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A century in the air (a very short history of aviation in edmonton)

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  • A century in the air (a very short history of aviation in edmonton)

    On Friday, April 28, 1911 a pilot named Hugh Robinson took off from the Exhibition Grounds in his Curtiss biplane to make the first heavier than air flight in Edmonton. Flights by hot air balloons and other lighter than air conveyances had been fairly common attractions at fairs and exhibitions in the city and other parts of Alberta for some years but this marked something quite different. The Curtiss, advertised in the Edmonton newspapers as, “the fastest in the world,” was similar to the one that Glenn Curtis had used to win the world’s first air race at Reims, France, two years earlier at the blazing speed of 75 km per hour. The event at Reims drew half a million spectators and Edmontonians were just as excited by the idea that a flying machine could go in the direction you pointed it regardless of which way the wind was blowing.

    When the First World War began a few years later, even though we did not have our own air force, Canadians flocked to join Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, making up almost 40% of the pilots in Britain’s nascent air force. The first Canadian to die in the air war, Stanley Winther Caws, came from Edmonton. Wilfrid “Wop” May and Roy Brown, two former students at Victoria High School combined to shoot down the most famous airman of the war, Manfred von Richtofen, the “Red Baron.” The war dramatically improved the performance of aircraft and a remarkable pilot named Katherine Stinson took advantage of the greater range, speed and reliability available to fly the first airmail in western Canada from Calgary to Edmonton in 1918.

    When the war ended, hundreds of pilots returned to Canada determined to try to make a living by flying. Almost all of them started with war surplus aircraft like the ubiquitous Curtiss JN 4D “Jenny,” that had been mass produced in Toronto. Wop May was typical of these enterprising young men. He formed a company called May Airplanes Limited and for a few years managed to scrape out a living with his Jenny named the “City of Edmonton” by barnstorming, aerial photography and publicity stunts. This kind of enterprise became steadily more difficult as the novelty of flying wore thin and the war surplus planes wore out.

    Up to this point the history of aviation in Edmonton differed in no way from that of other Canadian cities. For the name of Wop May in Edmonton you could substitute William Barker in Winnipeg, Billy Bishop in Toronto or Freddie McCall in Calgary and get a closely similar wartime and post-war experience. Starting in the 1920s, however, aviation began to have an impact on Edmonton that was not paralleled in any other Canadian city. Other Canadian urban centres owed their existence to their location on water routes (Halifax, Montreal, Toronto,Vancouver) or they were products of the railway age (Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary). Edmonton had been a very latecomer to the great railway boom, not getting its main line connections for twenty years after Winnipeg and Calgary. Before the First World War, attempts to connect Edmonton by rail with Ft. McMurray and the Peace River Country were expensive failures.

    The northern railways were attempts to build on Edmonton’s historic fur trade routes into northern British Columbia, the Yukon and the Mackenzie valley. Shortly after the war’s end a number of people realized that the new technology of aircraft based on Edmonton could use these routes without the massive infrastructure expenses of railways. In the summer of 1920 a group of United States Army Air Force DH-4 aircraft led by General Billy Mitchell made their way from Edmonton through the Yukon to Alaska and back. Just about the same time the Imperial Oil Company purchased two Junkers F. 13s, the most advanced transport aircraft of the day, and hired Wop May and George Gorman to fly them from New York to Edmonton. The plan was to put the airplanes, named ‘Rene’ and ‘Vic,’ on skis and use them in the winter to fly people and supplies to their drilling operations at Norman Wells on the Mackenzie. They made their way north of 60, proving that there was a commercial future for northern aviation, although the difficulties they encountered showed that there was much to be learned about flying in the extreme conditions of an arctic winter.

    There was enough promise by the mid-1920s that city council took notice. Pilots had been using parts of a farm on the northern outskirts of the city known as the Hagmann Estate for several years. In 1924 Wop May and Harry Adair petitioned Mayor Kenny Blatchford to set aside part of the land, which now belonged to the city because of non-payment of taxes, for a permanent airfield. The proposal worked its way through the administration and in 1926 council voted $400.00 to make necessary improvements and applied to Ottawa for a license. (The improvements consisted mainly of cutting trees, levelling the ground and seeding grass. The horse-drawn plough used for the purpose is still in possession of the Alberta Aviation Museum.) Almost by return mail the document arrived, granting Edmonton the first license in Canada for a municipally owned “Public Air Harbour.”

    Edmonton’s Air Harbour, named Blatchford Field after the mayor, was almost too successful at first. By 1928 so many aircraft were using it that upgrades were desperately needed if the planned air mail route to Winnipeg and scheduled service to northern points were to be accommodated. Late in 1928 a money bylaw to spend $23,860 on the airport narrowly missed the two thirds majority vote necessary to pass. A year later, in part due to the publicity generated by May and Horner’s heroic mid-winter flight to deliver diphtheria antitoxin to Ft. Vermilion, the citizenry reversed themselves and voted $35,000. The landing area was enlarged, lighting installed and a hangar large enough to hold a dozen planes built. With the addition of Cooking Lake as a seaplane base a few years later, the city was now in a position to take advantage the conjuncture of geography and technology.

