Edmonton once had an airport close to Downtown. In fact, it was Edmonton’s original airport, known as Blatchford Field, as well as being the first licensed airfield in Canada (1929). Its Southern boundary was Portage Avenue, renamed Kingsway for the 1939 Royal Visit, which, for many years, marked the Northern boundary of Edmonton development.
I first saw what was then known as Edmonton Industrial Airport in April 1974 on my way to Yellowknife for my first job after graduation. I felt like a soldier returning home at the end of World War II, half expecting to catch a glimpse of Humphrey Bogart on the mezzanine beside the framed picture of King George VI. I didn’t know you could still buy paint in the drab 1940s colours used on the walls.
That being said, I was a strong supporter of the YXD airport until the departure of its last public flight in 1996. After that, I was glad to see the last official takeoff of a private plane in 2013.
I used the Edmonton Municipal Airport a lot from the late 1970s to late 1980s. Calgary was either Head Office or a large Branch office of the organizations that I worked for during this period. Car Rental agencies at Calgary International Airport would compete for my employers’ business, so rates were cheap and the Pacific Western Airlines (PWA) Airbus was the most cost-effective way to get employees to and from Calgary.
The Muni was great. A huge savings in time over the Edmonton International Airport, which I often referred to as Red Deer International Airport after an error on a sign on the Whitemud Freeway. In reference to the fact that, from its opening in 1960 until very recently, it was so far from the homes of 99% of Edmonton’ population.
At the time, PWA had completed its transition to a fleet of 100% Boeing 737 aircraft. Known for the greatest Power to Weight Ratio of any commercial jet then in use. Which came in handy.
My most memorable flight was a return trip from Calgary to Edmonton one winter afternoon. While still at the airport in Calgary, we were prepared for the fact that The Muni was fogged in and we would be landing at The International.
Not long after we passed Red Deer, our pilot announced that the runways at The Muni were open and the fog was not at ground level, though it could change at any moment. His stated plan was to get close enough to the runway to see for himself, even if it meant an aborted landing — perhaps better stated as an Emergency Climb to avoid hitting the airport perimeter fence — if the fog was covering the runway.
I was seated near two experienced private pilots who both openly admitted that they were scared as we flew over Downtown Edmonton. My hands had a vice grip on the armrests of my seat. It was a very eerie sensation flying through the fog and occasionally seeing the tops of tall buildings above you and so close. But it was the turbulence caused by the air movement around those buildings that created the fear in those of us who could still speak. A steady but irregular pounding. As the perpetual optimist, I found myself wondering who much worse it would have been in a propeller-driven aircraft. And, of course, happy to be in an aircraft with such powerful jet engines.
I won’t keep you hanging: the pilot broke through the cloud cover less than 100 feet above the runway and landed safely at The Muni.
Another memorable flight was one that I had specifically chosen, and lucked out on the weather with. While perusing the PWA flight schedule, I discovered that not all Airbus flights from Edmonton to Calgary were non-stop. The first thing that needs to be explained is that, in those years, the Airbus to Calgary flew in and out of both The Muni and The International. Occasionally, when PWA projected that neither flight would be even half full, they would combine them: depart The Muni, fly to The International, board more passengers and fly to Calgary.
I had successfully taken pictures previously through airplane passenger windows, despite how scratched they get from years of use. With no way of knowing the flight path, I chose my window seat on the right for a view to the West, given Refinery Row just past City Limits to the East.
It was a perfect sunny day and the flight path was just East of West Edmonton Mall, then newly-built.
For the rest of my flights, I was so happy to have saved the huge amount of time that I would have wasted driving to and from Edmonton International Airport, from our apartment near the University of Alberta in the early years, then from our house to the East of the City, past Ardrossan and two miles from the fence of Elk Island National Park. The Muni was always a well-run airport, at least from the passenger perspective.
As I write this (March 2016), the Edmonton City Centre Airport (ECCA) has been demolished but City Council is still debating exactly what the housing development will look like that is to replace it.
Pacific Western Airlines (PWA) had a huge impact on Edmonton and, even more so, North of 60 in the Northwest Territories (NWT) and the Yukon. Shortly after I left Yellowknife for Edmonton, PWA celebrated their last Lockheed Electra turboprop flight, signifying their move to all Boeing 737 jet aircraft. They had worked with Boeing on modifications to some of their 737s to allow safe landings on gravel runways at some of the smaller Northern airports that PWA served. To maximize revenue on flights expected to have low passenger loads, a few of the 737s were half cargo and half passenger seating.
The 737 was a great choice by PWA for a number of reasons. As mentioned above, that aircraft had the greatest Power to Weight Ratio of any commercial jet of that era, which could be Life Saver in severe Arctic weather, be it during landing, takeoff or in the air. It could also takeoff and land on a relatively short runway, which was a major cost savings given the difficulty of maintaining an airstrip in The North.
PWA was known as Please Wait Awhile among many of us in Yellowknife. It was goodhearted humour only a few years removed from Bush Pilots in the headlines with all too frequent disasters in the making thanks to the unpredictable weather in The North. Even with jet aircraft, PWA still faced many of the same challenges. Yellowknifers waiting for that overdue PWA flight to Edmonton knew that it had undoubtedly run into some of those challenges on its way to Yellowknife from points further North.