Blatchford Field: The War Years, 1939 - 1945
Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War
In 1924 few Edmontonians could imagine the impact that two acres of the Hagmann farm would have on the city and the world. In response to a petition by W.R. [Wop] May and Harry Adair, Edmonton City Council designated a portion of the Hagmann estate to be set aside for the city's first airfield. On 16 June 1926, the federal government granted Edmonton the licence for Canada's first "Public Air Harbour." Later that same year council approved a motion to honour Ken Blatchford, Edmonton's aviation-minded mayor, christening the new airport Blatchford Field. On 8 January 1927, Blatchford Field officially opened with the arrival of two Siskin fighters from Royal Canadian Air Force No. 2 Squadron, stationed in High River. This was one of many firsts which would soon give Edmonton the unofficial title of "The Gateway to the North," a title which would take on new importance and significance during the Second World War.
In Europe, Hitler's armies rolled over Polish borders, taking the world to war in September 1939. The city of Edmonton was quick to recognize the potential use of Blatchford Field in the war effort, and offered Ottawa the use of its air harbour facilities. Ottawa was equally swift to respond; and Canada agreed to pay the city of Edmonton one dollar per annum for the duration of the war. Initially two criteria were established, the first being that Blatchford Field continue its operations as one of the nation's leading air-freight centres. Commercial business and services, especially to the north, were to continue as before. The second requested that Captain Jimmy Bell continue to manage the overall operation of the airport under the jurisdiction of the Royal Canadian Air Force. This met with full approval as Captain Bell already had been associated with, or been managing, the airfield for almost two decades with great success.
Captain Bell could not foresee the events that were about to engulf Blatchford Field, which he had already watched grow from a cow pasture to one of the nation's leading commercial airports. In the next few years Edmonton would witness a virtual explosion of activity at Blatchford Field. It would begin with the development of commercial passenger services and related support industries, and rapidly lead to organization of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the formation of the Northwest Staging Route, and construction of the Alaska Highway and Canol Pipeline. In a few short years Blatchford Field was to become the busiest airfield in North America.
Commercial Development 1939-1945
Without trivializing the contribution made by the smaller air services across the country, two airlines in particular stand out during this period; Trans-Canada Air Lines and Canadian Pacific Airlines. The government-owned TCA was formed in 1937, and in 1939 went to a wartime footing. The RCAP itself could not handle the transport of all wartime personnel, mail and cargo such as spare aircraft parts; soon TCA would be criss-crossing the country and eventually the Atlantic with mail and passengers. Between 1939 and 1946 it would grow from an average of 2,000 passengers and 367,000 pounds of mail to 300,000 passengers and 2,300,000 pounds of mail. TCA would make a vital contribution to the war effort and establish itself as one of Canada's leading post-war airlines.
Canadian Pacific Airlines was officially formed on 16 May 1942, after Canadian Pacific Railway purchased a number of smaller aviation companies. While TCA was concentrating on operating the long-distance transcontinental routes, Canadian Pacific Airlines concentrated on the short- and medium-range routes connecting western Canadian centres. Besides running five repair depots, CP Airlines was a vital asset which assisted in the construction of the Alaska Highway and Canol Pipeline. As the second significant post-war national airline, Canadian Pacific Airlines would be instrumental in opening routes to the Orient and beyond.
Perhaps one of the greatest civilian contributions to the war effort was that made by the men and women of Leigh Brintnell's Aircraft Repair Limited. Wilfred Leigh Brintnell was a familiar name to anyone associated with bush flying and Blatchford Field. A First World War veteran, he continued to pursue his love of flying and eventually rose to the position of chief pilot and General Manager of Western Canada Airways, and subsequently owner of Mackenzie Air Services.
In 1936 Brintnell suggested to General Airways and Wings Limited a mutual pooling of resources to create one maintenance and service facility. Since Mackenzie Air Service already maintained the best equipped facility on Blatchford Field the new organization was incorporated as a division of Mackenzie Air Services. The depot located at the north end of Blatchford Field would succeed in providing quality service to the cooperating airlines while equipping Edmonton with a repair facility, which Brintnell felt would be essential for the coming conflict in Europe. On 5 November 1937, Aircraft Repair Ltd. was incorporated in Alberta by Brintnell, with Harry Haytor as his manager.1
Canada entered the Second World War in September 1939 and quickly recognized the need for an organized operation utilizing technically skilled and mechanically proficient personnel, needed especially for aircraft repair and maintenance. While the RAF battled the Luftwaffe in the skies over England, damaged aircraft began to flood Canadian facilities such as Aircraft Repair. Brintnell, Hayter and the company's 100 employees received their first job, 100 battle-damaged Fairey Battles which had been badly mauled during the fall of France. Jimmy Bell provided space in an old hangar so the work could commence as soon as possible.
By 1941 the heart of a new federally funded Aircraft Repair was being constructed at the northern end of Blatchford Field. A rail spur would bring damaged aircraft and unassembled BCATP training planes into the heart of the facility. In addition Aircraft Repair ran a field service unit travelling to crash sites throughout the province, as well as repairing American aircraft which began to arrive in 1942.
1. J.A. Villa-Arce, Chronological History of Aviation in Alberta: 1900-1961. [Provincial Museum of Alberta, Human History Section, Edmonton: 5 February 1974. (Mimeographed)], p. 21.