Aerial Views from TCA’s Vickers Viscount

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Canada, as we all know, is really really big, and its sheer big-ness is often hard to scale down to something understandable. Southern Canadians, as Northern Studies scholars like to suggest, need tricks and tropes of various sorts to incorporate the North into their imaginations, and Canada’s regionality is hugely obvious when my colleagues in Oklahoma ask if where I’m from (Ottawa) is near Vancouver.

Therefore, aerial views are often key in opening up discourse about Canada’s size, natural resources, and identities, both for actors and analysts. Marionne Cronin and Jeanne Haffner, in their work on Canada’s North and Parisian city planning respectively, have shown that how those aerial views are achieved and who does the viewing can have an impact on how the images are constructed, used, and received. In both of those cases, though, the aerial views were being curated by state or auxiliary-state actors; what happens when “everyday Canadians” get to view their country from above?

Midcentury airlines often advertised the ways in which flying would allow passengers to better appreciate the landscape, and this was especially useful rhetoric in Canada, which required a zoomed-out view, so to speak, to grasp the overwhelming scale of the nation. Although my dissertation focuses on the links between climatic identity in Canada—that is, the idea that Canadians have a culture based on a climate in which they do not generally live—and aviation mythmaking, Canada’s size was also commonly used to sell the air travel experience.

The Vickers Viscount. Source: Canada Aviation and Space Museum Image Bank

One example is the Vickers Viscount, a turbo-prop airliner used by Trans-Canada Air Lines, now Air Canada, starting in 1955. Manufactured in Britain, it was the first turbine-powered airliner in North America. By the middle part of the 1950s, the postwar “travel boom” was beginning to, well, boom, and even if regular air travel was unaffordable for middle-class Canadians, this was also the age of the postwar “advertising boom.” TCA worked with Montreal’s Cockfield, Brown, & Co. advertising agency, responsible for so many Canadian government campaigns including Louis St. Laurent’s famous turn as “Uncle Louis.” Canadians had easy access to the air travel imaginary, even if they weren’t all really flying.

The Viscount had two major selling points at TCA. The first, its new engine type, was usually discussed in advertising material as a conduit for faster, smoother, longer flights. The only “Canadian” thing about the new Rolls Royce “Dart” engines was that their ability in cold conditions had been tested in Brandon, Manitoba. According to promotional material, they “performed brilliantly.” The more evocative, however, was the Viscount’s interior. Since the Canadair North Star in 1947, TCA’s aircraft had all had pressurized cabins, meaning that the airline could finally use comfort as a selling point. And the Viscount had comfort to spare. Foam seats, individual ashtrays, and “the last word in air conditioning and heating”—as a pamphlet for travel agents claims—would allow passengers to arrive at their destination “Viscount Fresh.” These “living room comfort” features were largely standard on North American airliners, but one feature was not: the Viscount had the largest windows out of any operational airliner. At 26 by 19 inches, these panoramic ovals allowed everyone, even those sitting on the aisle, an unobstructed view. As one 1954 promotional booklet claimed:

“The opportunity to view Mother Earth from a vantage point high in the air has always been one of the fascinating accompaniments of plane travel…Here indeed is your ‘armchair with the picture window’, from which you can comfortably observe the constantly changing cloud formations or view with serene superiority the face of the countryside below.”

The “armchair with the picture window” aboard the Vickers Viscount. From a TCA promotional pamphlet, 1954. Source: Collections Canada

Material for travel agents even suggested they tell their clients that this size, coupled with new technologies—double-paning—meant that the windows would not fog, making the Viscount optimal for aerial photography.

Although there wasn’t always much to see at 30,000 feet, potential travellers had been conditioned to conceptualize the panoramic views as a new way to appreciate their surroundings. Route maps at this time regularly featured stylized aircraft crisscrossing the country, implying that getting up in the air would allow passengers to visualize their nation as a whole. And it appears to have caught on. Throughout the 1950s, passengers wrote to the airline asking for even larger windows, black paint on the wings to reduce glare, pilot announcements when the plane flew over landmarks, and even entirely transparent aircraft.

And although the Viscount itself wasn’t particularly Canadian, its only North American carrier was TCA, meaning this new way to look out of windows appeared unique to Canada’s national airline. The Viscount’s turboprop engines also made it the leading edge of Canada’s jet age, which, by the 1960s, had brought costs down and accessibility up. Once air travel became a form of mass transit, the allure of looking out of panoramic windows disappeared, making the aerial views from the Viscount a historical snapshot.

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Blair Stein

I am Assistant Professor of History at Clarkson University in northern New York State. I teach history of science and technology and environmental history, and I write about the links between geography, technology, and modernity in twentieth-century Canada, with a special interest in aviation.


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