The Edmonton City Centre Airport

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The history of the City Centre Airport is a deep one, going back to the early days of aviation.

On Dec. 19, 1926, the airport began its history as the first licensed airfield, or aerodrome as it was called then, in all of Canada. This airfield would be associated with several famous individuals but none were as famous as Wop May. May would take part in several amazing exploits during his flying career. He would be involved in the first aerial manhunt after a man named John Larson had killed a police officer in Edmonton.  He was also involved in flying two airplanes with skies from New York to Edmonton, which were used to service proposed oil developments in the subarctic. He would also form the North Alberta Flying Club, and take part in the Race Against Death, which involved getting a diphtheria vaccine to Fort Vermilion to save the community. In 1932, he was involved in the hunt for the Mad Trapper, which has become part of Canadian cultural history.

Now, back to the airport itself. The Vancouver Province wrote quote:

“Marking the opening of the first municipal aerodrome in Canada, a civic welcome will be tendered when two flying machines arrive at Blatchford Field here from High River station next week.”

Thanks to the airfield, it was expected that air mail would soon become a reality in the region and Edmonton would be one of the first cities to serve in that respect. The Regina Leader-Post wrote quote:

“Air force officers from High River Field will be in Edmonton early in the new year to carry out a series of experiments in connection with winter flying and according to air force experts and postal authorities there is little to hinder the establishment of an air mail service across Canada.”

Kenny Blatchford, the mayor of Edmonton until late 1926 when he retired to serve in the House of Commons, also played a role in establishing the airport.

The interest in aviation would extend to his son, Howard Blatchford, who would have the first confirmed Canadian victory in the air in the Second World War.

In 1929, the airport would turn on its aircraft beacon for the first time. The beacon revolved at a rate of six times per minute, and could be seen 64 kilometres away. Thanks to the beacon, night flying would soon be allowed in Edmonton, allowing the airport to reach yet another milestone.

On May 1, 1929, Parker Cramer and W.S. Gamble were on their way to flying from Alaska to New York when they needed to land at the airport. The Kingston Whig-Standard reports about the difficult landing here:

“Officials of the Edmonton Aero Club had set out flares to mark the runways, but these were misunderstood by the aviators as indicating obstacles. Sheer luck, coupled with flying skill alone, saved the flyers from disaster.”

In 1931, Wiley Post would fly around the world making various stops along the way, one of which was Edmonton at the City Centre Airport. He would repeat his flight around the world in 1933, and once again landed at the Edmonton Airport.

In 1937, a weather station was established at the airport. The Edmonton Bulletin reported quote:

“A modern weather station, fully equipped, will be in readiness in the upper floor of the Edmonton airport hanger by the end of the week…With arrival of a shipment of equipment from Toronto on Monday, the local station will have everything required for weather observation. The station will not be a forecast centre, the forecasting being done from stations at Winnipeg and Vancouver.”

The weather station would feature thermometers, wet and dry bulbs for humidity and dew point, a rain gauge, a barometer and a wind gauge, as well as hydrogen-filled pilot balloons for determining the velocity and direction of the wind at different levels.

From 1939 to 1942, hangers were built at the airport, including three double hangers that would be used by the Royal Canadian Airforce.

When the Second World War started, the Edmonton Airport became an important stop-over point for the Northwest Staging Route. It would also host two Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The first school, No. 2 Air Observer School, was established on Aug. 5, 1940. As soon as the school opened, planes began to arrive including seven Royal Canadian Air Force twin-motor planes from Camp Borden. Five Lockheed 10s, three Lockheed 12s and one Avro Anson were also at the airport at this point.

The Calgary Albertan reported quote:

“Pilots of the nine planes which passed over Calgary Friday night and landed at Edmonton were presented to Lt. Governor J.C. Bowen of Alberta and Premier William Aberhart after they landed at the No. 2 Air Observers’ school at the Edmonton airport Friday evening.”

On Nov. 11 of that same year, No. 16 Elementary Flying Training School was established.

The second school closed on July 17, 1942 so that No. 2 Air Observer School could be expanded.

After the war, Hangar 14 was used by the Reserve Squadron, Pacific Airlines and as part of the Distant Early Warning Line before it became a car dealership in the late 1960s. It would eventually become known as The Hangar on Kingsway. In 2000, it would be designated a Provincial Historic Resource.

In 1950, the airport became a stopover point on the international route operated by Northwest Airlines between the United States and Asia.

On May 26, 1955, an Avro York crashed into a system shed on the north end of a runway, killing both crew members on the plane. The crash destroyed several box cars in the CNR Calder Railway Yards and was soon on fire. The plane was loaded with seven tons of freight, and it was believed the cause of the crash was the short runways at the airport.

Mayor Hawrelak would state that the crash was due to the runways being unable to handle heavy traffic, and that longer runways were needed.

Only a few months later on Sept. 17, 1955, a Pacific Western Airlines Bristol Freighter crashed near to the airport resulting in several injuries.

