“Okay to Land"

Edmonton’s airport, a onetime cow pasture, has become Canada’s crossroads of the air

JACK PATERSON November 1 1942

“Okay to Land"

Edmonton’s airport, a onetime cow pasture, has become Canada’s crossroads of the air

JACK PATERSON November 1 1942

“Okay to Land"


Edmonton’s airport, a onetime cow pasture, has become Canada’s crossroads of the air


RECENTLY a bush pilot nosed his old Fairchild down toward a landing at Edmonton Airport. In accordance with air regulations he had wired ahead his approximate arrival time; he had had a good trip. All was hunky-dory.

Almost all. The control tower operator at Edmonton had the Fairchild’s announced arrival time, but completing a long trip, without aircraft radio for check, that time had to be regarded by him as uncertain and variable. Meanwhile the show must go on.

And what a show!

Making his approach, the busher had noted ships in the air; light trainers, other R.C.A.F. stuff, just a harmless scattering of aircraft such as might be seen over any port. He prepared to land.

Suddenly a red light-flash from Control warned him off. A hurtling dull-green projectile, snarling like a demon, batted past him, swung sharply left and whined toward the long runway. He stared at such a show of speed, took the bump its backwash handed him, again edged in, watching for the operator’s green light that would okay his sit-down.

Again he got the red and—Wham! a second projectile went past; a third; nine more in quick succession. They screamed all about him, tossed him wildly. Manhandling the Fairchild back to an even keel he saw them cross the port like streaks of shadow a few feet above the ground, climb sharply, peel off in turn and circle again, wheels now lowered for a landing.

Sky fighters! And behind them came another swift covey, following the same routine of making one preliminary pass at the port. They kept the local scenery, upstairs and down, pretty much on the boil for fifteen minutes till all had scooted along the runway below to line up on the wide parking strip like so many horned larks.

The bush pilot got his okay and landed, still sweating a bit, although he realized that the whole mad business was strictly of a pattern, that throughout it all each screaming, vicious little kite was held strictly under the thumb—or trigger finger—of the Op who handled that green and led light-gun in the airport control tower. Anyway he was glad to get down, and so were his passengers — three women.

The pilot had not been south for two years. To officials and the hundreds of employees at Edmonton Airport such brisk bits of business had become routine. War in Europe had brought increased activity—Air Training Schools and aircraft testing from large maintenance depots in addition to transport and general commercial operations.

But war in the Pacific, a threat to Alaska and North America, later stepped things up almost overnight to enormous proportions. With all facilities for the accommodation of modern air transport, Edmonton today is described by air company officials as “centre of the greatest air activity in Canada.” On a busy day the control tower checked on the actual volume of aircraft movement. Averaged over one period of two-anda-half hours, there was an airport landing or a take - off every ten seconds. Much of this was activity involving aircraft from remote areas, of many types, and of varied destination.

Such air traffic requires some handling, but Edmonton can handle it — thanks to earlier long-range thinking and planning.

What is today a key airport for two nations, not many years back was a pasture field with a hill in the centre. A small group of men with vision wanted to acquire the ground as a city airport; after a long fight they got it; and got for it, in June, 1926, one of the first municipal airport licenses in Canada.

On that site, current expenditure for runw'ays alone, completed and to be completed this year, will exceed $1,250,000; cost of improvements on the 650-acre block, including runways and buildings, will crowd $3,500,000.

And Edmonton has a close-in city airport that can make good the unique slogan, “From plane to hotel room in seven minutes.” Before speed restrictions it was five minutes; and in those halcyon days of normal travel you might even have got the room.

The original pasture field had come a long way by 1939; but Edmonton officials had a good idea what global war would do to a strategic base like theirs.

“Major ports have got beyond the financial scope of a municipality or city,” they decided. “Particularly in wartime.” So the day war was declared Edmonton Airport was offered to the Canadian Government for the duration. The Department of Transport accepted the offer, pays a nominal rental of one dollar a year. A number of other Canadian airports now have a like arrangement.

Today, R.C.A.F. hangars, and extensive maintenance and overhaul plants engaged in war work, flank the port on two sides; but the City of Edmonton owns all three commercial hangars and is just completing a new up-to-the-minute administration building.

