The Ghosts of Southern Alberta

By Dave O'Malley with Todd Lemieux

I'm am Eastern boy. Of that there's no doubt. Liberal, urban, soft—a bit of a pussy by Alberta standards. But when I sweep down out of Calgary on Highway 2, the farther south I get, the more I feel I belong there. Perhaps it's the blue dome of the sky and the startling vistas, the heartless winter winds, the direct, no-nonsense men, the uber-competent women or maybe it's the fading ghosts that surround me from a time long past when men from the east and west came together here to prepare for war. 

I've driven out of Nanton a number of times with pilot Todd Lemieux, headed east of Highway 533 towards Vulcan, Alberta to go flying or exploring. About 20 kilometers along 533, the highway takes a hard left north and becomes Alberta Highway 804. Right after that turn, you come to Regional Road 163 which runs due east again and arrow straight for another 12 Kilometers over a flat skillet landscape. After five minutes, the land to the south of the road begins to rise imperceptibly. One moment there is nothing but a rise in the floor of the west and the next there is a glimpse of history. Out on the horizon line that separates the vastness of the Alberta sky from the vastness of the Alberta prairie something appears out of nowhere in the heat shimmer—a series of long, low structures, silhouetted darkly against the morning sun in the east—like the long and short dashes of a morse code calling out from time, calling men together, calling men to sacrifice.

The long and short dashes of history—the hangar line at Vulcan aerodrome today as seen from Vulcan County Regional Road 163. Photo: Google Maps Streetview

These are the six remaining hangars of No. 19 Service Flying Training School at Vulcan, Alberta, a Second World War training airfield of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. It's difficult to grasp their scale as you roll toward them, but if you turn south onto Range Road 253, their presence grows and spreads and you get the sense that something important happened here long ago. If you pull your car to the shoulder of 253 and get out, you can cock your ear towards the closest hangar a hundred yards away.  The sounds of the prairie—the shrill chatter of a merlin on the hangar's parapet, the rustle of grass and the ting of the fence wire, the distant, low-gear protest of a farm truck—are all carried on the wind. And far beneath that—down 75 years deep where only a believer can hear it, the aural memory of a time long past. It's the faintest remnant of the clamour of falling wrenches, hammers and compressed air, the cough of radials, the chirp of tyres on tarmac, a distant gramophone scratching, the shouts of young men, the notes of a long-vanished station band—the Ghosts of Southern Alberta.

 

Background

The Second World War was a time of powerful stresses on nations, on ethnicities, on families, and on economies around the globe. Hundreds of thousands of families, in every corner of the world, would offer up, with grim reluctance, their sons and even daughters and lay them down on the altar of liberty. The best of this young generation was to be given the task and the training to push back a darkness that was devouring freedom, territory and lives. They were about to save the world.

From 1939 to 1944, as part of this global sacrifice, there was a great gathering that brought together young men from around the world. It was a coming together of avenging angels—men who would take the fight against this darkness to the air in proportions not even dreamed of just a few years before, in machines of great power and lethality. Though the souls for the task at hand were drawn from disparate places like New Zealand, Jamaica, Scotland, Norway, and Australia, the trysting place would be the small towns and rural hamlets of Canada, as well as larger urban centres such as Moncton, Toronto, Fort William, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver, to name just a few..

Men boarded great grey ships at Sydney's Circular Quay or perhaps the docks of Great Britain, rode trains from Toronto's Union Station, or walked across the border from the United States and resolutely made their way through initial training schools to the vast, sky-dominated and peaceful prairie landscape. As part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), Canada would put into motion a logistical and engineering project of such monumental proportions for the country of only 11 million citizens, that it dwarfed the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the ribbon of steel that united our country before confederation—something Canadians consider the gold standard in federal infrastructure projects. Inside of two years, Canadians scouted, surveyed, and built more than 150 airfields, established almost 100 training schools for pilots and aircrew, built the syllabi and training equipment and the thousands of aircraft needed. The cost exceeded 2.25 billion in 1939 dollars (approximately 36 billion dollars today), and Canada paid for 75% of it.

During this build-up time, recruitment began in earnest and in all corners of the country and the Commonwealth—a cattle farmer's son from Victoria, Australia, a bookkeeper from Oshawa, Ontario, a missionary's son from Philadelphia, a gas jockey from Sherbrooke, Québec, an apprentice butcher from Aberdeen, Scotland, a law student from Montréal, Québec. The system sorted them out by skills or needs, assigned them to schools across the country, and fed them into the maw of the BCATP.

Canadian BCATP bases were spread from coast to coast, but primarily they took place in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. To make room for flying operations, and to keep the skies relatively uncrowded, these airfields and schools were dispersed far and wide, with most of them located within five to 20 kilometres from a small rural town. This was done to maintain proximity to a source of support workers, materiel, and food, as well as give marooned students some sort of night life. For many of these bases, one, two, or even three relief landing fields were created to relieve congestion at the main field as scores of aircraft shot touch-and-goes and did circuits. In themselves, these were often complete airports with buildings and paved runways and staff.

If you grew up in a small town like Claresholm, Alberta, in the 1930s, life was nothing short of predictable. Work was never-ending, winters were hard, oh so hard, church was obligatory, marital prospects were limited, and one's view of the world at large was what you could glean from newspapers. The great tectonic shifts in world politics, militarism and technology were things that happened over the horizon—far, far over the horizon. But in 1940, the world at large, with its fears, stresses, strange accents and brave young men, came marching over that horizon and encamped just outside of the town limits of many a small town in Canada.

The men who would populate the schools across the country were brought there by the trains of the CNR and CPR. Overnight, the great railway system of Canada was primarily in the employ of the war effort. Here, a recently graduated class of observers/navigators from No. 31 Air Navigation School pose with the train that will take them from the small town of Goderich, Ontario, to their uncertain futures at the war front. Photo via Phil Wilson

Suddenly there were year-round jobs for men and women. There was local business growth where there had been nothing for decades, save a shrinking economy shattered by the Great Depression. Everyone was benefiting from these new aviation schools—from bakers and builders to teamsters and casket makers. Every room in town that could be rented was filled with military and civilian instructors. Overnight, there were hundreds of virile, exuberant, polite, and lonely young men walking around town. Local society was transformed in a prairie heartbeat. There were dances, socials, fundraisers, love affairs, and barroom fights. The impacts on these small towns were huge and, for some like Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, they would be permanent. In some towns, the BCATP blew through town like a summer prairie storm, straining the fabric of the community for just a couple of years and then it was gone, or at least the flow of young men who brought it to life had dried up overnight and the bases were closed. Some large bases, populated by more than a thousand students and staff, were opened and shut down in just two years. The local economy went from zero to a hundred miles an hour and back down to zero just as quickly.

The network of BCATP schools was established in breathtaking speed; some airfields were operational within a year. The last came online in 1942. Despite the stupendous cost and effort to create these schools and despite the success of the project and massive output of qualified and motivated young aviators, war planners could read the writing on the wall. The darkness was receding, the fascists were weakening and reeling backwards. Soon, the bloodletting would stop. It was time to cut the flow of blood off at the source—the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. By late 1944 and early 1945, a few of these brand-new schools were shut down and the bases closed.

Some, like Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, and Bagotville, Quebec, remain as RCAF bases to this day. Others, like Claresholm and Penhold, Alberta, would be reactivated for military training service after a short closure and then fade away once again. Some saw a short-term second life as storage, maintenance, and disposal facilities for the thousands of training and combat aircraft that had been needed for the war effort, but were now surplus to requirements. The lucky ones, located near larger communities such as Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, or Arnprior, Ontario, were, in time, handed over to the communities that birthed them, to become the local airport and the seed for industrial development. Many still function today.

Almost all the relief landing fields and many of the more remote bases have declined, deteriorated, or simply vanished, consumed by the landscape that once fostered them. All that remains of many are crumbled runways, hangar floor slabs, abandoned gunnery backstops (gun butts) and, in some cases, just a faint wisp of memory, a discolouration upon the land. Only one base, No. 31 Bombing and Gunnery School (B&GS), at Picton, Ontario, exists intact to this day—a time capsule from a period most Canadians have forgotten.

Years ago, while flying across the Prairies with the late Bruce Evans in his T-28 Trojan, we spotted one single BCATP base off to the south of our track, its broken runways catching the light enough to distinguish it from the surrounding farmland. There was but one structure where once there had been a small town. It was a ghost, caught in the open sunlight, a single footprint from a massive military beast, left upon the prairie. It got me to thinking: “What is still visible of this enterprise today?”

Using Google Maps-Satellite as a camera, I searched the Prairies for the remains of the greatest engineering accomplishment in Canadian history. Scrolling across the countryside in “my satellite,” many of the familiar triangular airfields, invisible from a passing car, were clearly visible. Others had left only the faintest of spoor, while others had vanished into the prairie grass. Using the Canadian province of Alberta as my boundary, I tracked down via satellite all that is still visible from above today. Then, two Alberta pilots—Todd Lemieux and Lori Fitzgerald—surveyed the sites of many of the old airfields in Todd's Citabria to give me the most up-to-date images of these old aviation fossils. Seventy years from now, much of what you will see in the following images will cease to exist. Here now, compiled for your edification, are all the bases of the BCATP that were located in Alberta—what they look like today, a few thoughts about their past, a few images from the war or their later life, a wave goodbye.

Todd Lemieux on the stick and Lori Fitzgerald on the camera in search of the old ghosts of Alberta. In April of 2019, the two veteran pilots made a flight plan that would take them over many of the Southern Alberta airfields to capture what could still be seen. Photo: Todd Lemieux

A wonderful hand-notated flight map of part of Southern Alberta, likely used by a student or perhaps an instructor. I believe that the ovals surrounding the aerodromes were added later to highlight them on the web. However, there are handwritten notations pinpointing the instructional flying areas for High River—dual (instructor-student) flying to the east, low-flying close to the aerodrome, and a solo aerobatic practice area to the west. On this map, Calgary is about 10% the size it is today. Map via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

 

No. 15 Service Flying Training School, No. 3 Flying Training School

Claresholm, Alberta

No. 15 SFTS at Claresholm was opened on June 9, 1941 with much fanfare and local dignitaries in attendance. The school was a multi-engine service flying training school, training pilots who largely populated the squadrons of Bomber, Transport and Coastal Command. A story in the Lethbridge Herald newspaper of the day tells the story of its beginnings:

UNIFORMED MEMBERS OF AIR FORCE MINGLE WITH EARLY PIONEERS

CLARESHOLM, Aug. 14—The thriving little community of Claresholm in the centre of one of the finest wheat producing areas in Canada, has come a long way since the first citizen to settle in the district, the late Col. W. A. Lynden drove overland from Utah in 1881, and the first of the steel [railway – Ed] reached here in 1896. Today when you walk down her streets, you will see the big cattle rancher, the world-famous cowboys, the many fine wheat farmers; and mingling with these will be the blue grey of the Royal Canadian Air Force. For situated two and a half miles west of town is No. 15 Service Flying Training School where over 600 men are stationed.

The facilities at Claresholm included two relief landing fields—one at Woodhouse to the south and one at Pulteney, Alberta, to the north—both situated along Alberta Highway 2, the main north-south route in Southern Alberta. Both communities were no more than a couple of houses on the main road, yet they gave their names to history. Not much of these two fields remains today, but Claresholm has six of the original seven hangars still in use as well as several ancillary buildings.

