The only thing Wess McIntosh ever wanted to do was fly. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1916, McIntosh earned his pilot’s license at age 18, funding his flying lessons with the inheritance from his late grandfather. McIntosh joined the Naval Reserve as a telegrapher in 1933 and spent every spare dollar he earned renting airplanes by the hour from the Winnipeg Flying Club. He eventually accumulated 410 flying hours–enough to get his commercial license. At the outset of World War II in 1939, McIntosh transferred from the Navy to the Royal Canadian Air Force–fulfilling his dream of flying with the RCAF.
During military flight training at Camp Borden, an eager young Wess McIntosh was frustrated to find that his years of preparation counted for little. He was unable to perform a loop or any other maneuver. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know anything, they took me under their wing,” McIntosh writes in his autobiography, Permission Granted. However, McIntosh was a dedicated student and eventually became a military flight instructor in 1940. In his first year alone, McIntosh trained nearly 100 pilot officers on Yale and Harvard airplanes.
In 1943, McIntosh was looking for a more active role in the war and, due to his extensive experience, he was reassigned to the newly formed 168 Heavy Transport Squadron. 168 Squadron was created by a Parliamentary decree that promised timely mail delivery for Canadian soldiers fighting overseas. Six B-17 Flying Fortresses were purchased from the US Air Force. They arrived at 168 Squadron headquarters in Rockcliffe, Ontario (now within Ottawa city boundaries) in early December with the goal of providing a steady supply of mail by Christmas. Service crews quickly set about customizing the Fortresses for mail duty by removing the guns and adding a dropdown ramp to the nose. The bombardier station was eliminated, and the navigator was moved from the cheek gun position to the cockpit behind the pilots.
Wess McIntosh made his first transatlantic mail delivery by B-17 from Gander, Newfoundland to Prestwick, England on January 9, 1944. On the return journey, McIntosh flew the first full load of mail back to Canada, which consisted of more than 1.5 million letters. “We started a tradition of painting mailbags on the nose of our aircraft instead of bombs to mark each successful tour we made,” McIntosh writes. By 1945, 168 Squadron had made 600 crossings of the Atlantic. Wess McIntosh was honourably discharged after his last wartime flight in October 1945, bringing a group of Canadian POWs home to Canada.
Wess McIntosh’s passion for flight never waned. During his long civilian career, he flew for a number of air services in Canada and around the world, including Trans-Canada Air Lines, Hollinger Ungava Transport and Argentina’s national airline FAMA. During his career, which spanned six decades, McIntosh made a total of 88 Atlantic crossings and accumulated nearly 25,000 hours in the pilot seat. He piloted his last flight in 2003 at age 89. Today Wess McIntosh lives in Oakville, Ontario.