Dr. Rachel Lea Heide, MA, Ph.D, whose career in military history led to her current position as a senior defence scientist/strategic analyst with Canada’s Defence Research and Development Centre, reflected on her research into the tragic accident over Moose Jaw in 1954 — and said there is plenty more to learn about the collision and its ripple effects through time. 

The crash on April 8, 1954, occurred at 10:03 a.m. local time when a Trans Canada Airlines (TCA) passenger liner and a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Harvard Mark II trainer violently intercepted in the sky over the city. 

Debris rained down in a kilometres-wide radius — increasing the collective trauma for all — from cutlery impaled upright on the greens at Hillcrest Golf Course, to pieces of aircraft found in schoolyards, to the remains of the 36 people who were in the air. 

Heide did her research on the incident in 2003, during her Ph.D. studies at Carleton University. She feels she did a fairly deep dive in gathering local knowledge and, especially, examining the impact on civilian-military relations. However, she did not look at the national impact, the aftermath for the families of the many victims, or the ripple effect across other communities hosting training bases. 

Did the crash attract national attention? What happened in Winnipeg and Vancouver? 

“I think it’s safe to assume there was national attention to (the crash over Moose Jaw),” Heide said. “The TCA aircraft was coming from Winnipeg to Vancouver, so I can imagine there would have been knowledge in those two cities that ... that aircraft didn’t make it, and everybody died. 

“Another reason is that the trainer aircraft was Royal Canadian Air Force, and this is only 10 years after the war, when there was a training base in every single province. ... So yeah, just because I thought I did a pretty thorough job on the on the research back 2020 some years ago, I didn’t find everything ... So, it would be really cool if someone else started to research it and was able to sort of add to the tapestry.” 

Did the crash turn Moose Jaw and the air base against each other? 

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, blame was quickly placed on the RCAF and particularly on the behaviour of aviators at the nearby station. 

In her paper, Moose Jaw Civil-Military Relations After the Air Collision of 8 April 1954 (June 2003), Heide reveals that an emergency meeting of city council took place on 9 April in which Mayor Louis Lewry told reporters that the accident was avoidable. Lewry accused the base of ignoring both informal and written complaints — two of which had been sent only recently, in June 1953 and March 1954. 

Nevertheless, Heide believes that as time passed and investigations were conducted and concluded, most people accepted it was a tragic accident rather than a result of systemic carelessness. 

“It was a sad lesson that had to be learned, that I think made the aviation industry, both military and civilian, more cautious and more cognizant,” she said. “The accident report from the RCAF put blame on both sides, and there was no maliciousness, you know, no one accused either side of recklessness or incompetence. Nobody was drunk, nobody was overtired. And the RCAF said both sides just failed to see the other.” 

Some safety changes were made, and it didn’t happen again. However, it wasn’t a watershed moment for aviation safety. The 1954 collision was, rather, part of the slow evolution of aviation safety and communication practices. 

The community continued to want the base, its staff, and the trainee pilots to be connected to Moose Jaw for cultural and economic reasons.  

“I don’t think they had a reputation of being reckless,” Heide said. “There’s always the case that someone wanted to do some low flying, and people on the ground, well, many of them love that! It’s what happens at air shows, you had the Barnstormers in the 1920s and 1930s, and people would go for a bit of excitement. 

“It’s probably the more, you know, the ‘old codgers’ or ‘less-fun’ people who are (complaining), ‘They buzzed my barn!’ or ‘They made my cow not give milk!’ or stuff like that. But I think, unless something happened, most people weren’t like, ‘Look at that, they flew low there, they’re dangerous, we need to shut the base down.’” 

How did the Air Force and Trans-Canada Airlines communicate? 

The main focus of Heide’s paper was how the TCA and civilian aviation industry handled their relationship with the military after the event, and vice versa. 

Her research revealed some acrimonious exchanges between the two organizations. 

“The negative conversations ended up being the civilian industry being so very protective of their reputation,” she explained. “The TCA and the civilian reports ... did not want to attribute any blame to the Trans-Canada Airline pilot and I’m wondering if it was just part of the professionalization of civilian aviation, how proud they were, how professional they were trying to say they were. 

“Or, if it was a case of TCA wanting to protect its reputation and not lose any business.” 

The managing director of the Canadian Airline Pilots’ Association at the time, Captain A.R. Eddie, wrote that:  

Airline pilots are not a light-hearted lot; they take a professional approach to and a sober view of their responsibilities. This is frequently not the case with the air force student. ... The fact is that the two types under discussion are at different stages in their career, and they don’t mix well in the air. 

Eddie and his supporters advocated isolating RCAF bases even further from civilian airports. They also wanted to eliminate all RCAF flights over populated areas. That did not end up happening, but some other common-sense suggestions have now become standard — sharing flight schedules, for example, and changing air regulations to prescribe greater altitude separation for aircraft. 

The fight continued almost indefinitely. The RCAF said both parties shared blame, while major figures in the civilian aviation industry weighed in more and more emphatically to place blame solely on the military, even accusing the military of twisting the facts in their investigation to avoid a ‘clear conclusion’ of total responsibility. 

Heide noted that whatever the extended fallout of the accident and the feud had been after the crash, it eventually ended. Relations in the present day are better than cordial. Indeed, there is a recognized pipeline from military to civilian industries that is widely seen as essential, and a great deal of mutual respect. 

“Whatever might have been going on with that language then, definitely military pilots ... have that desire to have the civilian career, as well, and the civilian airlines are very happy to fill empty seats with experienced military pilots,” she added. 

Read the full article on the website of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, or stay tuned for our upcoming special episode on the Discover Moose Jaw News podcast to listen to the article in full.