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Calgary's Aviation History

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

PC 1122

The Airport, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Postcards from the Past, PC 1122

In my last blog post I wrote about the Bay Building in downtown Calgary. It is an iconic building and its importance to the life of the city cannot be overstated. But what I found out while I was researching it was that it played many roles in the lives of Calgarians beyond just that of a place to buy stuff. One of the most interesting uses I read about was the RCAF No. 4 Training Command post on the top floor. The command centre for the west of Canada from Vancouver to Regina, 300 people staffed this post. They stayed there until the No. 4 Command was merged with the No. 2 Command and the staff and equipment were shipped to Winnipeg late in 1944.

The first manned flight Calgarians actually saw was a hot-air balloon stunt at the Calgary Agricultural and Industrial Fair in 1906. ‘Professor’ Williams (apparently all hot-air balloonists called themselves professor) parachuted from a trapeze hanging from his hot-air balloon and landed in the Elbow River. This stunt did not seem to make much of an impression on the jaded citizens of Calgary. While I can give details of the winners and their prizes from every variety of livestock, and the winners of all the horse races, there is only passing mention of the balloonist. Maybe the Morning Albertan journalist was right, that “a Calgary crowd is a quiet crowd…[that] takes its pleasure without boisterousness” (until someone blocks their view of the finish line).

A dirigible was the highlight of the 1908 Exhibition, making flights around the grounds twice a day. It’s first flight was a bit of a disappointment as the pilot, Jack Dallas, couldn’t yet maneuver the ship in high winds and it was off course for most of its maiden voyage. It calmed down later in the week, but eventually a windstorm caused the dirigible to hit a mooring tower and burst into flames. Hydrogen does that.

Planes were often part of the grandstand show at the Calgary Exhibitions. Howard Le Van, a very young pilot, flew his plane (another Strobel machine) at the Exhibition until it crashed into a fence when it caught a strut in a gopher hole. Been there!

Katherine Stinson, one of the first female pilots, made several visits to the Calgary Exhibition, performing stunts and even making western Canada’s first airmail flight, taking off from a flat spot near Stanley Jones School in Renfrew to take mail to Edmonton. This area would become Calgary’s first municipal airport, and would have the first illuminated runway in the country. The hangar built by Rutledge Air Services, still stands and currently houses the Boys and Girls Club.

Calgarians continued to be fascinated with flight. The flat lands surrounding the city were perfect for pilots to launch their homemade planes. And they did so with a passion. The papers are filled with accounts of flight attempts. Some were successful, such as an attempt by two teenaged boys, Earle Young and Alf Lauder, to build a glider powered by a motorcycle engine which eventually got off the ground with the help of a tow from Dad’s Buick.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to aviation history in Calgary. To find out more you can join us at our annual Heritage Weekend to take in the new documentary Wings of Change presented by Doug Wilson. This excellent documentary celebrates history of aviation in Calgary from the first flights at the beginning of the 20th century to the newest developments at YYC. This will take place, as I mentioned, during our Heritage Weekend on October 25 to 27. The film will be screened on October 25 at noon in the John Dutton Theatre at the Central Library. You can register online, in person, or by telephone (403-260-2620). Check out the other Heritage Weekend programs while you’re at it. We’ve got some great stuff.

PC 699

Calgary--As seen from an Aeroplane, ca 1924

Postcards from the Past, PC 699

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