No. 15 SFTS was a service flying training school, providing advanced flying instruction on the Avro Anson and Cessna Crane for pilots selected for multi-engine flying. The bulk of these young men went on to pilot Vickers Wellingtons, Handley Page Halifaxes, Avro Lancasters, Douglas Dakotas and the like, but some went to de Havilland Mosquitos, Bristol Beaufighters, and even Short Sunderlands. The first course at No. 15 included 40 Canadian members of the RCAF, but as training developed, the make-up of these courses would change to include Australians, New Zealanders, Britons, and Americans (the flow of American trainees dried up when the USA finally entered the war at the end of 1941).

From April to September of 1942, Claresholm was home to No. 2 Flight Instructor School, but this unit soon moved to the brand-new base at Vulcan, Alberta, some 50 kilometres to the northeast. No. 15 stayed in steady operation until the end of the war in Europe, closing on May 30, 1945. Some 1,800 pilots had their wings pinned on them on the ramp at Claresholm during that time.

Throughout the rest of the 1940s and into the 50s, the base remained commissioned but dormant with only a skeleton staff. Though Claresholm would soon become an active base, the relief fields at Woodhouse and Pulteney were abandoned. Little remains of them today. In 1951, the base was reopened to provide training for pilots as part of the NATO Aircrew Training Plan. The unit based at Claresholm for this purpose was No. 3 Flying Training School and its students came from all over the NATO alliance. The base expanded to accommodate the new peacetime program, including Private Married Quarters (PMQs) for staff families—140 housing units in all—a grocery store, an eight-classroom school, and two chapels. Claresholm was now a large and busy place with a permanent staff of 1,100 military and civilian employees.

The base at Claresholm closed down in the summer of 1958 and No. 3 FTS left for Gimli, Manitoba, to continue operations. Not much happened at Claresholm for the next few decades, except for some auto racing on the runways, something that many abandoned bases were used for across Canada in the 1960s and 70s. Today, Claresholm airfield is one of the lucky ones—now a municipal industrial park and airport, with six of the seven hangars still standing.

Number 15 Service Flying Training School at Claresholm, Alberta. No other photo demonstrates the extraordinary flight training environment of the western Canadian provinces than this old black-and-white photo of RCAF Station Claresholm in the war years. Flat and obstruction-free, the wheat fields of Southern Alberta offered plenty of opportunity for young pilots to screw up and still have a chance at survival with a forced landing. The town of Claresholm can be seen a couple of miles to the north and east in this photo and appears to be about the same size as its airfield. Photo: RCAF

A view of No. 15 SFTS shot in the spring of 2019 from a similar angle, with the town of Claresholm off in the distance and the broad prairie sailing to the horizon. Photo: Lori Fitzgerald

A satellite photo of Claresholm today. The airfield serves double duty as the local airport (Runway 03-21 remains in operation) and as a sort of industrial park with six of the original flightline hangars still in existence. Several of these hangars are in terrible disrepair and most of the base ancillary buildings have been taken down. Still, if you drive the old streets of the base today, it feels somehow alive—a pale shade of its former vibrancy, but with an undeniable pulsePhoto via Google Maps

Fading into history. When I first began this story more than three years ago, one could clearly see the remains of the No. 15 SFTS relief field at Woodhouse, Alberta, on the satellite view of Google Maps—top image, right hand side. The remains of its three distinctive runways were still visible. But just three years later, I checked it again and there exists only the faintest discolouration to mark the spot where so many trained.  Images via Google Maps

Todd Lemieux and Lori Fitzgerald set out this spring to find remnants of many of the southern Alberta airfields. In this shot of Claresholm's relief field at Woodhouse, looking north, we can still just see the faint fossil of the old runways. Photo: Lori Fitzgerald

A few of the relief fields had grass runways and of those, like Pulteney, Alberta, Claresholm's other field, not even the faintest trace exists. Transports and tourists roll down Alberta Highway 2 (left is north), past the old site and there is no sign that, 75 years ago, young men trained here for war, many of whom did not come home. Photo: Lori Fitzgerald

Like all of the BCATP training schools, Claresholm had its share of accidents and tragedies. In the war years, there was a higher tolerance for loss of life and equipment than what would be acceptable today. One striking accident captured in this image had a happier outcome that the photo would indicate. The website of the Bomber Command Museum in nearby Nanton explains: “The school was the site of a rather spectacular accident. A Cessna Crane aircraft with two students aboard had an engine failure over the aerodrome and while trying to go around again after a single engine approach, lost altitude and dived right into barracks block 11, occupied by the Service Police. Crashing through the roof and landing on top of the bunks, it pinned down one man sleeping in the lower bunk so that he could not move. It was rather fortunate that the man in the top bunk, a few minutes before, had retired to the washroom. Needless to say, the remainder of the men were rather startled to find a Jacobs engine in bed with them, or in the close vicinity. Injuries were sustained by some seven servicemen in and by the two airmen. The remarkable thing about the accident was that there was no loss of life, and when the crash crew arrived on scene, two very scared looking pilots were extracted from the jumble of aircraft, beds, and building with hardly a scratch on them.” Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada

Many former training airfields of the BCATP have memorials to the field and to the young men who were killed in training. Claresholm had more than its share as this plaque attests—21 in all. Three of the Australians from the base—McKittrick, Bennet, and Baker—were killed in the same accident on July 20, 1944, when the Anson they were in crashed near the small town of Arrowood, Alberta, some 100 kilometres north of the Claresholm field. In those days, foreign airmen were buried near their bases, while the bodies of most Canadian and American airmen were transported home by train. The plaque and memorial were raised in 1997, more than 40 years after the war. 

Scenes from the military funeral of McKittrick, Bennet, and Baker. They were laid to rest in the Claresholm town cemetery with local ministers and chaplains in attendance. Across Canada there are as many graveyards like this as there are training bases. In them are buried the remains of hundreds of Commonwealth and Allied airmen who never got to fight in the war. In many cases, their families would never be able to journey from Australia, New Zealand, and other places to visit their son's final resting place. Many would never really learn the circumstances of their deaths. But one thing is certain, these graves were and still are well tended by local volunteers. I have visited many of these graveyards and have never seen a headstone or plot in disrepair.  Photos via Bomber Command Museum of Canada

A photo of a graduating course of pilots at Claresholm posing in front of hangar doors. The pilots are all wearing their brand-new wings and sergeant stripes. We know this is right after their wings parade because they all still have their white aircrew training cap flashes.

A good photo of Claresholm after the war with runways well marked for NATO pilot training. 

For a while after NATO training left for Gimli, Manitoba, and the base was abandoned by the RCAF, Claresholm became known for having, of all things, the finest restaurant in all of Alberta—The Flying “N” Inn Restaurant, run by chef Jean Hoare from one of the old BCATP structures. People made the 1.25-hour drive from Calgary for their legendary steaks and smorgasbord. Even Bing Crosby found himself at one of Hoare's tables, ordering her signature “Chicken In The Gold” dish. Here we see some locals (top) leaving on January 1, 1981, after a big New Year's bash (bottom photo) following a year-long celebration in Alberta for its 75th birthday. Politicians, dignitaries and business people were in abundance and Jean Hoare's fame was at its peak. 

Jean Hoare's cookbook of recipes from the Flying “N” and a matchbook that touts her Famous Smorgasbord and her specialty in Alberta beef steaks

The high cost of maintaining these old wooden structures means that they have little value for most modern businesses. Claresholm is a rather fortunate old base. Six of the original seven hangars on the line are still being used—although mostly for businesses other than aviation. One has been taken down to the slab and this one is close to death. Photo: Dave O'Malley

Another sad view of one of the large flightline hangars shows a deplorable state of deterioration. Though this one is up for sale, it is really the land that it's on that retains any value. Photo: Dave O'Malley

The street names on the old Claresholm station have aviation-based names—Harvard Drive and Tiger Moth Way being two of them. Photo: Dave O'Malley

The impact of RCAF Station Claresholm on the town was enormous. Six years after the BCATP base closed in 1945, the school was reopened as No. 3 Flying Training School for the purpose of training NATO pilots using the single-engine Harvard IV. During the 1950s there were more than a thousand RCAF personnel stationed in Claresholm, including Canadian and international pilot trainees who learned to fly there. The base was officially closed again in 1958. A Harvard aircraft, much like the ones used during the training, can be found on display at Centennial Park along Starline Road—the road that leads out of town to the airport. 


Although the closing of the flying school was a major loss to Claresholm, the air force hangars were subsequently converted to industrial uses and have, over the years, provided diversified job opportunities for the industrious workers from Claresholm and area. 

 

No. 36 Elementary Flying Training School, No. 3 Air Observer School
No. 2 Flight Instructors School

 

Pearce, Alberta

One of the more isolated aerodromes in Southern Alberta was built just north of the tiny and now non-existent hamlet of Pearce in a mile-wide bend in the Oldman River. If you put a boat in the river here in 1942, you could follow it to where it joins the Bow River and then the South Saskatchewan River, taking it all the way to Hudson Bay. The BCATP surveyed the flat plateau in the crook of the bend and began construction of a flying training base in 1941, which was to be operated by the Royal Air Force and which was populated with flying students from Great Britain.

The base was opened by the RAF on 30 March 1942 as No. 36 Elementary Flying Training School with initial instruction on the Tiger Moth followed briefly the highly capable but totally unsuitable Stearman Kadet Mk.I. The stout (compared to the Finch and Tiger Moth) initial trainer arrived at RAF-run air bases in the summer of 1942 and stayed in service with 36 EFTS until the school was closed mid-August of the same year—just four and a half months after it opened. The Stearman Kadet was considered an outstanding trainer... until the temperatures dropped with the approach of winter. It was not equipped with a coupe-top canopy or any form of cockpit heat and, as a result, was brutally cold in late fall and winter operations—so much so that pilots were issued leather face masks to prevent frostbite. Luckily, the students at Pearce were gone before they had to face the Stearman Kadet's fatal flaw. By early 1943, all 300 Stearman Kadet trainers had been returned to the USA.

No. 3 Air Observer School (AOS), based at Regina, Saskatchewan, opened a detachment at the aerodrome on 12 September 1942. The AOS operated Avro Anson twin-engine navigation trainers and an eight-week course at the Pearce aerodrome until 6 June 1943, when both the Pearce and Regina detachments of No. 3 closed for good.

No. 2 Flying Instructors School, which had previously been housed at Vulcan, Alberta, relocated to Pearce on 3 May 1943. The school took newly winged pilots from other Service Flying Training Schools across the land and taught them to be flight instructors. Needless to say, most of these men, who were keen to join the fight in Europe and North Africa, were disappointed in their selection for instructor training. Pearce's longest-running resident training school provided instruction on the wide variety of aircraft then operated by flying schools across the BCATP—Fleet Finches, Fleet Fawns, de Havilland Tiger Moths, Fairchild Cornells, and Harvards for single engine courses and Cessna Cranes, Avro Ansons and Airspeed Oxfords for multi-engine courses. The school closed on 20 January 1945.

Although the airfield was abandoned operationally, the facility continued to be used as a storage depot and scrap yard. On 8 September 1945, 83 four-engined Lancasters, originally intended for use against the Japanese landed at Pearce (now called Pearce depot). Here they would be put in storage, pending a decision about their fate, along with other aircraft of the BCATP. All of the Lancasters were kept flyable by a skeleton maintenance crew. Some were returned to service as maritime patrol aircraft, some were scavenged for parts, but most were sold for scrap. For a complete story about Lancs at Pearce and other storage facilities, visit Last Call for Lancasters.

The depot closed down for good in 1960. Today, the site is home to a large dairy farm.

