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45 ° 42′ North: Above it all

Two hundred and sixty-five feet above Wellington Street in Ottawa is an aircraft that has been airborne for some 80 years.


July 14, 2010
By Peter Pigott

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Two hundred and sixty-five feet above Wellington Street in Ottawa is an aircraft that has been airborne for some 80 years. It has never flown anywhere, seems determined to head into the wind and can execute a flat 360-degree turn in seconds. Finally, it is pilotless! The weathervane is a copper model of a Canadian Vickers Vedette flying boat and is perched on top of the tallest tower of the Confederation building. Only the Canadian flag on the Peace Tower flies higher.

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The architects looked for a suitable weathervane to crown the building’s tallest tower.


 

In 1929, the foundations were laid for the Confederation Building on the corner of the parliamentary precinct to house the Department of Agriculture. Canada was an agricultural country then and the department was a powerful one, so no expense was spared in the construction of its new home. When it was completed, the architects looked for a suitable weathervane to crown the building’s tallest tower.

“The Department of Public Works was casting around for something typical-symbolical-distinctive to finish the tower,” wrote the Ottawa Citizen on Feb.27, 1931, “and happening to view a moving picture show of aerial craft . . . the designer saw flashed across the screen exactly what he wanted as a model for a weather vane. Enquiry revealed this to be a Vickers Viditte (sic). . . So an exact scale model was developed in copper and bronze which was mounted over a globe.” A gift from the Royal Canadian Air Force, the replica has a wingspan and fuselage length of over five feet and weighs 140 lbs. 

Why was a little-known 1920s flying boat accorded this honour? In these days of global positioning and Google Earth, it is hard to comprehend, but less than 100 years ago, most of Canada was still unmapped. The British Admiralty had charted the former colony’s coastline and the two railways – the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National – had surveyed the land on either side of their tracks. But away from the cities, vast areas of the interior were still unexplored. Much of the prairie provinces, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories was simply described on the maps of the day as “Unknown.”

But the development of aircraft during the Great War had been so spectacular that in 1919, provincial governments, forestry, shipping and hydroelectric companies all lobbied the federal government to use them to survey the country’s interior. The young RCAF was then looking for a raison d’être – there were no enemies to defend Canada from. Using the flying boats that the British and the United States Navy had donated, the RCAF agreed to take on the mission. The science of aerial surveying was simple. If an aircraft flew in a grid pattern and vertical photographs were taken from it straight down, when fitted together they would result in a map of the landscape flown over. If these photographs were complemented with those taken obliquely (taken at an angle to the earth’s surface) the relief of the area – mountains, valleys and trees – would emerge. Flying “lines,” as it was called, was monotonous but with a few variations, this was how the country was mapped and by 1926, based at High River, Man., Ottawa and Jericho Beach, Vancouver, RCAF aircraft had photographed and mapped thousands of square miles.

But, never designed to carry heavy cameras in their nose cockpits, by 1924, the First World War flying boats were increasingly unsuitable. The British Vickers company, sensing a market, adapted its Viking for Canadian usage. But it was underpowered and the amount of water its hull absorbed meant that it rotted quickly. Then the Society of Forest Engineers teamed up with the RCAF to design the ideal aircraft for forest patrol and aerial surveying and Vickers built the aircraft at its Montreal plant. With a span of 42’ 2”, length of 32’ 11” and height of 11’ 2”, the three-place flying boat was powered by a single 200-horsepower Wright J-4 Whirlwind engine. Cockpits were enlarged and hulls strengthened for conditions in the bush.”

By 1930, there were 36 Vedettes, allowing for survey operations across the country, particularly in the far north, which would be invaluable in the coming war. It must have been one of these that the architect of the Confederation building saw on the screen and decided to immortalize as the weathervane. In the decades that followed, exposed to the elements, the polished copper gradually oxidized to a dirty green and in 2009, the Vedette was removed for restoration.

As many of the offices in the Confederation building are now reserved for members of Parliament, particularly backbenchers, the weathervane is sorely missed. In a minority government, it is important to know which way the wind is blowing . . .


Peter Pigott is a Wings writer and columnist.