The new building will house a long list of assorted services. Trans-Canada Air Lines, with northern

terminus at Edmonton, and Canadian Pacific Air Lines—which company at present serves all points north by main line and bush operations—will have their ticket and “ad-min” offices there, also their radio and dispatch, and regional control to handle planes from distant points. Department of Transport will have Meteorological and Radio Range offices; there’ll be accommodation for Customs and Post Office; passenger waiting rooms, crew rooms, a restaurant. The basement, below ground level, will house a complete emergency light and power plant.

Top o’ the house will be the new control tower,

nerve centre of all airport activity, its glass sides prismed or “bird-caged,” to prevent shadowing by day or light reflection by night. The one in present use is a modern addition to the tower of old Hangar One, where once, in those blissfully ignorant air-mail days—or nights—of a decade back, a weird and wonderful light beacon, visible all of half a mile on a dirty night, was overburdened with the job that the radio beam performs for present-day transport and military pilots.

Day And Night

nPHE EDMONTON control tower functions A twenty-four hours a day, is equally busy day and night, for modern aircraft operation, civil or military, ignores the descent of darkness. As a rule one operator handles all traffic; at the busiest, two. These “Ops” are young men, have pilot’s license, radio, meteorological, and communications experience, handle all air traffic within a twenty-five mile radius of the port.

In his twenty-foot-square mechanical goldfish bowl, the Op on duty moves about, telephone in one hand, powerful field glasses within reach, “lightgun” suspended shoulderhigh from the ceiling by an elastic rope. His remote receiving cabinet is tuned to fourteen frequencies, blats its pickups from one loudspeaker. Wind direction and velocity indicators are before him; on a table is the tower logbook showing destination and time of each aircraft departure, estimated arrival time, type, markings, company if commercial, nationality if military.

Aircraft with two - way radio report in and receive landing and take-off directions by voice. Others—the occasional visitor such as our Fairchild friend, and small trainers—are controlled by light-gun. There’s a steady sky-scattering of aircraft, up, down and around, but handling is simplified by small ships using the port’s wide areas of grassy field, rather than hard-surfaced runways, for their landings and take-offs.

The light-gun is a footlong cylinder, eight inches in diameter, that can throw a red or green spot flash a distance of five miles. Pistol grip and peep sight assure accuracy; at a range of one mile the light will focus on a spot only two feet in diameter. A steady green light gives clearance to take off, or land; a series of green flashes signals “clear to taxi.” In case of a crash, or other emergency, a red flare fired from a pistol warns all aircraft to stay either up or down; a following green

flare signals all clear.

An aircraft or more likely in these vigorous days a fleet of aircraft—arriving from outside the district will report to the tower when twenty-five miles out, again when close in, as: “One mile northeast of

field at 2,000 feet.” The Control Op gives weather and general information in the first instance, runway to be used, landing, taxi-ing and parking instructions finally. Aircraft leaving the port, before take-off must report to Control where headed, at what altitude, estimated arrival time. This information, passed on to the radio range operators, down below, is reported ahead to the

craft’s destination by teletype, radio, and in some cases telegraph.

These Control Ops have to be forever on their toes, for with many planes in flight a sky picture can change quickly. The arrival of a large group of heavy-bellied, new-type bombers from the South, for instance, is something liable to excite curiosity among pilots of lesser aircraft. From far out around the countryside small ships are inclined to scurry back in for a looksee. The tower Op does some mild cussing and grabs for his light gun. “Shoo fly!” it flashes in effect. “Veer off, you refugee from somebody’s coffee percolator!”

And they veer, pronto. Around a modern airport orders from Control are final. Discipline, for safety’s sake, is strict, any slightest infraction of rules reported immediately, whether the offender be commercial transport, R.C.A.F., or U.S. Army Air Corps. Control has a private telephone to all air schools, air lines, “meteorological,” field hospital, ambulance, fire truck.

In short, Control means exactly that, and at Edmonton Airport today the responsibility is a heavy one. Arrivals and take-offs from and to remote outside points one morning totalled 160. On another occasion an operator had twenty-seven pilots calling at once for come-in clearance. With local training traffic sandwiched in, it makes for a brisk and busy scene.

