|When W.R. Wop May and his brother Court organized their May Airplanes Limited in May 1919, they set in motion a chain of events that gave Edmonton its first municipal airport. For a landing field, they arranged with farmer Walter Sporle to use his cow pasture northwest of the city, where St. Albert Trail now runs alongside the neighbourhoods of Sherbrooke and Dovercourt.|
To draw attention to his fledgling company, Wilfrid Wop May, the First World War ace, occasionally flew under the High Level Bridge. And once, on a low swoop over Ross Flats baseball field, he piloted Mayor Joe Clarke for a ceremonial first pitch with a dramatic twist.
As the Edmonton pilots returned home from the Great War, they, like Wop May, soon established themselves in this new career of flying. Also in 1919, Captain Keith Tailyour, Jock McNeill. E. Owens, R.L. Green and Peter McArthur incorporated the Edmonton Airplane Company and aimed to commence two to four trips a day as the demand warrants and to begin service to Peace River. For an air harbour, they leased a corner of the Hagmann farm, right where the Edmonton Municipal Airport is located today.
The first hangar went up in 1920 and, spurred by economic and psychological rejuvenation after the war, the flying business in Edmonton began to take off. But it wasnt until May 1926 that City Council, at the urging of Mayor Kenneth Blatchford, agreed to spend $400 for preliminary work on the airfield.
A month later, a certificate issued in Ottawa and stamped Number One officially designated Edmontons Hagmann estate, the former McNeill airstrip a Public Air Harbour. Shortly after Blatchfords term of office expired, council voted to name the airstrip after him and so Blatchford Field was born.
On January 8, 1927, the field was officially recognized as the first municipally-owned airport in Canada. Veteran pilot C.H. Punch Dickins flew his Siskins to assist Mayor A.U.G. Bury to officially open Edmontons Air Harbour No. 1.
In the depth of winter the next year, a dangerous outbreak of diphtheria gripped the north and it was by air from Blatchford Field that the anti-toxin was delivered in time to avert catastrophe. The story, which received extensive media coverage around the continent, swayed public opinion that air travel had an enormous value and was indeed here to stay.
By the early 1930s, the city was earning its title as the Gateway to the North, with hundreds of aviation movements each week from Blatchford Field. Thousands of tons of medical supplies, food and mail was airlifted to northern communities. Trappers, missionaries, prospectors and the RCMP began relying on aircraft to travel from Edmonton to the Arctic.
Driven by demand, the growth of the airport continued. By 1941, the airfield was running short of elbow room and in October City Council approved the purchase of 80 acres of adjacent land from Canadian National Railway for $15,000. Even though the offer was about $5,400 below the assessed value, the railway agreed and the land enabled extension of the runways.
During the Second World War, the airport was enhanced by the addition of several hangars including Hangar 14 -- what has come to be its best known landmark. The Hangar on Kingsway, as it is called, was built in 1941 by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) to house the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). The hangar, a double-wide, double-long design, was chosen as the Air Observers School, and stored the Ansons and other planes used in training.
The hangar was designed and constructed according to standard wartime hangar specifications, but with a couple of major differences. Hangar 14 was expanded to be double wide and double long and the roof and superstructure were constructed of heavy timbers, specified because of the shortage of steel during wartime. With a floor space of 6689 square metres (72,000 square feet) and a clear span of 34 metres, it is a grand and commodious example of hangar architecture.
By 1950, the airport had grown to become Canadas busiest. Between 1934 and 1950, passenger loads increased five fold while miles flown on flights out of Edmonton tripled. The Edmonton Bulletin newspaper noted that, from a cow pasture, the air field had grown into a fully modern air port with miles of concrete runways, modern administration building, and 16 large hangars with enough space to house 100 large transport aircraft.
In a story in the Bulletin published December 30, 1950, Capt. James Bell, manager of the airport, noted the role and importance of the airport in Edmontons development. I have been asked why this port should have grown from such a small beginning to one of importance along world routes. One reason is geographical position; the other reason is hard work and foresight of pioneer bush pilots.
The opening of the Edmonton International Airport in 1959 began the process of erosion of flights to the Muni. As the city grew around it, the airports location became a liability. Low flying planes and tall buildings just do not mix and, when city council voted in 1996 to move scheduled major air service to the Edmonton International Airport before a 737 jet got parked in Kingsway Garden Mall, they made a wise choice.
An airport, with its inherent risks, pollution and noise, has no place in the heart of a major metropolitan area, despite what those with vested business interests might proclaim. Yet even when the Muni one day ceases operation and I am one of those who believes that day should come sooner rather than later its connection to Edmontons history need not be forsaken.
The vintage building stock, such as Hangar 14, should be retained to tell the story and celebrate the legacy. The land itself holds great value for redevelopment as commercial holdings and housing.
If youd like to offer your thoughts, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on reprints of previously published articles, check out my website at www.lawrenceherzog.com