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base at Pearce, Alberta, at the height of operations, with the sweeping curve of the Oldman River cutting a deep swath to the north.  Photo via Flight Ontario

The muddy Old Man River curves around the site of the former No. 36 Elementary Flying Training School at Pearce. One gets a good sense of how large the centre-pivot irrigation circles are—with diameters as long as a runway. Photo via Google Maps

Pearce, Alberta, was a very small place as was witnessed by the size of its train station. Here a group of young Royal Air Force Leading Aircraftmen, with their white aircrew training cap flashes, pose as they wait for a train—perhaps to take them to a bigger centre like Lethbridge or Calgary where they might find some fun. In the distance on the left we can see the grain elevators that once marked every community on the prairies. The men, station, the track, the elevators, and even the town have all since vanished. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

As an Elementary Flying Training School run by the Royal Air Force in the early part of the Second World War, Pearce was home to the magnificent but entirely unsuitable Stearman Kadet. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan acquired 300 of the sturdy and powerful trainers, but they arrived without the required winter-weather equipment, primarily a coupe-top canopy for winter flying. Within only a few months, they were deemed inadequate for Canadian winters and were returned to the United States in groups over the next few months. The Stearman Kadets were used only in Alberta, and only to train Royal Air Force flight students.  Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

Flying instructors, staff officers, and other staff at Pearce posing in front of a Cessna Crane. Front row (centre) Wing Commander Sharpe (Chief Flying Instructor); on his right S/L D. L. G. Jones; on his left S/L E. L. Gosling.  Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

Winters in Southern Alberta are tough enough, but when one is isolated on a remote air training base with nothing to do, sport takes on a life all its own. The bases in the south formed an extremely competitive ice hockey federation known as the Southern Alberta Air Force Hockey League (SAAFHL), with teams such as the Pearce Professors, Fort Macleod Playboys, Vulcan Hawks, Claresholm Falcons, Lethbridge Gunners, and the Lethbridge Bombers (No. 8 B&GS). The league actually started in January 1942 as the Southern Alberta Service Hockey League and included an Army team from Lethbridge. The Pearce Professors were one of the more accomplished teams. The caption with this photo in the Lethbridge Herald explains: Yes, you're right! There was plenty of room for more fans to watch this power play of Claresholm Falcons against Pearce Professors the other evening at the local arena. Profs won the game 9-7, but it took a sustained battle to do the trick. Dishing up fast and bruising hockey at every stand, the five teams in the Southern Alberta Air Force Hockey League merit much better attendance than they have been playing before in most games. (Note to the reader: these seats will be waiting for you tomorrow night, when Professors entertain Lethbridge Bombers in the local ice palace.)  Photo via Lethbridge Herald

You win some, you lose some. From digital records of the Lethbridge Herald, it was obvious that the Pearce Professors were a dominant team, but the league was highly competitive. Back in the day, the name Professors had perhaps a tougher cachet than it would today. These teams were mostly made up of base personal and staff pilots rather than students, who were transient and extremely busy with course work and flying. Image: Lethbridge Herald clippings

Scores of Avro Anson trainers await their fate at Pearce in October of 1945 after an early winter snow. Within a couple of years, they would all be gone to the scrapyard or to the odd civilian buyer. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

The only known photograph of a Lancaster arriving at Pearce in 1945. Pearce was closed down and vacant by January of 1945, and then officially reopened on 7 September 1945 to accept incoming Tiger Force Lancasters. The very next afternoon, 83 Lancaster Mk 10 bombers arrived and landed at the old base. This shot was taken by Ray Wise, an RCAF mechanic who was tasked, along with a Corporal Edge, LAC Cook, and LAC Wyers, to take care of a large number of Lancaster aircraft that were soon to land... and land they did. Ray Wise was 92 years of age when he was interviewed by Clarence Simonsen, Canada’s leading authority on nose art, and Jim Blondeau, a documentary filmmaker with Dunrobin Castle Productions. Blondeau remembers, “... he still spoke with excitement about the spectacular arrival and low flying air show they witnessed at Pearce on that one single fall afternoon. Out in the middle of nowhere the ferry crew pilots showed their low-level flying skills, terrifying nearby farm animals and the local Alberta farmers. Ray Wise also helped to record and save Canadian history when he took along his camera. His collection shows Anson ferry pilot aircraft, the rows of Lancaster bombers, and most of all, the Canadian Nose Art, painted on our most famous Lancaster aircraft. Just 18 months after the photos were taken, some of these aircraft were unceremoniously scrapped without any due thought by Canadian authorities. Once the Lancaster bombers had arrived they were parked in long rows and each morning the four mechanics were ordered to start each of the four Merlin engines on all the 83 aircraft. Over the next six months ferry crews arrived at Pearce and the Lancaster aircraft were flown to various long-term storage areas in southern Alberta. The mechanics were also ordered to prepare as many bombers as the Pearce hangars could hold for long-term storage. Photo by Ray Wise via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

Some of the Pearce ground crew, tasked with the daily upkeep of the grounded Lancasters after the war, stand on a scaffold next to a combat veteran Canadian Lancaster with 51 sorties—clearly on a warm day in the fall of 1945. Photo by Ray Wise via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

A few Lancs and an Anson stored at Pearce after the war. It is interesting to note that the bomb doors seem to be open in most of these photographs from the storage operation. One would think that they would have been closed to keep birds from nesting in the bays, but the stress on the hydraulic system was reduced by dropping them open. As well, John Coleman says, “Since the engines were started daily, that they were left open on purpose. When we start our Lanc the bomb doors ALWAYS must be open. Early in the Lanc’s career they lost a few to massive explosions. It turns out that fuel vapours tend to collect in the bomb bay.” Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

Lancasters at Pearce in the final days, with collectors and mechanics picking over the bones. The 70 or more, which were selected for Cold War patrol, were the lucky ones—but just for a few years more. This is the sad end of many of the Canadian Lancasters: rotting and crumbling, being picked over, shat on by pigeons, fading under the prairie sun. Canada’s leading aviation historian and publisher summed it up perfectly: “Barnyard bombers were well worth the fifty dollars asking price. To begin with, a farmer could count on recouping his investment by simply draining gas and antifreeze from his plane. Tires were just fine for a farm wagon. A tailwheel fit the wheelbarrow. For years to come the carcass would be a veritable hardware store of nuts and bolts, piping and wiring. In the meantime, it made a suitable chicken coop or storage shed. One farmer converted the nose of his Anson into a snowmobile.” Photo via Larry Milberry, Aviation in Canada, Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1979

Looking at this photo of the last Lancs at Pearce, there is nothing more to say. Photo via Palsky Family

Todd Lemieux circles the ghost of Pearce, Alberta in 2018. The cows and milking machines of the Airport Dairy Farm now occupy the land that once housed men and flying machines. The sun and winter snows have broken the pavement and the runways are well on their way to be absorbed back into the land Photo: Todd Lemieux

The runways of Pearce in the spring of 2019. more than 70 years ago, these ramps and grass aprons were crowded with hundreds of aircraft: Ansons bound for the scrapper, Lancasters home from the war and awaiting a second life as maritime patrol aircraft. Her long-gone barracks were once occupied by maintenance crews to look after the aircraft and ferry pilots overnighting before moving on. Photo: Lori Fitzgerald

The front gate of Pearce in 2004. The website for Alberta Milk, an association representing Alberta's dairy farmers, says this about Airport Dairy: “Honoring the Past. Harvey Van Hierden grew up on the family dairy farm just east of Fort Macleod. After marrying Bernita (who grew up on a dairy farm in Chilliwack, BC), Harvey purchased property on Pearce Road, which had been the site of the RCAF Aerodrome Pearce, a Second World War training air station of the British Commonwealth. Here they began dairy farming in 1984 and in honour of the history of the site, named the farm Airport Dairy.” Photo: Bruce Forsyth

The old concrete hangar floor slabs from Pearce's days as a Second World War airfield now make great dry hay storage areas.  Photo: Bruce Forsyth

 

No. 7 Service Flying Training School

Fort Macleod, Alberta

No. 7 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Fort Macleod began operations in December of 1940, with Alberta's long-serving Lieutenant Governor John Campbell Bowen in attendance. The school taught advanced flying to wings standard for pilots in the multi-engine stream—headed for Bomber, Coastal and Transport Commands of the RAF. The only aircraft employed at Fort Macleod was the Avro Anson. Administrative and operational control was the responsibility of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). No. 7 SFTS closed 17 November 1944 with the end of the war in sight and a declining need for bomber pilots. 

A wartime aerial photo of Fort Macleod's No. 7 Service Flying Training School looking north with the fertile Oldman River valley rolling west to east in the distance. Photo: RCAF

After the war, the station itself remained open and hosted No. 1 Repair Equipment and Maintenance Unit (1 REMU), which was responsible for storing and repairing RCAF aircraft. Many of the RCAF's wartime Lancasters were put into storage here, pending their disposition. The station is now Fort Macleod (Alcock Farm) Airport. A few of the old station buildings used during the BCATP days can still be seen, but the bulk of the airport infield has been given over to a housing development.

A relief landing field for No. 7 SFTS was located near Granum, 15 kilometres to the north of the field. Today, Granum is unused but is one of the best-preserved examples of a paved triangular relief field in the country.

Warbird pilot Todd Lemieux circles the Fort Macleod Airport in the early morning in the summer of 2018, looking southeast. The original and classic triangular runway pattern can just be seen, but none of the runways is operational today, nor is any part of the original base. The new 3,000-foot runway (06-24) cuts across the southern apex of the old triangle. A housing subdivision now sits in the infield, surrounded by history. Photo: Todd Lemieux

Todd Lemieux circles Fort Macleod airfield in 2018. RCAF Station Fort Macleod had six runways in an overlaid triangle configuration. All of these runways were abandoned but can be seen clearly in aerial photography. Many wartime RCAF training stations had this triangle configuration in order to allow for takeoff and landing in a range of wind directions. The modern runway 06-24 is not one of the original runways. It was newly constructed approximately parallel to one of the existing runways, but cutting across the other four near their apex. Photo: Todd Lemieux

A satellite view of the Fort Macleod municipal airport today. Only the runway at the south end of the field functions today, but it was not one of the original runways of the wartime site. Image via Google Maps

Any relief airfield that had grass runways has now long ago faded into the earth, but many that had paved runways can still be seen scarring the wide prairie. Granum airfield is one of the most intact of these fossils, with its three asphalt runways clear and almost usable. The top photo, taken in 2018, shows Granum looking northwest with the village of Granum itself off in the distance along Highway 2. The bottom photo, taken in the spring of 2019, shows cattle roaming west of the field. Top photo: Todd Lemieux. Bottom photo: Lori Fitzgerald

Accidents, some fatal, were almost weekly occurrences on training bases across Canada in the Second World War. On 31 January 1941 at 0930 hours, two Avro Ansons on final at Fort Macleod collided with each other at a height of 50 feet. The two trainee pilots, LACs John Sully McKeown and John Boli, throttled their engines back and made a coupled landing (none of the four propellers appear to have been damaged). The bottom Anson (RCAF serial 6220), flown by McKeown, was damaged beyond repair and struck off charge with just 100 hours total flying time.

A pilot looks over the right nacelle at Fort Macleod aerodrome, top right. The utter flatness of the Southern Alberta prairie is striking. Since I can't see a pattern of fields, I suspect this photo was taken in winter with fields covered in snow. 

Young men from all over the Commonwealth came to train at Fort Macleod. The friendships made there were for a lifetime, and unfortunately for many, it was a short lifetime. Here, Leading Aircraftmen pilot trainees in their white cap flashes kibitz for the camera. 