    As the prairies and the rest of Canada sank into the economic morass of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Edmonton did relatively well. One indicator was that the University of Alberta was the only one in Canada that did not suffer a decline in enrolment over the decade. The faculties of Law and Engineering were thriving and their strength was due largely to demand created by uranium and gold mining in the North West Territories. That activity would not have been possible without air travel.

    The 1930s was a time of very rapid development in aircraft technology in which multi-engined, metal planes replaced single-engined, fabric covered biplanes. The companies flying into the north eagerly adopted every improvement. The central place of Edmonton in these developments is well illustrated by the fact that James Richardson’s Western Canada Airways (later Canadian Airways), headquartered in Winnipeg, conducted most of its flying operations into the north from Edmonton. Canadian Airways was the first aviation company in Canada to have adequate financial backing which allowed it to operate the latest and best equipment. Even though Canadian Airways absorbed numerous smaller operations, May and Gorman’s included, it did not completely dominate northern flying. Leigh Brintnell’s Mackenzie Air Service and later Grant McConachie’s Yukon Southern Air Transport provided lots of competition.

    The mining industry needed large and heavy pieces of equipment sent in to the north and the companies operating out of Edmonton were the first anywhere to figure out how to do it by air. By the late 1930s more air freight was being carried in Canada than all the rest of the world together and most of that was flown out of Edmonton. Today’s enormous world-wide air freight business was essentially invented here.

    The increasing numbers of large and complex aircraft flying out of Edmonton led to another important development. The early barnstormers and bush flyers either did their own maintenance and repairs or took their mechanics along with them to work in the open air or in improvised shelters. To keep the planes flying on scheduled routes in all seasons required a better organization. In 1936, Leigh Brintnell solved the problem by banding together with several other operators to establish a company called Aircraft Repair Limited. This was the first venture of its kind in Canada and it was crucial to the expansion of the aviation industry in Edmonton and throughout northern Canada. When war came three years later, Aircraft Repair was renamed North West Industries and its original two dozen employees grew to 1750 by 1943.

    The establishment of Aircraft Repair was just one example of how the flying activities of the 1930s laid the groundwork for the massive expansion of wartime. When war broke out in 1939 the immediate need was to train thousands of pilots, navigators and other aircrew. The result was the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan under which Canada trained 130,000 aircrew from Canada, other Commonwealth countries and many escapees from the countries of Nazi-occupied Europe – Poles, Norwegians, French and others. Edmonton was fully involved in the BCATP as the home of No. 4 Initial Training School, No. 16 Elementary Flying Training School and No. 2 Air Observer School. Blatchford Field was barely adjusting to the dozens of Tiger Moths and Ansons with all the people needed to keep them flying and the construction of buildings to house them when the American entry into the war at the end of 1941 changed the game once again.

    As early as two decades before, with Billy Mitchell’s Army Air Force flight to Alaska, the United States had recognized that in the event of a war with Japan an inland air route through Edmonton would be essential to the defense of that territory. American interest was confirmed in 1934 when Lt. Col. H.H. Arnold (later to command the USAAF during the war) took a flight of Martin B-10 bombers through to Alaska. Their return down the west coast through Vancouver and Seattle demonstrated that the flying weather on this route was too consistently bad to make it practical for regular use. Well before Pearl Harbor agreements were in place with the Canadian government for the construction of a highway to Alaska and an accompanying air route. Fuel for the war effort in Alaska would be supplied from Imperial Oil’s field at Norman Wells in the North West Territories via a pipeline though the Mackenzie Mountains.

    Companies flying into the north were now pushed to the limit and beyond. The Canadian Pacific Railway bought up Grant McConachie’s Yukon Southern and several others and hired him as the western manager of the new Canadian Pacific Airlines, based in Edmonton. The Canadian and American governments quickly agreed to upgrade the facilities on the route to Fairbanks through Whitehorse, now to be called the North West Staging Route, with emergency fields, navigational aids and radio communications. In 1942 the Americans began building their own hangars at Blatchford Field to accommodate the transport squadrons based there. The final touch was the decision to use the route to ferry planes to the hard-pressed Russians through Alaska. Not only did 8000 aircraft pass through Edmonton en route, the city was the headquarters for an intercontinental operation that began the factories of New York and California and ended in Siberia.

