Summer, 2015, Altitude
Lac du Bonnet can be said to have entered the air age in the summer of 1922, a mere 13 years after the first powered flight in Manitoba.
It did not take long for the community to emerge as an important aviation centre – first as a base for regional air surveys undertaken by the civil government air operations branch of the dominion government, then as a service hub for mining exploration and development, and still later as base for air services to northern and remote communities. Lac du Bonnet, which today combines land and floatplane services, is still a strong aviation presence in the region.
There are three commemorative sites at Lac du Bonnet that highlight its pivotal role in Canadian aviation history. One is a cairn on the edge of the beach in the centre of town that commemorates James A. Richardson, the founder of Western Canada Airways and its successor company Canadian Airways Ltd.; another marker is beside the road leading to the airport where a plaque provides a short overview of aviation in the region; and the third historical site is on the edge of town where a stainless steel sculpture of a Vickers Vedette soars over a marker that recalls the years when the Manitoba government made the town the base for its Vedette fleet.
The first recorded use of Lac du Bonnet, according to one of the plaques, was in the summer of 1922 when the federal government began its first aerial surveys in the region. The Royal Canadian Air Force was formally established in April, 1924, and became a presence in the town in 1926, when air force operations were moved there from Victoria Beach.
Western Canada Airways arrived in 1927 to establish the first commercial air base in Manitoba. In June of that year, company pilot Fred Stevenson made the first “semi-official” airmail flight in the province from Lac du Bonnet to nearby mining communities of Bissett, Wadhope and Slate Lake. The first official airmail service in Canada authorized by the Canadian post office left from the town in October, when about 300 letters were flown to Bissett and Wadhope by another well-known WCA pilot, W.L. Brintnell.
The early aviation history of Lac du Bonnet can be called the Vedette era. The Vickers Vedette, which is featured in our museum as a replica, was the first airplane to be designed and built entirely in Canada. The RCAF acquired the Vedette and stationed five at Lac du Bonnet where the “flying boats” were used in forestry patrols, aerial photography and other government business. In 1927, about 90 per cent of all forestry patrols in Canada were carried out from bases in Manitoba, with Lac du Bonnet being the most active. Another note from the RCAF years relates to communications; around 1925, radio sets were routinely installed in the airplanes and the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals established a ground station at Lac du Bonnet. The signal corps also operated a pigeon rookery so that the birds could be carried on board aircraft as a backup.
The transfer of responsibility for natural resources to the provinces, combined with the financial constraints of the Depression that began in 1929, resulted in a curtailment of RCAF operations at Lac du Bonnet.
In 1933, the federal government in Ottawa and the Manitoba provincial government cut a deal that saw the province buy five Vickers Vedettes for a token $1 each. Ottawa attached one condition to the sale that required the province to employ the RCAF pilots who had been laid off. A few years later, two more Vedettes were added to the provincial fleet. This was the birth of the Manitoba Government Air Service (MGAS), one of the first provincial air services in Canada. In its formative years, Lac du Bonnet was the primary operations base for MGAS. The last of the seven Vedettes, CF-MAG, was withdrawn from active service in 1937.
The Manitoba Government Air Service continues to have a presence in Lac du Bonnet, mostly over the summer months in support of forestry and natural resources management patrols. In 2015, the province will finish its Fire Attack Centre, which will be its command and response base for forest fire fighting.
As already noted, Western Canada Airways had an early presence at Lac du Bonnet. Articles in newspapers of the day explain why the town was a good location. The Mining and Industrial News, in a story published April 1, 1927, said that H.A. “Doc” Oaks and James A. Richardson were making history for Manitoba and the west with their decision to establish a base in the town. The paper said that Canadian Pacific Railway service to the town, combined with the short aerial distances to the mining communities in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, made it an ideal location. The Winnipeg Free Press, published a short article on April 6, 1927 that said the base will make it “possible to reach almost any part of the mining district from Lac du Bonnet as a base within an hour or an hour and a half.” Both papers expected WCA to profit from its decision to open a base there.
The company’s magazine, The Bulletin, added a voice of optimism for the success of the Lac du Bonnet base in its April, 1927, edition. Acknowledging the value of rail service to the town, it went on to say that the emerging hydro electric industry was likely to become another opportunity for the company. Lac du Bonnet is located on the Winnipeg River, which The Bulletin said “in its contiguous winding provides some of the best assorted power sites for which ‘private interest’ and ‘public service’ have ever fought.”
WCA, which evolved into its successor company Canadian Airways Limited in 1930, sent every airplane in its fleet to Lac du Bonnet; CF-ARM, the Junkers 52M, was a regular visitor to the town.
Other firms made excellent use of Lac du Bonnet; these included Starratt Airways, Wings Limited, Canadian Pacific Airlines, Central Northern Airways, and TransAir.
In the early years, much of the aviation activity at Lac du Bonnet was at the town centre, where the beach and park facilities include one of the commemorative monuments. Over the years, operations have shifted north of the town on Highway 313, just after its junction with Highway 11 where the airport accommodates both wheel- and float-equipped aircraft. At present, the airport is owned by the Rural Municipality of Lac du Bonnet and operated by a regional airport authority.
This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2015 edition of Altitude.