Members of H-Flight, Course 93 at No. 7 SFTS, Fort Macleod, pose before the beginning of their service flying training syllabus. Sergeant Mike Pawlowski of Spedden, Alberta, was killed 15 November 1944.

One of Fort Macleod's flying instructors was Flight Lieutenant William “Bill” Anderson. He lived off base with his wife and, in 1943, he and his wife Myrtle had a daughter named Roberta Joan. When that young girl began a life of music, she would change her name to Joni Mitchell and become perhaps the greatest singer/songwriter of all time—certainly, the finest to come from Canada. Following his RCAF career, Anderson moved to Saskatchewan, where he managed a grocery store and raised his daughter. He died in Saskatoon in 2012 at the age of 100! Myrtle passed away in 2007 at 95. Photo: Pinterest

Top photo: In 2004, when this photo was taken, one of the old barracks buildings on Primrose Avenue was in poor condition. Google Maps Streetview in 2019 (bottom photo) offers a close-up look at the present worsened state of the structure. Top photo: Bruce Forsyth. Bottom photo: Google Maps Streetview

The old taxiways and runways at Fort Macleod are well on their way to being subsumed by the prairie. Photo: Bruce Forsyth

A ramp-side view of one of the remaining hangars along the abandoned flight-line, taken in 2004. Today, the building remains much the same, but with windows boarded up. It is not known what use this structure is put to today.  Photo: Bruce Forsyth

There were more Lancasters coming in from RCAF Scoudouc on the East Coast than could be accommodated at RCAF Pearce, Alberta. Many more were in semi-permanent storage at Fort Macleod, including this Lancaster X from 419 Squadron. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

The Lancaster ground maintenance crew at Fort Macleod, Alberta. Macleod was one of the former BCATP airfields where the Lancasters were dispersed, and though its first resident unit, No. 7 Service Flying Training School, had shut down in November of 1944, it housed No. 1 Repair Equipment and Maintenance Unit after the war, and a slew of Lancasters awaiting their fates. This greasy but happy crew were tasked with upkeep of the Lancs stored at Fort Macleod. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

In June of 1944, officers of the RCAF lead members of the Women's Division west down Main Street, Fort Macleod, in front of the Queen's Hotel. In the bottom photo, we see the scene as it exists today.

Flying from No. 7 SFTS (out of frame to the bottom), RCAF pilot Eddie Frisk took this photo of Fort Macleod during his time there in the Second World War. The Queen's Hotel can be clearly seen centre left. Photo: Eddie Frisk via Macleod Gazette

 

No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School

High River, Alberta

While most of the airfields were scouted, surveyed and built as part of the 1939 British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, some locations were already the sites of government-run or private airfields. High River was one of these.  Wikipedia explains it history very well, so I am quoting that source here:

“The Canadian Air Board began operating the High River Air Station in January 1921 after having moved the station from Morley, Alberta, where the weather was discovered to be too erratic and dangerous for flying. In the early days, the station had an entirely civil function and was the largest in Canada with ten war-surplus aircraft that were part of the Imperial Gift provided to Canada by Britain after the First World War. In late 1922 when the Air Board and the fledgling Canadian Air Force was reorganized, operations at High River became the responsibility of the Canadian Air Force. And when the Royal Canadian Air Force was formed in 1924, the station became a Royal Canadian Air Force station: RCAF Station High River.

Most of the flying operations consisted of fire-spotting forestry patrols over the mountains and foothills to the west, which were flown by No. 2 (Operations) Squadron. The aircraft used was the DH.4. Late in 1924 Avro Vipers began to be used, and in 1928 de Havilland Cirrus 60 Moths were added. Initially, two patrols were made daily, to the Clearwater, Bow and Crowsnest Forest Reserves. One patrol flew north as far as the Clearwater River, and one south to the International Boundary. Eventually substations were built at Pincher Creek in the south and Eckville in the north to increase patrol efficiency. In 1928, a substation was constructed at Grande Prairie to enable the patrolling of the Peace River Country. Of the early Canadian air stations, High River was the most active, with 215 flights flown on forest patrols.

A Canadian Airco DH-4B (G-GYDN), part of the “Imperial Gift” (has there been a more condescending term?) of 114 surplus RAF aircraft, and operated by the Civil Operations Branch of the Air Board, taxies at High River in 1925.  The aircraft, formerly RAF F2708, was taken on strength by the Air Board in 1921, converted for photo work, assigned to No 2 Operations Squadron at High River and struck off charge there in 1925. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

Other responsibilities of the station included aerial photography, parachute experimentation, aircraft testing, and aerial pesticide spraying. In the early 1920s the station became involved with experimenting with radio. Wireless equipment was developed in cooperation with the Canadian Corps of Signals to develop radio signals to be broadcast over distances greater than 300 km. The most powerful radio transmitter in North America began operating from the High River Air Station in 1922.

After jurisdiction for natural resource management was transferred to the Province of Alberta in 1930, fire towers were built and spotting aircraft were no longer necessary. Fire-spotting patrols gradually ceased. Other activities such as aircraft testing continued until the station closed on March 31, 1931. The station did, however, remain as an aircraft storage facility until the beginning of the Second World War when the station was reactivated to train pilots for wartime service.

No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School

RCAF Station High River was a major participant in British Commonwealth Air Training Plan aircrew training during the war. No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School was established at High River in 1941 using civilian instructors from the Calgary Aero Club. De Havilland Tiger Moths were the first aircraft used. They were later replaced by Fairchild Cornells. An unprepared emergency and practice landing field, also known as a relief landing field, was located on the then dry lakebed of nearby Frank Lake.

An aerial of High River looking northeast from the wartime. Today, the four lanes of Alberta's divided Highway 2 scar the landscape, but it 1942, there was nothing but farmland to the horizon. Photo: RCAF

I had to adjust the contrast and hue of this screen capture from Google Maps to bring out the faint outlines of the old familiar runway pattern. Today, only a single Second Wold War vintage hangar still stands, used by a building contractor. Image via Google Maps

A very rare shot of Tiger Moth training aircraft being maintained in a hangar other than the standard RCAF structures designed specifically for the BCATP.  These smaller hangars were built at High River in 1921, when the High River Air Station opened.  The Canadian Air Board began operating the High River Air Station after having moved the station from Morley, Alberta, where the weather was discovered to be too erratic and dangerous for flying. In the early days, the station had an entirely civil function and was the largest in Canada with ten war-surplus aircraft that were part of the “Imperial Gift” provided to Canada by Britain after the First World War. In late 1922 when the Air Board and the fledgling Canadian Air Force was reorganized, operations at High River became the responsibility of the Canadian Air Force. And when the Royal Canadian Air Force was formed in 1924, the station became a Royal Canadian Air Force station: RCAF Station High River (Wikipedia)These old hangars were a design from the First World War known as Bessonneau Hangars and were transported to Canada along with the “Imperial Gift” of aircraft and assembled in Alberta. Tiger Moth 4972 suffered Category C damage in an incident at High River in September of 1941, so likely this is an image of it being repaired. Note the car sharing the hangar with the Tigers. RCAF Photo via http://www.timothyallanjohnston.com

Two High River-based Tiger Moths fly across the Southern Alberta landscape. Can you spot the problem with this photo? Well, single pilot operation of the Tiger Moth should always be from the back cockpit, yet this student or instructor is sitting alone in the front. Perhaps he has cargo in the rear cockpit. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

De Havilland D.H.82C Tiger Moth, serial number 5091 spun and crashed after takeoff at 20:00 hrs, on 13 May 1942. The aircraft came down 5 miles north of High River aerodrome. One of Gordon Jones’ fellow instructors, Flight Sergeant Phillip Hayne Chapman was killed and his student, LAC R.B. Thompson seriously injured. The accident reports states: “A/C took off with Sgt. Chapman in front seat giving instruction to LAC Thompson. Shortly after a/c made a gentle turn to the right then went into a spin to the right and continued to spin until it hit the ground totally damaged. Propeller was not turning when a/c crashed. Though injured, Russell Bennett Thompson, of Winnipeg, went on to complete his training and to join 158 Squadron as a Pilot Officer. Sadly, he lost his life on the night of 2–3 June 1944 on ops to the French city of Trappes, southwest of Paris. He is buried in the Ecquetot Communal Cemetery in the town of Eure.” Photo via Museum of the Highwood, High River, Alberta  

A shot of Tiger Moths at High River during the war.  All of them have their coupe-top canopies for cold weather flying, a necessity in Alberta winters. This was likely taken in the springtime before the weather warmed enough aloft to remove the canopies which would have been uncomfortably warm in summer. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

An early shot of the EFTS at High River with only the single BCATP hangar finished along with the three older pre-war Bessonneau hangars. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

A great airside shot of High River looking west toward the Rockies, just visible on the horizon. The pre-war “Bessonneau” hangar line is on the right and the ramps are filled with dozens of new Fairchild Cornell elementary trainers and one twin-engined aircraft, possibly an Anson at left.

Another view of the High River aerodrome, this time looking east. Though the quality of the scan is poor, I suspect it was taken at the same time as the previous photo as the twin-engine aircraft is still there in the flightline (top) with 11 Cornells lined up to the left—same as the previous image. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

A typical class from No. 5 EFTS High River—Course 92, “E” Flight. Since none of the students have their wings, this photo was likely taken when E flight was formed during Course 92 Photo via Anne Gafiuk

During the war, ladies of the RCAF's Women's Division are seen gathered at No.5 EFTS at High River. Judging from the number of women in this photo, they are all here possibly for some course, as there usually would not be this many on one station.  This looks like the same spot as in the previous photo, with similar benches. Perhaps this was the preferred group photo location on station. Women were critical to the operation of a flying training station like High River, performing a wide range of administration, transport, parachute rigging and maintenance work. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

The last of two original Second World War hangars of No. 5 EFTS, High River, now houses equipment and storage of a home building company. Photo: Don Molyneaux

Inside the more than 70- year old hangar, the wood structure looks in relatively good condition. This photo shows us just how much light the hangar's windows bring in, as there are no electric lights on in this interior shot.  Photo: Don Molyneaux

One of the great legendary characters of No. 5 EFTS was flying instructor Pilot Officer Gordon Jones. After the war, Jones lived in the High River area and maintained a vintage de Havilland Tiger Moth at the High River Airport—one he actually flew at No 5 EFTS!  Jones’ de Havilland Tiger Moth was originally one of 200 ordered and built for the United States Army Air Corps, designated PT-24 DH (Serial Number 42-1078). Then it was listed as a Lend Lease aircraft with RAF serial number FE214 and then sent to High River as RCAF 1214. Photo via Anne Gafiuk

A group of flying instructors known as the “High River Clan” and their wives: Ralph and Lois White, Ernie and Goldie Snowdon, Bob and Marie Spooner, and Linora and Gordon Jones. Photo via Gordon Jones Collection

In the previous map, we can see the Frank Lake relief field for High River, southeast of the town.  Frank Lake was a very different kind of landing field than all other BCATP airfields— a series of shallow alkaline lakes that were bone dry in the 1930s and 1940s after the Dust Bowl weather of the Great Depression. Instead of building a standard relief airfield, the RCAF simply used the flat dry lake bed as a landing field. It is not known if there were any structures. Today the lakes are no longer dry and are controlled by Ducks Unlimited Canada for wildlife management purposes. The water in Frank Lake is treated waste water from High River and from a nearby meat packing plant piped in. Not conducive to swimming I imagine. Top photo: Todd Lemieux, Bottom: Lori Fitzgerald

A great diorama of No. 5 EFTS High River at the height of its contribution to the war effort. This wonderful diorama was built by Larry, Debra and Bryce Kunz St. Gregor, Saskatchewan.