At this point, the move was on to build a new airport outside the city. This would become the Edmonton International Airport, which opened in 1960.

In 1969, the jet age arrived at the airport when Pacific Western introduce Boeing 737-200 jetliners offering non-stop flights around Western Canada and the Northwest Territories.

It was initially decided that the City Centre Airport would close in 1963 once the passenger terminal was completed at the Edmonton International Airport. In the end though, it was decided to keep the airport open.

In the 1992 Edmonton municipal election, a referendum was held on the airport, which resulted in 54 per cent of respondents stating that the City Centre Airport should remain open to the traffic it could handle.

The Edmonton Journal would state quote:

“The airport debate, so far, has sometimes seemed difficult to follow. The issue appears to generate its share of confusion. At civic election forums there has always been a healthy round of applause for any candidate who declares the goal of keeping the municipal open.”

One year later in 1993, the Alberta Aviation Museum was established.

Upon the opening of the museum, Mark Hopkins, curator of the museum, would state quote:

“We’ve got the history here, but we’re at the point where we need some money to get things off the ground. We’re kind of running on bare bones.”

In 1995, another referendum was held and this time 77 per cent stating that the bylaw to keep the airport open should be repealed on the basis of all scheduled traffic consolidating at the Edmonton International Airport.

The process to the closure of the airport would begin by the new century. From 2005 to 2012, the airport would actually be converted into a speedway for the Edmonton Indy Champ Car race.

On July 8, 2009, city council decided to begin the phased closure of the airport.

John Chalmers with the Edmonton Journal stated quote:

“How can city council consider closing our City Centre Airport? It is the oldest licensed municipal airport in Canada, which has served Edmonton long and well. It gave the city its moniker, Gateway to the North. Our City Centre Airport should be nurtured with expanded services to keep it viable.”

The first runway to close would be Runway 16/34, which happened on Aug. 3, 2010. The next runway would close on Sept. 26, 2013.

On Oct. 12, 2013, 50 to 70 light aircraft from across Alberta performed a small fly-in as a way to say farewell to the airport.

The Edmonton Journal reported quote:

“No pilot liked Edmonton city council’s decision to close the city centre airport but now that it’s a done deal, pilots and businesses are looking for safe places from which to fly.”

On Nov. 30, 2013, the last airplane to leave the airfield would be a Cessna 172 owned by a local individual. A touch-and-go landing was planned with two CF-18 Fighter Jets as a ceremonial last takeoff, but this was prevented due to weather.

One great story that comes from the City Centre Airport is that of the jumbo jet that now sits in a field at the Villeneuve Airport.

It is a Boeing 737-200 that was operated by Pacific Western Airlines and it has been resting in that field, just south of the airport facilities, since Nov. 29, 2013 when took its last flight from Edmonton.

Why is there a 737 sitting in a field?

The plane sits there because of space constraints at the former City Centre Airport and the decision was made to take it to Villeneuve but it was a process to make that happen.

The $1.6 million plane was running out of time to find a new home and as late as Nov. 27, 2013, it was believed it would be destroyed as the last runway at the City Centre Airport would be closing on Nov 30, 2013 at 4:49 p.m. The Alberta Aviation Museum, which occupies the former City Centre Airport site, had only found out in July that the property line under the redevelopment of the airport lands would not give enough space for the 737.

The plane also had to take flight to get to its new location as moving it along the ground would cost $500,000, far more than the museum could afford.

The plane had first gone into service from the City Centre Airport in 1979 with Pacific Western Airlines, and then Canadian Airlines International and finally Air Canada, who donated the aircraft to the museum in 2005. Since 2005, thousands of people had toured it and many children had explored its cockpit.

Thankfully, Transport Canada gave approval to fly the plane to its new location on Nov. 28. Once approval was given, 15 volunteer technicians from Canadian Northern Airlines gave the jet a safety inspection to make sure it was ready to fly.

On the day it was set to leave, a crowd gathered at the City Centre Airport fences to watch the plane take off on its last flight.

Air traffic controller Bryon Carlson would say quote:

“It is nostalgic for me because I’ve worked at the International Airport since the days when that would have been an active duty plane.”

When it took off from the City Centre Airport, it was a very quick trip to land at Villeneuve. One of the pilots, Tim Seehagel, would say of the flight quote:

“It was straight up to the Costco, turn left and there’s Villeneuve.”

Seehagel and pilot Mike Wilson both volunteered to fly the plane to its new home. Wilson would say it was the shortest flight of his career. He would say quote:

“Things happened pretty quickly. Tim did the takeoff and flew it over and I did the circuit, the low-and-over and the landing. My landing was a lot smoother than my last two.”

Today, the 737 sits in the field so that it can be used by security agencies for training. It is also used by local movie productions for filming.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Alberta Aviation Museum, Edmonton Sun, Edmonton Journal, Wikipedia, Vancouver Province, Regina Leader-Post, Kingston Whig Standard, Calgary Albertan, Edmonton Bulletin,

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