Monday, December 2, 2013This weekend marked the end of an era in one of the biggest industries in Edmonton's history when the City Centre Airport (aka the Municipal Airport aka Blatchford Field) saw its last takeoff.
The once thriving airport has been closed to make way for a commercial and residential development (one that I am actually very eager to see), but its passing was marked with several ceremonies and events this week. Sadly I only got to visit one lecture as I was under the weather all week, but I wanted to share some WWII history of this airport, as I think it's largely unknown - both in Edmonton and around the world!
A small city in northern Canada seems an unlikely player in World War II, but my now-hometown of Edmonton, Alberta was the busiest in the world, with 840 aircraft movements in one day. The airport grew so big that the army moved to build a new airfield north of the city, where CFB Edmonton/Steele Barracks is still located and operates today. During WWII, Edmonton's population grew by 22,000 people!
Edmonton was the start of the Northwest Staging Route, a number of air strips heading north to Alaska created in autumn 1940. The route was chosen for several reasons, mostly to ensure American communication with Alaska wasn’t cut off, and the route was invulnerable to attack. The route also provided safe travel for diplomats travelling between the US and Russia. At the same time, the Americans were building the Alaskan Highway to connect the airports, starting in Edmonton.
Edmonton’s airport Blatchford Field was the first licensed airport in Canada, and during the war it (then operating as RCAF Station Edmonton, and would later become our smaller commercial airport) was also home to the Air Force Base and training schools. As you can imagine, this brought a lot of airmen to Edmonton from across the prairies.
(In fact, if it weren’t for the RCAF Edmonton base, I wouldn’t be alive. My grandmother grew up in Edmonton and was a secretary for the Americans while they built the Alaskan Highway. My grandfather joined the RCAF and was stationed in Edmonton. They met at a dance, and the rest is history! In the 1950s, the dairy where my grandma spent her youth was sold to the government and became CFB Namao, and is now a fancy suburb.)
The Americans delivered fighter and bomber aircraft to Russia via the North West Staging Route, with about 8,000 passing through the Edmonton airport. Many planes crashed, either due to weather, pilot error or mechanical failure, and Edmonton WWI hero Wop May created his own civilian para-rescue team to save men from needless death. Long-range air traffic control was also developed in Edmonton, by having a number of landline phones connected to the Edmonton airfield - crews would call in to Edmonton to see what was happening in their destination.
Blatchford Field was taken over by the city in 1946 and became a small commercial airport for several decades until our International Airport opened in 1960, but is officially closed and will become a new city development. I look forward to see how the city will preserve an important but overlooked part of our heritage - luckily, the Alberta Aviation Museum will remain open, with a focus on Edmonton's aviation history.
I've been lucky to visit the aviation museum for a few assignments (here and here), and Ian and I actually had our second date there (and the rest is history!)
All photos from Alberta Aviation Museum Archives.