A Tiger Moth instructor and student at High River.

 

No. 31 Elementary Flying Training School

De Winton, Alberta

In the summer of 1941 when the aerodrome at De Winton was opened, the city of Calgary's edge was perhaps 20 kilometres to the north. Today, the site of De Winton is now the outskirts of a much larger city. It was named for the nearest community—the village of De Winton, some 13 kilometres to the west. It was the home to one of the BCATP's most successful elementary flying training schools—No. 31 EFTS. The aerodrome was one of several under the command of the Royal Air Force in Alberta, but the flying training carried out here was done under the auspices of the Malton Flying Training School (Toronto Flying Club), which also operated No. 1 EFTS at Malton, Ontario. The school operated two Relief Landing Fields—a grass runway field at Gladys, 11 kilometres to the southeast, and a larger one with asphalt runways at Shepard, some 20 kilometres to the northwest.

De Winton was one of the most successful flying training schools in the British Commonwealth and was awarded the Royal Air Force's “Cock O'the Walk” award as the best-run flight training school in the entire Commonwealth. With victory in sight, the RAF closed De Winton and its relief fields in September 1944. The abandoned airfield is now the privately operated but largely unused De Winton/South Calgary Airport.

Although the runways and some structures from the original EFTS remain, the airfield is no longer active for fixed-wing use. Some helicopter training, such as auto-rotation and hover practice, is still performed at the airfield, but all flights originate from other airports. The Calgary Ultra-light Flying Club used one runway for “touch & go” training for student pilots for a period, but does not currently use the airfield. For several years, the abandoned runways were used as a racetrack for sports car and motorcycle racing. Today, two of the runways are in disrepair and overgrown with grass, while the third runway is only partially maintained for use as an automotive driver training area.

Dozens of Stearman Kadet aircraft line the ramps of De Winton in 1942. Photo: RCAF

The airfield now has a permanent commemorative plaque that tells the story of those brief but heady years during the war. Bruce Forsyth tells us about the recent commemoration ceremony: “On 15 June  2016, close to 200 people gathered at the De Winton airfield to commemorate the 75th anniversary of No. 31 Elementary Flying Training School, during which a bronze plaque commemorating the school was unveiled. Guests at the ceremony included Flight Lieutenant James Andrews from the Royal Air Force; Dr. Stéphane Gouvrement, a historian and honorary colonel of 419 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron; Susan Cowan, the daughter of one of the school’s commanding officers; and Squadron Leader Rae Churchill, a former Second World War instructor at RCAF Station Bowden.”

Forsyth also tells us what happened to the relief field at Shepard: “As for RCAF Detachment Shepard, the abandoned runways were used as a racetrack for sports car and motorcycle racing, known as the Shepard Raceways, from 1958–1970 and then the Calgary International Raceway in the mid 1970s. The former north-south runway was used as a drag race strip until it closed around 1983, when the construction of Deerfoot Trail cut across the old runway. The Alberta Motor Association then used the runway as a driver training facility. The SE-NW runway and east-west runways were torn up in the early 1970s with construction of Shepard landfill. Today, nothing remains of the Shepard Detachment. In the early 2000s, the remaining property was redeveloped into an industrial complex. A “Flying J” truck stop now occupies part of the property where the airfield used to be. Nothing remains of RCAF Detachment Gladys.”

Occupying a flat expanse of land near the confluence of the Bow and Highwood Rivers, De Winton's No. 31 EFTS must have seemed like the middle of nowhere to the Royal Air Force student pilots who came from Great Britain. It was named for the nearest community in 1940—the hamlet of De Winton, some 12 kilometres to the west. Today, the southernmost suburbs of the city of Calgary are beginning to encroach. Image via Google Maps

Today, only the runways, taxiways, ramps, and floor slabs of the hangar line remain from the old No. 31 Elementary Flying Training School. The airport was still functioning as the “De Winton/South Calgary Airport” with only a single runway in fair enough shape to land aircraft. The airport has been closed for a number of years. The only remaining structure from No. 31 EFTS is the concrete gun butts—seen here as the deeply shadowed structure to the left of the two hangar pads. During the 1970s and 80s, the runways and taxiways were used for safe-driving courses and auto racing. Image via Google Maps

Lemieux and Fitzgerald visit De Winton in early June of 2019 and capture the silence and emptiness of the once-teeming aerodrome. The Bow River snakes away to the southeast in the upper corner. Photo: Lori Fitzgerald

Lemieux circles to the north of the field, with the Bow River at upper left. In the distance the Highwood River valley comes into view on the right. The yellow arrow points to a small cluster of buildings that is a permanent western town movie set known as Albertina Farms. The Netflix period-piece series Damnation, set in the 1930s, was filmed here along with many other films and TV scenes from series such as such as Hell on Wheels and Fargo . The fictional town is set in the valley so that there are no modern visual distractions in the background. As a result, the “circus,” that large caravan of trailers, tents, cafeterias, and generators that accompanies large productions, was always assembled on the airfield, out of site on the plateau above the valley. Some scenes from Fargo were shot on the airfield itself as well. Photo: Lori Fitzgerald

The town of “Albertina—a film production set that sits in the Highwood River Valley south of the former De Winton airfield. Photo: Lori Fitzgerald

Twelve yellow Stearman Kadet trainers are lined up next to a hangar at De Winton in the fall of 1942. De Winton's No. 31 EFTS was a Royal Air Force flight training school, one of several in Alberta. As such, it was also one of the three BCATP schools in Alberta to offer elementary flying instruction on the Stearman Kadet. The Royal Air Force purchased 300 Kadet aircraft and began training at No. 31 EFTS De Winton, No. 32 EFTS Bowden, and No. 36 EFTS Pearce. The Stearman Kadet was a much-loved and excellent training aircraft—until winter arrived! The open cockpit Kadets did not arrive with the planned winter equipment, the most important of which was an enclosed cockpit. Flying in an open cockpit aircraft in an Alberta winter was a misery one can only imagine. Despite these problems, they were employed until the much better equipped Fairchild Cornell trainers could be supplied. Pennie and his fellow students considered themselves amongst an elite group of BCATP airmen who trained on the Stearman Kadet—a larger, more powerful biplane than the Tiger Moths and Fleet Finches also in use at the time. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection and Tim Johnston

For the men and women who operated the airfields of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the metrics of success were men trained, aircraft serviceable, accident-free days, and runways operational. To fly the “E” pennant for efficiency from the staff at the front gate was to show that the efforts you made to the war effort had achieved important results. The Efficiency Pennant was like a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for an organization. Here, the Efficiency Pennant is held aloft by Mr. E. O. Houghton, manager of the Malton Flying Training School (the Toronto-based civilian operator of No. 31 EFTS) and Air Vice-Marshal G. R. Housam RCAF, air officer commanding No. 4 Training Command. Looking on is Squadron Leader R. E. Watts RAF, base commander. The date is 27 May 1943. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection and Tim Johnston

Another angle on the raising of the RAF's Efficiency Pennant at De Winton with Houghton, Housam and Watts at right.  in 2015, this very flagpole was discovered laying in the long grass at De Winton and salvaged by a team from the Bomber Command Museum of Canada (BCMC). Photo: Bomber Command Museum of Canada

A team of volunteers from the BCMC, headed by Tim Johnston recovered the De Winton flag pole in 2015. According to the BCMC, “a round piece of wood caught Tim’s eye through the tall grass. As he brushed away more of the grass to expose its full length and three large clamps, it became obvious that this could only be RAF De Winton’s flagpole -simply the thirty-three foot long trunk of a Douglas Fir, painted white. Tim recalled having seen the flagpole as the focal point in a photo of station personnel assembled on 31 EFTS’s parade square as officers proudly raised an ‘Efficiency Pennant’ on 27 May 1943. It was a very special day for the school as their School was being recognized as one of the very best in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. There it was, almost completely hidden in the tall grass and rotting away.” Photo: Bomber Command Museum of Canada

Today, the fully-restored De Winton flag pole hands on the wall at the BCMC, awaiting some future and higher purpose. Photo: Bomber Command Museum of Canada

At the same time he awarded De Winton the Efficiency Pennant (previous photo), Air Vice-Marshal G. R. Housam RCAF, air officer commanding No. 4 Training Command, also presented the flying school with the the RAF's “Cock O'the Walk” award, stating, "Your station has been awarded the Minister's Pennant and in addition the 'Cock O' The Walk' trophy as being the most efficient elementary flying training school in the British Commonwealth Air Training Scheme and the winning of the double award means much. You have achieved the highest standard of efficiency of any elementary school in the world and there is no other flying training organization compared to your own."  That's saying something given the high quality of every facility in the BCATP. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection and Tim Johnston

No. 31 EFTS De Winton put together an elaborate float in the 1943 Calgary Stampede parade. The theme of the float was “We teach the world to fly.” On the side of the float are listed the countries from which its students had come—China, Czechoslovakia, Ceylon, Canada, Great Britain, France, Netherlands, Australia, Denmark, Poland, Norway, Tahiti, South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies, United States, Russia, Belgium. At the front of the float are the flags of Canada, Great Britain, and the USA and above those, the Efficiency Pennant. The flags at the back appear to be those of Australia, New Zealand, and possibly Norway. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection and Tim Johnston

Squadron Leader Ronald E. Watts of the Royal Air Force (third from left in front) poses with his administration staff. By the look of things, it was a cold day at De Winton. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection and Tim Johnston

Like all BCATP bases, De Winton was a source of much local employment, needing many civilian workers from the surrounding area to carry out myriad tasks—from kitchen work to transport and maintenance to administration. Here four young ladies (left to right: Connie Eastcott, Evelyn Patterson, Isabelle Hall, and Jean O'Leary) from nearby Okotoks, Alberta, in crisp white coveralls pose at De Winton on a bright summer day.  Photo: Connie Eastcott Bodkin Collection

The great Albertan fighter ace, Lieutenant General Don Laubman, DFC and Bar, AOE, CD and 2 Bars was, for a time, a flying instructor at De Winton. Laubman, whose personal tally from the war includes 15 destroyed and three damaged, was born in Provost, Alberta, and got his wings at No. 3 SFTS Calgary. Laubman did his Flying Instructor training at Vulcan, Alberta, before serving at De Winton. Following his time at De Winton, Laubman served with 133 Squadron RCAF on the West Coast as part of the Home War Establishment. He then went overseas where he was posted to 412 Squadron, the same unit that John Gillespie Magee had served with before he was killed. Laubman was shot down on his second tour, commanding 402 Squadron. He became a prisoner of war... but for just a few weeks as the war was almost over. Photo: RCAF

De Winton soldiered on after the war as an auto racing track—the fate of more than one former BCATP base. Later is was reopened as a small private airport known as the South Calgary Airport. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection and Tim Johnston

