Article: Winnipeg’s First Airport

  • RCAF planes at Stevenson Aerodrome, Winnipeg

    This 1942 photo, taken from the control tower, conveys the scale of operations when the British Commonwealth Air Training Program was active at Stevenson Aerodrome. In 1943, a year for which figures are available, there were 137,679 aircraft “movements” at Stevenson, with the RCAF accounting for 119,587 of this traffic. A “movement” was one take off and one landing of an aircraft.

    Altitude, Winter, 2011

    The Winnipeg Aeroplane Club could not resist the offer of two de Havilland Moths provided it would open a field, hire a flying instructor and air engineer

    The first aircraft flight in Manitoba took place in July 1909, when Eugene Ely took off from Winnipeg’s polo field in a Curtiss Flyer. The polo grounds can thus lay claim to being the city’s first airfield.

    Thousands watched as Ely completed two successful flights and then crash land on his third. Ely set two “firsts” for Manitoba – first flight and first crash.

    There is no record that the polo grounds were ever used again as an airfield although its history as a polo ground and race track continued, ultimately to become Winnipeg’s Polo Park Shopping Centre in 1959.

    After the historic 1909 flight, there was aviation activity in the Winnipeg region, but no location provided a focus for the industry. For example, Western Canada Airways, which later became Canadian Airways Limited, opened a floatplane base on the Red River at the end of Brandon Avenue in 1927.

    The impetus for a “real” airfield in Winnipeg came in 1927 when the Department of National Defence said it would give two de Havilland Moth biplanes to any community flying club that would provide a flying instructor, an air engineer and a licensed airfield. The federal government designed the grant program to encourage aviation. It was an offer too good to refuse.

    The impetus for a “real” airfield in Winnipeg came in 1927 when the Department of National Defence said it would give two de Havilland Moth biplanes to any community flying club that would provide a flying instructor, an air engineer and a licensed airfield.

    A group of public-spirited Manitobans had already formed the Aviation League of Manitoba earlier the same year. The league in turn created a spin-off organization, the Winnipeg Flying Club, and it was this organization that made the actual application to Ottawa, which was one of the first four applications submitted by the end of 1927.

    Stevenson Aerodrome, Winnipeg’s first “real” airport came into being in the spring of 1928 on 160 acres of prairie grassland the Winnipeg Flying Club leased from the rural municipality of St. James, at the foot of Sackville Street, just beyond the western boundary of Winnipeg. Stevenson Aerodrome opened with great fanfare on March 27. “Seven thousand see skilled pilots give daring exhibitions,” reported the Manitoba Free Press the next day. The club’s flying programs began two months later.

    The airfield was named after the famous Manitoba aviator and bush pilot, Frederick J. Stevenson, who was described at the time as “Canada’s premier commercial pilot.” Stevenson was a fighter pilot in the First World War, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. His wartime achievements were eclipsed by his peacetime exploits. He participated in aerobatic exhibitions in Manitoba and Saskatchewan before joining Western Canada Airways. He flew open-cockpit aircraft with few navigational aids into remote communities. Stevenson died early in 1928 in a crash at The Pas.

    By any standards, Stevenson Aerodrome was an airfield at its most basic. The runways were laid out on grass or surfaced with a basic clay overlay. There was a hangar that could only shelter aircraft with folding wings. What was generously described as the passenger terminal was an attached lean-to. Snow was not ploughed, but compacted. In the winter, the runways were outlined by cut evergreen trees stuck into the snow. These primitive conditions, however, did not prove to be a handicap.

    In 1929, the lease was extended a further 21 years. The revised lease committed the flying club to operate the airport for Winnipeg and St. James. A permanent airport license was also issued to the club.

    Upgrades to Stevenson Aerodrome came quickly. In 1931, with grants from the federal government and the city of Winnipeg, the club installed field lighting. At the same time the airport was declared a customs port of entry, the first airport in Canada to gain that status. Northwest Airlines was the first international air carrier to land at the airport, beginning with weekly flights that eventually became a daily service from Minneapolis by 1931.

