Pilot & Prohibition – Canada’s First Air Mail Delivery

Captain Brian Peck

By June of 1918, the First World War was raging in Europe. In Canada, fewer and fewer people were enlisting to fight overseas. Pilot Captain Brian Peck of the Royal Air Force knew he had to do something to try and get more people to sign up.

He offered to fly from Toronto to Montreal and perform some aerobatics, after which he would toss leaflets from the plane, encouraging onlookers to enlist.

The plan was approved and off Captain Peck flew to Montreal. The day of his scheduled aerobatic performance, however, had to be postponed due to bad weather. Captain Peck couldn’t stay in Montreal for too long and was scheduled to return to Toronto on June 23rd, 1918.

At the same time, two Montrealers and members of the Aerial League of the British Empire wanted to prove that airplanes were useful on the domestic front as well. They proposed that Captain Peck bring some mail from Montreal to Toronto, even going so far as to ask the Postmaster General in Ottawa for permission, which was granted. Captain Peck was allowed to bring around 120 pieces of mail with him back to Toronto on June 23rd, 1918. Each of these pieces of mail were rubber stamped with the words “Inaugural Service Via Aerial Mail—Montreal 23.06.18”.

First Air Mail Canada

One of the letters aboard the flight

Captain Peck also had a friend in Toronto who was getting married and figured he would pick something up for the wedding in Montreal and bring it back for his friend. Everything was tightly packed and secured into the Curtiss JN4, which was not meant for cargo, when the heavens opened and another bout of bad weather forced Captain Peck to wait.

Finally, on June 24th, 1918, Captain Peck was cleared for take-off. Due to the additional weight, the Curtiss JN4 had to fly very low to the ground—only 40 feet above ground. This was so low, he had to fly under telegraph wires! The weather itself was also causing problems with high winds that buffeted the plane forcing Captain Peck to run out of fuel in Kingston. Kingston, however, did not have any airplane fuel. Desperate, and running out of options, Captain Peck decided to fill the plane up with regular gasoline!

Needless to say, filling up an airplane with automobile gas was Not A Good Idea, and the engine began to sputter forcing him to land in Deseronto (barely 30 miles away). This time he was able to refuel with good-ol’ airplane fuel and finally made it back to Toronto, only 6 hours after taking off.

And the people of Toronto were thrilled! This was Canada’s first Air Mail delivery and this flight was front-page news! While the Postmaster General in Ottawa had been informed of this, no one told the Postmaster in Toronto about this flight, and while he was surprised he happily accepted the mail.

It was only after the mail had been handed over that Captain Peck began to unload his friend’s wedding present: cases and cases of Scotch.

Ontario was a dry province in 1918 (and would continue to be so until 1927), but prohibition was not in effect in Quebec, and it was common for people to smuggle alcohol from Quebec into Ontario. Captain Peck just wanted to make sure that his friend’s wedding was one to remember.

Montreal Gazette – June 1918