In June 2016, a brass plaque commemorating De Winton's extraordinary contribution to the war effort was unveiled on the 75th anniversary of the school's opening, with an officer of the Royal Air Force in attendance as well a veteran BCATP instructor: Squadron Leader Rae Churchill, and Susan Cowan, the daughter of the base's former Commander, Squadron Leader Ron Watts. The plaque reads in part: “Formed at Kirkham, England on April 16, 1941, this school was one of six Royal Air Force (RAF) elementary flying training schools (EFTS) sent to Canada to train British aircrew. These and other RAF schools in Canada operated alongside the schools of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCAT) and graduated 5,296 aircrew prior to the reorganization of the Plan in July 1942. Canada was the lead nation in the BCATP, a massive undertaking that saw 131,553 aircrew graduate from 110 training schools. During its operational life, No. 31 EFTS De Winton trained aircrew from 20 free or occupied countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Poland, Belgium and Holland. Under the terms of the reorganization, this school, along with all other Royal Air Force schools in Canada, was fully incorporated within the BCATP. The Toronto Flying Club took over management of the school with flying instructors provided by the RAF until the school’s closing on August 26, 1944. De Havilland Tiger Moths were the first training aircraft used on the base. Supplementing these were Stearman PT-27s provided to Great Britain by the United States through the Lend-Lease Act. Following the return of the Stearmans to the United States, the school eventually transitioned to Canadian-built Fairchild Cornells. No. 31 EFTS De Winton was recognized for its outstanding performance by the award of the Efficiency Pennant on April 30, 1943. On May 7, 1943, under command of Squadron Leader R.E. Watts, the school was awarded the “Cock of the Walk” trophy in recognition of having achieved the highest standard of efficiency of any elementary flying training school in the British Commonwealth. Placed on June 15, 2016, this memorial is dedicated to the memory of those who trained and served at No. 31 EFTS De Winton and to those who made the supreme sacrifice in defense of their countries and democracies.” Photo: Anne Gafiuk

In 2004, Bruce Forsyth found the airfield recently closed to operations as an airport. A painted farm gate signalled the entrance to the “South Calgary Airport”. At this time, there were no active flying operations at the airfield. These trees look too young to have been planted during the operation of the airfield by Royal Air Force under the BCATP.  Photo: Bruce Forsyth

Aviation history writer Anne Gafiuk visited the De Winton site on a sunny day in 2016 and found the gates replaced by metal farm gates and the entrance road in obvious disuse. From this entrance gate we would have seen the guardhouse, barracks, administration, and maintenance buildings of the once-active station. Now only the gunbutts remain—seen on the horizon at right. Photo: Bruce Forsyth

A Google Maps Streetview screen capture in 2019 shows that the site is still maintained with the gates repaired and repainted. Most of the site is farmed today, but its proximity to the outer ring of suburban development means that it will soon disappear entirely, consumed by residential land development. Sad, but inevitable. Image via Google Maps Streetview

Because of their mass and indestructible construction, the gun butts are usually the last remnant of the structures built at BCATP bases across the breadth of Canada. Here, long prairie grass waves in the light of a setting sun at De Winton in 2004. Photo: Bruce Forsyth

The old north-south Runway 34-16 at De Winton has not been in use for many decades and grass had grown wild through the cracks in its aging asphalt surface. In 2004, the white runway numerals at the southern end signalled the compass heading for any aircraft overflying the abandoned basePhoto: Bruce Forsyth

The same runway intersection as in the previous photograph of De Winton, but as a satellite view 15 years later. The numbers are barely visible, the runways are useful only in an emergency, and the process of subsumption is underwayPhoto via Google Maps

Though De Winton's structures have long since been demolished, we can still see the faintest evidence of their existence from a satellite. At centre, we can just make out the outline of an “H” Hut barracks building and to the right we might be looking at the old firehall and transport sheds.

Not much remains of the structures that once made De Winton a small town in its own right. Here, part of the guard house, garage, and an administration building have been joined near the main entrance to make a private residence (photo taken in 2004). Photo: Bruce Forsyth

When Todd Lemieux punched in the known co-ordinates for De Winton's relief field at Gladys into his GPS, they brought him in his Citabria to this wheat field, looking north along Range Road 280, 400 metres south of where it intersects with the east-west Alberta Highway 547. The site of Gladys lies in the present-day Municipal District of Foothills No. 31, a few kilometres east of Okotoks, Alberta. At first, I thought I could identify the diagonal runways of the old grass strip relief airfield, but I believe this is merely the way the wheat fields were plowed when this photo was taken. Photo: Lori Fitzgerald

The view Lori Fitzgerald photographed (previous photo) while flying with Lemieux is shown in white at left. However, when I dump the known coordinates for Gladys into Google Maps, it is pinned a kilometre to the east (red pin). Unfortunately, on close examination by satellite, neither location revealed even the faintest hint of the long-ago existence of the airfield. Image via Google Maps

A great shot of a North American Yale on the ramp of the detachment at RCAF Station Shepard during the war years. Closer to the hangar is a Fairey Battle. As Gladys was a relief field for No. 31 EFTS, these two aircraft must be visiting, as De Winton was home to first Tiger Moths, then Stearman Kadet trainers, and finally Cornells. This photo might also come from an earlier period when both Gladys and Shepard were relief airfields for No. 3 SFTS Calgary. Photo via Abandoned Alberta Airfields at militarybruce.com

A Google Maps satellite pin for Shepard's known co-ordinates drops right in the middle of a South Calgary landfill known as the Shepard Landfill. The neighbourhood (former town) of Shepard, for which the airfield was named, lies three kilometres to the east (left in this photo), so it's likely the landfill was named after the airfield and not the town. Photo: Google Maps

There is still flying being done at the old Shepard site today... but of the shite-hawk variety. In the distance, the skyline of modern Calgary can be seen. The landfill is one of the saddest reuses of former BCATP bases that I have seen. If these airfields are taken back, I prefer that they be retaken for farming or possibly residential uses. Photo: K. Lee 

 

 

No. 34 Service Flying Training School

Medicine Hat, Alberta

The selected site of Medicine Hat's No. 34 Service Flying Training School had been in use for a number of decades as a dirt airstrip that could trace its roots all the way back to 1912—just three years after the first powered flight in Canada!  Following construction, the Royal Air Force took control of the new aerodrome and opened No. 34 SFTS in April, 1941, offering wings-standard flying training on North American Harvards, Avro Ansons, and Airspeed Oxfords. The school also had Relief Landing Fields along the Holsom County Road (hard-surfaced runways) just to the west of town and in the District of Whitla (grass runways) some 20 kilometres to the southwest. The RCAF would later take control of the school from the RAF, closing it down in November of 1944 along with its two relief landing fields.

In the short three-and-a-half years of operation, No. 34 SFTS put wings on more than 2,000 new pilots. Sadly, 50 students and instructors were killed in that short period. Nearly all of these men are buried at Medicine Hat's Hillside Cemetery, in a special site across from today's Medicine Hat Airport that is dedicated to those who were killed during the Second World War and could not be transported home. Most of the war graves lie together in Block 139, where a Cross of Sacrifice was erected in 1960. There are now nearly 20 First World War and nearly 60 Second World War War casualties commemorated in this site.

Many came... and some never left. Most of the 50 Commonwealth airmen who were killed at No. 34 SFTS during its three and a half years of operation are today buried in the military graves section of Hillside Cemetery across the road from the airport. Google Maps Streetview allows you to drop into the shady lanes of Hillside to view the entire cemetery. I highly recommend you drop Streetview into Hillside and walk around until you find these young men who gave so much. Perhaps a cyber-moment of silence for their sacrifice. Photo: Google Maps Streetview

The aerodrome was handed over to the municipal government in Medicine Hat in 1947 and operates today as the Medicine Hat Municipal Airport. Only two of the original six paved runways remain in use, with runway 03/21 being lengthened to 5,000 feet to accommodate regional airline traffic. 

Like many former BCATP sites, there is a monument at the airport dedicated to the men and women who served and died here during the war. 

Today, Medicine Hat Regional Airport (YXH) occupies the former site of No. 34 SFTS. In 1947, the Department of National Defence transferred ownership of the airport to the City of Medicine Hat. The airport continues to be owned by the City of Medicine Hat and operated by the Municipal Works Department, Airport Section. In the early 1960s, the primary runway was relocated, strengthened, and lengthened. A larger combined Air Terminal Building/Flight Service Station was built in 1980. Over the years, the airport has completed various electrical, pavement surface, infrastructure, and terminal improvements, primarily with funding from the Federal Airports Capital Assistance Program. Photo: Wikipedia

No. 34 SFTS operated two relief landing fields to reduce congestion at the main aerodrome. One of those was in farmland near Whitla, Alberta, 25 kilometres southwest of Medicine Hat. Today, not one shred of evidence exists to tell the tale of the young men who once bounced their aircraft on Whitla's grass runways or lounged on the grass eating boxed lunches. History has been wiped off the map by massive 750-meter diameter centre-pivot irrigation units. Image via Google Maps

An aerial photo of the paved runways of the relief field for No. 34 SFTS at Holsom, Alberta. Today, nothing can be seen of Holsom's three 100-foot wide, 2,800-foot long runways. Photo: RCAF

The second relief field was along the Holsom Road, just a few kilometres west of town. Image via Google Maps

A Medicine Hat-based North American Harvard II, piloted by Englishman Leading Aircraftman Owen Fauvel, flying over the prairies in the Second World War. Flying from a Royal Air Force-controlled SFTS, the Harvard sports RAF-style serial numbers—FE6??—two letters and three numbers. The late R.W.R. Walker, the leading expert on Canadian military aircraft serials wrote When the BCATP started, the RAF manned and operated a number of training units in Canada, all identified with 30 series numbers (for example, No. 34 Elementary Flying Training School at Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, and No. 33 Air Navigation School at Mount Hope, Ontario).  These units were gradually absorbed into the RCAF through 1942 and 1943, with their aircraft being transferred to RCAF ownership then, generally keeping their RAF serial. ” The pilot, Fauvel went on the Flying Instructor School at Trenton Ontario, and then back to Alberta to instruct on Cornells at DeWinton and High River. Photo: The Memory Project

Every flying school in Canada would output pilots during the war who would make their marks on RCAF history.  No. 34 Medicine Hat was no exception. Two Alberta boys from Nanton, the twin Warren brothers Bruce and Douglas, both did their EFTS training at High River which was just up the highway a few miles from their home. Following EFTS graduation, both men went on to earn their pilot's brevets at No. 34 SFTS, Medicine Hat. For the rest of the war, they remained inseparable—first as Spitfire fighter pilots with 165 Squadron RAF and then as twin flight commanders with 66 Squadron. In March, 1945 the two Warren twins received Distinguished Flying Crosses by King George VI himself, who was heard to say “I don’t believe I have ever done this before.” Following the war, both men continued with the RCAF. By 1950, Bruce was a test pilot with Avro Canada. In 1951, he was killed while test flying the prototype of the Avro CF-100 Canuck all-weather jet interceptor. Doug Warren had a long career with the RCAF that included commanding an F-86 Sabre squadron (410) and flying combat missions in the Korean War attached to an American squadron. Douglas' career was long and stellar. He died in 2011. Photo: RCAF

Medicine Hat was known for its wonderful dance parties for Commonwealth airmen. Here, scores of pretty girls swirl on the dance floor with uniformed airmen to the strains of a big band and a chanteuse. 

After the war, the old base administration building and control tower at Medicine Hat served as a radio station for Trans Canada Airlines (Air Canada), manned 24 hours a day. The airfield was abandoned by the RCAF and handed over to the municipality of Medicine Hat and continues to this day as Medicine Hat Regional Airport. Photo: Milt Watts via radioalumni.ca

A large gaggle of NATO training Harvards out of RCAF Station Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, gathers at Medicine Hat in the 1950s to refuel enroute to Calgary. Trans Canada Airlines radio operator Milt Watts relates what happened: “Winnipeg ATC was giving Edmonton ATC information on a large flight of RCAF Harvards from Portage La Prairie to Calgary with a stop in Medicine Hat. Wondering why they were stopping I called Winnipeg and got the response they were planning on refuelling here. Someone in the RCAF must have forgotten we were no longer an RCAF base. They should have checked. I knew the local IOL agent had only a small quantity of avgas at any time. I called the agent and gave him the information and he arranged to have a tanker of avgas sent out. Eventually the flight staggered in, parking all over the ramp. One pilot kept calling for Medicine Hat tower. I replied there was no tower and gave him the necessary info. Not good enough. He kept calling for the tower, even requesting a green light. Eventually he landed, I think! When TCA arrived they had to park some distance away and the passengers and crew had to wander through the Harvards.”  Photo: Milt Watts via radioalumni.ca

Only a few of the many wartime training bases have their histories compiled into a book. No. 34 SFTS Medicine Hat is one of them. Thanks to author David J. Carter, the activities, names, and incidents at Medicine Hat's aerodrome have been recorded in “Prairie Wings.”  To hear Carter speak about the history of No. 34 SFTS, click here.