    As the flow of warplanes began, the Russians asked for modifications to the most numerous types, P-39s and P-63s. These were done in North West Industries rapidly expanding facilities. By 1943 when all the wartime operations were at their peak, Blatchford Field was the busiest airport in the world, setting a record of more than 850 aircraft movements in a single day. No airport anywhere had faced this kind of traffic on a sustained basis. To cope with it, North West Staging Route headquarters established what was effectively the prototype for the modern air traffic control system now in use worldwide. Aircraft movements from Great Falls, Montana, to Whitehorse were directed centrally from Edmonton, the first time airplanes had been routinely controlled out of the direct line of vision of a control tower. Not surprisingly the cramped conditions at Blatchford, and its increasing use by very large aircraft like B-29s, led the Americans to start construction on a new field at Namao north of the city in 1943. When it opened the following year Namao had the longest runways in Canada.

    The end of the war in 1945 brought little, if any, decline in aviation activity in Edmonton. The RCAF continued operations with, among other things, the Weather Experimental Establishment, which tested new aircraft types for their ability to function in cold weather. Both major airlines that came out of the war period, Trans-Canada Airlines and Canadian Pacific Airlines, used Edmonton as part of their national and international networks. Northern flying with new companies like Associated Airways and Max Ward’s fledgling company was busier than ever. Large four-engined passenger planes such as Lockheed Super Constellations, Boeing Stratocruisers and Douglas DC-7s were coming into service that had sufficient range to make possible flights from Europe to the west coast of North America or from Japan and China to Chicago and New York. Those routes passed directly over Edmonton and required fueling stops just about here. The popular slogan changed from ‘Gateway to the North’ to ‘Crossroads of the World.’

    The city took back control of the airport in 1946 from the Department of National Defence. Continued growth of civil aviation and the inability to expand because of the CN rail yards to the north and housing to the south made necessary difficult decisions about the future of Blatchford Field by the 1950s. In many ways the obvious thing to do was to move to Namao which already had runways that would accommodate the largest aircraft (long enough, in fact, that it was designated as an alternate landing site for the space shuttle in the 1970s). The US turned over control of the base to the RCAF in 1955 but with the cold war at its frostiest and Strategic Air Command B-52s shuttling through on their fail-safe missions to the edge of Russian air space, neither air force wanted their runways cluttered with civilian airplanes.

    In 1958 the Department of Transport, with input from a local committee, chose a site for a new international airport near Leduc, almost twice as far from the city centre as Namao. Ironically this was the same year that the Boeing 707 went into service, an airplane that would fundamentally change the structure of world air travel and undermine most of the assumptions behind the choice of the new airport. The airport opened for business in 1960 but for several decades business was notable largely for its absence. The new big jets had sufficient range that they no longer needed a fueling stop on flights from Europe and Asia and the dream of a ‘crossroads of the world’ quickly faded. By the end of the 1960s City Centre Airport was busier than ever. Northern business was booming and Pacific Western Airlines started its hugely successful airbus service to Calgary in 1963. Starting out with DC-4s, Pacific Western’s airbus became even more popular in 1968 when Boeing 737s came into service, an airplane designed specifically to get in and out of City Centre’s relatively short runways.

    There were other success stories from that period. Max Ward’s northern operations were branching out into a national charter passenger operation. North West Industries, after a failed effort to build Bellanca bush planes in the late 1940s, went back to its original business of repair and maintenance with a series of major contracts for work on CF-104s for the air force and on Hercules aircraft for Canada and several other national air forces. Nobody in the aviation industry showed much interest in shutting down City Centre Airport and moving down the road to Leduc. By the mid-1980s the International Airport was a disappointment on its way to becoming a disaster with passenger traffic at just 2 million a year and dropping. At that time PWA alone was flying 3 million.

    In 1989 Transport Canada turned over all airport operations to a new body called the Edmonton Regional Airports Authority. The Authority rather quickly decided that City Centre Airport was the root of the International’s problems. The theory was that City Centre funneled traffic to Calgary and discouraged airlines from offering direct flights to major destinations from the International. A campaign based on this idea was mounted that culminated in a 1995 referendum in which 77% of voters in the municipal election cast their ballots in favor of consolidating all scheduled jet passenger traffic at the International. Scheduled operations with more than nineteen passengers per flight were prohibited at City Centre.

    At the end of the twentieth century it was apparent that many people expected and hoped that City Centre Airport without scheduled air service would shrivel and die. Instead, general aviation operations there continued to thrive. Not all stories have a happy ending. The International airport by 2010 was doing much better than the dismal days of the 1980s but the recent ‘Break the Calgary Habit’ advertising campaign reveals that eliminating scheduled service at City Centre has not solved all problems. City Council’s decision to shut down the historic airport completely turned into a bitter and divisive political fight. The 1950s vision of Edmonton as an aerial ‘crossroads of the world’ has long since vanished and an unbiased observer would undoubtedly say that Calgary is now the aviation crossroads of western Canada. Whether or not closing City Centre Airport will bring a definitive end to Edmonton’s status as ‘Gateway to the North’ is an open question.

    Dr. Rod Macleod
    Professor Emeritus - History. University of Alberta