Aerial Photography in Canada - A Brief History
Aerial photography was established early in Canada mainly because of the pioneering efforts of Captain E.G.D. Deville, Surveyor General of Canada from 1885 u
ntil his death in 1924. Deville was a brilliant scientist, inventor and administrator. At the start of his career maps were plotted using photographs taken from
mountain tops. By the 1920's, regular aerial photography flights for mapping and forestry inventory had been established across the country, largely because of
Dr. Deville's firm belief in the potential of this new surveying method.
It was Britain's donation of a few wartime flying boats as well as the donation of 12 Curtiss HS-2L Flying boats by the United States that had been stationed in
Nova Scotia under the command of Lieutenant Richard Byrd, (later Admiral Byrd of Polar navigation fame) and the formation of the Air Board of Canada in 1919, that
got aerial photography off the mountain tops and into airplanes in Canada.
The Air Board, responsible for the control of commercial and non-military government flying, together with Dr. Deville's department, organized the first
experimental Aerial-Survey over Ottawa in 1920.
The results were sufficiently encouraging to establish aerial photography as a revolutionary topographical surveying method. Because of this development, Canada
today has one of the most comprehensive storehouses of aerial photographs in the world.
In 1925, the Interdepartmental Committee on Air Surveys (ICAS) and the National Air Photo Library (NAPL) were established to take charge of all federal non-military
air-photo activities. They are now key components of the Centre for Topographic Information of Geomatics Canada, a part of the Earth Sciences Sector
of Natural Resources Canada.
Until 1956, most photographic surveys were flown by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Since then, however, all aerial photographs used for federal mapping have been
contracted to commercial air survey firms.
In the mid 1920's, a limited number of aerial photography surveys were conducted by private aviation companies. This included Laurentide Aviation Services which
was the first major commercial Air Service company established in Canada. Indeed, the first commercial contract of the newly formed Barker-Bishop Air Service Company,
formed in 1920 after the end of the Great War, was an aerial photographic Survey of Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. This was followed by a survey of the City
of Toronto waterfront.
Over the years, aerial photographic surveys have been made on a regular basis for mapping, charting of the sea coasts, building of highways, town planning and any
ground activity where a measure of size or change must be made.
Aerial photography provided the first true measure of the size and physical makeup of the surface of Canada. Aerial photography proved invaluable in the opening of
the North and in the evaluation of Canada's forest resources. Today, aerial photography remains an essential tool in mapping, the management of forests and waters,
in vegetation damage control, and in urban planning and environmental management.
The National Air Photo Library functions as a national archive, and an order office. Here, over six million aerial photographs of Canada, including those dating back
to the 1920's, are indexed and stored. Each photo is cross-referenced to an index map or flight report that indicates the flight path and flight altitude and weather
conditions for that particular run. The Library handles all inquiries for information on federal aerial photography and processes all requests for federal aerial
The Library and reference centre is open to the public where one can view the photographic image of Canada, past and present, side by side.
The largest of the aerial photographic missions undertaken in Canada was that of the original Aerial Photographic Survey conducted in the 1920's. This was mainly carried out through the efforts of a dedicated band of men from the newly formed RCAF.
The pilots and support crew lived in makeshift camps in the "Bush" and the challenging wilderness found throughout northern Canada.
The flying equipment was utilitarian and primitive by to-days standards. Open cockpits, unmapped terrain, lack of navigation equipment and no radios brought about daily challenges that meant survival was always at the "edge".
Messenger Pigeons were the only lifeline to survival in the event of a crash in the "Bush". Every aircrew carried a pair on board for that eventuality. This practice continued to 1930.
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