 

No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School, No. 8 Bombing and Gunnery School

Lethbridge, Alberta

Like High River's airfield, Lethbridge's Kenyon Field Airport was built before the war and opened on 7 June 1939. Its purpose was that of many small airports being set up across the country—to function as a link, an emergency landing field, and a refueling stop in a transcontinental system servicing newly formed Trans Canada Airlines. It was named after Air Commodore Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, a British-born aviator who, at an early age, emigrated with his family to British Columbia. He joined the Canadian army in 1914 as a trooper and then remustered to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917. In the spring of 1928 he joined Winnipeg-based Western Canada Airways and helped to pioneer the Prairie Air Mail routes.

An excellent aerial photograph of No. 8 Bombing and Gunnery School at Lethbridge with freshly painted centrelines and perimeter markings. It also appears that an Avro Anson is perhaps making a low-level pass (at bottom above Runway 30 letters, though the shadow of the aircraft is missing). Photo: RCAF

With the establishment of the BCATP, the airfield became the site of No. 5 EFTS, which officially opened on 22 July 1940. Thanks to the pre-war establishment of the airfield, there was a civilian flying club at Lethbridge that provided instructors and aircraft maintenance. However, extreme wind in the area (known locally as the Wicked Winds of the West) made Southern Alberta one of the windiest regions in all of Canada and had an adverse effect on pilot training. The EFTS school was moved to High River in June, 1941. Later that year, the RCAF opened No. 8 Bombing and Gunnery School at the station, which used staff pilots who had the experience to deal with the high and gusty winds. Runways were lengthened and strengthened for the more powerful bombing and gunnery trainers (Avro Ansons, Bristol Bolingbrokes, Westland Lysanders and Fairey Battles) and new buildings were constructed for training, as well as barracks for instructors and trainees. In addition to the facilities at Lethbridge, the school leased 100 square miles on the Blood Indian Reserve, Canada's largest, to use for bombing and gunnery practice. Today, the Kainai First Nation considers this to be an illegal seizure of their lands, stating: “The claim settlement rights a historic wrong suffered by the Blood Tribe 74 years ago when the Government of Canada’s Department of National Defence illegally leased, used and occupied approximately 55,000 acres of Blood Reserve land for a bombing and gunnery range during World War II from the years 1941-1945.”

The illegal “leasing” of bombing ranges from First Nation reserve lands seems to have been systemic. The Globe and Mail published a story about the use of lands for this purpose, stating: 

“Abandoned explosives from military training exercises could be scattered across more than two dozen native reserves in Canada, a newly released document says.

A Defence Department list cites 25 reserves potentially laden with discarded explosives, ranging from Second World War–era bombs to anti-tank mortars and even torpedoes....

Land in southern Alberta belonging to the Blood Tribe—Canada's largest reserve by land area—was used as a bombing practice range during the Second World War.

The range was located at the northeast part of the reserve. Blood Tribe Chief Charles Weasel Head said the farmland-ringed area is unpopulated, with a canal running through it and bordered to the north by an irrigation dam. The closest house is about three kilometres away, he said.

There is, however, a community of about 2,000 roughly nine kilometres from the range, which Chief Weasel Head said gives him some cause for concern.”

I'm not saying there is a relationship, but the flag of the Blood Tribe bears a resemblance to the RCAF's ensign of the Second World War. Images: Wikipedia

Wing Commander W. A. Jones took command of the Bombing and Gunnery School on 8 September and the school's first aircraft, Fairey Battle No. 1879, arrived on 22 September 1941. The first class of Wireless-Air Gunners arrived on 11 October. By the end of November there were 56 Battles and one Harvard on the station. Later, Lysanders, Ansons, and Bolingbrokes were operated at the school. Almost 1,600 air gunners and bomb aimers graduated from this school.

Since the Bombing and Gunnery School closed up in 1944, the base was turned over to the community and has continued to operate as the Lethbridge Airport to this day. In the mid-50s, there was hope that the RCAF would conduct primary flight training on de Havilland DGC-1 Chipmunk trainers, but that appears to have fallen through. 

A satellite view of the Lethbridge Airport, the site of Kenyon Airfield and the former No. 5 EFTS and No. 8 B&GS. To the left, the Oldman River Valley snakes past the city of Lethbridge. Image via Google Maps

Most steel west of Winnipeg! The original hangar built at Kenyon Airfield in the 1930s to support the route system of Trans Canada Airlines still exists, housing an FBO operated by Air West. The Air West website acknowledges its proud history, statingOur distinctive brick and steel hangar was built in 1938 for Trans-Canada Airlines using the largest amount of steel in any building west of Winnipeg at the time! Trans-Canada Airlines used this hangar for nine years to house and service their Lockheed 10 & 14 series aircraft. This made Lethbridge Airport the Airline Hub of Western Canada in the 1940’s. So next time you visit Lethbridge please stop at AIR WEST Flight Support and enjoy the numerous articles, photographs and artifacts at our main lobby that keep our heritage alive.” Image via Google Maps Streetview

Two Fairey Battle bombing and gunnery trainers of No. 8 B&GS fly in formation over the Alberta landscape near Lethbridge. In the background is the ancient cut of the Oldman River, which, in its tortuous journey, has wound its way past the BCATP airfields at Fort Macleod and Pearce on its way to Lethbridge. From here, the twisting oxbows snake their way north and east to Medicine Hat and the most easterly of Alberta's many Second World War training bases. The Fairey Battles of the BCATP were meant and built for front line service, but soon proved their worth (or lack of it) in the Battle of France. They were all withdrawn from service and relegated to training roles, including hundreds that were shipped to Canada as gunnery training platforms. Most, like these two examples, were kept in the operational camouflage they wore when they came out of the factory, but with the addition of bright yellow painted panels on the wings and fuselage. We can clearly see the yellow panels on the wing roots and empennage of these two aircraft. Photo: Glenbow Archives, PA-3458-7

 

A Fairey Battle target tug in the distinctive black and yellow “Oxydol” paint scheme sits forlornly on collapsed gear after a hard landing at Lethbridge. Staff pilot Flying Officer 

Vintage felt patches from No. 8 Bombing and Gunnery School at Lethbridge. These are definitely not regulation items, and were likely purchased for personal use. Unlike the USAAF, Commonwealth pilots did not generally adorn their flight jackets with patches and artwork. Perhaps these were used by members of the station hockey teams—the Lethbridge Gunners and the Lethbridge Bombers—who played in an inter-station league across Southern Alberta. Photos via J. F. Chalifoux

During the war, there were many war bond drives across the nation. Hollywood film stars did there bit for the war effort by visiting cities across the country. Here, on 13 February 1942, film star Ian Hunter (fourth from right) poses after a flight from Mossbank, Saskatchewan, with an RCMP honour guard, and local dignitaries including the base commander at No. 8 B&GS, Wing Commander W. A. Jones (second from left). The following day, Hunter, who was visiting stations throughout Southern Alberta on a Victory Bond tour, lunched at the officers' mess and was introduced to the station officers. That afternoon, he attended a wings parade for Air Gunners' Course No. 25 (21 students). Hunter was a South African–born British stage and film actor. In 1940, he starred with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable (as unforgettable benign guardian angel–like Cambreau) in Strange Cargo, but then returned to England to serve in the war effort. Photo: Lethbridge Herald

Airwomen of the RCAF's Women's Division were employed across the BCATP and were an important part of the training plan. Here we see station photographer Georgina Harvey (in shirt sleeves) socializing with fellow staff airmen and women at Lethbridge's mess during the war years. It was on a flight between Lethbridge and Claresholm that Section Officer Rose Jette Goodman from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, was killed in January 1943 at age 23. She was aboard a Cessna Crane (RCAF Serial 8739) on a cross-country flight when it crashed eight miles southeast of the aerodrome at Claresholm. S/O Goodman was the only casualty and she was the first member of the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force to lose her life on active service. Section Officer Goodman is buried in the Outremont Hebrew Cemetery, Montreal, Quebec. Photo via ElinorFlorence.com 

Dances were an important part of the culture of Canadian aircrew training bases across Canada. Here airmen and civilians mix at Lethbridge. Photo via ElinorFlorence.com 

Lethbridge's station photographer Georgina Harvey captures Avro Anson 11272 flying over the snowy Rocky Mountains on a cross-country formation trip from Lethbridge. Anson 11272 was built by Canadian Car and Foundry in Amherst, Nova Scotia, and taken on strength by the RCAF at the end of March, 1943, and survived the war with 1,068 hours of flying time in her books. Photo via ElinorFlorence.com 

Bombing and Gunnery trainees from New Zealand and Canada (Course 104B) with their white cap flashes pose with a station Anson at Lethbridge. Photo via hillmanweb.com

One of the first courses to graduate from No. 8 B&GS was pictured in the Lethbridge Herald in January 1942. The story proudly lists, among the many graduates, three local boys—John Armitt (age 31), William John Reid of Lethbridge, and Victor Bellagente of Medicine Hat. Sadly, neither Lethbridge man survived the war. Reid died a year later with 9 Squadron, a heavy precision bombing unit similar to 617 Dam Busters. Armitt died on operations with 405 Squadron Pathfinders on Valentine's Day, 1945 after three years of war fighting. He was nearing the end of his second full tour when he died. He did get home on leave between his first and second tour. It is a tribute to the training they got at Lethbridge that these two men were with two of the most elite squadrons in Bomber Command history—specialized units that relied heavily on their navigators and bomb aimers to carry out their missions. Victor Bellagente seems to have survived the war, dying in 2002. Clipping from Newspapers.com

 

No. 19 Service Flying Training School, No. 2 Flight Instructor School

Vulcan, Alberta

The big flight training school at Vulcan, Alberta opened on 3 August, 1942, the last BCATP base to be completed in Alberta and likely Canada. Vulcan's two relief fields, designed to reduce congestion during circuit practice, were located 18 km southeast near the town of Championand 15 km north near the hamlet of Ensign. Ensign had paved runways and Champion was a grass airfield but only Ensign's old site offers a faint trace of this wartime activity.

Vulcan's inaugural tenant was No. 2 Flight Instructor School (2 FIS), training newly minted pilots of the BCATP to be flying instructors. The Bomber Command Museum of Canada's website recalls: “... It began operations in July 1942 but was not officially opened until October 30, 1942. At the opening ceremonies, W/C F.R. West, the commanding officer, spoke with pride of the huge effort required to build the facility, saying, "From a section and a half of prairie, which a year ago yielded some 40 bushels of grain to the acre, several crops of highly skilled flying instructors have been graduated. The initial class was made up of young men from all sections of the British Empire and the United States of America, who worked together with an excellent spirit. This performance set a pattern for succeeding classes." A grand total of 750 flying instructors on various aircraft types graduated from 2 FIS before it re-located to Pearce, Alberta on 3 May 1943.

