Air Crew Descriptions

Air Crew Descriptions

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan endeavored to train a force of men that could control air combat during World War II. There were only a handful of aircrew classifications and each was responsible for performing certain duties on operations. This section will illustrate the classifications and what they entailed.

The aircrew classifications one could enlist for were as follows:


The majority of men who presented themselves for enlistment in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during World War II had high hopes of becoming a pilot. While many men succeeded, more were trained in other trades. Most men felt that a pilot commission was glamourous compared to others, but the pilots themselves would be the first to say that they relied upon other crew members on operations.

A pilotís training was intensive. After Initial Training School (ITS), he attended Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS), Service Flying Training School (SFTS), was then posted to an Operational Training Unit or General Reconnaissance School and eventually, sent overseas, or kept in Canada to defend the homefront or train other pilots.

After EFTS, pilots who were going to be trained as fighter pilots were posted to a SFTS where they would be trained, usually on Harvard aircraft, comparable to what they would be using in combat. Men who were chosen to pilot bomber, coastal or transport operations were posted to a SFTS where they could train on larger, dual engine aircraft such as Avro Ansons, Cessna Cranes and Airspeed Oxfords.

In addition to their pilot flying training, as they were an aircraft commander on operations, pilots were also trained in navigation, engines, airframe, meteorology, wireless and photography. They were trained to be able to fly at any time of day, in any conditions. At SFTS, pilots specialized in advanced flying techniques such as night and instrument flying.

In the early years of the BCATP, the pilot training process took approximately 25 weeks. By 1944, the time pilots were required to spend in training had almost doubled. In putting the Plan into practice, the Air Ministry soon learned how to make improvements and took greater time to ensure that all aircrew were expertly trained.


Navigators could become straight navigators, or specialize to navigate bomber or fighter aircraft. Nevertheless, a proficient navigator was essential to the success of any aircraft on operation. Curtained away behind the pilot so as to conceal the lights he needed to calculate and log the aircraftís course, navigators directed pilots to their destination and then back home again. If a navigator was not incredibly precise, the bomb aimer would miss his targets.

These men needed to be trained intensively in navigational rules, calculations and measurements to such a degree that they could pinpoint the position of the aircraft while in flight without any external aid, also known as dead reckoning. As the war progressed, so did navigational technology. Radios and astral observation were used to assist the navigator in his duties. However, since electronic devices could be interfered with and the stars are not always visible, dead reckoning was never replaced.

Air Bomber

Air Bombers were responsible for loading and dropping the bombs. They were required to be able to calculate the exact moment of when to drop the bomb load and then press the button to do so. He also had to learn to take photographs of the bombs after they had been dropped to record bomb destruction and enemy troop placement.

Air Observer

In 1942, Canadaís Air Ministry revised bomber crews. Instead of a crew being comprised of two pilots, an air observer and two wireless operator/air gunners, it was decided that only one pilot was necessary for medium to heavy bombers and that the position of air observer, who up until this time was responsible for both navigating and bomb dropping, would be broken up into two positions: air bomber and navigator. Thus a bomber crew from 1942 onward would usually consist of one pilot, a navigator, an air bomber, a wireless operator/air gunner and one or two straight air gunners. In a Lancaster bomber, a flight engineer was added to the crew.

Air Gunner

In a Lancaster bomber, a crew was comprised of seven members. There were two air gunners, one located in the mid-upper portion of the aircraft and another in the rear. As well as knowing how to target and shoot at the enemy aircraft, the air gunner was responsible for scanning the night sky to spot enemy fighters and directing the pilot toward evasive action.

Wireless Operator

Wireless operators were trained to use the radio equipment on board an aircraft. It was this personís job to maintain communication with the world outside of the aircraft. In addition, a straight wireless operator was trained in using navigational equipment and was the member of the crew who would administer first aid if need be.

Flight Engineer

A flight engineer was the seventh and final member added to a heavy bomber crew. Essentially, the flight engineer was an aero-engine technician. Seated next to the pilot, he would assist in take-offs, landings and monitor oil, fuel and pressure gauges. It was also this man's duty to take over the aircraft if anything happened to the pilot.

SOURCE: Wings Over Alberta website.

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