A long shout from the old pasture-field-airport days. The view from the control tower now, day or night, is one of aircraft starting, stopping, flying, landing, arriving, leaving. Roaring activity, on the ground and in the air—an ambitious dream come true.

Dream Seemed Fantastic

EDMONTON people are proud of their airport and of the part it is playing today in major league events far to the north and west. They’ve long had the name of being the most air-minded citizenry in Canada. But it wasn’t always that way. That first small group of men who saw the present emergency as a possibility, and an air route to the Orient and Russia as a future certainty, met with plenty of opposition. In fact their ultimate dreams, they realized, were so fantastic they daren’t air them in public, instead had to gain their ambitious ends by selling the public on more evident opportunities—much nearer home—for expansion of aircraft operation.

There were plenty of these commercial operations after they were developed. But first people had to be convinced that there really was something in this flying business. “Why,” many of them asked, “should the city spend our money on a pasture field just so a bunch of kids can play around with airplanes?”

Wop May was instructor at the small Edmonton Flying Club, one of the first in Canada, and it was Wop who with Vic Horner, a flying pupil, made the flight—Christmas week, 1929—that definitely captured the imagination of Edmonton citizens. The emergency jaunt these two made with badly needed serum, in an open light ship in sub-zero weather from Edmonton north to Fort Vermilion, received not only Canadian but world notice. The spectacular flight got publicity that helped Canadian flying in general, flying out of Edmonton in particular. For it wasthrough the stir it created that Wop May and others were able afterward to organize and finance an air company to fly the first regular air mail down the Mackenzie to the Arctic.

It wasn’t long before Edmonton citizens began to push their chests out just a little when they showed off their civic airport at the far end of Portage Avenue (renamed Kingsway following the Royal Visit). Flying activity throughout the north was starting to boom. In the fall of ’29 the MacAlpine search in the Arctic was big news; that same fall saw the start of the Arctic Air Mail, a few months later Prairie Air Mail. Radium opened up Great Bear Lake; there was an urgent demand for men and supplies north. Summers, float-flying aircraft landed at Cooking Lake, twenty miles outside the city; but winters, on skis, ships came

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right in. Flying activity was strongly boosted by the local dailies, the Journal and Bulletin, both of which had early seen the light. Any unusual activity at the airport was the signal for an enthusiastic turnout of citizen spectators.

The field soon required expansion both in hangar space and services. And yet there remained sceptics. City Engineer A. W. Haddow, creator of solid enthusiasm on any project he considers worth the tackling, was all out for a modern airport, could see big-scale doings ahead for Edmonton. Airport Manager James Bell, who had learned to peer beyond ordinary horizons as a Handley-Page

bomber pilot over Germany, was lined up solidly with him, as were other flying men. Edmonton, they pointed out, held a strategic location smack on the U.S.-Orient land-flying route of the future. Some members of the city council could see the vision, others had to be convinced. There were even those who openly scoffed.

Bert Haddow, Jimmy Bell, air company operators, council members, and other air-minded citizens who were for it, went to work to convince the Edmonton public that the day of piddly planning was past, that to stay in the running their airport project had to be really big. It was a

tough battle in spots, but the proairport faction won—and so did Edmonton citizens for generations to come.

Even civic history drew an honorary assist in the big scheme; for it was through a bad real estate flop, following the boom of 1909-13, that Edmonton airport sponsors were handed one of their biggest breaks.

Most cities had to go far outside their limits to find ground space enough for an airport. Not Edmonton. During those mad boom days adjacent farmlands overnight had become “valuable city property,” had been subdivided for miles out. There was the usual wild western scramble for land—in some cases in Edmonton people had even lined up to pay $1,000 for a chance to buy a suburban lot. Purchases were mostly in small blocks, many bought sight unseen, new owners located literally throughout the world. To serve these new subdivisions utilities were introduced on a large scale.

In 1914 war burst the bubble. From 40,000 to 50,000 lots eventually came back to the city—many thousands of them closer in than residential districts that meanwhile had built up far out beyond the boomprice area. Which is partly the reason the city of Edmonton today, with a population of less than 100,000, covers an area of some forty-two and a half square miles.