On the day No. 2 FIS packed up at Vulcan, No.19 SFTS opened it's hangar doors as the new base tenant. No. 19 ceased operations on 29 March 1945, having sent 860 fully qualified multi-engine pilots into the Bomber and coastal Command pipelines. With no flight training being carried on at Vulcan after this date, the airfields at Ensign and Champion were shut down and abandoned. Although many BCATP training stations shut down when they were no longer needed for the war effort, the Vulcan aerodrome remained open, functioning as an aircraft storage depot and boneyard for airframes surplus to RCAF requirement. Many Second World War trainers, transports and bombers (Lancasters) were cut down for salvage at the Vulcan Depot before it closed down in the late 1950s.

After the RCAF was finished with it, the municipality operates the Vulcan Industrial Airport at the field, but was largely unsuccessful at keeping it viable. It was abandoned once again. Six of the original seven large hangars remain and all were declining until recently when Wheatland Industries of Saskatchewan invested money to repair the roofs of several of the hangars—hoping to attract aircraft owners among other things. For a time, Todd Lemieux kept his beautiful Citabria there. Mainly, they are used for storage of heavy equipment and farm machinery. 

Bruce Forsyth tells us that “On 15 July 2000, a reunion of former staff and students was held at the Vulcan Airfield. A commemorative monument, built using a portion of the foundation from the guardhouse, was dedicated on the site as a tribute to the service men and women of No. 19 SFTS and No. 2 FIS... ... In September 2010, several vintage airplanes landed on the abandoned runways at the former RCAF Station Vulcan for the first time in more than 60 years as part of the Bomber Command Museum of Canada’s weekend-long Salute to the Flight Instructors...   ...In 2011, the aerodrome re-opened as the Vulcan/Kirkcaldy Aerodrome, operated by Wheatland Industries. The remaining 6 hangars were restored and the years of debris were cleared from the runways and taxiways”.

Today, the airfield is used for Air Cadet glider training, skydiving and a crop-spraying business. The Canadian general aviation website 100ll.ca (named after 100 Low Lead aviation gas) sums of Vulcan this way:  Asphalt and concrete surfaces weathered. Grass slippery when wet. 

A view directly over No. 19 SFTS Vulcan during the war with north at the top. Forty-four yellow Anson aircraft can be seen parked along the flightline and between hangars. Judging by the shadows, this photo was taken around midday. Vulcan was one of the typical larger airfields with seven large hangars—six hangars still stand today. Photo: RCAF

A dozen bright yellow Anson Mk Vs lined up perfectly under a blue sky at Vulcan's No. 19 SFTS. Photo: via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection


A satellite view of Vulcan today in the same orientation as the previous wartime photo with north at the top. From this height, the runways still look serviceable and, in fact, all three are in use, including an aerial spraying operation operated by Air Support Alberta. Photo via Google Maps
 

The runway intersection at the southeast corner of the field reveals the condition of the old paved surface—deteriorating but serviceable. On the horizon, the low bulk of the hangar line looms. Photo: Bruce Forsyth

Passing to the north of the flightline we see that even though some of the buildings are in disrepair and the bulk of the base ancillary buildings (administration, barracks, transport, and messes) have vanished, the airfield grounds are kept mowed and relatively trim. Photo: John Sands via militarybruce.com

The old Vulcan aerodrome is named for the town of Vulcan, Alberta, some nine kilometres to the northeast. During the Second World War, the Vulcan Aerodrome was the biggest economic driver in the town, but today Vulcan celebrates its Star Trek connection and has forsaken the old base. The town's website states “In the Star Trek television and feature film series Vulcan is the name of the home world of Spock and his fellow Vulcans. Capitalizing on this coincidence, the town has become a worldwide known tourist attraction with the building of Star Trek themed tourist centre and replica of the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek V.”  Image via Google Maps

A tight satellite view of the last vestiges of the Old Ensign relief field, which can still be seen on Google Maps in a section of land eight kilometres due east of town. By adjusting the hue and contrast in Photoshop, I was able to bring out the old runway pattern. The old hangar pad and entrance road are still very much in evidence and used for a farming operation. Photo via Google Maps

Todd Lemieux circles the concrete pad that once lay beneath Ensign's hangar, now used for farming equipment. The faint outline of the triangular runway pattern is just visible to the right of the pad. Photo: Todd Lemieux

I spent a lot of time in Google Maps looking for any evidence of Champion's old aerodrome... and found nothing. But Todd Lemieux has a set of coordinates for the airfield and put them into his car's GPS and drove there. Then once its location and existence were confirmed, he flew there and took these photos. The diagonal tree lined road was likely the entrance and the trees planted to protect the aircraft parking area from the winds. Photo: Todd Lemieux

A close-up of the one surviving relic of the old BCATP airfield at Champion—likely a maintenance building. I suspect the runways were in the lower left of this image.  Photo: Todd Lemieux

A satellite view of the proximity and relationship of the Champion aerodrome (in frame at lower left) to its namesake village. Champion was named for Henry Thomson Champion (1847-1916), a Winnipeg banker and onetime chairman of the Winnipeg Stock Exchange. Born in Toronto, Champion came west during the Manitoba Insurrection of 1870 as a sergeant in the Wolseley Expedition, then remained in Winnipeg for the rest of his life. Image via Google Maps

A satellite view of the farm photographed by Lemieux above. Image via Google Maps

References to the powerful and poignant RCAF history of Vulcan in the Second World War are hard to find today. Instead, the town of Vulcan chooses to celebrate its connection in name to the wildly successful Star Trek television franchise. A few businesses in Vulcan have Trekky names—Galaxy Yards, Quark's Consignment and Books, Tribbles Small Pet Grooming, Warp Speed Wash. Vulcan doesn't even use the old aerodrome as their municipal airport and had built a newer one on the outskirts of town. Photo: Wikipedia

Today, the old main gate at No. 19 SFTS Vulcan has none of the buildings, guardhouses, and fencing that made it a busy base in the 1940s. The gate is marked by a large granite stone (centre-left) with a plaque dedicated to the memory of the men who served here in wartime. The hangars can be seen in the distance and the firehall, with its garages for pumpers, ambulances, and emergency vehicles, still stands at left. Photo: Bruce Forsyth

One day, all that will be left of the once-great aerodrome at Vulcan will likely be this plaque, which was erected and dedicated in July 2000 by the No. 2 FIS and No. 19 SFTS Millennium Memorial Committee of the County of Vulcan Economic and Tourism Guild. The stone monument with its bronze plaque sits atop a stone foundation made with stones from the original Guard House foundation, upon which site it now sits. Photo: Bruce Forsyth

Eyes right! Graduating airmen are led by the base band in a wide oval in front of the reviewing stand where the base commander and other visiting dignitaries take their salute. Judging by the shadows and the warm coats, this is late in the day in autumn.

A graduating airman at Vulcan has a private moment with the Governor General of Canada. His Excellency, Major General the Earl of Athlone, Governor General of Canada, presents certificates to the last class of No. 2 Flight Instructor Course graduates. The graduating pilot is different from those who get their wings at Service Flying Training Schools in that he is already a pilot and officer. Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, in the uniform of a commandant of the RCAF (Women's Division) is seated on the dais with Wing Commander Fraser, Officer Commanding No. 19 SFTS and Wing Commander Harvey, Officer Commanding No. 2 Flight Instructors School (standing). Princess Alice, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was the wife of the Earl of Athlone (who was in turn an uncle of King George the VI). Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

A great shot of the hangar line at Vulcan from the corner of the workshops attached to the back of Hangar 7. Photo: Tracy Harms, The Road Trip Hound 

If these walls could talk, what would they tell us of those young men who worked and trained here during the war years? Little remains even in the relatively intact hangars of Vulcan. Once these spaces were offices for maintenance staff, workshops, records storage, and tool cribs, but today they hold only memories. Photo: Tracy Harms, The Road Trip Hound 

A view from a broken window into the second-last hangar on the flight line at Vulcan. This hangar is not far from derelict with its roof full of gaping holes and rain water covering much of the floor. It is testament, however, to the quality of the design that these old wooden structures and trusses have stood for nearly 80 years without upkeep, but soon even these hardy old buildings will see their last days. Photo: Dave O'Malley

Several of the hangars at Vulcan have been bought and are maintained by private individuals and companies who have worked hard at repairing the roofs. This home-built aircraft is covered in old bedsheets to keep the corrosive effects of bird poop at bay. Photo: John Sands

Nearly all of the many ancillary buildings at Vulcan have long since been demolished, but the old firehall remains. This building housed garages for the fire reels and ambulances dispatched to both the base buildings and accidents involving aircraft. Photo: Bruce Forsyth

One of the iconic structures common to every BCATP airfield where airmen lived in barracks is the concrete gun butt, where airmen practiced shooting small arms—rifles and pistols. These structures often survive long after all other wooden and brick buildings collapsed or were demolished. This concrete backstop would normally have a mound of earth in front to absorb fired projectiles. Photo via Emerald22 on Wikipedia

The hangars were the largest buildings on the base, towering over you when you're up close, but approaching from a distance you are overwhelmed by the vastness of the prairie sky and the expanse of the land. Vulcan is missing quite a few bits (people, aircraft, and most of its buildings) but if you squint, you can just imagine what it was like nearly 80 years ago out on the prairie. If you drive east out of Nanton on Highway 533, past the golf club and keep on for about 13 kilometres, you come to Vulcan Township Road 163A. Turning onto this road, you head toward Vulcan. About six kilometres along this road, the prairie rises to the south. Upon this high ground to the right and outlined against the blue Alberta sky, the long low hangars of Vulcan's aerodrome appear like an apparition—a dashed Morris code of memory, out of place and out of time on these ancient steppes. Photo via Emerald22 on Wikipedia

These days, flying training is still carried out at Vulcan in the summer with the tow-planes and gliders of the Air Cadet Gliding Program of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. Here, two Schweizer SGS 2-33A gliders await the next students and tow plane, with Vulcan's hangar line off in the distance. Every year, 320 hard-working and deserving young cadets receive their gliding wings at regional gliding camps across Canada. Photo: Ashley Gaudet, RCAC

Flying southeast of the airfield, a young cadet's image is reflected inward on the Schweizer's canopy, mirroring something that happened a hundred thousand times in the Second World War. Photo: Ashley Gaudet, RCAC

An instructor looks down from the back seat of a Schweizer glider at the westernmost hangars on the line. Note the rough condition (many large holes) of the roof in the upper hangar. Far out on the slender wing, we see the spring-loaded wingtip wheel bogie (or whatever it's called). Photo: Ashley Gaudet, RCAC

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The years have not been kind to some of the hangars on the flightline. Kids with stones and a few hunters had made short work of every window pane on several of the hangars. I wish they could really understand what went on at Vulcan those many years ago. If they did, they might think twice about desecrating such a holy place, even if it was abandoned by the people who built it. Photo: Dave O'Malley

 

In 2019, Todd Lemieux and I went for an hour's flight in strong winds. We left CFX6, Vulcan, Alberta's airport and headed southwest towards what is now Vulcan/Kirkaldy Aerodrome, the site of the former BCATP base. Before we climbed to altitude, Todd ran down the flightline and I rolled my iPhone in the back seat. Gone are the barracks, maintenance sheds, link trainer building and messes, but you get a good sense of what it looked like from the air when it was operational. Video: Dave O'Malley

To view 2 minutes of drone footage of Vulcan today, click here. You can see the roof damage on two of the hangars that means they are not long for this world. More drone footage here as well.

Chercher
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