by Peter C. Conrad
In all the communities given air training facilities, the reaction was very positive. Residents looked forward to the prosperity expected to result from the establishment of the schools. Although economic development was important, the opportunity to help with the war effort by contributing to the Air Training Plan was central. Indeed, Phil Ellison, an air gunner trained in the Plan, remembered that, “The general feeling was that we had to get the people trained and this war won.”1 However, the communities also wanted to build for the future.
In Rivers, Manitoba, The Gazette demonstrated the importance of the Plan to the West when it told its readers:
Thirty-three years ago, when the Grand Trunk Pacific was pushed west across the prairies, the mushroom town that sprung up in Manitoba was Rivers…. So rapid was its growth, comments Graham Barker in the Winnipeg Free Press, that housing accommodations were unavailable. Tents were hastily thrown up, shacks appeared almost overnight. Then came a change. Rail road equipment, men and materials were transferred to other points, homes were vacated. In time, the houses began to tumble down, others were destroyed by fire. Rivers, finally, had just comfortable living rooms for “those present.”
Then came decisions to turn the local Trans-Canada Air Lines landing field into an air training school. For a couple of years back the personnel of Rivers airfield lived in cottages erected on the field. But a few months ago, contracts with their equipment besieged that station. The one small hotel, every home and block and suite within Rivers was visited with a view of obtaining room. Tents again were thrown up, the workers sought out farm homes. And every freight train brought more men and more material. Stores and other places of business were experiencing, night and day; a swift exchange of goods such as has not been seen since the day of the rail road expansion. For the second time in its short existence Rivers is seeing boom time.2
Larger communities, such as Edmonton, Regina, and Winnipeg, had local contractors to construct the airport facilities. In smaller centres, such as Macleod, Brandon, Vulcan, and Virden, contractors were brought in to do the construction work. Local contractors in these smaller centres found that they were occupied with subcontracts to construct small buildings, supply materials, and lay gravel and to do other necessary work.3
It was clear that there was enough work for everyone when The Lethbridge Herald reported on construction work in Alberta during 1940:
Large numbers of skilled tradesmen and labourers are employed at different points in south Alberta where contractors are busy preparing different units of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
At Macleod, Bennett and White Construction Co. has started the big job of erecting buildings to accommodate the service flying school to be established there. Buildings at this site will cover several acres and a large gang of workmen is employed.
At the same point approximately half a mile south of Macleod, Fred Manning and Co. are carrying out a large contract for constructing runways. Thousands of yards of dirt are being moved. The same contractor is grading a landing area three miles north of Pearce.
Half way between Macleod and Granum and three miles east of the highway, Dutton Bros. of Calgary are grading a large landing area and constructing hard-surfaced runways. These three airports are all part of the Macleod training school.
Work on the Medicine Hat Service Flying school is also being rushed. General Construction Co. of Vancouver is grading the Medicine Hat airport and constructing hard-surfaced runways. The same contractor is constructing hard-surfaced runways at Holsom airport, west of Medicine Hat. D. Smith of Maple Creek is speeding the job of grading the landing area at the airport north of Whitla.4
The provincial highway agencies did the majority of the contour work for the airport sites. Provincial health departments cooperated in the analysis of water supplies. Some municipalities acted before the allocation of the schools to find adequate water supplies while others searched for water during the construction of the schools.
The work of the host communities in support of nearby schools, however, went far beyond supplying water. Saskatoon City Council reported the construction and maintenance of water and sewage mains to the airport. Virden and Wynyard reported they were required to supply extra electrical power to the air training stations located nearby. Lethbridge constructed and maintained oiled gravel roads. Services that were requested and delivered also included fire protection in Davidson and ambulance services in Saskatoon. In all cases, municipal and city councils made the necessary expenditures for the local schools.
These are the original instructors of the elementary flying school at Lethbridge in 1940. From left to right: Joe Patton, Homer Thompson, Bill Roy, Jock Palmer, Bill Smith, Ken Piper, Frank Hawthorne, Fred Lasby. (NA-3277-25)
Worthwhile Investment for the Future
Although the provincial and municipal governments were required to pay the costs for services to the local schools, the investment appeared to be worth the expense. The local economies grew. From the earliest announcement of the location of a school near a community, the economic benefits were heralded in the press. Typical of the reports found in local newspapers about the construction of the airport facilities and what it meant to the local economy was the article, “700 Men on the Job Within Three Weeks,” printed in The Estevan Mercury:
“Construction of the building at Estevan’s Service Flying Training School will commence within the next week. The Mercury was told on Thursday by W. J. Greenfield, general superintendent of the Bird Construction Co. of Winnipeg and Regina, the firm which has the contract. Total costs of the buildings will be about $1,000,000, Mr. Greenfield said. This added to the figures previously quoted for the construction of the runways indicates the total expenditure for the School will be between $1,775,000 and $2,000,000.
