The Short Life of RCAF Station Shirleys Bay
By Mathias Joost
posted 4 January 2012
Lost in time and history is a small but significant RCAF Station in the Ottawa, Ont. area - Shirleys Bay, which was only operational for four years, from 1925 to 1928. Originally, the RCAF station for Ottawa was at Rockcliffe; however, the station sat quite high above the Ottawa River forcing an exhausting and dangerous haul-out of floatplanes and flying boats up the steep bank. In 1925, the RCAF moved the station to Shirleys Bay on the shore of Lake Deschenes on the Ottawa River just west of the city. Here the RCAF was able to develop a multiple use station, that operated for but a brief time.
The only Varuna I to be built, the aircraft served at Shirleys Bay in a variety of roles except that for which it was designed – transporting forest fire fighters and their equipment. Because it had a more powerful engine and was lighter than the Varuna IIs, it was the best of the type. This aircraft was one of the first tested at Shirleys Bay.
A view of the Ottawa River bank looking up to Rockcliffe Air Station. This photo was taken before the new ramp was built, and shows the height and steepness of the river bank up and down which aircraft were lowered.
From a simple establishment of three officers and 23 airmen in 1925, the facility grew, reaching 12 officers and 45 airmen in 1928 while the number of aircraft expanded from five to 13. Operations at Shirleys Bay were quite diverse, with aerial photography operations representing the bulk of the flying hours in support of civil government air operations. While other stations were involved in forest fire spotting and then the transport of fire fighters, in 1927 Shirleys Bay became involved with the delivery of mail and in 1928 in aerial spraying of forests against various diseases. On the military side, the staff at Shirleys Bay test flew new aircraft to ensure that they were airworthy and also tested new engineering changes. The station staff also test flew aircraft that were received from the manufacturer, testing them to make sure they met RCAF requirements. These new aircraft were then flown to other RCAF stations in Canada after acceptance. The staff at Shirleys Bay even flew VIPs around Ottawa and to other cities.
Roy Grandy, the second commanding officer of RCA Station Shirleys Bay, was perhaps the best test pilot in the RCAF before the Second World War.
Things began to come to an end at Shirleys Bay in 1927. With no landing strip for wheeled aircraft at Shirleys Bay, and with more of them entering RCAF service, the air force decided to refurbish Rockcliffe. This was completed at the of 1928 after which the station was moved back to its original location, where it grew and remained active until 1993.
Aerial view of Shirleys Bay in mid-1927 looking south along Range Road, which trails away into the distance. The building to the right and above the copse of trees is the officers’ mess and quarters. The tents to the left of the Bessonneau hangar are the accommodations for the airmen. Work has just started on the new hangar.