The expanse chosen for the airport, only two and a quarter miles from city centre and composed in great part of tax-sale lots, actually was tailored to order in other ways. A modern airport requires a good highway approach. It was there, ready, two straight miles of concrete in a four-lane strip so wide that later, in an emergency, it was used as a takeoff runway by Post and Gatty during their round-the-world flight. A modern airport requires utilities. Since 1915 those utilities had been waiting, it seemed, for just such a move as location of an airport. Gas, light, water, and telephone services were on the job. And—marvel of marvels—heavy tunnel sewers, so necessary for a tie-in with the miles of drains needed to carry a heavy water run-off from broad areas of nonabsorbing concrete airport runways, already were permanently installed and functioning diligently, well below the frost line. Along the airport boundaries these sewers were four, five and six feet in diameter, down fifty feet in the ground, with a brisk drop to where the city’s extensive system reaches the Saskatchewan River at a depth of 125 feet. Truly a sweet sewage system !

Concerning the big-scale airport scheme there was money trouble of course. A proposal to build a hangar met with public opposition; a by-law asking for $35,000 was turned down by the citizens. The hangar was built anyway, far-sighted council members shouldering the responsibility. Later, just when Hangar Number One at last was approved by the people, a second became necessary. More trouble was anticipated.

But meanwhile the public had made real strides in air-mindedness. This time three by-laws came before the people—a new school, cost $85,000; a $25,000 police signal

system, and the airport hangar. The hangar was passed, the other items turned down. There’s probably truth in the report that Edmonton schoolage kids did some pretty brisk doubleedged campaigning.

World-Girdler’s Stop

IN THOSE haphazard flying days of romance and free lance, Edmonton port saw life. Air shows were organized; the local flying club was the biggest and healthiest in Canada; pilots and maintenance men were turned out who later became topnotchers in bigtime flying and executive spots throughout the country. Edmonton as a flying centre became world - known through round - the -world hoppers and speed fliers refueling at that point; and Edmonton was chosen as a landing not just because of its strategic location. Word had got around among the bigtimers that at Edmonton you got bigtime service and courtesy. Again the long view was paying.

Tourist visitors to Edmonton Airport saw colorful activity that kept them talking for weeks following their return home, about Edmonton, about Canada. They saw aircraft coming and going, with full loads each way. Supplies heading north; radium ore, bales of fur, men, coming south. A group of Americans, guests at the port, one day saw Leigh Brintnell’s big Bellanca come in from Yellowknife with a half ton of gold—about $468,000. They saw $175,000 worth of mixed raw furs taken from another aircraft. They saw mechanics pile the half million in gold and the fortune in furs on the ground like so much junk; no police patrol, no Tommy guns, no guards. They were tremendously impressed by the casual yet efficient activity around this “frontier” airport.

They would be more impressed if they could see Edmonton Airport today as droves of transient Americans are seeing it from the cockpits of fighters, bombers and long-range sky freighters. The old casual days at Edmonton are gone. Operations today require last-word precision, organization and co-ordination in aircraft handling, maintenance, communications, weather services, airport facilities. A planned program of still wider range is essential for modern air operation—with millions of dollars available for its financing.

Tackled one at a time over a period of years, most of the airport operations kinks have been ironed out: the early problem of selling the public, finances, long hard experimenting to beat puzzles peculiar to sub-zero winters—tractors, drags, scrapers, snow rollers. Today U.S. aircraft operators and engineers, both civil and military, are profiting from Edmonton’s early experiments and findings on many operational problems.

But Haddow, Bell, certain City Council members and other airminded citizens, haven’t been lulled to rest by their successes. They’re still at it, visualizing, planning. They have more than a square mile of ground now, but the boys who nursed Edmonton’s airport infant to its present lusty adult state make it a point to keep pace with aeronautical

developments, and they’re worried. After all, changes come fast in the flying game and they don’t want to be caught napping. Already they’re beginning to look over the fence in one direction and across the street in another.

They just know that new runway isn’t going to be long enough.