“As soon as the ground is staked on the north east quarter of the main field opposite to the Koch farm four miles south of Estevan, construction of the buildings will be underway, Mr. Greenfield said.
“Peak employment of 500 men will be reached within three weeks, he stated, and his company’s monthly payroll would be in the neighbourhood of $50,000.”
“Carter-Halls-Aldinger, the firm holding the contract for building the runways, expects to have more than 200 men on the job within the next two weeks.”5
Air training facilities were needed urgently and construction, like this scene from Yorkton, continued regardless of mud and any other difficulties that might arise. (RA 7098)
These reports were common in those communities that participated in the Air Training Plan. No urban centre was too large to note the benefits gained by construction at its airport.
During construction of the air stations, some towns took advantage of the heavy equipment around to do work that would otherwise be too expensive. When equipment arrived to do the asphalt work at the airfields in Weyburn, the city engineer reported he was considering using the equipment to asphalt “several blocks in the downtown business-section of the city, the finishing to be done by the company that is now carrying out similar work at Weyburn airport….” In the enthusiasm of the moment, Weyburn also used the opportunity to install nameplates for all the streets for the first time.6
Mossbank was a typical bombing and gunnery school with the runways built in a triangle, allowing for changes of wind direction. (PL 1679)
Hope for the Future
Communities that had benefited from the construction of air training facilities were positive about the reduction of people in need of relief. They also looked forward to what the new airport would bring after the war. This sentiment was revealed in The Lethbridge Herald when it reported that Robert Wilkinson, manager of the local air training school, said he believed Lethbridge would become “one of the great flying centres of America, especially when the ‘inside route’ from Mexico to Alaska is built.”7
In 1943, The Rivers Gazette pointed out:
“The rapid development in aviation since the beginning of the war has awakened the interest of people everywhere in the post-war possibilities for the use of the airplane. As the planes for the air routes of the future are discussed it becomes increasingly apparent that Canadians have yet another national asset in the skies above us. Early in the war it was found that the shortest air route between this continent and Britain was via Canada and as a result the RAF Ferry Command now known as the RAF Transport Command, established headquarters in the East. From an unknown point large numbers of airplanes, manufactured in Canada and the United States, are flown to Britain with great success. A beginning has been made in transport freight over this route and there is little doubt but that passenger and freight traffic will continue to use the skies after the war.”8
The gains made during the war in these communities would be held onto as protection against any future economic difficulties.
One flying instructor, Jim Kirk, remembered that, “even little towns and hamlets were involved, especially if there was an air force station around, because there were shops. Even farmers were supplying fresh eggs, milk and all that kind of thing. All the places in town, like bowling alleys, stores, civilians selling clothes, even what would be expensive clothes; men would buy them just to go on leave. Prosperity was evident everywhere…. Some of the fellows on some of the stations even had their own cars.”9
The wealth that the Plan brought went beyond the economic gain the community received. The towns and cities felt closer to the war effort because of the existence of local BCATP schools. When the school closed at Swift Current in March 1944, The Sun reported: “The government put a lot of money into the buildings and equipment here, but in terms of victory and a return to normal living again under the banner of Peace, it will have been money well spent, even if they have to scrap the ‘whole darn shooting match’ for junk. The men who trained here shot down Messerschmidts and dropped explosive eggs on war factories in Berlin. That all helped to hasten the day when our lads will be coming home again.”10
Notes for Chapter 4
For Duty and Prosperity
1. Interview: Phil Ellison with the author, June 7, 1989.
2. Rivers, The Gazette, Dec. 5, 1940.
3. Virden, Empire-Advance, Nov. 20, 1940
4. Lethbridge, Herald, July 27, 1940.
5. The Estevan Mercury, Sept 4, 1941.
6. Weyburn Review, Sept. 11, 1941; Dec. 18, 1941.
7. Lethbridge, Herald, Sept. 18, 1940.
8. Rivers, The Gazette, Sept. 2, 1943.
9. Interview: J. P. Kirk with author, Sept. 29,1987.
10. Swift Current, The Sun, March 14, 1944.