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February is Black History Month. This Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) article examines the challenges that several Black Canadians conquered to become members of the RCAF, their contributions to the Air Force and Canada, and their tremendous achievements during and following their military service.
During the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Air Force maintained high standards for those it enlisted. This is reflected in the achievements of many of the Black Canadians who served in the RCAF during the war — for instance, four became lawyers post-war.
To cite another example — one with a post-war RCAF tie — Henry Langdon had an outstanding career in the civil aviation maintenance field.
Langdon was born in Trinidad in 1911 and came to Canada in 1923. Growing up in the Little Burgundy district of Montreal, he had a desire to be a writer, but was working in a gas station when the Second World War broke out. At this time he was married, had one daughter, and a son on the way. Such was his desire to serve that he was willing to leave them behind, enlisting in the RCAF on Nov. 1, 1939.
At this time the RCAF regulations prohibited the enlistment of anybody whose skin was not white, so somebody in the RCAF recruiting system obviously turned a blind eye to the regulations. Perhaps Langdon’s course in aero engine mechanics helped.
After training at the Technical Training School at St. Thomas, Ont., he served at No. 1 Service Flying Training School at Camp Borden, Ont., No. 9 Repair Depot at St. Jean, Que., No. 9 Bombing and Gunnery School, Mont Joli, Que., and No. 6 Repair Depot, Trenton, Ont. As well as being an excellent tradesman, he was a very good leader.
In May 1943, an evaluation records that he is “one of the finest airmen I have ever seen,” and had potential as aircrew. In September 1941, Group Capt Roy Grandy indicated that Langdon would make an excellent non-commissioned officer. Leading Aircraftman Langdon would reach the rank of flight sergeant in October 1944 and was at this rank when he was released on Sept. 7, 1945.
Perhaps because of his wartime experience and the number of former RCAF aircrew in its service, Trans-Canada Airlines (later Air Canada) hired Langdon in 1945 as an aero engine mechanic. He would later become an aircraft inspector with the company.
Langdon also became active in the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), Lodge 1751, in Montreal. He was one of the first Black mechanics to serve on an IAMAW lodge executive and was elected to the Montreal lodge’s executive for 25 years, serving as recording secretary as well as secretary of the workers’ education committee.
Langdon was also the Canadian High Commissioner of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, working towards improving race relations with this organization and in his civilian and military careers.
In March 1955, Langdon re-enlisted, this time in the RCAF Auxiliary. With his experience at Trans-Canada Airlines, it was natural that he would become the aero engine technical instructor at 3001 Technical Training Unit in Montreal. He served there until February 1961, spending one year with No. 104 Composite Unit at St. Hubert, Que., on special duty. Langdon then served a year with 438 Squadron before spending his remaining service with 401 Squadron where he was a flight line supervisor. He retired in January 1967, having reached career retirement age.
Langdon was a pioneer with (now) Air Canada, the RCAF and his union. Working in predominantly white environments in all three work places, he was highly respected not only for his abilities, but in his efforts towards improving race relations.
Langdon had come a long way from his desire for a literary career–his long service in the civil aviation maintenance field was exemplary, and the RCAF played a role in setting him on his way.