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Edmonton era ending with closure of City Centre Airport

Nov. 22, 2013, Edmonton - When Chris Blower takes off from Edmonton’s City Centre Airport for the last time next week, he knows he’ll be leaving a piece of his heart behind.


November 22, 2013
By The Edmonton Journal

It’s the place that sparked his love of flying as a kid,
where as a teenager he received his pilot’s licence before his licence
to drive, and where he has flown numerous charity trips in his Cessna
172.

 

It even helped him propose eight years ago — he tromped out
“Will You Marry Me Joan?” in a snowy field east of Edmonton, then flew
over until his soon-to-be wife noticed the message and accepted his
offer.

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“When they gave me my clearance to land, I said ‘I took off single, and I’m coming back engaged.’ ”

 

But
Canada’s first licensed airport shuts down forever at twilight Nov. 30
(4:49 p.m.), and unless tenants have made special arrangements they must
be out by this weekend.

 

Blower, 42, is moving his Cessna to the
Villeneuve airport, a 25-minute drive into the countryside northwest of
downtown, and hopes to be one of the last sets of wheels to lift off
from the Edmonton tarmac.

 

“My favourite view is when you line up
on the runway and there’s just a big long stretch of open pavement in
front of (you) with some numbers on it, and the propeller spinning,” he
says.

 

“One of my saddest views will be doing that same thing on
that final night because I know when I leave there I won’t be coming
back.”

 

The decommissioning of runway 12/30 is the last step in a
process that started in 2009, when city council voted to turn the
217-hectare site into a transit-oriented community that will eventually
house 30,000 people.

 

The other runway, 16/34, was taken out of service in 2010.

 

The
area was originally called Blatchford Field, then the Edmonton
Industrial Airport and the Edmonton Municipal Airport, or Muni, but
whatever the name, arguments over its future have lasted decades.

 

“I’m
retirement age now, and I can remember in junior high school debating
‘Should we close the City Centre Airport?’ ” says local historian Ken
Tingley, who wrote a historic assessment of the facility.

 

When
Blatchford Field opened in 1927 on 72 hectares of grazing land Edmonton
had taken in a tax forfeiture, it was at the leading edge of a Canadian
aviation boom.

 

Flying was opening development of the hinterland
across the country, and the new “air harbour” solidified Edmonton’s
position as the Gateway to the North, Tingley says.

 

“It was
immensely important. (Aviation) was to the 20th century what the fur
trade was to the 18th and early-to-mid 19th centuries. It really defined
the city in many ways.”

 

Local First World War ace Wilfrid (Wop)
May, who fought in the famed Red Baron’s final dogfight, was among those
pushing for the airport.

 

May quickly set up a commercial airline
with partners Cy Becker and Vic Horner using the three 50-metre-wide
grass landing strips.

 

In January 1929, May and Horner created a
world sensation when they took off from the airport in an open-cockpit
biplane on a frigid 2,000-kilometre round trip to Fort Vermilion with
medicine to stop a diphtheria outbreak.

 

By the time they returned a week later, 10,000 people were waiting at Blatchford to welcome the heroes home.

 

“He spent a lot of time there. He developed the field in the first place,” says May’s son Denny, 78.

 

“There’s a lot of memories there … I know some people’s ashes have been scattered there.”

Pioneering bush pilots and aviation companies helped the airport take off over the following decade.

 

During
the 1920s and 1930s, they hauled freight and passengers north for
mining, trapping, mail delivery, surveying and other development work.

 

People would line Portage Avenue, now Kingsway, for a glimpse of such celebrities as comedian Will Rogers and pilot Wiley Post.

 

The buzz of propellers turned to a roar during the Second World War.

 

It
was a major site for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which
trained airmen across Canada, and serviced thousands of American planes
being flown across Alaska to help the Soviet war effort.

 

May,
manager of Blatchford’s air observer school, organized the first
search-and-rescue unit, which dropped rescuers by parachute when planes
crashed in rough terrain.

 

“He would take me there and my sister to
watch airplanes going up, in the tower. He’d arrange for us to go for
rides,” says Denny May, who later became a pilot.

 

“It was very
exciting just to watch all those American aircraft coming in … watch the
trainers do their work, the initial parachute jumps for the start of
search and rescue. That was fascinating.”

 

For a few days, Blatchford Field achieved the distinction of being North America’s busiest airport, Tingley says.

 

“The city grew like crazy. It wasn’t like the First World War, when everybody left town. It boomed.”

 

But
as larger commercial planes and jets were introduced after the war,
there wasn’t enough room to accommodate the extra passengers and the
longer runways that were needed.

 

The Edmonton International
Airport’s opening far south of the city in 1963 intensified discussion
about the downtown field’s future, and whether the area could support
two aviation centres.

 

Right or wrong, that decision has been made, and the historic airport is about to become history.

The
eight air traffic controllers are retiring or shifting to other jobs,
while four to eight Edmonton Airports workers will be transferred to
positions elsewhere.

 

The vast majority of the 200 to 300 planes based last summer at City Centre — the name given in 1996 — are already gone.

 

Denny
May, who took his first flight with Wop in 1935 when he was three weeks
old, hopes to be out next Saturday to see the end of an Edmonton
aviation era.

 

“It’s very sad. It just seems so shameful. Cities need a downtown airport,” he says.

 

“I
have very sentimental feelings about the field. I have landed there
lots of times and used all the runways. It was just a neat experience.”