    Planes at Stevenson Aerodrome, Winnipeg

    The aircraft in this photo were on the ground when Stevenson Aerodrome opened in the spring of 1928. The foreground aircraft is a Stinson Detroiter SB-1. The background aircraft, G-CAKB, is one of the two de Havilland 60X Moth biplanes that the federal government offered to clubs qualifying for its aviation incentive grants. By the end of 1928, the club logged 1,003 hours of instructional flying. CAKB flew until 1933 when it crashed in 1933 near Sanford, Manitoba.

    Canadian Airways Limited was the first major air carrier to use Stevenson Aerodrome. Winnipeg was the company’s operational headquarters and the firm was the first to build a hangar and maintenance facilities at the airfield north of the present museum building.

    In September 1937, Trans-Canada Air Lines was launched as a crown corporation and the country’s flagship air carrier. Winnipeg was chosen as its operating headquarters and training centre. The city’s location in the centre of Canada was likely the most persuasive factor in this decision.

    As aviation activity at Stevenson expanded, the St. James-Winnipeg Airport Commission was established by provincial legislation in February 1938. The commission sought and obtained grants from government and other sources for upgrades to make the airport suitable for operations of the scale demanded by Trans-Canada Air Lines. The Winnipeg Flying Club, however, continued to hold the airport licence and lease to the land.

    By this time the airport encompassed 800 acres. In 1938, a 3,200-foot east/west runway was built by the federal Department of Transport. The following year the two original runways, each 3,000 feet long, were rebuilt. Outbuildings included five hangars, four used by civilian firms and one operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Other upgrades included the installation of boundary lights, installation of a radio range station and weather forecasting facilities. Canada’s second air traffic control tower was built in 1940.

    With the outbreak of the Second World War, the federal government took over all airport operations in January 1941 for the duration. Throughout the war, Stevenson field supported both military and civil operations.

    Winnipeg’s airport was a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) flight training centre and western command headquarters. Wartime pilot training started in 1940 when the Winnipeg Flying Club organized the Central Manitoba Flying Training School Ltd., with a contract to provide basic flight instruction. At the end of 1940, this school moved to Portage la Prairie as No. 14 Elementary Flying Training School. Winnipeg, however, continued to be the location of BCATP navigation and radio operator schools until July 1944.

    There was much activity at the airport during the war with buildings and hangers built to house both civilian and military operations. TCA expanded its activities while Northwest Airlines continued to operate. The RCAF on its own accounted for $6.5 million of airport-related expenditures.

    In the spring of 1947 the Department of Transport expropriated land for a new 6,200 foot-long runway, which was completed in August 1948. This project was barely completed when construction of still another runway began.

    At the end of the war the airport commission and the flying club refused to take back airport operations from the Department of Transport, even though the 1940 agreement covering the federal takeover called for this devolution. And so, the federal department continued to operate Stevenson Aerodrome with the result that the airport operating license was transferred to the Department of Transport from the Winnipeg Flying Club which had held the license since 1929.

    By the mid-1950s, Stevenson field was Canada’s fourth largest civil airport and its physical size continued to expand with the acquisition of another 2,000 acres and the construction of another runway.

    Until 1950 passenger facilities consisted of space inside the TCA hangar. In late 1952, a new “modernized” facility was opened, but this was only a wing added onto the existing TCA hangar. It served as Winnipeg’s terminal until work on an entirely new building began in 1960, which opened in 1964.

    In accordance with a federal government policy not to name airports in honour of famous people, the Department of Transport changed the facility’s name to the Winnipeg International Airport in 1958.

    In the decade of the 1990s, the federal government implemented a program to transfer airports to community-based governing bodies. In 1997, Winnipeg’s airport governance was transferred to the Winnipeg Airports Authority Inc. A decade later, the airport was again re-named, this time to honour James Armstrong Richardson in recognition of his visionary and pioneering contributions to Canadian aviation.

    Written with notes compiled by Leon Dubickyj, who has spent many hours looking for, and reading, every newspaper reference to Winnipeg’s largest airport.

    Snow packing Stevenson Aerodrome, Winnipeg

    Runways have come a long way since they were first laid out at Stevenson Field. They were either grass or surfaced with a basic clay overlay. In winter the snow was not ploughed, but compacted, as shown in this photograph, and the edges of the runways were marked by cut evergreens stuck into the snow. Runway lights were installed in 1931, runway paving followed soon after.

    This story originally appeared in the Winter, 2011 edition of Altitude.

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