Metcalfe-Chenail is in the midst of accumulating research into the company, which can involved three to four day stretches at Library and Archives Canada on Wellington Street. She already has the first five chapters completed, with each chapter being between 12 and 20 pages in length. The whole book is looking to be around 250 pages, including an index and glossary.
Metcalfe-Chenail is one of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society’s youngest members and one of its few female members, which comes with its own challenges and opportunities.
“Sometimes I feel out of place,” she admits. “But they make me feel so comfortable… There’s definitely a novelty factor,” but the members like that she is “bringing in a fresh perspective.”
“Here I am, coming in with my little book, and I hope they don’t pick it apart!” but the members have been very respectful.
She has noticed the difference in interviewing older people from the World War II generation, since “a lot of these people will tell you [how to go about doing your] research, but then won’t tell you a lot of their personal stories. Maybe it’s a generational thing.”
But she also feels that many of the members like that they have “someone to hear their stories,” and that, in general, “I don’t think we value our seniors enough.”
The members have proven to be an invaluable wealth of first-hand information for her research.
“Just today at lunch … I was talking to somebody who is really involved in civil aviation,” she said. “It’s a wonderful organization for researchers. You’re meeting people who were involved with it.” Another conference attendee, that very day, had handed her some photos of old de Havilland Canada planes, like the ones flown by Laurentian, and an old 1969 article from Canadian Aviation magazine.
 “I’ve literally got hundreds of these now. Aviation buffs love photos,” she says of her collection, which is nearing 300 images, adding with a laugh that, “I’m constantly scanning negatives.”
She has also had to adopt a journalist’s ethic, since “everywhere I go, I have to be careful what I say because I can end up doing an interview on the spot. I should really carry a camera around too.”
While she wants her book to be “accessible and interesting,” she stresses that her tome is “not a puff piece.” She has an Honours B.A. in Canadian Studies and History from McGill and an M.A. in History from the University of British Columbia, so she wants to “provide some solid facts to people who may be just getting into aviation history like me.”
So far, she has found that her work has been “a real labour of love.”
© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.