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Air force history brought to life through 'fantastic' photos

Bradford resident and retired Lt.-Col. Ferguson Mobbs photographed 23 different uniforms and flight suits from 1924 to modern day to celebrate the RCAF's 100th anniversary

As the saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words, and in this case, it’s also 100 years of history.

Bradford resident, retired Lt.-Col. Ferguson Mobbs, worked to assemble and photograph almost two dozen different uniforms and flight suits from 1924 to modern day to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), which will be on April 1.

“This is the only collection of photographs of uniforms taken at one time that’s consistent, ever, in the 100 years of the RCAF,” he said, noting that the variety of existing photos are from multiple different time periods and in different styles. “There’s nothing that goes from A-Z and covers as many as we can.”

A 27-year veteran of the RCAF, Mobbs initially envisioned the project as a few banners to be displayed during the upcoming Toronto Garrison Officers’ Ball in Toronto on Feb. 24, but it wasn’t long after first proposing the idea to Lt.-Col. Lyle Holbrook about six months ago that things really took off.

“I had some excellent assistance from some people in Barrie, Borden, in order to get a lot more uniforms than I ever expected, growing to 23,” Mobbs said.

With all 23 uniforms lent by Canadian Forces Base Borden, Mobbs set about the task of finding the right people to help him bring the uniforms to life, because while some may have been content to use mannequins, he wanted to go a step further and “give that personal feeling of what it looked like on a real human.”

It was a rare opportunity, but also a unique challenge, since the historic uniforms couldn’t be altered.

“Once we found out the size of the uniforms I had to go out and find the models,” Mobbs said. “I was able to get six models and we had to fit the models to the uniforms and not the uniforms to the models.”

Luckily, he knew just the right people and by early September everything was lined up and ready to go with military precision.

“My objective was to have the person in the uniform as little time as possible in order for the people to be comfortable and in order that there is very little wear and tear on the uniforms themselves,” Mobbs said.

As a result of that pre-planning and the efforts of the amateur models, all the photos were shot in a single day on base.

“It moved extremely smoothly. The models were fantastic. They followed direction and they were just wonderful people to work with and I thank every one of them for giving their time up for the day,” Mobbs said, adding that everyone participated on a volunteer basis and no one was paid for project, not even him.

A professional photographer of 47 years, Mobbs also took care to light the photos and position the models in such a way that as many details of the uniforms would be visible as possible and “be extremely clear.”

Having the opportunity to actually see the uniforms up close and in person, Mobbs couldn’t help but be impressed by the extent to which they’ve improved over the years.

“The technology that has gone into today’s uniform, especially the Canadian uniform called the CADPAT (Canadian Disruptive Pattern) is so far advanced. The uniform used today is absolutely brilliant,” he said, noting the material is flame resistant and long-wearing while still being comfortable and breathable, all while featuring that “state-of-the-art” computer-generated pattern.

That didn’t stop him from appreciating the older uniforms though, especially how well they had held up over the years.

“They were very well thought out and considering the time periods the uniforms were made, they were very good. For them to last that long, does that say something?” Mobbs said, noting real uniforms had been used. “Every one of them was in such pristine condition, that it was really, really incredible to see them like that.”

There was one exception which required extra special care — a pair of flight boots from the 1920s that had become so brittle, Mobbs had the model wearing them put them on cautiously before slowly shuffling into the exact position.

“They couldn’t bend the boot because we were afraid they were going to crack. We were afraid any pressure on the ankle or anything like that would snap the leather,” he said.

It wasn't just the boots that used to be made from that material, and one photo in particular shows the progression of the helmets over the years, from basic leather and goggles to the advanced units used today.

“You’ll see some of them that are what you expect because you’ve seen them in movies over the years and then you come up to today and say ‘oh, my gosh.’ What a piece of kit. It’s incredible,” Mobbs said.

While still planned to be used on banners at the Toronto Garrison Officers’ Ball, Mobbs said he’s working with officials in Ottawa to have the photos shown more widely as well.

“I’m quite proud, and I’m quite pleased with the wonderful assistance and help that I received on this project from various different individuals,” he said.

There may even be opportunities for the photos to be displayed in Bradford as there are celebrations in honour of the 100th anniversary planned for April and June, with more details expected to be available in the coming months.

Among other accomplishments, Mobbs was also involved in the launch of the 37 Orville Hand Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron in 2018, he produced and directed a documentary on the Royal Canadian Air Cadets in 2019, and he helped plan the Never Forgotten National Memorial, a project which was later cancelled.

Michael Owen

About the Author: Michael Owen

Michael Owen has worked in news since 2009 and most recently joined Village Media in 2023 as a general assignment reporter for BradfordToday
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